The Distributed Social Cinema of SPECFLIC :: Adriene Jenik
This Distributed Social Cinema project arises out of my commitment throughout the years to developing new forms of storytelling with digital media. Beginning with experiments using live television and satellite networks, I began developing works that emerged from the complex multi-layered potentials of digital programming and network interactions. These earlier projects, which include the interactive cinema piece MAUVE DESERT: A CD-ROM Translation (based upon the experimental novel by French Canadian author Nicole Brossard) and the internet street theater series DESKTOP THEATER, grew out of my interest in the way that literary forms might be further developed within the digital media environment, as well as my interests in working with performers, and developing new publics for artwork.
The SPECFLIC project continues these investments in public encounters, live performance, literary inspiration and “new” media. EACH EVENT is formed from a template of the following elements: an iconic public building or space, a vision of that place in 2030, an ensemble of talented performers, pre-recorded and live aural and visual media, and experimental communications forms. The pieces combine hi-and lo-tech elements and devices, making clear that neither the “future” nor the “past” are unique periods of time, but are constructed through both history and imagination. The project refracts the present through an image of the future, using the 2030 trope to create some critical distance on our present. Rather than offering this story to a hushed audience in a darkened room, the project casts the story onto its public: implicating each audience member within a shared future.
As of this writing, two versions of the project have been realized. SPECFLIC 1.0 was presented at The California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (calit2) on the UCSD campus in October 2005. Its story focused on the near future of the public educational and research institution. Here I speculated a completely interiorized education in which students (here called researchers second and third class) were granted a completely free education (and pharmaceuticals) in exchange for their research labor and their participation as research subjects. I proposed a backstory in which the campus had moved fully “indoors” (due to a combination of weather violence, insurance pressures and in a bold move to create a community-wide living laboratory of sustainability. This primary narrative, was presented through a real-time media channel that delivered a combination of addresses from the chancellor (updating the community hourly on new research breakthroughs and support), condensed “lecturettes” and surveillance footage from all corners of the vast complex. Thus, the insider’s experience was communicated obliquely through one’s mediated encounters with a series of archetypal future characters (including the aforementioned chancellor, a researcher in the Iotragenic Disease Focus Lab, the nanojanitor (who cleans the clean rooms), and the new Inside Man from BioNeuroNanoComm (a industry rep from the company that had funded the move inside). This inside story was projected and streamed to an OUTSIDE audience; an audience cast as outsiders gathering in the building’s courtyard to live off of the Inside’s surplus of network, light, and food. Some among this group generate alternative models of living while others join together their obsolete technology castoffs to try and disrupt the Inside.
SPECFLIC 2.0 took place in August 2006 at the Martin Luther King, Jr. branch of the San Jose Public Library and was presented as part of ISEA’06/San Jose Zero One Festival of Art & Technology. Its story was centered on the near future of books, the written word, and the public library. It is this version, I wish to further examine in this essay, particularly as it allows me to consider the possibilities inherent in the Speculative Social Cinema form.
The layers of SPECFLIC 2.0 extended in concentric circles beyond a large dual projection of a live “gateway” character, The InfoSpherian whose presence dominated the space most proximal to both entrances to the library building. As the audience moved away from her spectral voice-image and around the building, they encountered the elevated rear-projected “library story” with its related soundtrack. Live performers moved about, some in relation to a grid of images and text that formed a flashing visual border, some seeming to emerge from the audience itself. Piles of books formed convenient stools, an incognito SONY engineer solicited comments on a future book form, and portions of text were served straight to patrons’ pockets.
Additional media and performance layers were created through live “soundtrack” mixing and the use of spatialized audio. The sound artist collective, NEIGHBORHOOD PUBLIC RADIO, recorded interviews with digital luminaries and others assembled for the ISEA06 symposium. They asked a variety of people to speculate about the future of the book, the public library and the written form, and compiled the responses onto a CD. These interviews were mixed, live, by a local DJ, DJ Basura, forming a “soundtrack” for the outer edges of the event. As one moved closer to the building and the glowing image of the InfoSpherian, one became enveloped in her atmosphere and voice; as one moved further away, one’s attention shifted: to the Library Story emanating from the 3rd and 4th floors, the background music and interviews of DJ Basura, and more peripherally to the additional event performers and modules.
The FoolBook, as developed and performed by Melissa Lozano, was one of these “peripheral” characters. Wandering through the library grounds, the FoolBook was a cross between a homeless person, a raven and a Mayan curandera. Dressed as a distressed temp worker, she represents, through voice and gesture, those library patrons who view the library as a “place to go.” She still hovers over this future, distributing wordless books, and mumbling her incantation.
The BlackMarket Bookseller, played by Dominique Nisperos, crouches through the crowd, opening her layered trenchcoats to reveal her prize paperbacks. During the course of SPECFLIC 2.0 both of these characters were shunned by the audience. The BlackMarket bookseller was able to trade her books for money (she collected $9) and pizza, and was generally treated with pity.
The Sousveillance Grid is an experimental public display form created for use in SPECFLIC by IT developer Andrew Collins. The Grid allows an audience member equipped with a cellphone that takes photos to capture a picture at the live event and transport it to a server that displays these pictures in a dynamic, constantly updating 3×2 grid that is projected throughout the event parameters. Instructions flash occasionally as part of the display and audience members help each other post to the display. The Grid has a 160 character caption area which can be annotated by SPECFLIC crew members. Each version suggests a backstory to attach relevance to the use of the grid. In SPECFLIC 2.0, the SousVeillance Grid’s main goal was to serve as a dynamic “most wanted” poster, with the uniformed Attention Authorities, and audience members alike, sending up the likeness of those suspected of reading license violations. Elaborate code violations were assigned by the Chief Attention Authority Officer and attached to the image by her deputies.
I also repurposed an SMS Broadcast application named “Call 2 Communicate” by its developer Ganapathy Chockalingam to serve story fragments direct to people’s pockets. The application (as is the case with many of the applications SPECFLIC employs) was originally developed for use by US Homeland Security and First Responders in disaster zones. The simple system allows for an infinite number of cell phone “subscribers” to be simultaneously sent a text or voice message. For SPECFLIC 2.0, I invited local Science Fiction author Rudy Rucker to develop a txt-based story that could be delivered directly to each audience member via their cell phones. Rucker responded by writing a 25 message “koan” that echoed and punctuated the event, provoking the audience to further notice the unfolding particulars as they moved about the event.
In order to collect the cell phone numbers of the audience, I developed the idea of the “reading license” station. Encountered at the entrance to the courtyard, this station initiates the audience into the intellectual property themes and parameters invoked in the story. It also served to provide us with “digital IDs” (in the form of their cell phone numbers) to input temporarily into our system. Furthermore, it allowed for a performance of future bureaucracies, including a cryptic filter level assessment, even as it provided the audience member with a small “reading license” souvenir of the event.
These many layers (of performance, interaction and poetic narrative) are choreographed throughout the course of the evening’s event. Neither strictly controlled nor without a cohesive structure, the event attempts to discover the edges of what might be called a “storyscape.” As in the writing of Nicolas Bourriand, “Art creates an awareness about production methods and human relationships produced by the technologies of its day, and [â€¦] by shifting these, it makes them more visible, enabling us to see them right down to the consequences they have on day-to-day life.” The future of SPECFLIC is not prophetic but speculative; an offering of a single narrative possibility that contains within it the power of the public to pierce its membrane, to resist and ultimately to create something else.
 These are “alpha” level social computing applications being developed by favulty and graduate researchers in Computer Science/Engineering at the University of California, San Diego (where I am a faculty research professor in computing and media arts).
 More details on SPECFLIC 1.0, including the characters and BaseStory can be found at www.specflic.net
 A pre-release prototype of the SONY e-book Reader was demonstrated at SPECFLIC 2.0 through placing project-related texts and visuals on its crisp small screen.
 Repurposing IT developer Ganapathy Chockalingam’s mass txt distribution application “Call 2 Communicate” originally developed as an emergency notification system.
 Bourriaud, Nicolas, RELATIONAL AESTHETICS, Les Presse Du Reel,France (English, January 1, 1998)
Photos by Chris O’Neal
Adriene Jenik is a telecommunications media artist who lives in Southern California. Her works, including EL NAFTAZTECA (with Guillermo Gomez-Pena), MAUVE DESERT: A CD-ROM Translation, DESKTOP THEATER (with Lisa Brenneis and the DT troupe) and SPECFLIC, harness the collision of “high” technology and human desire to propose new forms of literature, cinema, and performance. Jenik is an Associate Professor of Computer & Media Arts in the Visual Arts Dept. at the University of California, San Diego.
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