May 15, 2014

The Multiverse: Stanzas in Transmedia

Instead of universe, I think of transmedia as a multiverse. I've borrowed the word from particle physics. "In the multiverse scenario, the big bang produced not just the universe that we see but also a very large number of variations of our universe that we do not see," say science writers Joseph Lykken and Maria Spiropulu in their article on supersymmetry, and the failure of the Large Hadron Collider to provide evidence.  Transmedia is for poets. The spiral image shown here, from Scientific American, suggests the hidden beauty of invisible forms. If you keep looking, you will find more. 

The word 'multiverse' is not unfamiliar to poets, who spend their time writing verses.  Stanzas are made for associational leaps and shifts in time. Using stanzas as a metaphor, artists and writers can apply the concept of shifts in time and space to the various media used in transmedia. Speaking metaphorically, each type of media in a transmedia project is like one stanza of an emerging poem.  One inherently understands that one stanza can not possibly carry the whole content, except haiku. I find term multiverse more interesting than multi-modal or multimedia (the words evoke slide projectors and powerpoints for me) because it expresses the single overall effect, and even the simultaneity, that can be achieved in a well crafted transmedia art.

In our recent project høle in the skY, the project offers a confluence of music (composed by Kathy McTavish and played live by the Zeitgeist New Music Quartet), science, and night trains. The net art is created by Kathy's web development skills. Using code, she made a random film generator that combines live twitter feed, images, and text. (Yes it was a huge project!) It makes it viewable on your device, and it will be playing in multiple projections around the Quartet.  This week, she's been a composer in residence at Studio Z,  and the Quartet will be using her projection as their visual score. The live music will be amazing! The text are small excerpts from Kathy's book Night Train Blue Window and my brand new book Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range. The science is provided by NASA climate reports and the research projects of some Minnesota scientists, viewable in the projection and via DVD at the event.  I've dubbed it an e-creation, or an i-concert, or an a-mazement.

The origin of the word stanza is Italian, meaning room, and each medium lends its individual strengths to that part of the story. Together, all the mediums or media used to tell a story can be envisioned as a spiral. The overall creation is greater than the sum of the parts. The Blue Spiral transmedia group, of which I am a member, prefers to envision our projects as spirals. In a circle, one comes back to the same place, but a spiral suggests the effect of climbing. 

The creator/writer must evaluate what best combination of media will express this particular story. Each transmedia project offers multiple choices of media: video, audio files, still images, text, social media, web-cams, music, graphic cartoons, drawings, letters, short form writing, maps, gaming, and other elements. Each form presents its own demands and provides its own gifts, and they must weave together, or segué.  Stanzas are somewhat like paragraphs, and the space between them can be somewhat like the ellipsis. 

If one thinks of stanza breaks, one understands that transitions can be handled effectively. I use the phrase, pivot points. Lyrical writing has these. Virginia Woolf, for example, pivots from Mrs Dalloway preparing for a party to Septimus, suffering from battle fatigue, via the London clock tower, Big Ben. Images, visual or written, communicate swiftly. If pivot points are consistent, they will set up an expectation of change. They lend a pattern or a rhythm.

In addition, poets can adapt their approach to sound, image, and design into a project. Poets are familiar with condensery, to borrow Lorine Niedecker's term for poet's work. Poets are adept at metaphor, and so they understand how the miniature can also be immense. Good poets are also good at concision, excision, and decision: being concise, excising unneeded words or parts, and proceeding with certainty when it comes to matters of the design.  

Transmedia art can be frustrating at first. Beginnings are more ambiguous perhaps; one can enter anywhere. It is often not linear, and some people are not used to web forms and multiple access points. It's helpful to consider examples. From my teaching experience, I know that students in an online course feel overwhelmed initially. It helps them to know that this feeling is part of the learning process and is not a permanent condition. After simple navigational assistance, they quickly become adept. The writer can begin anywhere as well and know that short forms can be arranged and rearranged later to suit the project needs. Good design is essential, and it becomes the frame. 

The Canadian Film Board has several interesting projects on their website. In one project, the interactive film Bear71, viewers look at an interactive map. A narrator tells the tragic story about one grizzly bear and her cub. There is a short documentary film footage of tagging and releasing a bear. Parts of the story are told by trail cams in the Banff Provincial Park: live feeds.These are like short stanzas. Viewers can see people and animals moving in the camera's view. Clickable links allow a person to find out factual detail about fox, deer, and other wildlife. The next stanza is the film viewer's own web-cam. This projects the viewer's image into the film, and it adds yet another layer of meaning that provides a personal encounter with surveillance. In this example, one can approach a topic using multiple perspectives, but the design allows viewers to control where they enter, and how much information they receive. What might be overwhelming information is then put into a form that is responsive to the viewer's preferences and pace.  

Another project, Waterlife, is a film and an interactive web-documentary about Lake Superior. The opening web-page is a camera underwater, and so the viewer has the sense and sound of immersion. Clickable image icons swim like schools of fish. Each opens into a different topic area:  history, shipping, invasive species, healing, etc.  One word is anchored on the right hand side of the screen, and if one moves the cursor there, a table of contents appears. Each leads to images, interviews, and a great deal of information about every aspect of the lake, set in a beautiful aching instrumental music by Brian Eno.

These two projects are large, and Waterlife was particularly well funded, and perhaps many individual artists would find it difficult to match the scope and quality, but they do show how an artist's project can open out from the simple frame of web-page. Web-pages should not be billboards, they should be portals. To me, this feels manageable.

Curation becomes necessary, from my experience. The impulse to keep adding content grows, and so do obsessive tendencies. Web documents can be more easily changed and removed than print documents.

In my Night Train Red Dust project, the book's web-page serves as the "portal."  On the right hand side page are tweeted lines of poems, and on the top are links. One link is to the Red Dust blog that offers several articles about the project: inscriptions or quotes that introduce some poems, forms (like the sketch), literary influences and biographies, and other stories told from a literary perspective, and images of art and photographs that inspired ekphrastic poems. These serve as literary supplements to the print book. Another link from the book web-page leads to a social bookmarking site with over 100 web-links that leading onward to online historic archives and articles in my research. I wish the social bookmarking site provided a tool to organize those links or alphabetize them. It is more of a 'shoebox' into which I've thrown things. Soon, I will need to improve the design of the book web-page to make these links more apparent, and at some point, I might need to move the content from a blog to a database on a server.

Transmedia work demands more skills at more media. It slows me down, and I go deeper at the same that I am more aware of the big picture. The design has become foremost.  This is a good thing. My fluency with visual language has improved. I have more things to learn, and it is satisfying to acquire useful tools. It's the kind of work that encourages "more." Along with the book of poems, just published, I have the collection of literary essays. I've become more familiar with the backstories, the forms, and elements of design. The research in historical archives has proved to be a rich source of inspiration. In addition, I've created a novel in short stories from the same material, or my own multiverse. 


Ticket info for høle in the skY:  
Facebook event:

The visual image is from this article:
Lykken, Joseph and Maria Spiropulu. "Supersymmetry and the Crisis in Physics." Scientific American Magazine. May 2014. Print.
Canadian Film Board examples of transmedia:

For more of my articles about transmedia, click on

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