Robert Arellano, Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Emerging Media (by Rory N. Finney)
Crowned the web’s first interactive novelist by Wikipedia,1 Robert Arellano is recognized as a master storyteller in both the digital narrative and traditional publishing worlds. The Cuban-American artist was born in Summit, New Jersey, in 1969, the year in which his groundbreaking interactive novel Sunshine ’69 is set. He also submitted the first digital thesis at Brown University, where he earned both an MFA in creative writing and a bachelor of arts in English with honors in creative writing.
Arellano has been practicing hypernarrative storytelling since childhood, illustrating and recording audio to intersect with the stories he created. His creativity spans every genre, including live music performances with Will Oldham (aka Bonnie Prince Billy), The Palace Brothers, Havanarama, and Nick Cave.
Arellano’s passion for video, music, writing, art, and Cuban-American politics converged in Malecón, a documentary featuring a video dialogue between young Cuban artists in Cuba and in the U.S. that premiered at the International Festival of New Cinema in Havana. Arellano delivered the inaugural speech at the first Sundance Film Festival New Media Seminar and the keynote address at the 1999 European Cultural Capital Media Arts Symposium in Stockholm.
Book covers for Havana Lunar; Don Dimaio of La Plata; Dead in Desemboque: Historias de Amor y Sangre!; and Fast Eddie: King of the Bees
Nominated for this year’s Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America (Best Paperback Original category), Arellano’s Cuban noir novel Havana Lunar examines Cuba following the collapse of the Soviet Union. His debut novel, Fast Eddie: King of the Bees, garnered comparisons to William S. Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, Charles Dickens, Jack Kerouac, and Tom Robbins. Published in celebration of the 400-year anniversary of the modern novel, Don Dimaio of La Plata has been described as “a Don Quixote for the era of graft” and is part of the Akashic Urban Surreal Series. Library Journal calls the collaborative Mexican comic book Dead in Desemboque: Historias de Amor y Sangre! “a brilliant novel of political satire.”
Having taught writing and literature at Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Institute of American Indian Arts, and the University of New Mexico in Taos, Arellano is thrilled to join SOU’s faculty as he prepares to launch the new Center for Emerging Media and Digital Art.
RA: We’re going to learn what it is. I think the big word that attracted me to the job description was “interdisciplinary.” Sometimes that term “interdisciplinary” can be a little bit lip service. Institutions say, “We want to start an interdisciplinary program,” but it’s really housed in one department and they just want folks from the other departments to come over and check out what they’re doing. At SOU, it really is going to be interdisciplinary. I was thrilled when I learned this is a center that is going to involve people from visual art, communication, music, computer science, theatre, education, other humanities departments, and even the sciences. These were the people who came out to my campus presentation. I was thrilled to see they really did come from all the different departments and they’re curious to I think have a kind of an incubator here, where we say, “What does it mean that all of our various fields are now interrelated because of the convergence of multimedia around how we teach and how we learn and how we create and how we do our scholarship?”
SOU seems like just the right size of a community—a campus community as well as a local community—through the resources and facilities I’ve seen around here, from the technological resources to Schneider Museum and the creative community around Ashland and southern Oregon. I just hope it’s going to be like a critical mass. I really believe this will be the center without a center that spreads out to the community and brings the community in as well as bringing our talents back out into the community.
“The First Time I Rode into Providence,” public art installation with interactive story told on billboards and online, Convergence Sculpture Festival in Providence, Rhode Island, June 2000
MM: You’ve talked about the importance of public projects and community involvement. Can you give some examples of that from your past?
RA: A lot of the people who came out from all those departments I mentioned asked me, “How does your work relate to a sense of place?” And I was so happy to hear that’s important to people here. One of my first public art installations was funded by the Rhode Island State Council of the Arts when I was a professor at Brown University. It was a story told on the highway, the interstate. Because I’ve been telling stories while on the information superhighway, just brainstorming one day, I realized, why don’t I try to tell a story—multimedia— that is illustrations as well as text on a real highway? And RISCA, the state arts council in Rhode Island, gave me a grant to get about a dozen billboards around Providence telling a story that people could interact with by driving from site to site. A site-specific and place-specific story about driving in Rhode Island.
There are folks in this community who want to make connections—connections with their place and with the beauty of their natural environment as well as connections with other people. Perhaps one of the things a networked community does for us—especially when we emphasize the arts and communication—is to say, “Hey, I’ve got a role, I can tell people about it online, I can learn that I have a connection with someone who may live nearby, whom I might not have met had it not been for poking around on this networked environment.” It’s about finding the connections that the technology naturally makes between people, between people and places.
MM: I notice you have an MFA in creative writing, and storytelling is obviously central to your work regardless of what medium you choose. Is that something you’ve been practicing since childhood? Did you feel you were a writer or an artist or both—or an all-round creative?
RA: Thank you for putting it that way. Yeah. Good. Good point. I like to think of myself as a creative person, but I almost say that sometimes is redundant. I think that’s part of personhood and being human—and I hear that’s the theme this year, “On Being Human,” and that for me is a thrill. I think part of being human is to be creative, and so I remember feeling like, “Oh gosh, I hope I’m not spreading myself too thin,” when I learned in college that I liked to play music, I like to shoot film/video—and that’s photographic art as well—and we learned things about composition and color and exposure that are technical skills that have to do with the visual arts field, and that also I’ve always been a storyteller and a writer. I think I was lucky.
I’m glad you pointed out the MFA in creative writing because I ended up at a college where there wasn’t the field of emerging media or multimedia necessarily yet. But the Creative Writing program at Brown University was perhaps one of the first places in the country that was starting to say, “Let’s abolish genre boundaries.” It was a multi-genre program—you didn’t have to declare yourself a poet or a playwright or a fiction writer. And they even encouraged students to take some video classes and some visual art classes and some music classes as part of their creative writing. So that MFA really did emphasize the ‘A’ in MFA as artist, the fine arts. Every now and again, I forget to remind myself that my own thesis was Brown University’s first electronic master’s thesis, the first master’s in the 250-year–old university that had ever been awarded for an electronic master’s project. And it’s in the library still on an old school floppy diskette, as well as in a printout because the graduate school committee required a printout.
@ltamont, hypermedia narrative and Brown University’s first digital MFA thesis, May 1994
RA: It was called @ltamont. It’s spelled with an ampersand, no not an ampersand, what’s the ‘a’ with the circle around it? Looks—
MM: I call it the “at symbol.”
RA: Yeah the “at sign!” Because I’d seen people in early online communities using that as a little mini way of hinting at the anarchy symbol, too. And for me, that title reflects the story I was obsessed with at the time—what I called “The Death of the Sixties.” The 1960s, what we think of as the birth of the counterculture movement in the United States. The Summer of Love, 1967. Maybe the Summer of Hate, 1968. But 1969—the year I was born— there was a concert outside of San Francisco at a speedway called Altamont. The Rolling Stones, according to legend, felt a little jealous they hadn’t been at Woodstock six months earlier, so they decided to throw their own free concert at Altamont. It ended up being a debacle. They had the Hells Angels do the security—bad idea. A kid got murdered in front of the stage that day. Rolling Stone reported on it, and everyone said, “Is this the death of the sixties?” So I wanted to tell that story of the kid who was murdered, since he never got to tell his own story. And that’s where it mushroomed out of. It was a multi-vocal, multilinear story. You get the point of view of the killer as well as the victim—as well as of Mick Jagger watching it happen from the stage. All of this imagined but with multimedia involved, too. Haven’t thought about that one in a while. I’m glad you asked.
But I don’t want to leave behind your question. I’ve focused on the college career, but I started writing in first- or second-grade. I think I was seven years old when I created characters, and I had some great elementary school teachers who encouraged me to illustrate my own books about these characters. That’s kind of a cool thing when you get a teacher who says, “You can write your own book, and you can do the pictures.” And then I remember getting out an old cassette recorder and telling those stories, so I always had an audio component. I still have some of those. I hope they still work. A six-year–old telling a story of Jimmy Jet and Ralph Rocket and the ukamaluka monsters. Someday, I’ll get back to those and make a CD-ROM or a DVD out of it.
MM: That would be awesome. What a treasure.
RA: It is. It’s funny that we have these media archives. I think we all do. Our generation—anyone who’s maybe been born since the mid-sixties, their mom or dad or uncle made a Super 8 movie of them, you know? Now, kids are perhaps over-mediated with regard to parents doing cell phone movies all the time. But I feel like I have just enough, but not too much archive to dig up someday if I ever wanted to do my multimedia autobiography from age one.
Sunshine ‘69, the web’s first interactive novel, published by Sonicnet, June 1996
MM: You mentioned that you were born in 1969. I suspect that might be part of the inspiration for Sunshine ’69?
RA: That’s right. And interesting you should mention it. Sunshine ’69 grew out of @ltamont. @ltamont was in 1994—I guess we’d say now it was a CD-ROM. It was a standalone app I could have burned to CD-ROM, but I happened to just put on a floppy at the time. I distributed it on floppy as well as through gopher servers and FTP servers before the World Wide Web was current. By ’96, I had some old college buddies of mine starting internet magazines, and everyone was using this new way of looking at these computer environments. Mosaic was the first web browser. And I took @ltamont, worked with a few musicians and a couple of more artists to really jazz it up for that Web 1.0. And so Sunshine ’69 was really the web version, enhanced and refined and put together for publication by a small startup called SonicNet, which was since then sold to VH1 and MTV and became the website for MTV.com. But before that was there, they were doing kind of experimental stuff, really risky stuff, and I met this old friend of mine named Nick Butterworth, who’s still involved with some pretty interesting media projects there in Silicon Alley—that’s what they call lower Broadway in New York, the kinda East Coast complement to Silicon Valley—and I said, “Nick will you publish this novel? Uh, you know it’s . . . it’s not—you can’t print it, it’s not meant to be read online, it’s an interactive novel.” And to this day, Wikipedia acknowledges Sunshine ’69 as the Web’s first interactive novel. And I didn’t think of that at the time. I wasn’t trying to be a trailblazer or pioneer. But no one had done that before. Some folks had distributed stuff on floppy or CD-ROM. Maybe you’d have something you could download and then read on your hard drive, but no one had done an HTML, a World Wide Web-oriented interactive novel. After the fact, I was glad to go ahead and have some journalists give me the designation as the author of the first interactive novel on the World Wide Web.
MM: Wow. And how did the interactive component work?
RA: Ah, I love that part. This was now four or five years into my experimenting with interactive multimedia. The metaphors I was using, I asked myself as a writer and artist and creator of multimedia, “What are the three axes, if you will, the x, y, and z axes of story, whether it’s a book or multimedia or storytelling. And the answer I came up with that was going to work for me was time. That is, stories take place over time; space, stories have settings; and point of view, stories have characters. So the metaphor I came up with was the front seat of a ’69 Rambler convertible, and on the front seat you’ve got a calendar of the days, the last days of the sixties. You’ve got a map of the San Francisco Bay Area, where the whole interactive novel is set. And you’ve got a suitcase full of different characters’ costumes. And those were the seven characters of Sunshine ’69, from the boy who was murdered at Altamont to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. And you could put on their clothes and then dig in their pockets and find objects that were related to their story. So whether you chose to enter the story via the spacial overview or via the temporal overview or via the character overview, you then found yourself in a web of over 500 linked chapters—all of them illustrated, many of them with audio aspects to them as well, and your story is going to come out different than everyone else’s story depending on where you begin, and no two experiences will be the same.
MM: That sounds fascinating.
RA: It was a lot of fun. I loved demoing it still because I think even though we’re so used to more sophisticated—Web 2.0 and beyond—interactive multimedia, a kid gets why I chose that design interface. “Oh okay,” you know? “Yeah sure, we can boil down almost all story down to time, space, and point of view.” So why not use a metaphor like this to facilitate the reader getting into the experience?
MM: Absolutely. And a nonlinear narrative—that foreshadowed a lot of the video game narratives, with games attempting to weave those more nonlinear narratives while still having a central story.
RA: You’re right. I remember thinking in the mid-nineties when I was teaching at Brown, “Game companies are going to start contacting our students soon.” And some of my former students have gone on to help with game design, but I feel like now more than ever it’s finally coming around. You’ve got the companies like Rockstar Games that really are putting a dense story component into the usually more action-oriented games. And I look forward to seeing what that does here.
At SOU, we’re on the freeway between some really strong small as well as large game design outfits. You know not just the sort of Bay Area big game companies but little companies up here—in Eugene and Portland and even Medford, where there are folks getting subcontracted out this part of the game design for a bigger company, et cetera.
Choose Your Own Adventure book series; Castle Wolfenstein and Myst video games
I obviously was brought up on that stuff, too. Not only early joystick video games but concept video games like Myst for the PC, or way back to the text-based role-playing games, Castle Wolfenstein and others, where we were invited—wow, look at the little green text on a black computer screen—to answer, “Which way do you want to go?” “Down this corridor or down that one?” And inevitably, we go back to my favorite books when I an adolescent, Choose Your Own Adventure, these actual print publications that asked you at the bottom of every page, “Do you want to run from the evil wizard or do you want to try to resist him?” And you had to choose your path and interact with the story on the page on the basis of your speculations about where the right path was going to be.
MM: Did you, when you read those, go one path and then go back and read all of the different paths?
RA: Always! Sort of the equivalent of using the back button on your browser. Yes. That’s right. We all cheated at those, and that’s what they were meant for. I’m sure the authors were thrilled.
Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends; Margaret Wise Brown and Leonard Weisgard’s The Little Island; and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree
MM: So if those were your favorite books as an adolescent, what about your favorite books as a child?
RA: Because I now have two very young kids, I remembered one called The Little Island. It was a Caldecott Medal winner. I remember how cool I thought that little gold medal that wasn’t a medal emblazoned on the cover of the glossy book was. The Little Island. That was an interesting one to me because it’s sort of like The Giving Tree, you know Shel Silverstein, which I also like a lot, and I loved the poems of Shel Silverstein. I still have the Where the Sidewalk Ends my sister gave me when I was a kid, and I read it to my son.
Maybe what I loved about those books is they really freed the imagination of a child by helping me—what’s that word? Anthropomorphize? It helped me understand that trees and islands and other things out there in the world could have points of view. You could look at a story through something that wasn’t necessarily another human you were going to talk to using verbal language. So I’m glad you asked that. I hadn’t thought of that in a while. It was these books, quiet reflective books about places having personalities. Maybe just because that’s what got read to me. I didn’t have my own expendable income, but my sister—I’ve got to give her a lot of credit, both my sisters are quite a bit older than me and brought me books and read me books, and those were the ones I tended towards. I also remember the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries. That would have been from childhood to adolescence. I just loved those getting in touch with the character and having a series I could go through that had a surprise ending. So there, too, may be a link to the game culture of surprise or of unexpected, “Where’s it going to go from here?”
MM: Since we’re on childhood, let’s go back to the question about whether you thought of yourself as a writer or an artist and when that spark occurred. Is there some epiphany you can go back to when you realized this was your calling?
RA: Good point. I guess I remember. It’s funny. I didn’t necessarily identify myself as a writer doing these Jimmy Jet adventures but I’m realizing now, looking back, they were multimedia, too—recording these stories with friends, et cetera. I think I remember my sister Ana Maria—she was fourteen years older than me, so she was sort of like a nanny or a second mom, too—I remember her trying to encourage me to be a doctor. Telling this five- or six-year–old, “Wouldn’t it be neat if you were a doctor when you grew up?” I don’t know. And I remember resisting that. I’m almost glad she suggested it so I went the other route so decisively. Because then it wasn’t as much about this young precocious youth saying, “I’m going to be a writer.” It was, “I’m not going to be a doctor. What am I going to do instead while I’m not being a doctor?”
You know what, though? I would say I didn’t develop a self-consciousness—which may be a good thing, not being too self-conscious—as a creative personality. I was so busy through high school just being the editor of the yearbook, a writer on the newspaper—I was just doing stuff. I wasn’t thinking, “I am a writer.” I was just thinking, “I’d better finish that story,” or “I’d better get that other staffer on the yearbook to finish that layout.” I remember finally getting to college and having a lot of busy reading and absorbing creativity by others in college saying, “I’m not going to be a pre-med student.” And taking a couple of writing workshops in college. That just sort of changed everything. I was very insecure at first because I was a freshman at a really high-quality university, where there were juniors and seniors together in the same creative writing workshops as freshmen. I remember not getting into the first writing workshop I really wanted to get into and feeling I had missed an opportunity to study with a really famous writer. But then I got into a couple of workshops that were taught by grad student TA’s, and then finally one that was taught by a writer I still love and admire a lot named Joe Ashby Porter, who for many years had been a professor at a university in Louisville, Kentucky. But he was a guest lecturer for one semester at Brown, and he just very softly and very quietly encouraged me and made me feel like I was doing good things. It didn’t feel like he was just blowing me up because he didn’t like teaching and wanted to just have the students not bother him. It felt like he was thinking, looking, listening, watching, reading, and saying the things I needed to hear to make my revisions even better. And then around that time at the end of college, I remember saying, “I’m a writer, I’m a writer.”
Havanarama in performance at AS220 in Providence, Rhode Island, March 2001
I had a friend who was involved in the non-juried art and performance space in Providence called AS220. And I had always been a guy who picked up a guitar and maybe jammed a little, who made people laugh telling jokes and hanging out at our off-campus apartment on a weekend night. But this friend of mine and I ended up starting a band together after he told me, “Why don’t you come down to AS220 one night and do this song and performance thing you do?” And I said, “No I can’t do that! I’m not a performer. ” He said, “That’s the thing, though, this is a non-juried stage. You can just get up there and do it, and people will come.” It was also a café, so people hung out, whether or not they knew what the act was. And I got such a rush out of that experience—that sense of, “You don’t have to be super pro and rehearse in your room or rehearse with professionals for months before you take your show on the road.” It wasn’t an open mic, it was more like your night. If you booked anything six weeks in advance, this place would let you have the stage. And I got more elaborate with the band and with some performance art happening at the same time as the band, and then there was no turning back. It was just a bit of an exhibitionist sort of discovery thing. And that was fun. That was confidence-inspiring to start in the non-juried environment. And I think that was happening at the same time as bigger things out in the world. The sort of grunge or DIY indie music scene was no longer about developing virtuosity before becoming a performer. It was about mucking it all out on stage and learning how to play three chords and just the right mix of effect pedals so you were just giving the energy rush to the people in the room, the audience who might also become performers with you before the night was through. That’s a fun thing to think about. It was a twenty-year process if I look at it that way, and there was no turning back.
MM: Sounds like that movement was inspired maybe by the punk movement.
Bonnie Prince Billy band (Will Oldham, Matt Sweeney, Jim White, and Robert Arellano) perform at Ireland’s Liss Ard Festival, August 1999
RA: Sure. A little side note, too—I had a real privilege, in fact, it was the first time I visited southern Oregon. My college roommate had become a successful indie musician. His name is Will Oldham, and he started with a band called the Palace Brothers. Now, he calls himself Bonnie “Prince” Billy. He’s written songs for and performed with Bjork and Johnny Cash, and he’s on an independent label out of Chicago called Drag City. He called me up a year or two out of college. I knew he was getting successful, and this was the time around of Nirvana and sub-pop bands. There would’ve been K Records and Olympia and the folks who created bands like Beat Happening, The Microphones. I knew there was this thing happening where if suddenly people in their teens and early twenties were actually making money doing music, and even if it wasn’t much money, they were getting audiences to come out to small clubs like—I think the one we played in Eugene was called Sam Bond’s Garage. And so he called me up, and I was probably twenty-two, twenty-three, we had just sort of gotten out of college together, and he was getting a bit of a following, and said, “Will you play guitar for me on this tour?” And I said, “Sure. I’m not a very good guitar player, but I can do that.” And we were all rehearsing the first day, he had pulled together another old friend—the drummer, who actually was a really good drummer—and another friend was the bass player. I said to Will, “Will, where’s the lead guitar player? I mean I’m here to play rhythm, right? ’Cuz all I know how to do is play like three chords.” And he said, “You’re the lead guitar player.” And I said, “You’re joking! I will be learning to play lead guitar on stage?!” And he said “Yes, exactly.” That’s what he wanted. And he encouraged me to get more into film and video, too. He used to tell me, “The best way to learn how to be a filmmaker is to make a film.” And he’s an independent filmmaker too. An actor who’s been…he was in a John Sayles movie called Matewan—pronounced mate-wan, a lot of people call it “matt-a-wan.” He’s been in a couple of music videos for other big artists like Kanye West. He told me I could do it. Because I felt like he was one of these muli-talented, creative personalities, I went ahead and just tried it. I’m not always getting every note quite right when I play lead guitar, but I finally got to the point where I had good guitarist people I admired telling me, “You know what, you play with spirit, you play with heart, and in our field, that matters more than playing with perfect virtuosity. ” That developed a lot of confidence for me. As the parallel streams of writing and filmmaking and music went along, it was kind of neat this guy threw me in and said, “Swim.”
MM: And do you think that’s what you practice with your students?
RA: Yeah. I love it when students come into a class without an idea. That’s when I get to say, “Let’s just start and figure out what we’re doing by the process.” It’s a lot of fun. And if anything, I think multimedia facilitates that. You get a large enough monitor, you get set up, you see multiple windows, and it starts to cook a little bit, and then you learn what you’re doing through the process of taking those first steps. It’s a lot of fun. It doesn’t work for every student. But the more and more I try it, the more I feel like there is an art to having students be comfortable trying it.
MM: My friend Marilyn McEntyre says, “Love the process.”
RA: Amen! You know the whole thing about the journey being . . . if you’re just trying to get to the destination, like, “I want this DVD-ROM to be done!” that’s not going to work. If you’re not having fun doing it, your audience isn’t going to have fun reading it, viewing it, experiencing it. So you might as well have a lot of fun along the way, and before you know it, you will have completed a project that other people enjoy, too.
Movie poster for Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy
MM: How do you inspire your students?
RA: I’m a big believer in not inhibiting personality or creativity at all. We spend time looking at and listening to and reading lots of different stuff. So the first couple of weeks of classes, when I do a creative workshop—whether it’s multimedia or a traditional writing workshop or possibly even a more visual film/video-oriented seminar—I say, “Let’s watch and let’s screen; let’s do some soundings; and let’s read some stuff. I’m going to share it with you. It’s not all stuff that came out this year; some of it’s twenty years old, some of it’s a hundred years old, but I think it’s just cool, you know? And you may not think it’s cool, but let’s talk about why I think it’s cool and why those who agree with me do, and why those who disagree don’t. And bring a few things in yourself if at all possible, after the first day.” You never expect anyone to come in the first day and say, “You’ve gotta hear this or view this, but if they do, I’m interested.” After the first day of showing my own, I tell students to go back and think about what’s the one thing that totally just made them realize there’s another world out there of creativity. I think we all have a book, CD—some of us an LP—maybe a movie that we just said, “Something about this was done right.” And for a movie, I won’t watch the whole two-hour movie and say, “Well, what do you think the theme was?” I’ll say, “Let’s watch this five-minute scene. Let’s watch it five times. Let’s watch it once without sound. Let’s drape something over the screen and listen to the sound design without watching it. And then let’s ask, ‘How did the artist craft this scene?’ And let’s emulate.” That’s one of my favorite words, too. If you don’t have an original idea, no biggie, at the start. “Emulate” is a little for me like a combination of “imitate”—which is a little too simplistic—and “get inspired.” So let’s use the techniques we learned from this scene and Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, watching it ten times to make our own short scene with just a little video camera in someone’s dorm room one night. Bring it back to class on Monday and let’s do a screening and talk about what challenges you faced when you tried to create that lighting and that angle in that scene—and why you learned something about Gus Van Sant’s techniques as a result of trying to emulate it yourself. And we do some brainstorming exercises and cluster mapping and creating these free-writing scenarios. Before long, folks have their own ideas. In my best and favorite sorts of classes, by week two, you should have students saying, “I want to bring in my work in progress.” And we’ll talk about the student’s work with the same sort of skills we learned of constructive criticism from looking at other professionals’ work for the rest of the semester. At least it’s half the class time. We’ll also be reading other great books, viewing other fine cinema. We’ll be talking about students’ work the same way we talk about the great books, films, and the excellent top ten albums of all time.
MM: Which would be . . . ?
RA: There’s a couple Led Zeppelins in there. Good one, though. Maybe I’ll bring that into my next Digital Media Foundations class. “Everyone, bring your top ten CDs—top ten mp3 downloads.”
MM: I think they’d have a lot of fun with that.
RA: I think so. I think we all would. I’d probably learn a lot of cool new music, too.
MM: You’ve mentioned metaphors a number of times. They’re obviously central to storytelling. I’m sure you’re familiar with George Lakoff’s research and the influence of metaphors on cognitive development and our perception of the world. For you, when did you first start becoming aware of the importance of metaphors and using them as a mechanism for storytelling—multimedia storytelling, especially?
RA: I think it was the multimedia that caused me to say, “Hold on a second, in order to design an interface . . .” Interface design used to be, “What’s your homepage, what’s your splash page going to be?” It has to have a metaphorical component. Because otherwise you’re just going to have a menu. Menus are boring. Menu, a table of contents, a directory—unless you’re playing with the form and subverting the form—we all know that’s certain death for multimedia. Folks will say, “Oh God, what a boring website” or “What a boring DVD” and back right out of there. You’ll never get them off the splash page. I think Sunshine ’69 was a big example because I had 500 chapters and so many points of inception, you really had to come up with your own metaphor to make it work. Now, I say to students, “Do the same thing.”
(clockwise from top left) Cover of the first edition of the publication, Dada, edited by Tristan Tzara, Zürich, 1917; cover of the 1919 edition of Dada, by Anna Blume; cover from the first issue of La Révolution Surréaliste, December 1924
A metaphor can be an incredibly freeing tool to getting out your story. To get out your creativity. Because it’s almost like the way the Dadaists and the surrealists would create cut-ups or automatic poems. You suddenly say, “All right. I created a metaphor of a bicycle to tell a story. And I love this metaphor because I’ve got one wheel which is the female character Jane, and I’ve got another wheel that’s the main character, Jack. So I’ve written those already, but if my metaphor is a bicycle, what are the pedals going to be? The pedals are going to have to be their love, so I’m going to write a little chapterlet on their love. What are the brakes going to be? The brakes are going to be fear.” And there is where suddenly metaphor has created an architecture for the creative process.
I’m getting prepared for my first lecture in September. And I want to use these kinds of metaphors about metaphors. Or examples of metaphors. But I think the architecture of the creative process is one that I’m going to have to remember to try and repeat once or twice for the students.
Robert Arellano with colleagues (clockwise from left): Alissa Arp, Dennis Dunleavy, Robert Arellano, Warren Hedges, and Miles Inada (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: So what are you teaching in the fall?
RA: I will co-teach a section of the DMF (Digital Media Foundations) course. And actually, because I’ve got a bit of research to do—I have to create a report, a sort of a study for the new center that first quarter, I’ll be just teaching that one course. I can’t wait until I can get into two or three because I love teaching, but because the center is brand new, I have to interview a lot of people and create a plan for the center that everyone hopefully will have input in.
MM: Are you co-teaching with Miles Inada?
RA: Probably Dennis Dunleavy, for starters, which is going to be fun. When I was on the campus visit as a finalist for this job, it was his class that I visited. It was a more advanced media and culture class. I loved the discourse approach he takes, the very Socratic method of questions and getting everyone to participate in the discussion. He’s a great teacher, and it’ll be a lot of fun with his real specialties in communications and photojournalism, to then come into it with some of my little experiences and learn on the ground in the process. Learn how to play lead guitar by getting up on stage with him.
MM: That does sound fun. You talk about hypermedia programming in your CV. Can you define that for the layperson?
RA: Sure. Only two words you need to know to understand what defines or what constitutes hypermedia. It’s media that is nonlinear in the way it’s authored and interactive in the way it’s experienced. And you can use the words “written” and “read” instead of “authored” and “experienced,” or “filmed” and “viewed.” How does a hypermedia novel like Sunshine ’69 differ from a book? Well, with a book, you start on page one, and at the bottom of page one, you turn to page two, and you read. It’s designed so you read from start to finish. That’s linear. Actually, straight film is quite linear. It’s time-based linear media. You press “play,” and you’re supposed to watch it from start to finish. That’s not to say people don’t flip around in books a lot or shuffle through chapters on a DVD of a movie. But let’s face it, the basic spirit behind creating those media is linear construction. Whereas in hypermedia, nonlinear means you will create a web more than you will a thread. You will start perhaps somewhere in the middle and then create chapters that you can branch out to and create this latticework you can connect to many interconnected stories instead of this long thread or arc of story. And interactive follows naturally from nonlinear. That means the reader can’t just sit back and enjoy the show or the viewer can’t just flip the page—and I think I mixed those two metaphors on purpose. They’re going to have to make a choice. It’s not going to do anything at a certain point unless you point and click, or give a voice command, or turn your head this way or that way. I like to remind people that good installation work in public art is hypermedia. You may walk into a room, and it’s not so much that you’re going along a wall reading or viewing one painting after another, it’s that there are different environments created in a gallery space where some folks may walk left and others may walk right. When illustrating the difference between hypermedia and traditional linear media, I sometimes like say linear media is like when you choose to visit Greece on a tour. From the moment you get on the ground, you’re going to get into a tour bus and your guide is Nikoloas, and he’s going to take you on through the sights of Greece, and you’re going to see them in order, one at a time. Hypermedia is more like the backpacking excursion, and you don’t have a hotel room, and you’re basically going to go down the alleys and wherever inspiration takes you, and you’re going to make your own European vacation on the basis of where you’re inspired to go next. We can talk all day about the fact that hypermedia is not necessarily welled off from traditional linear media and that there’s a lot of permeability back and forth, and I love some of the early precedents to hypermedia that exist in the publishing world. The Latin-American novelist Julio Cortázar, a lot of people know him for Blow-up, that was turned into a film by Antonioni. He wrote a novel in the sixties called Hopscotch, Rayuela, which was like Choose Your Own Adventure. It let you jump around different chapters and didn’t want to be read in a linear order. And there’s great film work out there, that even if it’s a two-hour movie when you watch it from start to finish, it really has a nonlinear spirit behind it and encourages you to make your own stories through multiple linear stories that are told through jumping around in time, et cetera. But for the layperson, if you can get comfortable with the terms “nonlinear” and “interactive,” you’ve got hypermedia.
Production stills from Malecón, an hourlong video dialogue between young Cuban artists in Cuba and in the U.S. that premiered at the International Festival of New Cinema in Havana, December 1993 (Robert Arellano: writer, director, cinematographer, editor)
MM: Your Cuba project—working with Cuban artists and doing the documentary project—that sounded pretty fascinating. Can you talk the whole experience? Was it difficult to gain entry into the country, and what was the culture like?
RA: My first visit to Cuba was in 1992, and I didn’t bring a video camera on that trip. That first trip was facilitated through a university—part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. I learned about it through my dean, who’s a Cuban exile living in Providence, Rhode Island. My dean when I was a Brown student. He said, “There’s this group of students from CUNY going down to Cuba next summer, and see if you can apply.” And I applied. They had a license to do research there, and so as a college student, I got to go, legitimate, the first visit. I went back nine times, ten trips in all over ten years, and on that second trip, I started to take a video camera. But I think what I recognized in the first trip was, “Oh gosh, these are my people. I would have grown up with these people if my parents hadn’t gone into exile.” And yet it’s only ninety miles from Florida, where my family all lives now. The Cuban exile community is all in Miami and south Florida, and yet it’s as far away as the other side of the world, or a different planet, because of the U.S. embargo and the ruptured relations between the two countries. During my first trip, a cab driver—and the cab drivers there are really well-educated, they have this great universal healthcare, guaranteed education through university to anyone, super literacy, it’s great stuff—the cab driver was trying to guess where I was from, and it was rare for a U.S. citizen to be traveling in Cuba in those days. It’s a little more common now, even though it’s gone back and forth depending on the administration in Washington. When he finally guessed, he was so surprised that I was Americano, Yankee, he said, “I want you to bring a message back to the people of America, of the United States. I want you to let them know this thing between governments, that’s a government thing. But the people, the Cuban people, love the American people. We love your music, we love your culture, we love your movies, and someday, this whole thing with the governments is going to all be over, and we’re going to have a tremenda pachanga”—which is a great way of saying a really big party—“and we’re all going to dance and drink rum and listen to salsa and have a great time.” And you know, I just really believed him. And I said, “What’s one of the ways I can bring that message back and keep going back and forth, considering how stringent the travel restrictions are and were?” Video. I’m going to choose half a dozen artists, some of them in Miami, and some of them in Cuba, and I’m going to do a video dialogue. And since I knew I was going to be going back twice a year—it took me two years to do this production—I even got some back and forth. I interviewed a video artist in Havana and then showed that video to a Cuban-American artist in Miami, and then he responded to that artist, so that it became what I call the video dialogue. I guess now, we would just do it through YouTube, uploading little laptop videos, but at that point, I was just bringing my Hi-8 camera back and forth. Then it was the editing process I thought that really made it into a dynamic dialogue. Malecón got screened in the New England Film Festival and the International Film Festival of Havana, and it got a special mention at the Havana Film Festival. For me, it was a way of processing, “Hey, you guys! Here’s a way to discuss and have the beginning of a dialogue with each other and someday, that dream the cab driver told me about will come true. But in the meantime, we can talk to each other through the magic of electronic media.”
1. The designation of Arellano as the web’s first interactive novelist was originally made by Lisa Ciccarello in Pif Magazine, one of the longest established online literary zines.