From Roses to Redevelopment
– Marsha Kinder, Executive Producer
This excerpt comes from a larger project titled, "Cultivating Pasadena: From Roses to Redevelopment," a transmedia network (photographic exhibition, installation, DVD-ROM and print catalogue) produced by The Labyrinth Project (in collaboration with the Automobile Club of Southern California). It addresses Vectors' issue of "mobility" in at least three ways: through the theme of transportation, which is one of the five key topics covered in "Cultivating Pasadena"; through the horizontal streaming of images that characterizes the interface design of this two-tiered database narrative; and through the transmedia migration of old and new images that move from photography, museum installation, print catalogue, and DVD-ROM, to on-line journal.
"Cultivating Pasadena" as Database Documentary and Digital City Symphony (from the original catalog copy)
– Marsha Kinder, Director of The Labyrinth Project
How does one spin a web of stories out of archival images depicting a city and weave them together to form a multilayered cultural history of that locale? This is the central challenge in the rephotography exhibition, Cultivating Pasadena: From Roses to Redevelopment. It has also been the driving question for a series of "database documentaries" that we have been producing (both as museum installations and DVD-ROMs) over the past five years at The Labyrinth Project, an art collective and research initiative on interactive narrative at the University of Southern California's Annenberg Center. But what does interactive narrative have to do with these static pairs of still photographs hanging on the walls of a Pasadena museum? As theorists Lev Kuleshov and Jean Mitry demonstrated in the early days of cinema, as soon as one puts any two images together the combination begins to generate a story. For, no matter whether it is history, fiction, or myth, narrative helps us read and contextualize the meaning of our sensory perceptions and their relations. It makes us understand them within a larger conceptual framework. That is the cognitive function of narrative, which is found in every culture and period and operative within every medium and art form, including rephotography. Yet, in contrast to most other art forms, rephotography strips these dynamics down to their bare essentials. With its paired photographs framed for comparison, rephotography invites or even demands narrative projection. It positions us as active spectators or performers, for it inevitably makes us ask: how do these two images differ, and how did we get from here to there. And, given that these images all depict the same subject--the city of Pasadena and its surrounds--we begin to select narrative genres whose conventions might assist us in performing this act of interpretative reading: urban history, database documentary, and city symphony.
Two of our earlier database documentaries from The Labyrinth Project also chose a Southern California city as their prime subject: Los Angeles. Tracing the Decay of Fiction: Encounters with a Film by Pat O'Neill is an archeological exploration of the Hotel Ambassador, a 1920 building now in ruins which was crucial to the development of the city's east-west trajectory and to its mythic identification as the capital of film noir and a city of disaster (from earthquakes to the Bobby Kennedy assassination). Loosely based on The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory (1997) by cultural historian Norman M. Klein, Bleeding Through Layers of Los Angeles, 1920-1986 focuses on a three-mile area in downtown Los Angeles, which serves as locale both for a fast-paced detective fiction and an ethnographic documentary on the ethnically diverse populations who actually lived there. Though very different in rhythm and structure, both works show how rival stories and genres (both fiction and documentary) can be generated out of the same database of archival materials. We call them both "digital city symphonies"--a subgenre of database documentary that captures and celebrates the distinctive qualities and unique history of a particular urban space. Within a multilayered historical framework, the vintage images, faces, streets, buildings, and interiors are combined with contemporary commentaries and oral histories by cultural theorists and long-term residents of these locales--a combination also crucial to Cultivating Pasadena.
Every mass medium that has emerged in an urban setting, has generated a new form of city symphony--one that captures the urban rhythms and networked stories that characterize a specific cityscape. It was true of the 18th century English novel, with its picaresque flows between town and country. And it became more prominent in the urbanized context of modernism where the novel's mixed form depicted the distinctive voices, designs and movements of a particular city-- like James Joyce's Dublin, or Andrei Bely's Petersburg, cities which became central characters in their respective fictions. It was true of the early days of radio, where programs like "Grand Central Station" reminded us that compelling stories could be plucked at random out of this vibrant narrative field. It was true of the early days of television, where local Los Angeles stations like KTLA developed a City at Night format, one you can still find in Toronto, Madrid, Beijing and other major cities throughout the world. And above all, it was true of cinema with its indexical photographic ties to reality and its early mobilization of montage to replicate distinctive urban rhythms. Though this film genre is deeply identified with modernism, its fast-paced repetitions and episodic structures make it a precursor of database narrative. For example, in Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a City (1927), one finds (as film historian Charles Musser puts it) "a relentless cataloguing of urban activities." In the more radical Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Dziga Vertov literally cracks open the image of his composite Russian city and mobilizes industrial tropes of textiles and editing to weave the fragments back together. Despite their political edge, these modernist city symphonies summarized what was typical about the city--a day in the life--and usually emphasized a particular narrative (about industrialization, Taylorism, alienation, class conflict, or restless energy) that characterized the period as well as the place. Though we have adopted these models for the digital city symphonies being produced at the Labyrinth Project, we must adapt them to the demands of our new cities, media and times.
Today we experience cities themselves as hypertexts; as spatial grids and narrative fields that are deeply enmeshed in highly contested turf wars--whether waged by ethnic communities, street gangs, corporate competitors, conservancy groups, homeowners, real-estate developers, transportation systems, political parties and their rival urban histories. Our cityscapes are narrative spaces we move through looking for encounters, collisions and causality as we race toward random or predetermined destinations. Their stories provide entrance into urban networks that are simultaneously local, regional, national and global, turning cities themselves into database narratives. It is these turf wars over urban and narrative space that we will explore in Urban Traces: Rephotographing Southern California.
As the first exhibitions in the Urban Traces rephotography series, Cultivating Pasadena gave the Labyrinth Project an opportunity to expand and deepen our signature genre of the digital city symphony. This collaboration between USC's Annenberg Center and the Automobile Club of Southern California was first proposed by the Director of the Auto Club Archives, Matthew W. Roth. The Auto Club had already been a key source of archival images for our two earlier Labyrinth projects on Los Angeles, Tracing and Bleeding, as were USC's Special Collections at the Doheny Memorial Library and the Los Angeles Public Library's Photographic Collection, which also provided materials for Cultivating Pasadena. Roth and Morgan Yates (the curator of the Auto Club Archives) and Rosemary Comella and I from The Labyrinth Project agreed that this new collaboration would focus on rephotography and would build on those "bleed throughs" that lay at the heart of Bleeding Through Layers of Los Angeles. The term "bleed throughs" refers to a series of paired images of the same cityscape--a black and white archival photograph from the past and a matched contemporary shot in color taken from precisely the same angle by contemporary digital artists Rosemary Comella and Andreas Kratky. (As a core member of the Labyrinth art collective, Comella was the co-director of Tracing and Bleeding, and creative director, photographer and interface designer on Urban Traces). With a simple sliding gesture of the mouse, users could move freely back and forth between these two exposures of the same locale, making buildings, trees and human figures instantly emerge or vanish or (perhaps, even more uncanny) remain remarkably the same. Museum-goers seemed to love this fast-paced navigation through urban history, for it provides kinetic and intellectual pleasures that are rarely combined.
The twenty-five pairs of photographs featured in Cultivating Pasadena can be viewed in at least two ways. They can be seen as a pair of still photographs or portraits (with minimal captions), framed and juxtaposed for the contemplative gaze of viewers, who are free to compare them at their own pace. Or, they can be experienced as fluidly navigable "bleed throughs" whose dynamic dissolves provide a visceral rush and whose peripheral images and commentaries complicate the basic comparison. While the first mode acknowledges photography's historic debt to painting, the second demonstrates its crucial contributions to hypertexts, animation and database narratives that are defining the digital domain.
Both modes of viewing can be carried back to the domestic space of the home through the print catalogue and DVD-ROM, which feature additional materials and narratives that inspire new responses. One of the richest and most detailed historical readings of the paired photographs is provided by cultural studies scholar, Karen Voss, in her catalogue essay, Cultivating Pasadena, which reminds us of the continuing interpretative power of printed text and which is excerpted here.
Together these varied modes of perception capture the central thematic of the Urban Traces series: the distinctive ways that a particular city negotiates and reconciles two conflicting desires. On the one hand, the desire to preserve what is unique about that city's history or civic identity; and, on the other hand, the desire to anticipate, prepare for and keep pace with the rapidly changing times. This perpetual process of negotiation is the primary subject on display in Cultivating Pasadena: From Roses to Redevelopment.