A New Interactive Cinema Work by Grahame Weinbren

Often, when I have had a picture well framed or have hung it in the right surroundings, I have caught myself feeling as proud as if I had painted the picture myself. That is not quite right: not "as proud as if I had painted it", but as proud as if I had helped to paint it, as if I had, so to speak, painted a little bit of it.           Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture & Value (1931)

Architecture and Technology

Entering the exhibition space, one sees three empty picture frames suspended from the ceiling. The frames are hung vertically (as in portrait, not landscape format) and 10 feet or so behind each one there is a screen. Wire cables connect the corners of each frame to the corners of its corresponding screen, defining a perspectival space. The three frames are arranged to form a kind of proscenium stage, so that there are gaps between them and enough space in front of them to accommodate three individual viewers. The three video images, therefore, together make what might be a single discontinuous image.

The frames are placed in front of the screens so that if one stands directly in front of any of the frames, it functions visually as a border to the image behind it-i.e. it frames the image. The impression is that the images have been removed from their frames, enlarged, and set back directly behind them.

Infra-red beam grids are mounted inside each frame, so that pointing through a frame is detectable by a computer. In fact the interactivity of FRAMES is predicated on viewers triggering change in the images by pointing at them. The technology is based on a similar system, incorporating a single frame with a projection system, that I used in an installation of an earlier work, Sonata. (The installation was commissioned for the Bonn Kunsthalle, and subsequently exhibited at the Zurich Museum of Design.)

Concept (I)

All photographic images are ambiguous. Captions, montage, or a picture's environment often resolve some of this inherent ambiguity. My interactive work uses the ambiguity of photography-the interactivity centers on a viewer's input making a context for an image in a cinematic stream, without interrupting the time flow. In my previous works, the viewer responds to the screen through some kind of input device, in the process giving the image a new meaning: e.g. a character's actions are seen from another point of view; a new musical theme or sound is introduced that changes the sense of the scene, or a commentary on the action is added.

FRAMES, following the same logic, will consist of images with an unsettled, open quality, that are pinned down like insect specimens when a viewer responds to them. By interacting, the viewer provides a frame for an image or image sequence, and this frame gives it meaning.

Materials (I): Hugh Diamond & the Origins of Diagnostic Photography

In my work I have often reconsidered material from the 19th or early 20th century, taking a fresh look at it through the lenses of contemporary technology. For FRAMES I plan to return to some material that I used even before I started working with computers. The material is Hugh Diamond's photographic records of inmates of a 19th century mental asylum, (which I used in a film made in collaboration with Roberta Friedman in 1979 entitled Cheap Imitations: Madwomen.) I return to this material for FRAMES because it is a good basis for the kinds of issue that I am exploring in this piece-issues about the interconnectedness of ideology and visuality, and the dependence of meaning and interpretation on context.

In the 1840s and 50s, Hugh Diamond was director of the Springfield Asylum for the Insane. A lifelong amateur photographer, he began to make portraits of inmates of the institution in the late 1840s, becoming a pioneer of psychiatric photography. He took pictures of all his patients, and used the images not only for bureaucratic ends like record-keeping, but also as a psychiatric tool. He developed a kind of iconographic diagnostic technique in collaboration with Dr. John Connolly, evaluating the condition of a patient by analyzing his or her photo. Connolly's descriptive analyses find the patient's symptoms in physiognomy-in gestures, in facial expressions, in stature, in the way the hands hang, how the shoulders lift, and how the head is held. The methodology suggests that the language of the body is universal-and readable.

But is it? Connolly's descriptions are riddled with prejudice-they frame the patient, putting him or her in a context, and give the viewer a set of techniques to interpret the image-and supposedly to understand, to diagnose, the patient. But another description, based on a different set of assumptions, could always be applied, leading to a different understanding and a different diagnosis.

The collaboration between Connolly and Diamond resulted in photo / descriptive pairings that are powerfully evocative. They give us a window into an era long past, at the same time as they question the stability of the relationship between inner symptom and outer expression. Fundamentally, these documents provide an insight into ideologies of disease and visuality, ideologies that still operate. [See Appendix 2 for sample Diamond images and Connolly descriptions.]

At the center of FRAMES is the idea that descriptions of images incorporate presupposition, judgment, prejudice-in a word narrative. Diamond's diagnostic images are exemplary. I plan to use the photographs as the basis for the characters in FRAMES.

Materials (II): Character Formation

On each of the three screens is projected a photo of one of Diamond's patients. Point at any screen, and one hears Connolly's description of that patient. Point during Connolly's description and the photograph dissolves into an image of an actor working to create a character based on the heard description-adopting the mannerisms, internalizing the symptoms. Point again and Connolly's description cross-fades into an offscreen voice directing the actor into the pose in the photograph. The elements in this opening section are: Diamond's photographs; Connolly's descriptions; actors; a director's voice getting the actor to transform him/herself into the character. The viewer navigates between these elements and in the process a character is formed

In this way, the viewers will feel as if they are creating a person out of raw materials-a Frankenstein whose ingredients are pictorial and verbal descriptions of 19th century asylum inmates. This new character will relate to other characters in a series of interactive vignettes that follow. Though there is no overarching narrative, each vignette will tell a short story. The set of 'Diamond Characters' will inhabit a fictional world that emerges in overlapping stories.

The vignettes will be developed during the Autumn of 1998 with the highly trained actors and writers of the New York Juggernaut Theatre Company, with whom I have an association: I have been commissioned to develop a new theater piece with the company.

Concept (II)

The interactive vignettes are loosely collected around four themes: memory, desire, signs, madness.

Materials (III): Examples


A Diamond Character, a woman with electric hair, is laughing wildly and muttering into her hand, occasionally shouting incomprehensibly.

One input action reveals another Diamond Character, her lover/companion, fifteen steps behind, with whom she is joking and playing.

A different action reveals her as quite alone, and this immediately casts her in different light-she is a crazy lady, the kind often seen in a big city.

In another possible world her lover is a collaborator in psychosis-an act of input shows his face in close-up, and he is as deranged as she.

Now an input gesture might reveal her as a helper to the deranged man, encouraging him and supporting him as he learns to function outside the institution that has recently abandoned him.

Another context shows that they are both actors, participating in a wild street performance, protesting an act of an oppressive government.

Always it is putting the image into a broader context, framing it, that endows it with meaning.

Baby (Signs)

On the center screen we see a crib in a darkened room. On the two outer screens we see different bedrooms, a Diamond Character sleeping under covers in each one.

a.) Pointing at the center screen wakes the baby. He starts to cry. Point again: he cries louder. Point again: he goes back to sleep.

b) If the baby is crying, pointing at one of the side screens wakes the sleeper, who goes to tend the baby.

c) If the baby is not crying, pointing at one of the side screens wakes the sleeper, who gets up and joins the sleeper on the other side screen, gets into bed with him or her.

d) Pointing at the now filled bed and there is activity in the bed, some sounds-this wakes the baby. He starts to cry. [Go to (a)]

e) Point at the now empty bed and the baby cries louder.


The adults characters in this little vignette, like all the characters in the piece, will be based on the patients photographed by Hugh Diamond. But in this scene they are probably not insane-though they may look it. To see this 'normal' aspect of the characters may affect our attitude toward their less typical behavior in other scenes.

Highway (Desire)

A large moving vehicle on the left screen. Point. It moves to the center screen. Point. Big wheels on the right screen. Point. Disappears from the left screen. Point. Disappears from the right screen. Point. Another vehicle. Point. Night falls. Point. Rain. Point. A motorcycle. Point. Motorcycle moves to center screen. etc. Our characters are traveling.

Section like this are conceived as a kind of connective tissue between the more dramatic vignettes-graphic and cinematic qualities are emphasized, and the interactions are playful, more like dance than drama. Music will be an important component.

Concept (III): Language

Characters, though based on the ultra-English Diamond photographs, will speak English and Japanese, or a mixture of the two. Like Guillerme Gomez-Peña's 'Spanglish,' or the Russian-English of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, they will speak in 'Englanese' or 'Japaglish'-a language of the future fully comprehensible only to speakers of both languages. Miho Suzuki, a Japanese video artist living in New York, has agreed to work with me on developing the dialect.

Concept (IV): Interactivity

For many years I have been interested in the idea of interactive narrative. I realized early on that such a concept would involve a radical rethinking of narrative structure, since there must be a reason for viewer input to affect a story. I have never found it interesting to give the viewer choices-as to what happens next, or who falls in love with whom: this results in a conventional, linear story with 'choice points'. Instead of viewer choice, my work has focused on viewer response.

I have based my practice on three or four working principles:

1. That the screen should always be active-viewers should be able to affect it at any moment

2. To retain a sense of story, viewer input should not interrupt and stop the action: a balance must be maintained between continuity and interruption

3. The notion of viewer choice is not salient: response is a better way to think of logic of interaction. The model is that viewers respond to what is on screen, and the screen responds to their input in ways that always make sense.

4. An interactive narrative must have a non-linear structure-some possibilities are: the multi-threaded, the rhyzomic, the cyclic, simultaneous streams, the endless middle, time that flows in many directions, etc. Postmodern fiction provides a wealth of structural models.

It is difficult to conceive of a work that fully follows these principles-however, in my view, interactivity will only yield new forms of communication if one works on breaking through to new structures.

[I have written extensively on the ideas outlined in this section. In the appendix, please see a list of articles both on-line and in print.]