[-empyre-] narrative geometry in VR

Hi Y'all -

I'm going to be a bit more content oriented, talking about using
interactive 3D on PC platforms to build narrative content into the
space-time geometry of a virtual environment. This email describes a
few such devices built into one of the scenes of my piece Beyond
Manzanar (created together with Zara Houshmand.)

Beyond Manzanar is a 3D interactive VMRL installation that investigates
parallels between the feelings of Japanese Americans interned during
WWII and fears of Iranian Americans threatened with internment during
the Hostage Crisis in 1979-'80. In this piece, internment camps,
paradise gardens and images of the American Dream for both ethnic groups
are interwoven to create a surreal meditation on the experience of being
the "face of the enemy." The site of Manzanar in Eastern California, the
first camp erected to intern Japanese Americans in WWII, is used because
of its striking similarity to the landscapes of Iran.

Artistic Goal:
I use the structure of the virtual space itself to tell a story,
partially based on Japanese American history and partially based on
contemporary fears of Iranian Americans. I use the interactive
experience of the user with that space to create an emotional experience
for the user similar to that of the immigrants depicted in the piece.

Although Beyond Manzanar is built in VRML, which was developed for
delivering 3D content over the Wed, it is too large and the timing of
events too precise to be viewable over the Web in its entirety. It is
exhibited as a room installation running off the hard drive of a fast
gaming PC. Users interact with the piece via a simple joystick. All
interaction is based on the movement and position of the user, which
makes it easy for people with no experience of computers to interact
with the piece (such as little old ladies who are former internees, one
of my target groups.)

The piece runs in the blaxxun Contact browser version 5.1 from Nov. 8
2001. The browser does NOT run on Macs or Unix, and I haven't tried the
software in vrml browsers from other companies. (feedback on how it
works gladly accepted)

Visual metaphor:
I will describe some uses of visual metaphor in the camp scene of Beyond
Manzanar. The first 3 screenshots and the vrml camp scene excerpt (with
limited functionality) illustrate my points:

 http://mission.base.com/manzanar/screenshots.html (for stills)

 http://mission.base.com/manzanar/demos.html (scroll down for vrml and
			follow directions to install vrml browser.)

Set during WWII, the camp scene uses a number of devices to build a
narrative voice into the built environment itself. Figures of speech are
translated directly into surreal 3D spaces to produce visual metaphor:

- Headlines and signs hang in the sky, "hovering over the heads of the
internees" and "making the air heavy with hate" (In the full piece, they
fade slowly in and out, so that sometimes you can forget them, but they
will always come back to haunt you.)

- Poems of exile are "thoughts caught in the barbed wire fence." These
poems are in Japanese AND in Farsi - which of course was not there in
the real camp - to underscore the universality of feelings of separation
and exile, along with their English translations. Some are classical
poems (Rumi, Manyoshu), some were written by Japanese Americans in
internment camps. When you stand at the fence looking out, as thousands
of internees did when they lived here, you can read their thoughts.

User immersion and agency to create emotional involvement:
When the piece is shown as a room installation, the virtual space is
projected life-sized (about 4mx3m or 9'x12') on a large wall. Even
though the image is not "immersive" in the technical sense (of a cave or
head-mount display), the image fills your field of view and that fact
that it is life-sized causes your body to have somatosensory reactions
similar to those that you have when encountering an object in "real

>From far away you do not see the fence - but as you come near, it
appears to block your path. Your kinesthetic sense reacts to the scale
of the barracks and fence (made slightly larger than life-sized to
convey the experience of the internees, who were rarely over 5' tall.)
The fact that you can walk up to the fence and try (unsuccessfully) to
go through it reinforces your psychological feeling of being trapped
inside the camp. The constant dry wind and the sound of ghostly
footsteps crunching on the gravel create a feeling of actually being in
the desert - former Manzanar internees told me they felt as if they were
actually back INSIDE Manzanar.

Once you enter a barrack (not possible in the vrml excerpt) the door
slams shut, you are trapped inside with ghosts and cannot get back out.
You can only go forward, into the mysterious Japanese room that seems to
lead into a garden ...

This device of closing doors behind the user is used to "drive" the user
through the piece, but is also a very powerful psychological device.
Sometimes you can see the previous space; sometimes the previous space
disappears completely. In any case, you cannot go back - just as the
internees could not regain their previous life, no matter how much they
wanted to go back. Users becomes complicit in their own fate: the choice
is to become inactive and remain forever in the space they are in, or to
move forward and lose everything around them.

These were some of the devices used in one single scene to create
emotional involvement of the user in the role of internee. I avoided
complicated role-playing and interaction - you just move the joystick to
move your viewpoint through the space, and the space reacts to your
presence - making it psychologically easy for even techno-shy people to
get involved in the piece.

'Nuff said for one day - Tamiko Thiel

Tamiko Thiel

>From January - March 2002 I am at:
  Visual Arts Department
  University of California/San Diego
  9500 Gilman Drive
  La Jolla, CA 92093-0327

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