Conversation between Ian Flitman and Tatiana Istomina

1. Ian’s answers to Tatiana’s questions:

T. I. What interests you about interactive/algorithmic writing? What does Jane’s script achieve that would not be possible to achieve in a conventional script/short film?

I think my interest in algorithmic writing stems from my filmmaking back in the day in 16mm. We are talking the early 90s here with rush prints, four-plate Steenbecks and trim bins that have physical pieces of film effectively selloptaped together. In editing something you become acutely aware of all the inherent possibilities, the vast majority of which you deny if not suppress outright. Of the little concrete we know about Jane, we know she used to work in film. For one of her 24 possibilites, John tells us: 'A film editor to be precise. It made her cry. All those other stories she murdered with her bare hands.'

When you edit, every choice for something and also a choice against something else or often several other things at once. Something could so easily be made comic that would otherwise be tragic. Some different cut or sequence of cuts would have given a different nuance to the protagonist. Call me greedy but I wanted it both ways and more. Algorithmic cinema allows me to do just that. If you believe in the multiverse, at least through the medium of film it perhaps can best express it.

You can attempt to express interesting ideas in algorithms too. 'Jane' is fundamentally about Lacan and his idea of the impossibility of satisfying desire. This could not be expressed I think as clearly or effectively in a standard fixed and final cut.

For me conventional narrative structures are normative. By that I mean they represent a meta-system of rewards and punishments given to those who follow or transgress an implicit moral code. And it is in every entertaining twist or turn of a story. By pluralizing the outcomes, you create thereby a mechanism for making this at least more transparent. Or creating something quite individual or schzoid in its dizzying perhaps numbing number of variations.

T. I. The piece is interactive, and it seems that you give your viewers an opportunity to act and change the story. But their freedom is limited by the choices you give them, and they in fact have very little room for active engagement. What are your thoughts about interactive art/film, the roles of the artist/filmmaker and the audience? How is the relationship between the artist and the audience is changed in interactive artworks? Or does it change? Or how would you want to change it?

I think users have significant freedom, perhaps even too much. You can make about 100 individual dialogue choices in each of the six conversations not including the camera choices you get for the vast majority of lines. When chained together these form an exponential number of ridiculous dimensions.

However, you are right when you say they are always limited by the choices I give them. I prefer to think of it as a walled garden where you are free to play inside. Yes, it has by necessity rules. But they are there also by design.

Some computer games do something similar with their roam-at-will sandbox environments constrained of course by the game mechanics. This is probably the most fluid of mediums as all its artifacts are inherently digital and therefore programmable. Conventional film is over a hundred years old, and despite the glorious gizmos of its special effects, has not changed that much. It still offers you zero possibilities for intervention. That for me is the very definition of over-determined. Like a novel where minutes are page numbers heading towards an inevitable end.

Incidentally, I do get rather mixed reactions from filmmakers to my work. Over the years I have sensed a subtle and sometimes palpable hostility to it. Film is a sit back and listen medium, a monologue from principally its director. It could be argued that I am undermining what Foucault called the 'author function', the privileged and closed position of a work's creator who lords it over his subjects-cum-viewers.

However, there might be other reasons. It is hard enough to tell one good story once so you may be forgiven for thinking why anyone would try and do more than that. There is also nothing as satisfying as a good novel or really good film. Surely by investing so much effort in multiplicities, you sacrifice something of the mythical optimal version of a given story? Why divide the audience? When people go to the cinema they like to discuss the common experience they had together. This is not quite possible with something like 'Jane' as they have seen in all probability unique versions each.

T. I. Realistically, how do you think most viewers access your piece? In my case, I watched four out of six different versions of the dialogue. I experimented with adjusting one of the dialogues by choosing alternative utterances / camera angles, but after doing it I felt there was no need for me to actually watch the “adjusted” piece. The process of selection among the available options was enough by itself, and it didn’t feel like watching the updated version of the film would be a new experience. Perhaps the piece became over-determined for me at this point. What are you thoughts about this - or what were other people’s experiences of the piece?

There isn't enough time in the universe to see all the variants that 'Jane' can produce. In a very real way, it is impossible to say you have seen the film, rather that you have sampled it. If users try out a few films and continue to read the other conversations and explore their textual possibilities like you, I would be more than satisfied. However, I do not want to detract from the actors, their performance or the direction they were given. You can read but there is interpretation, and theatricality too. The pauses for example that open each section are quite comedic, their playful effect being I think totally missing from the bare word 'Pause' in the script. I very much tried to allow for users who do not want to change anything but simply want to sit back and absorb what is given to them. After all, this is what we expect from film. For this films are thus auto-generated so you can simply take what is given without the need to interact at all. Having said that many find it so strange to be invited to change something in a film they see before them that they simply don't or even won't.

I am currently working on a two-channel installation of the work to try to address this and make the intent of work more explicit. I will have a mini-cinema showing constantly differing versions in a loop. An adjacent computer allows people to craft their own versions privately and schedule them for screening in the cinema. This version will be premiered at this year's ISEA conference in May in Hong Kong.

T.I. I am also very interested in how gender is depicted in “About Jane”. The woman who appears to be the center of the piece is actually nowhere to be found, and a more precise title of the story would be “About John and Jake”. The piece is about the two guys, their fears and fantasies, etc, and their interactions. What brought your to composing this piece, and in this particular form? Is that a commentary on the ongoing gender discussions in relation to film? Do you think it could be done exactly the same if the gender roles were inverted?

I think 'John and Jake' would have been a rather prosaic title. Jane is the unrepresentable feminine for male desire and attempting to show her in person would have been a mistake given this. I am interested in feminist theory though and ecriture feminine in particular as coined by Cixous. I was reading her at the time of the work's inception. A bigger influence, however, was S/Z by Roland Barthes. That work analyses in depth a novella by Balzac called 'Sarrasine' whose the central character's gender is left somewhat ambiguous or suspended for most of it. I think what stimulated me when writing Jane was the idea of encapsulating somehow the perfect counter woman, someone captivating and brutal.

As a sexual polyvalent of otherness, Jane is beyond sexual orientation, a pure bi-sexual, a spiritual hermaphrodite. She could not be made the mere plaything or fantasy of straightforward heterosexuals. Jake has his issues with his own sexuality and loosely represents a range sexual identities.

Jake:. Jane told me I'm a straight man trapped inside a straight man's body'.
(Sexual conundrum: one of seven possibilities)

Casting helped here too. With Colin Mace the more than able alpha male to the more ambiguous Jake played by Paul Downey.

Originally in fact I was going to do a companion piece to 'Jane' called 'James', where two women would talk about a man they share and even wrote one of its conversations. I thought that it would be also interesting to cut between the two gendered versions of the work to provide a kind of sexual politics counterpoint. In the end, 'Jane' took so much of my time for many reasons, the most obvious of which is the sheer deadly amount of work you need to do to create the mass of content to choose from. 'Jane' has over 1600 clips in it, each one lovingly edited, sound mastered, color corrected and god knows what else.

To be honest, at times I would not have wished it on my worst enemy. There is a good definition of an adherent to Oulipo, the French literary group for generative literature through constrained writing techniques. They are a rat who has built their own labyrinth from which they plan to escape. I am perhaps only just exiting it now.

2. Tatiana’s answers to Ian’s questions:

I.F.: I like the process behind the series, which reminds me of conceptual art in the clear formulation of a framework for the production of artwork. Was it intentionally in this tradition, or perhaps a technique that you have used before?

A lot of my projects are based on a specific framework or a set of procedures; I think it gives form and clarity to a piece, especially when it is a multi-media project involving many elements and various collaborators.

I.F.: I found your theme a bit too broad since fear is a human universal. The participants too from what I could judge were very diverse. Again, this may have been by design. Do you think the series would have gained more focus if the enveloping theme was more restricted e.g. recounting elements of cultural discord to a specific group of migrants to the US?

Originally my idea was to explore the dynamic between language and imagery, and I wanted to do it by recording different people talking and drawing. I was not interested in focusing on any specific theme; my plan was to look at how people construct images and stories to relate their experiences. But as soon as I started inviting people to participate, I realized that my biggest problem was finding a prompt that would draw people in a conversation, and that would work for men and women with very different interests and backgrounds. After some failed attempts, I stumbled on “scary story” and this prompt turned to be really effective: it does not intimidate or alienate people and is broad enough to allow everyone choose a theme they are eager to talk about.

Once I recorded first five or six interviews, I realized that stories were not simply random – they tended to gravitate to some common issues. Many of these issues are really universal, such as death, the fear of losing our loved ones, the threat and the excitement of the unknown, etc. These bigger themes were filtered through personal experiences in really interesting ways. In addition, most stories were linked to collective anxieties and tensions that dominate America today, such as social and racial inequalities, women’s reproductive rights, gun control, politics, etc. The collection of stories became an exploration of the social landscape of the country and I didn’t want to limit it done by prescribing a specific theme for the interviews.

I.F.: As a series of indefinite length, when will 'Scary Stories' be finished for you? At what point does the collection cohere and suffice unto itself?

I think I am finished with recording new stories and drawings for this project. Over the past two years I have met and talked to seventy men and women in four different states, from New York and Pennsylvania, to Louisiana and Texas. In principle, the series could be continued - there are always new stories and people who want to tell them. But there are practical considerations: I have so much footage already that it will take me a long time to process it all. Besides, I feel that my collection of interviews is diverse enough to give an idea of what the country is like today and what people living here are concerned about. No such collection will ever be complete or even fully representative, but it is sufficient for the purposes of this artwork. The final outcome of the project will be a multi-channel sound and video installation, in which fragments of different stories and drawings will be combined into a single multi-layered narrative - a collective portrait of today’s America with its many different and contradictory voices and perspectives.

I.F.: What were the digital writing tools you used? Was this mouse or tablet-based? Did the contributors have time to familiarize themselves with it, or was it a one take execution by principle?

I had people using a digital tablet, a mouse, a track pad, and all three at the same time; generally, I try to offer the participants tools they would be most comfortable working with. Before recording the drawings, I give each person a few minutes to try out the software, but the actual drawing or a series of drawings is made in one sitting. All the drawings are immediate, responsive and relatively quick: they are made on a computer in real time, while the participant listens to a 20-40 minute recording of another person’s interview. Each drawing reacts to the narration but at the same time reflects the thoughts and attitudes of the listener. Some of the participants are professional artists and illustrators, but others have little or no drawing experience. As a result, the range of drawings is extremely wide: they display virtually all kinds of notation, from descriptive images, pictograms and icons, to abstract signs, marks, and text.

I.F.: I found myself judging the drawing performance of the illustrators quite a lot. Sometimes this appeared to distract me from the stories themselves. After about 5 films, I just wanted to focus on the stories, and played them through on headphones without looking at the drawings. Is this a valid approach for you?

I’d say any approach is valid, and I leave it up to the viewers to choose how they want to experience the work. As I said earlier, I initially envisioned the project as an exploration of commonalities and fundamental differences between language and imagery, and the ways in which they are produced, perceived and understood by people. Ideally, the coupling of narrated stories and time-based drawings would point at the links and gaps between the two modes of expression. That being said, I am aware of the fact that narratives became a more important part of “Scary stories”. Once I started interviewing people, they sort of took over my original idea of the project: for them, it was definitely about the stories, the drawings were secondary. Theirs are the stories that need to be told - they really capture our attention and don’t need imagery to make them interesting. Still I believe that drawings remain an important part of the project – they document the moment of close interaction between a listener and a speaker, and they highlight the complex relationships between language and imagery. Especially when they appear strange or distracting from the story being narrated, it’s interesting to ask ourselves what makes them so. In some cases this is because they reflect the views of a person who strongly disagrees with what he or she is hearing. After all, the films not only show the expressive potential of storytelling and drawing, they also point to the limits of expression of both, and to the possible breaking point in communication between people.

I.F.: How did you choose a story for a given illustrator? Did you have a one to one relationship between the illustrators and the stories? Or did you have say two or three drawings per anecdote, and had to chose which one to use? If so, what was your criteria for choosing the drawing? Did any drawings or stories fail to make the grade in your eyes and why? Or did you decide to include whatever was given to you?

The choice of an illustrator is mostly random, although sometimes I would pick a specific story for someone to draw to because I thought he or she would be especially interested in it or could handle it better than other people. In some cases, one person’s drawings would be enough, but in others I would have two or more people drawing in response to one story. Certainly, all interviews and drawings are heavily edited, and I have to cut out many potentially interesting images and stories. To make each film, I am starting with 30 to 90 minutes of narration and at least the same amont of footage with image, and I have to compress it all into a film not longer that 10 minutes. Basically, my job is to transform this material into the shortest and most effective film I can make, and I try to choosing the most exciting bits of stories and images and make them work together in interesting ways. But everyone’s story and drawing would be used in a film, even if it’s a really short fragment of the original footage.

I.F.: I assume that when you recorded the stories, it was a conversation rather than a complete uninterrupted monologue as it appears in the final film. How much, if any, of your own voice did you remove and why? Did you direct the responses tacitly or explicitly in your fruitful encounter with your collaborators?

You are absolutely right, each interview is a conversation, and in some of them I speak almost as much as the person I being interviewed. Recently I have become more aware of the performative nature of these conversations: it’s never simply a mechanical recording of a story prepared in advance - the actual story is happening in time, it is constructed through the acts of telling and listening, with the two of us constantly changing roles. It is about communicative, dialogical relationship that happens in real time. “Scary story” is simply a prompt to begin a conversation, what’s really important happens while we talk, and my job is to keep the conversation going, to find the common ground for understanding between us, and to uncover the various connections and intersections between different topics we touch on. Some people need me primarily as a listener, others want me to take a more active part in the conversation, almost match them story for a story, but in all cases I am really present during the interviews. This is why I feel I don’t need to have my own voice in the finished films; I transform each conversation into a monologue because it’s about the person I am speaking to, not about me. Perhaps my background in science may help to explain this: if you are a physicist making measurements you would report only the measurements you took, not what you said or what kind of mood you were in at the time. One might view the project as a quasi-scientific exploration of America’s social reality, and I am trying to be objective by cutting myself out of the picture. Despite that, my voice and my hand are really present in this project: I not only direct the conversations, but eventually edit them into films.

I.F.: What was the reaction of the storytellers themselves to the illustrations that finally accompanied them?

People seem always to be pleased with the drawings, regardless of their style. Some illustrators are more skillful than others, but you can see that they all are deeply engaged with the drawing and the narration they are responding to.

I.F.: Like your Scary Stories, we have become a pairing. Like them, we were chosen among various possibilities. So, why you and me together?

This is a great question. One obvious connection between us is that we both came to art making from other fields: in your case it’s computer science, in my case, geophysics. So I think we both tend to have a rational, systematic approach in our work. Moreover, it looks like we are both interested in underlying systems and structures – such as the systems of representation and communication, narrative structures of films and stories, and more generally, the structures of knowledge that determine the ways in which we understand and interpret images, texts, films, relationships, etc. Perhaps this is the connection?