• Concrescence
  • Douglas Edric Stanley
  • Generative Cinema Installation

Concrescence is a software program for the creation of interactive and generative cinema, coupled with an interactive Hypertable where users can intuitively interact with the film with the use of their hands.

As a software program, Concrescence is organised around database of small, moving image fragments, a kind of infinite potential for non-linear narratives. As the program runs, images accrete — hence the term “concrescence” — forming a mosaic of images that are subsequently projected onto the hypertable.

The hypertable is a simple wooden table 160cm x 85 cm x 88 cm, onto which images are projected. Above the table, a surveillance system using various near-infrared filters and optics connected to a circuit board allow the system to “see” human hands as they move upon the tabletop. When a hand is placed on the table, the surveillance system distinguishes it from the table itself, and instructs the Concrescence software to grow images around it.

The images projected onto the table come directly from the database, but are filtered through a unique, but simple, semantic processor that limits “anything goes” accretion by allowing images to bond with another image only if there are conceptual relations between them. These conceptual relations are created by an author, using the integrated authoring interface. Images are placed visually with other images, and the system is told to “remember” their relationships (proximity, number, etc). The author can therefore design a narrative coherence for the subsequent interactors, while allowing the interactors to investigate various tangents and follow the narrative soup in their own time and manner. The entire process has been designed as both a cinematic narrative device and a more subtle interactive putty out of which non-linear narratives can be designed and caressed.

The questions explored by Concrescence revolve around the future of traditional cinema in relation to the possibilities emerging in algorithmic art.

One of the major contributions of Concrescence, lies in its ability to resolve the endless use of choice in interactivity. Interactivity is a rich medium, and should not be reduced simply to the offering of choices (YES, NO, LEFT, RIGHT) to a potential user. In fact, in the case of interactive cinema, offering choices is in many cases counterproductive to the construction of a narrative. By refusing the reduction of interactivity to choices, and instead opting for a more dynamic, plastic, playful articulation of the elements, Concrescence reintroduces the pleasure of editing to the viewer’s experience of cinema.

As an artistic project, Concrescence has been designed for a specific author, namely myself. It is my soundstage, editing suite, and projection theatre all rolled into one, and I am currently using it to explore variations on cinematic narrative form.

Algorithmic cinema

While video software has introduced a new workflow, the result nevertheless remains, for the most part, tied to more traditional linear media such as video, television and film. And while the Internet has introduced new means of presenting, contextualizing, and even producing work, the idea of an emergent generative cinema has not been sufficiently explored. Beginning as a speculative software project, Concrescence began with an interrogation on what a non-linear cinematic authoring tool might look like from an experimental artist’s perspective. Several variations on this opening question resulted — one of the more interesting being a dynamic VJ-ing program entitled The Object Machine — but all of the variations come back to the same visual form: a mosaic of semi-autonomous video objects in which one moving image triggers action in the next image-object in a visual cascade of looping waves. This method allows for any image to potentially aggregate with any other autonomously — allowing the computer dynamic associations — and for the cinematic action-reaction editing of temporal composition to take place within the frame, rather than between frames. As the ensemble is no longer tied to any temporal necessity, the whole can move and evolve at varying rhythms, both according to the will of the interactor, and according the necessities of the generator. The cinema form becomes both generative and interactive, there is no contradiction between the two.

Additionally, Concrescence attempts to bring the body back into the interactive cinema experience. Rejecting complex physical electronic interfaces, I propose instead a simple corporeal experience in which the human hand shapes and explores an interactive audiovisual narrative through intuitive gestures. This simplicity is essential. The power of classical theatre-based cinema resides in its usage of basic body functions: sight, hearing, immobility. However diverse the semiotics of its contents (classical Hollywood narrative, French nouvelle vague, Asian kung-fu action-adventure), cinema always comes back to the platform of an immobile body before a audiovisually mobile projection. If interactive cinema is to “compete” with this model, it will need a similarly powerful simplicity in its use of the human body.

The first step was to detach the cinema screen from its pedestal, and reposition it at hand’s reach. This liberates the spectator from immobility, and allows her to “move around” the diegesis, passively observing or actively exploring, without having to leave the visual world to think about choosing the next scene. The frame remains mobile, but now it is both the interactor and the image that move, suggesting almost naturally the ability to “act” upon the image. Also, allowing interaction at any position on table, means that this user-mobility is free-form, and not tied to any predefined gesture.

The second step was the usage of a common evocative object: the table. In the past, I have used the floor, and/or all four walls, which instinctively evokes a theatre experience rather than a cinematographic one. By using a table, I can tap into the dual public-private nature of the table, its passive-active status. The Concrescence hypertable is at once an operating table, a writing desk, a work bench, a kitchen table, a café table and a screen. This familiarity makes the interaction very comfortable, reminds us of familiar gestures, and immediately places us into an evocative context. But whatever its evocations, the hypertable always implicitly suggests that something will be constructed.

The third step was the simplification of the gestures required to manipulate the dynamic cinema. To render evident a user’s interactions, immediate visual cues are given as to the location of their hands on the table’s surface: by mirroring the user’s presence, they know that their body is integrated into the space. This interaction, however, is purely superficial, and does not lead to the creation of new narrative material. In order to truly shape the experience, the user must slow down their movements, further implicate their body into the experience, only then will the interface truly respond. By using body presence, rather than symbolic gesture (point and click), interactors are subtly forced to – much like the cinemagoer as she eases into her chair – enter into a lightly modified environment. In fact, one can move in and out of this gestural slowness quite easily, back and forth from spectator to interactor, unlike the cinemagoer that must radically shift environments when leaving the chair.