Cal-(IT)² / 30 May 2003

The Blurring between Reality and Fiction

By Stephanie Sides

"'Fictive realities' are what I study," says Cal-(IT)² New Media Arts member Antoinette LaFarge, an assistant professor in Digital Media from UCI. She coined the term not long ago in a panel she co-chaired at the College Art Association annual conference. "What I find so fascinating," she says, "is that this realm encompasses not only various kinds of artwork that seem real but, in fact, are fictive, but also more traditionally seeming fictive things, like role playing and games, where people are actually doing real things in real time. I'm interested in the border between real and fictive, and what happens when the two are confused, intentionally or otherwise. Computer role-playing games are a perfect example: They're fictive environments in which the players live the story by way of their actions."

In this context, LaFarge is debuting, this week, a multimedia performance work called Reading Frankenstein that integrates visuals with real—and represented—performers. It's about Mary Shelley, in this case, a 21st c. genetic engineer, who's reading the novel Frankenstein written by her namesake. The piece, originated and directed by Annie Loui of the Drama Department, uses layered digital projections created by LaFarge, brain imagery contributed by Dr. Jim Fallon of UCI's College of Medicine and colleagues at the UCI Brain Imaging Center, and a virtual monster interacting with a live human actor to examine the ethical repercussions of scientific research from the monster's point of view.

"Annie and I chose Frankenstein in part because we needed a book we were both interested in," says LaFarge. It provided an interesting backdrop to the current public debate on research in artificial life and genetics, but it was a problematic choice, she admits, because Dr. Frankenstein's creation, in the public's mind, has become a grotesque monster unlike the much more sympathetic character in the novel.

The plot revolves around a creature Mary creates called Prometheus named after the god that tried to trick Zeus. She determines he's unsafe, so she proceeds to destroy him. But he reappears in a more-modern-day virulent form—inside her network—where he takes over. Paralleling the book, they have a long duel: He wants her to create another being with whom he can exchange genetic material for the purpose of enabling longevity of his "species." At the end, the creature pulls Mary inside the computer. Part of the complicated intimacy between the characters is that, in an earlier scene, Mary talks to the computer in a beautiful, poetic programming language. "We did this intentionally to counter the way Hollywood normally portrays programming languages as impenetrable and threatening," says LaFarge.

"Jim Fallon kept us honest about the science," says LaFarge. He served as consultant on neurobiology and helped locate many visuals and animations of the brain. "We also recorded—and used!—EEG scans taken of our own brains as we read the piece to give the performance some literal science grounding," says LaFarge. "And we used imagery developed from photos of specimen jars containing preserved organs. Artists are great scavengers," she says with a laugh.

It was Loui's idea to develop a theater piece about reading. Theater is a public experience, while reading is a private one. So the idea was to encourage the two to play together on the stage to see what emerges.

"Reading," says LaFarge, "is about translating text to images, and it so happens that, because of the way the brain is mapped, reading the words 'red box' conjures up an image of a red box, exactly as if you were seeing a real red box." Reading is the first virtual world most of us learn, and there we gain a vicarious sense of living, which underscores how important imagination is to human beings. "Critics have been reading Frankenstein since the mid 1800s for its clues about science, the status of women, and so forth," she says. "Every generation reads new meaning into the creature and what 'otherness' means. These days we're concerned with what a 'created' being is, how we treat it, and what the ethical issues are of creating something when you're not entirely sure it's life.

"Our piece will allow you to emotionally experience the material on genetic engineering. I believe the best theater lets you do stream of consciousness processing as contrasted with the intellectual processing you do when reading a newspaper. The experience here is like reading a novel or role playing in early text-based computer game—in both cases, you have to construct images based on the text you read. It's retro-futuristic in that you're using what some may consider an outdated mode of learning/understanding to understand a futuristic concept."

Performances of Reading Frankenstein, at the Beall Center for Art and Technology at UCI, run for a full week, Tuesday, May 27, through Saturday, May 31, at 8 PM each day and matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 PM. In addition, two public education events are offered: "Art and Science Night" to discuss how plausible the presented scenario is (after the performance Friday, May 30) and a demonstration of the technical wizardry behind the piece in which attendees can experiment with the cameras, TV monitors, mixers, etc. (after the matinee Saturday, May 31).

For her next project, LaFarge is planning to develop a multi-player networked game combining conversations, text messages, and visuals about the subject of water. "I grew up a fisherwoman, and a river, of course, is the classic metaphor for life in that the journey of the water from the source to the river delta is like the journey one takes through life. My goal in this project is to address water-related problems, such as scarcity, pollution, and issues surrounding dams and aquifers." She explains that part of the challenge will be to present the problems against the backdrop of the river as place of desire and travel. To prepare, she plans to interview water experts of various types, and she hopes to engage software companies with game engines that might want to get involved.

LaFarge emphasizes role playing in this venture. "Digital or computer art people think in terms of 2-D images," she says. "But games are not about how pretty the pictures are. Rather, they're about people spending time imagining things. Games are contexts for creating and managing experiences. So we ask ourselves: What kinds of experiences are we creating for people or what kind of conditions are we creating for people to create their own experiences?"

Courtesy of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology web site, www.calit2.net.


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