Seminar Paper

Seminar Paper

“We are young, and the fire flickers, glowing, warm on our cheeks. Staring, fixated by the undulating pulse of embers, images form and disappear, faces peer back blinking. Patches of intense colour in the flame; the azure of deep water, deeply polished metal, mirror. Patterns in the wood jump suddenly as structures collapse, the burning wood settles sending up a bevy of sparks towards a star filled sky, the infinite inky blue black, cold as the deep.

You throw in a pebble - Another - Boys always need to play with fire.

But we are warm, snug in fleece. And listen, father is painting a story, older than us, old as time, illustrated in the stars, illustrated with the shadows from his gesturing hands moving across the trunks of trees behind. And deeper in the wood are other shadows, real and imagined. We are gripped by curiosity, even though we know the tale as our own, but ever to hear it again, each twist and turn, stirring the embers deep within, fear, longing, love, loss; a wild, dangerous journey.”

Thoughts on story telling, narrative, imagery, and shadows.

Walking the coast path at St Alban’s head I came across a stone bench facing the sea, carved with the names and dates of a couple. We all seek to leave a mark, to mark the passing of time, to mark our passing through time. Below their names there is a quote:

“ Time passes. Listen. Time passes”

The quote is from Dylan Thomas’s play ‘Under Milk Wood’ (I looked it up on my return)

and it continues:

“Come closer now.

Only you can hear the houses sleeping in the streets in the slow deep salt and
silent black, bandaged night. Only you can see, in the blinded bedrooms, the
combs and petticoats over the chairs, the jugs and basins, the glasses of teeth,
Thou Shalt Not on the wall, and the yellowing dickybird-watching pictures of the
dead. Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements
and countries and mazes and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and
wished and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams.

From where you are, you can hear their dreams...”

I start this seminar paper with a paragraph of my own creation, setting out some ideas that I plan to explore, and include a quote from Dylan Thomas, master teller of stories, realising though this rediscovery what an influence he has been on me. An evocation of childhood experiences. Combinations of words, some running together, conjuring up pictures:

“bridesmaided by glow-worms down the aisles of the organplaying wood. The boys are dreaming wicked of the bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrodgered sea”

“ It is night neddying among the snuggeries of babies.”

Storytelling as art, the painting of images with words, creating worlds in the imagination.

The following quote is a few lines from Italio Calvino’s ‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’:

“Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction: the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears. We can rediscover the continuity of time only in the novels of that period when time no longer seemed stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded, a period that lasted no more than a hundred years.”

In context I am not sure to what Calvino refers specifically, but this quote points to the likes of James Joyce, Surrealism, automatic writing, word association, a stream of consciousness, beatnik poetry, the likes of Jack Kerouac, who typed on a roll of tracing paper so as not to break the continuity of his writing with carriage returns. For me it was a passion for the Lyrics of Dylan, with songs like Shelter from the Storm and Hard Rain. each line of the lyric conjuring up an image, a story told in glimpses. Sometimes without need for a precise order.


I was walking the dog in the early morning, before dawn, thinking about this assignment. I could not help but look through the lit windows of kitchens and bedrooms, a frisson of excitement, my eyes drawn to the light, into other lives; private spaces, framed by windows.

A photograph comes to mind, two photographs actually, that together tell a story. One is a self portrait, the photographer stands in a very public place, the middle of a busy shopping centre, legs akimbo, looking straight at the camera. Passers by pass by. The second photo shows the same woman, but taken from a small camera on the ground. A second look at the first photo reveals the camera lying on the pavement between her legs. This camera has taken the same moment in time, but the image is taken of a very private space.

The allure of the blue flashing lights on the roadside that might offer a glimpse of a traffic accident, The lure of the screen, perhaps this has a root in these voyeuristic tendencies. Eyes drawn to Cleavage or bulge; instinctive. A television that is on in a room pulling the eyes like a magnet, stronger even than the pull of the embers. The window is in itself like a screen, framing a world within. The framed space becomes another space, arousing curiosity, needing exploration, offering a possibility of escape, leading us into other worlds, worlds of imagination, of dream, of collective memories.

I am interested in exploring the concept of this frame through a fragmented narrative of image and word, in the place were word meets image, where still image meets moving image, where the time is represented between the frames, or caught in short sequences of reciprocating animation. And I am interested in a recent manifestation of this frame; the pebble-smooth iphone with it’s crystal screen.

I recently downloaded an application written for iPhone. The piece is by Aya Karpinska, a New York based poet, artist, game designer and ‘designer of interactive experiences’.
A simulation of the application can be found on the website:

Aya calls her piece a ‘zoom narrative’ it is called ‘Shadows Never Sleep’ and makes use of the iPhone’s touch screen to create a children’s story of images and words.

In essence it is a very simple piece. Based on photographs of a woman, dressed in the short pleated skirt and puff sleeves of a Red Riding Hood, an Alice or a Wendy. White silhouettes against black. The photographs bring classic illustrators to mind: W Heath Robinson’s illustrations of Hans Christian Anderson, Shakespeare, and the Arabian Nights, Florence Samson’s ‘Aesop’s Fables’, Rackham, Mucha and Beardsley, I am reminded of animators as well: Lotte Reiniger and Norman McLaren.


‘Shadows never sleep’ has very minimal interaction, the viewer is presented with an image of a girl asleep, and her silhouette or shadow rising from the bed. Thus by implication the narrative that follows is a dream sequence. By zooming in on this first image the reader is taken to a set of nine squares with the centre square blank, based on the ‘Sierpinski Carpet’ a formula for a two dimensional tiled fractal. Further zooming takes you to a second screen, where the pattern is multiplied by itself to show a grid of nine by nine tiles.


To navigate this large image the narrative make use of the iPhones ‘flick panning’: the way in which moving a fingertip across the screen will cause the image to move, with the automatic easing that makes the image continue to flow across the screen until it comes to a graceful stop; an interactive ‘Ken Burns’ effect.


I would like to create something along the same lines, a piece that is somewhere in that place between still image and movie, a combination of images and text, a short sequence of images, some still, some that imply some movement in time, some that animate with a touch of a finger. I have been experimenting with a flash/web based story book, the content produced by my students, the pages turned with a drag of the mouse. The story in text, with the book looking like a story book, but the illustrations animated on the page.

And I am also fascinated by the concept of the silhouette as an illustrative device, interested that silhouette illustration has become so entwined with fairy story. There is some intertwining here between the concept of shadow, with it’s echoes of Jungian psychology, the dark side, the hidden, the menacing, the ‘other,’ and the silhouette, as a flattened pictorial device, different from the chiaroscuro of the comic book and film noir, perhaps more akin to mime, the aesthetic in the gesture, form, the detail in the outline on a flat two dimensional surface, a cut-out.

Aya Karpinska also produced an image sequence called ‘From the Balcony’ using a set of photographs by Ana Luisa Figueredo, intended to be viewed in the photo browser of the iPhone. Both of these works are intended as children’s story. Aya’s starting point was an exploration of the tradition of children’s literature. I plan to base my own work around the possibility of collaboration with my students We have been experimenting with silhouette animation and with animations that ‘scrub’ on an ipod or screen. This area between still frame, short sequence and animation is a very rich area for exploration, especially in the context of work aimed at a young audience.

As with ‘Shadows Never Sleep’, ‘From the Balcony’ is in essence very simple, using the iPhone to replicate the page by page structure of a traditional children’s book. The way in which a movement of the finger on the screen will change the image, like the turning of a page, and the built in accelerometer moving the image seamlessly as the device is tilted from portrait to landscape.


A narrative implies a duration, a passage through time, a journey, an exploration. Both of Aya Karpinska’s pieces have the feel of the traditional book, with a beginning and an end. The tactile nature of page turning replicated and replaced by the touch sensitivity of the screen. In ‘Shadow’s Never Sleep’ there is some limited choice as to the sequence in which the text can be read, and by zooming out fully the whole carpet of images and words can be seen at a glance. It is this that I would like to explore.

Seeing a whole picture rather than glimpses seen scene by scene on a time line.


My students creating a shadow play - a retelling of Hansel and Gretel

In writing about database narrative in his book ‘The Language of New Media’ Lev Manovich touches on the difference between random access media and sequential-access media, stating that a book can be either or both - a story to be read from beginning to end, or a dictionary of reference material to be dipped into at any point:

“For centuries, a spatialized narrative in which all images appear simultaneously dominated European visual culture; in the twentieth century it was relegated to 'minor' cultural forms such as comics or technical illustrations. 'Real' culture of the twentieth century came to speak in linear chains, aligning itself with the assembly line of the industrial society”

Linear chains, chained to time, or patterns that can be seen whole, but explored in detail. (perhaps this is the difference between a labyrinth and a maze). The choice as to how the detail is explored, the element of time, how much time to give to the exploration, this is the choice of the audience. And the audience also augment the narrative with the knowledge and experience they bring with them.

Having been immersed in the concept of the book from my mother’s lap, it is impossible for me to imagine a life without reading. In the summer I stood in the Duomo in Florence, looking up at Brunelleschi’s extraordinary cupola and the story of heaven and hell that the fresco painted on it depicts. Towards the base of the fresco there are naked figures in purgatory, chased by devils with flaming brands. Towards the top figures of apostles leaning over a balcony. The message is very clear - behave or be damned. This is a cameo, or a series of glimpses that tell a story. And the story would already have been well known to it’s intended audience. Like Aya Karpinska’s ‘Shadow’s Never Sleep’ I can see the story as a whole, or focus in on a single detail. We may not know the specific detail, but we know the story, we know the form, we know what to expect, we can read the symbols. With a painting, We can see the story as a whole, all at once, or zoom in on details within the bigger picture, augmenting these with our own knowledge understanding, making the connections. In the Duoma the viewer has to climb the many steps to the upper gallery in order to delight in details close up. But the climb is rewarded by the chasm created by the extraordinary perspective in the tiled floor far below, echoing the shape of the lantern tower above. Brunelleschi has build the story of heaven and hell into the very fabric of the building. As media the Duoma is both immersive and interactive.


Trajan's Column or the Bayeux Tapestry are similar examples, as are the majority of the National Galleries collection of paintings. Have we lost an ability to read these stories to some extent, or is it there still in a collective subconscious, deeply embedded? Rose on the prow of a virtual Titanic, holding her arms wide, symbolically at a barrier that she may cross, in the pose of Icarus, Christ; Capa’s Spanish soldier, Goya’s peasant execution. A universal gesture deeply ingrained in our visual culture.


That particular image from ‘Titanic’ captures the essence of the movie in a single frame, the movie poster, the Tablaux Vivant.

Also in Florence I also stood in front of Titan’s ‘Venus D’Urbino’. With tears in my eyes. Why should this painting have this cathartic effect on me? Tears were also in my eyes as I stood in front of a Rothko, recently, staring into a frame of free colour floating above the surface of the canvas. As an art student I have learned a language with which to appreciate this work, a language that would have Brunelleschi bemused I am sure. The still image is the apex of Freytag’s triangle, the cathartic moment of Aristotle’s ‘poetics’ with the other elements provided by my learning and memory, the picture that I build in my head that is based on my learning and memory.

It is impossible for me to imagine life without reading, and impossible to imagine how it would be to look at image without the knowledge of pictorial perspective. Having learned the conventions of perspective as pioneered by Brunelleschi it is not possible to see without this knowledge, except perhaps through the eyes of a young child. Equally I bring with me all my learning, both individual and through the collective culture and time into which I have been born. Similarly art must reflect the culture and time in which it is created, the languages can be developed, but not un-learned. Much of the art of the first half of the 20th century was based on collage, montage, mosaic. I was standing in front of a large pop art collage at the Pallant House Gallery, a piece that can seen as a whole, or read bit by bit, by connotation, by association, by connection, by juxtaposition. And over the same period artists such as Dziga Vertov with his clasin ‘ Man with a Movie Camera’ were developing the language of the moving image:

“Montage aims to create visual, stylistic, semantic, and emotional dissonance between different elements. In contrast, compositing aims to blend them into a seamless whole, a single gestalt.”

If this is in essence the language of film, what will be the language of the new media? Manovich would argue that it is database based. The database has become a very powerful entity in many areas of contemporary society. He also speaks of multiple frames, multiple windows creating a ‘spacial montage’:

“Time becomes spatialized, distributed over the surface of the screen.”

Most films are story boarded as a part of the production process. Time is represented in the gutters between the images. One of the images in Aya Karpinska’s ‘Shadows Never Sleep’ crosses from one frame to the next, breaking the convention of the frame, altering the embedded conception of the frame as framing time, similar perhaps to the way in which Woody Allen will suddenly talk to camera in ‘Annie Hall’; breaking the mimetic flow. of the narrative. A comic book, as Manovich points out in the quote above, shares the attributes of a collage with those of liner narrative. In film the viewer is gradually given clues, fed a little at a time. A film may not follow time, but the narrative itself evolves over time. In Catch 22 for example, the first scene is also the last, although in the first scene there is no sound, and no knowledge as yet of the context of the action. Through both film and book the audience is fed the same scene repeatedly, but with a little more information each time the scene is replayed.

In montage all the elements of the piece are seen at once. Somewhere in between there are works such as Zbig Rybczynski’s reciprocating animation ‘Tango’ and Bill Viola’s ‘The Passions’. Perhaps the other way about in the films of Peter Greenaway. A favourite of mine currently is a flash based web ‘object’ called ‘Dominique’ which is simply the facial features of a young woman on a white background. Movement of the mouse and clicking of the mouse buttons makes the model blink, smile, pout, wrinkle her nose. There is nothing more to the site than this.

As I have stated I am interested in exploring the space between still image and moving image, sequences of images, images combining with text, a story told through multiple images, frames; the time frame and the picture frame, and interactivity.

There is great potential for exploring this in relation to the iPhone, with it’s ability to detect motion, sound, and react to image via it’s built in camera.


A still frame from my students animation ‘bob and bobbina’ - a retelling of Hansel and Gretel

The story that Aya Karpinska presents with ‘Shadows Never Sleep’ is very simple, and all the more charming for this. Some of the images are not too clear, and I am not clear if this is intentional or not. Neither am I sure to what extent this piece will entertain the younger child that it is perhaps aimed at. I suspect that it is much more interesting currently as a curiosity to the more typical owner of an iPhone, but as an interactive story for children I can see huge potential in this. To be able to navigate through a story, perhaps using the iPhone’s motion detector to move around an image, like a virtual ‘ball and maze game’, or to jump to another view with a voice command, a click of the finger, or to zoom back and forth through multiple images, each growing from the previous. Perhaps using the camera to scan QR codes on actual objects, to that the phone can participate in a story based partly in the physical realm of books and objects. I also enjoy the visual simplicity and complexity of silhouette, and the anticipate the possibilities of working with students, working with shadows and animation.