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ceremony of innocence : electronic purgatory
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Electronic Purgatory
A Conversation with Nick Bantock
by Angus Leech

"We live by the word, which we can define and contain. But we are not content..." So runs a passage from Nick Bantock's The Museum at Purgatory - and it might very well be the Vancouver author's mantra. Ever since the 1991 release of Griffin and Sabine, Bantock has been etching the wordly component of his storytelling into a realm of symbol and image, collage and bricolage. After all, as he writes in that same passage, "We don't dream in words, our imaginations are picture based. Images...offer multiple possibilities."

So many possibilities, in fact, that in 1997 the first Griffin and Sabine trilogy (for there is now a second) was remade as Ceremony of Innocence, an interactive cd-rom produced by Peter Gabriel's U.K.-based Real World Multimedia. In this digital adaptation, the colourful postcards and illustrated letters of the original books become interactive art puzzles and cinematic interludes narrated by Paul McGann, Isabella Rossellini, and Ben Kingsley.

Ceremony of Innocence took Real World Multimedia three years, a small fortune, and over a hundred people to make. It won several of the world's most prestigious electronic media awards the year it was released. Yet the cd-rom sold very few copies, and even fans of the Griffin and Sabine books remain largely unaware of its existence. It has, so to speak, come to occupy a pedestal in its very own, uniquely electronic purgatory. Angus Leech spoke with Nick Bantock about this classic work of digital fiction.

h0: To start with, Nick, why don't you give us some background about Ceremony of Innocence?
Bantock: Quite a few electronic media companies were interested in doing a version of Griffin and Sabine, and I saw their various proposals and was not particularly impressed. But when Real World came along, they showed me the work of a young guy called Alex Mayhew who they wanted to be the art director. I loved his work. And I just thought that everything they wanted to do fit very neatly with my vision. So we met, we talked, and I eventually went over to the U.K. to meet them. As time went by it boiled down to Alex and me making the art direction decisions and producer Gerry Villon making it happen. We would get back together every three or four months, either in London, Seattle, or here in Vancouver.

How would you compare the Griffin and Sabine books with the cd-rom, in terms of the story itself?
Does the digital retelling maintain the identity of the original?

I see the books and the cd-rom as coming very much from the same storyline source. But you have to let go and build something afresh. Once we'd decided that we were going to do something different in its own right, we used the book as a template. We always returned to it for the greater themes. And each card and letter stayed the same, though sometimes we completely recreated the images in a three-dimensional form.

How did all these paintings and illustrations become interactive art puzzles?
Well, that was a piece-by-piece problem.

We decided to keep the whole rhythm structure of the books. And the easiest way of doing that was to have each postcard come up one at a time as an interactive, and allow the viewer to work through the front of the card like a puzzle, and thus "earn" the back of the card. By doing that, we allowed the original pace of the story to keep itself going. Obviously, when you transfer from one media to another, there are going to be some fairly radical changes. You have to accept that, otherwise you end up with something that is a half-and-half creature and doesn't work. And we were trying to make each card feel different, without resorting to gimmickry.

We would look at a certain card and ask ourselves, "How can we make this interactive?" And that brought on a long and complex discussion about what "interactive" meant. Because sometimes interactive means you can move a lot of things about, you have a lot of choices. Sometimes interactive is merely finding the spot that allows things to come into motion. And sometimes we would sink little filmic pieces into the fabric of the card, so once you got it moving, you didn't have to do any more. In other cases, you've quite literally got to find your way through the card in a Myst-like way.

In one way it was a very cerebral exercise; in another it was remarkably intuitive. For example, with the last card of the first book, "Pierrot's Last Stand," we realized that that particular picture had a very puppet-like quality. So Alex said, "Well, let's get some puppets made." We went to the head of animation at the Royal College of Art in London, and asked her if she would build a puppet. We used the basic background of the card, but took out my painted image and inserted her puppet, which then moved and climbed up the side of the little towers. There was almost no limit to what we could do, other than money!

How did you handle the technical side of the production process?
One of the things we did to avoid getting over our heads was we never used the newest cutting-edge technology. We always stayed one step back from that. Just one step, so that basically we were six months to a year behind the new tricks. And the reason we did that was because we wanted to keep stuff relatively bug-free, but also use stuff that people knew how to use, and had already solved many of the difficulties with. It's a bit like if someone commissioned you to do a picture, and you said, "I've never used chalk pastel before, so I'm going to do this in chalk pastel and wash." Well, if you've never done it before, you've got not only the challenge of the commission, but you've got the learning curve. And sometimes it's appropriate to do that. But you wouldn't do that on something of this scale. Instead you say, "We'll try certain things out, but we'll try them out in the context of what we already know."

What's your take on the contrast between the books and the interactive, sensually, in terms of how one experiences the story?
I think they're quite different. Firstly, with a book that looks good and feels good, where you get to take letters out of envelopes, that experience is designed around sensuality and mystery and a sense of participation. There's an underlying sense that you're dealing with something more powerful, some kind of metaphysical journey, whether it be internal or external. I don't think you can do quite the same thing electronically, because of the hard screen. We could have done all kinds of tricks trying to replicate the sensation of the books, but we thought it was far better to focus on things that aren't brought out so strongly in the trilogy. Like, for example, Yeats's poem "The Second Coming." That's why the cd begins with that crackly reading of the poem.

I think, because you are listening and seeing, the cd-rom bears more relationship to the filmic experience. It's almost like a film that's seen in a series of stills. And I think Ceremony relates to Griffin and Sabine in the same way a film relates to a book: there's not quite so much left to the imagination. Also, the sense of participation is slightly different, the illusion of control is intensified. But in fact there is no more control; it's just an illusion, like any sense of the power we have to control time and the passage of things greater than ourselves.

Your books are based on a process of collage wherein text, image, and tactile objects are married into narrative wholes. Ceremony of Innocence combines a different set of multimedia elements, including images and sound, in a similar way. Why are you so interested in telling stories with pictures as well as words?
When we first stood up on our hind legs, before we spoke and before we wrote, we saw the world in terms of textures. And our day-time experiences, our dreams, our night experiences - everything was built out of the same building blocks. It's quite likely that there was no real separation between our conscious and our unconscious. Once we started to speak and create the written word, which was first through pictograms and gradually became more abstract, we moved over and leaned more toward one side of our brains. And we started to create a wedge between our pictorial world - our night world, and quite likely our intuitive world - and our patriarchal, logical world. This wasn't necessarily an entirely bad thing. But what we now have is an existence of perception that is leaning way, way over to that side. And our attitude toward the pictorial world is one of either almost derision, the way we talk about our dreams as if they were some kind of surrealistic oracular nonsense, or we simply use images as a means to sell things.

So we've got this huge discrepancy between our means of thinking through our unconscious, which is done in terms of pictures, and our means of thinking through our conscious, which is more logical, slow, and pedantic. What I'm trying to do is bring these two parts back together and marry them to such an extent that you can't split them. So that you are actually encouraged/forced to use both logic and intuition, pictures and words, all at the same time.

Do you think digital multimedia was the right venue for your fiction to move into a different form?
I'll try anything that has the capacity for integrity. Someone once came along and suggested they do an opera of Griffin and Sabine. But I have a little bit of trouble with opera, because it makes me laugh. I always remember seeing, on TV, an opera about Richard Nixon arriving in China. It was so absurd. So the answer is, I'd be happy taking any book into another area, as long as that area treated it with dignity, and maintained the integrity of the original concept. Because it becomes a challenge. And whether it's a matter of using photography, film, electronics, or sound, that challenge is obviously going to expand me.

What's the status of the Griffin and Sabine feature film?
The option has now reverted to me. I've seen so many scripts, it's been through so many different companies, but one company buys another company out, and then the mood in Hollywood changes. First they're desperate to do love stories, then they want to do mysteries. When they look at Griffin and Sabine, they like the idea of it, but it's so hard to pigeonhole. So they tend to narrow it down to one thing, and then they end up dropping the cards and the letters. In the end all they've got left is the name. There's talk of trying to put together a longer film for TV that would allow all six books to become part of the storyline. A three- or four-hour piece would allow for so much more of the story to be included. And if I was involved in the writing process, it would give me a lot more control. I find it scary that I see so many movies based on books that end up completely missing the point. And this is a series of books where it would be so easy to miss the point.

Let's talk about the marketing of the cd-rom. Why did so many people buy Griffin and Sabine but not Ceremony of Innocence, which won all kinds of major multimedia awards?
When we started the cd-rom, it was a time when there was a great sense of expansion, a sense that bookstores and everyone else were going to be selling these things. But by the time we released it three years later, the bottom had fallen out of the market for anything that was directed towards a less "shoot-'em-up compulsive" audience. The feeling previously had been that there was a more intelligent market out there, a more female-based market. And it's true - it was out there. But there was no physical outlet for it, there were no stores who would stock them. A few stores took a few copies, but there was no major distribution company prepared to step on board. There were a couple of deals in the offing with larger companies who could have done it, but for one reason or another they pulled out. I don't know if that was financial or political.

In the end, a small company in Edmonton called Khyber Pass ended up with the selling rights. It's a very small company - a nice bunch of people, but with no real muscle power. Even if they had the power, it still would have been a problem, because if the stores won't stock them in quantity and publicize them, it doesn't matter what the advertising is. We had a full-page glowing review in the New York Times, and if the cd-roms had been around then, that in itself would have been enough to light the blue touch-paper. But people saw the article, but had no idea how to get it. And after a period of time, people start saying, "Oh yes, we remember Ceremony of Innocence, that was a kind of electronic classic. But that was then." It's a little sad.

The reality is that we were entering into new territory. I must thank Peter Gabriel's willingness to go for something that wasn't necessarily going to bring great financial reward, but certainly was truly at the cutting edge. And I think in a way the strange thing is - it still is. Because nobody else has gone down that road. Partly that's because of the cost, and partly it's because I don't think the industry will and intent is out there to do something of this nature. So Ceremony of Innocence stands on its own as a kind of cult oddity. It's a shame, because I would love to see more interactive pieces that actually went the whole hog into electronic theatre.

Angus Leech is Assistant Editor of HorizonZero.

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