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luc courchesne : Persistence of Vision
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Persistence of Vision
The pioneering interactive cinema of Luc Courchesne

by Chris Hales

How appropriate that Luc Courchesne is based in Montréal - the city that long ago hosted the very Expo 67 exhibition that premiered the world's first interactive film system, Kinoautomat, and fired the world's imagination about the future of cinema technologies.

Many of the same characteristics generally present in Courchesne's work were evident in this prototypic Czechoslovakian film (directed by Radusz Cincera), whose carefully scripted scenes centred on the fate of a hapless protagonist who actually identified with the audience and asked for their assistance. Over twenty years after Kinautomat's release, Courchesne's Portrait One (1990) installation represented his first mature steps in creating systems of pre-recorded video scenes in which audience members are invited to forge active relationships with on-screen characters.

Courchesne's subsequent artistic development has been distinctive. Since the early 1990s, many of his contemporaries in the interactive art scene (such as Perry Hoberman, or Lynn Hershman-Leeson, who described her early 1979-83 film Lorna as "the world's first interactive videoart disc game") have jumped like butterflies from one format to another, seemingly trying out every technology available for use in their work. Few if any have evolved their line of enquiry from project to project in such a focussed and logical way as Courchesne. Indeed, the installation design of Courchesne's Portrait One was specifically conceived to remove technology from the surface of the user's experience, and to concentrate the viewer's mind on the most important aspect of the project: the content.

Deep Oceans of Story
Courchesne's content-rich projects can never merely be passed over with a brief and knowing nod of the head, like so many of the conceptually-inspired installations in today's galleries. Those who have explored the labyrinthine structure of Portrait One, or the two hours of video (filmed in four directions at once) that constitute Landscape One (1997), can testify to this. On the gallery "scene", only Grahame Weinbren - whose multi-videodisc installation Sonata toured worldwide from 1991 to 1996 - can be said to have made interactive films with a comparable belief in the importance of pre-recorded content. Weinbren's works - which he described in an influential 1995 essay as representing a potential "ocean of streams of story" - also employ a substantial pool of video scenes to bestow critical mass on the films' narratives. (For more, see Weinbren's essay In the Ocean of Streams of Story, published in Millenium Film Journal No. 28, Spring 1995.)

True, other media artists like Jim Campbell literally bring the audience into the film by using real-time video compositing and capture techniques. Yet the hard-wired and pre-recorded approaches of Courchesne and Weinbren have proven no less effective, despite drawing upon more metaphorical strategies for transposing the audience into the film space.

As if to emphasize the importance of his content over the glorification of his technology, Courchesne has continued through many projects to employ equipment that others might consider outdated: namely, videodisc for delivering the video, and Apple's Hypercard software for linking together the sequences. The artist quickly became the master of his interactive engine and stuck with it, leaving him free to focus on the content and presentation of his installation pieces. This is extremely unusual - almost unique - in an environment seemingly reshaped daily by the latest state-of-the-art technologies. Perhaps fittingly, Courchesne now finds himself rubbing shoulders with video artists like Bill Viola, who in reference to the creative use of the medium once complained that "technology is far in advance of those using it", arguing that not enough time was being spent exploring the potential inherent to each technological step (see Viola's book Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House; Thames and Hudson: 1995).

The Tyranny of the Frame
All of Courchesne's film projects succeed in liberating the user from the intrusiveness of the computer screen. But ever since the rudimentary networking of Hall of Shadows (1996) laid the foundation for Courchesne's use of the panoramic format, his challenge has been to address the problem of the "frame" itself. In this regard, Courchesne bears comparison with British artist and filmmaker Peter Greenaway, whose quest has been to challenge the "tyrannies" of filmmaking, including that imposed by the film frame itself.

Although there has recently been a revival of interest in the digital panorama - initially thanks to Apple's Quicktime VR (QTVR) technology (for displaying panoramic still images), and subsequently thanks to 360 degree optical technology and software developed by Be Here Corp and RemoteReality (for capturing panoramic video) - it is more than ironic that other artist practitioners have lately been opting to impose their video panoramas back into a rectangular frame. From the real-time streaming of live events and reality TV shows, to so-called "immersive movies" (characterized by 2000's The New Arrival, by Amy Talkington), filmmakers have typically fed their original panoramic video capture footage back into the small on-screen frame, within which the user can appear to rotate their viewpoint using interface buttons. The effect is therefore not panoramic at all, because it results in the usual restrictions of a video frame, and does not fill our peripheral vision. In effect, the interactivity seen in videos like The New Arrival is roughly equivalent to the effect experienced by rotating the body while using Courchesne's Panoscope 360 (2000) or Landscape One installations - set ups in which viewers stand upright at the centre of full-sized 360 degree panoramic screens. Moreover, immersive movies like Talkington's tend to lack the added layers of meaning that emerge for viewers able to choose pathways and characters within Courchesne's panoramas.

Persistence of Vision
The consistency with which Courchesne has merged his experiments in filmed narrative with experiments in physical display, all to the purpose of solving his film's thematic questions most effectively, is quite exceptional. Such homogeneity of intent is rarely apparent elsewhere, but can be notably observed in the work of Michael Naimark. Up until the release of his Be Now Here (1995-2002) film installation, Naimark's quest was to present the user with a (virtual) video re-creation of a sense of place, and to allow the user to conceptually break through the film's physical surface. This direction in Naimark's work can be traced step-by-step from his Moving Movies project of 1977, to his subsequent collaboration with MIT's Architechture Machine Group on the Aspen Moviemap project (1978-79). Like Panoscope, Naimark's Be Now Here is a 360 degree display system which attempts to immerse the user in a filmed landscape using physical screens. In this case, it is the floor upon which the user stands that rotates - a perfect parallel to the rotation required of the viewer (via the power of their own feet) in Panoscope. Other Naimark films, such as See Banff Kinetoscope (1993-94), similarly empower physical navigation within a video space, and seem to complement the spatial movement made possible in Courchesne's films ever since Landscape One. (Note: both Panoscope and Be Now Here were exhibited in the 2002-2003 ZKM exhibition Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary After Film.)

Whether the work of Courchesne has actually influenced the commercial sector is hard to say outright, but his installations have been shown widely in high-profile exhibition spaces, and have been written about frequently. In the sense that Courchesne's design often allows the viewer to provoke different emotional responses from the characters in his films, some similarity can certainly be seen in the "virtual intimacy" concept and "mood bar" interface of the 1994 film-game Midnight Stranger (a collaboration between writer/director Jeff Green and Animatics Multimedia Corporation), in which (according to the advertising copy) "you interact with the characters and become part of the plot. Dialogue is sophisticated, stimulating and possibly, deeply intimate." The animatronic puppet-based film-game Blackout (by Michael Valeur and Deadline Multimedia; 1998) also springs to mind, because the user's progress in the game (the player starts off with total memory loss) is entirely based on dialogues with game characters, not with action sequences. The more recent interactive DVD film Point of View (by David Wheeler, Digital Circus Entertainment, and DVD International; 2001) presents the player with regular "interactive interludes" in which they are probed about their feelings toward the film's characters. The user's responses modify the subsequent behaviour of the characters, and other interludes (called "encounters") present face-to-face interactions with the characters in which they reveal their innermost thoughts.

Although interactive cinema has held the public's imagination since 1967, interactive filmmakers are actually a rare breed. Rarer still are those willing to experiment for non-commercial gain. In a historical context, Courchesne's earliest experiments of the mid 1980s - which began with Elastic Movies (1984) - were preceded by only a handful of interactive films created by other makers (the aforementioned Aspen Moviemap, Lorna, and Weinbren's 1983-86 effort Erl King are most notable). Since that time, Courchesne's intelligent and prolific pursuit of ambitious visions has made him one of the most significant contributors to the development of this genre.

Chris Hales has spent a decade experimenting with interactive film as a medium for self-expression, and has shown his work in gallery installations and cd-rom publications worldwide. He writes frequently about the subject and regularly teaches interactive film workshops throughout Europe. Based in London, he is currently Researcher in Interactive Moving Images at the SMARTLAB (www.smartlabcentre.com).

Links :
Luc Courchesne
www.din.umontreal.ca/courchesne

In the Ocean of Streams of Story
mfj-online.org/journalPages/MFJ28/gwocean.html

ZKM's Future Cinema
www.zkm.de/futurecinema

Point of View
www.aftermathmedia.com/pov

Michael Naimark
www.naimark.net

Grahame Weinbren
www.sva.edu/mfacad/faculty/weinbren.html (link no longer active)

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