Category Archives: The Performing Book

the bible on dvd: another weird embodiment of the book on screen

The bible has long been a driver of innovation in book design, and this latest is no exception: an ad I saw today on TV for the complete King James Bible on DVD. Not a film, mind you, but an interactive edition of the old and new testaments built around a graphical rendering of an old bible open on a lectern that the reader, uh viewer, uh… reader controls. Each page is synched up to a full-text narration in the “crystal clear, mellow baritone” of Emmy-winning Bible reader Stephen Johnston, along with assorted other actors and dramatic sound effects bringing the stories to life.

There’s the ad to the right (though when I saw it on BET the family was black). You can also download an actual demo (Real format) here. It’s interesting to see the interactivity of the DVD used to mimic a physical book — even the package is designed to suggest the embossed leather of an old bible, opening up to the incongruous sight of a pair of shiny CDs. More than a few analogies could be drawn to the British Library’s manuscript-mimicking “Turning the Pages,” which Sally profiled here last week, though here the pages replace each other with much less fidelity to the real.
There’s no shortage of movie dramatizations aimed at making the bible more accessible to churchgoers and families in the age of TV and the net. What the makers of this DVD seem to have figured out is how to combine the couch potato ritual of television with the much older practice of group scriptural reading. Whether or not you’d prefer to read the bible in this way, with remote control in hand, you can’t deny that it keeps the focus on the text.
Last week, Jesse argued that it’s not technology that’s causing a decline in book-reading, but rather a lack of new technologies that make books readable in the new communications environment. He was talking about books online, but the DVD bible serves just as well to illustrate how a text (a text that, to say the least, is still in high demand) might be repurposed in the context of newer media.
Another great driver of innovation in DVDs: pornography. No other genre has made more creative use of the multiple camera views options that can be offered simulataneously on a single film in the DVD format (I don’t have to spell out what for). They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and what greater necessities than sex and god? You won’t necessarily find the world’s most elegant design, but it’s good to keep track of these uniquely high-demand areas as they are consistently ahead of the curve.

elements of style

On NPR’s “Morning Edition” (11/2/2005) Lynn Neary reported on the multimedia new life that The Elements of Style by E.B. White and William Strunk Jr. has been going through. The classic manual on writing and usage in American English first published in 1919 has sold millions of copies, and has been the guide for practically all writers from the 1950’s on. The authors advocated a simple and direct way of expressing ideas in a manual full of witty sentences that serve as examples on how to use those rules.
Maira Kalman, illustrator of children’ books and “The New Yorker” found the book at a yard sale and immediately knew she wanted to illustrate it. She saw the visual potential not in the rules but in the examples the authors used to illustrate them. She saw humor, eccentricity and an interesting combination of beauty and truth in their sentences, and felt compelled to draw them. The result is an illustrated, humorous and eccentric manual of style.
After illustrating the book, Kailman decided to create an opera. She commissioned Nico Muhly to create operatic songs with lyrics from The Elements of Style. The music was recently played at the New York Public Library. The songs are beautiful and convey the book’s sense of humor and eccentricity, at the same time they make it uncannily contemporary.
Examples of illustrations and songs are at NPR.

convergence sighting: ipod phone

rokr160.jpg The Motorola ROKR, a new iTunes-compatible cellphone developed for Apple, hits the stores today for Cingular subscribers. The phone will run for $249.99 and can load up to 100 songs from a computer through a USB wire. Sounds like a rip-off to me, but indicative of things to come. It also comes equipped with a camera. The cellphone is steadily swallowing up all personal media.
Apple also unveiled its newest iPod, the “nano,” which uses solid flash memory (like in little USB memory sticks) rather than a hard drive with moving parts. It’s roughly the size of a half dozen business cards stacked together, and can hold up to 1,000 songs.

is the future of the book a video game?

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“What ultimately sets gaming apart from prefabricated media like television and books is that the consumer is in control of the action; the consumer is the protagonist of whatever story the game might tell.”

Seth Schiesel affirms this in an article on The Godfather video game coming out early next year (“How to Be Your Own Godfather,” NY Times, July 10, 2005 – also audio slideshow narrated by Schiesel). Schiesel’s article intrigued me from the view point of the movie junkie and the book lover. The Electronic Arts team that created this video game, used scenes and characters from the first Godfather to create a virtual universe where the players can manipulate the plot and create their own narrative. This player becomes the ideal reader that Flaubert and Borges dreamt about, and that the French literary theorists wrote about. Reading/playing becomes writing. The desire to directly involve the reader/audience in the creative act can be traced to the notion of catharsis in Greek tragedy, to Shakespeare’s play inside a play, to the second part of Don Quijote and so on, but it is now, thanks to electronic media, that the concept becomes reality, a virtual reality with all its possibilities yet to be explored.
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Much has been said about the difficulty to faithfully adapt books to film. García Márquez, whose first love is film, defends his refusal to sell the rights of One Hundred Years of Solitude to Hollywood, saying that the screen robs the viewer the freedom of completing the characters of the novel in his imagination. His readers can, for instance, identify José Arcadio Buendía with an uncle or a grandfather. But, he argues, if that character were to be played by Robert Redford, that freedom of association would be lost. It would also be quite difficult to re-create on film the complex time structure of García Márquez’s novel, or to render credible the many instances of magical realism that, when reading, one doesn’t doubt for a second. Could this be done using electronic media?
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The executive producer of the Godfather video game, David DeMartini, talks about time linearity in film, usually limited to 80 -120 minutes, in which the director has to provide his narrative version of a book. What is interesting in the use of a movie, based on a novel, as a video game is that the player actually goes through the story living it. Here, he doesn’t only complete the characters in his imagination; he is his own character. Time is not limited or externally imposed upon the player/viewer as in film, he actually has 20, 30, 40 hours to experience and deal with the many choices he has as a character of the narrative. What we have here is not only the ideal reader; it’s the ideal fiction. Brando, who absolutely bought into this project, puts it clearly; “It’s the audience, really, that’s doing the acting.” Incidentally, the BBC reports today that a similar video game franchise is to be made from the Jason Bourne novels of Robert Ludlum – or rather, from the popular films starring Matt Damon adapted from Ludlum’s books.
Francis Ford Coppola, on the other hand, disapproves of the game as a typically violent kill and get killed video game. Seth Schiesel makes an important argument in favor of games bringing the Grand Theft Auto series as a parallel to the Godfather, by saying that there is something more than just violence in these kinds of video games.
What is exciting is the game’s form. In G. T. A. the player has an entire city to explore. There are missions and a story available, and plenty of violence, but there is also the freedom one has to experience an open-ended virtual urban environment. I dare to add: what I see here is the book of the future.

get on your digital soapbox

“What would you say, given one free minute of anonymous, uncensored speech?” the people at One Free Minute want to know. Their project gives you a chance to speak your mind loudly and anonymously in “America’s demographically average city: Columbus, Ohio.”
According to the site: One Free Minute began as a simple concept: what would happen if the remote speech were connected to public space? Since then it has branched out to be an examination of public speech, an exploration of how cellular technology affects human communication in both negative and positive ways, a hand-made fibreglass sculpture, a web site, a bunch of phone lines, a whole lot of server bandwidth… you get the idea.
The One Free Minute mobile sculpture has a cell phone inside connected to a 200 watt amplifier and speaker. Callers remain connected for exactly one minute and their calls are broadcast through the sculpture’s red, Victrola-like speaker. These micro-speeches are either performed live, or broadcast from taped messages. Visit the site to hear examples and to find out how to participate.

poetry off the page

Poetry was originally intended as oral/aural medium. It was language as song, performed for an audience practiced in the art of listening. The way a poem looked on the page was relatively meaningless until the advent of print technologies. Now, as digital media makes it possible for poets to publish their work as audio tracks, we may see poetry begin a natural migration back to its traditional form–performance art.
A good place to find some of these aural treats, try PennSound, an ongoing project at the University of Pennsylvania, committed to producing new audio recordings and preserving existing audio archives of poets performing their work. According to the PENNsound Manifesto, every project on its database “must be free and downloadable.” Sounds good to me, I visited the archive and downloaded Tracie Morris’ From Slave Sho to Video aka Black but Beautiful, which was performed at the Whitney Museum’s 2002 Biennial Exhibit.

Tracie’s work is extremely hard to come by, so I was thrilled when I found this. I can’t think of a better artist to represent the off-the-page digital instinct. Tracie’s poem uses broken and remixed language–so ubiquitous in our media saturated atmosphere–to present a conflicted inner dialogue about racial identity and cultural conceptions (or misconceptions) of beauty.

what I learned from laurie anderson

Answer every question with a story. Be wary of rectangles. Ignore genre. Do not be afraid of Melville’s ghost.
I have been inspired and influenced by Laurie Anderson‘s work from the moment I discovered it twenty-something years ago. Laurie was one of the first artists to understand how technology and multimedia can be used by a skillful storyteller to deepen the listener’s experience. Her work explores the mystery and the pathos of these mechanized forms of communication.
Laurie’s song “Language is a Virus,”(dedicated to William Burroughs) had an immediate and permanent effect on me. It made me realize that scrutinizing a narrative is not a complete investigation, one should try to understand language itself; is it friend or foe? Is it an agent that infects us with ideas (both good and bad). Does language, as a virus that must be communicated, fill us with the need for more efficient tools–books, radio, television, telephone, internet, cell phone, satellite radio, pod casting, ebooks, etc. And, if it is a virus, does it destroy the host? Is language a dystopia-breeding agent? The apple in the garden?
Parrot (Your Fortune One $)(pictured above) is an installation that consists of a plaster parrot and a digital recording of the parrot’s monologue. The piece raises some interesting questions about the role of technology in our society. It’s obvious that technology is important, but how important is it for technology to be “human?” The parrot’s voice is computer-generated. When I heard it, I thought of JAWS a software program designed to read websites to those with vision impairment. When you hear that synthesized JAWS voice in the context of someone who is dependent on it for access, it’s poignant. The parrot also sounds a lot like Arnold Schwartznegger, a man known for his role as “the Terminator,” a robot-human programmed to destroy. The parrot’s voice comes across as both comic and melancholy, which suggests a simultaneous levity and sadness in our efforts to humanize technology and to make into our “pet.” Shifting the metaphor from wild and destructive (the terminator) to friendly and tame (the sidekick).

sony patents prophetic invention

Sony has secured a patent for a theoretical device that creates “sensory experiences” in the brain by sending ultrasonic pulses directly to the neural cortex – a non-invasive (that is, non-surgical) procedure, with the potential to give sight to the blind, or sound to the deaf. Gives a glimpse at what these tech giants are imagining for human entertainment further down the road.
From New Scientist – “Sony patent takes first step towards real-life Matrix”:
Elizabeth Boukis, spokeswoman for Sony Electronics, says the work is speculative. “There were not any experiments done,” she says. “This particular patent was a prophetic invention. It was based on an inspiration that this may someday be the direction that technology will take us.”
Link to patent.
(via Boing Boing)

genre-busting books

Bob Stein’s comment about Sekou Sundiata and his desire to have a DVD recording of Blessing the Boats in order to be able to savor it, “it wouldn’t do just to have a text transcription since hearing the many voices is a crucial aspect of the piece. it really was a genre-busting performed essay,” brings to mind the origin of poetry and its deep roots in the oral tradition. Rhymed stories that were to be sung, so people would still remember them generations later. This tradition is almost universally shared across cultures, and is still alive today. Think of hip-hop, epic poems, the Colombian vallenato, “Martn Fierro” that repository of everything Argentine, or the itinerant poets whom one can still hear in the markets of Central Asia and North Africa. It is precisely that centuries old internal rhythm which makes poetry practically untranslatable, but also gives us a tinge of shared pleasure when we hear poetry in a language we don’t understand.
The “genre-busting” aspect has been there all along. It was concealed when poetry became so obscure in the baroque, that one had to possess all the codes in order to understand it. It became a mind game and reading it was easier than listening to it. Then, in the 19th century, poetry began to look inside itself becoming aware of its raison d’tre; to give shape to an ontological reality, a sort of miracle that, in Baudelaire’s words, is flexible enough to adapt to the lyrical movements of the soul. So poetry was freed from form, inaugurating true genre-busting. The poem in prose was born. Musicians have set poems to music, or composed symphonic poems. Genre became blurry, because poetry was going back to what was meant to be.
All this brings us to the future of the book. I often think that today there is a sort of “presentism,” of looking towards the future in the form of the last gadget on which we can read, listen, watch, play, in a word, communicate. But there is a lot to learn from the past, from the visionaries that have been advancing history all along. Think of Alfonso X, the Wise, the poet king in whose court flourished Arab, Jewish and Christian cultures. Thanks to his books of poetry, mostly zejels (Arab-style poetry set to music) it has been possible to study Romanesque, Gothic and Arab instruments. Why? Through the illuminations (in the most complete sense of the word) that adorned his “Cntigas de Loor.” Those miniatures depicting Arab musicians playing the instruments upon which most of the modern orchestra originates. We now have in our hands the tools to advance this concept ad infinitum. And, what ‘s best, knowledge can be shared in a democratic way that resembles its origins.
aflighTh.jpgSo, we wish to be able to hear poetry. Reading alone doesn’t do it any more. Sundiata belongs to an old, illustrious tradition, so do Bob Holman, Sarah Jones, Joan La Barbara, Pedro Pietri, Algarn, and the poets that in the 70’s dared to bring poetry to the forefront. Jaap Blonk’s poetry of sounds without words, “Messa di Voce,” that was so beautifully illuminated by Golan Levin, is another example of the hybrid. Poets have become performers, claiming their old role. Genre has been definitely busted. Think of hip-hop without its sounds, or Pedro, or Bob, or Sekou without theirs. I continue to be obsessed with a multiple book, the book of the future, the only one that does justice to poetry, and to them.