Tunnel Visionary

We asked CRDMer David Gruber to explain his recent art/project/publication. His response below explains “Tunnel Vision” and its inspirations:
“Tunnel Vision” is an interactive digital project that uses motion-tracking software to respond in real-time to users’ body movements.
You might call it a “cybertext” since users’ movements alter the appearance of a poem and users tend to move in response to the reaction of the poem. It will be featured life-sized on a wall at the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh this winter.
The project started in Katherine Hayles and Bill Seaman’s digital art and literature class at Duke two years ago. (Interesting CRDM fact: the course was also offered at UCLA in 2002, and Dr. Silva was a student in that course!) I decided to interpret Mark Strand’s poem The Tunnel as an analogy for the human-computer relationship. At the time, I was reading Dorsality by David Wills, a book where Wills dismantles fears of new technology by suggesting that any “technological thing” is always developing out of us and along with us. Wills imagines the backbone as an early human technology to say that once we desire to turn around to see what’s behind us enabling the turn, the backbone is already there. Even if the turn is a paranoid one where we turn back to see who or what is behind us or if we turn back to try to understand where we came from and how we came to Be whatever we are, there’s comfort in knowing that what precedes the turn is what motivates it and what enables it—what is already us.
I saw a connection to the poem, The Tunnel, where a paranoid man hides in his home and digs a tunnel to try to escape a “stranger” standing outside on the front lawn. (I always think of the movie PI when reading this poem, probably for good reason.)
In the end, the paranoid man emerges on a lawn and finds himself standing outside a home for days, waiting for help, desperate, as someone inside hides from him. So the character is trapped in a loop of experience, a dilemma where he fears the Other even while he is the Other and doesn’t even realize he fears himself or becomes what he fears. I wanted to build some kind of digital work that would express this idea and extend it to the human perspective on the computer-as-Other. I asked for Dr. Rieder’s help. He liked the idea of visualizing the poem in terms of the human-computer loop and taught me a lot about the processes involved in programming a digital work. Together, we shaped Tunnel Vision.
A couple of people have asked me whether I would count this as a publication. The question seems motivated by anxiety about the legitimacy of hands-on digital media work and/or digital media art in English and Communication Departments. Floating in the background are concerns about what tenure will mean for CRDM students doing this kind of work. But my answer is “yes, I’ll count this as a publication.”
My answer doesn’t indicate a belief that digital media projects like this one will carry the same weight as peer-reviewed journal articles available in print (although they should—and getting into an online academic journal or into a museum almost certainly requires peer-review). Rather, my response follows from my belief that scholarly digital projects (whether deemed “art” or not) are conceptual, that they require as much work or more to complete as any traditional publication, and that they will soon be viewed as the outcome of a valid intellectual process, instead of a novelty or a side-project for less serious scholars.
Building things with digital media is another way to do intellectual work. I learned this from Dr. Rieder. Right now, for instance, I’m trying to visualize the multiple interpretations of the functioning of mirror neurons, and I’m thinking about how the code can reflect (pun intended) the concept of a “mirror” and still compel users to see their own body movements through the movements of others. To do this, I have to think about the mirror as a metaphor and the different types of “mirroring” going on and what a computational mirror might look like. What’s a mirror expressed in numbers or in the structure of an English sentence? I’m thinking of chiasmus and parallel strings and loops and repetitions. So I’ve learned that hands-on digital media work is a way to explore, a way to develop new ideas, and a way to see connections to rhetoric and writing studies.
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