I’m in the midst of writing up my thesis, an unnaturally large document that I both want to just finish, but also have the urge to encapsulate every thought I’ve had in my life to this date. Some of my spare thoughts that don’t appear in that formal academic document will appear here.
Humans are storytellers. A human being telling a narrative story to you is active, and if you’re listening, you’re passive. But, humans can’t help but do storytelling of their own when confronted with random input. This is as unavoidable as turning off your sense of hearing.
I’ve observed that humans create meaning for seemingly unconnected things things. This can be a random collection of items at a checkout, which contain no explicit story, but a real human can’t help ask questions. A toothpaste and a toothbrush make sense and don’t contain an interesting story. Toothpaste and a drill imply some sort of amateur dentistry. Discarded pants on the ground aren’t interesting of themselves, but found early Saturday or Sunday morning, they appear to tell a different story.
What I find so interesting about this process is that you can’t help it. My thesis system, Improv Remix, is about video remix of theatre performance. While mashing up music can be primarily rhythmic, mashing up video of people speaking or moving feels primarily semantic. Although it’s an over-simplification, I like to think of these as little semantic tokens that can be re-arranged with different orders and relationships. This arrangement can be random, or it can be curated, or semi-curated. But the interpreter (observer if you want to think of meaning as resolved from lack of meaning in a quantum sense, or audience if you want to think of meaning as performed) is going to create an internal explanatory story either way.
I played with structured arrangements of semantic tokens a long time ago, with Rock Paper Scissors Infinity.
Semantic tokens is the term I’m using here, but I’m sure other people have used different terms elsewhere (if you know of one, comment please!).
Lee Kuleshov observed the Kuleshov Effect in film editing, where the meaning of a scene as interpreted by the audience as different based on the other scenes before or after it. There’s a couple ways to take this, and one really negative one is that “Oh no! There is no meaning and everything is constructed and artificial!” Whether this is true or not, I don’t think there’s cause for alarm. Meaning can certainly be manipulated, although I don’t like to use that word because it implies evil puppeteering, but there’s also joy in feeling your brain construct it. I’m a grad student, and some times I wake up without having bought breakfast yet. I don’t know why I felt that being a grad student adds to this story, but let’s leave it there. I walk to the corner store and very clearly buy something breakfast-y. Sometimes cereal and milk, sometimes eggs and bacon. That’s the entire contents of what I put on the counter, and I always feel, as if I need to justify myself to the cashier. “I swear I have my life together; I just forgot to have breakfast purchased.” But then, sometimes, on other days, I actually decide to go shopping in the morning, and then realize I only really need breakfast stuff, despite having already eaten breakfast. I feel the same urge to explain all this to the cashier, but then realize how insane that would make me sound, and my face takes on that pained grimace of someone trying to prevent himself from giggling during the entire transaction.
Here’s an example from one of Improv Remix’s performers, Oliver Georgiou, re-mixing semantic content.
The ability to record a scene while playing a previous one allows single performers to construct complex scenes, but exploiting timing and alignment. We will describe one example where a performer recorded a series of scenes to that were interesting to build, yet surprising in combination.
Scene 1: Acting like a duck, the performer waddles from stage right to stage left, occasionally looking behind itself. Finally, it turns around and waddles back slightly faster, to stand up and kiss an empty spot in the air.
The audience watches with curiosity. What is the duck doing?
Scene 2: [Recorded with Scene 1 playing] The performer stands on far stage right, repeating, as endearingly as possible, “Come here duck!” and beckoning as the duck, from Scene 1, walks away. Finally, the performer loses his patience and loudly yells “Hey duck!”, at which point the duck in the video turns around and starts coming back. The performer non-verbally encourages it, and picks it up and kisses it, saying “You’re so cute!”.
The audience laughs as the glances of the duck in Scene 1 are now explained. The performer leaves and returns to the stage wearing a heavy coat and carrying a newspaper.
Scene 3: [Recorded with Scene 2 playing] A dishevelled man stands on stage left reading a newspaper. The exuberant man from Scene 2 repeats “Come here duck!”, distracting the dishevelled man from reading the newspaper. Initially, the dishevelled man looks around, discerns that the exuberant must be not be speaking to him, and then looks back to his paper. As the exuberant man continues, the dishevelled man looks at him more angrily. Finally, the exuberant man from Scene 2 yells “Hey duck!” and the dishevelled man drops to the ground, ducking from possible danger. Seeing there is none, he charges the exuberant man, saying “Hey, buddy, what’s the big idea!?”. The exuberant man kisses him and the dishevelled man slaps him in response.
Later, the dishevelled man from our Constructed Scene was reloaded alongside our beat-boxer, where his angry looks now appear directed at the beat-boxer. I call examples of these surprising interactions Failed Dissonances: here, dissonance between two semantic tokens should occur, but it does not, it fails because our brains find meaning in them.