Participatory Historians in Digital Cultural Heritage Process: Monumentalization of the First Finnish Commercial Computer Game – Jaakko Suominen & Anna Sivula

Abstract: The paper deals with the question of how digital games become cultural heritage. By using examples of changing conceptualisations of the first commercial Finnish computer game, the paper illuminates the amateur and professional historicising of computer games. The general theoretical contribution of the paper is in the explanation of cultural heritage processes where contemporary cultural phenomena are historicised and in the illustration of the role of production of monuments in the historicising.

 

Introduction

Laurajane Smith argues that heritage is not only something material, which merely relates with the past. Rather, it is a process of engagement of contemporaries. According to Smith, heritage is an act of communication, and an act of creating meaning in, and for, the present. At the same time, it signifies cultural identity work, a cultural and social process, which engages with acts of remembering, hence creating ways of understanding the present (Smith 1–2.). The process of defining cultural heritage occurs within game cultures as well. Academically, and in hobbyist communities, and partially within the game industry, cultural heritage debate has roused demands such as that certain digital games have to be saved and preserved ”before it is too late” (e.g. Lowood et al.). In the sense of Laurajane Smith’s ideas, the reason for the preservation is the shared conceptualization that digital games are meaningful and they should be able to pass on to new generations. Digital games are not – yet – in the World Heritage List by UNESCO, but there are already game canons, lists of significant, important, and revolutionary games; collected and conducted by hobbyist communities and semi-officially nominated committees.[1] Even though those debates about the heritage value of game cultures circle around material issues and, in many cases, specific items – digital and non-digital – the debates are part of the process of engagement and communicative identity work described by Smith.

Recognized heritage ought to be preserved, and scholars, as well as game hobbyists, have examined various possibilities for digital game preservation. They have approached that from the perspectives on creation of (museum) collections and archives, documenting and emulation and migration of game software code and so forth, which all can be perceived as ‘heritage work’ or ‘heritage management’ (Smith 2006) for ensuring that valuable items could be transferred for new generations. (See e.g. Swalwell; Heinonen & Reunanen; Guttenbrunner et al.; Barwick et al.. For a critical overview, see Newman.)[2] The discussion of digital game preservation is significant, but it, primarily, lacks serious contemplation regarding one of the key questions that is the focus of this paper: how the game cultural elements are recognized and selected as being worthy of preservation, of becoming elevated to the status of cultural heritage?  Obviously, one simple answer to the question is that particular games and devices have received wide recognition and impact as novelties in their contemporary contexts and therefore their value is somehow self-evident. We argue that there are other reasons to consider: more local and marginal means and, especially, historicized value of something to be the first of its kind. These canonical items of cultural heritage, we call here monuments.

Our primary theoretical concepts in this paper are the above mentioned (cultural) heritage process and monument. The cultural heritage process is observed in light of a case of early Finnish commercial computer games. Instead of being particularly interested in what digital game actually was the earliest production in Finland, we will merely deal with the question of public discourse of firstness and its connections with the cultural heritage process. The emergence of such discourse, representing the past of Finnish game cultures in a precise manner, we argue, is a sign of a particular phase of a cultural heritage process where specific actors have a motivation to discover origins of national game cultures and industry. Thus, we ask here, who is historicizing Finnish commercial computer games? When did the question of the first game emerge? How is the debate related to the process in which digital games become cultural heritage?  The case provides answers to the primary research question: how are certain items selected and transformed to the cultural heritage of digital game culture, particularly in the role of a monument? This article provides a model for comparison on other case examples in different contexts.

The article consists of the following sections: we will begin with an introduction to our essential theoretical concepts based on contemporary academic discussion on cultural heritage. Then, we will illustrate our case and describe public debate about the first, Finnish commercial computer game. In conclusion, we will return to theoretical conceptualizations of historicizing “firsts.”

Cultural heritage, community and monuments

Raiford Guins (108–109) has described the remnants of arcade game machines, such as Pac-Man or Pole Position cabinets, as unintentional monuments. Leaning on Austrian art historian Alois Riegl’s definition (1903), Guins states that even though the machines were monumental in their own age, they were not intended “for deliberate commemoration.” According to Guins, their monument status is new — or what we would contend: newly historicized.

Monuments are the vital elements in the production of cultural heritage.[3] The topical question is how and when an average digital game object is transformed from an ordinary artefact or a commodity to a realm of memory (Nora 626), or, as we prefer, a monument of digital culture.

A monument is a historical artefact that has a specific symbolic value to a certain cultural heritage community, i.e. a group of people who share an understanding of their common history.[4] In the cultural history of games, for instance, the famous and somehow special game devices and games, such as the first coin-op games or home consoles, now presented in museums and private collections, can become monuments to game culture. Such monuments are able to commodified as new products such as retrogames.[5]

Figure 1. Commodore 64 has unintentionally become a monument of the 1980s home computer culture in Finland, as well as in other places. Here is a C-64 advertisement “Liberator” from the first issue of MikroBitti home computer magazine (1/1984) referring to an internationally recognized deliberate monument, the Statue of Liberty. Later on, C-64 was also advertised as “the Computer of the Republic” with e.g. references to Finnish national flag and national romantic famous paintings, due to C-64’s popularity and market dominance.

Figure 1. Commodore 64 has unintentionally become a monument of the 1980s home computer culture in Finland, as well as in other places. Here is a C-64 advertisement “Liberator” from the first issue of MikroBitti home computer magazine (1/1984) referring to an internationally recognized deliberate monument, the Statue of Liberty. Later on, C-64 was also advertised as “the Computer of the Republic” with e.g. references to Finnish national flag and national romantic famous paintings, due to C-64’s popularity and market dominance.

A monument is an active element in a dynamic network of cultural heritage processes. A monument derives its cultural value and meaning from historical interpretations. A monument, a particular gaming artefact for example, is a link between the different elements of the production of social memories. Things, places, events, and stories are comprised in a monument. (Aronsson 197.)

The monument is historical by nature. The making of a monument requires a historical antecedent. When elements of cultural heritage are selected and thus, cultural heritage produced, the argumentation is grounded on histories. History, in this context, is a representation of the past, based on research and traceable source materials. The value of particular game devices, games and game related practices, is built on the historical representations of them, but the research conducted by professional, trained historians is not the sole source of these representations. Therefore, it is important to ask; who writes the history? The one, who conveys the history and conducts the process of cultural heritage?

As mentioned above, cultural heritage as a concept does not only refer to material or immaterial objects, but to a dynamic process (Smith 44–45; Bortolotto 21–22).  In this circular process, cultural heritage is produced, used, and reproduced. Instead of only consisting of objects, cultural heritage is merely an experience of historical continuum and social participation (Smith 45 and 49–50). Cultural heritage is also an instrument of various sorts of group-identity work, which has several transnational, national and local levels. (Sivula 2015; Sivula & Siro 2015.)

There are several groups, as well as individuals, who are developing their historical identity with digital games: game developers, players, journalists, and collectors, to name a few. On the other hand, there is not any indigenous group of digital culture, who possesses an exclusive right to the cultural heritage of digital games. A heritage community experiences the possession of cultural heritage and thus uses it in identity work and maintains its symbolic value. (Sivula 2010, 29.) According to Pierre Nora, the realms of memory are remnants or symbols of the past, “where [cultural] memory crystallizes and secretes itself” (Nora 1989, 7).

Cultural heritage is an instrument of identity work with the symbols and traces of the past, experience of participation, and shared historical experience. (Sivula 2015.) The identity work is performed by a cultural heritage community, as seen below.

 

Figure 2. This basic pattern illustrates the three types of identity work of a cultural heritage community. The heritage community shares and is aware of a common history, which values certain traces of the past as historical symbols and/or historical evidence, and experiences participation in a mutual, historical project. (Sivula 2015, 66.)

Figure 2. This basic pattern illustrates the three types of identity work of a cultural heritage community. The heritage community shares and is aware of a common history, which values certain traces of the past as historical symbols and/or historical evidence, and experiences participation in a mutual, historical project. (Sivula 2015, 66.)

The researching and interpretation of the past keeps the cultural heritage process active. Further, the practice of researching, interpreting and representing the past can be observed as the three phases of historiographical operation. According to Paul Ricoeur, the three phases are: 1) documentation, 2) explaining and understanding the past and 3) the historical representation of the past. (Ricoeur 169–170, 182–184 and 234–235; Sivula 2006, 44–45). The cultural heritage process begins with an attempt at historicizing the past, selected by a heritage community. A historian, either amateur or a professional, steps through all the three phases of historical operation, until the past is documented, explained and understood, and further represented in the form of a history.

Monuments – tangible or intangible – are the traces of the past, used in the identity work of a cultural heritage community both as documentary, historical evidence, and meaningful, historical symbols. The symbolic and/or evidential value of a monument, as a realm of social memory, is based on history. Written or oral histories are acting as, and used as frame stories, establishing the meaning of cultural heritage. However, when digital game culture is concerned, one is able to find these histories, for example, in game magazines and online forums consisting of feature articles on (developments of) particular games, genre, developers, and devices; or personal memoirs or one’s personal gaming histories. A tangible or intangible monument, in its turn, serves as evidence and thus solidifies the plot and content of heritage communities’ historical self-comprehension. (Sivula 2015, 64–67.)

Histories are, during the cultural heritage process, used in order to highlight some important moments and attach some remnants of the past i.e., monuments, to these highlighted moments of shared history. (Sivula 2015, 66.) Monuments are usually attached to the beginning of the historical story, or to the turning points of the historiographically described process. Monuments are, therefore, often attached to historically important turning points, or to the instance in which a progressive series of events starts to unfold. In Finland, for instance, the Commodore 64, the most popular home computer of the 1980s, is that sort of monument, which signifies the turn towards home computer gaming and the micro computing age and, which, functions as a media technological symbol for a certain generation of people. In Japan, the Nintendo Famicom console has the similar role, and we are able to find a plethora of examples from other countries.

Figure 3. Pelaa! (Play!) Exhibition in Salo Art Museum in Finland in 2009 is an example of how to give new meanings for game cultural objects. Here in the above picture, for example, is the Nokia mobile phone Snake game, and both Nokia cell phone and its Snake game are key objects of Finnish national technology historical frame stories. Photo: Petri Saarikoski.

Figure 3. Pelaa! (Play!) Exhibition in Salo Art Museum in Finland in 2009 is an example of how to give new meanings for game cultural objects. Here in the above picture, for example, is the Nokia mobile phone Snake game, and both Nokia cell phone and its Snake game are key objects of Finnish national technology historical frame stories. Photo: Petri Saarikoski.

In the monumentalisation process, the meaning of the object obviously transmutes from its original significance. J. C. Herz (61–62), for instance, richly describes the change in the videogaming context in her famous popular book on videogame history, Joystick Nation. In her work she portrays an early coin-op videogame exhibition at the American Museum of the Moving Images, where game cabinets’ new displacement has illuminated and underlined their novel contextualization. The machines were not situated as close to each other as they would have been in arcades, where their placement catalysed an aesthetic elevation in the author’s mind: “They are privileged with space, like statues or really expensive clothing, and thus become Design Objects. And this is when you realize, for the first time, that these cabinets, apart from containing your favourite videogames, are really just goddam beautiful.”

There is plethora of games that are not actively played anymore. Some of them have already been forgotten, but some of them, nonetheless, have the potential to become monuments of digital culture. The cultural heritage potential of a game appears, most often, to be rested on the argument of being “the first” or being a “historical turning point.”

Figure 4. “Now it’s time to put the Finlandia hymn [composed by “the greatest composer of Finland” (Wikipedia) Jean Sibelius] on a record player, because the first, Finnish game has conquered the world”. Niko Nirvi's review of Sanxion (programmed by Stavros Fasoulas, published by Thalamus in 1986) in MikroBitti 12/1986, 72, illustrates how contemporaries are able to historicize games in a way that affects later historical writing.

Figure 4. “Now it’s time to put the Finlandia hymn [composed by “the greatest composer of Finland” (Wikipedia) Jean Sibelius] on a record player, because the first, Finnish game has conquered the world”. Niko Nirvi’s review of Sanxion (programmed by Stavros Fasoulas, published by Thalamus in 1986) in MikroBitti 12/1986, 72, illustrates how contemporaries are able to historicize games in a way that affects later historical writing.

We have noticed that the frame stories of the cultural heritage process of computer games are not global (though in many cases globalized), but are rather national histories. In Finland, there are already some popular histories available, and there is a vivid, ongoing discussion on the beginnings and turning points of digital gaming in Finland. The symbolic monuments are not yet largely selected, but they are under historical construction (see e. g. figures 1, 3, 4). The usability of these selected items of cultural heritage depends on their historical value. Selected items can be used, for example, as unique celebrated artefacts in museums, and/or as commodified, copied, varied, and reproduced elements in retro- and heritage industrial contexts. On the other hand, monuments are able to be based on shared experiences: they are not curiosities, they are unique items or have particular cult status as rarities but merely popular and international items such as above mentioned Commodore 64 computer or specific popular game products. However, in this case, we focus on a rarity as a potential monument. The next section of the paper will deal with the case of the first commercial computer game in Finland.

Debate on the first Finnish commercial computer game

There are never ending debates in different fields regarding what was the first of a particular type of invention, technology, media form, or something else. This debate has already been recognized earlier, for example, by computer historians. The history of computer games and videogames is not an exception. The debate on what is the first video game or computer game has mainly been international – or essentially, US oriented. One is able to find variations of this discussion from almost every videogame history book or textbook of game studies, which repeat stories and report new findings related to American Tennis for Two, Spacewar!, Pong and so on.  When the national and local digital game historical representations of the past have begun to emerge, the similar debate has achieved domestic dimensions and bloomed as national versions. This has happened in Finland as well, mainly within computer and game hobbyist communities and in online discussion forums and publications.

Computer scientist and historian John A. N. Lee (57) provides several reasons for the “common desire to be associated with firsts” within the history of computing. On the one hand, it is certainly desirable to become recognized in history as an inventor or a founder or discoverer of some sort of historical origins of the important phenomenon. On the other hand, other reasons can be economic: “Unique firsts do have a place in the identification of the owners of intellectual property rights with respect claims on patents, copyrights, and such.” Lee notes critically that in many cases, it is difficult to define something as being the first and continues further: “Everyone likes firsts but the attraction is for fame and fortune rather than downstream usefulness—firsts are better left to the Guinness Book of Records than being the subject of endless, meaningless arguments in scholarly journals.” (See also Haigh)

Overall, the discussion about the first digital game in Finland has primarily dealt with the issue of the first Finnish commercial computer game publication and not the very first Finnish (digital) game ever produced, perhaps because the publication is less difficult to master: before commercial publications there was a quite uncertain phase of non-commercial amateur game projects, a period of producing and playing of games with mainframe and mini computers (Saarikoski 264). Some studies dealing with earlier developments, at least partially, have appeared (see e.g. Saarikoski; Paju; Saarikoski & Suominen), as well as studies pondering questions of the earliest computers and microcomputers in Finland (e.g. Suominen 2003; Saarikoski 2004; Paju).

Even though the question of the earliest Finnish commercial computer game release seems rather straightforward from the first sight, it is much more complicated than that. Basically, we can challenge all of the elements of the question: what does “Finnish” mean? And what do we signify with “a computer” game’ or with a “commercial?”

Let’s now trace the tracks and marks regarding the online debate of the first commercial computer game in Finland using Google search as a helper. It appears that there are only a few hits with the keywords “first Finnish computer game” or “first Finnish video game” (during the process of writing first manuscript of the paper in Spring 2014). However, for example, the Dome.fi-site, which has focused on forms of popular culture, such as television, cinema and games; consists of various articles and discussions about the issue. Jukka O. Kauppinen, a pioneering game journalist and one of the key persons researching the historicisation of digital gaming in Finland (Suominen 2011; Suominen et al. 2015), published, along with with Miikka Lehtonen and Teemu Viemerö, an article about the early years of the Finnish game industry and the “first Finnish games” on the 1st of December 2013. The authors opened their article with a summary introduction and referred to an antecedent text handling the 30-year anniversary exhibition about the Finnish game industry. The exhibition had been had been organized for the DigiExpo2013 fair by the association of Finnish game importers, FIGMA. Game distributer firms trace their history from the establishment of Petri Lehmuskoski’s company, Toptronics, in 1983. In the article, Kauppinen and his colleagues stated that not only importing, but also the production of the first commercial games began in Finland 30 years before prior (Viemerö et al. 1.12.2013.).

The above-mentioned writers noted that the company Amersoft was probably the first game publisher in Finland. They looked through the company’s different phases by introducing its, as well as some other publishers’ early releases. They discussed the following games: Joe the Whizz Kid (1985), RahaRuhtinas (1984, Amersoft), Sanxion (1986), Uuno Turhapuro muuttaa maalle (1986, Amersoft), Painterboy (1986), Delta (1987), Quedex (1987), Octapolis (1987), and Netherworld (1988). About Amersoft, they wrote:

The book publisher Amersoft was probably the first Finnish game publisher whose contribution to domestic game field was very significant. The best knowledge available suggests that that the first domestic commercially published game was RahaRuhtinas [“Money Prince”], which came out in 1984 which was a pseudo-3D graphic implemented adventure. Little information remains about the game’s aims or storyline for future generations, however, the Finnish adventure game was, according to some recollections, quite functional and entertaining (Viemerö et al. 1.11.2013).

Figure 5. Raharuhtinas represented in the Dome online magazine article 1st of December 2013.

Figure 5. Raharuhtinas represented in the Dome online magazine article 1st of December 2013.

Quite obvious sources in tracing popular knowledge of game cultural histories are main social media platforms, particularly Wikipedia and also game historical vlogs on YouTube. In the winter 2013–2014, Finnish Wikipedia’s chronological list of Finnish games stated that RahaRuhtinas was the first game (Wikipedia: Suomen videopelialan historia 30.11.2013).  Wikipedia referred to another of Jukka O. Kauppinen’s articles, published on June 27, 2011. The article was titled “Is this the first Finnish game ever” There, Kauppinen noted that “who knows how long the search for the first Finnish commercial computer game has lasted, and there has not been a definitive answer to the question so far. Although there are several good candidates.” Kauppinen first mentioned the Yleisurheilu (Track and field sports) game for Commodore 64, released in 1985 by Amersoft and stated that RahaRuhtinas had an even earlier release date. He continued: “According to some claims, there are some older Vic-20 games as well, but it seems that one cannot find quite now very exact evidence about them” (Kauppinen 27.6.2011.) In his article, Kauppinen also referred to a discussion that occurred in April 2011, in MuroBBS online discussion forum. However, Raharuhtinas was not actually mentioned there, only more recent commercial games and older non-commercial games (MuroBBS 14.4.2011). Obviously, it is worthwhile to follow article links and references and trace their mutual connections and cross-references in an ongoing loop bouncing between Wikipedia entries, online articles, and message boards.

Information dealing with Amersoft and Raharuhtinas became more specified in 2013 and in spring 2014. In autumn 2013, game historians, hobbyists and collectors Markku Reunanen, Mikko Heinonen and Manu Pärssinen, published an article about the history of Finnish games in Finnish Yearbook of Game Studies (Pelitutkimuksen vuosikirja 2013). Their article was based on their database of Finnish games published at the Videogames.fi site. They claimed: “So far the oldest finding is an adventure game Raharuhtinas, programmed by Simo Ojaniemi and published by Amersoft in the year 1984.” On the 14th of December 2013, however, Videogames.fi was updated and a new game appeared. The site alleged that the first game, also programmed by Simo Ojaniemi, was called Mehulinja (Juice line), not Raharuhtinas: “[Mehulinja] requires a VIC-1211 Super Expander extension. According to our current information, Mehulinja is the first commercially published computer game. The game won I came-made-won programming contest in 1984.” The example shows how researchers, at least, were careful when claiming something as being the first.

Videogames.fi refers to another website called Sinivalkoinen pelikirja (http://sinivalkoinenpelikirja.com/) (Blue-white game book [colours referring to the Finnish national flag]), which has published a review of the Mehulinja game on 22 March, 2013. The Sinivalkoinen pelikirja site was connected to an ongoing book project, a chronicle about Finnish game history. The book was published in spring 2014. On the one hand, the book, written by journalist Juho Kuorikoski and based on the website, claimed that RahaRuhtinas is “as far as we know, the first commercial Finnish game for Commodore 64.” Kuorikoski mentioned three “small games” programmed by Simo Ojaniemi for VIC-20 published in the same year: Mehulinja, Herkkusuu (Sweet Tooth) and Myyräjahti (Vole Hunt) (Kuorikoski 12). On the other hand, he declares that Raharuhtinas was the first Finnish game released (20) and that Yleisurheilu was only “one candidate for being the first Finnish game ever.” (25). That variation proves the uncertainty of the first.[6]

Figure 6. Mehulinja entry on sinivalkoinenpelikirja.com website.

Figure 6. Mehulinja entry on sinivalkoinenpelikirja.com website.

Similar updating of the information has happened on a YouTube channel by alias AlarikRetro. He published a video review – another type of history – of Raharuhtinas on December 1th, 2013 and remarked that the game was the first Finnish release. Only a few days later, the 14th of December, he included an edit, in which he refers to the Videogames.fi site and states that actually Mehulinja was the first (AlarikRetro 8.12.2013 and AlarikRetro 27.12.2013) There are similar debates on other hobbyist sites.

In sum, the question of the first game has not been verified, although though it has received some emerging interest. Then, in July 2014, a novel turn took place, when Manu Pärssinen and Markku Reunanen discovered a new, an older candidate, which might have been the first commercial computer game in Finland. That was called Chesmac, a game programmed by Raimo Suonio in 1979 for the Telmac 1800 home computer. According to Suonio, the game, released by computer retailer Topdata, sold 104 copies. Pärssinen and Reunanen published several documents related to game, such as scanned photos of the game’s manual and an interview with the programmer (Pärssinen & Reunanen 28.7.2014). The news of this new first was circulated in online magazines as well as in newspapers (Kauppinen 28.7.2014; Berschewsky 28.7.2014). In the end, the leading Finnish newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, published an interview with the programmer Raimo Suonio (Jokinen 10.8.2014). Thus, the history of Finnish commercial game releases turned out to be at least five years longer than previously thought and has garnered, for the first time, major public coverage in Finland. It therefore appears that the discussion amongst hobbyists and researcher-hobbyists has emerged and strengthened during last few years.[7]

We would argue that such interest in discussing and representing the past was not only related to collecting of games, or sort of hobbyist retrogaming boom, but also to international emerging interest towards digital game preservation, exhibitions, and a turn towards the research of national and local aspects of games and game cultures (See also English blog writing on the history of Finnish digital games: Skäpädi Pöy 28.8.2013). This shift was also connected to the organization and recognition of the Finnish game industry.  It is a sign of legitimization and institutionalization processes of digital games in society.

Figure 7. Helsingin Sanomat titled their interview as "Raimo Suonio, a pioneer of Finnish game developers. [...] developed the first commercial computer game in Finland." In the photo, Suonio holds his old Telmac 1800 computer.

Figure 7. Helsingin Sanomat titled their interview as “Raimo Suonio, a pioneer of Finnish game developers. […] developed the first commercial computer game in Finland.” In the photo, Suonio holds his old Telmac 1800 computer.

However, there has not been significant discussion about the first Finnish commercial game yet outside the hobbyist and academic communities, even though it seems to be emerging during the time of writing this article in autumn 2014.[8] Earlier, for example, one is not able to find many mentions of first games in the database of the largest Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, nor in many other newspapers published by the same corporation. The references are from the 2000s and they are not connected to the first ever Finnish commercial game, but rather to the first Finnish publication for a certain new platform, such as first game for PS3 (Digitoday 27.4.2007), PS4, Nintendo Wii (Kauppalehti 23.6.2009, 14–15), Steam downloading platform (Digitoday 13.9.2006), etc. These mentions belong, thus, to contemporary discussion where the importance of the game industry has been acknowledged and where turning points are aimed at aimed at explaining contemporary use and applicably only for future history writings. The issues are distinctively connected to the economy, ICT sector, and new cultural industry.

When Chesmac, Mehulinja, Raharuhtinas and other games were published in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the game industry was an undeveloped field internationally. Historical understanding or awareness was not established, not even among game developers and players. The establishment of Finnish computer hobbyist and game oriented publications from the mid-1980s, created the needed public space for the creation and construction of historical understanding amongst hobbyists and players (see Saarikoski 2004; Suominen 2011). The press created hero stories about the earliest Finnish game designer individuals and occasionally introduced the first releases in a certain genre (first adventure game etc.) (Saarikoski 2004, 264), or underlined the historical importance of some new releases (such as the Sanxion game, published in 1986). Amersoft, however, had a somewhat marginal role in the early magazines, even though some of its publications were reviewed and it had advertised it products, primarily books, but also some games. These early computer hobbyist magazines and game magazines later on, including the above mentioned hero stories – which usually revealed histories of individual programmers or game designers as computer users, gamers and developers, have acted as sources when the interest towards the early phases of Finnish game industry has been emerged since the early 2000s.

In the beginning of the 2000s, new interest towards development of the Finnish game industry and education emerged. This was due to several, interconnected reasons. International success stories such as with the Max Payne (2001) PC-game, developed by Finnish company Remedy, raised interest towards the game industry. Importantly, it was situated in the international trend of new cultural and creative industries. Likewise, the triumph of cell phone corporation Nokia created an information and communication technological boom which, in its minor part, focused on mobile game software development.

Several game industry and education reports were published. Even though they mostly referred to the national history of game industry (typically excluding non-digital games, for example) very cursory, they articulated the more general trend, which with was related to the production of game historical narrative: the significant branch of industry had its roots. However, the origin story of game developers themselves did not mention Chesmac, Mehulinja, Raharuhtinas or some other early games but was fastened to so-called demoscene phenomenon due to the fact that some key persons of the focal firms, like Remedy and Housemarque, which had their background in the late 1980s and early 1990s demoscene (on demoscene’s role in the Nordic game industry, see Jørgensen et al. 2015). The demoscene origin story was introduced in the interviews of firm personnel in computer and game magazines and newspapers in the late 1990s. Later on, it has growth as a myth which has been repeated in publications as well as in the interviews of early game developers (e.g. Niipola 51–62; Kuorikoski 36–38).

But as we have argued, the primary “boom of the first” has started to emerge in last few years. It has mixed ingredients from new success stories of Finnish game industry, post-Nokia context, establishment of retrogaming, anniversaries as well as “awakenings” of memory organizations and researchers on questions of game history and preservation. What has happened? Who uses history, for what and why?

The First Game is both a piece of historical evidence and a symbol

We argue that cultural heritage process of digital games has reached a new phase, and the Finnish heritage community of digital games is actively involved in a new kind of identity work. The institutionalization of this new type of heritage has begun. The cultural heritage process of digital gaming can be observed in the context of the different levels of the cultures of history.

Oral and written histories are produced in three different fields. First, there is the academic field of history-cultural activities consisting of academic rules, refereed publications and academically trained researchers with doctoral degrees. Histories are based on the source criticism and supplementary rules of academic research. Secondly, there is a field of the public, which consists of politically controlled and publicly funded processes of cultural heritage with less strict academic control, but much more discussions on and monetary involvement. The institutionalization of cultural heritage takes often place on the second level of the cultures of history. It is conducted with political decisions, and there is not a specific means of control for the credibility of a frame story. The third field is the field of amateurs; such as individuals and groups of hobbyists, even families, selecting meaningful things from the more or less authentic remains of their pasts. The amateur is permitted to choose whatsoever (elements of) heritage and use any kind of frame stories as arguments, without an obligation to put the arguments to the test of any kind. The three fields of cultural heritage are interrelated.  Amateurs are often extremely active in the second field of cultures of history. An amateur may find academic research useful as a frame story that gives meaning to one’s own cultural heritage of her/his own.  An academic researcher or a politician may also be an enthusiastic amateur, and an academic researcher often uses the academic competences for to promote the cultural heritage process and consolidate the cultural heritage value of the historical remnants of her own hobby.  (Sivula 2013, 163; Aronsson 43.)

The case we described above shows that the first game historians were not usually “proper” professional historians, but more likely historically oriented amateurs. The active heritage community, in our case, consisted of the hobbyists.

It seems to be quite common, that the historicisation of a new culture begins among the community or groups of the amateur historians, involved in the historical process themselves. (Cf. history of computing and Lee 1996.) Because of this involvement, we refer to them as participatory historians. Amateur popular historians use often specific period-related concepts as metaphors or rhetorical elements.[9] Accurate or not, the amateur historian has already marked the turning points of the story, when an academic professional historian begins the research work. The preliminary plot of historical narrative, suggesting the argument for valuable cultural heritage, is often constructed by the amateurs.

The plot of history has, at least, a beginning and an end, and a change in between them. The emplotment of a history consists of the defining of the origins of the historicized phenomenon’s life cycle, marking some turning points of the process and constructing the end of the presentation. In the presentations of the history of digital gaming, there have been some international discussions on, what actually was the first game.  The battles of what came first are common in the discussions on the phenomena that are not yet historicized, however they can continue after that as well. Historian of an incomplete process is strongly interested in the beginnings of the process and the origins of the phenomenon.

Either the beginning or the end of a historical narrative is usually self-evident. The first and the last fact of a historical series are often chosen from among several options.  The defining of an origin, the beginning of the story, is an act of interpretation. It is, however, not an arbitrary one. The professional historian’s choice must be based on evidence. The interpretations are built in negotiations (Foucault 34; Ricoeur 143–144.) The plot of a written or orally solidified history determines the experienced value of the cultural heritage. The original game is experienced to be historically more valuable than the successor or a copy.

According to Michel Foucault, the past was an irregular chaos of events, and an oral or written history organizes these events. (Foucault 34–35.)  History gives comprehensibility to the past and solidifies the connections of separate events, building series of events and building the sense and sensibility of time and temporality. The oral or written, amateur or professional history, as a frame story of the cultural heritage process, solidifies the symbolic function of a monument.

There are some regular phases in every cultural heritage process. In our case, the digital game is originally used, functioning and experienced as a game. In the new context, though, it is defined in the historical frame story, it begins to be used and experienced as cultural heritage, either as a tool for to build the temporal identity of a heritage community, e.g. group of players, or as a tool of building the public image or other communicative activity of an enterprise or other corporation. Likewise, it could be used by the state or international organizations. For these goals they use all the other institutionalized cultural resources, such as education or cultural production. In the cultural heritage process, the use, function and experience of the game, all change. The public or private heritage community has either active or more or less subconscious goal of increasing the symbolic value of the game. The game with increased symbolic value, cultural heritage value, can still be played, although it might represent outdated technology and design.

When public resources and the academic field of history culture are involved in the cultural heritage process, the histories used as frame stories are most often based on academic, professional research. The interpretations pass the normal academic quality control. In the field of amateurs and in the private field the rules are different, but in many cases academic sub-contractors are hired for to produce the frame story.

When an object, e.g. a digital game, is identified as a symbol or evidence of the history shared by a group of the digital cultural heritage community, it receives a new social function. It is no longer only a game, but a monument or a place of memory. It is used, either with a playful sense of retro or in the more serious feeling of the memorizing the past, in commemorative rituals. It becomes a tool of identity work. (See also Heineman) Sooner or later, it may be rejected, changed, found to be useless or be replaced with another, more accurate tool, e.g. what we have learned with the changing definition of the first commercial computer game in Finland. Or the community, whose identity tool the cultural heritage was, may disband and move on (Bohman 17–23; Sivula 2013, 161–164).

Conclusion

Digital game culture is a unique field of contemporary culture, and a very interesting one at that. Our case study opens a view to the historiographical operations of participatory historians. Our case aids us in understanding the strengths and weaknesses, risks and opportunities of the historiographical practice related to monuments. It helps to develop the methodology of analysing the historiographical operations, historicizing the contemporary culture. To be critical, we ought to know, how the monument of the first digital game was erected.

In most cases of the production of new monuments, the role of the amateur field has been essential. The production of monuments is a part of historiographical operations and it is clearly located in the documentary and representative phases of the model of historiographical operation, presented by Paul Ricoeur.

The right to choose a monument of digital game culture cannot be monopolized by either academics or amateurs. In our case, both academics and computer game hobbyists were active, selecting objects that they considered worth of preserving and creating monuments of Finnish game culture. In the case of the cultural heritage process of Finnish computer games, the academic field of history culture is closely and continuously interacting with the history-cultural field of amateurs. Many actors of the academic field do have a position in the field of amateurs as well. In other words: there are many computer game hobbyists among the academic researchers of the history of digital culture. The historiographical operation of digital games produces plethora of monuments.

The question of what was the first game becomes important in the phase of representation of historiographical operation. That is the phase where the plot of history is created. The question of what came first is often already answered, even before a professional historian gets an opportunity to make any conclusions.

We can conclude that there are some preconditions for a reliable definition of the firstness, when concerned with digital games. All the concurrent definitions must be observed critically, paying attention to the goals and needs of inventors of the monuments.

First, there is the contemporary definition. A chronicling actor has a motive to spot and articulate a new field, turning point or a milestone. The actor wishes to claim that something important, even revolutionary has happened. We must notice who is acting and why.

Second, there is a retrospective definition. Usually, it is connected to a situation and phase where certain field of actions is the subject of reformation and re-definition. Need for birth stories and origin stories, when legitimizing a need for a cultural industry and several organizations related to it, has taken place. It this case as well, economy and politics have certain role in the process. There is a supply of and demand for money.

Third, there is a specified retrospective definition. That happens, for example, when celebrating anniversaries. In Finland and within digital game cultures, this sort of definition has not happened until recent years and celebrations of the 30th anniversary of commercial game development and digital game importing businesses.

The knowledge related to what is first might become more exact, although this is not necessary. A contemporary definition of what has been the first do not occur, if phenomenon does not feel like significant for contemporaries – if they don’t comprehend that they are living “historical moments.” With the Finnish case, it was not until the publication of “the first Finnish adventure game”, a release of specific popular genre, was the rhetoric of first actually launched. Another option is that they do not comprehend something as being first: this question applies to what is Finnish, what is a game and what is commercial? Because definitions of all of the three aspects are controversial, it is difficult to define something as first Finnish commercial game publication.

The question of what is the first, functions on at least two levels: on one hand, it can deal with the particular first (first game ever), but essentially there are difficulties, and in many cases, that are not necessary to define. On the other hand, questions regarding firstness are connected to larger turning points and they are less difficult to outline: there is, for example, no doubt that that Commodore 64 was the first popular home computer in Finland and the first popular computer gaming device available.

 

Acknowledgements: We are grateful to the Kone Foundation for funding the Kotitietokoneiden aika ja teknologisen harrastuskulttuurin perintö [Home Computer Era and the Heritage of Technological Hobby Culture] project, and the Academy of Finland for funding Ludification and the Emergence of Playful Culture (decision #275421). In addition, we thank the two anonymous referees for their useful comments.

 

Works Cited

Interviews

Reunanen, Markku 5.3.2014, Facebook chat with Jaakko Suominen.

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Digitoday 2007

Kauppalehti 2009

MikroBitti 1984–1986

Poke&Peek 1983–1984

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AlarikRetro: “RahaRuhtinas (C64): Videoarvostelu” YouTube-video, published 8.12.2013.

Berschewsky, Tapio: “30 vuotta ennen Angry Birdsiä – Tämä on ensimmäinen kaupallinen suomalaispeli. Ilta-Sanomat Online” Ilta-Sanomat Online 28.7.2014.

Heinonen, Mikko: “Suomipelien kronikka” V2.fi 6.12.2009.

Jokinen, Pauli: “Raimo Suonio on Suomen pelintekijöiden pioneeri.” Helsingin Sanomat 10.8.2014.

Kauppinen, Jukka O.: “Onko tämä ensimmäinen suomalainen peli ikinä?” Dome.fi 27.6.2011.

Kauppinen, Jukka O.: “Suomalainen peliala 30 vuotta? Ehei, uusi löytö ajoittaa ensimmäisen kaupallisen suomipelin vuoteen 1979!” Dome.fi 28.7.2014.

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Pärssinen, Manu & Reunanen, Markku: “Ensimmäinen suomalainen tietokonepeli.” V2.fi 28.7.2014.

Rautanen, Niila T.: C= inside, Finnish Commodore Archive.

Sinivalkoinenpelikirja.com

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Notes

[1] See, for example, The Game Canon proposed for the Library of Congress, consisting of games such as Spacewar!, Tetris and Doom and selected by a committee comprising game historian Henry Lowood, game designers Warren Spector, Steve Meretzky and Matteo Bittanti, as well as blogger Christopher Grant.

[2] We thank referee number two for giving us information on some more recent software preservation projects: Preserving Virtual Worlds Final Report (2010); Preserving.Exe. Toward a National Strategy for Software Preservation (2013); Emulation & Virtualization as Preservation Strategies (2015); Software Preservation Network Proposal (2015).

[3] The constructionistically oriented researchers of heritagization, e.g. Laurajane Smith, do not use the concept of monument in the sense we do. From the point of view of the historicization of a tangible or intangible object, the concept of monument is useful.

[4] The specific group, working with its identity in the process of cultural heritage, can be named as cultural heritage community.

[5] The line between the artifacts/monuments and commodities becomes less clear when old devices and game software are bought and sold at Internet auction sites. Various music videos, works of art, books and new editions and revisions of old game products– in some degree commercials as well – are also commodities of the cultures of history (Author 2 & Author 1 2004). (See Suominen 2008; 2012.)

[6] In a Facebook chat discussion with Jaakko Suominen, Markku Reunanen explains background of the rewriting the history of the first. According to Reunanen, they received new information while they browsed online Finnish Commodore archive maintained by a hobbyist Niila T. Rautanen (Rautanen: Commodore Archive). Rautanen has gathered games, screen shots, some information and for example scanned early Poke&Peek Commodore magazines, published by the Finnish Commodore importer. The magazines proved to be an important source of information. Amersoft had released several games in 1984, and according to Reunanen, mentioned publication order of 1984 releases in Videogames.fi, was based on mainly to reasoning. VIC-20 computer was simpler than Commodore 64 and the popularity of VIC was decreasing in 1984. Reunanen states that Raharuhtinas for Commodore 64 represent “more advanced programming” and Mehulinja had won an earlier VIC-20 programming contest. (Reunanen 5.3.2014, FB-chat.)

[7] In addition to Jukka O. Kauppinen, Mikko Heinonen from Pelikonepeijoonit collector community, started in the 1990s, has specifically contributed to discussion. For example, he published “for honor of Finnish Independence Day,” “A Chronicle of Finnish Games” in 6 December 2009, where he divided the history into “prehistory,” “middle ages,” and “modern times” (Heinonen 6.12.2009) and started his “prehistory” from Amersoft publications and claiming wrongly that Yleisurheilu was published in 1986. The association of Finnish Game Developers, for their part, published on their website “A Short history of Finnish game industry” in October 2011 where they alleged that Sanxion by Stavros Fasoulas, published for Commodore 1986 was the first Finnish commercial game (Suomen Pelinkehittäjät Ry 3.10.2011). Actually, the particular game was the first larger international Finnish computer game hit, released by the British company, Thalamus, but not the first.

[8] The situation has partially changed after that, however, mainly because the introduction of Finnish Museum of Games project. The Museum, partially based on a crowd funding project, will be opened in January 2017 (http://suomenpelimuseo.fi/in-english/).

[9] That is why, for instance, in the above mentioned case, a journalist has applied terms such as “pre-history”, “middle-ages” and “modern times” to game historical representations.

 

Bios

Jaakko Suominen has a PhD in Cultural History and is Professor of Digital Culture at University of Turku, Finland. With a focus on cultural history of media and information technologies, Suominen has studied computers and popular media, internet, social media, digital games, and theoretical and methodological aspects of the study of digital culture. He has lead several multi-disciplinary research projects and has over 100 scholarly publications.

Anna Sivula has a PhD in History and is a Professor of Cultural Heritage at University of Turku, Finland. Sivula has studied theoretical, methodological and cultural aspects of cultural heritage process and heritage communities, historiographical operation and historical culture. She has written commissioned histories and led several research projects.

Born Digital Cultural Heritage – Angela Ndalianis & Melanie Swalwell

The collection and preservation of the ‘born digital’ has, in recent years, become a growing and significant area of debate. The honeymoon years are over and finally institutions are beginning to give serious consideration to best practice for digital preservation strategies and the establishment of digital collections. Digital technology emerges and disappears with incredible speed, as a once-new piece of hardware or software becomes old and is replaced by the next technological advancement. What happens to: videogame software and hardware of the 1980s and 90s? The web browsers, blogs and social media sites and content they once displayed? The artworks that relied on pre-2000 computers to create art? Are these – amongst many other – digital creations fated to be abandoned, becoming only memories of individual experience? Are they to be collected by institutions as defunct objects? Or are they to be preserved and revived using new digital technology? These are but a few of the serious questions facing collecting institutions. The question of who is responsible for collecting, preserving and historicising born digital cultural heritage is a crucial one, as is the issue of best practice – what are the best ways to preserve and make accessible such born digital heritage?

In June 2014, our “Play It Again”[1] project team ran an international conference on “The Born Digital and Cultural Heritage” that aimed to convene a forum where some of these issues could be discussed. “Play It Again” was a three year project focused on the history and preservation of microcomputer games written in 1980s Australia and New Zealand, but as the first digital preservation project to be funded as research in this part of the world (at least to our knowledge), it also had a broader significance. We tried to use it to raise awareness around some of the threats facing born digital cultural production more broadly, beyond 1980s digital games. Two of the project’s aims were to “Enhance appreciation for the creations of the early digital period” and “To build capacity in both the academic and cultural sectors in the area of digital cultural heritage and the ‘born digital’”, both critical issues internationally. A two-day event held at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, the conference’s remit was thus deliberately wider than the focus of the Australian Research Council Linkage Project.

The need for cooperation between different stakeholders – legislative bodies, professionals working in different types of institutions, and the private sector – was a key recommendation of the 2012 “Vancouver Declaration,” a Memory of the World initiative (UNESCO). Born digital artefacts often require multiple sets of expertise, therefore our call for papers invited proposals from researchers and practitioners in a range of disciplines, spheres of practice and institutional contexts concerned with born digital heritage. This included libraries, archives, museums, galleries, moving image institutions, software repositories, universities, and more besides. We wanted to create a space where communication between the different types of professionals dealing with preservation of born digital cultural heritage could take place. Archivists, librarians, conservators, and moving image archivists share many challenges, yet, we suspect, often they attend conferences which are profession based, which enforces a kind of silo-ing of knowledge. Particularly in small countries such as Australia and New Zealand, there’s a need for conversations to take place across professional boundaries, and so we sought to bring people who perhaps don’t normally move in the same circles into contact.

The presentations during the conference ranged in approach from theoretical, to practical, to policy-oriented. We gloried in the range of papers that were presented. There were game histories, reflections on the demoscene, on net.art and other forms of media art, on born digital manuscripts, robots, twitter accounts and website archiving. As well as papers addressing different forms of heritage materials, there were also technical reports on the problems with hacking and patching disk images to get them to emulate, on software migration, and legal papers on copyright protection, and the ‘right to be forgotten’. (Audio of many of the presentations is available here. The variety of presentations made painfully visible the enormous task at hand in addressing born digital cultural heritage.

While Refractory focuses on entertainment media, in this issue we recognise that born digital entertainment media share many of the challenges of non-entertainment objects. Here, we have collected article versions of selected papers from the conference. The topics and subjects are varied – from those looking more broadly at approaches to born digital heritage and the preservation of digital art, to the documentation of and public discourse about early game histories, and to future creative writing practice facilitated through the collection of digital manuscripts.

In his paper “It Is What It Is, Not What It Was: Making Born Digital Heritage” (which was a keynote address), Henry Lowood examines the preservation and collection of digital media in the context of cultural heritage. Lowood is concerned with “the relationship between collections of historical software and archival documentation about that software” and poses the question “Who is interested in historical software and what will they do with it?” He argues that “answers to this fundamental question must continue to drive projects in digital preservation and software history”. Using the examples of ‘The Historian’, ‘The Media Archaeologist’ and ‘The Re-enactor’ his paper raises important questions about the function, purpose and varied approaches to the digital archive. The historian, he states, is interested in the digital archival material in order to interpret, reconstruct and retell its story in history. For the media archaeologist, “media machines are transparent in their operation” and, rather than requiring interpretation, speak of their pastness by making possible the playback of “historical media on historical machines”. Finally, for ‘The Re-enactor’, ‘authenticity’ is a crucial factor for digital preservation; however, the question of authenticity is fraught with debate – on the one hand, the re-enactor at one extreme insists on a “fidelity of play” with the software that engages with technology (hardware and software) in its original state, and at the other extreme is the re-enactor who is willing to forgo the historical machine in favour of emulation and virtualisation that recreates an embodied experience of ‘playing’ with the original software, whether a game or word processing program. In either case, as Lowood explains, “Re-enactment offers a take on born-digital heritage that proposes a commitment to lived experience.”

In their article “Defining The Experience: George Poonhkin Khut’s Distillery: Waveforming, 2012”, Amanda Pagliarino and artist George Poonkhin Khut present an account of Khut’s sensory artwork, Distillery: Waveforming 2012, which uses the prototype iPad application ‘BrightHearts,’ which was acquired by the Queensland Art Gallery. The Curator of Contemporary Australian Art requested that the acquisition “was captured in perpetuity in its prototype state”. The authors explain that this biofeedback artwork is ‘iterative’ and Khut continued to develop the work in other iterations that include updates for the BrightHearts app for touch screen devices. This article describes the development of the artwork and the issues that were addressed in its acquisition, archiving, and the consultations that took place between the artist and the collecting institution. As the writers argue “to secure the commitment of the artist to engage in collaborative, long-term conservation strategies is extraordinary and this has resulted in the Gallery acquiring an unparalleled archival resource” that includes documentation and description of the interactive principles and behaviour of the artwork in its early state and as it evolved in Khut’s art practise. This archival resource will make it possible for the work to be reinterpreted “at some point in the future when the original technology no longer functions as intended”. In this respect, Distillery: Waveforming is understood as a “legacy artwork intrinsically linked to past and future iterations” of Khut’s larger Biofeedback Project.

The next article “There and Back Again: A Case History of Writing The Hobbit” by Veronika Megler focuses on the iconic text adventure game The Hobbit (Melbourne House, 1981), which Megler co-wrote during the final year of her Bachelor of Science degree at Melbourne University. This paper is a case history of the development of the The Hobbit (based on J.R.R.Tolkien’s novel of the same name) into a game that could run on the first generation of home computers that were just beginning to hit the market. Little has been written about the development of the first generation of text-based computer games; this case history provides insight into this developmental period in computer game history. Megler describes the development process, the internal design, and the genesis of the ideas that made The Hobbit unique. She compares the development environment and the resulting game to the state-of-the-art in text adventure games of the time, and wraps up by discussing the game’s legacy and the recent revival of interest in the game.

Jaakko Suominen and Anna Sivula’s article “Participatory Historians in Digital Cultural Heritage Process — Monumentalization of the First Finnish Commercial Computer Game” continues with games, analysing how digital games become cultural heritage. By using examples of changing conceptualisations of the first commercial Finnish computer game, the article examines the amateur and professional historicisation of computer games. The authors argue that the production of cultural heritage is a process of constructing symbolic monuments that are often related to events of change or the beginning of a progressive series of events, and the article presents an account of the formation of games as symbolic cultural monuments within a Finnish context. Whilst many researchers and journalists have claimed that Raharuhtinas (Money Prince 1984) for Commodore 64 was the first Finnish commercial digital game, its status as such is controversial. As the authors explain, “in this paper, we are more interested in public discourse of being the first” and how this relates to the cultural heritage process. The case of the ‘first’ game, it is argued, illuminates how items are selected as building material for digital game cultural heritage.

In “Retaining Traces of Composition in Digital Manuscript Collections: a Case for Institutional Proactivity”, Millicent Weber turns to digital manuscripts, their collection, preservation and digital storage by collecting institutions. Weber argues that libraries, archives and scholars have not addressed the content of future digital or part-digital collections, or their capacity to support sustained scholarly research. This paper examines the potential content of future collections of poetry manuscripts and their capacity to support research into the process of composition. To predict this capacity, the article compares a study of compositional process, using handwritten and typewritten manuscripts, with a small-scale survey of early-career poets’ compositional habits. The draft manuscripts of three poems by the poet Alan Gould and three by the poet Chris Mansell are used to describe each poet’s compositional habits, while the survey component of the project obtained information about the drafting practices of 12 students of creative writing and poetry at the University of Canberra. Weber concludes that the results indicate both the great diversity of manuscript collections currently being created, and the importance of archival institutions adopting an active advocacy role in encouraging writers to create and maintain comprehensive and well-organised collections of digital manuscripts.

The collection and preservation of born digital cultural heritage is of critical importance. In the digital era, “Heritage refers to legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what should be passed from generation to generation because of its significance and value” (UNESCO/PERSIST Content Task Force 16). If we want to ensure that records and works from this era persist, we will need to substantially ramp up our efforts. Cooperation between different stakeholders is critical and the research sector has an important role to play, in undertaking collaborative research with cultural institutions to tackle some of the thornier challenges surrounding the persistence of born digital cultural heritage.

Works cited

UNESCO. “UNESCO/UBC Vancouver Declaration, The Memory of the World in the Digital Age: Digitization and Preservation.” N.p., 2012. Web. 17 Dec. 2012.

UNESCO/PERSIST Content Task Force. “The UNESCO/PERSIST Guidelines for the Selection of Digital Heritage for Long-Term Preservation.” 2016. Web.

 

[1] The “Play It Again” project received support under the Australian Research Council’s Linkage Projects funding Scheme (project number LP120100218). See our research blog and the “Popular Memory Archive” for more information on the project.

 

Bios

Associate Professor Melanie Swalwell is a scholar of digital media arts, cultures, and histories. She is the recipient of an ARC Future Fellowship for her project “Creative Micro-computing in Australia, 1976-1992”. Between 2011-15, she was Project Leader and Chief Investigator on the ARC Linkage Project “Play It Again“. In 2009, Melanie was the Nancy Keesing Fellow (State Library of New South Wales). She has authored chapters and articles in both traditional and interactive formats, in such esteemed journals as ConvergenceVectors, and the Journal of Visual Culture. Melanie’s projects include:

  • “Creative Micro-computing in Australia, 1976-1992”. Watch the filmhere.
  • Australasian Digital Heritage, which gathers together several local digital heritage research projects. Follow us onFacebook & Twitter @ourdigiheritage
  • Play It Again: Creating a Playable History of Australasian Digital Games, for Industry, Community and Research Purposes”, ARC Linkage, 2012-14. Follow us onFacebook & Twitter @AgainPlay, and visit the Popular Memory Archive.

 

Angela Ndalianis is Professor in Screen Studies at Melbourne University, and the Director of the Transformative Technologies Research Unit (Faculty of Arts). Her research interests include: genre studies, with expertise in the horror and science fiction genres; entertainment media and media histories; the contemporary entertainment industry. Her publications include Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (MIT Press 2004), Science Fiction Experiences (New Academia 2010), The Horror Sensorium; Media and the Senses (McFarland 2012) and The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (editor, Routledge 2008). She is currently completing two books: Batman: Myth and Superhero; and Robots and Entertainment Culture. She is also a Fellow of the Futures of Entertainment Network (U.S), and is the Hans Christian Andersen Academy’s Visiting Professor (2015-7), a position also affiliated with the University of Southern Denmark.   

Defining the Experience: George Poonhkin Khut’s DISTILLERY: WAVEFORMING, 2012 – Amanda Pagliarino & George Poonhkin Khut

 

Abstract:  George Poonkhin Khut’s sensory artwork, Distillery: Waveforming 2012, was the winner of the 2012 National New Media Art Award. This immersive installation artwork is a biofeedback, controlled interactive that utilises the prototype iPad application ‘BrightHearts’. Khut has an interest in the continued development of the ‘BrightHearts’ app to the point of making it available as a download from iTunes App Store to be used in conjunction with specialised pulse-sensing hardware.  The configuration of Distillery: Waveforming presented in 2012 at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, incorporated Apple iPad 4th generation devices running the ‘BrightHearts’ app supported by Mac mini computers that processed data and mapped sound and visuals that were fed back to users as animations on the iPads. At the conclusion of the exhibition the artwork was acquired into the Queensland Art Gallery collection.  The Curator of Contemporary Australian Art requested that the acquisition ensure that the artwork was captured in perpetuity in its prototype state.  The iPad devices underwent jailbreaks to safeguard their independent operation and management, and to allow for the permanent installation of non-expiring copies of the ‘BrightHearts’ app.  Source code for the ‘BrightHearts’ app was also archived into the collection. This paper describes the development of the artwork and the issues that were addressed in the acquisition and archiving of an iPad artwork

 

Figure 1. George Poonkhin Khut, Australia b.1969, Distillery: Waveforming 2012, Custom software and custom heart rate monitor on iPad and Mac mini signal analysis software: Angelo Fraietta and Tuan M Vu; visual effects software: Jason McDermott, Greg Turner; electronics and design: Frank Maguire; video portraits: Julia Charles, Installed dimensions variable, The National New Media Art Award 2012. Purchased 2012 with funds from the Queensland Government. Image: Mark Sherwood

Figure 1. George Poonkhin Khut, Australia b.1969, Distillery: Waveforming 2012, Custom software and custom heart rate monitor on iPad and Mac mini signal analysis software: Angelo Fraietta and Tuan M Vu; visual effects software: Jason McDermott, Greg Turner; electronics and design: Frank Maguire; video portraits: Julia Charles, Installed dimensions variable, The National New Media Art Award 2012. Purchased 2012 with funds from the Queensland Government. Image: Mark Sherwood

George Poonhkin Khut’s digital artwork Distillery: Waveforming is a body-focused, controlled, interactive experience. The artwork was acquired by the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in 2012 and has been the subject of an ongoing dialogue between the artist and the Gallery, through the Head of Conservation and Registration, regarding its long-term preservation.  At the heart of the artwork is an individual, human experience with certain intrinsic elements combining to create this experience. In their endeavour to provide a sound future plan for Distillery: Waveforming they have questioned ‘the experience’ from their individual perspectives – that of the artist and the collecting institution.

Distillery: Waveforming is both an independent artwork and an affiliated outcome of Khut’s long running work with heart rate biofeedback. This unusual duality plays a significant role in the ways in which the artist and the institution perceive the artwork, its preservation and future installations. Since the artwork’s acquisition into the QAGOMA collection the artist has remained involved and interested in the Gallery’s management of Distillery: Waveforming. Khut’s progress in his work on the biofeedback project has seen him make significant advances in software development, allowing him to release the iTunes application BrightHearts that was in-development at the time that Distillery: Waveforming was created. These advances in the biofeedback project provide current context to the dialogue and continue to shape the opinions of both artist and institution. Through this collaborative process QAGOMA has been able to build an extensive resource for the long-term preservation of Distillery: Waveforming.

HISTORY AND BACKGROUND: BIOFEEDBACK IN ART AND MEDICINE

George Poonhkin Khut’s biofeedback artwork Distillery: Waveforming was the winning entry in the 2012 National New Media Award (NNMA) held at the Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA 2012). The artwork entered the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art collection at the conclusion of the exhibition. The curator of Contemporary Australian Art requested that the artwork be acquired to accurately reflect its display in the NNMA exhibition – that is as a prototype.

In 2011 when Khut was invited to enter the NNMA he was working as the Artist in Residence at the Children’s Hospital Westmead. In this residency Khut and his research colleagues commenced the BrightHearts Project that aimed ‘to assess the potential of small, portable biofeedback-based interactive artworks to mediate the perception and performance of the body in paediatric care: as experienced by children undergoing painful recurrent procedures’ (Khut et.al 2011).

Apple iPads loaded with games were already in use for diversion and distraction purposes during painful procedures at the Children’s Hospital Westmead. Khut chose to adapt his work for iPad technology for the BrightHearts Project based on this ‘diversional’ precedent and the excellent optical qualities of the iPad display (Khut 2014). In realising Distillery: Waveforming Khut channelled years of artistic practice in biofeedback and body-focused interactivity in the development of a cross-disciplinary artwork at the core of which was the prototype BrightHearts application (app) for Apple iPad.

When Distillery: Waveforming was displayed in the NNMA exhibition, from August to November 2012, the BrightHearts app was still in-development under a short-term Apple Developer licence. At this point in the provisioning, the prototype app generated the visuals on the iPad in response to a multilayered array of messages transmitted from a laptop or desktop computer over a network connection. This approach enable Khut to quickly prototype a variety of visualisation ideas by adjusting parameters on the desktop computer, without needing to compile and install the app on to the iPad each time. More importantly, at the time of its development – this networked approach also enabled him to incorporate live heart rate sensor data in a way that was not supported by the Apple operating system (iOS) at the time (before the introduction of the Bluetooth 4.0 wireless standard), and to continue his work with complex signal analysis, mapping and sonification algorithms that have been central to his work with body-focussed interactions since 2003. Essentially Distillery: Waveforming and the trial therapeutic devices at the Children’s Hospital Westmead were operating as ensembles that included iPads loaded with the prototype BrightHearts app, data collection devices, and desktop/laptop computers and network routing systems.

DISTILLERY: WAVEFORMING

Acquiring Distillery: Waveforming to reflect its status as a prototype was a curatorial imperative. Khut describes his approach to the long-running biofeedback project as ‘iterative’ and in this regard the artwork is an incremental representation of Khut’s artistic practice and a model demonstration of the developmental BrightHearts app for touch screen devices (Khut and Muller 2005). In the future Distillery: Waveforming will become a legacy artwork intrinsically linked to past and future iterations in the biofeedback project.

Distillery: Waveforming derives from Khut’s earlier work on BrightHearts that commenced in 2011 and his Cardiomorphologies series from 2004-2007. The mandala-like visuals were initially developed for Cardiomorphologies v.1 by John Tonkin using Java programming which Khut controlled via Cycling’74’s Max (version 4.5) application, a popular visual programming language for Apple and Windows computers. In 2005 the original visualisation software was expanded upon by Greg Turner for Cardiomorphologies v.2 using visuals generated from within the Max application. Turner used the C++ programming language to develop ‘Fireball’ a specialised graphic module (known in the Max programing environment as an ‘object’) – that enabled Khut to control the visuals with messages to each layer, for example, drawing a red coloured ring, the width of the screen, with a thickness of 20 pixels, and a green circle with a gradient, with a diameter of 120 pixels (Khut 2014; Pagliarino 2015, pp. 68-69).

Then in 2011 Jason McDermott, a multi-disciplinary designer working in the area of information visualisation and architecture, was engaged to re-write Greg Turner’s ‘Fireball’ visualisation software to enable it to run on hand-held technologies with touch sensitive controls. Using the open source C++ library openFrameworks with Apple’s Xcode (version 4) McDermott redesigned and expanded the potential of the software, developing BrightHearts as an iOS 5 mobile operating system application (McDermott 2013).

Development of the app continued when Khut received the NNMA prize worth AUS$75,000 and in April 2014 the BrightHearts app was released into the iTunes store. Heart rate data acquisition and processing is now integrated into the application software and the only external device that is required in conjunction with the app is a Bluetooth 4.0 heart rate monitor that captures the real-time heart rate data. The app is categorised as a Health and Fitness product that can be used to assist with relaxation and body awareness (iTunes 2014).

This history of development, change, modification and repurposing creates a landscape in which Distillery: Waveforming is an important new media artwork. As a legacy artwork the Gallery aims to maintain the component parts and software in their original form and function for as long as possible. Technologies change at such a rapid rate that the artwork will date in the years to come to reflect, quite evidently, an artwork of 2012.  Perhaps future users will consider what are at present beautifully rich and transcendent animations as rudimentary and the touch screen navigation amusing and unsophisticated. Perhaps future users will recapture the sense of appeal that early touch screen devices inspired in consumers. However, it is not the intention of the Gallery to create a sense of nostalgia but to offer insights into the balance between art, technology and science at this fixed point in time.  As a legacy the artwork will be an authentic installation and will offer an unambiguous window into Khut’s interdisciplinary artistic practice.

In its presentation in the NNMA exhibition Distillery: Waveforming was configured of five iPad devices running the prototype BrightHearts app that were built into a long, shallow, tilled table at which participants sat on low stools to interact with the artwork. Specifications set by the artist allow the Gallery to modify the configuration for smaller displays of no fewer than three stations in future installations. However it is necessary that the ambiance of the installation space affect a sense of calm and contemplation by utilising low light levels, soft dark colours and discrete use of technology. In the original installation the spatial arrangement situated participants in front of three video portraits of the artwork in use (Fig 1). Distillery: Waveforming is a composite artwork incorporating the iPad devices loaded with the prototype BrightHearts app, external data collection and processing equipment and video portraits displayed on monitors. The combined hardware and software systems include:

  • Five Apple iPads (3rd generation) operating on the iOS 5.1.1 operating system, with retina display high resolution (2,048 x 1,536 pixels at 264 ppi) and dual-core Apple A5X chip

Loaded with:

  • BrightHearts app (in-development)
  • Cydia – a software application that enables the user to search for and install applications on jailbroken iOS devices
  • Activator app – a jailbreak application launcher for mobile devices
  • IncarcerApp – an application that disables the home button and effectively locks on the BrightHearts app when in use, preventing the user from inadvertently exiting the app
  • Five heart rate sensors incorporating Nonin PureSat Pulse Oximeters (ear clip type) sensors, a Nonin OEM III Pulse Oximetry circuits and Aduino Pro Mini 328 microcomputers, running specially written code (OemPulseFrank.pde) to receive the pulse data from the pulse oximeter sensors – and relay this to the MacMini’s via a USB-serial connection.
  • Five Mac minis 5.2, 2.5 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB RAM, 10.7.5 (OSX Lion) operating system

Running:

  • Max6 application (Cycling74, 2012)
  • Custom written scripts running from OSX ‘Terminal’ utility, that receive pulse data from the sensors via USB port and pass this along to Max6
  • One 5.0 GHz network router that transmits control data from the Max6 software on the Mac minis to the corresponding iPads.
  • Three digital portraits displayed on 40” LCD / LED monitors hung in portrait orientation
  • Video portrait files include MPEG-4, QuickTime ProRes and AVC file formats
  • Five headband-style stereo headsets

The prototype BrightHearts app for Distillery: Waveforming was written for Apple iPad (3rd gen) models running iOS 5.1.1. It was written under a short-term Apple Developer licence that allowed for provisioning and testing of the app on multiple devices. The licencing arrangement for the app expired in July 2013, nine months after the artwork was acquired by into the collection. A key aspect of archiving this artwork was the need to gain control of the app and in advance of the expiration the Gallery implemented an archiving strategy that was developed through consultation between the conservator, curator and the artist who was in contact with the software developer.

The most challenging aspect of the acquisition for the collecting institution was the long-term management of the proprietary technology and software. At the time of acquisition the prototype BrightHearts app was capable of performing a function with external support but did not have status as an independent Apple-approved application. In fact, its completion and approval was still one and half years away. It was also important for the iPad operating system to be locked down to iOS 5.1.1 as the prototype BrightHearts app for Distillery: Waveforming will only launch in this version. Through a consultative process it was agreed that to administer the artwork as an authentic prototype it was necessary to increase the end user control of the technology and software.  This was achieved through jailbreaking the iPad devices and loading a non-expiring copy of the prototype BrightHearts app on the iPads (Pagliarino 2015).

MAINTAINING AN AUTHENTIC EXPERIENCE

Distillery: Waveforming has been acquired with the intention of maintaining authenticity and as such the Gallery has archived a full complement of digital files for the artwork. Included in this is source code for compiling the BrightHearts application with Xcode and source code for compiling the pulse-sensing Arduino microcontrollers for which Khut owns both copyrights (Khut 2012).

In conventional object-oriented programming source code, a programming sequence in readable text, outlines the steps that are necessary to compile software and make it function as intended, for example an app for an iPad. The source code has to be interpreted or compiled by a programmer in order to create the necessary machine code, for example Xcode if the work is developed for Apple OSX. Acquiring source code is thought to be a means of future-proofing digital artworks (Collin and Perrin 2013, p.52). This is undeniable as without the source code there is very little that can be used as a structural guide. However, Laforet et al. (2010, p.27) questions whether source code can really act as a safety net for software artworks in an age where there is a strong commercial imperative driving the development of digital technologies at the expense of the conservation of data.  The success of source code to future-proof artworks relies on accurate interpretation and, in the context of an authentic experience, a complete lack of bias towards alternate or more efficient ways of programming the software to run an artwork as it was intended.

In cases where an artwork was developed using a suite of applications and programming languages, documenting source code becomes a complicated task in comparison to artworks where the source code is contained entirely within a single object-oriented programming environment. The programing for Distillery: Waveforming is distributed across three operating systems and four programming languages: Arduino for the sensor hardware; Objective C and iOS5 (via Xcode 4) for the BrightHearts app; OSX for the desktop computer that operates as a terminal emulator, running sensor data routing and analysis processes; and most significantly  Max,  the visual programing application that is used to perform the core analysis, mapping and sonification processes between the incoming heart rate data and the outgoing messages controlling the appearance of the various layers of the iPad visuals and sounds. Laforet et al. confirms that the difficulties faced with software artworks created by individual programmers are that:

These projects are relatively small efforts, putting the work created with it in a very fragile position. Unlike more popular software and languages, they are not backed up by an industry or a community demanding stability. The software only works under very specific conditions at a very specific time. Migrating such a work is a tremendous task, likely to involve the porting of a jungle of obscure libraries and frameworks. (Laforet et al. 2010, p. 29)

The complexity of combining multiple source codes from various programming platforms to work within one artwork significantly increases the risk of error in interpretation. In the case of Distillery: Waveforming it seems highly unlikely that source code alone would be sufficient to recreate the artwork in future. Khut has recognised this and has considered alternate bespoke and existing documentation systems for both Distillery: Waveforming and BrighHearts for the purpose of preservation and representation.

Visually the prototype BrightHearts app consists of 22 individually controlled graphic layers. Each layer is comprised of a single polygon that can be drawn as a solid shape or a ring, the edges of the shape can be blurred and the colour can be varied according to hue, saturation, alpha & value (brightness). The layers are then blended using an ‘additive’ compositing process, so that the layers interact with one another, for example a combination of overlapping red, green and blue shapes would produce white. This additive blending is a crucial aspect of the work’s visual aesthetic.

While the visuals are rendered on the iPad by the app developed by Jason McDermott, using Xcode and the openFrameworks libraries, the actual moment-by-moment instructions regarding what shapes are to be drawn, colour, size brightness etc. are all sent from the Max document.

The Max document, the top level ‘patch’ as it is referred to in the Max programming environment, is the heart of the work: the primary mediating layer between the sensor and display hardware that determines how changes in heart rate will control the appearance and sound of the work. It consists of an input section that receives sensor data, an analysis section that generates statistics from the heart rate measurements, and mapping layers that map these statistics to the various audio and graphic variables of colour, shape, volume etc.

The modular design methods used in the Max programming environment allow for the creation of modular units of code referred to as ‘abstractions’ and ‘bpatchers’, that can be re-used in multiple instances to process many variables using a very simple set of instructions. The programming for Distillery: Waveforming makes extensive use of these modules, which are stored as discreet ‘.maxpat’ files within the Max folder on the Mac mini computer. These modules are used for many of the repetitive statistical processes used to analyse the participant’s heart rate, as well as the mappings used to create the highly layered visuals and sounds that are central to the aesthetic of Distillery: Waveforming.

In the analysis section of the programming, changes in average heart rate are calculated over different time frames: the average rate of the last four heart beats, the average rate of the last sixteen heart beats, then thirty-two heart beats and so on, as well as information about the direction of these changes, enabling the work to track when the participant’s heart rate is starting to increase or decrease.

Within Max, the twenty-two graphic layers of visuals used in the prototype BrightHearts app, are each controlled by a corresponding ‘bpatcher’ layer-control module. Each of these ‘bpatcher’ modules contain 107 variables that determine how the parameters of all the layers are controlled. That is what aspect of the participant’s heart rate patterning it responds to and how these changes are mapped to variables such as diameter and colour of the layer in question.

Each layer-control module is comprised of sixteen sub-modules responsible for specific aspects of each layer’s appearance such as diameter, hue, saturation, and shape-type. In the programming of the layer-control modules the boxes of numbers visible in each module describe how incoming data relating to heart rate is mapped to the behaviour of the layer, in this case its diameter, and what statistical information it will respond to such as a running average of the last thirty-two heart beats, a normalised and interpolated waveform representing breath-related variations in heart rate, or the pulse of each heartbeat (Fig 2).

Figure 2: Four of the twenty-two layer-control mapping modules in Max – used to control the shapes drawn on the iPad by the BrightHearts (prototype) app.

All of these variables, controlling the appearance of each layer, are stored and recalled using a table of preset values describing which statistics each layer and variable responds to and how it interprets this input. These numbers are adjusted by the artist to produce the desired mapping and dynamic range and then stored in the .json file and recalled as presets. The information contained in this table is stored as a ‘preset file’ in a .json xml format file that is read when the Max document is launched. These preset files document the precise mapping and scaling settings that determine the appearance and behaviour of each layer of the artwork. Together these layered behaviours and the preset values that describe them produce the final interactive visual aesthetic of the artwork.

Figure 3: Example of one section of the .json ‘preset’ file containing preset data that is read by each of the graphics mapping modules – in this example showing all the parameters used to control the behaviour of the diameter  for Layer 15.

 

For the artist, these preset tables are of central importance for documenting the appearance and interactive behaviour of the artwork for future interpretations, since it is these values that determine how the work responds to changes in the participant’s heart rate.

Strategies for hardware independent migration and reinterpretation

Khut has begun the process of documenting and describing the interactive principles and behaviour of the artwork independent from current technologies to enable the work to be recreated in the future, based on the Variable Media Network approaches set out by Ippolito (2003a).

For creators working in ephemeral formats who want posterity to experience their work more directly than through second-hand documentation or anecdote, the variable media paradigm encourages creators to define their work independently from medium so that the work can be translated once its current medium is obsolete.
This requires creators to envision acceptable forms their work might take in new mediums, and to pass on guidelines for recasting work in a new form once the original has expired.

Variable Media Network, Definition – Ippolito, 2003b

For Khut, the essence of the artwork that would need to be preserved and recreated, independent of the specific technologies currently used, is the experience of having one’s breathing, nervous system, pulse and heart rate patterning represented in real time in an interactive audio visual experience, and the various optical and kinaesthetic sensations and correlations that are experienced during this interaction.

Taking an experience-centred approach it is not the source code as much as the experience of the visuals and sounds changing in response to the live heart rate data that is most essential to recreating the artwork. The aesthetic experience of interacting with the artwork, and the maner in which it responds to changes in heart rate initiated through slow breathing and relaxation is crucial to its authenticity.

The schematic approach: an open ‘score’ for reinterpretation

The simplest approach to documentation for future reinterpretation is the use of a very flexible set of instructions outlining the core interactive form and behaviour of the artwork. This approach leaves many aspects of the artwork’s appearance open to interpretation. Essentially what is preserved is the basic nature of the transformation – from breath, pulse and nervous system to colour, diameter, shape and sound. Such an approach would comprise the following instructions:

The visuals and sounds have been designed to respond to two forms of interaction:
1) gradual decreases in heart rate caused by a general increase in the participants ‘parasympathetic’ nervous system activity that can be initiated through conscious relaxation of muscles in the face, neck, shoulders and arms,

2) breath-related variations in heart rate known as ‘respiratory sinus arrhythmia’ whereby slow inhalation causes an increase in heart rate, and slow exhalation causes a decrease in heart rate.

The result being a wave-like (sine) oscillation in heart rate to which the work owes its name (wave forming).

 

Features extracted from Participant’s pulse and heart rate Name of modulation source (controling the sounds/visuals) Visual representation on tablet surface Sonic representation as heard through headphones
Pulsing heart beat /beat/bang Gently throbbing circular shapes that either contract subtly with each pulse, or darken slightly with each pulse – to create a visual effect of subtle pulsing. A deep and soft throbbing noise that gets louder and brighter as heart rate increases, and softer as heart rate decreases.
Breath-related variations in heart rate – normalised and rescaled to emphasise slow, wave-like oscillations in heart rate that can be induced through recurrent slow breathing at around 6 breaths per minute. /IBI/dev-mean/4/normalised Ring-shaped layers that expand when heart rate is increasing, and contract when heart rate is decreasing. Synthesized drone sound, modulated with a ‘phasor’ effect controlled by breath-related changes in heart rate.
Gradual changes in average heart rate (average of last 32 beats) mediated by changes in autonomic nervous system (stress/relaxation), neck, shoulder arm muscle relaxation etc. /IBI/how-slow/32 Colour of background gradient – red for fastest heart rates recorded since start of session, green for medium, and blue for slowest average heart rate recorded since start of session. Pitch of synthesized drone sound – crossfades through overlapping notes in C Melodic Minor scale – from B6 to A2
threshold points triggered by decreases in heart rate (/IBI/how-slow/32) musical notes and burst of colour. Circular, expanding bursts of colour from centre – fading out when they reach the edge of the frame. Highly reverberant electric piano sounds triggered when threshold crossed – synchronised with burst of colour. Pitch descends in C Melodic Minor scale according to decrease in heart rate
When participants sustain a slow relaxed breath pattern at around 6 breaths per minute, Frequency-domain analysis of heart rate variability will report the appearance of a ‘resonant peak’ around 0.1Hz (6 breaths per minute). There are six thresholds: 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50. Each time one of these thresholds is crossed – a message is generated that is used to control an audio and visual event /spectrum/resonant-peak-resonance A large, soft-edged blue ring expands slowly out beyond the edges of the frame and then slowly fades away.

 

Threshold 25 = yellow

Threshold 30 = yellow-green

Threshold 35 = green-yellow

Threshold 40 = green

Threshold 45 = cyan

Threshold 50 = indigo

 

 

Very soft, muted and heavily reverberated piano note, with slow decay

 

Threshold 25 = D#3

Threshold 30 = A#3

Threshold 35 = D#4

Threshold 40 = F4

Threshold 45 = G4

Threshold 50 = A#4

Table 1: showing relationship of key mappings in Distillery Waveforming heart rate controlled artwork. Table 1 lists the key heart rate variables and their mapping to the main visual and sonic representations. The most basic recreation of the work according to the scheme laid out in this table would still require instructions for obtaining and generating the modulation sources from the heart rate data: the algorithms that scale and interpolate the heart rate data and translate these beat-by-beat messages into smooth, continuous control signals.

The translation approach: calibration tools and resources

A second, more precise approach for reinterpretation provides a set of documents to help future developers interpret and translate the original code and .json preset data to provide an aesthetic experience more closely aligned to the artwork at the time it was acquired by QAGOMA (Fig 3). This information is contained in a set of calibration images and accompanying tables that provide a crucial link for reinterpretations of the artwork, allowing future programmers to determine how values stored in the original preset files relate to the appearance of each of the work’s 22 graphic layers. Many aspects of the prototype BrightHearts app’s interpretation of these messages are not linear in their response and it can be seen that the gradients for each shape blend differently according to hue (Fig 4). It is hoped that these calibration images will help future programmers to compare how their own code interprets the messages stored in the preset files, against the behaviour and appearance of original prototype BrightHearts iPad app.

Figure 4: Example of one of the calibration images and accompanying tables describing how the messages from the Max software are interpreted by the visualisation software of the BrightHearts (prototype) App on the iPad.

Figure 4: Example of one of the calibration images and accompanying tables describing how the messages from the Max software are interpreted by the visualisation software of the BrightHearts (prototype) App on the iPad.

 

Summary of documentation strategy for future translation

Documentation element Description
Broad schematic mapping of real time heart rate statistics to sounds and visuals Describes the basic interaction concept and interaction experience: images and sounds controlled by slow changes in heart rate that can be influenced through slow breathing and relaxation/excitement.
Experiential aims and conditions for interaction Describes the environmental conditions proscribed by the artist – to ensure optimum conditions for interaction i.e. minimise audio-visual distractions.
Documentation of Max patch: Annotations in each section of Max code: the subsections (‘subpatches’, ‘abstractions’, and ‘bpatchers’) of the main file – describe the flow of information, through each section.

Document each section as a numbered image file, accompanied by notes describing how information is being modified/transformed.

Heart Rate Analysis
Sounds
Visuals – misc. top-level controls i.e. manage storage and retrieval of preset data, transition to ‘live’ visuals, control overall size, hue, position etc.
Annotated table of preset values describing the mapping of heart rate information to the behaviour of the visuals, extracted from .json presets Describing how each layer responds to the various heart rate statistics, and the quality of response over time (i.e. ‘easing’, non-linear scaling etc.)
iPad visuals – Annotated Calibration Images and tables, Indicating how the visuals should look given specific layer-control messages i.e. diameter, hue, alpha etc. describing the idiosyncrasies of the visualisation code.

Table 2 – George Khut’s documentation strategy for “Distillery: Waveforming

 

Conclusions

For Khut, Distillery: Waveforming is foremost an experiential artwork and therefore his ideas about documentation focus on capturing its functionality and the aesthetics of the interaction. Khut sees the fundamental element of Distillery: Waveforming to be something other than the source code and the technical hardware: namely the mappings between breath and relaxation-mediated changes in heart rate and the appearance of the sounds and visuals, and how these mappings give form to the subject’s experience of interactions between their breath, heart rate and autonomic nervous system.

The modular Max patch programming and the presets in the .json file form, for the artist, the compositional heart of Distillery: Waveforming. This programming draws the visuals in response to the real time heart rate data: the key to the artwork. By further documenting the interactive principles independent from the current technology, drawing on approaches proposed in the Variable Media Questionnaire, Khut has developed reference documents that allow for the translation of the original preset data and calibration for future interpretations of the visualisation software.  In this way Khut can describe the artwork with greater clarity in a non-vernacular, opening up opportunities for the artwork to be recreated in alternate modes.

As an artwork in the QAGOMA collection, Distillery: Waveforming sets a precedent as the first prototype-artwork to be acquired. Technology-based digital artworks are prone to being superseded at a rapid pace and attempting to manage even the medium-term future for such artworks is perplexing. To gain the assistance of the artist at the time of acquisition is constructive and very beneficial, but to secure the commitment of the artist to engage in collaborative, long-term conservation strategies is extraordinary and this has resulted in the Gallery acquiring an unparalleled archival resource (Pagliarino 2015, p. 74). Although the Gallery maintains an interest and intention to preserve Distillery: Waveforming in its original developmental state, providing clear evidence of Khut’s ‘iterative’, evolving art practice, the archival resource provides scope to reinterpret the artwork at some point in the future when the original technology no longer functions as intended.

Through this process of defining the experience, the artist and the institution have collaboratively addressed their common and divergent interests in the future care of Distillery: Waveforming. These differing views have created an opportunity to better understand the artwork and its position as an asset within a state collection and a physical, historical link to an ongoing, evolving artistic practice. Khut’s continued interest in the preservation of Distillery: Waveforming and his participation in dialogues about this artwork and other iterations of the biofeedback project have provided the Gallery with an extraordinary reference and flexibility to manage and display the artwork long into the future.

 

 

Works Cited

Collin, JD and Perrin, V 2013, ‘Collecting Digital Art: Reflections and Paradoxes – Ten years’ experience at the Espace multimedia gantner’ in Serexhe, Berhnard(Ed.), Digital Art Conservation – Preservation of digital art theory and practice, Germany, ZKM Centre for Art and Media Karlsruhe.

Cycling74, 2012, Max (version 6.0.8) computer software, Walnut, California, Accessed 22 September 2014.

Ippolito, Jon. 2003a, ‘Accomodating the Unpredictable’ in The Variable Media Approach: Permanence through change, Guggenheim Museum Publications, New York, and The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science & Technology, Montreal, pp. 46-53. Accessed 22 September 2014.

Ippoliti, Jon. 2003b, ‘Variable Media Network, Definition’ Accessed 22 September 2014.

iTunes 2014, ‘BrightHearts by Sensorium Health’ viewed 29 August 2014

Khut, George Poonkhin 2014, ‘On Distillery: Waveforming (2012)’ Born Digital and Cultural Heritage conference, Melbourne, Australia, 19-20 June 2014, viewed 29 August 2014

Khut, George Poonkhin 2014, personal communication, interview 5th September 2014.

Khut, George Poonkhin 2012, Distillery: Waveforming 2012 user’s manual (draft), in the possession of the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane.

Khut, George Poonkhin, Morrow, A & Watanabe, MY 2011, ‘The BrightHearts Project: A new approach to the management of procedure-related paediatric anxiety’, Preceding of OzCHI 2011: The Body InDesign.  Design, Culture & Interaction, The Australasian Computer Human Interaction conference, Canberra, Australia, 28-29 November 2011, pp. 17-21.

Khut, George Poonkhin  & Muller, L 2005, ‘Evolving creative practice: a reflection on working with audience experience in Cardiomorphologies’, in Lyndal Jones, Pauline Anastasious, , Rhonda Smithies, Karen Trist,  (Eds.), Vital Signs: creative practice and new media now, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, Australia, RMIT Publishing.

Anne Laforet, Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk,  2010, ‘Rock, paper, scissors and floppy disks’, in Annet Dekker (ed.), Archive 2020: Sustainable archiving of born digital cultural content, Virtueel Platform, viewed 4 February 2014, pp.25-36.

McDermott, J 2013, ‘Bright Hearts (2011)’, jmcd, viewed 4 September 2013, <http://www.jasonmcdermott.net/portfolio/bright-hearts>

Pagliarino, Amanda 2015, ‘Life beyond legacy: George Poonhkin Khut’s Distillery: Waveforming’, AICCM Bulletin, vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 67-75.

Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, 2012, National New Media Award 2012 – George Poonkhin Khut 2012 NMA winner, QAGOMA, viewed 15 October 2014.

 

Bios

Amanda PAGLIARINO is Head of Conservation at the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.  Since 2003 she has worked on the conservation of audiovisual and electronic artworks in the Gallery’s collection. Amanda received a Bachelor of Visual Arts from the Queensland University of Technology in 1991 and a Bachelor of Applied Science, Conservation of Cultural Material from the University of Canberra in 1995.

George Poonkhin Khut is an artist and interaction-designer working across the fields of electronic art, interaction design and arts-in-health. He lectures in art and interaction design at UNSW Art & Design (University of New South Wales, Faculty of Art  & Design) in Sydney, Australia. Khut’s body-focussed interactive and participatory artworks use bio-sensing technologies to re-frame experiences of embodiment, health and subjectivity. In addition to presenting his works in galleries and museums, George has been developing interactive and participatory art with exhibitions and research projects in hospitals, starting with “The Heart Library Project” at St. Vincent’s Public Hospital in 2009, and more recently with the “BrightHearts” research project – a collaboration with Dr Angie Morrow, Staff Specialist in Brain Injury at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Kids Rehab, that is evaluating the efficacy of his interactive artworks as tools for helping to reduce the pain and anxiety experienced by children during painful and anxiety-provoking procedures.

 

Volume 27, 2016

Themed Issue: Born Digital Cultural Heritage

Edited by Angela Ndalianis & Melanie Swalwell

Introduction: Born Digital Heritage – Angela Ndalianis & Melanie Swalwell

  1. It Is What It Is, Not What It Was: Making Born Digital Heritage – Henry Lowood
  2. Defining The Experience: George Poonhkin Khut’s Distillery: Waveforming, 2012 – Amanda Pagliarino & George Poonkhin Khut
  3. There and Back Again: A Case History of Writing The Hobbit – Veronika Megler
  4. Participatory Historians in Digital Cultural Heritage Process: Monumentalization of the First Finnish Commercial Computer Game – Jaakko Suominen and Anna Sivula
  5. Retaining Traces of Composition in Digital Manuscript Collections: a Case for Institutional Proactivity – Millicent Weber

There and Back Again: A Case History of Writing The Hobbit – Veronika M. Megler

Abstract: In 1981, two Melbourne University students were hired part-time to write a text adventure game. The result was the game The Hobbit (Melbourne House, 1981), based on Tolkien’s book (Tolkien), which became one of the most successful text adventure games ever. The Hobbit was innovative in its use of non-deterministic gameplay, a full-sentence parser, the addition of graphics to a text adventure game and finally “emergent characters” – characters exhibiting apparent intelligence arising out of simple behaviours and actions – with whom the player had to interact in order to “solve” some of the game’s puzzles. This paper is a case history of developing The Hobbit, and covers the development process, the internal design, and the genesis of the ideas that made The Hobbit unique.

 

Fig.1 - C64/128 The Hobbit (disk version). Melbourne House.

Figure 1.  C64/128 The Hobbit (disk version). Melbourne House.

Introduction

This paper is a case history of the development of the text adventure game, The Hobbit (Melbourne House, 1981). The game was a translation of Tolkien’s novel of the same name (Tolkien) into a game that could run on the first generation of home computers that were just beginning to hit the market.

As co-developer of The Hobbit, I offer my recollections of the development process, the internal design, and the genesis of the ideas that made the game unique. Those ideas included the use of non-deterministic gameplay – the game played differently every time and sometimes could not be completed due to key characters being killed early in the game – very different to other games, which had only a single path through the game and responded the same way each time they were played. The Hobbit contained a full-sentence parser that understood a subset of natural language, dubbed Inglish, as compared to the simple “verb noun” constructions accepted by other adventure games of the time. There were graphic renditions of some of the game locations, another groundbreaking addition to a text adventure game. And finally, “emergent characters” – non-player characters exhibiting apparent personalities and intelligence – with whom the player had to interact in order to solve some of the game’s puzzles. In combination, these features led to a game experience that transformed the industry.

Little has been written about the development of the first generation of text-based computer games; this case history provides insight into this developmental period in computer game history. I compare the development environment and the resulting game to the state-of-the-art in text adventure games of the time. Lastly, I discuss the legacy and recent revival of interest in the game.

“Let us not follow where the path may lead.
Let us go instead where there is no path,
And leave a trail.”

– Japanese Proverb

The Tenor of the Times 

It was early 1981. I was a Bachelor of Science student at Melbourne University, majoring in Computer Science (CS) and just starting my last year. These were the early days of Computer Science education, and the curricula required today for undergraduate Computer Science students had not yet been developed. In our classes we were studying topics like sort algorithms and data structures and operating systems such as BSD Unix. Another class focused on calculating rounding and truncation errors occurring as a result of a series of digital calculations. We were taught software development using a systems analysis method called HIPO[1] – Hierarchical Input-Process-Output, the best practice in structured programming – and that documenting our code was a good practice. Object-oriented programming was still in the future.

During our first couple of years in the CS program, programming projects were written using “mark sense cards”, which we marked up with pencils and fed into card readers after waiting in a long queue of students – sometimes for an hour or two to get a single run. You had to get the program running within a certain number of runs or the card reader would redistribute the lead across the cards, making them illegible.

By the time we reached the last year of the Bachelor’s degree, in our CS classes we were actually allowed to log onto a Unix machine in the lab and work there, if we could get access to a terminal (which often meant waiting for hours, or booking a timeslot, or waiting till late in the evening). We programmed in Pascal, Fortran, Assembler, C (our favorite), and Lisp. Our favorite editor was, universally, Vi. I remember programming a PDP8 in Assembler to run a toy train around a set of tracks, switching the tracks as instructed; we hand-assembled the program, typed it in and debugged it using a hexadecimal keypad.

By this time I’d built my own PC, from a project in an electronics hobbyist magazine. I’d purchased the mother board, which came as a peg-board with a printed circuit on it, minus any components or cross-wiring. I would go to the electronics parts store with my list of chips, resistors, capacitors and diodes, and solder for my soldering iron.  In the store they’d say, “tell your boyfriend we don’t have these” – it was not even considered possible that I might be the person purchasing them. The system had a small number of bytes – around 128 bytes, I believe (that is not a misprint) – of free memory, and used a black and white TV as a monitor. For this system we wrote programs out on paper in a simple Assembler, hand-assembled it and typed it in using a hexadecimal keypad. There was no save function, so whenever the system restarted we had to re-type in the program. It was quite impressive to see the programs we could develop in that amount of space.

I was used to being one of around 2-4 women in my university classes, whether it was a smaller class of 30 students or one of the massive Physics classes holding perhaps two or three hundred. Sexism was alive and kicking. The norm for women – for most of the fellow students at my all-girl high school, MacRobertson – was to become secretaries or nurses (although my closest friend for many of those years became a lawyer, traveling to the ‘Stans to negotiate for oil companies, and is now chairman of the board). One fellow student (luckily, I don’t remember who) gave me the ultimate compliment: “you’re bright, for a girl!” In self-defense, I partnered with another woman – Kerryn – for any pair projects. Whenever we had 4-person group projects we joined with another frequent pair, Phil Mitchell and Ray, who were amongst the few men willing to partner with us; these group experiences later led to me recruiting the other three to work at Melbourne House.

My game-playing experience was very limited. There was a Space Invaders arcade game in the lobby of the student union at the university that I sometimes played. For a while there was a game of Pong there, too. The Unix system featured an adventure game we called AdventureColossal Cave, also often referred to as Classic Adventure (CRL, 1976). In our last year I played it obsessively for some time, mapping out the “maze of twisty little passages”, until I had made it to through the game once. At that point it instantly lost interest for me, and I don’t believe I ever played it again. I was not aware of any other computer games.

State-of-the-art PC games were a very new thing – PCs were a very new thing – and at the time were written in Interpretive Basic by hobbyists. Sometimes the games were printed in magazines, taking maybe a page or two at most, and you could type them into any computer that had a Basic interpreter and play them. The code was generally written as a long list of if-then-else statements, and every action and the words to invoke that action was hard-coded. The game-play was pre-determined and static. Even if you purchased the game and loaded it (from the radio-cassette that it was shipped on), you could generally solve the puzzles by reading the code. The rare games that were shipped as compiled Basic could still be solved by dumping memory and reading the messages from the dump.

Getting the Job

I was working early Sunday mornings as a part-time computer operator, but wanted a job with more flexibility. On a notice board I found a small advertisement looking for students to do some programming, and called. I met Alfred (Fred) Milgrom, who had recently started a company he called “Melbourne House”, and he hired me on the spot to write a game for him. Fred was a bit of a visionary in thinking that hiring students with Computer Science background could perhaps do a better job than the general state-of-the-art of self-taught hobbyists.

Fred’s specifications to me were: “Write the best adventure game ever.” Period.

I told Phil Mitchell about the job, as I thought he had the right skills. I brought him along to talk to Fred, who hired him to work on the game with me. Kerryn and Ray joined us later that year to write short games in Basic for publication in the books that Melbourne House was publishing. These books featured a series of games, most of them about a page or two in length. The books were often sold along with a radio-cassette from which you could load the game rather than having to type it in yourself. Ray only stayed briefly, but Kerryn I think stayed for most of the year, and wrote many games. She’d sit at the keyboard and chuckle as she developed a new idea or played a game she’d just written.

Software Design, Cro-Magnon Style

So, what would “the best adventure game ever” look like? I started with the only adventure game I’d ever played: Classic Adventure. What did I not like about it? Well, once I’d figured out the map and solved the puzzles, I was instantly bored. It played the same way every time. Each Non-Player Character (NPC) was tied to a single location, and always did the same thing. Lastly, you had to figure out exactly the incantation the game expected; if the game expected “kill troll”, then any other command – “attack the troll”, for example – would get an error message. You could spend a long time trying to figure out what command the game developer intended you to issue; as a result, most adventure games tended to have the same actions, paired with the same vocabulary.

Phil and I split the game cleanly down the middle, with clearly defined interfaces between the two halves. I took what today we would call the game engine, physics engine and data structures (although those terms did not exist then). Phil took the interface and language portion. I don’t remember who had the original idea of a much more developed language than the standard “kill troll” style of language used by other text adventures of the time; my thinking stopped at the level of having synonyms available for the commands. I had almost no involvement in the parser; I remember overhearing conversations between Fred and Phil as the complexity of what they were aiming at increased. For a time, Stuart Richie was brought in to provide language expertise. However, his thinking was not well suited to what was possible to develop in Assembler in the space and time available, so, according to what Phil told me at the time, none of his design was used – although I suspect that being exposed to his thinking helped Phil crystallize what eventually became Inglish. No matter what the user entered – “take the sharp sword and excitedly hack at the evil troll”, say, he’d convert it to a simple (action, target) pair to hand off to me: “kill troll”, or perhaps, “kill troll with sword”.  Compound sentences would become a sequence of actions, so “take the hammer and hit Gandalf with it” would come to me as two actions: “pick up hammer”, followed by a next turn of “hit Gandalf with hammer”.

I put together the overall design for a game that would remove the non-language-related limitations within a couple of hours on my first day on the job. I knew I wanted to use generalized, abstracted data structures, with general routines that processed that structure and with exits for “special cases”, rather than the usual practice of the time of hard-coding the game-play.  My intent was that you could develop a new game by replacing the content of the data structures and the custom routines – a “game engine” concept I did not hear described until decades later. We even talked about developing a “game editor” that would allow gamers to develop their own adventure games by entering items into the data structures via an interface, but I believe it was never developed. I very early on decided that I wanted randomness to be a key feature of the game – recognizing that that meant the game could not always be solved, and accepting that constraint.

I envisaged three data structures to be used to support the game: a location database, a database of objects and a database of “characters”. The location “database” (actually, just a collection of records with a given structure) was pretty straightforward, containing a description of the location and, for each direction, a pointer to the location reached. There could also be an override routine to be called when going in a direction. The override allowed features or game problems to be added to the game map: for example, a door of limited size (so you could not pass through it while carrying too many items) or a trap to be navigated once specific constraints had been met. There’s a location (the Goblin’s Dungeon) that uses this mechanism to create a dynamic map, rather than having fixed connections to other locations: for each direction, an override routine is called that randomly picks a “next location” for the character to arrive in from a given list of possible locations. Another innovation in the location database occurred when Phil added pictures to specific locations, and drew them when the player entered one of those locations. Rather than representing the entire map of the Middle Earth in the game (as I might do today), I simplified it into a set of individual locations where noteworthy events occurred in the story, and represented those as a linked set of locations, with the links oriented in the directions as laid out on the map. So, for example, “go North” from one location would immediately take you to the next location North in the game where a significant event occurred. I did not then have a notion of variable travel time based on distance between the two locations.

Similarly, I conceived of an object database with a set of abstract characteristics and possible overrides, rather than hard-coding a list of possible player interactions with specific objects as was done in other games. Each object had characteristics and constraints that allowed me treat them generically: weight, size, and so on – in effect, a simple (by today’s standards) physics engine. An object could have the capability to act as a container, and a container could be transparent or opaque; a transparent container’s contents could be seen without having to open it first. There were generic routines that could be applied to all objects: for example, any object could be picked up by something bigger and stronger than it, or put into a bigger container (if there was enough room left in it). Some routines could be applied to any object that matched some set of characteristics; an object could also have a list of “special” routines associated with it that overrode the general routines. There was a general “turn on” routine that applied to lamps, for example, that could also be overridden for a magic lamp by a different, more complex “turn on” routine. I went through the book noting where objects were used to further the plot (swords, lamps, and most obviously, the ring), then added those objects to the game, with appropriate generic characteristics and actions (weight, the ability for lamps to be turned on) and special routines as needed (for example, the ring’s ability to make the wearer invisible).

Each non-player character (NPC) was also an object that began in an “alive” state, but could, due to events in the game, stop being alive – which allowed a player to, for example, use a dead dwarf as a weapon, in the absence of any other weapon). However, the physics engine caused “kill troll with sword” to inflict more damage than “kill troll with (dead) dwarf”.

In addition to regular object characteristics, each NPC had a “character”, stored in the third database. I conceived of an NPC’s character as being a set of actions that the NPC might perform, a sequence in which they generally performed them and a frequency of repetition. The individual actions were simple and were generally the same actions that a player could do (run in a given direction, attack another character, and so on); but again, these routines could be overridden for a specific character. The sequence could be fixed or flexible: an action could branch to a different part of the sequence and continue from there, or even jump to a random location in the sequence. The apparent complexity of the character comes from the length and flexibility of its action sequence; the character “emerges” as a result. For example, Gandalf’s short attention span and kleptomania were represented by a sequence like: “[go] <random direction>. [Pick up] <random object> [Say, “what’s this?”]. [Go] <random direction>. [Put down] <random object>.”

The division between inanimate object and NPC was left intentionally a little blurry, giving extra flexibility. For example, the object overrides could also be used to modify character behaviour. I actually coded an override where, if the player typed “turn on the angry dwarf”, he turned into a “randy dwarf” and followed the player around propositioning him.  If he was later turned off, he’d return to being the angry dwarf and start trying to kill any live character. Fred and Phil made me take that routine out.

In order to develop each character, I went through the book and, for each character, tried to identify common sequences of behavior that I could represent through a sequence of actions that would capture the “texture” of that character. Some characters were easy; for a troll, “{If no alive object in current location} [go] <random direction> {else} [kill] <random object with status ‘alive’>” was pretty much the whole list. Others were harder, such as characterizing Thorin; and yes, I did write the now-classic phrase, “Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold.” (I hereby apologize for how frequently he said that; short character-action list, you see.) An action could invoke a general routine which was the same for all NPCs – like, choose a random direction and run, or choose a live object in the location and kill it; or, it could be an action specific only to this NPC, as with Thorin’s persistent singing (as seen in Figure 2). For Gandalf, the generic “pick up” routine was used under the covers, but overridden for Gandalf to utter “what’s this”.

Figure 1. Gandalf and Thorin exhibit classic behavior. Courtesy Winterdrake.

Figure 2. Gandalf and Thorin exhibit classic behavior. Courtesy Winterdrake.

Sometimes an alternate behaviour list could be chosen based on events, as can be seen in Figure 2. For example, the friendly dwarf would become violent once he’d been attacked (or picked up). For a while, we had terrible trouble with all the NPCs showing up in one location and then killing each other before the player had the chance to work his way through the game, before I got the character profiles better adjusted. Some character would attack another, and once a battle was in progress any (otherwise friendly) character entering that location would be attacked and end up joining in. The same mechanism was used to allow the player to request longer-running actions from NPCs, such as asking a character to follow you when you needed them to help solve a puzzle in a (sometimes far) different location from where they were when you found them. In general the NPCs were programmed to interact with “another”, and did not differentiate whether the “other” was the player or not unless there was a game-related reason for doing so. The NPCs exhibited “emergent behaviour”; they just “played” the game themselves according to their character profile, including interacting with each other. In essence, the NPCs would do to each other almost anything that they could do to or with the player.

Phil programmed the interface to accept input from the player, and after each turn he would hand control to the NPC system, which would allow each (remaining) alive character to take a turn, as can be seen in Figures 2 and 3. For the time, this design was revolutionary; the model then was to have a single, non-mobile NPC in a single location, with only a couple of specific actions that were invoked once the player entered that location, and behaving the same way each time you played the game. Even in the arcade games of the time, we were able to identify that each object the player interacted with behaved the same way each time, and they did not interact with each other at all.

Figure 3. The player modifies Thorin’s default behavior – to the player’s cost.

Figure 3. The player modifies Thorin’s default behavior – to the player’s cost.

At the beginning of the game, we would generate, for each NPC, a random starting point in that NPC’s action list, giving the game much of its random nature. This combination of factors led to the “emergent characters”; or, seen another way, “a bunch of other characters just smart enough to be profoundly, infuriatingly stupid” (Maher).

I quickly transitioned to the concept of the player merely being another character, with a self-generated action list. At some point I experienced the emergent nature of the characters while trying to debug and was joking about the fact that the characters could play the game without the player being there; that discussion led naturally to the famous “time passes” function, where, if the player took too long in taking his next action (or, chose to “wait”, as in Figure 1), the characters would each take another turn. This feature, which Melbourne House trademarked as
“Animaction” (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.), was another innovation not seen in prior text adventures, where game-play depended wholly on the player’s actions. (It is also noteworthy how many of the game’s innovations began as jokes. I now believe this to be true of much innovation; certainly it has been, for the innovations I’ve been involved in.)

The next, seemingly obvious step to me was to allow – or even require – the player to ask the NPCs to perform certain tasks for him (as seen in Figure 4), and to set up puzzles that required this kind of interaction in order to solve them. This addition added another layer of complexity to the game. As commented by one fan, “As most veteran Hobbit players know, a good way to avoid starvation in the game is to issue the command “CARRY ELROND” whilst in Rivendell. In the game Elrond is a caterer whose primary function is to give you lunch and if you carry him then he will continue to supply you with food throughout the game.”[2] Another had a less tolerant view: “Sometimes they do what you ask, but sometimes they’re feeling petulant. Perhaps the seminal Hobbit moment comes when you scream at Brand to kill the dragon that’s about to engulf you both in flames, and he answers, “No.” After spending some time with this collection of half-wits, even the most patient player is guaranteed to start poking at them with her sword at some point.”[3]

Figure 4. The Hobbit starting location, and a player action that I never thought of.

Figure 4. The Hobbit starting location, and a player action that I never thought of.

The non-determinism of the overall game meant that it was not, in general, possible to write down a solution to the game. There were specific puzzles in the game, however, and solutions to these puzzles could be written down and shared. However, people also found other ways to solve them than I’d anticipated. For example: “A friend of mine has discovered that you can get and carry both Elrond and Bard. Carrying Elrond with you can by quite useful as he continuously distributes free lunches. And, to be honest, carrying Bard is the only way I’ve found of getting him to the Lonely Mountain. There must be a better way.” (“Letters: Gollum’s Riddle”) As commented by a retrospective, “And actually, therein sort of lies the secret to enjoying the game, and the root of its appeal in its time. It can be kind of fascinating to run around these stage sets with all of these other crazy characters just to see what can happen — and what you can make happen.” (Maher)

Inglish

While I worked on the game, Phil designed, developed and wrote the language interpreter, later dubbed Inglish. I had little interest in linguistics, so I generally tuned out the long discussions that Fred and Phil had about it – and was supported in doing so by the encapsulation and simple interface between the two “halves” of the game, which prevented me needing to know any more.

Figure 5. Opening scene from one of many foreign language versions.

Figure 5. Opening scene from one of many foreign language versions.

Every word was stored in the dictionary, and since only 5 bits are used to represent the English alphabet in lower-case ASCII, the other 3 bits were used by Phil to encode other information about speech parts (verb, adjective, adverb, noun), valid word usages, what pattern to use when pluralizing, and so on. I’ve seen screen images from versions of the game in other languages (e.g., Figure 5), but I do not know how the translations were done or how the design worked with these other languages.

 

Phil translated player commands into simple “verb object” commands to hand to me, with some allowed variations to allow for different action results. For example, I seem to remember that “viciously kill” would launch a more fierce attack, and use up more strength as a result, than just “kill”. Rather than a set of hard-coded messages (as was the norm), we generated the messages “on the fly” from the dictionary and a set of sentence templates. At the end of some action routine, I would have a pointer to a message template for that action. The template would contain indicators for where the variable parts of the message should be placed. I would then pass the message, the subject and object to the language engine. The engine would then generate the message, using, once again, spare bits for further customization.  To take a simple example, “Gandalf gives the curious map to you” used the same template as, say, “Thorin gives the axe to the angry dwarf”.

We were so limited by memory that we would adjust the size of the dictionary to fit the game into the desired memory size; so the number of synonyms available would sometimes decrease if a bug fix required more lines of code. It was a constant trade-off between game functionality and language richness. As a result of all the encoding, dumping memory – a common method of solving puzzles in other text adventures – provided no information for The Hobbit.

Software Development, Cro-Magnon-Style

Our initial development environment was a Dick Smith TRS80 look-alike, with 5 inch floppy drives. Initially I believe we used a 16k machine, then a 32k, and towards the end a 48k or perhaps 64k machine. Our target machine for the game was initially a 32k TRS80. During development, the Spectrum 64 was announced, and that became our new target. Game storage was on a cassette tape, played on a regular radio-cassette player. As the other systems became available we continued using the TRS80 platform as the development environment, and Phil took on the question of how to ports the game to other platforms.

We had a choice of two languages to use for development: Basic, or Assembler. We chose Assembler as we felt the added power offset the added difficulty in using the language.

During initial development, the only development tool available was a simple Notepad-like text editor, and the majority of code was written that way. Later I believe a Vi-like editor became available; even later, I have faint memories of a very early IDE that allowed us to edit, assemble the code and step through it (but that also inserted its own bugs from time to time).

We initially worked with the system’s existing random number generator, but realized that its pseudo-random nature made the game play the same way each time – against what I hoped to achieve. Phil then spent some time writing a “true” random number generator, experimenting with many sources of seed values before he was successful. He tried using the contents of various registers, but discovered that these were often the same values each time. He tried using the time, but the TRS80 did not have a built-in battery or time, and most people did not set the time each time they started the system – so again, if someone turned the machine on and loaded the game, we would get the same results each time. After some experimentation he finally succeeded, and the game – for better or worse, and sometimes for both – became truly random.

Debugging was a nightmare. Firstly, we were debugging machine code, initially without the advantage of an IDE; we ran the program, and when it crashed we tried to read the memory dumps. In Assembler, especially when pushing the memory limit of the system, the Basic programmer’s technique of inserting “print” statements to find out what is happening is not available. We had characters interacting with each other in distant parts of the game, and only actions in the current location were printed on the game player’s console. In one of several cases where a game feature was originally developed for other reasons, we initially wrote the “save” mechanism to help us debug parts of the game without having to start from the beginning each time. It then became part of the delivered version, allowing players to take advantage of the same function.

At some point, the idea of adding graphics came up, I think from Phil. Fred commissioned Kent Rees to draw the pictures, and Phil figured out how to draw them on the various systems; I do know that he adapted the pictures from the originals Kent provided in order to make them easier to draw. The first version of his code always drew the picture when you entered a location that had one; however, it was so slow and annoyed us (me) so much that Phil quickly added a switch to turn them off.

Sidelines

In between coding The Hobbit, we occasionally took time to work on other games. Fred would give us $20 to go and play arcade games, sometimes as often as each week, to see what other folk were doing and what the state of the art was in that industry. Someone in our group of four wrote a version of Pac-Man. We spent hours with one person playing Pac-Man, trying to get up to higher levels in the game, while the others leant over the arcade machine trying to figure out the algorithms that caused prizes to appear and how the behaviour changed across the game levels. We didn’t see it as piracy, as arcade games and home computers were at that time seen as being completely unrelated industries – it was more in the spirit of gaining ideas from another industry for application into ours.

Another game that we wrote was Penetrator (Melbourne House, 1981). Phil was the clear lead on that game while I worked on some pieces of it, and I think Kerryn may have worked on it a bit too.  It was a copy of the arcade game Scramble (Konami, 1981). Because of the speed (or lack thereof) of the processors at the time, we had to ensure that each separate path through the game took the same amount of time; even a difference of one “tstate” (processor state) between one path of an “if-then-else” to another would interfere with smooth motion, so we spent significant time calculating (by hand) the time taken by each path and choosing different Assembler instructions that would compensate for the differences (and given that “NO-op” took 2 tstates, it was not always easy). Another difficulty was getting the radars to turn smoothly, while handling the variable number of other activities taking place in the game. It took forever to get it “right”.

Figure 6. Screen shot from the game Penetrator

Figure 6. Screen shot from the game Penetrator

At the beginning we drew the screen bitmaps for all the landscapes on graph paper and then hand-calculated the hexadecimal representations of each byte for the screen buffer, but that became so tedious so quickly that Phil wrote an editor that we could use to create the landscapes. In the end the landscape editor was packaged with the game, as a feature.

Another “pressing” issue for shooter games of the time was that of keyboard debounce. At the time a computer keyboard consisted of an electrical grid, and when a key was pressed the corresponding horizontal and vertical lines would register a “high”. You checked the grid at regular intervals, and if any lines were registering high you used a map of the keyboard layout to identify the key that had been pressed. However, you had to stall for just the right amount of time before re-reading the keyboard; if you waited too long, the game seemed unresponsive, but if you read too quickly, you would read several key presses for each key press that the player intended. While it was possible to use the drivers that came with the keyboard, they did not respond quickly enough to use for interactive games. “Getting it right” was a tedious matter of spending hours fiddling with timings and testing.

Perhaps A Little Too Random

In addition to all the other randomness it exhibited, The Hobbit was also known to crash seemingly randomly. There were a number of reasons for this. Firstly, The Hobbit was a tough game to test. It was a much bigger game than others of the time. Unlike the other games, it was approximately 40k of hand-coded Assembler[4], as opposed to the commonly used interpreted Basic (a few more advanced games were shipped in compiled Basic). It was written without the benefit of formalized testing practices or automated test suites. The assembly and linking programs we used were also relatively new, and during development, we would find bugs in them. I remember spending hours debugging one time only to discover that the assembler had optimized away a necessary register increment, causing an infinite loop; I had a lot of trouble trying to invent a different coding sequence that prevented the assembler from removing the required increment. Altogether, I took away lessons about not letting your application get too far ahead of the ability of your infrastructure to support it.

Secondly, the game was non-deterministic; it was different every time it was played. It exhibited its own manifestation of chaos theory: small changes in starting conditions (initial game settings, all generated by the random number generator) would lead to large differences in how the game proceeded. Due to the “emergent characters”, we constantly had NPCs interacting in ways that had never been explicitly programmed and tested, or even envisioned. The game could crash because of something that happened in another location that was not visible to the player or to person testing the game, and we might never be able to identify or recreate the sequence of actions that led to it.

It was possible to have an instance of the game that was insoluble, if a key character required to solve a specific puzzle did not survive until needed (often due to having run into a dwarf on the rampage); this was a constraint I was happy to accept, though it frustrated some players. The ability to tell the NPCs what to do also meant that people told them things to do that we hadn’t accounted for. The very generality of the game engine – the physics, the language engine, and the ability for the player to tell characters what to do – led players to interact with the game in ways I’d never thought of, and that were certainly never tested. In some cases, they were things I didn’t realize the game was capable of.

Epilogue

The Hobbit was released in 1982 in Australia and the U.K. Figure 7 shows a typical packaging. It was an instant hit; amongst other awards, it won the Golden Joystick Award for Strategy Game of the Year in 1983, and came second for Best Game of the Year, after Jet-Pac. Penetrator came second in the Golden Joystick Best Arcade Game category, and Melbourne House came second for their Best Software House of the Year, after Jet-Pac’s publishers (“Golden Joystick Awards”). A couple of revisions were published with some improvements, including better graphics. Due to licensing issues it was some time before a U.S. release followed. The book was still covered by copyright and so the right to release had to be negotiated with the copyright holders, which were different in each country. The U.S. copyright holder had other plans for a future game. As a result, future book-based game ideas specifically chose books (such as Sherlock Holmes) that were no longer covered by copyright.

Figure 7. Game release package.

Figure 7. The Hobbit. Game release package.

At the end of 1981, I finished my Bachelor’s degree. We were beginning to discuss using the Sherlock Holmes mysteries as a next games project; I was not sure that the adventure game engine I’d developed was a good fit for the Sherlock style of puzzle solving, although there were definitely aspects that would translate across. However, I was also ready to start something new after a year of coding and debugging in Assembler. I’d proved that my ideas could work, and believed that the result Phil and I had produced was the desired one – an adventure game that solved all my frustrations with Classic Adventure, and in my mind (if not yet in other people’s) met Fred’s target of “the best adventure game ever”.

I interviewed with several major IT vendors, and took a job at IBM, as did Ray. Kerryn took a job in a mining company in Western Australia. Phil stayed on at Melbourne House (later Beam Software), the only member of our university programming team to continue on in the games industry. We eventually all lost touch.

During this time, I was unaware that the game had become a worldwide hit. Immersed in my new career, I lost touch with the nascent games industry. At IBM, I started at the same level as other graduates who had no experience with computers or programming; developing a game in Assembler was not considered professional or relevant experience. Initially I became an expert in the VM operating system (the inspiration and progenitor for VMWare, I’ve heard), which I still admire for the vision, simplicity and coherence of its design, before moving into other technical and consulting position. In late 1991 I left Australia to travel the world. I eventually stopped in Portland, Oregon, with a plan to return to Australia after 2 years – a plan that has been much delayed.

A 3-year stint in a global Digital Media business growth role for IBM U.S. in the early 2000’s brought me back in contact with games developers just as the movie and games industries were moving from proprietary to open-standards based hardware and infrastructure. The differences in development environments, with large teams and sophisticated supporting graphics and physics packages, brought home to me how far the games industry had come. But while I appreciate the physics engines and the quality of graphics that today can fool the eye into believing they are real, the basis of a good game has not changed: simple, compelling ideas still captivate and enchant people, as can be seen in the success of, for example, Angry Birds. I also believe that the constraints of limitations – such as small memories and slow processors – can lead to a level of innovation that less limited resources does not.

And Back Again

As the Internet era developed, I started receiving letters from fans of The Hobbit. The first person I recall tracking me down emailed me with an interview request for his Italian adventure fan-site in 2001, after what he said was a long, long search. The subsequent years made it easier to locate people on the Internet, and the emails became more frequent. At times I get an email a week from people telling me the impact the game had on the course of their lives.

In 2006, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) held an exhibition entitled “Hits of the 80s: Aussie games that rocked the world” (Australian Centre for the Moving Image), featuring The Hobbit. It felt a little like having a museum retrospective while still alive: a moment of truth of how much things have changed, and at the same time how little. The games lab curator, Helen Stuckey, has since written a research paper about the challenge of collecting and exhibiting videogames for a museum audience, using The Hobbit as an example (Stuckey).

In late 2009 I took an education leave of absence from IBM US to study for a Masters/PhD in Computer Science at Portland State University. (IBM and I have since parted company.) When I arrived one of the PhD students, who had played The Hobbit in Mexico as a boy, recognized my name and asked me to present on it. While searching the Internet for graphics for the presentation, I discovered screen shots in many different languages and only then began to realize the worldwide distribution and impact the game had had. Being in a degree program while describing work I’d done during my previous university degree decades before caused many conflicting emotions. I was also amazed at the attendance and interest from the faculty and other students.

In 2012, the 30-year anniversary of the release, several Internet sites and magazines published retrospectives; a couple contacted me for interviews, while others worked solely from published sources. The same year I was contacted by a fan who had been inspired by a bug (“this room is too full for you to enter”) to spend time over the intervening decades in reverse-engineering the machine code into a “game debugger” of the kind I wish we’d had when we originally developed it: Wilderland (“Wilderland: A Hobbit Environment”). It runs the original game code in a Spectrum emulator, while displaying the position and state of objects and NPCs throughout the game. His eventual conclusion was that the location is left over from testing (and I even have a very vague memory of that testing). That a game I spent a year writing part-time could cause such extended devotion is humbling.

In retrospect, I think we came far closer to Fred’s goal of “the best adventure game ever” than we ever imagined we would. The game sold in many countries over many years, and by the late 1980’s had sold over a million copies (DeMaria) – vastly outselling most other games of the time. During one interview, the interviewer told me that in his opinion, The Hobbit transformed the genre of text adventure games, and that it was the last major development of the genre: later games merely refined the advances made. Certainly Beam Software’s games after The Hobbit did not repeat its success.

While many of the publications, particularly at the time of release, focused on the Inglish parser, it is the characters and the richness of the gameplay that most people that contact me focus on. I believe that just as the game would have been less rich without Inglish, putting the Inglish parser on any other adventure game of the time would in no way have resembled the experience of playing The Hobbit, nor would it have had the same impact on the industry or on individuals.

In 2013, the Internet Archive added The Hobbit to its Historical Software Collection[5] – which, in keeping with many other Hobbit-related events, I discovered via a colleague’s email. Late that year, ACMI contacted me to invite me to join the upcoming Play It Again project[6], a game history and preservation project focused on ANZ-written digital games in the 1980s. That contact led to this paper.

As I complete this retrospective – and my PhD – I was again struck again by the power a few simple ideas can have, especially when combined with each other. It’s my favorite form of innovation. In the words of one fan, written 30 years after the game’s release, “I can see what Megler was striving toward: a truly living, dynamic story where anything can happen and where you have to deal with circumstances as they come, on the fly. It’s a staggeringly ambitious, visionary thing to be attempting.” (Maher) A game that’s a fitting metaphor for life.

Disclaimer

This paper is written about events 35 years ago, as accurately as I can remember. With that gap in time, necessarily some errors will have crept in; I take full responsibility for them.

 

 

References

Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc. The Hobbit: Guide to Middle-Earth. 1985.

Australian Centre for the Moving Image. “Hits of the 80s: Aussie Games That Rocked the World.” N.p., May 2007. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

Crowther, Will. Colossal Cave. CRL, 1976. Print.

DeMaria, Rusel Wilson, Johnny L. High Score!: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games. Berkeley, Cal.: McGraw-Hill/Osborne, 2002. Print.

Golden Joystick Awards. Computer and Video Games Mar. 1984 : 15. Print.

Letters: Gollum’s Riddle. Micro Adventurer Mar. 1984 : 5. Print.

Maher, Jimmy. “The Hobbit.The Digital Antiquarian. N.p., Nov. 2012. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

Mitchell, Phil, and Veronika Megler. Penetrator. Melbourne, Australia: Beam Software / Melbourne House, 1981. Web. <Described in: http://www.worldofspectrum.org/infoseekid.cgi?id=0003649>.

—. The Hobbit. Melbourne, Australia: Beam Software / Melbourne House, 1981. Web. <Described in: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hobbit_%28video_game%29>.

Stuckey, Helen. “Exhibiting The Hobbit: A Tale of Memories and Microcomputers.” History of Games International Conference Proceedings. Ed. Carl Therrien, Henry Lowood, and Martin Picard. Montreal: Kinephanos, 2014. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit, Or, There and Back Again,. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966. Print.

Wilderland: A Hobbit Environment. N.p., 2012. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

 

 

Notes:

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HIPO

[2] http://solearther.tumblr.com/post/38456362341/thorin-sits-down-and-starts-singing-about-gold

[3] http://www.filfre.net/2012/11/the-hobbit/

[4] An analysis by the Wilderland project (“Wilderland: A Hobbit Environment”) shows the following code breakdown: game engine and game, 36%; text-engine for input and output, the dictionary, the graphics-engine, and the parser 22%, graphics data 25%; character set (3%), buffers (8%), and 6% as yet unidentified.

[5] https://archive.org/details/The_Hobbit_v1.0_1982_Melbourne_House

[6] https://www.acmi.net.au/collections-research/research-projects/play-it-again/

 

Bio

Veronika M. Megler now works for Amazon Web Services in the U.S. as a Senior Consultant in Big Data and Analytics. She recently completed her PhD in Computer Science at Portland State University, working with Dr. David Maier in the emerging field of “Smarter Planet” and big data. Her dissertation research enables Information-Retrieval-style search over scientific data archives. Prior to her PhD, she helped clients of IBM U.S. and Australia adopt a wide variety of emerging technologies. She has published more than 20 industry technical papers and 10 research papers on applications of emerging technologies to industry problems, and holds two patents, including one on her dissertation research. Her interests include applications of emerging technologies, big data and analytics, scientific information management and spatio-temporal data. Ms. Megler was in the last year of her B.Sc. studies at Melbourne University when she co-wrote The Hobbit. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at vmegler@gmail.com.

It Is What It is, Not What It Was – Henry Lowood

Abstract: The preservation of digital media in the context of heritage work is both seductive and daunting. The potential replication of human experiences afforded by computation and realised in virtual environments is the seductive part. The work involved in realising this potential is the daunting side of digital collection, curation, and preservation. In this lecture, I will consider two questions. First, Is the lure of perfect capture of data or the reconstruction of “authentic” experiences of historical software an attainable goal? And if not, how might reconsidering the project as moments of enacting rather than re-enacting provide a different impetus for making born digital heritage?

Keynote address originally delivered at the Born Digital and Cultural Heritage Conference, Melbourne, 19 June 2014

Let’s begin with a question. When did libraries, archives, and museums begin to think about software history collections? The answer: In the late 1970s. The Charles Babbage Institute (CBI) and the History of Computing Committee of the American Federation of Information Processing Societies (AFIPS), soon to be a sponsor of CBI, were both founded in 1978. The AFIPS committee produced a brochure called “Preserving Computer-Related Source Materials.” Distributed at the National Computer Conference in 1979, it is the earliest statement I have found about preserving software history. It says,

If we are to fully understand the process of computer and computing developments as well as the end results, it is imperative that the following material be preserved: correspondence; working papers; unpublished reports; obsolete manuals; key program listings used to debug and improve important software; hardware and componentry engineering drawings; financial records; and associated documents and artifacts. (“Preserving …” 4)

Mostly paper records. The recommendations say nothing about data files or executable software, only nodding to the museum value of hardware artefacts for “esthetic and sentimental value.” The brochure says that artefacts provide “a true picture of the mind of the past, in the same way as the furnishings of a preserved or restored house provides a picture of past society.” One year later, CBI received its first significant donation of books and archival documents from George Glaser, a former president of AFIPS. Into the 1980s history of computing collections meant documentation: archival records, publications, ephemera and oral histories.

Software preservation trailed documentation and historical projects by a good two decades. The exception was David Bearman, who left the Smithsonian in 1986 to create a company called Archives & Museum Informatics (AHI). He began publishing the Archival Informatics Newsletter in 1987 (later called Archives & Museum Informatics). As one of its earliest projects, AHI drafted policies and procedures for a “Software Archives” at the Computer History Museum (CHM) then located in Boston. By the end of 1987, Bearman published the first important study of software archives under the title Collecting Software: A New Challenge for Archives & Museums. (Bearman, Collecting Software; see also Bearman, “What Are/Is Informatics?”)

In his report, Bearman alternated between frustration and inspiration. Based on a telephone survey of companies and institutions, he wrote that “the concept of collecting software for historical research purposes had not occurred to the archivists surveyed; perhaps, in part, because no one ever asks for such documentation!” (Bearman, Collecting Software 25-26.) He learned that nobody he surveyed was planning software archives. Undaunted, he produced a report that carefully considered software collecting as a multi-institutional endeavor, drafting collection policies and selection criteria, use cases, a rough “software thesaurus” to provide terms for organizing a software collection, and a variety of practices and staffing models. Should some institution accept the challenge, here were tools for the job.

Well, here we are, nearly thirty years later. We can say that software archives and digital repositories finally exist. We have made great progress in the last decade with respect to repository technology and collection development. Looking back to the efforts of the 1980s, one persistent issue raised as early as the AFIPS brochure in 1978 is the relationship between collections of historical software and archival documentation about that software. This is an important issue. Indeed, it is today, nearly forty years later, still one of the key decision points for any effort to build research collections aiming to preserve digital heritage or serve historians of software. Another topic that goes back to Bearman’s report is a statement of use cases for software history. Who is interested in historical software and what will they do with it? Answers to this fundamental question must continue to drive projects in digital preservation and software history.

As we consider the potential roles to be played by software collections in libraries and museums, we immediately encounter vexing questions about how researchers of the future will use ancient software. Consider that using historical software now in order to experience it in 2014 and running that software in 2014 to learn what it was like when people operated it thirty years ago are two completely different use cases. This will still be true in 2050. This may seem like an obvious point, but it is important to understand its implications. An analogy might help. I am not just talking about the difference between watching “Gone with the Wind” at home on DVD versus watching it in a vintage movie house in a 35mm print – with or without a live orchestra. Rather I mean the difference between my experience in a vintage movie house today – when I can find one – and the historical experience of, say, my grandfather during the 1930s. My experience is what it is, not what his was. So much of this essay will deal with the complicated problem of enacting a contemporary experience to re-enact a historical experience and what it has to do with software preservation. I will consider three takes on this problem: the historian’s, the media archaeologist’s, and the re-enactor.

Take 1. The Historian

Take one. The historian. Historians enact the past by writing about it. In other words, historians tell stories. This is hardly a revelation. Without meaning to trivialize the point, I cannot resist pointing out that “story” is right there in “hi-story” or that the words for story and history are identical in several languages, including French and German. The connections between story-telling and historical narrative have long been a major theme in writing about the methods of history, that is, historiography. In recent decades, this topic has been mightily influenced by the work of Hayden White, author of the much-discussed Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, published in 1973.

White’s main point about historians is that History is less about subject matter and source material and more about how historians write.

He tells us that historians do not simply arrange events culled from sources in correct chronological order. Such arrangements White calls Annals or Chronicles. The authors of these texts merely compile lists of events. The work of the historian begins with the ordering of these events in a different way. Hayden writes in The Content of the Form that in historical writing, “the events must be not only registered within the chronological framework of their original occurrence but narrated as well, that is to say, revealed as possessing a structure, an order of meaning, that they do not possess as mere sequence.” (White, Content of the Form 5) How do historians do this? They create narrative discourses out of sequential chronicles by making choices. These choices involve the form, effect and message of their stories. White puts choices about form, for example, into categories such as argument, ideology and emplotment. There is no need in this essay to review all of the details of every such choice. The important takeaway is that the result of these choices by historians is sense-making through the structure of story elements, use of literary tropes and emphasis placed on particular ideas. In a word, plots. White thus gives us the enactment of history as a form of narrative or emplotment that applies established literary forms such as comedy, satire, and epic.

In his book Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect, White writes about the “events, persons, structures and processes of the past” that “it is not their pastness that makes them historical. They become historical only in the extent to which they are represented as subjects of a specifically historical kind of writing.” (White, Figural Realism 2.) It is easy to take away from these ideas that history is a kind of literature. Indeed, this is the most controversial interpretation of White’s historiography.

My purpose in bringing Hayden White to your attention is to insist that there is a place in game and software studies for this “historical kind of writing.” I mean writing that offers a narrative interpretation of something that happened in the past. Game history and software history need more historical writing that has a point beyond adding events to the chronicles of game development or putting down milestones of the history of the game industry. We are only just beginning to see good work that pushes game history forward into historical writing and produces ideas about how these historical narratives will contribute to allied works in fields such as the history of computing or the history of technology more generally.

Allow me one last point about Hayden White as a take on enactment. Clearly, history produces narratives that are human-made and human-readable. They involve assembling story elements and choosing forms. How then do such stories relate to actual historical events, people, and artifacts? Despite White’s fondness for literary tropes and plots, he insists that historical narrative is not about imaginary events. If historical methods are applied properly, the resulting narrative according to White is a “simulacrum.” He writes in his essay on “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory,” that history is a “mimesis of the story lived in some region of historical reality, and insofar as it is an accurate imitation, it is to be considered a truthful account thereof.” (White, “The Question of Narrative …” 3.) Let’s keep this idea of historical mimesis in mind as we move on to takes two and three.

Take 2. The Media Archaeologist

My second take is inspired by the German media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst. As with Hayden White, my remarks will fall far short of a critical perspective on Ernst’s work. I am looking for what he says to me about historical software collections and the enactment of media history.

Hayden White put our attention on narrative; enacting the past is storytelling. Ernst explicitly opposes Media Archaeology to historical narrative. He agrees in Digital Memory and the Archive, that “Narrative is the medium of history.” By contrast, “the technological reproduction of the past … works without any human presence because evidence and authenticity are suddenly provided by the technological apparatus, no longer requiring a human witness and thus eliminating the irony (the insight into the relativity) of the subjective perspective.” (Ernst, Loc. 1053-1055.) Irony, it should be noted, is one of White’s favourite tropes for historical narrative.

White tells us that historical enactment is given to us as narrative mimesis, with its success given as the correspondence of history to some lived reality. Ernst counters by giving us enactment in the form of playback.

In an essay called “Telling versus Counting: A Media-Archaeological Point of View,” Ernst plays with the notion that, “To tell as a transitive verb means ‘to count things’.” The contrast with White here relates to the difference in the German words erzählen (narrate) and zählen (count), but you also find it in English: recount and count. Ernst describes historians as recounters: “Modern historians … are obliged not just to order data as in antiquaries but also to propose models of relations between them, to interpret plausible connections between events.” (Ernst, Loc. 2652-2653) In another essay, aptly subtitled “Method and Machine versus the History and Narrative of Media,” Ernst adds that mainstream histories of technology and mass media as well as their counter-histories are textual performances that follow “a chronological and narrative ordering of events.” He observes succinctly that, “It takes machines to temporarily liberate us from such limitations.” (Ernst, Loc. 1080-1084)

Where do we go with Ernst’s declaration in “Telling versus Counting,” that “There can be order without stories”? We go, of course, directly to the machines. For Ernst, media machines are transparent in their operation, an advantage denied to historians. We play back historical media on historical machines, and “all of a sudden, the historian’s desire to preserve the original sources of the past comes true at the sacrifice of the discursive.” We are in that moment directly in contact with the past.

In “Method and Machine”, Ernst offers the concept of “media irony” as a response to White’s trope of historical irony. He says,

Media irony (the awareness of the media as coproducers of cultural content, with the medium evidently part of the message) is a technological modification of Hayden White’s notion that “every discourse is always as much about discourse itself as it is about the objects that make up its subject matter. (Ernst, Loc. 1029-1032)

As opposed to recounting, counting in Ernst’s view has to do with the encoding and decoding of signals by media machines. Naturally, humans created these machines. This might be considered as another irony, because humans- have thereby “created a discontinuity with their own cultural regime.” We are in a realm that replaces narrative with playback as a form of direct access to a past defined by machine sequences rather than historical time. (Ernst, Loc. 1342-1343)

Ernst draws implications from media archaeology for his closely connected notion of the multimedia archive. In “Method and Machine,” he says, “With digital archives, there is, in principle, no more delay between memory and the present but rather the technical option of immediate feedback, turning all present data into archival entries and vice versa.” In “Telling versus Counting,” he portrays “a truly multimedia archive that stores images using an image-based method and sound in its own medium … And finally, for the first time in media history, one can archive a technological dispositive in its own medium.” (Ernst, Loc. Loc. 1745-1746; 2527-2529.) Not only is the enactment of history based on playback inherently non-discursive, but the very structure of historical knowledge is written by machines.

With this as background, we can turn to the concrete manifestation of Ernst’s ideas about the Multimedia Archive. This is the lab he has created in Berlin. The website for Ernst’s lab describes The Media Archaeological Fundus (MAF) as “a collection of various electromechanical and mechanical artefacts as they developed throughout time. Its aim is to provide a perspective that may inspire modern thinking about technology and media within its epistemological implications beyond bare historiography.” (Media Archaeological Fundus) Ernst explained the intention behind the MAF in an interview with Lori Emerson as deriving from the need to experience media “in performative ways.” So he created an assemblage of media and media technologies that could be operated, touched, manipulated and studied directly. He said in this interview, “such items need to be displayed in action to reveal their media essentiality (otherwise a medium like a TV set is nothing but a piece of furniture).” (Owens) Here is media archaeology’s indirect response to the 1979 AFIPS brochure’s suggestion that historical artifacts serve a purpose similar to furnishings in a preserved house.

The media-archaeological take on enacting history depends on access to artifacts and, in its strongest form, on their operation. Even when its engagement with media history is reduced to texts, these must be “tested against the material evidence.” This is the use case for Playback as an enactment of software history.

Take 3. The Re-enactor

Take three. The Re-enactor. Authenticity is an important concept for digital preservation.   A key feature of any digital archive over the preservation life-cycle of its documents and software objects is auditing and verification of authenticity, as in any archive. Access also involves authenticity, as any discussion of emulation or virtualization will bring up the question of fidelity to an historical experience of using software.

John Walker (of AutoDesk and Virtual Reality fame) created a workshop called Fourmilab to work on personal projects such as an on-line museum “celebrating” Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. This computer programming heritage work includes historical documents and a Java-based emulator of the Engine. Walker says, “Since we’re fortunate enough to live in a world where Babbage’s dream has been belatedly realised, albeit in silicon rather than brass, we can not only read about The Analytical Engine but experience it for ourselves.” The authenticity of this experience – whatever that means for a machine that never existed – is important to Walker. In a 4500-word essay titled, “Is the Emulator Authentic,” he tells us that, “In order to be useful, an emulator program must be authentic—it must faithfully replicate the behaviour of the machine it is emulating.” By extension, the authenticity of a preserved version of the computer game DOOM in a digital repository could be audited by verifying that it can properly run a DOOM demo file. The same is true for Microsoft Word and a historical document in the Word format. This is a machine-centered notion of authenticity; we used it in the second Preserving Virtual Worlds project as a solution to the significant properties problem for software. (Walker, “Introduction;” Walker, “Analytical Engine.”)

All well and good. However, I want to address a different authenticity. Rather than judging authenticity in terms of playback, I would like to ask what authenticity means for the experience of using software. Another way of putting this question is to ask what we are looking for in the re-enactment of historical software use. So we need to think about historical re-enactment.

I am not a historical re-enactor, at least not the kind you are thinking of. I have never participated in the live recreation or performance of a historical event. Since I have been playing historical simulations – a category of boardgames – for most of my life, perhaps you could say that I re-enact being a historical military officer by staring at maps and moving units around on them. It’s not the same thing as wearing period uniforms and living the life, however.

Anyway, I need a re-enactor. In his 1998 book Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz described historical re-enactment in its relationship to lived heritage. (Horwitz) His participant-journalist reportage begins at a chance encounter with a group of “hard-core” Confederate re-enactors. Their conversation leads Horwitz on a year-long voyage through the American South. A featured character in Confederates in the Attic is the re-enactor Robert Lee Hodge, a waiter turned Confederate officer. He took Horwitz under his wing and provided basic training in re-enactment. Hodge even became a minor celebrity due to his role in the book.

Hodges teaches Horwitz the difference between hard-core and farby (i.e., more casual) re-enactment. He tells Horwitz about dieting to look sufficiently gaunt and malnourished, the basics of “bloating” to resemble a corpse on the battlefield, what to wear, what not to wear, what to eat, what not to eat, and so on. It’s remarkable how little time he spends on martial basics. One moment sticks out for me. During the night after a hard day of campaigning Horwitz finds himself in the authentic situation of being wet, cold and hungry. He lacks a blanket, so he is given basic instruction in the sleeping technique of the Confederate infantryman: “spooning.” According to the re-enactor Scott Cross, “Spooning is an old term for bundling up together in bed like spoons placed together in the silver chest.” (Horwitz) Lacking adequate bedding and exposed to the elements, soldiers bunched up to keep warm. So that’s what Horwitz does, not as an act of mimesis or performance per se, but in order to re-experience the reality of Civil War infantrymen.

It interested me that of all the re-enactment activities Horwitz put himself through, spooning reveals a deeper commitment to authenticity than any of the combat performances he describes. It’s uncomfortable and awkward, so requires dedication and persistence. Sleep becomes self-conscious, not just in order to stick with the activity, but because the point of it is to recapture a past experience of sleeping on the battlefield. Since greater numbers of participants are needed for re-enacting a battle than sleep, more farbs (the less dedicated re-enactors) show up and thus the general level of engagement declines. During staged battles, spectators, scripting, confusion and accidents all interfere with the experience. Immersion breaks whenever dead soldiers pop up on the command, “resurrect.” In other words, performance takes over primacy from the effort to re-experience. It is likely that many farbs dressed up for battle are content to find a hotel to sleep in.

Specific attention to the details of daily life might be a reflection of recent historical work that emphasizes social and cultural histories of the Civil War period, rather than combat histories. But that’s not my takeaway from the spooning re-enactors. Rather, it’s the standard of authenticity that goes beyond performance of a specific event (such as a battle) to include life experience as a whole. Horvitz recalled that,

Between gulps of coffee—which the men insisted on drinking from their own tin cups rather than our ceramic mugs—Cool and his comrades explained the distinction. Hardcores didn’t just dress up and shoot blanks. They sought absolute fidelity to the 1860s: its homespun clothing, antique speech patterns, sparse diet and simple utensils. Adhered to properly, this fundamentalism produced a time travel high, or what hardcores called a ‘period rush.’ (Horwitz, Loc. 153-157)

Stephen Gapps, an Australian curator, historian, and re-enactor has spoken of the “extraordinary lengths” re-enactors go to “acquire and animate the look and feel of history.” Hard-core is not just about marching, shooting and swordplay. I wonder what a “period rush” might be for the experience of playing Pitfall! in the mid-21st century. Shag rugs? Ambient New Wave radio? Caffeine-free cola? Will future re-enactors of historical software seek this level of experiential fidelity? Gapps, again: “Although reenactors invoke the standard of authenticity, they also understand that it is elusive – worth striving for, but never really attainable.” (Gapps 397)

Re-enactment offers a take on born-digital heritage that proposes a commitment to lived experience. I see some similarity here with the correspondence to lived historical experience in White’s striving for a discursive mimesis. Yet, like media archaeology, re-enactment puts performance above discourse, though it is the performance of humans rather than machines.

Playing Pitfalls

We now have three different ways to think about potential uses of historical software and born digital documentation. I will shift my historian’s hat to one side of my head now and slide up my curator’s cap. If we consider these takes as use cases, do they help us decide how to allocate resources to acquire, preserve, describe and provide access to digital collections?

In May 2013, the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) of the U.S. Library of Congress (henceforth: LC) held a conference called Preserving.exe. The agenda was to articulate the “problems and opportunities of software preservation.” In my contribution to the LC conference report issued a few months later, I described three “lures of software preservation.” (Lowood) These are potential pitfalls as we move from software collections to digital repositories and from there to programs of access to software collections. The second half of this paper will be an attempt to introduce the three lures of software preservation to the three takes on historical enactment.

  1. The Lure of the Screen

Let’s begin with the Lure of the Screen. This is the idea that what counts in digital media is what is delivered to the screen. This lure pops up in software preservation when we evaluate significant properties of software as surface properties (graphics, audio, haptics, etc).

This lure of the screen is related to what media studies scholars such as Nick Montfort, Mark Sample and Matt Kirschenbaum have dubbed (in various but related contexts) “screen essentialism.” If the significant properties of software are all surface properties, then our perception of interaction with software tells us all we need to know. We check graphics, audio, responses to our use of controllers, etc., and if they look and act as they should, we have succeeded in preserving an executable version of historical software. These properties are arguably the properties that designers consider as the focus of user interaction and they are the easiest to inspect and verify directly.

The second Preserving Virtual Worlds project was concerned primarily with identifying significant properties of interactive game software. On the basis of several case sets and interviews with developers and other stakeholders, we concluded that isolating surface properties, such as image colourspace as one example, while significant for other media such as static images, is not a particularly useful approach to take for game software. With interactive software, significance appears to be variable and contextual, as one would expect from a medium in which content is expressed through a mixture of design and play, procedurality and emergence. It is especially important that software abstraction levels are not “visible” on the surface of play. It is difficult if not impossible to monitor procedural aspects of game design and mechanics, programming and technology by inspecting properties expressed on the screen.

The preservation lifecycle for software is likely to include data migration. Access to migrated software will probably occur through emulation. How do we know when our experience of this software is affected by these practices? One answer is that we audit significant properties, and as we now know, it will be difficult to predict which characteristics are significant. An alternative or companion approach for auditing the operation of historical software is to verify the execution of data files. The integrity of the software can be evaluated by comparison to documented disk images or file signatures such as hashes or checksums. However, when data migration or delivery environments change the software or its execution environment, this method is inadequate. We must evaluate software performance. Instead of asking whether the software “looks right,” we can check if it runs verified data-sets that meet the specifications of the original software. Examples range from word processing documents to saved game and replay files. Of course, visual inspection of the content plays a role in verifying execution by the software engine; failure will not always be clearly indicated by crashes or error messages. Eliminating screen essentialism does not erase surface properties altogether.

The three takes compel us to think about the screen problem in different ways. First, the Historian is not troubled by screen essentialism. His construction of a narrative mimesis invokes a selection of source materials that may or may not involve close reading of personal gameplay, let alone focus on surface properties. On the other hand, The Re-enactor’s use of software might lead repositories to fret about what the user sees, hears and feels. It makes sense with this use case to think about the re-enactment as occurring at the interface. If a repository aims to deliver a re-enacted screen experience, it will need to delve deeply into questions of significant properties and their preservation.

Screen essentialism is also a potential problem for repositories that follow the path of Media Archaeology. It is unclear to me how a research site like the MAF would respond to digital preservation practices based on data migration and emulation. Can repositories meet the requirements of media archaeologists without making a commitment to preservation of working historical hardware to enable playback from original media? It’s not just that correspondence to surface characteristics is a significant property for media archaeologists. Nor is the Lure of the Screen a criticism of Media Archaelogy. I propose instead that it is a research problem. Ernst’s vision of a Multimedia Archive is based on the idea that media archaeology moves beyond playback to reveal mechanisms of counting. This machine operation clearly is not a surface characteristic. Ernst would argue, I think, that this counting is missed by an account of what is seen on the screen. So let’s assign the task of accounting for counting to the Media Archaeologist, which means showing us how abstraction layers in software below the surface can be revealed, audited and studied.

  1. The Lure of the Authentic Experience

I have already said quite a bit about authenticity. Let me explain now why I am sceptical about an authentic experience of historical software, and why this is an important problem for software collections.

Everyone in game or software studies knows about emulation. Emulation projects struggle to recreate an authentic experience of operating a piece of software such as playing a game. Authenticity here means that the use experience today is like it was. The Lure of the Authentic Experience tells digital repositories at minimum not to preserve software in a manner that would interfere with the production of such experiences. At maximum, repositories deliver authentic experiences, whether on-site or on-line. A tall order. In the minimum case, the repository provides software and collects hardware specifications, drivers or support programs. The documentation provides software and hardware specifications. Researchers use this documentation to reconstruct the historical look-and-feel of software to which they have access. In the maximum case, the repository designs and builds access environments. Using the software authentically would then probably mean a trip to the library or museum with historical or bespoke hardware. The reading room becomes the site of the experience.

I am not happy to debunk the Authentic Experience. Authenticity is a concept fraught not just with intellectual issues, but with registers ranging from nostalgia and fandom to immersion and fun. It is a minefield. The first problem is perhaps an academic point, but nonetheless important: Authenticity is always constructed. Whose lived experience counts as “authentic” and how has it been documented? Is the best source a developer’s design notes? The memory of someone who used the software when it was released? A marketing video? The researcher’s self-reflexive use in a library or museum? If a game was designed for kids in 1985, do you have to find a kid to play it in 2050? In the case of software with a long history, such as Breakout or Microsoft Word, how do we account for the fact that the software was used on a variety of platforms – do repositories have to account for all of them? For example, does the playing of DOOM “death match” require peer-to-peer networking on a local area network, a mouse-and-keyboard control configuration and a CRT display? There are documented cases of different configurations of hardware: track-balls, hacks that enabled multiplayer via TCPIP, monitors of various shapes and sizes, and so on. Which differences matter?

A second problem is that the Authentic Experience is not always that useful to the researcher, especially the researcher studying how historical software executes under the hood. The emulated version of a software program often compensates for its lack of authenticity by offering real-time information about system states and code execution. A trade-off for losing authenticity thus occurs when the emulator shows the underlying machine operation, the counting, if you will. What questions will historians of technology, practitioners of code studies or game scholars ask about historical software? I suspect that many researchers will be as interested in how the software works as in a personal experience deemed authentic.   As for more casual appreciation, the Guggenheim’s Seeing Double exhibition and Margaret Hedstrom’s studies of emulation suggest that exhibition visitors actually prefer reworked or updated experiences of historical software. (Hedstrom, Lee, et al.; Jones)

This is not to say that original artefacts – both physical and “virtual” – will not be a necessary part of the research process. Access to original technology provides evidence regarding its constraints and affordances. I put this to you not as a “one size fits all” decision but as an area of institutional choice based on objectives and resources.

The Re-enactor, of course, is deeply committed to the Authentic Experience. If all we offer is emulation, what do we say to him, besides “sorry.” Few digital repositories will be preoccupied with delivering authentic experiences as part of their core activity. The majority are likely to consider a better use of limited resources to be ensuring that validated software artefacts and contextual information are available on a case-by-case basis to researchers who do the work of re-enactment. Re-enactors will make use of documentation. Horwitz credits Robert Lee Hodge with an enormous amount of research time spent at the National Archives and Library of Congress. Many hours of research with photographs and documents stand behind his re-enactments. In short, repositories should let re-enactors be the re-enactors.

Consider this scenario for software re-enactment. You are playing an Atari VCS game with the open-source Stella emulator. It bothers you that viewing the game on your LCD display differs from the experience with a 1980s-era television set. You are motivated by this realization to contribute code to the Stella project for emulating a historical display. It is theoretically possible that you could assemble everything needed to create an experience that satisfies you – an old television, adapters, an original VCS, the software, etc. (Let’s not worry about the shag rug and the lava lamp.) You can create this personal experience on your own, then write code that matches it. My question: Is the result less “authentic” if you relied on historical documentation such as video, screenshots, technical specifications, and other evidence available in a repository to describe the original experience? My point is that repositories can cooperatively support research by re-enactors who create their version of the experience. Digital repositories should consider the Authentic Experience as more of a research problem than a repository problem.

  1. The Lure of the Executable

The Lure of the Executable evaluates software preservation in terms of success at building collections of software that can be executed on-demand by researchers.

Why do we collect historical software? Of course, the reason is that computers, software, and digital data have had a profound impact on virtually every aspect of recent history. What should we collect? David Bearman’s answer in 1987 was the “software archive.” He distinguished this archive from what I will call the software library. The archive assembles documentation; the library provides historical software. The archive was a popular choice in the early days. Margaret Hedstrom reported that attendees at the 1990 Arden Conference on the Preservation of Microcomputer Software “debated whether it was necessary to preserve software itself in order to provide a sense of ‘touch and feel’ or whether the history of software development could be documented with more traditional records.” (Hedstrom and Bearman) In 2002, the Smithsonian’s David Allison wrote about collecting historical software in museums that, “supporting materials are often more valuable for historical study than code itself. They provide contextual information that is critical to evaluating the historical significance of the software products.” He concluded that operating software is not a high priority for historical museums. (Allison 263-65; cf. Shustek)

Again, institutional resources are not as limitless as the things we would like to do with software. Curators must prioritize among collections and services. The choice between software archive and library is not strictly binary, but choices still must be made.

I spend quite a bit of my professional life in software preservation projects. The end-product of these projects is at least in part the library of executable historical software. I understand the Lure of the Executable and the reasons that compel digital repositories to build collections of verified historical software that can be executed on-demand by researchers. This is the Holy Grail of digital curation with respect to software history. What could possibly be wrong with this mission, if it can be executed?   As I have argued on other occasions there are several problems to consider. Let me give you two. The first is that software does not tell the user very much about how it has previously been used. In the best case, application software in its original use environment might display a record of files created by previous users, such as a list of recently opened files found in many productivity titles like Microsoft Office. The more typical situation is that software is freshly installed from data files in the repository and thus completely lacks information about its biography, for want of a better term.

The second, related problem is fundamental. Documentation that is a prerequisite for historical studies of software is rarely located in software. It is more accurate to say that this documentation surrounds software in development archives (including source code) and records of use and reception. It is important to understand that this is not just a problem for historical research. Documentation is also a problem for repositories. If contextual information such as software dependencies or descriptions of relationships among objects is not available to the repository and all the retired software engineers who knew the software inside-and-out are gone – it may be impossible to get old software to run.

Historians, of course, will usually be satisfied with the Archive. Given limited resources, is it reasonable to expect that the institutions responsible for historical collections of documentation will be able to reconcile such traditional uses with other methods of understanding historical computing systems? The Re-enactor will want to run software, and the Media Archaeologist will not just want access to a software library, but to original media and hardware in working order. These are tall orders for institutional repositories such as libraries and archives, though possibly a better fit to the museum or digital history centre.

In Best Before: Videogames, Supersession and Obsolescence, James Newman is not optimistic about software preservation and he describes how the marketing of software has in some ways made this a near impossibility. He is not as pessimistic about video game history, however. In a section of his book provocatively called “Let Videogames Die,” he argues that a documentary approach to gameplay might be a more pragmatic enterprise than the effort to preserve playable games. He sees this as a “shift away from conceiving of play as the outcome of preservation to a position that acknowledges play as an indivisible part of the object of preservation.” (Newman 160) In other words, what happens when we record contemporary use of software to create historical documentation of that use? Does this activity potentially reduce the need for services that provide for use at any given time in the future? This strikes me as a plausible historical use case, but not one for re-enactment or media archaeology.

Software archives or software libraries? That is the question. Is it nobler to collect documentation or to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous software installations? The case for documentation is strong. The consensus among library and museum curators (including myself) is almost certainly that documents from source code to screenshots are a clear win for historical studies of software. Historians, however, will not be the only visitors to the archive. But there are other reasons to collect documentation. One of the most important reasons, which I briefly noted above, is that software preservation requires such documentation. In other words, successful software preservation activities are dependent upon technical, contextual and rights documentation. And of course, documents tell re-enactors how software was used and can help media archaeologists figure out what their machines are showing or telling them. But does documentation replace the software library? Is it sufficient to build archives of software history without libraries of historical software? As we have seen, this question was raised nearly forty years ago and remains relevant today. My wish is that this question of the relationship between documentation and software as key components of digital heritage work stir conversation among librarians, historians, archivists and museum curators. This conversation must consider that there is likely to be a broad palette of use cases such as the historian, media archaeologist and re-enactor, as well as many others not mentioned here. It is unlikely that any one institution can respond to every one of these use cases. Instead, the more likely result is a network of participating repositories, each of which will define priorities and allocate resources according to both their specific institutional contexts and an informed understanding of the capabilities of partner institutions.

 

References

Allison, David K. “Preserving Software in History Museums: A Material Culture Approach. Ed. Ulf Hashagen, Reinhard Keil-Slawik and Arthur L. Norberg. History of Computing: Software Issues. Berlin: Springer, 2002. 263-272.

Bearman, David. Collecting Software: A New Challenge for Archives and Museums. Archival Informatics Technical Report #2 (Spring 1987).

— “What Are/Is Informatics? And Especially, What/Who is Archives & Museum Informatics?” Archival Informatics Newsletter 1:1 (Spring 1987): 8.

Cross, Scott. “The Art of Spooning.” Atlantic Guard Soldiers’ Aid Society. 13 July 2016. Web. http://www.agsas.org/howto/outdoor/art_of_spooning.shtml. Originally published in The Company Wag 2, no. 1 (April 1989).

Ernst, Wolfgang. Digital Memory and the Archive. (Minneapolis: Univ. Minnesota Press, 2012). Kindle edition.

Gapps, Stephen. “Mobile monuments: A view of historical reenactment and authenticity from inside the costume cupboard of history.” Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice, 13:3 (2009): 395-409.

Hedstrom, Margaret L., Christopher A. Lee, Judith S. Olson and Clifford A. Lampe, “‘The Old Version Flickers More’: Digital Preservation from the User’s Perspective.” The American Archivist, 69: 1 (Spring – Summer 2006): 159-187.

Hedstrom, Margaret L., and David Bearman, “Preservation of Microcomputer Software: A Symposium,” Archives and Museum Informatics 4:1 (Spring 1990): 10.

Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998. Kindle Edition.

Jones, Caitlin. “Seeing Double: Emulation in Theory and Practice. The Erl King Study.” Paper presented to the Electronic Media Group, 14 June 2004. Electronic Media Group. Web. http://cool.conservation-us.org/coolaic/sg/emg/library/pdf/jones/Jones-EMG2004.pdf

Lowood, Henry. “The Lures of Software Preservation.” Preserving.exe: Toward a National Strategy for Software Preservation (October 2013): 4-11. Web. http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/multimedia/documents/PreservingEXE_report_final101813.pdf

Media Archaeological Fundus. Web. 21 Jan. 2016. http://www.medienwissenschaft.hu-berlin.de/medientheorien/fundus/media-archaeological-fundus

Newman, James. Best Before: Videogames, Supersession and Obsolescence. London: Routledge, 2012.

Owens, Trevor. “Archives, Materiality and the ‘Agency of the Machine’: An Interview with Wolfgang Ernst.” The Signal: Digital Preservation. Web. 8 February 2013. http://blogs.loc.gov/digitalpreservation/2013/02/archives-materiality-and-agency-of-the-machine-an-interview-with-wolfgang-ernst/

“Preserving Computer-Related Source Materials.” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 1 (Jan.-March 1980): 4-6.

Shustek, Len. “What Should We Collect to Preserve the History of Software?” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, 28 (Oct.-Dec. 2006): 110-12.

Walker, John. “Introduction” to The Analytical Engine: The First Computer.” Fourmilab, 21 March 2016. Web. http://www.fourmilab.ch/babbage/

— “The Analytical Engine: Is the Emulator Authentic?,” Fourmilab, 21 March 2016. Web. http://www.fourmilab.ch/babbage/authentic.html

White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987.

Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2000.

— “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory.” In: History and Theory 23: 1 (Feb. 1984): 1-33.

 

Bio

Henry Lowood is Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections and for Film & Media Collections at Stanford University. He has led the How They Got Game project at Stanford University since 2000 and is the co-editor of The Machinima Reader and Debugging Game History, both published by MIT Press. Contact: lowood@stanford.edu

 

1970s Disaster Films: The Star In Jeopardy  –  Nathan Smith

Abstract: In this article, I marry star studies to haptic theory in order to explore the complex meanings of space and stardom in 1970s disaster films. I use the The Poseidon Adventure [1972] as my case study, a film often cited as one best epitomising the genre. I examine the way The Poseidon Adventure uses the physical space of the ship at the centre of the film to heighten the chaos of the sinking ship, and mediate the way we experience the (old and new) stars on screen. I consider how in disaster films we see great Hollywood stars battered, bruised, and beaten on screen and argue this allegorically signals a generic and cultural transition in American cinema, with old Hollywood film practices shed in favour of the politics and energies of New Hollywood. This paper offers insight into the underlying star politics of 1970s disaster films, which are often mediated only through the spectacle they provide audiences.

Figure 1. An original advertisement for The Towering Inferno where the two male stars are separated by the fiery burning tower in the centre, while their co-stars line the bottom of the poster.

One of the defining film genres of the 1970s was the disaster film. Depicting scenes of mass carnage, the disaster film came to prominence in the 1970s in a wave of films staging shipwrecks and airplane crashes, joined by a band of new and old Hollywood stars facing these dangers on screen (Keane 2001 2). Critically and commercially, the most successful films disaster films of the 1970s were: Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and The Towering Inferno (1974), all of which lead to the popularity of other films or franchises including Earthquake (1974), Airport 1975 (1974), Airport ’77 (1977), and When Time Ran Out (1980) (ibid. 3). While critical scholarship on the genre has mostly centred on how disaster films were widely successful and critically lauded because of the way they allegorised America’s political, social, and economic plights on screen, many of these films actually instantiate other cinematic concerns. There is actually a dearth of scholarship that moves beyond the commercial and political currency of these disaster films.

Although the spectacles themselves in these disaster films are central, this essay assesses the way the disaster film utilises space on screen, in attempt to legitimise to their importance as a cinematic genre. Disaster films actively integrate discourses of cinema as travel experience and engage with the politics of star system to offer complex commentaries on cinema’s haptic meaning and the Hollywood star culture. I argue for the importance of combining the cultural and semiotic language of the star system with haptic theory in order to demonstrate the potential of extending the meanings of disaster films. It is only by marrying the two seemingly unrelated discourse that we can garner the more complex tensions that motivates so many audiences to see and engage with disaster films.

Stars in the 1970s disaster film have an allegorical and cultural function in the literal spaces contained within the text. Films like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno embody allegorical meanings that comment on the death of the Hollywood star system and the rise of “New Hollywood” cinema (Roddick 1980 248).[i] I argue the disaster film engages in discourses on travelling and architecture in an effort to not only heighten the spectacle of its disasters, but also to create its own reference points about cinema and physical space on screen, in particular spaces for travelling (the ship, the plane, and airports). By reconsidering the haptic and star meanings of the disaster genre – examined centrally through The Poseidon Adventure here – the affects and emotional meanings of cinema and architecture can be understood away from the ocular-centricism that has dominated critical discourse on cinema for decades (Jay 1988 310).

Cinema has long been cloaked in its own aesthetic, critical, and discursive aura that has privileged the visual experience over the haptic pleasure it provides viewers (see Mulvey 1975; Sontag 1977; Deleuze 1983; Jay 1988; Thomas 2001). In recent years there has been a growing scholarly and artistic (recuperative) interest in resurrecting the intersections cinema makes with architecture. While these intersections have a longer tradition than the twenty-first century, it is only in the last decade that we have seen more explicit interventions – and marriages – between these two discourses. In Atlas of Emotion (2002), American scholar Giuliana Bruno constructs an “atlas” of philosophical, affective, and psycho-geographic responses to art, cinema, and architecture, coalescing all in an attempt to demonstrate how “site” (physical space) and “sight” (visual experience) are inherently married to each other. Likewise, The Architecture of the Image (2008), film scholar Juhani Pallasmaa examines how architecture – like cinema – works around ideas of time, space, and movement, and similar to Bruno, attempts to collapse the distinction between “sites” and “sights” in order to emphasise the potency of haptic embodiment.

These recent works highlight the emerging discourse of haptics and cinema, privileging the physical responses to architecture and cinema alike while de-emphasising the long-standing ocular approach to the world of film. Pallasmaa makes the point that every film contains an image of an architectural space (2008 4). From this, we can see an inherent relationship begin to operate between the two (ibid. 5). Whether it is a building, a room, or even specifically Central Park in New York City, film engages in the poetics and politics of architecture: they define space, grid and demarcate a physical area, while centring narrative meanings and affects around this site.[ii] Indeed disaster films – which are addressed in more depth later – are sound examples to demonstrate the potency of haptics – they are characterised by physical movement on screen. Whether it is a moving plane (the Airport series), a sinking ship (The Poseidon Adventure), or the chaotic physical destruction of Los Angeles (in Earthquake), they offer viewers a type of journey experience.

Many of these writers on haptics draw on Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) in which Benjamin considers the notions of authenticity and originality in art. In his essay, Benjamin writes on the connections between cinema and architecture, arguing that on the contrary both are “tactile arts” (1936 225). While cinema seemingly stresses its visuality and architecture emphasises its physicality, both cinema and architectural space generate and provide kinesthetic experiences to viewers and participants. Indeed vision is just as important to haptics as haptics is to film. As Kester Tauttenbury writes,

Architecture exists, like cinema, in the dimension of time and movement. One conceives and reads a building in terms of sequences. To erect a building is to predict and seek effects of contrast and linkage through which one passes . . . In the continuous shot/sequence that a building is, the architect works with cuts and edits, framings and openings (1994 35).

By re-evaluating architecture in cinematic terms – and vice-versa by re-evaluating cinema in architectural terms – the two artforms imply a kinesthetic way of experiencing space. This intersection functions importantly in The Poseidon Adventure by problematising the architecture of stairs. Poseidon is concerned with the idea of “Hell Upside Down”, or an overturned cruise ship that forces its passengers to climb “up” to the bottom of the ship in order to escape. Staircases are an excellent example of how an architectural site has been utilised repeatedly by cinema to mark meaning, divide spaces, and represent political and familial hierarchies. For Peter Wollen, “The staircase is the symbolic spine of the house” (1996 15). Here is an instance where architecture and cinema unite. The staircases are places of movement and transition that are directly experienced by the body. The stairs in cinema stage political undertones of the private/public and unseen/seen dichotomy: either one can exit to a private space or enter a social public place through a set of stairs.

The Poseidon Adventure is driven by an intersection of architectural space and cinema. The film is about the “S.S. Poseidon” cruise ship making its last journey from New York City to Athens. On New Year’s Eve, however, the ship is overturned by an enormous tsunami caused by an underground earthquake (Keane 2006 72). The film is a metaphor for this cultural and cinematic conflation with architecture and stardom. Symbolically – because the ship is overturned – the notion of this staircase is inverted in Poseidon. Hence the characters do not “climb up” the ship but “climb downwards” to the ship’s haul.

A major turning point in the narrative is when one of the surviving co-captains tells all the passengers to stay where they are (in the central dining room, near the top deck of the ship) since they are closer to the top deck of the ship. Reverent Scott (Gene Hackman) pleads with them not to listen to the co-captain and instead them that they must go “up” (down) to reach the ship’s haul, since any attempt to escape needs to be made closer to the water’s surface. Although allowing a means for escape for a select few, this inversion figuratively reverses the hierarchies of title and power on the ship and placing a small group of the passengers in charge of the ship, as the co-captain drowns (and, by extension, allows others to drown) in the sinking vessel. I would push this analogy further, arguing how this inversion demonstrates the allegory of a transition of Old Hollywood values into that of New Hollywood. Given that it is the younger Gene Hackman – the then star of the drug-themed crime film The French Connection – who leads the fight for survival (leaving the mostly-older ship-goers to drown), the allegorical meaning is rich. Indeed this moment demonstrates how Poseidon privileges its younger stars and begins to kill off its older stars, seen frequently in other 1970s disaster films (see Dyer 1975, 1979).

poseidonThe “guiding” cinematic experience of these disaster films – in particular Poseidon – is the way it exploits cinema as a travel experience. In Atlas of Emotion (2002), Bruno writes that “film is affected by a real travel bug” and that the “film ‘viewer’ is a practioner of viewing space – a tourist” (76, 61). Bruno asserts cinema has always been preoccupied with the travel experience, signalling how early cinema itself was composed on narratives of travelling to the moon (Goerges Melies’s A Trip to the Moon 1902), to outer space (Georges Melies’s The Impossible Voyage 1904), or train travel (Lumiere Brothers’ The Arrival of the Mail Train 1896).This ongoing preoccupation with not only capturing travel movement (trains, travel) onto the moving image itself but also with providing viewers with the experience of “statically travelling” is what informs the terms of references of the disaster genre (Bruno 2002 7). Given the socio-cultural climate these films were made in – with the rising popularity of the transgressive styles of New Hollywood and their interest in new filmmaking techniques and strategies – the disaster film drew on these early cinematic discourses on travel as a means to rework their cinematic and cultural meanings. Here they are reframed in light of the emerging 1970s counterculture and anti-establishment politics (Wood 2003). By this, the template of cinema as traveling/traveling as cinema began to be manipulated and exploited in texts like Poseidon and the Airport series through the presence old Hollywood stars alongside new ones.

The poetics embedded within the moving space (ship, aeroplane, blimp, bus, rollercoasters, all of which were vehicles utilised in one disaster film or another) are what serve as the central cultural, political, and cinematic meanings that the disaster film seeks to problematise. As Bruno notes, “There is a mobile dynamics involved in the act of viewing films, even is the spectators is seemingly static. The (im)mobile spectator moves across an imaginary path, traversing multiple sites and times” (2002 55). What Bruno addresses is the way film negotiates physical spaces on screen viewers can vicariously experience, while also emphasising the staticity and immobility of the viewer in their seat all at once. If we consider Poseidon – often cited as the cinematic epitome of the disaster film – the captain calls the ship in the film “a hotel with a stern and boor stuck on each end” (Roddick 1980 246). The emphasis is on the ship as a site/sight of luxury, relaxation, and pleasure. The irony in this comment, as we see later, is that indeed it is the fact that the Poseidon is not a hotel that causes it to sink – it is a ship. This comment literalises the paradox Bruno address: the hotel does not move; a ship does. These series of meanings evoke the cultural and connotative meaning that representing travel on screen embodies in the disaster genre.

The moving space – whether it is encaged within the narrative of Poseidon Adventure or in the moving airplane in the Airport series – represents an intervention in the spatial and haptic experience of cinema. In terms of narrative, the site/sight of the exploded airplane, the sinking ship, or the burning hotel makes the spatial environment contained within the film dangerous, claustrophobic, and unsafe. Bruno observes, “Film inherits the possibility of such a spectorial voyage from the architectural field, for the person who wanders through a building or site also absorbs and connects visual spaces … In this sense, the consumer of architectural (viewing) space is the prototype of the film spectator” (2002 55). Bruno’s dialogue between an architectural space and the physical space controlled by the film instantiate many of the same haptic experiences and her re-prioritisation of the affective (as opposed to the visual) qualities of cinema is what I utilise in my analysis here. The disaster film itself – in this case, Poseidon – although preoccupied with spectacle, equally engages with problematising the relationship between physical space on screen and the cultural status and capital of its old Hollywood stars.

What makes the disaster film so palpable as a cinematic experience is the way the old Hollywood stars of the film are battered, bruised, and ultimately killed off (see Dixon 1999, Feil 2005). Richard Dyer writes that while a star is a reflection of the dominant social and political ideologies, they also are symptomatic of the “fissures” in these hegemonic ideologies and have the potential to be read in profoundly different ways (1979 3). I argue two central points on stars within the disaster genre: the death of the stars in the disaster genre allegorically comments on the decline of the Hollywood studio system which had dominated America film-making since the 1930s; and second, the stars act as stand-in for the audiences to vicariously experience the wreck and ruin wrought by the destruction of the travel experiences. Bruno argues this when she writes that we must move from “optical to haptic” (2002 6). This approach figures importantly in my reconsideration of the disaster film. My contention is that Poseidon kills off its former Hollywood greats as a figurative attempt to signal the death of the Hollywood studio and star system, and legitimise the emerging tides in Hollywood cinema.

Therefore, the cultural, cinematic, and semiotic meaning of the star functions importantly in the 1970s disaster film. The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno are major films that demonstrate the intersection of spatial destruction and the harm this carnage reaps on its Hollywood stars. The original advertisements for both films highlight how the stars are the central identifying features for mediating the experience of the film. The posters also imply the internal disasters within the narrative threaten the stability and indeed safety of these stars within the confines of the story. On a poster for The Towering Inferno (Figure 1), the star image of the actors is central with Steve McQueen and Paul Newman as the male leads battling not only each other (and their masculine bravodo) but to attempting to control the blazing skyscraper. The poster demonstrates the intersection of destroying the stars through floods, fire, chaos, and death. This advertisement also has a row of other Hollywood stars that appear in the film – such as William Holden alongside Faye Dunaway – and although these are ostensibly the supporting cast of the film, nevertheless, they too are presumably encaged within the wrath of the fiery tower. The original movie poster for Poseidon (Figure 2) evokes a sense of claustrophobia with its stars bordering a drawing of waves of water overflowing a ballroom. Called “Hell, Upside Down”, the graphic is engulfed with seawaters. The poster encourages viewers to believe that not all the stars of the film will be saved by narrative end. These advertising meta-texts embody the important formation these films bridge between the collapsing of space and the destruction of the star.

To demonstrate this transition, I examine Shelley Winters’ role in Poseidon. The most striking physical feature of Winters’ performance as Mrs Rosenburg is her overweight and bulging body. Winters purposely gained weight for the role and insisted that she do all her own stunts (Keane 2006 76). A successful supporting actress throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Winters’ re-emergence in this film allegorically aligns itself with the transition of Old Hollywood to New Hollywood.[iii] With the rise of more countercultural subjects and constructed around less bureaucratic institutions such as film studios, New Hollywood sought to dislocate the institutionalisation of films with the rigid studio structure (Berliner 2010 62). Winters, who embodies these cultural, star, and cinematic ties to the studio system, is forced in Poseidon to undergo a gruelling and exhausting escape that she is truly not capable of. Symbolically, her bulging and overweight body is suggestive of the hedonism and profits of Old Hollywood that is no longer able to meet the challenges of cinema of the 1970s. Winters’s Mrs Rosenburg is a figure of comic relief as the carnivalesque quality of her squatting, falling, and struggling index her weight and the fact this obese figure is the great Shelley Winters – or “that fat old cow” as another character calls her. Therefore, Winters – like Jennifer Jones’s character in The Towering Inferno – metonymically acts as a figure of the old studio system.[iv] Both Jones and Winters not only signal the star system but also are utilised by both films to heighten the danger, destruction, and claustrophobia nature of these restrictive and deathly spaces on screen (Yacowar 1977).

The disaster film “must be consider[ed] as a single group” and as part of “a long tradition of screen catastrophe”, fitting in with traditions of cinema representing spectacles on screen to heighten their haptic value (Roddick 1980 244). I argue disaster films declined in the late 1970s and early 1980s because they became an overused template that could not meet the demands of the changing cultural landscape. However, the template resurfaced in other different generic arenas such as the sci-fi action (The Terminator [1984], Die Hard [1988]), while being altered in the 1990s with less stars (Twister [1996]), or simply remade in the 2000s (Poseidon [2006]). Unlike the original 1970s disaster films, however, these later generic templates are less concerned with an ensemble of stars and are instead driven more by special effects (Keane 2006 101). As with the changes in cultural demands, the later series of films with disaster as a main narrative and thematic pull did no need to alter the star status or star value of their actors unlike the 1970s series of films – they were the reference points with which to exploit and parody the star to batter and bruise them in the film.

In this way, the disaster films of the 1970s instantiate many more complex and important cultural and cinematic meanings than existing scholarship suggests. Indeed, while the literature on the disaster film has mostly considered the financial, aesthetic, or commercial value of these films, this essay has privileged the star iconography and haptic meanings of these films to revise their cultural and cinematic value. Although this essay has only concentrated only on The Poseidon Adventure, this film nevertheless embodies many of the tropes of the disaster film, having been cited as the “epitome of the genre” (Roddick 1980 246). The disaster film marries the concerns of architecture with the haptic meanings of cinema, utilising space as a means to comment on the status of stars in the 1970s cultural milieu. Given the rise of scholarship examining the haptic experience of cinema, reconsidering bodies of cinema that have only be considering for their visual value has immense importance in understanding and legitimising some of the more meaningful concerns these films embody. This essay has explored the growing scholarship considering the physical responses cinema can provide spectators while also revising the dominant interpretations of the disaster film, arguing that in particular The Poseidon Adventure draws on histories of film as a travel experience. Ultimately, in reprioritising the spatial and star elements in films like The Poseidon Adventure, the haptic and affective experiences can be more palpably felt.

 

WORKS CITED

 

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press,1994.

Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’ Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. 217-252.

Berliner, Todd. Hollywood Incoherent: Narration in Seventies Cinema. Austin:University of Texas, 2010.

Bruno, Giuliana. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. New   York: Verso, 2002.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and     Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Dixon, W. W. Disaster and Memory: Celebrity Culture and the Crisis of Hollywood          Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Dyer, Richard. ‘American Cinema in the ’70s: The Towering Inferno.’ Movie 21   (1975): 30-3.

—— Stars. London: British Film Institute, 2008.

Elsaesser, Thomas & Hagener, Malte. Film Theory: An Introduction through the Senses. London: Routledge, 2009.

Feil, Ken. Dying For A Laugh: Disaster Movies and the Camp Imagination. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005.

Jay, Martin. ‘The Rise of Hermeneutics and the Crisis of Ocularcentrism.’ Poetics Today 9:2 (1988): 307-326.

Keane, Stephen. Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe. London: Short Cuts, 2006.

Mulvey, Laura. ‘Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.’ Screen 16:3 (1975): 6-18.

Roddick, Nicholas. ‘Only the Stars Survive: Disaster Movies in the Seventies.’Performance and Politics in Popular Drama: Aspects of Popular Entertainment in Theatre, Film, and Television 1800-1976. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980. 243-269.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1977.

Tauttenberry, Kester. ‘Echo and Narcissus.’ Architecture and Film (Architectural Design). Ed. Maggie Toy. London: Academy Press, 1994. 20-38.

Thomas, Deborah. Reading Hollywood: Spaces and Meanings in American Film. London: Short Cuts, 2001.

Wollen, Peter. ‘Architecture and Cinema: Places and Non-Places.’ Rakennustaiteen Seura 4 (1996): 10-29.

Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan … and Beyond. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Yacowar, M. ‘The Bug in the Rug: Notes on the Disaster Genre.’ Film Genre: Theory and Criticism. Ed. B. K. Grant. London: Scarecrow Press, 1977. 90- 107.

 

FILMOGRAPHY

Airport. Dir. George Seaton. Universal Pictures. 1970.

Airport 1975. Dir. Jack Smight. Universal Pictures. 1974.

Airport 1977. Dir. Jerry Jameson. Universal Pictures. 1977.

The Arrival of the Mail Train. Dir. Auguste & Louis Lumiere. Lumiere. 1896.

Die Hard. Dir. John McTiernan. Twentieth-Century Fox. 1988.

Earthquake. Dir. Mark Robson. Universal Pictures. 1974.

The Impossible Voyage. Dir. Georges Melies. Star Film Company. 1904.

Poseidon. Dir. Wolfgang Petersen. Warner Brothers. 2006.

The Poseidon Adventure. Dir. Ronald Neame. Twentieth-Century Fox. 1972.

Terminator. Dir. James Cameron. Orion Pictures. 1984.

The Towering Inferno. Dir. John Guillerman. Twentieth-Century Fox. 1974.

A Trip to the Moon. Dir. Georges Melies. Star Film Company. 1902.

Twister. Dir. Jan de Bont. Warner Brothers. 1996.

When Time Ran Out. Dir. James Goldstone. Warner Brothers. 1980.

 

Notes

[i] “New Hollywood” refers to a period in the late-1960s and early 1970s when a wave of new American directors began producing films that moved against the classic Hollywood cinema grain. New Hollywood films, such as Bonnie & Clyde (1967) and The French Connection (1971), resisted traditional Hollywood narrative techniques, used grittier film methods, and often valorised the anti-hero at the centre of the story (Berliner 2010 51).

[ii] It is beyond the scope of this paper but also see The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard [Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958] for a comprehensive rumination on the poetics and subjective meanings invested in physical spaces.

[iii] Winters was nominated for multiple Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress, winning for her roles in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and A Patch of Blue (1965). In most of her film work (like A Place in the Sun [1951] and Lolita [1962]), Winters was often sidelined to a supporting role, with her characters later killed from the narrative. Her roles in the aforementioned films see her play a very emotional, sometimes hysterical female character. In A Place in the Sun and Lolita she is convinced that her male partner is cheating on her. (Which, in fact, prove correct in both films.)

 

Bio: Nathan Smith is a graduate student at the University of Melbourne specialising in queer and star studies. He is also a freelance culture writer whose work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The New Republic, and Salon.

 

Playing At Work – Samuel Tobin

Abstract: People play games at work, especially digital games, rather than asking “why” this paper starts with “how”? To do so the game Minecraft and its players are used as a focus to address how people manage to play while at work and in workplaces. This data is drawn from public online forums where hundreds of Minecraft players offer tips for circumventing technical, bureaucratic, social and ethical play constraints and share their feelings, experiences and successes. In these specific and detailed accounts of media practices constrained and engendered by the demands and expectation of workplaces we see the shifting nature of public and private, of work and leisure.

Minecraft-Banner

Playing at Work         

This paper focuses on the way people play the game Minecraft (Mojang, 2001) at work and the ways in which they talk about that play and the practices that support it.  The Minecraft players I study write about this play and the tactics needed to engage in it at work as a combination of subterfuge, escape, challenge, invention and guilt-ridden compulsion. I show how this complicated relation to their play is informed by the ways in which play, games, work and the work place are continuously redefined through these players’ practices and discourse. I focus on adult players of the game Minecraft and the ways they manage to play while they are at work. This data is drawn from the forum reddit.com, where hundreds of Minecraft players offer tips for circumventing technical, bureaucratic, and social play constraints. These online discussions detail a range of technical and play practices constrained and engendered by the demands and expectation of workplaces. In these practices and discourse we see the continuously shifting nature of public, private, work, leisure, mobility and most of all play.

From the Minecraft subreddit on reddit:

thread title: who plays Minecraft at work?

I’ll be honest, this game has pretty much destroyed my productivity recently. I work in IT so I’m on the computer all day. I also have my own office so people cruising by and catching me building really isn’t an issue. Since I bought thisgame 2 weeks ago I’ve wasted more time at work than I even care to admit. Everyday I tell myself I will focus and do actual work, and everyday boredomsets in and I am drawn to Minecraft like a moth to a flame. I am a sad pathetic   individual. Who else is with me? – Apt Get

The short answer is “lots of people.” But what these people mean when they say “Yes, I play Minecraft at work” and refer to themselves as “sad pathetic individuals” is complicated. To address these complicated and complicit issues, I focus on the central problem for these players: “How do you bring your game to work?”  In the sections that follow I rework the phrase “bring your game to work,” stressing different words to expose what is at stake in these spaces and practices of work and of play. First, however, we need to ask what people might or could mean by Minecraft. In exploring how people play Minecraft at work (or any game), we are asking “how” not just in the sense of “How do you manage” but also “In what manner” do you play at work.  The manner or way of playing changes the nature of the game, redefines it, pushes certain aspects of the game forward while eliding others.  As we will see below, players redefine Minecraft, sometimes radically, as they need to in order to play it.

Here at the outset are some general observations and caveats.  At the time of this research (2011-2012) few posters in the subreddits (as the forum threads of reddit are called) mentioned mobile or “Pocket” versions of the game when discussing how to play it at work. This may be due to a kind of self-selection of Minecraft fans in the threads.  People who like the game enough to read and write about it on an online forum may not be interested in playing it on platforms other than the PC or laptop.  In any case, the issue of mobility for most reddit users is not as much about buying a Minecraft app for a smartphone, as getting Minecraft onto their work computers. What we see when we look at the responses people gave to the question “How do you play Minecraft at work?” is a move to redefine what Minecraft play can be while referencing a core experience and object: PC-based Minecraft play.

playing at work

Foregrounding the “at” in the phrase “playing at work,” focuses our attention on “work” as “workspace,” a space constituted by labor, and also by architecture, furniture, expectations, routines, and movements.  We need to attend to the implications of bringing play materials and practices into the workspace, and to the movements such play demands.  The workplace context and the practices it demands make mobile a game which otherwise might not be. This complicates definitions of mobile games, while reinforcing the importance of space and situation to the understanding of game play.

To play Minecraft at work, players need to find ways to bring the game with them to the office. The barriers to this are technical, securitized, cultural and practical. In order to access saved games through workplace firewalls, players trade tactical tips on online forums on how to load Minecraft files onto thumb drives, email zips to themselves, and to otherwise convince their work networks that no barriers have been breached and that nothing is amiss.  Commenters discuss issues of visual surveillance and subterfuge, with extensive discussion of monitor tilting, lines of sight, glare, minimizing routines, hotkeys, and ways to arrange a play mis en place that looks like work (a point we will return to).  These commentators are not always employees contriving to avoid being caught by their boss: the thread at the top of this piece was originated by a boss, Apt Get, who wants to hide his play from his peers as well as from his underlings, and ultimately from himself. These techniques of circumventing lines of sight and firewalls allow people to play at work and at the same time shape and define what that play can be. This play is both proscribed and defined by the context. While details and the differences are important, what these players in all sorts of work contexts share is an array of needs, worries and techniques developed in order to play at work.

It is easy to see how work could be a hostile environment for Minecraft play. Yet in many cases, for some players, work is a less fraught play space than other alternatives. As Apt Get’s comments later in his thread on playing Minecraft at work shows:

Glad to know I’m not alone. I am also guilty of sketching things on graph paper during meetings when I am without a computer. I am married and have 2 small kids, so work is about the only time I get to play.  – Apt Get

This comment reminds us not to assume a neat split between workplace and labor on one side, and domesticity and leisure on the other. The nature of the relation between work and play is a key issue for any study of play or games. In Games of Empire (2009), Greig de Peuter and Nick Dyer-Witheford discuss the historical transformation of this relationship through their critical account of games, capitalism and immaterial labor. In Free labor: Producing culture for the digital economy (2000), Tiziana Terranova makes similar points. Julian Kücklich’s account of computer game modification, or “modding” as a strange mixture of labor and play or “playbour” (2005), also helps us historize the shifting relationship between play and work, and the new hybrid modes that emerge from these categories. In “Alienated Playbour: Relations of Production in EVE Online” (2015),  Nicholas Taylor et al. show how what we might assume is “just” play can in fact be work.

These questions of the work-play relation predate contemporary developments in game studies. We see the relation and separation enforced to different degrees in classics such as Roger Caillois’s Play and Games and Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Hannah Arendt writes in the Human Condition: “(A)ll serious activities, irrespective of their fruits, are called labor, and every activity which is not necessary either for the life of the individual or for the life process of society is subsumed under playfulness.” (1998) Similarly, in the “Sociology of Sociability,” Georg Simmel expresses an interest in play because of its very apartness from other ‘material’ spheres of life, including work (1949). Separation for these authors is a matter of motivation, economics and necessity.

For Apt Get and many responders at reddit, work is defined spatially. Apt Get asks: “Do you play Minecraft at work?” rather than asking, “Do you play Minecraft instead of work?” Work, for Apt Get and many other players, work is defined more as a place than an activity. This definition of work as a location means that itretains its status as a place for labor even when play is brought in to it. To understand what is at stake when people bring their Minecraft play to work, we need to pay attention not just to what they mean by “work” and “at work” but also to what they mean by “home” and what they do “at home.” For Apt Get, his job is where he can play, even if it is difficult to do so. He can’t or won’t play at home. His posts suggest it is more difficult for him to play at home than it is a work. No doubt many of us recognize ourselves and our workplaces in these posts. What we find in the threads is a complicated and contradictory range of attitudes, experiences and ideas about the appropriateness, pleasures, worries and requirements of playing Minecraft (and other games) at home as well as at work.

Is playing at work always a modified, compromised form of Minecraft play? Not necessarily. This author, who has the luxury of work of an office with a door, a personal computer, and students who rarely take advantage of office hours, is able to play Minecraft in an as unfettered manner as one could hope for. Indeed like Apt Get, time at work was the only time I really could play Minecraft or, for that matter, wanted to. Game play is never “free-play,” as it is always defined and constrained as well as afforded in by the exigencies of everyday life (office, door, computer, students, teaching preparation, publication pressures). Play is always in relation to the everyday, to the rhythms of leisure and labor and socialization and movement and the un-freeness of free time.  Playing at work then is not (or not just) a more constrained or diminished form of play, even if it is often viewed this way.  Playing at work is a compromise, but a compromise that can lead to new and interesting permutations of play.

Minecraft play is typically described as open-ended, free, and creative, in short as the kind of play celebrated by ludic utopians of every stripe.  But what we see in the Minecraft “subbreddit” is a discussion of an even more expansive and “free” play, one perversely bounded by the space of work, as we can see in following two examples, which while specific and personal, are not outliers, and which give glimpses of play tactics and techniques shared in the Minecraft forums, when responding to the question: “How do you play at work?”

Figure 1. A player shares an image of how he "plays at work."  He has used his companies’ Maple computer algebra system to model a possible Minecraft construction.

Figure 1. A player shares an image of how he “plays at work.”  He has used his companies’ Maple computer algebra system to model a possible Minecraft construction.

Figure 2. A player shows how he "plays at work" by stacking shipping boxes in a recognizably Minecraft manner.

Figure 2. A player shows how he “plays at work” by stacking shipping boxes in a recognizably Minecraft manner.

These are very different ways to play Minecraft.  They are different from each other and different from our expectations of how people play Minecraft. These (seemingly) radically different approaches to Minecraft play result in part from differences between these two posters’ workplaces.  However what these two players share are places of work filled with tools and objects of labor. Both players use the stuff of their jobs to build things as Minecraft play practice.  Each is playing Minecraft, but in a kind of play that arises out of and reflects the specific contextual affordances and constraints of their work. Each plays in a way that is both in contestation and conjunction with work and its boundaries.  These two images of Minecraft play would not exist without the work and work places that shaped them. These are just two examples of how the space and tools of one’s work shapes the kinds of play needed to fit those contexts. For every job site and set of tools or materials, we might expect to find different play practices. These examples point to the need to account for a thicker, messier kind of play for playing not just Minecraft, but for all kinds of games played at work.  And while Minecraft may be especially suited to these ludic perruques, it is not unique in being a game people like to play when they are otherwise expected to be working. For each game, as for each work site, we can expect new play practices, cultures and experiences.

With these new practices we get new discourse. How do the Minecraft forum commentators talk about their relationship to this place into which, against which, and with which they forge new play practices?  Many commentators, Apt Get included, use negative and loaded language borrowed from substance abuse and addiction to describe their relationship to their Minecraft play. In my book, Portable Play in Everyday Life, I found that Nintendo DS players use these same metaphors to describe games that they play intensely (2013). We see similar language going back all the way to David Sudnow’s Pilgrim in the Microworld. The angst conveyed by this fraught language seems to go against the perspectives we see in work by researchers like Leonard Reinecke (2009) or Paul Mastrangelo et al. (2006), who argue that play at work is useful or salutary in the sense that it helps one to work better or longer. This perspective may seem managerial or exploitive, but it is also useful for those of us who are invested in a critical approach to games, and to further examining the connections between play, work, playbour and leisure. The reddit commentators are much more likely to talk about their play as transgressive, criminal or pathetic, than restorative. Their discourse is not one of break-rooms and recharging, but of addiction, subterfuge, and tricks. I suggest that this kind of player language should be read as not (only) about compulsion or addiction, but also as code for a particular kind of pleasure and awareness of the larger cultural context for understanding and describing that pleasure. It is a compliment to call a game addictive. It is not only a self-flagellating or distancing remark.

play at work

This discourse brings with it the habitus of the addict: of secret drunks and self-deception.  In order to keep the activity going, there needs to be subterfuge, evasion, cover and camouflage. This is a different kind of playing, a “playing at.” This is playing at in the sense of playing as make believe, as “acting as though.”  This approach to playing at work owes much to Johan Huizinga’s sense of play as always secretive, even in plain sight, and as having a “pretend” quality (Huizinga 1955). It also carries a bit of the sense of calling out something as deceptive, as bullshit, as in the phrase: “What are you playing at?”

The kind of pretense most essential for these commentators is pretending to work while “really” playing.  The hidden or furtive aspect of playing games at work is neither new nor endemic to Minecraft.  Older Macintosh users may remember the “quick the boss is coming” feature from games such as Othello, a command which would instantly bring up a mock spreadsheet to hide your game.  The personal computer’s WIMP interface (windows, icons, menus, pointer), with its layers upon layers of windows, allows a kind of slight of hand and easy hiding of games or other NSFW (Not Safe For Work) activities.  Digital games can be harder to sneak into work outside of white-collar office settings. But as desktop and other types of computers increasingly are used in stores as point of sale systems, in entry ways, and at front desks, we can suspect that many are being used to play games, although it is impossible to know how many, how often — I know that I played a lot of web based games while a clerk at a wine store.  This kind of video game playing at work has clear connections to la perruque (“the wig”) as described by Michel de Certeau, except instead of “a worker’s own work disguised as work for his employer” it is a worker’s play disguised as work. This has more in common with how de Certeau mobilizes la perruque to describe a whole range of practical détournement (s) of time and space (2002).  The time and the spaces which are constituted by work are not our own but spaces of the other. As de Certeau writes:

(A) tactic is a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus. No delimitation of an exteriority, then, provides it with the condition necessary for autonomy. The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power (2002).

We should take literally de Certeau’s suggestion that the tactic “must play on and with a terrain imposed on it.”  In the case of Apt Get and his interlocutors, this terrain is one of cubicles and frosted glass, but also of box trucks, servers, firewalls, nosey neighbors, and if we merge terrain with time, deadlines, lunch breaks and all-nighters.

If we look back to the algebra-derived model above, or think of design doodles in meetings, or other more expansive ideas of what constitutes Minecraft play, we see that these are perhaps unsurprisingly also potentially cases of perruquesque tactics.  The shipping box stacking, while not at all subtle, takes advantage of the fact that the thing being used in play is also the thing used at work, here not just boxes, but also the act (and skill) of stacking them.  This points not just to a flexibility inherit in the tactics needed to play at work, but also to a more fundamental relationship and tension we see in cases where objects of labor are used for play or pleasure.  This is especially common in digital play (think of the keyboard and mouse of pc gaming), but as the shipping box example demonstrates, not unique to digital play. The tools employed in the case of Minecraft play at work, whether the PC in orthodox forms of Minecraft play, or the diverse workplace materials (graph paper, algebraic software) of the more outré tactics, are always ready to shift back and forth between ludic and mundane. Whatever is reworked towards play always shifts back.  This too, is consistent with de Certeau’s understanding of the tactics of everyday life; whatever tactics of subterfuge might win us, we must be willing to readily discard (2002).  Minecraft play at work is a kind of playing at the level of mimesis and pretense as well as duration; it is, in the best sense of the word, improvised.

To close, let’s return to the two images presented above of work-place play (or work/place/play). If we (mis)read these as being about Minecraft play, and not forms of Minecraft play itself, we leave behind these practices and these players. If we leave exclude these players and their play from our definition of what Minecraft play really is, we must then face the realization that there is no center to hold on to in defining Minecraft play: When is it real, really? In adventure or survival mode? When one is playing alone, or only in groups? Networked or not? To better understand all forms of digital play we must take the limit or fringe cases seriously.  Stacking real boxes at work at first may seem like a strange way to play Minecraft, but it is also somehow the most Minecrafty practice one can think of.  This is due to the creativity of the player, but also to the centrality of space and context for determining what play looks like and what play can be.  We move then from the ideal to the possible, from the discrete to the situated, from the simulated workspace of the mine to the real and contested work place of the player.

This is a move that we need to make when we study games in general, a move towards the world of the player rather than just the world of the game. This is important not only for understanding work-themed games played at work, or mobile games played on the go, but also for understanding more seemingly stable arrangements between player and place, from the historic arcade, to the tavern, to the couch and TV coupling of the home.  These spaces are in many ways as mysterious and as contested as any mine, dungeon, or alien galaxy. When we listen to players talk about how they play rather than just what they play we can begin to attend more to the nuances of these mundane spaces to understand the situated, contextual and contingent nature of play and to see play as always complicated and complicit.  We may well then arrive at an understanding of play as more like the rest of our lives: complicated, compromised, and vital.

 

References

apt_get. “How Many of You are Playing Minecraft at Work?” http://Minecraft.reddit.com/r/Minecraft/comments/dtbiz/how_many (accessed November 2011)

Arendt, Hannah, and Margaret Canovan. 1998. The human condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Caillois, Roger, and Meyer Barash. 2001. Man, play, and games. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

De Certeau, 2002. Michel The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dyer-Witheford, Nick, and Greig De Peuter. 2009. Games of empire: global capitalism and video games. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Huizinga, Johan. 1955. Homo Ludens: a Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press.

Mastrangelo, Everton, and Jeffery A. Jolton. 2006. “Personal Use of Work Computers: Distraction versus Destruction,” CyberPsychology & Behavior. 9, no. 6, 730-741.

Reinecke Leonard. 2009. “Games at Work: The Recreational Use of Computer Games

During Working Hours” CyberPsychology & Behavior 12, no. 4 461.

Simmel, G. and E. C. Hughes. “The Sociology of Sociability.” The American Journal of Sociology 55, no. 3 (1949): 254-261.

Sudnow, David. 1983. Pilgrim in the microworld. New York, N.Y.: Warner Books.

Taylor, N., Bergstrom, K., Jenson, J. & de Castell, S. 2015. “Alienated Playbour: Relations of Production in EVE Online,” Games and Culture 365-388

Tobin, Samuel. 2013. Portable Play in Everyday Life, Basingstoke and New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

Terranova, Tiziana. 2000. “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy.” Social Text, 63 (Volume 18, Number 2), Summer 2000, 33-58

 

Bio

Samuel Tobin is an Assistant Professor of Communications Media and Game Design at Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts who studies play, media and everyday life. He is the author of Portable Play in Everyday Life: The Nintendo DS (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.)

 

 

Morality, Mortality and Materialism: an Art Historian Watches Mad Men – Catherine Wilkins

Abstract: In 17th century Netherlandish painting, artists employed a complex visual system to assign a symbolic value to everyday objects, in a sort of visual shorthand for lengthier moral concepts and narratives. Such “disguised symbolism” was often used to reflect as well as express concern about the period’s wealth, hedonism, and habits of consumption through the accoutrements and, thus, the terms of the material world. This article will explore the adoption of disguised symbolic iconography in the television series Mad Men.  The article will focus on certain objects – the mirror, the watch, the egg, and the oyster – that have acquired and accumulated meaning over time, based on art historical traditions and the past experiences of their collective viewers.  The article will argue that the way in which these objects were used, both in 17th century Netherlandish painting and in Mad Men, promotes contemplation of morality, mortality, and materialism. Ultimately, they transcend the function of a visual narrative device and allow viewers access to “Truth” about consumption that is relevant to their own lives, as well as to those of the show’s characters.

Figure 1: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ (2007)

Figure 1: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ (2007)

AMC’s critically-acclaimed Mad Men (creator: Matthew Weiner) is a television series in which style and visual aesthetics are regularly praised for both enhancing the depth of the fictional narrative and contributing to the historical authenticity of the program. For instance, Jim Hansen has argued convincingly about the importance of appearances and the layers of meaning to be unpacked in regard to the corporeal image of Don Draper (Hansen 2013, 145-160). Meanwhile, Jeremy Butler has written about the “profound nature of things:” the objects that comprise the mise en scene as signifiers of 1960s culture and evidence of Weiner’s attention to historical visual literacy (Butler 2010, 55-71). So far, however, there has not been an attempt to combine these two valuable perspectives – Hansen’s search for deeper meaning through style with Butler’s focus on material paraphernalia – in regard to Mad Men. Yet, for art historians, it is a familiar practice to interpret the appearance of objects as a means of unveiling deeper meaning and creating an experience of revelation for the viewer. Employing the tradition of 17th century Netherlandish painting as a point of comparison, this article will explore the use of disguised symbolic iconography in Mad Men. The frequent insertion of historically symbolic item such as the mirror, the watch, the egg, and the oyster promotes contemplation of morality, mortality, and materialism. Ultimately, the inclusion of these objects allows viewers of Mad Men access to “Truths” about consumption that are relevant to their own lives, as well as to those of the show’s characters.

The basic tenets of semiotics are essential in drawing a comparison between the use of symbolic objects in both Mad Men and Netherlandish painting. A simplified semiotic approach to the subject would argue that images (whether painted or motion picture) are signs, that signs are designed to represent something beyond themselves, and that an inherent part of human experience is to interpret the signs that we encounter in our daily lives. The act of creating any image is an act of arranging compositional elements to convey meaning; and the act of viewing an image is an act of translating and deciphering such elements to create significance. Hence, representations of objects – whether depicted in a painting or in a television program – always contain layers of potential meaning and symbolic value.

In Derrida’s semiotics, this process is constantly being negotiated and both sign and signified are always in flux, with authorship becoming less significant than viewership for determining value and meaning (Derrida 1982, 313-323). According to Bryson and Bal, an image is “by definition repeatable…[o]nce launched into the world, the work of art is subject to all of the vicissitudes of reception; as a work involving the sign, it encounters from the beginning the ineradicable fact of semiotic play…works of art are constituted by different viewers in different ways at different times and places” (Bal and Bryson 1981, 179). In his influential text Ways of Seeing, art historian John Berger argues that images acquire and accumulate meaning over time, based on the past experiences of their collective viewers. The reason that certain historic images may still convey specific symbolism or meaning to us today is because our current experiences are not altogether unlike those of the individuals who first made and viewed the images in question (Berger, J. 1991, 24-33). Therefore, to argue that certain “signs” (symbolic objects) convey a similar meaning in both 17th century painting and on Mad Men in the fictional context of the 1960s, we must investigate potential similarities in context that would affect the production and reception of these images, all the while keeping in mind how the context of this article’s writing influences our interpretation (Derrida 1979, 81).

Madison Avenue in the mid-twentieth century was, in many ways, not so different from the Grote Markt district of Antwerp in the seventeenth century. Over the course of the previous hundred years, Europe had become socially and economically modernized and, proportionately, the Low Countries had financially benefited much more than any other area of the continent during the Renaissance (Snyder 2004, 433). Better methods of transport there led to massive increases in trade, empire, resources, and urbanization. These factors caused a shift in the distribution of wealth, as the flourishing of commerce elevated the social and material status of merchants, bankers, and those involved in the service industry, giving rise to a true middle class that was capable of consuming and patronizing the arts. On a visit to Antwerp in 1520, the renowned German printmaker Albrecht Dürer noted the socioeconomic diversity of the urban environment, commenting upon his interaction with “workmen of all kinds, and many craftsmen and dealers…shopkeepers and merchants…horsemen and foot-soldiers…Lords Magistrates…clergy, scholars, and treasurers” (Durer 1889, 96). Among these various strata of the population, the new influx of material wealth was readily apparent despite vocalizations of concern about the sins of gluttony and greed (Schama 1987, 3-15). Northern European cities were becoming renowned for every conceivable type of consumption, from “business [to] bourse…breweries [to] brothels,” even though members of the population expressed anxiety about the way in which these practices countered traditional religious beliefs (Snyder 2004, 433). Art itself became a commodity, treated by some as an investment, by others as pleasurable decoration for increasingly large homes (Alpers 1983, xxii).

Figure 2: Simon Luttichuys, Vanitas (c. 1655)

Figure 2: Simon Luttichuys, Vanitas (c. 1655)

It was in this context, of increasing material wealth combined with Christian guilt at overabundance, that disguised symbolism became prominent in the paintings of the era. As described by Erwin Panofsky, disguised symbolism was a complex visual system that was, nevertheless, understood by a wide audience. Artists employing this strategy assigned a symbolic value to everyday objects, in a sort of visual shorthand for lengthier moral and historical concepts and narratives (Panofsky 1953, 131-148). Disguised symbolism was used as a vehicle to “create an experience of revelation” (Ward 1994, 12) through the accoutrements and, thus, the terms, of the material world (Lane 1988, 114).

Intended as a means to “celebrate the triumphs of the Dutch culture of commodities [yet…] moralize against consumption” (Berger, H. 2011, 37-38), familiar objects were transformed into “emblems of mortality to remind the viewer how transitory and fragile his pleasures are and how easily beauty and life are broken” (Slive 1962, 488). In 1984, the art historian Ivan Gaskell convincingly argued that the inclusion of disguised symbolism is ultimately about a desire to reveal Truth. In his article, “Vermeer, Judgment, and Truth,” Gaskell compares the iconography of a particular painting – Woman Holding a Balance – to Biblical verses, other period artworks, and 16th century guides to visual symbolism in order to demonstrate that the painting can be read as a contemplation of Truth as an antidote to the imbalance of worldly vanities (Gaskell 1984, 557-561).

The notion of balance that was integral to the emergence of disguised symbolism in 17th century painting was once again relevant in post-World War II America, when conflict about consumption again reared its head. Then, the United States experienced extreme economic expansion, fueling – and, in part, fueled by – a growing advertising industry with its locus of power on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Between 1945 and 1960, America’s GDP doubled, and grew by an additional 46% in the ensuing decade, with major growth taking place in the service sector and in the manufacturing of consumer durables (Vatter and Walker 1996, 129). Plentiful jobs, higher wages, and better educational opportunities led to the rapid growth of the middle class and an increasing market for everything from processed foods to refrigerators, cars to a home in the suburbs. Television sets, in particular, became much more affordable to many Americans, and ultimately were made a ubiquitous part of post-war cultural life, with nearly 90% of all US households owning one by 1960 (Jordan 1996, 798).

Yet, many Americans were uneasy with such newfound wealth and increasing consumption. According to historian Elaine Tyler May, the fear that spending would lead to decadence was rooted in a long-standing sense of pragmatism and Christian morality that was skeptical of luxury and opulence (May 1988, 148). The advertising industry was highly influential in challenging these doubts, and took advantage of television’s ability to transmit messages straight to the living rooms of a public with more leisure time and greater disposable income than ever before. Corporate spending on advertising doubled in the decade immediately following the end of World War II, then doubling again within the course of just the next five years (Vatter and Walker 1996, 129). Representations of conspicuous consumption abounded in both print ads and television commercials of the era, demonstrating the power of the image by effectively encouraging Americans toward increasingly materialistic values and practices (O’Guinn and Shrum 1997, 278-294). As the market became saturated and consumers became younger and savvier over the course of the 1960s, a creative approach that would continue to attract and influence Americans was necessitated. Wit and humor, narrative and personality were incorporated into advertising, and subtly began to define not only the products being sold, but also the advertising industry itself. More and more Americans began to associate the trade with modernity, youth, and hipness, in addition to its traditional connotations of wealth, luxury, and indulgence (Meyers 1984, 122; Frank 1997, 132-167).

With the actual historical and locational context of the fictional program Mad Men aligning with that of the Netherlands in the 17th century, we may now begin looking in earnest for shared “signs,” recurring images that appear in the television program and in historical Dutch paintings, encouraging deeper analysis as examples of disguised symbolism. Though there are many incidences of potential disguised symbolism to be found throughout Mad Men, this article focuses on four symbols – the mirror, the timepiece, the egg, and the oyster – that were of especial significance in the 17th century, and whose historical symbolism resonates particularly well in the 1960s storylines that Weiner constructs.

The very first episode of Mad Men (“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”) introduces the mirror as a symbolic element, of reflection and confrontation with a true image of self that is often denied. The opening scene finds Don sitting alone at a bar table, an empty book of matches and three snuffed-out cigarettes in the ashtray before him and a mirror above him, reflecting the bar’s patrons (Figure 1). Trying to come up with a new advertising strategy for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Don asks the barman about his smoking habits. After a moment’s hesitation, he explains that he loves smoking, but then goes on to state that his wife “hates it” and that “Reader’s Digest says it will kill you.” The camera then pans to the bar, at which the dozens of happy patrons, male and female, who were reflected in the mirror above Don’s head are seen puffing away on their cigarettes. Whether the smokers are oblivious to the dangerous nature of their habit, or just unwilling to confront it, the viewer is put in the position of an omniscient observer of Truth, privy to the reality and self-deception taking place in the scene, and the balance between the pleasures of the physical world and their potential relationship to death.

Even a casual observer might detect the symbolic possibilities that a mirror possesses, and their potential applications in Mad Men. A mirror is a vessel of verisimilitude, confronting the user with an image of self that might not correspond to the user’s perception of self. The mirror’s ability to strip away vanities and deception and reveal truth lends power to this object, as well as symbolic value. The fact that the image that appears in the mirror is temporal in nature, subject to change or vanish altogether when the subject himself moves or disappears, adds another layer of meaning to the mirror, suggesting the transient nature of self-awareness, if not life itself. In the disguised symbolism of the 17th century, this object was used to suggest the impermanence of youth, beauty, and earthly delights as well as the foolishness, the deception, in valuing such ephemeral things.

When watching Mad Men, the viewer often occupies a position similar to that of a spectator of such a 17th century Netherlandish genre scene. The century prior had seen the development of a fascinating new artistic convention: the inclusion of reflective surfaces that depicted people or objects outside of the actual area of the representation, oftentimes the artist or symbols of his craft. For instance, Simon Luttichuys’ painting Vanitas (Figure 2, c. 1655) contains several elements historically representative of the passage of time and inevitability of death, including the hourglass, the fading flower, the blank page, and, of course, the skull. A mirror is also included in this assemblage, demonstrating that the symbolic value of this object is aligned with that of the others. Indeed, it reflects the back of the skull, suggesting that, though we often turn to the mirror for superficial reasons, to satiate our vain impulses, the mirror can actually reveal the fleeting nature of youth and beauty and demonstrate, instead, the true end that awaits all things of this world. In addition to the skull, another object appears in the mirror: an artist’s easel, with a canvas upon it. This inclusion invites the viewer to not only identify painting with a reflection of truth, but to identify personally with the artist, the omniscient maker of meaning, by seeing the scene from his point of view (Stoichita 1997, 186-197). The invitation to witness a moment in time from this vantage point – from which we can see both an object and its reflection, perception and truth, and are left to draw our own conclusions about the difference between the two – is also extended to viewers in Mad Men.

Figure 3: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Maidenform’ (2008)

Figure 3: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Maidenform’ (2008)

Figure 4: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Maidenform’ (2008)

Figure 4: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Maidenform’ (2008)

Mirrors abound in every season of the program, offering views of several characters that both reveal the characters’ focus on superficiality and self-perception, yet allow us to also see a more critical, corrupted, “realistic” view of their true moral character – from an overweight Betty tightening her stomach in front of a mirror in Don’s new apartment, to Megan, sobbing in front of a bathroom mirror after her acting abilities are criticized, to Don, peering into his mouth with a mirror to look at his rotting tooth, a potent symbol of a decaying soul. “Maidenform” (Season 2, Episode 6) is an episode particularly dominated by reflection and repeatedly offering the viewer the opportunity to stand outside of the scene being depicted and to see the dual function of the mirror: as an object involved in vain pursuits as well as in the revelation of the fraud involved in such self-deception.

The episode opens with the three primary female characters – Betty, Joan, and Peggy – reflected in bedroom mirrors as they are donning undergarments. Here, the mirror represents the superficial focus of women striving to satisfy the gaze of self and/or other. Each woman attempts to construct a youthful and beautiful façade, to appear trim, well-formed, and tan (respectively), whether for their own approval or for that of those who might observe them (Figure 3).[1] Similarly, Peter Campbell uses a mirror in the same episode to seemingly overlook his own lusty sins and see instead a successful and desirable spouse. This scenario arises when Pete returns to the apartment he shares with his wife after a fling with a potential Playtex bra model who still lives at home with her mother. Creeping into a darkened house, Pete puts down his briefcase and catches a glimpse of himself in the hall mirror. After looking himself in the eye for a moment, he gave a slight, smug smile and looked away, perhaps relishing his newfound studly self-perception while ignoring the obviously roguish dimensions of his character. In all of these cases, the mirror is engaged in its primary function, serving as a reflective surface that allows those who stand before it to see what they want to see – a flattering version of themselves that is nonetheless constructed of fleeting qualities such as youth, beauty, and sexual desirability.

Later in the episode, the mirror takes on its second function, revealing to the omniscient viewer both the superficial reflection as well as the often-unpleasant Truth about what or who is shown in its surface. For example, midway through the episode, Don meets Bobbi Barrett in her hotel room, where she pours two glasses of champagne in front of a mirror. She looks up at Don, who approaches her from behind, and has a verbal exchange with him that ends in his request for her to “stop talking,” perhaps because her speech disrupts the desirable image that he saw reflected in the glass. They kiss and turn away, while the viewer continues to watch their lusty embrace in the mirror. Though the couple is surely attractive and desirable on the surface, the viewer sees in the mirror two individuals who are violating their marital vows as they head toward the bed that lies in shadow. Indeed, the scene quickly goes sour when Bobbi, in that bed, verbally reveals this truth that Don doesn’t want to face: he has developed a reputation around town for being a connoisseur in the field of extra-marital affairs.

Figure 5: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Doorways’ (2013)

Figure 5: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Doorways’ (2013)

In the final scene of the episode, the exchange with Bobbi is revisited, in a sense, as the viewer witnesses Don shaving before a mirror. His daughter Sally comes into the bathroom to observe him, reassuring her father that she “won’t talk” so as not to disturb him in the process – a verbal reminder of his own request to his mistress. He stops to look at her, then back at himself in the mirror. He is visibly shaken, and cannot continue his act of grooming, first looking himself in the eye, then averting his own gaze before sitting down on the toilet, with his back to the mirror above the sink, demonstrating an inability to confront his own infidelity as reflected back to him. However, the viewer is still privy to a mirror image of Don for, as the camera pulls back, we see the image of the “real” person slipping off-screen to the left, as a reflection of him in the mirror on the back of the bathroom door comes into view on the right side of the screen. For a moment, both images inhabit our field of vision, before the scene fades to black (Figure 4). Just as in Luttichuys’ painting, the viewer is put in the position of the omniscient meaning-maker, confronted with dueling dimensions of reality: Truth and perception. Here, the deceptive nature of the glass now becomes visible not only to Don, but to the viewer as well, whose ability to stand outside the scene and observe that which is simultaneously represented and that which is not, highlights the discrepancy between reality and reflection and drives home the need to challenge the acceptance of superficial appearances with honest assessments of cost and benefits.

The appearance of the wristwatch and its significance in several episodes of Mad Men also speaks to self-deception, particularly in regard to the denial of one’s mortality. The wristwatch, like the hourglass in Luttichuys’s painting and many other Netherlandish genre scenes, reminds the viewer that time is passing and will eventually catch up with us all, that the pleasures of indulgence and consumption will pass, and that we – like all material things – will ultimately age and die. This symbolism is driven home in Season 6, Episode 1 (“Doorways”), for example: an episode almost entirely about death. The episode opens dramatically, with the camera pointed toward the ceiling, a woman screaming, and a doctor’s face looming large up above, performing chest compressions on the person whose perspective the viewer occupies, putting us in position to contemplate the potential for an imminent and unexpected death. The scene fades to black, as the voice of Don reads the first sentence from Dante’s Inferno: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road, and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” A scene comes into view, of Don reading and Megan sunbathing on Waikiki Beach. Just a moment later, he picks up his wristwatch to check the time for Megan, only to discover that the watch is not working (Figure 5). He holds it to his ear, scrutinizes the dial, then hands it to Megan, who insists that Don must have gotten the watch wet. After a moment of consideration, she hands it back to him saying, “Who cares what time it is?”

Figure 6: Peter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life (1630)

Figure 6: Peter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life (1630)

Figure 7: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Ladies Room’ (2007)

Figure 7: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Ladies Room’ (2007)

Figure 8: Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna (1436)

Figure 8: Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna (1436)

The meaning behind this opening sequence revolves around an interpretation of the stopped watch as a symbol of death. In paintings, all watches and clocks are, of course, stopped, frozen by the artist at a distinct moment in time, for all time. Yet it is equally obvious that, in the disguised symbolism of 17th century paintings, the appearance of a “stopped” timepiece was not a mere side effect of the painting process, but a deliberately symbolic inclusion. In Peter Claesz’s 1630 Vanitas Still Life (Figure 6), a skull and bone rest atop a table, next to an empty and overturned glass, a common symbol for a life brought to an abrupt end. Beside the glass is an elaborate pocketwatch, open, with a mirror in its lid reflecting nothingness and its hands frozen in time. The watch, viewed in conjunction with the skull and glass, can be read as implying the end of time that precedes the darkness, the truth we wish to avoid, seen in the mirror. As the watch stops ticking, so, too, we are left to gather, does the heart of its owner.

This interpretation is particularly relevant in light of the juxtaposition of images – heart attack victim and Don’s stopped watch – seen in “Doorways.” The fact that Megan disregards the stopped watch may be a sign of her youth and naivety, her sense that there are still many more moments to be experienced, despite the fact that one never knows when he will run out of time, so to speak. Yet the observant viewer likely can recognize that this is a symbol not to be ignored, especially since it has appeared before – in Season 2, Episode 3 (“The Benefactors”), in which Don’s watch is again described as having stopped, only later to be repaired by Betty. Perhaps there, the broken watch was more metaphorical, a representation of Don’s marriage nearing its expiration date (this was, after all, the episode in which he begins his affair with Bobbi Barrett that later led to his divorce). In “Doorways,” however, the close visual link between the stopped watch and stopped heart suggest a more fatalistic reading in keeping with the vanitas imagery of the 17th century, which overtly drew parallels between timepieces and the end of all time.

The second-ever episode of the series, “Ladies Room,” seems to likewise directly reference the disguised symbolism popularized by 17th century Netherlandish painting. The opening sequence of the episode is a beautifully composed still life activated by the presence of the motion picture camera. In the first shot, an egg is cracked and broken, with the yolk poured out into a small bowl. A disembodied hand then reaches for a dish in which a lemon sits, halved. One half is taken away, placed in a cloth napkin, and squeezed over the yolk. In the background, the viewer can discern other bowls, piled high with croutons, cheese, and lettuce – the makings of a Caesar salad (Figure 7). Yet the focus is clearly on the egg, a highly symbolic food item that makes its way into dozens of 17th century paintings, as well as several future episodes of Mad Men.

Eggs have, in many cultures and for many millennia, been considered a symbol of fertility, reproduction, and regeneration. The egg’s physical characteristics and actual function – a vessel for a new life hidden within a rounded form that has been compared to both a testicle and a breast – are clearly responsible for these attributes, which occur in the art and mythology of societies as diverse as that of ancient Egypt, China, and Finland (Newall 1967, 3-32). The Christian artists of the Northern Renaissance imbued the egg with additional levels of disguised symbolism that were carried on in the works of 17th century Netherlandish painters. Within the Christian tradition, the egg became representative of the Resurrection of Christ (Jesus rising from the dead as the chick springs forth from a seemingly inert object) as well as the Incarnation (with the egg representing the womb of Mary, impregnated with the Christ child).

Jan van Eyck’s Lucca Madonna (Figure 8, 1436) illustrates this latter interpretation of the egg, demonstrating the new, distinctly religious dimension to the pre-Christian association of the egg with regeneration and fertility. In this painting – as well as other images of the Madonna by van Eyck, such as the Ince Hall Madonna – the Virgin Mary is enthroned in a domestic interior, nursing the newborn Christ child on her lap. To the right are objects such as a basin filled with water and a clear glass vessel that are traditionally read as symbols of baptism and of Mary’s intact virginity, respectively.[2] On the left side of the picture plane is a large leaded glass window through which light passes: a potentially symbolic inclusion, as Christ is often called the light of the world, the means by which divine truth is illuminated. The light beams pass through the intact glass (again, symbolic of the undisturbed virginity of Mary) to illuminate not only the Madonna and child, but two eggs that sit directly on the windowsill. The symbolism of the eggs parallel that of the other objects represented in the scene, in that they speak to the idea of new life being created and contained within something unbroken and intact. The fact that there are two eggs – mirroring the two human figures present in the painting – suggests that van Eyck is referring not only to the Incarnation of Christ, but to the Immaculate Conception of Mary herself. In both cases, fertility and reproduction were stripped of the “sinful” stain of sexuality; instead, they were connected to ideas of purity, wholeness, and the sacrality of familial life, which the egg, as a versatile symbol, took on.

Figure 9: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Three Sundays’ (2008)

Figure 9: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Three Sundays’ (2008)

In Season 2, Episode 4, “Three Sundays,” the egg appears in a way that corresponds with the disguised symbolism just described. This episode focuses on Peggy Olsen and her relationship with religion in the aftermath of giving birth to Peter Campbell’s son. Despite her struggles with spirituality and the institution of the Catholic Church, Peggy agrees to do some pro bono advertising work for her home parish and develops a friendly relationship with the young pastor in the meantime. Through dialogue with her family, the pastor, Father John, finds out about the child Peggy bore out of wedlock. At the end of the episode, the third Sunday – Easter Sunday – has arrived, and an egg hunt is taking place on the church grounds. Father John approaches Peggy and the camera zooms in, then holds the image of the priest pressing a blue egg into the palm of her white gloved hand, “for the little one” (Figure 9). The Easter interpretation of the egg – as a sign of the risen Christ – is here eclipsed by the other symbolic value of the egg, as a sign of fruitful femininity and the proliferation of family life through new birth. Though Peggy’s virginity is, of course, no longer intact, the priest’s gesture seems to suggest a desire to restore wholeness to Peggy herself, and to her family life. Peggy, who ultimately gives her child up for adoption, seems uncomfortable with the gesture, perhaps not only shocked by Father John’s knowledge of her illegitimate child, but unwilling to adhere to the model of femininity and family life implied by the intact egg and visualized in van Eyck’s Madonna paintings.

Understanding the egg as a symbol of fertility and family with sacred undertones helps inform an understanding of an even more frequently seen image, repeated in several episodes of Mad Men: that of the broken egg. If the intact egg is a symbol of wholeness, virtue, and the life-giving role of sexuality in a familial context, the broken egg represents the shattering of innocence, integrity, and the familial bond. Broken eggs can frequently be found in Netherlandish paintings representing the cost of intemperance, particularly as it relates to sexuality and family life. For example, Jan Steen’s raucous Interior of an Inn (Figure 10, c. 1665) depicts a barmaid whose skirt is being lifted by an inebriated patron. Though she places one hand on his arm as though to restrain him, with her other hand, she touches her breast in a sensual manner. Two other men look on, one openly laughing and the other provocatively stuffing the bowl of his long-stemmed pipe with his pinky finger while staring at the female subject. On the floor before them all are opened mussel shells (the symbolism of mollusks to be discussed at length later in this article), an empty frying pan with an exceedingly long handle, and many broken eggshells.

While there might be a logical interpretation of the eggs’ appearance – surely, in a scene of such boisterous behavior, its reasonable to assume that a fragile food item might be disturbed – their staged appearance on the floor, in conjunction with the other objects that surround them and the previously established symbolic value of intact eggs, suggests disguised symbolism at work. The indulgence in the vices of smoking and drinking are overtly pictured in the work. Additionally, sexual indulgence is implied through the gestures of the painting’s characters and the phallic allusions of the pipe stem and pan handle juxtaposed with the receptive voids of the pipe’s bowl and pan’s bottom. The broken eggs add a moralizing component to this otherwise festive scene, alluding to the destruction of purity in the domestic ideal expressed by the intact egg, and signifying especially fallen womanhood (Thomson and Fahy 1990, 11).

Figure 10: Jan Steen, Interior of an Inn (c. 1665)

Figure 10: Jan Steen, Interior of an Inn (c. 1665)

Figure 11: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Red in the Face’ (2007)

Figure 11: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Red in the Face’ (2007)

Breaking eggs serve a similar iconographic function in Mad Men, and are especially abundant in Season 3, appearing in Episode 4 (“The Arrangements”) and Episode 5 (“The Fog”) alike. In both cases, the egg’s historical value as a symbol of incarnation, birth, and familial life is relevant, but the fact that the egg is shown breaking seems to indicate the fracturing and dissolution of family life. In “The Arrangements,” the premise by which the breaking egg is introduced is, again, the making of a Caesar salad. Gathered around the table this time are Don, Peter Campbell, and Horace Cook, Jr. (“Ho-Ho”), one of Pete’s old school friends. Ho-Ho is presented as a spoiled rich kid, about to waste his inheritance by investing in jai alai. The dinner conversation revolves around father-son tensions – particularly, the distaste Horace Cook, Sr. has for his son’s leisurely lifestyle and investment choices – a theme that will repeat throughout the episode. As the men talk around the table, a new camera angle is presented, which places the salad preparation table – and, significantly, the breaking of an egg – in the foreground of the shot. Perhaps not coincidentally, this same episode features Gene, Betty’s father, dying, as well as an insomniac Don getting up in the middle of the night to stare at a picture of his father and step-mother: families shattered, just as the egg was.

In “The Fog,” Betty Draper gives birth to Gene, the child conceived even as her marriage with Don was falling apart. Again, the egg is given a place of importance, visually and, this time, in regard to dialogue as well. Don, taking care of Sally and Bobby while Betty is hospitalized, is shown cooking a late night snack of eggs and corned beef hash. He holds an egg up to the light, “checking for a chick” as Sally astutely guesses, before the camera closes in on the frying pan to show Don breaking the egg over the sizzling meat. Sally says that her teacher taught her that eggs from a store could never become a chicken, “even though they came from a chicken.” Sally then awkwardly transitions into a question about whether or not the baby will live in Grandpa Gene’s old room. The new life of the Gene, Jr. is juxtaposed with the death of Gene, Sr., visualized by the breaking of the egg. Perhaps as well, Don’s futile search for new life in the egg (the lack of a chick and Sally’s statement that he will never find a chick in eggs like that) represents the inability for his family to be reborn and recover from his adultery.

The image of the broken egg again reflects generational conflict and families divided due to intemperance in Season 4, Episode 2, “Christmas Comes But Once a Year.” Taking place in the aftermath of the Drapers’ divorce, this episode finds Sally’s close friend Glen Bishop breaking into the family home (now occupied by Betty and her new husband, Henry Francis) and vandalizing it with the help of his friend. Glen, the product of a broken home himself, has been motivated to engage in this behavior by the confidences of Sally, who confesses extreme unhappiness in her new familial environment. The two young boys focus their destructive energies on the kitchen, and are shown dumping out the refrigerator contents on an empty counter. While there are a few food elements that are clearly visible (such as ketchup and cereal), there is again a focus on eggs, with the boys removing a carton and breaking individual eggs all around the kitchen. It is a scene of simultaneous abundance and squander, infused with anger. These representatives of the younger generation lay waste to the fruits of capitalism and consumerism as they express frustration with the seeming selfishness of their parents. The boys’ unhappiness with the divided Draper household – and their own, as well – is reinforced by the symbolic connection between broken eggs and broken families that echoes through the seasons of Mad Men.

A final symbolic element to appear in Mad Men is the oyster, verbally and visually alluded to in several episodes of the series. Throughout, the oyster serves as a symbol of luxury and indulgence, often with intemperance as an undertone. For example, in Season 2, Episode 2 (“Flight 1”), Peter Campbell finds out that his recently deceased father was insolvent, having spent his money on “oysters and travel club memberships” – seemingly frivolous and fleeting pleasures. This verbal association of the oyster with self-indulgence is enhanced by imagery in the series as well, such as that seen in Season 1, Episode 7: “Red in the Face.” Don and Roger, out for a bender of a lunch, are enjoying copious amounts of oysters and martinis. At the 34:33 mark, as Roger is ordering another pair of drinks and more oysters, the camera focuses in on the table before them. On the red and white striped tablecloth sit two platters piled high with the remains of a decadent lunch. Each hosts a dozen empty half-shells and several squeezed lemon wedges nestled on a bed of lettuce alongside a partially-full bowl of cocktail sauce. On a small plate between the two main dishes are two lemon wedges, one untouched and the other appearing squeezed. Directly adjacent to this plate is an ashtray, full of cigarette butts and ashes. Two small carafes of water appear half-full, and Roger’s martini glass, nearly empty (Figure 11). The visual connotes both extravagance and waste, abundance spent, with symbolism and a moralizing tone that are both borrowed from Netherlandish painting.

Ubiquitous in 17th century genre scenes, oysters were – then and now – a food that connoted luxury and indulgence, yet also perhaps danger. The European fascination with the oyster can be traced back at least as far as Greek mythology, which initiated the association of the erotic with the shellfish by situating the birth of the goddess Aphrodite on an oyster shell. “The oyster remained a symbol of Aphrodite throughout antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and continued into the Baroque era,” bringing with it through the ages an association with the characteristics of “fertility, pleasure, and sex” that were attributed to the goddess herself (Cheney 1987, 135-6). The rise of the Dutch empire in the 1600s added another layer of symbolic meaning to the oyster. As the Dutch conquered the Portuguese in the waters of the Indian Ocean around the mid-century mark, pearl fisheries and oyster-rich waters came under the domain of the Netherlands, and the oyster became an accessible – if rare – edible indulgence that simultaneously represented the increasing power and possessions of the nation.

When seen through a moralizing lens, however, the positive identifications of the oyster with abundance, wealth, and sensual pleasure can be correlated to the deadly sins of greed, pride, gluttony, and lust. Indeed, many Dutch genre painters employed the image of the oyster in their works as a strategy for documenting the increasing luxury and materialism of their time while suggesting the fleeting nature of such earthly passions. In his 1618 tome Symbolorum ac Emblematum Ethico-Politicorum, Joachim Camerarius explained that paintings that illustrated the drinking of wine and eating of oysters spoke not only to pleasure, but to the dangers of over-indulging in physical desires (Camerius 1618, 120). The scholar claimed that the inclusion of oysters in an image were a means by which a nouveau-riche society that was, at the same time, historically abstemious could grapple with such conflicting aspects of its character (Camerius 1618, 121).

The duality of the oyster’s symbolism has much to do with the potential peril involved in its actual consumption. Raw shellfish carries a risk for bacterial contamination that can cause serious illness in those who consume a tainted sample. Illnesses such as hepatitis, typhoid, or even death by septicemia were not uncommon in centuries past, when refrigeration was lacking and proper handling techniques were not always employed. The literal link between indulgence and the possibility of an untimely death made the oyster a symbol ripe for exploitation by Netherlandish vanitas painters.

Figure 12: Jan Steen, Easy Come, Easy Go (1661)

Figure 12: Jan Steen, Easy Come, Easy Go (1661)

As such, it became “the focus of many genre paintings…frequently the principal food depicted, serving as a vehicle for moral comment” in scenes both superficially merry and serious (Cheney 1987, 135). For example, in Jan Steen’s Easy Come, Easy Go (Figure 12, 1661), the oyster meal is at the center of a seemingly festive gathering loaded with disguised symbolism. In the dining room of a lavishly appointed home, an elderly servant opens oysters for her laughing master, while a beautiful young woman offers him a full glass. The contrast between these two female figures is enough to indicate a negative interpretation of the oyster; associated with old age, not youth and beauty, with death rather than the full life that the brimming cup signifies. Other aspects of the painting add layers of meaning to the oyster’s symbolism. Behind the master of the house is a statue of the goddess Fortuna mounting a die and surrounded by strange sculptural elements. For example, beneath her are two cornucopias: the one on the right (the side of the young woman) overflowing with fruit and coins, while the one on the left (the side of the elderly woman and oyster) full of wilting brambles. Similarly, on the left side of Fortuna is a weeping putto, while on the right, a cheerful one reigns, scepter in hand.

The duality of the imagery here is reinforced by the inscription on the mantelpiece beneath Fortuna that reads “Easily Won, Easily Spent.” A simple explanation for this composition might relate the message and symbolism to the gambling that is taking place in the background of the scene: the viewer sees two men standing around a gaming table through a doorway painted in the upper left corner of the canvas, rolling dice in a game of backgammon. However, the action taking place in the foreground of the scene may be even more pertinent to understanding the fullness of the moralizing message Steen wished to express. Here, an oversized lemon is place on the seat of a chair in closest proximity to the viewer, its peel twisting off in a way that was meant to imitate the inner springs of a clock, symbolizing the passage of time. The lemon is placed next to a juicy oyster, though several empty shells also occupy the seat of this chair, as well as the floor. To the left of this chair, also in the foreground of the scene, is a representation of a boy adding water to wine, suggesting not only religious ritual, but the tempering that is desperately needed in this scene. Behind him on the ground are two empty glasses, perhaps representing the emptiness – even the death – that can be avoided through moderation. Overall, the oyster here serves as a symbol of indulgence and wealth, but is simultaneously associated with chance and even death. The contrast suggests the transient nature of earthly delights and urges moderation and restraint.

Steen’s intention, and that of the other painters of the 17th century symbolic genre scene, was to visualize the decadence of their culture that many members of the up and coming middle-income class of patrons idealized or perhaps even experienced. Yet, these artists sought to simultaneously problematize indulgence by reflecting on the true nature of mankind’s mortal existence and the ultimate cost of consumption by using symbols and signs that a contemporary audience could understand. Thus, Dutch artists could access the often complex, conflicting feelings – of both desire and guilt – that their audience possessed through images that were equally layered with duality of meaning. A similar sort of disguised symbolism works in Mad Men not only because the cultural climate of the 1960s had much in common with that of the Netherlands in the 17th century, but because our contemporary 21st century context does as well.

Since Mad Men debuted seven years ago, its Western audiences have enjoyed the highest standard of living the world has ever known — but with the knowledge that this abundance of riches often comes at the expense of other people, animals, and the environment. Like the Dutch as well as their American predecessors in the 1960s, the 21st century audience of Mad Men is experiencing the attraction of material pleasures (made all the more alluring by the ubiquitous advertising of our age) while simultaneously witnessing the social and environmental cost of consumption. The continuing conflict between consumption and conscience suggests that the use of disguised symbolism in Mad Men can transcend the function of a visual narrative device, and may also point viewers toward a course of action that is as relevant today as it was in the 17th century: to seek Truth and strive for balance in the complex relationship between mortality, morality, and materialism.

 

Works Cited

Alpers, Svetlana. 1983. The Art of Describing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bal, Mieke and Norman Bryson. 1991. “Semiotics and Art History.” The Art Bulletin 73/2: 174-208.

Berger, Harry. 2011. Caterpillage: Reflections on Seventeenth-Century Dutch Still Life Painting. New York: Fordham University Press.

Berger, John. 1991. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.

Butler, Jeremy. 2010.”’Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’: Historicizing Visual Style in Mad Men.” In Mad Men: Dream Come True TV, edited by Gary Edgerton, 55-71. London: I.B. Tauris.

Camerarius, Joachim. 1618. Symbolorum ac Emblematum Ethico-Politicorum. Middleburg.

Cheney, Liana De Girolami. 1987. “The Oyster in Dutch Genre Paintings: Moral or Erotic Symbolism.” Artibus Et Historiae 8/15: 135-158.

Derrida, Jacques. 1982. Dissemination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1979. “Living On: Border Lines.” In Deconstruction and Criticism, edited by H. Bloom, et al., 75-176. New York: Continuum Publishing Group.

Dürer, Albrecht. 1889. Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer. Ed. W.M. Conway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Frank, Thomas. 1997. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gaskell, Ivan. 1984. “Vermeer, Judgment, and Truth.” Burlington Magazine 126/978: 557-561.

Hansen, Jim. 2013. “Mod Men.” In Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, & Style in the 1960s, edited by Lauren Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky, and Robert Rushing, 145-160. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Jordan, Winthrop. 1996. The Americans. Boston: McDougal Littell.

Lane, Barbara. 1988. “Sacred vs. Profane in Early Netherlandish Painting.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 18/3: 107-115.

May, Elaine Tyler. 1988. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books.

Meyers, William. 1984. The Image Makers: Power and Persuasion on Madison Avenue. Los Angeles: Times Books.

Newall, Venetia. 1967. “Easter Eggs.” The Journal of American Folklore 80/315: 3-32.

O’Guinn, Thomas and L. J. Shrum. 1997. “The Role of Television in the Construction of Consumer Reality.” Journal of Consumer Research 23/4: 278-294.

Panofsky, Erwin. 1953. Early Netherlandish Painting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schama, Simon. 1987. The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Slive, Seymour. 1962. “Realism and Symbolism in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting.” Daedalus 91/3: 469-500.

Snyder, James. 2004. Northern Renaissance Art. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Stoichita, Victor. 1997. The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thompson, James and Everett Fahy. 1990. “Jean-Baptiste Greuze.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 47/3: 5-54.

Vatter, Harold and John Walker, eds. 1996. History of the United States Economy Since World War II. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Ward, John. 1994. “Disguised Symbolism as Enactive Symbolism.” Artibus et Historiae 15/29: 9-53.

 

Notes:

[1] This idea is reinforced by Don’s pitch to the Playtex company later in the episode, in which he says, “its about how they [women] want to be seen by us, their husbands, their boyfriends, their friends’ husbands.”

[2] While the basin’s likeness to a baptismal font makes for a relatively straightforward comparison, the importance of the glass carafe is understood best in light of period sources, such as this Nativity song quoted by van Eyck in another composition: “As the sunbeam through the glass passeth but not breaketh, so the Virgin, as she was, Virgin still remaineth.” See Panofsky 1953, 144.

 

Bio: Dr. Catherine Wilkins is a faculty member in the Honors College at the University of South Florida. She received a M.A. in Art History (2003) and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Cultural History (2008) from Tulane University. The subject of her doctoral dissertation was post-World War II German landscape painting and its use as a vehicle for social critique. Dr. Wilkins’ research on this subject was recently published as Landscape Imagery, Politics, and Identity in a Divided Germany, 1968-1989 (London: Ashgate, 2013). Her current research interests cover a range of topics in modern and contemporary art and popular culture. Additional publications include “Performing Art History’s Problems with New Media: ‘Capitalist Realism,’ the Northern Renaissance, and Gerhard Richter.” NMediaC, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Summer 2009) and “Constructing Individual Identity in a Cybernetic Age.” Gerard Lange Cartograph/Jared Ragland Apropos (Rocky Mount, N.C.: Barton College Press, 2010).

‘Rock‘n’roll’s evil doll’: the Female Popular Music Genre of Barbie Rock – Rock Chugg

Abstract: Fostering male tradition in popular music, rock’n’roll history often underrated the early Girl Group chart-topping era of 1958-63 after Elvis and before Beatlemania. By the 1990s-2000s, Riot Grrrl and Girl Power success was again devalued by that homosocial music scene. Beset by neoliberal managerialism, even academic and market research played it safe, recognising corporatist Indie and nationalist Brit-Pop, while Riot Grrrl revolt into Girl Power style components of a new female genre went unrecognised. Consecutive social exclusion (Riot Grrrl) and social capital (Girl Power) factors in the sound, dubbed Barbie Rock from stereotyped songs, like global hit ‘Barbie Girl’ (1997-8) were intensified by the shifting role of primary and secondary definers in digital media. For popular music, such shifts included 1) rock-press computerisation; 2) moral panic news; and 3) video monopoly. Illustrated with quotes from Barbie Rock fanzine Polymer, the paper culminates in an in-between Riot Grrrl and Girl Power case study of Barbie Rock front-woman, Caroline Finch. The high profile of female pop music today (‘rock’n’roll’s’), although demonised (‘evil’), confirms the ongoing influence of this 1990s genre on a now digitalised era of the plasticised body (‘doll’).

        

Barbie, Barbie, still in her teens
Bell of the parties, a tom boy in jeans

                                      ‘Barbie’ – The Beach Boys, 1962

Figure 1: Polymer News 

Figure 1: Polymer News

Introduction: ‘rock’n’roll’s evil doll’[1]

Apparently nothing new happened in 1990s music. ‘I shall not be discussing new genres’ says genre expert Negus, ‘this would require the lucky researcher to be in the right time and place to chart their emergence’ (1999: 29). If we take the risk society seriously, that ‘time and place’ has disappeared into the virtual reality of an information age. Even postmodern criticism is unsure of the extent to which contemporary ‘art’ is ‘mediocrity squared. It claims to be bad – “I am bad! I am bad!” – and it truly is bad.’ (Lotringer, 2005). The prevailing view finds entire cultural scenes, let alone popular music, in lockstep vicious recycle mode. Yet a revolution turned counter-revolution, keen to dismiss new female music as dissipated ‘victim-babes’ (Greer, 1999) or incongruous as ‘a camel on a bicycle’ (Raphael, 1995), is met with ‘Riot Grrrl’ resistance (Riley, 1994) and ‘Spice Girl’[2] dissent (Lumby, 1998). While self-exclusion glossed by token inclusion maybe the virtual failure of ‘Barbie Rock’ (see part 4 below), what men don’t know and Grrrl Power understands is that for rock‘n’roll this is also its actual success.

My illustrative data for the Barbie Rock genre was captured in opened-ended research from primary sources. Tanner endorses musical genres as ‘better addressed with more qualitative research’ (2008: 189). In this case over fifty musicians, writers and experts were interviewed in Polymer magazine between 1997 and 2002. Semi-structured and tailored questions, snowballed from celebrity participants, drew diverse reactions to the sexed genre, ranging from fanatical gusto to detached cool. Attentive to notoriety, it was considered true to their initial fanzine sample to ‘spell out’ the names of participants, with reference to Bourdieu’s precedent (1988: 278). Artefact of intense independent and mainstream media activism (fanzine to glossy magazine), Barbie Rock integrated original low fi ‘potty mouthed’ Brat Mobile Riot Grrrls with high tech ‘wanna be’ Spice Girls Power. Théberge corroborates magazines, ‘as a central element in the “framing” of popular musical forms’ (1991a: 271).

Formulated in a context of hung-parliament cartels, the notion of ‘social exclusion’ unites Blair’s New Labour to Giddens’ Third Way, linking a potential for improved poverty studies with criteria like ‘non-participation’. In practice, contradictory accounts noted the social wage benefiting low-income groups while high-income group levels fell (Bradshaw, 2004: 173). Or alternately, loss of the public realm, social individual and democracy based collective provision (Hall, 2005: 328). Predictably, events like increased economic polarisation and exclusion,[3] uncorrected by token multicultural inclusion or mutual obligation, largely confirm the latter view. Less a non-participatory than anti-intellectual check on popular culture, utopian neoliberal policy moved business cycles away from subversions dear to rock-press turned academics (Reynolds, 1988), now co-opted in education rehab. Stale formats from industry models of 1980s ‘Indie’ underculture (Hesmondhalgh, 1999: 35) consoled post-genre quietism accompanied by neutralising trivia, like the TV ‘rock quiz’. Against these general factors of resistance to new genre subcultures Hesmondhalgh concedes particulars, like an ‘increased policing of copyright, in ways that have favoured the oligopolistic corporations dominating cultural production, actually inhibits creativity rather than promotes it’ (2007: 88). Such life experience pressures on primary and secondary media definers, overriding female music innovation, displaced a normally creative function of both the rock-press and musician alike:

No, rock’n’roll has no future, absolutely not! – Craig N. Pearce, journalist (Quatro)[4]

Sorry, are like you suggesting that the Paradise Motel can be referred to as ‘Barbie Girl’? – Merida Sussex, Paradise Motel (Stone)

Figure 2: Polymer Stone

Figure 2: Polymer Stone

Addressing the theme of social exclusion directly, Bayton itemised ‘“constraints” facing the potential female musician’ as ‘material’ (money, equipment, transport) and ‘ideological’ (hegemonic masculinity and femininity). ‘What was interesting was the way in which women are able to overcome or evade…exclusion’ (1998: 189). Interestingly, she suggested ‘escapes’ or ‘resistances’ (role models, feminism and lesbianism) centred on theories of symbolic interactionism. Contextualising the argument further, here I suggest that the social ‘exclusion’ of significant genre experience was determined not only by the classic sexism targets of feminism, but the refractions of popular music by new technology. Explored below, these are described as institutional driven rock-press computerisation; moral panic reportage; and video monopoly. Based on ideas from Baudelaire to Bataille, such shifts are haunted by Baudrillardian ‘evil’ or demonisation of women (‘Lilith’). Whether already noted as industry/culture problems of ‘production’ (Negus, 1998), or ‘commodification’ by the male ‘producer/record company/music business’ (Stras, 2010: 3) this sexed nexus also facilitates the first female genre of popular music.

I bought her a full length Barbie silver fox,

But she just lies in her Barbie box

                     ‘Barbie’ – Shower Scene From Psycho, 1986

 

1 Rock-press computerisation: speak no evil

Founded on the ‘existence of valuable relationships’, Bradshaw argues that ‘social capital does not seem to be particularly related to poverty, possibly because the poor have more time to maintain them’ (2004: 184). Cultural industry data shows that most ‘genre’ pop artists live on low incomes in semi-poverty, buoyed by a successful ‘star system’,[5] comprised of marketing formats to counter unpredictable sales. However, the raw material of music is exchangeable form, not ‘industrial’ content or ‘consumer’ style. The expert or ‘primary definer’ (Hall et al., 1978) and management or ‘entrepreneur’ (Martinelli, 1994), value-add to these music forms recorded from studio or live performance. In official male-dominated pop decades from the 1950s for example, rock journalism (‘hacks’) in this role credibly claimed to operate outside vested economic or political interests. But since the professionalisation of writing or ‘routinisation of innovation’ (Martinelli, 1994: 480) effect of internet technicism (‘hackers’), biopower fragmentation and niche marketing have led to social exclusion and music sales decline (Mathieson, 2006). Factors perpetuating a homosocial trend of ‘exclusion of femininity from rock’ (Davies, 2001).

Both the ‘corporate strategy’ focused concept of Indie genres (Hesmondhalgh, 1999), and academic ‘theory’ of genres (Fabbri, 1980: 6) overlook the creative role of primary definers or cultural intermediaries (Negus, 1999: 18). For Hesmondhalgh, Bourdieu’s ‘cultural intermediary’ concept is ‘confusing and unhelpful’ (2007: 67). Harley and Botsman’s ‘No payola and the cocktail set’ examined this function in the heyday of a pre-internet, extra-institutional and under-theorised rock-press (1982). After three decades of rock’n’roll genres, the 1980s academic finally itemised this journalistic discourse of ‘hacks’ as downplaying the ideological and commercial outcomes of popular music writing in terms of airplay, sales and popularity (‘historicising, idolising and posing’). For these researchers, the Sex Pistols were approved on ‘tactical’ grounds, unlike romantic ‘Punk’ recycling charismatic ideology of race-music Rockabilly and vitalism Psychedelia. Punk hagiography only repeated this personality cult logic of the 1950s and 1960s. Ensuing 1980s Post-Punk parent versus subculture readings were also seen as trapped ‘within an overworked and useless construction of power’ (1982: 252). However, Harley and Botsman’s reservation about an entrepreneur rock-press is finally offset by the self-conscious reflexive method of Londoners Paul Morley and Ian Penman. In journalism similar to Australian Craig N. Pearce or American Lester Bangs, this rock-writer-as-intellectual as its vital media illusion preceded the internet techicism Diaspora.

According to sociology, ‘the weakening of the role of the innovative entrepreneur is seen as a basic factor, although not the only one, of the crisis of capitalism’ (Martinelli, 1994: 479). Conversely, cultural studies visualise the role of institutional ‘primary definer’ as ultimately vested by, ‘branches of the state and its fields of operation – through the formal separation of powers; in the communications field it is mediated by the protocols of balance, objectivity and impartiality’ (Hall et al., 1978: 220). With a variable supply of social capital, stringer to freelance rock-press journalism shuttled between these commercial entrepreneur to state primary definer roles. ‘Definition of rock journalism: People who can’t write, doing interviews with people who can’t think, in order to prepare articles for people who can’t read’ (Zappa and Occhiogrosso, 1990: 221). Recognised as its highpoint, the contrasting 1980s reflexive rock-press ushered in, ‘the progressive decay of the entrepreneurial function by virtue of the routinisation of innovation’ (Martinelli, 1994: 478-9). Although trivialised as ‘thin cultural studies’ (Beilharz, 1995: 133) and ‘the cultural turn’ (de la Fuente, 2007: 120), while it lasted, the professionalisation transition that succeeded this flashy journalism did actually deliver some valuable insights into popular music.[6]

Rather than ‘romantic Punks’ or ‘parent versus subculture’, with ‘increasing reliance on “expert” opinion’, today’s ‘professional’ tends to overlook the ‘popular consciousness’ (Abbot-Chapman, 2007: 242). Opposite of the ‘sociologism’ that claims a ‘genre community’ is ‘always…conscious of their precise role in musical reality’ (Fabbri, 1980: 6), this rock-press devaluation thwarts participants from self-defining their primary knowledge based on lived experience. Thus routinised female music goes ‘unreported in the [rock] press’ (Bayton, 1998: 78):

Barbie Rock! Very good – what’s that? – Caroline Kennedy, Dead Star (Hex)

Sure, if they want to call it Barbie Rock, then call it Barbie Rock! – Ian Meldrum, journalist (Hex)\

In the 1990s, the professionalisation or ‘bureaucratisation’ (Brett, 1991) of writing was driven by an internet technicist computerisation overseen by university research. Unlike New Zealand, Australian sociology is university centred (Germov and McGee, 2005). Bayton refers to radio Disc Jockeys as the significant rock‘n’roll gatekeeper. But the ‘hegemonic’ male journalism she identifies (1998: 3) is today fuelled by an ex-Cold War internet over-researched as computerisation. On it women are routinely devalued in ‘sexual’ terms. By arguing ‘we can no longer speak Evil’ (or a demonised female music genre), Baudrillard refers to this computerisation (2009: 97). In the above quotes from Caroline or Ian, the effect is validation doubt about a devaluated genre experience (cf. ‘degenerate’ modernist art militarily repressed until 1945 (Bradbury and McFarlane, 1976)). In Australian contemporary journalistic and scholarly studies of rock‘n’roll appearing after Riot Grrrl and Girl Power, the female genre is not acknowledged. The authors paid their dues in the 1990s street press (Mathieson, 2000), 1980s news media (Breen, 1999) and 1970s rock-press (Walker, 1996). While Mathieson joined the corporation, describing the ‘Indie’ music scene interestingly as a ‘Sell In’,[7] Breen and Walker were later to hitch their stars to the university. Contrasting this commercial or institutional cooptation, the new as yet unidentified genre would remain viable if seen ‘as a tacitly condoned mechanism of Subversion and foil to State control’ (Chugg, 1989: 64).

She’s very smart,

She can dance well,
Bang,
bang, bang,

Twist Barbie

’Twist Barbie’ – Shonen Knife, 1992

Figure 3: Polymer Inner City

Figure 3: Polymer Inner City

2 Moral panic news: hear no evil

Unlike genetic or animal research for drug based solutions of ‘social inclusion’ (Bonner, 2006: 4), while noting such ‘behaviourist ideological baggage’, Bradshaw argues cogently that ‘social inclusion is not necessarily the opposite of social exclusion – though the emphasis of the state as agent is welcome’ (2004: 184). But like privatisation creep, such interventions can cause social exclusion. For example, Hubert shows how technology is ‘creating a new category of socially excluded children’, also suggesting that ‘people who are medically cured in Western terms may not return’ from ‘social death’ (2000: 3-4). In Australia, this logic is demonstrated by a high-incidence of child abuse in the whole community on the one hand (Herald Sun, 2007); and the indigenous peoples nominated as scapegoat on the other. Clearly such ‘relegation of people to nature’ behaviourism appears a ‘way of legitimating exploitation and exclusion from civilised society’ (Hubert, 2000: 5). The initiating moral panic debuted on television (ABC, 2006) amplified by the press (Age, 2006) then military intervention (Age, 2007), eventually earned under-reported opposition from the UN. Similar disproportionate media reaction was already noted in the mid-90s as, ‘moral panic in response to rock and roll more generally’ (Grossberg, 1995: 368).

Developing the work of Cohen (1973), Hall et al. (1978: 222) frame ‘moral panics’ as a crisis of consent or ‘hegemony’, at times escalating into ‘general panic’ when, ‘all dissensual breaks in the society’ are perceived as threats to ‘law and order’. Media definers, ‘play a crucial but secondary role in reproducing the definitions of those who have privileged access, as of right, to the media as “accredited sources”’ (1978: 58). Two decades later, McRobbie and Thornton argue that subculture and genre ‘marketing strategy’ functions of moral panics are ‘priceless PR campaigns’ (1995: 565). However, unequal readerships of large circulation dailies compared to limited distribution fanzines contradict this thesis. The experience of fanzines, like Polymer, Thunderpussy, or Riot Grrrl is a case in point. Each gained only a small circulation despite huge music chart sales. Yet by including such demonised minority ‘folk devils’, moral panics present a smallest number utilitarian calculus tailored to the ‘biopower’ set theory of primary definers (Foucault, 1981). These xenophobic primary definitions of sex, race, class or age bring ‘life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations’, submitting ‘life integrated into the techniques that govern and administer it’ (1981: 143). McRobbie later refits this ‘biopolitical strategy’ set theory (2007: 730) for post-feminist ‘Top Girls’ to deconstruct revived sexism in Blair’s New Britain. Conversely, ‘Barbie Rock’ is a way of subverting stigmatising stereotypes, like ‘virgin, mother, and prostitute’ (Stras, 2010: 4):

That’s why heavy metal’s become so popular, because it’s tribal. Female rock stars they come and they go, but they never seem to leave a mark – Dr Pepper, journalist (Stone)

I actually agree with you. I think that there is more interesting, the most interesting bands at the moment are either female led or have got girls in them – Justine Frischman, Elastica/Suede (Hex)

The measure of women’s significant success in rock‘n’roll, a female genre was already anticipated as far back as the 1980s. Saxophonist Louise Brooks of critically acclaimed group The Laughing Clowns believed, ‘barring incredible turns to the right, that is a trend that will continue. Quite possibly, women conceptualise differently, but if so, it’s quite invisible’ (Shien, 1987: 84). Yet key events, like a ‘Women in Rock’ issue of Rolling Stone (1997) gave the nod (if seen as ‘pitifully small’ after Destiny’s Child and The Spice Girls’ triumph – Stras, 2010: 5) while dodging the genre. In the bigger picture, a ‘social inclusion’ military Intervention on demonised aboriginals (lower socio-economic class ‘social death’ by a discredited ‘race’ scientism) confirm ‘incredible turns to the right’ fears. Unjustly blamed for the larger ‘white’ society in denial. Similarly, media sexism that reduces women musicians, for example to ‘glamour shots’ (Bayton, 1998: 14) deactivates their female popular music genre. The quoted biopolitical doubts of David, Justine and Louise are vindicated. For Baudrillard, the evil demon of media images occurs as a ‘precession’ of the real by models. These ‘invert the causal and logical order of the real and its reproduction’ (1984: 13). For instance, if not for homage to aboriginal Buried Country (Walker, 2000), 1990s Barbie Rock assimilated to 1970s Punk by Australia’s ‘pre-eminent critic and historian’ with inaccuracies like ‘1991: The Year Punk Broke’ (Walker, 1996: 280) may also have telescoped his oeuvre into demonisation.

I’m a Barbie girl in the Barbie world,

Life in plastic it’s fantastic

‘Barbie Girl’ – Aqua, 1997

Figure 4: Polymer Thing

Figure 4: Polymer Thing

3 Video monopoly: see no evil

According to the social theory of Daly and Silver (2008), social capital and social exclusion can be at once opposites (rather than inclusion) and interchangeable; one the antidote (to the other) and both merged into a continuum. Ultimately, ‘social capital may actually increase social exclusion’ (2008: 556). Resisting assimilation, they also retain the distinction between cultural studies (social capital) and sociology (social exclusion). In social practice, Bourdieu’s example of a relational ‘hiatus’ between the ‘statutory expectations’ of déclassé academics with devalued social capital and lack of ‘opportunity’ leading to social exclusion, explains the student unrest of ‘May 1968’ (1988: 163). Baudrillard’s cultural example is the ‘virtual’ music ‘restored to technical perfection’ by excluding ‘noise and static’ that has to reinvest in some noise to restore musical capital (2007: 28). Bayton finds such ‘a relational hiatus’ in Riot Grrrl technophobia of live and studio ‘technical skills’ restored by technophile training (1998: 7). Reynolds and Press similarly describe Riot Grrrl creativity as limited to music ‘content’ that excludes ‘form’ (1995: 187). This polarisation of social exclusion and social capital coheres as the limit of lo fi Riot Grrrl technophobic content, opposed to hi tech Girl Power technophile form and interposed by a relational hiatus of Barbie Rock technical skills. Like ‘social’ media adapted to female ends, the genre of 1990s rock‘n’roll lies here.

The horizon of all popular music, in Jazz (for Riot Grrrl, Tracy Chapman’s roots music) sociologists argue that, ‘objects do not possess sociality, people do, and it is through the embodied nature of inter-subjective human social action that objects come to have contingent relevance’ (Gibson, 2006: 185). Gibson locates this relationship between normative frameworks of performance and limiting parameters of musical instruments, creatively minimised by musicians who reach sufficient degrees of technical facility for improvisation. Contrarily, for cultural studies, ‘the technical mastery of space and time contributes not only to the rationalisation of musical production, but also to the creation of a myth of community’ (Théberge, 1991: 110). Rather than inter-subjectivity, Théberge highlights both the simulation of community through increasing spatial rationalisation of audio material in separation recording, and the star-system driven and cost efficiency control of overdubbing (for Girl Power, Destiny’s Child’s dance music). In this mode, creative improvisation is reconstructed in the studio, refuting the classless ‘myths of technology’ technicism of ‘McLuhanesque’ leftists (1991). Today this digitally anatomised community, when ‘social control’ over women and ‘sexist jokes abound’ (Bayton, 1998: 6), has again been profoundly transformed by, ‘the predominance of music videos in the marketplace’ (Théberge, 1991: 109).

Banks traces the ‘incorporation’ of live and recorded popular music into a video monopolised ‘market place’ back to the arrival of privatised cable channel, MTV (1998: 293). This raised a small 23% percentile of top 100 Billboard acts with videos in 1981 to 97% by 1989 (295). Hesmondhalgh confirms the 1990s transition to a two-dimensional ‘stabilizing pop mainstream oriented towards video promotion, and synergies with visual mass media.’ Like Polymer participants, Indie labels were ‘determinedly against these commercial methods’ (1999: 38) for ‘trivialising them, and dealing with them solely in terms of their physical attractiveness’ (Bayton, 1998: 25):

It’s OK to play music if you’re a beautiful girl, and I felt like it was getting a bit too much of that image – Laura McFarlane, Sleater Kinny/Ninety Nine (Vee)

I think I’d be comfier with ‘Barbie Rock’ if it turned out that really you were talking about the strange new breed of boys that seem to have no hormones and no sperm count – Paul Morley, journalist (Hex)

Reviving 1960s Psychedelic versus 1970s Punk role-set conflict and simulating slick TV advertising, by the 1990s visual clips had replaced live tours as the means of self-promotion, modelled on performance (‘authentic’) and concept (‘synthetic’) formats now feted in annual video awards (Banks, 1998: 295). With privatisation creep prioritising money-making visuals over musical talent (303), the ‘hot’ 3D sound of radio was digitised into ‘cool’ 2D sight of TV, unreceptive to the Barbie Rock limit genres of Riot Grrrl revolt into Girl Power style. Grossberg reads the ‘hip attitude’ of TV as a ‘refusal to take anything…seriously’ (1995: 376), where the ‘explicit conjunction of images and songs seems to multiply the possibilities of interpretation’ (370)[8]. The neutral mood, affect or emotion standing apart from ideas. A neutrality Breen (1999) ascribed to the Girl Power pop of Kylie Minogue, supposedly eclipsed by Midnight Oil’s Brit-Pop style nationalism.[9] ‘Where rock was considered to rely on a set of established practices based on musicianship and a relationship to audience, pop was a disposable image of little lasting value’ (1999: 67). But if TV ‘screens out’ new genres or sexual inequality evils (Baudrillard, 2007: 78), it also facilitated free to air music in Australia. Albeit excluded in late-late night programs, like the ABC’s Rage or ‘youth’ radio JJJ biopower. At least complete ‘commercialisation’ (Hesmondhalgh, 2007: 305) failed to eventuate.

Kids don’t like me,

Moms are mad,

I’m going off the market,

‘Cause I look so sad

’Bitterness Barbie’ – Lunachicks, 1995

Figure 5: Polymer Vee

Figure 5: Polymer Vee

4 Barbie Rock and sexism: beyond good and evil

Social exclusion is a ‘multidimensional concept’ (Bonner, 2006; Hubert, 2000), that tends to ‘deflect attention from ever-increasing income inequality and class conflict’ (Daly and Silver, 2008: 554) or poor social capital. Poverty measures of ‘physical’ or ‘financial’ capital are enhanced, social exclusion theory argues, by non-participation indicators of ‘discrimination, chronic ill health, geographical location or cultural identification’ (Burchardt et al., 2002: 6). Women own one per cent of ‘physical’ titled land and are seventy per cent of the world’s ‘financial’ poor (MX, 2008)[10], making ‘cultural identification’ (in this case ‘genre’) indicators more relevant, in the context of popular music. Frith (2001: 46) and Hesmondhalgh (2007: 23) define genres as a record label method or ‘format’ for coping with risk. The ‘irrational’ behaviours of audience ‘taste’ or artistic ‘talent’ in the ‘star system’. Similarly Breen (1991: 193-4) refers to a ‘pre-existing system’ of market fact versus authenticity fiction. For Bayton (1998: 15) the ‘objectification of performers’ derives from this ‘star system’ (‘creating product loyalty’ and ‘simplifying promotion’) as ‘another record company strategy to secure profits’. Proof of powerless media in technophile times, Barbie Rock escaped notice because of such ‘cultural’, ‘irrational’, ‘pre-existing’ or ‘loyalty’ factors. Since the 1950s race-culture of Rockabilly and Doo-Wop, 1960s counterculture Psychedelia of Surf to Folk, 1970s subculture Punk fused with Reggae, and 1980s underculture Swamp joined to Hip-Hop, reconciliation of such opposites has defined rock’n’roll. By the 1990s, homieculture Riot Grrrl and Girl Power linked Barbie Rock through a series of ‘answer records’ (a ‘bizarre’ tradition for Dawson and Propes, 1992: 132), like ‘Twist Barbie’, ‘Barbie USA’, ‘Bitterness Barbie’, ‘Barbie Girl’, ‘Barbie Be Happy’ and ‘Career Barbie’.[11]

Not without precedent, the bridging phase between the fadeout of Rockabilly in 1959 and British Invasion by 1963 was important for more than Keitley’s sexist reference to a ‘lost spirit of rock‘n’roll’ (2001: 118). This was also a moment of ‘exciting and energetic “girl groups”’ (Gaar, 1992) with chart-topping songs, like The Bobbettes, The Chantels, The Chiffons, The Crystals, The Dixie Cups, The Exciters, The Ronnettes, and The Shirelles. Music primary definers tend to dismiss these ‘in-between years’ of rock‘n’roll, when popular music suffered a supposed ‘near death experience’ (Keitley, 2001: 116; Birch, 1987: 165). Devaluation of female success in ‘monetarily dry’ times hid a reality of controlled artists, withheld royalties and ‘black’ women excluded by secondary definer media (busy re-racialising a newsworthy Watts Riot). The Ed Sullivan Show, for instance showcased both a ‘white’ 1950s Elvis and 1960s Beatles. ‘Radio may have been colour blind but television was not: none of the black girl groups of the early ‘60s appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show no matter how many hits they had, whereas a minor contender like Britain’s Cliff Richard, who had only two U.S. Top 40 hits at the time, appeared three times’ (Gaar, 1992: 51). So much for confident claims that ‘rock and roll has always been on television’ (Grossberg, 1995: 371).

Viewed in this way, while Stras concedes ‘the genre’s seemingly contradictory historic importance as a fostering ground for feminine and racial equality’ (2010: 21), the Girl Groups of enlightened scholarship based on biopolitical race, class, age or sexual identities seem to reiterate an ‘evil’ problematic of mistaking effects for causes (Baudrillard, 1984: 13). Stras’ assent to agist ‘rites of passage’ from ‘girl’ to ‘woman’, for example leaves her idea of ‘adolescence’, now complicit with ‘adult’ moral panic, open to charges of propaganda for the very sexual inequality evils that she criticises. Launched during this Girl Group era and seen as the paradigm ‘of young girls’ aspirations and fantasies’, Barbie™ the doll ‘embodied a fixed ideal of emerging womanhood for the English-speaking world’ (2010: 15). This identity neutral ‘respectability’ was an unattainable norm. Stras argued that the only option open to Girl Groups was to ‘dissemble’ their nature. Pretending to do/think one thing, while actually doing/thinking another (2010: 19). Much later, a plastic era of Riot Grrrl lo fi, Girl Power hi tech or Barbie Rock technical skills emerges to decode that ‘essentialised myth of woman tied to nature’ (Toffoletti, 2007: 79).

Surpassing 1960s Girl Group success and sexist discrimination on a larger scale over a longer period, the 1990s saw another social exclusion of the new female Heavy Metal meets Girl Group emergent style. Increasingly eclipsed by new technology and over-invested ‘poor chic’ cinema, MTV-centric privatised ‘cable’ television shifted music priorities from audio to telegenic visuals. Homan (2007) and Mathieson (2000) note how less profitable radio turned to ‘standardised playlists’, while record companies kept to the research based ‘objective repertoires’ of 1980s Rap or 1970s Punk. Yet the female counter-practice, registered in both chart success and innovation, spanned Olympia’s early self-misspelt ‘Riot Grrrl’[12] to ‘Girl Power’ global hit ‘Barbie Girl’ by Denmark’s Aqua. A ‘homie’ (cf. Hip Hop curfew neologism, ‘homegirl’) glocalised genre cross-section would include the popular success of Aqua, Breeders, Cardigans, Cub, Destiny’s Child, Donnas, Echobelly, Elastica,[13] Killing Heidi, Shonen Knife, Skunk Anansie, Spice Girls, Superjesus and Tiddas. Male bands could only offer passé feeding contexts (Nirvana, Pixies, Suede, Living Color) of retro subgenres, such as Punk-Metal,[14] Grunge or Britpop. But if the experience was certain, like Punk, dissensus not consensus was a norm for many participants:

No, evil ha ha…I have a big problem with females in music at the moment, if you’re talking about your, in my eyes, Barbies – Ella Hooper, Killing Heidi (Hex)

The ‘Barbie’ part I can see, the horror [Heavy Metal] I don’t – there is psychological horror, but I think horror is the wrong word to put on it…terror is more like it – Greil Marcus, journalist (Hex)

‘Specular’ (Irigaray, 1985) Riot Grrrl’s many Heavy Metal cover-versions allocated bands like Heart, the Runaways and Girls School as significant influences, disturbing this alleged misogynist boysclub genre with intuitive ‘cool grrrls’.[15] Going further, Girl Power ‘overmimed’ media secondary definitions, untying the definitive gaze of MTV clips with a reflexive awareness that ‘to define “woman” is necessarily to essentialise her’ (Moi, 1985: 139; Straw, 2001; and coolgrrrls.com, 1998). A presentation of self, like symbolic interactionist stigma logic (Goffman, 1979), rock’n’roll genre formation from 1950s ‘Rockabilly’ (variant of hillbilly), 1960s ‘Psychedelia’ (mental hallucinations), 1970s ‘Punk’ (prison putdown), and 1980s ‘Swamp’ (country urbanism) to 1990s ‘Barbie’ (plastic female) displaced and reversed a once mild pejorative term.[16] Hebdige traces this progression back to inverted labelling of ‘black’, ‘funk’, ‘superbad’ and ‘jazz’ (1980: 62-3). Sensing the very real community demand for a subversive female genre in 1998, Rock’n’roll Highschool recording studio’s Stephanie Bourke suggested, ‘it would be great if someone could bring us all together…the scene is definitely there for it’ (Polymer ‘Stone’: 15). While rarely recognised by media secondary definers, pop culture slang and entrepreneur primary definitions do occasionally transmute into mass genre accreditation. Subcultures seeking publicity or ‘street cred’ are criticised for cultivating moral panic (McRobbie and Thornton, 1995: 572). Even Barbie™ doll copyright holder Mattel Corp, after unsuccessful litigation against Aqua (The Beat, 1997), now capitalise with authorised Barbie Party Mix CDs. Yet as Elastica discovered, ‘intellectual property rights are the motor driving much of the music business’ (Breen, 1999: 70).[17] According to Baudrillard, translation of evil (or sexual demonisation) into mere ‘misfortune’ can lead to, ‘a whole culture of misfortune, of recrimination, repentance, compassion and victimhood’ (2007: 145).

In the industry of romance,

New ways to enhance,

Her beauty,

My little doll,

Beauty comes from the soul

‘Barbie Be Happy’ – Essential Logic, 1998

Figure 6: Dissent, Linoleum [with permission from Universal Music]

Figure 6: Dissent, Linoleum [with permission from Universal Music]

5 Dissent: the compact disc

‘Of crucial importance’ to a sociology of rock, album reviews ‘seek simultaneously to provide a consumer guide, to comment on a culture, and to explore personal tastes’ (Frith, 2001: 174). In terms of a consumer guide’, Straw suggests, ‘the genre as the context within which records were meaningful accompanied the rise of the “serious” record review’. That ‘generic economy’, drawn according to Straw from ‘film criticism’ important to academia (2001: 103), might also be traced to Jazz writing. But because ‘most journalists are male’ reviewers, Bayton argues that ‘a hegemonic masculine view tends to predominate in the music press’ (1998: 3). Her comment on the culture’ notes 1990s music as, ‘a genuine female youth subculture with the explicit aim of moving in all areas of the rock world’ (3). A ‘lucky researcher in the right time and place’ (Negus, 1999: 29), I[18] too discovered ‘an attempt was made to create an organised network amongst all-girl bands, via fanzines’ (Bayton, 1998: 75). This distinguished Barbie Rock from the genre symbiosis of Heavy Metal for which, Straw (2001) argues, ‘audiences do not constitute a musical subculture’. Conversely, Metal’s devotion to rock‘n’roll cover versions (rebutting ‘consistent noninvocation of rock history/mythology’ charges – 102-3) is consolidated by the Grrrls own genuine delight in Metal covers. With such reference groups of Punk-Metal cementing Riot Grrrl to Girl Power, exploring personal tastes’ in the 1990s amounts to Barbie Rock Invasion of ‘the most male dominated of rock forms’ (109).

 

Yeah, I mean I’m not familiar with the Linoleum LP you’re talking about, so I can’t really comment on that – John Peel, journalist (Hex)

Barbie Rock?! Hahahaha…tell me, which exponents of Barbie Rock do you feature? – Caroline Finch, Linoleum (Vee)

As the title suggests, Linoleum’s first album (1997) is sexed dissent to rock’n’roll mythology. Summing-up Barbie Rock, singer Caroline Finch says, ‘Dissent is a different way of looking at things, and it’s a different way of song-writing and bringing up things that other people know but don’t usually bring up from a female perspective’ (Finch, 1999: 35). Linoleum encountered the same obstacle course experienced by more high-profile groups, like Elastica (settling out of court with flattered Punk bands, Wire and The Stranglers). ‘We had problems in Australia certainly because another band called “Linoleum” showed up out of the blue…I think they’d put a single out a while before us, and they started demanding huge amounts of money from us for our name. So I know we had quite a lot of difficulty in Australia getting press and things, because we recently weren’t really allowed to be called Linoleum out there. That was a bit of problem. Yeah I think the industry is in a bit of a mess at the moment’ (34). Riot Grrrls were also banned by popular music media (recalling a blanked out Sex Pistols at No. 1) for manifestos, ejected male slam dancers or heckler abuse texta scrawled on bodies. ‘I wonder, I mean there doesn’t seem to be a lot of coverage of female bands.’ Yes, the rock-press also practise social exclusion of music.

Musically, Linoleum’s Barbie Rock vector surrounded Caroline’s cutesy high-pitch to contralto vocals, delivered as rapping Girl Power overmime segués into room tipping specular Riot Grrrl in 4/4. An under-rated lead guitarist for these unidentified times, musician Paul Jones’ high-action manoeuvring wrung out the Heavy Metal power chord with duck walk riffs, surf licks, and free-form feedback. ‘Paul’s got a good set of new pedals and things, so there’s some interesting sounds on our new stuff. But they’re still coming out of the guitar, even if they don’t sound like it. I think that Paul’s particularly good at playing his guitar so that it doesn’t sound like a guitar sometimes. He plays not exactly in a traditional way, so I think that’s how come we get those results’ (34). Caroline’s rhythm converging on Paul’s created the classic dynamic duo of rock’n’roll guitars, only interrupted by Dave’s snap to deep rumble drum or Grunge fuzz faithful bass of Emma. A white noise, wall of sound energy that, ‘takes power out of the hands of the dangerous people…and puts it back into the people who are being creative.’

American producers Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade (also veterans of Hole and The Pixies) engineered and mixed in multi-layered studio flow a creation upgraded to vinyl quality audio depth. The Erik Nitschean-style Mod red, white and blue sleeve design, backed with fresco secco group miniatures, was initially packaged in real lino. ‘The fact that it’s quite tacky and it’s…I love linoleum because it’s not what it appears to be. Especially when it looks like a very glamorous floor and it’s not. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen our records that are packaged in linoleum? We didn’t make that many of them. Ever since we first started up all our flyers, and our first singles were actually packaged in floor covering, which is quite fantastic.’ (37). Track listings for this floored Barbie Rock genius explored matters of masochist masquerade [‘Marquis’], alienation shock [‘Dissent’], risk chic [‘Dangerous Shoes’], social snobbism [‘On a Tuesday’], remote control [‘Restriction’], substance abuse [‘She’s Sick’], post-modern angst [‘Unresolved’], and ad hominem [‘Smear’]. ‘It’s certainly a view of dysfunctional relationships, there’s a questioning of things that don’t work, and I find all these kind of issues more interesting’ (35).

Yeah I wanna be like her,

Ride the bus in my underwear

’Career Barbie’ – The Kowalskis, 2002

Figure 7: Polymer Hex

Figure 7: Polymer Hex

Concluding remarks

Recent music research on sexed subgenre revolutions has examined both Riot Grrrl (Schilt, 2004) and Girl Power (Martin, 2006; Strong, 2007). But this is the first to recognise their interconnection as phases in the key 1990s genre of Barbie Rock, while avoiding assimilation to established genres (but see Riley, 1994; Lumby, 1998; Chugg, 2005). The unidentified factors (Parts 1-3 above) behind social exclusion and social capital until now pre-empting full recognition as a popular music genre are, in a word (detected earlier by Hesmondhalgh), ‘technicism’. In this gatekeeper scenario, 1) a ‘computerisation’ of cultural intermediaries like rock-press hacks succeeded by primary definer world-wide web hackers, 2) accompanied by secondary definer media ‘moral panic’ implosion, and 3) 3D radio freeze-frame to 2D ‘video dominated’ freeze-out (if not ‘cool’), overshadows the all but not seen and not heard infant terrible genre. Technology has ‘inhibited creativity’ (Hesmondhalgh, 2007: 88). However, whether at odds with fashionable iconoclastic slogans like, ‘down with genres’ (Deleuze and Parnet, 1987: 17), this new technology has also empowered creativity. As the very fact of Barbie Rock demonstrates (Toffoletti, 2007).

Yet there is another tendency, apparently inescapable in even the most enlightened works of men, at times unheard by women (Part 4). The men are easy to find (check out Lester Bangs’ ‘Back Door Man and Women in Bondage’). But when Reynolds and Press portray Riot Grrrl’s Huggy Bear ‘in full awareness of its connotations’ as ‘“asking for it”’ (1995: 331). Or female Bayton argues a Girl Power audience would be, ‘only too delighted to give her [Courtney Love] an ironic f***’ (1998: 79), a sense that such projective hysteria stems from internalised sexism is hard to avoid. In that case, men who ‘determine the marketplace’ (Stras, 2010: 4) are uncontested (but see Part 5) rivalling ‘evil speaking evil’ or evil speaking good (including my mere maleness?) noted by Baudrillard (2010: 39). The theory of evil is a leitmotif for ‘the conspiracy of art’ or demonisation of Barbie Rock. In this ‘obstacle race’ of unsung female artists, indicating a ‘social exclusion’ by the arts, the ‘impotent’ (Baudrillard, 1996: 122) hysteria of male ‘rape’ appears the most fitting explanatory metaphor because, ‘it is no longer decency that is threatened with violation, but sex, or rather sexist idiocy, “which takes the law into its own hands”’ (122).[19] Nevertheless, as even their Satanic Majesties, The Rolling Stones signify with their latest best of Grrr, the lived experience of rock’n’roll – from Riot Grrrl to Girl Power – lives on in the music of Barbie Rock.

Most people would look at it as sarcastic right now; cause like no one really talks about it in the genuine sense anymore, even though I love mine – Donna A, The Donnas (Hex)

 

Acknowlegements: Thanks to Jo Grant from NEIS [New Enterprise Incentive Scheme]; Stephanie Bourke of Rock n roll Highschool; Jacqueline Gallagher at Monash University. Also special thanks to Farrago [University of Melbourne], and Rabelais [Latrobe University] for supporting Polymer.

 

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Notes

[1] A song by Captain Beefheart, ‘Rock’n’roll’s Evil Doll’ (1974) encapsulates male fear of women in music for even the most enlightened artist.

[2] Riot Grrrl is an ‘underground feminist punk rock movement’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riot_grrrl) according to Wikipedia; whereas Girl Power, ‘as a term of empowerment, expressed a cultural phenomenon of the 1990s and early 2000s’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/girl_power).

[3] Ten per cent of national income redistributed from labour to capital (Frankel, 2001: 24).

[4] Quotations are from Polymer back-issues: News (1998), Stone (1998), Inner City (1998), Thing (1998), Vee (1999) and Hex (2000-1).

[5] ‘It’s always useful to remember…that the history of popular music is really traced through the losers rather than the winners, because there are far more of those’, says John Peel (Hex, 2000-1: 30)

[6] For outstanding cultural studies typical of this period, see Grossberg (1984); Straw (2001); and Brophy (1987).

[7] See also Hesmondhalgh (1999: 36) on ‘sell out’ and ‘burn out’.

[8] See Chugg (2007)

[9] Alternately:

Australian avant garde rock then, starts and finishes with the fact that the people born and/or living in Australia make Australian avante garde rock. But such a subcategory carries no mysterious subcultural traits that can differentiate its content and substance from avant garde rock around the world. It is no wonder that groups from Seattle, Brussells, Cornwall, Vancouver and Canberra can provide remarkably similar work without ever having heard each other’s work, simply by plugging into the same historical sources and references from both the histories of art and rock. As in so many instances, “Australianism” might work as a qualification but not a description – (Brophy 1987, pp. 140-1)

[10] I argue that the concept of ‘social exclusion’ retains relevance in cultural contexts.

[11] By Shonen Knife (Japan, 1992), Gloo Girls (USA, 1994), The Lunachicks (USA, 1995), Aqua (Denmark, 1997), Essential Logic (UK, 1998) and The Kowalskis (USA, 2002), respectively. (Now even crossing-over to Country, with Unknown Hinson’s ‘Barbie Q’, and Jack Ingram’s ‘Barbie Doll’)

[12] For ‘grrl’ or ‘grrrl’ spelling, see Raphael (1995: xxiii).

[13] Destiny’s Child was the most successful US female group; Elastica’s album became the fastest selling debut in the UK, et cetera.

[14] Contrasting Punk, Straw highlights Heavy Metal’s ‘triumph of craft production…“empty” virtuosity and self-indulgence’ (2001: 100).

[15] Barbie Rockers covering Heavy Metal include: Babes from Toyland, Baby Animals, The Breeders, Belly, The Cardigans, The Clouds, Concrete Blonde, The Corrs, Daphne and Celeste, The Donnas, Lita Ford, Fur, L7, Linoleum, Ninety Nine, Nitocris, Rebeccas Empire and Superjesus.

[16] For another commodity research double entendre, see Ritzer’s (2004) ‘McDonaldisation’ (itself labelled ‘McWeberian’).

[17] A well-known example is Girl Group, the Chiffons’ ‘He’s So Fine’ plagiarised by ex-Beatle George Harrison – later disclaimed by Chiffons members citing label legal pressures (see also Rimmer, 2007: 40-53).

[18] A mere male.

[19] In this context, ‘sexist idiocy’ is determined by technicism: ‘has not rape perhaps become the unacknowledged by-product of a technological emergency that is becoming routinised?’ (Virilio, 2005: 70)

 

 

Biographical Note: Rock Chugg is a freelance sociologist from Melbourne, with recent research appearing in publications like Continuum, Refractory, and Meanjin.