michael naimark

InterCommunication (NTT, Japan)
No.14 1995


EXCAVATION AREA: A Virtual Gallery of Archaeological Art
(See Banff! - a kinetoscope - 100 years later)

Michael Naimark

In this great future you can't forget your past. -Bob Marley

One hundred years ago, exactly one hundred years ago, cinema as we know it was being born. And it had the same excitement and promise we see today with new media and "virtual reality" technologies, maybe more.

The most prominent form of immersive visual representation at the time was the stereoscope, a hand-held viewer in which stereograms could be viewed. These stereograms were twin photographs (for 3D) printed on card stock. A universal format existed (no "platform compatibility" problems) and thousands of images were available. One of the more popular makers had a series called "Around the World," whose slogan was "without leaving your home - just like being there." Just like we hear today with "VR."

But stereoscope images were static and could only be viewed by one person at a time.

By mid-1895 the motion picture camera was more or less perfected but motion picture projection was not. Both artists and industrialists were working on making moving pictures viewable by many (as well as working on sound, color, panoramics, 3D, low-light emulsions, close-up lenses, and optical effects, even back then!).

But at this particular moment one hundred years ago, the only way to see movies was through the kinetoscope, invented (arguably, but certainly commercially exploited) by Thomas Edison. The kinetoscope was a wooden cabinet with a film loop inside and a small viewing hood on top, made for one single user at a time. Edison began selling them in April 1894.

The first kinetoscope films, made by Edison employees W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise, were simple "scenes" usually under one minute in length. The earliest scenes included a sneeze, an amateur gymnast, a shave at a barbershop, an organ grinder, various animal tricks ("The Wrestling Dog" and "The Boxing Cats"), prize fights, and dancing women (one of whom, the Spanish dancer Carmencita, exposed her legs during a dance twirl, which resulted in the banning of kinetoscope parlors in several cities).

The kinetoscope was the only way for the public to experience moving pictures, a situation lasting less than two years. On December 28, 1895, the Lumiere brothers in Paris held their first public exhibition of projected film. Although several attempts at film projection had already been shown in the U.S. and Europe, this was the one that grabbed the attention of the public and the mass media. The Lumiere's popularity was so overwhelming that publicity posters at the time depicted crowds of people trying to get in the theater rather than of what they were about to see. Cinema as we know it was born.

The kinetoscope became a transitionary symbol during a turbulent era in the media arts. I chose to rebuild one recently (on the outside at least), in part to re-awaken our sense of history as we continue our own exploration of new media today.

In 1992 I began a project called "Field Recording Studies," as part of the Art and Virtual Environments program at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada. The concept was to study "place" by making 3-D computer models based on the physical world, in part to challenge the dominance of fantasy-based imagery of "VR" models at the time.

I made several attempts to take cinemagraphic images into computer 3-space, relying on my past work with panoramic tiling, moviemaps, and projection sculpting. But I retreated back to interactive laserdiscs as a vehicle for delivering high-quality stereoscopic imagery with at least one degree of navigability.

Working with my colleagues at Interval Research Corporation (which had since graciously taken me in) and with artist Mark Pauline, we built a modest camera rig out of two old 16mm cameras and a 3-wheeled "super-jogger" baby carriage. The cameras were mounted side-by-side for stereographic 3D and had very wide-angle lenses, similar to those in "VR" goggles. The cameras could only shoot one frame at a time, and could be triggered either by an intervalometer for timelapses or by an encoder on one of the carriage wheels for moviemaps. The idea was to capture imagery that looked "VR-like" enough to encourage further investigation.

The camera rig could be disassembled to fit in a car, re-assembled and ready within minutes. Gilles Tassé, a filmmaker with extensive location experience in the area, and I spent six weeks filming studies around Banff and rural Alberta. We filmed over 100 sequences.

Our biggest struggle was not technological (thankfully), but was artistic. On the one hand, the sites in the Banff area are monumental in their grace and beauty. Some are sacred. On the other hand, watching the tourists at these sites told a different story. Busses and busses pulled in and out parking lots seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Tourists would get out - cameras in hand - for twenty minutes, then back on the busses off to another Site. Gilles and I agreed that the strength of the footage would lie in counterpointing these two conflicting messages.

Banff has a curious history as a tourist area, dating back, it turns out, also a hundred years. In a very real sense, wilderness tourism in Canada was "invented" by Canadian Pacific Railway, which built a chain of luxury hotels to subsidize the construction of the railway west. The Banff tourist scene still has a turn-of-the-century feel to it.

Banff has also had a longstanding controversy over tourism, ecology, and growth. For example automobiles were banned from the Banff National Park in 1904, a ban not completely lifted until 1917. The controversies continue today.

Making a kinetoscope out of the Banff footage seemed like the right thing to do.