Walking the Dead

As always, the first strike of the chisel on marble is an exciting, if anxious moment.

"We create [Time] as an idea or notion and do not begin until much later to suspect that we ourselves are Time, in as much as we live."

            Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West


The three month duration of the Sandbox, though a great luxury in many respects, is a short time in which to create a compelling prototype. Fortunately, the conceptual work done by Amblr last year on a static timeline for museum display allowed us to make an early start on creating a technical framework for an interactive reinterpetation and extension of this project, that will explore the experience of time and memory through three classic literary texts. While the detritus of New Year festivities still littered the streets, I flew to Berlin to brief the main developer (temporarily resident there) on the project.

It seemed a fitting way to begin. Through each of the three texts we will consider, convulsive history flows: a century of civil strife in Shakespeare's History Cycles; the intense memory of childhood experience and youthful proximity to the French revolutions in Wordsworth's The Prelude; and the Parisian uprisings of first half of the following century that are the subject of Les Miserables. And nowhere in the last century, perhaps, has turbulent history been written more legibly than in the fabric of the German capital.

Riding the U-bahn, the consistency of speed and the elevated perspective afford particular opportunities for creative reflection on time. As I travelled, I listened to a collage of sound and music that I had hastily authored before the trip, seizing another chance for some incidental testing of the "transport" app that we have in development. What was more striking here than it had ever been in Britain was how pace and time, moving into and out of narrative synchronisation, generated a disarmingly elastic sense of history, inviting the imagination to stretch its muscles in sympathy.


On the approach to Alexanderplatz, the pivotal site of Walter Ruttman's 1922 documentary Berlin, Symphony of a Great City, the effect took me by surprise in its intensity. A simple historic tune conjured the bustling intersection of the film, erased by bombs and communist era concrete. One day I hope to experience locative symphonies, perhaps to create them, conducting the technologies of the twenty-first century with something like the eloquence of a Ruttman. It would be exciting to think that the application of certain principles from our literary timeline experiments to the sculpting of narrative space might take us a step closer to that goal.

By curious coincidence, last week saw Lev Manovich of City University in New York publish his graphical interpretations of the still astonishing experimental documentary Man with the Movie Camera by Ruttman's Russian contemporary Dziga Vertov. It is a project of considerable relevance to our current work, as I shall discuss in more detail in a later post. Of immediate interest, though, is how it makes the visualisation of time and screen time subject to shifts in scale and perspective, and the changing significance that gives to the chosen unit of meaning: in this case, the film frame.

Our purpose with The Next Time[line] is narrow but complex: to meaningfully visualise aspects of narrative time in a interactive form. But will our focus come to rest on time within the text, or time between versions and adaptations of texts; will we prioritise exploring the subjective dilation or contraction of time, or the play of consequence across time; how will we disinguish the different modalities of text and image when it comes to screen adaptations or stage performance? At the half way point between the first two Sandbox workshops I still have more questions than answers and, just as it should be, more questions and ideas than when we started.

Already, though, I have seen the very first tangible result of the development process, created using test data from a previous project. It is no more than a stack of monochrome graphical blocks on a screen, each of which represents our base unit: a moment in time captured in a moment of narrative, whether a scene or a speech, a stanza or a shot. As always, the first strike of the chisel on marble is an exciting, if anxious moment. But I am confident that a clear path has been laid for how these elements will assume significance in relation to one another and be rendered dynamic.

Still, it will be some weeks before significant testing and the real pleasure of iterative design can begin: that toing and froing from the sketch to the onscreen test and back to the drawing board, that is the preferred rhythm of the Sandbox process. In the meantime, the detailed conceptual work will push forward, along with paper prototyping of possible interactions. Shortly, my collaborator on the museum project mentioned earlier, the data illustrator Stefanie Posavec, will be joining the process. As the hand and the hammer find their natural beat, we're all hoping that three months will be enough to make a good impression.