Art in a Virtual World

A Study of "Puppet Motel" Created by Laurie Anderson

Thomas Houghton. MBA Student at The London Business School

Comments to: houghton@haas.berkeley.edu

To more information about Puppet Motel

Puppet Motel is a piece of interactive artwork which uses computer graphics, video, stills, sound and text to tell stories, to educate and to entertain. The way it uses the medium encourages the viewer to think and refect as well as to experience the visual and aural stimulation. Rather like an art movie it can amuse and divert but will ultimately provide a more lasting impression for the viewer. In this sense it is more art than entertainment, which is not to say that it does not entertain, rather that it goes a little further in its goals.

The fact that artists are now using computers to create work should come as no surprise to us. Throughout history artists have quick to seize not only on new techniques, but also on new media in which to express themselves. From the early cave painters who would use flints to stencil patterns into the rock, to the renaissance painters who used all manner of natural pigments and oils to create paints to the pop artists who took to using industrial airbrushes to create images, artists have been constantly creating new and refining old techniques. Today we are seeing that artists are increasingly turning to the use of computers to produce new and innovative works. These works, whilst they incorporate some of the techniques developed in the film and video fields, take art a stage further by allowing the viewer to interact with the images and help create new versions of the same piece of work. This affords the artist certain additional possibilities but at the same time gives her less control over the final product - the piece becomes, to a certain extent, serendipitous in nature. And yet by carefully devising the navigation tools the artist can nevertheless guide and influence the viewer in certain ways, causing him to discover the piece in the way the artist intended.

As mentioned previously, the product is multimedia in the true sense of the word - it includes video, moving computer-generated images, still photographs, sound and text. It is based upon a CD-ROM but is in fact a hybrid product which allows video to be downloaded via the Internet at points during the user's passage through the program. It was produced by Laurie Anderson and her co-artist Hsin-Chieng Huang in a period of three and a half months and was released early this year. It forms part of a series of CD-ROM products on the Voyager Co. label and is available in Mac and PC formats.

Basic premise

You are in a motel, a cyber establishment named the Puppet Motel. There are 33 "rooms" in the motel through which the viewer can navigate. However, the rooms rarely resemble real rooms in the following sense: They are generally just collections of objects within a three-dimensional space which may have windows, doors, steps, walls etc. and which have some sort of coherence but cannot be moved around like a physical room. The motel draws its name from the puppet (see left) which pops up periodically to make some remark or give an instruction, however, the abiding image is of the three-pronged plug head (lower right image). This face, which is derived from a three-prong electrical wall socket, is present in each and every room and is an essential navigation device, allowing the user to return to the central "Time Room" from which all other rooms can be reached (see below). Each room has a name which gives some hint as to what is in the room although this is generally rather cryptic and what one finds is rarely what one expects. The viewer can perform certain activities in each room which will be for education, entertainment or in some way to encourage reflection in the viewer. The best way for the reader to understand what is going on is to view the CD but a brief description of some of the rooms might help.

Some images

The Time Room

A black cube roles along one of two red beams whilst icons flash on the wall above it as if projected. Two clocks rotate in opposite directions below the beams and a voice tells the time, "It is 8 o'clock and 2 seconds precisely, it is 8 o'clock and 3 seconds precisely...". Click on the relevant icon and move to that room.

The Aquarium Room

Make your diver move around the aquarium by moving the mouse as it rotates slowly. Click the mouse button to make the diver blow bubbles. As the diver moves close to the fish or the nun then it can be made to dance with either in slow circles.

The Television Room

A typical motel room. Click on the minibar and it sings "Minibar, minibar. Ha! Ha! Ha!". Click on the radio and the dial is projected across the whole room. Hold down the mouse button to adjust the station: There is music, the BBC Radio Shipping Forecast etc.. The portrait on the wall, which remainds me of Dennis Hopper, whispers seditious remarks, "Come here little girl. Get in the car.". Click on his mouth and he shuts up a red stop sign pasted across his lips.

The Ear Room

Take the green pointer and point to one of the numbered points on the left-hand ear. It is an acupuncture "map" and there is a short spoken message about what that part of the ear corresponds to in terms of healing capacity. Point to parts of the right-hand ear and they drift off into space. This is not really a room, more a two-dimensional drawing.

The Flute Room

A window casts a beam of light down into an otherwise dark room. Place the cursor over the window and move the light cast by the window around the room. Catch a glimpse of a figure which casts a shadow in the light. Click on it and a flortist appears along with a running man. Chairs appear mysteriously in the center of the room.

The Green Room

You are welcomed in by the puppet and asked to sit and watch a film or video. The film shows Laurie Anderson instructing a person with a child's body and an adult's head about coreography. Then there is a commercial for a virtual reality make-up kit which allows the user to test the make-up without actually applying it.

Navigation

Navigation is allowed in four main ways:

  1. By clicking on the icons relating to the individual rooms which are flashed in sequence on the wall of the central "Time room".
  2. By clicking on the "Plug head" icon in each of the rooms. These are usually hidden in some way and are often very difficult to locate.
  3. By clicking on images on the screen. The existence of links is made apparent by the cursor changing from an arrow to a pointing finger or hand held up.
  4. Pressing the escape key. This takes the user to the "Attic" in which are stored a collection of items originating from one or other of the rooms. Clicking on a given item takes the user to that room.

At times the arrow cursor will not be present at all and moving the mouse will instead move a particular object on the screen or a light source in a darkened space. These objects may be used in the same way as the cursor to navigate from one room to the next and also allow interaction within the room itself.

As the user moves from one room to the next the screen fades to black and then is replaced by an image which resembles a woodcut print of an object or scene relevant to the room to which the user is traveling. There are also voices or other sounds which give the user cues about which room he is moving to. The user does not move around the room as in 3-D games and certainly does not move as though walking from one room to the next. Given the fact that they are not rooms in the accepted sense of the word, this does not appear unnatural.

In general I found navigation quite difficult and at times frustrating. The uncertainty about how to move from one room to the next whilst creating a sense of adventure, left me feeling bewildered on occasion and led me to take the easy route out of returning to the attic. I suspect that had I not set myself a specific time limit to review the program this would have been more intriguing than frustrating; as it was I felt pressed for time. This sense of frustration was heightened by the delay which was apparent at times between clicking on a given link and movement taking place. Navigation became considerably easier as I became familiar with certain icons and had visited some of the rooms several times. It is clear that considerable thought has been put into the development of the links and they are cleverly devised.

Impressions

For someone unfamiliar and somewhat suspicious of cyber space this was an interesting and unusual experience. The overall effect, at least, was of something quite new. Although the individual parts were recognisable as media with which I was familiar: Songs; poems; polemic; video clips; and computer-generated 3-D graphics, what was new was the inventive way in which the parts had been collected together. I am reminded of something I once read in the autobiography of Luis Buñuel about how he and Salvador Dali created "Un Chien Andalou". The two of them sat together in a room and threw out images. They would then each consider the image to see whether it made any sense to them. If it did the image would be discarded, if not it would be developed and included in the film. In this way the film was built from a series of totally unconnected and apparently meaningless scenes. Indeed such techniques have been used in many different forms of art. Dylan Thomas used similar ideas when creating some of his later poetry. Laurie Anderson's work seems a direct descendent of the surrealist movement and what better place to explore surrealism than in cyber space.

The images are original and the way they are linked together inventive. However for me the overall effect was rather disturbing. I do not like to watch computer graphics used for a long period of time and staring at a VDU is tiring in itself. The sound was almost exclusively that echoing electronic drone familiar to visitors to cyber space (this seems to me like one of those givens; like all aliens are green so all people in cyber-space speak with echoing voices). The rooms are generally dark which has the tendency to draw the viewer into the images, an effect which is heightened by the use of sound. The product would be better viewed in a darkened room rather than the under the glaring strip lights of the Media Resource Center library.

As is often the case when viewing a surrealist piece like this, I feel torn between thinking that it is a deliberate attempt to hoodwink the viewer and thinking that it is something of brilliant invention. Certainly there were times when I was left with the impression that here was Laurie Anderson attempting to show how clever and knowledgeable she was rather than Laurie Anderson being clever and knowledgeable. Furthermore, at one point we are shown the lyric sheets for several of Laurie Anderson's CDs and I could not help thinking that here was some advertising going on. Perhaps this is a cynical view but the appearance of these did not seem to bear any relationship to the other things in that particular room.

Is this a form of art that I would enjoy viewing on a regular basis? Probably not in view of my dissatisfaction with the aesthetics. Nevertheless it did provide a diverting 2 hours.

What is the importance of this type of art?

When I asked myself whether the piece had achieved what it set out to achieve and found myself somewhat at a loss. If it was intended merely to demonstrate what could be achieved with electronic tools to create electronic art then it excelled itself. The invention and technical applomb with which the piece was carried off leaves the viewer excited by the possibilities. Certainly we have something here which is quite new. The ability to influence and affect the outcome of the piece as the viewer is something which has not been possible before except perhaps in the case of certain performance art. However, I am left with a sense of regret at the thought of art being taken out of galleries where it is possible to view art while interacting with other people. My personal view is that interaction through a computer is a poor substitute for direct interaction with other human beings. I recently went to see a show at the Tate Gallery in London which I feel is a good case in point. The artist had constructed a number of rooms in one corner of the gallery; a bar, a bedroom, a mobile home etc. Life was given to these spaces by videos of events which had taken (or were taking?) place in these rooms. However, much more importantly, life was brought to the space by the people visiting the show and by the interplay between these people. Here was interactive multi-media but on a genuinely human level.

Indeed I would suggest that this form of art exemplifies the criticisms which are often leveled at cyber space in general. Certainly it allows the user a level of interactivity not often scene in other forms of art or entertainment and yet at the same time it seems to alienate people from one another by locking them in front of a computer screen. Surely the act of viewing a painting in a gallery is more vivid than is viewing a piece of art on a screen just as a movie viewed on the big screen is much more impressive than one watched on your video at home. One must weigh up the advantages in terms of interactivity with the disadvantages in terms of a loss of real human interactivity! It is perhaps useful to consider how this paradigm of interactivity is being carried forward on the Internet (assuming that CD-ROMS will be some sort of halfway house). Crosswire is currently developing a project in collaborative art where viewers download base images and then build upon them to develop new images. This mirrors a lot of the developments going on in other areas of the Internet where the possibilities of interactivity are being explored to the full. Daniel Pinchback in his article "State of the art" which featured in Wired magazine makes the assertion, "Digital technology is eroding not only the foundation of the elite contemporary art world... At the same time, it is offering artists from the increasingly esoteric discourse of the art world...". Bold words indeed, but does a piece of art produced by someone unknown necessarily have more value than one produced by a recognised expert or master. This debate is raging wholeheartedly in the realm of journalism for example but does not show signs of being resolved. It is unclear to me whether the work of Laurie Anderson is helping to break the mould.

For better or worse this form of art is here to stay. Artists are learning new and interesting ways to create images just as their musician counterparts are learning new ways to create sound. Many people point to computer art and music as in some way reducing the skills of the artist. I do not tend to this view although I am uncertain of the additional benefits being brought. There are different skills required and not those necessarily associated with traditional artists - a steady hand, an acute eye, a sense of space. Many of these skills can be replicated by the computer leaving only the creativity. This is by no means a bad thing and the technical skills that these artists develop are no less valid. But at the end of the day, give me Salvador Dali and Jean-Luc Goddard any day!