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Einstein's Dreams: The Miracle Year
Based on the novel by Alan Lightman

by Dominiq Vincent, translated from the French by Alejandra Sanchez

A Journal of the Discontinuum
June 17, 1999

The clock ticks on. Since April 14, my life has strayed from its natural course. Each day, I hope that the breach in the continuum will bring forth a new link from another time and allow me to join Einstein and Besso in Bern in 1905. Visiting the Web site Einstein's Dreams has subjected me to constant metamorphoses: with each email it delivers, the motion of dreaming takes over my daily routine. The light of day and the darkness of night are motionless, my mind is confused: the boundary between the world of knowledge and that of imagination is blurred. I wait for the next email. My mental processes are ruptured: time is discontinuous.

Succession of the Invariants
Einstein's Dreams: The Miracle Year is a take on Alan Lightman's eponymous novel. It consists of thirty possible variations on the form of time, each presented as the waking dream of a young Albert Einstein, busy finishing up his theory of relativity in Bern's patent office in 1905. Einstein momentarily casts the city's anonymous people into worlds where time does not follow its natural course, but becomes a circle, a river, a bird, and so on. This dissection of how time shapes our experiences (and how our spirits shape the notion of time) ultimately reveals the invariance of the human experience: it seems that there is no way out of time, and no way out of our own humanity.

The Four-fold Miracle
Einstein's Dreams: The Miracle Year unfolds into four movements which share essential properties, influence one another, and transform computers and readers into time machines. In January 1999 the creators of the project, DNA Media, launched a Web site that served as a programme (in the theatrical sense) for the impending broadcast of thirty interactive episodes between April 14 and June 30, 1999. This period mirrored the time it took Einstein to elaborate his theory of relativity in 1905. Approximately ten thousand people who had subscribed (for free) to the site were then invited by email to access the thirty interpretations of Alan Lightman's possible worlds. In September 1999, DNA suspended its publishing activities before publishing the project in its final shape: a cd-rom with an art book prefaced by Lightman.

A Journal of the Discontinuum
June 21, 1999

The breach has closed. My thirty journeys have come to an end. To better understand them, I read Alan Lightman's book. It contains possible visions - call them dreams - from the imagination of Einstein, along with everything these imply about life and the worlds in which it might unfold.

But something is missing: interactivity and its conditions. My spirit has been changed through each unhoped-for encounter with places and times whose rules are reinvented through the machine.

Return from Elsewhere
Leaving Einstein's Dreams is like coming back from another world. One is urged to say, "Listen, I have seen." Each episode inspires an enduring fascination once the participant commits to understanding its mechanisms. One is convinced that each detail hides a pattern, strives in front of false equations to find the hint that will allow their resolution. One looks for constants, axioms, invariants, but the thirty episodes do not develop any unitary code of interaction - each of them represents a singularity. The piece's seductive architecture requires answers, yet it produces only questions. This is the source of its constantly renewed appeal.

Echo Chambers
Each episode of Einstein's Dreams is a triptych: a title screen, an interactive tableau, and a fragment of Lightman's novel. The title screen borrows the appearance of a patent ledger - one that announces the shape of time to be explored in the tableau to come. The title and final novel fragment create a pair of textual parentheses that shed light on the tableau's "moral." The viewer becomes an echo chamber in which meaning bounces from text to audiovisual material to interactivity.

A Journal of the Discontinuum
October 26, 1999

I have been struggling now for twenty-one days to find solutions to the episodes of the cd-rom. I found the disk on my desk. Someone coming back from somewhere (I do not recall whom) has left it there, along with a book.

Ever since I started exploring the worlds of the cd-rom, I have become a ligature, a relay. I stand on the threshold of meaning, and its impending unlocking keeps me riveted to the machine. Every time is the same: first comes the music. It triggers immersion in a world where everything has its place. It gives contour to my experience, unites me with the machine, stops emotion from leaving me.

I am looking again for the calculated meaning of the episodes. This time, I will know. I will find the golden mean that underlies everything. I scribble complex diagrams, redraw icons, study the text. I want to elucidate its kabbala.

Who the Interpreter
We call the "interpreter" one who chooses to look for solutions to the riddles of each episode, as impossible as they might be. One who claims to be the sensitive relay that allows the medium to manifest its possibilities. Equation: if an interpreter is moved by an urgent discomfort, the first principle of his action will be to find comfort. The machine draws out of our secret heart things that cannot be uttered: the interpreter partakes of an incomplete figuration. The episodes are but the residue of a reality fragmented by time.

Time Frames
The interactive frames combine simulacra of mathematical models with the paraphernalia of an antique shop: maps and landscapes taken from the engravings of an old Baedeker travel guide, faces of strangers cut out from ancient photographs, plates from obsolete technical manuals or medical textbooks, lost artifacts from family cellars. The screen becomes a kind of retro-futurist theatre that casts the interpreter into parallel realities. In these elegant alchemies of pseudo-knowledge and imagination, familiar spatio-temporal referents are no longer valid. Here, the shape of interactivity imitates that of time: it is variable. The interpreter, lost in conjecture, will have to resort to the compass of interactivity.

A Journal of the Discontinuum

Mechanical Time and Body Time
one wins over the other. sometimes the mechanism pulsates. i can draw as many lines as i want. links accelerate the pulse, the chronometer counts. links are broken. one can make a world in either time but not in both

Time is Absolute
on top of the city i place dots. i write my name. with each dot, my name disappears. an hour in real time replaces it. lines are blurred. the map changes.

each person who gets stuck

in time gets stuck alone

Time Brings Increasing Order
i hear the rain. dots connect to each other. there are 101 of them. suddenly there is no more movement. the cursor disrupts the molecular assemblage, deforms it. click! all the dots form a line.

pattern-organization-union-intensification / randomness-confusion-dissipation-disintegration

Tentative Equations
I DISCOVER MYSELF to be the host of a new potentiality, the creator of a world in which I am born constantly. I know not from whence, nor toward what, I travel. In this place of no place I have broken the chain of the world.

What Interactivity
Simple interactivity and shifting interpretations merge to create an unsuspected depth. The commands are so intuitive that a child can master them. This economical machine can be operated without questions. Very quickly, one may deduce the way it functions and concentrate on the essential - a space filled with events, textures, movements, and sounds that users may explore as thoroughly as desired, creating through their bodies and senses a comprehension of virtuality and of the forces that give it shape.

The machine knows how to thrive off all the effects it provokes. The medium has an invisible power, impossible to locate, which forces the interaction to continue. The interpreter looks to see the revelation revealed. Each episode follows an uncertain principle of action/reaction, and modulates its program to resonate with whomever is using it. Before the changing propositions of each episode, thought and senses remain in motion. The blinking and glowing of the screen invite the interpreter to formulate hypotheses, dare one to play the game of the machine. Under the guise of content, the machine pretends that it is not a machine. But we are wise to its ways. Without the interpreter the episode cannot achieve meaning, and each episode fails to become a place of reflection, a workshop of the unpredictable, of doubt, where emotion finds its way through us.

A Journal of the Discontinuum
December 14, 1999

I give up. Each world still has to be made - again. I look outside and all I see is night. The way of the stars. It feels like spying on eternity. The night carries me. A sort of dwelling is made possible, a new way of bringing forth human experience. Each is a world within one's self. I open the book of the cd-rom. Everything is fulfilled and furthered through this anthropologist's diary. Each episode speaks again. The book says:

stop chasing your own shadow
it is just so that memory tastes

you fly above the clouds
again and again the clock answers
you had a long journey

and we, of it -
no more, no less
than a life

Slowly the book puts the world back into my hands. It brings me back to life. It is illustrated and punctuated with the memories of an interpreter. It is the artifact that completes the four-fold miracle. The thought of another sweeps me along in its wake.

Birth of the Hybrids
Einstein's Dreams is a hybrid of literature, film, and video games. The project erases the distance between reality, the imagination, science, literature, and philosophy by refracting them all through the form of the machine. This is no mere entertainment, but a potent model of human experience.

Dominiq Vincent lives and writes in Montreal. He is a member of the group of poets C'est selon, and is working on a long narrative poem, L'Ensable.

Reference :
Einstein's Dreams: The Miracle Year (1999). Based on the book by Alan Lightman (Pantheon Books, 1992).

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