THE LABYRINTH PROJECT (1997, research initiative, art collective and website)
In 1997 I received an offer from USC’s Annenberg Center that I couldn’t refuse—to create a research initiative exploring the relations between the immersive pleasures of cinema and the database structures and interactive potential of new digital media. I immediately saw two pathways—planning an international conference and group exhibition to explore those relations in existing works, or creating an art collective to produce new models of immersive database narratives. I decided to pursue both. The first led to Interactive Frictions, the successful conference and group exhibition at USC in June 1999; and the second led to my hiring three media artists as part of our production team (Kristy H.A. Kang, Rosemary Comella, and Scott Mahoy) and choosing three world-class experimental artists (novelist John Rechy and independent filmmakers Nina Menkes and Pat O’Neill) to collaborate on new works. I chose these three artists because their existing non-linear works already provided exciting new models of (what I call) database narrative. Since I had been writing on Pat’s films since the 1970s, was a close friend of John’s and had co-taught a graduate seminar with Nina, I knew them quite well, which was important because I had no track record in making such works. They had to trust me. Labyrinth provided each with a budget of $30,000, gave each a new computer, and had our creative team working with them. For each project, we also held an all-day seminar with scholars and artists who were interested in the topic, so that we could not only get new ideas but also let others know about this work-in-progress. We showed all three projects at the IF exhibition, which was fine for the Menkes and Rechy CD-ROMs but not for the O’Neill which wasn’t really started. All we had were sketches, none of which were used in the final version. But the Rechy project brought us our first award— the 2000 Invision NewMedia Gold Award for Creative & Technical Excellence and Best Overall Design.
Despite the success of the conference, I decided not to host others, but to focus instead on production so that Labyrinth could stay at the pressure point between theory and practice. These first three projects achieved our primary goal, for once we completed Tracing the Decay of Fiction: Encounters with a Film by Pat O’Neill, others started coming to us to propose new collaborations. They included other artists like photographer Carroll Parrott Blue (who was backed by the Ford Foundation), Hungarian filmmaker Peter Forgács (backed by the Getty) and Australian media artist Jeffrey Shaw at ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany (who proposed a collaboration with Norman Klein and included three of our pieces in his Future Cinema exhibition); institutions like The Automobile Club of Southern California (who proposed a work on Pasadena) and the Skirball Cultural Center (which commissioned an installation on Albert Einstein). These works were exhibited at Los Angeles venues like MOCA, the Getty, and the Skirball; at film festivals like Sundance; at European multimedia centers like ZKM; and at academic conferences like SCMS—where we were both showing our work and hearing papers about them. These interactive projects also attracted the attention of Adobe, which made a brief promotional movie about our more recent educational projects, Russian Modernism and Its International Dimensions and A Tale of Two MAO Genes.