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Teaching and Learning Multimodal Communications

Alyssa Arbuckle, Alison Hedley, Shaun Macpherson, Alyssa McLeod, Jana Millar Usiskin, Daniel Powell, Jentery Sayers, Emily Smith, Michael Stevens, Authors

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Carving in Possibilities: Image

While this piece is admittedly a bit a cheesy (to be fair, in digital-media years it is also somewhat dated, being published in 2001), I did appreciate what it was trying to do.  It is primarily concerned with the constitutive power of language and how the hand/mouse combination can be used as a mapping tool that produces a specific artistic result (in this case, the intelligible face of Michael Angelo's David).  The piece also seems to be concerned with the relationship between the cognitive mind, which processes the words produced by the movement of the hand across the interface, and the human body (the clicking hand) as a constructive force, which engenders David through its various movements and encounters with language.  

This multimedia composition–an assemblage of what I presume to be .jpeg images, .html text, audio (both music and sound effects)–is compressed into a a Flash (.swf),the opaqueness of such a file making specific formats inscrutable.  The screencast is intended to capture the images in the piece. 

"Carving in Possibilities" is comprised of a series of images of a detail of Michael Angelo's David.  The first image is blurry, but as you begin to scroll the mouse across the interface words appear and then disappear and the image (comprised of a series of images) slowly comes into focus.  The idea is (rather obviously) that the user (or maker?) through the use of the mouse to map the words is, in effect, carving the sculpture.  I should also mention that the appearing words and phrases correspond with the position of the scrolling mouse and are accompanied by electronically constructed sounds (which I discuss here). 

Formally, the piece appears to be an image gradually coming into focus–I presume this is a series of images automated in flash to create this illusion.  The words appear when the mouse scrolls over certain spaces on the image, presumably intending to provide the user with the sense that they are somehow controlling the process of constructing the piece (as they would if they were sculpting).  Any sense of this (if it exists at all) is pretty superficial. 

The choice of such a familiar image as David seems to me a trite one–the implications, I think, being obvious (although I'm not sure what to make of the fact that it is only a detail of his face we are seeing).  Ideas about authorial creation as a God-like act, of the word made flesh, and of the author as artistic genius seem to be rather boring cliches at which to arrive.  This reading is complicated, however, by the arbitrary nature in which the text appears (as it presumably brings the image into focus) and the fact that no matter how you move the mouse across the screen or what different phrases you happen to encounter, you always create the same masterpiece.  It implies the trivial nature of our choices and designs (particularly when it comes to language), suggesting that all movements and choices are homogeneous.  According to this, masterpieces are inevitable.  And while I find this reading more interesting, I think it bespeaks the problems with the peice more than it does the author's intentions.

Considering the image files are compressed into an .swf (shockwave flash) flash file, and are therefore indistinct and unreadable, a forensic reading of "Carving in Possibilities" produces very little information. Adobe Flash 9 was used to create the file and it is hosted by the Electronic Literature Collection.  The obvious issue with this is the lack of transparency, which, for a piece that is presumably celebrating the creative author and the constitutive power of words, seems problematic as the user is provided only the most superficial amount of information and control over what they are seeing or "creating."  The fact that the reader of this piece has no say in the image that results from their "carving" seems counter-intuitive to the maker ethos it promotes.  In short, "Carving in Possibilities" is ultimately over-determined, both by its formal and forensic features.  In barring us access to how this piece of e-lit was made, and denying us any control over what we make with it, its potential aims are undermined.

Author: Emily Smith
Word Count: 717
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