MART 702: Response to “Invisible Cities”

Download the project, Invisible Boundaries, for Mac OSX.

Invisible Boundaries is, first and foremost, an artistic response to Italo Calvino’s text Invisible Cities. The narrative of the book is about Marco Polo’s companionship with emperor Kublai Khan. Marco Polo tells to emperor Kublai Khan fantastical stories about the myriad cities within his expansive empire. Each city, described to readers (and Kublai Khan) in one-to-two page chapters, is more unbelievable than the last, but with good reason: the cities that Marco Polo describes do not actually exist. In fact, the truth (revealed halfway through the book) is that each city described is actually the same: Venice.

Calvino’s Invisible Cities alludes to many different themes. A reoccurring analogy in the book is one of place and memory. Many of the different cities (i.e. chapters) resonate a sense of longing/nostalgia for a past/place that are impossible to re-experience/revisit. For example, Calvino’s description of Isidora (Cities & Memory) reads, “In the square there is the wall where the old men sit and watch the young go by; he [an old man] is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories” (p.8). I interpret Calvino to mean that humans never truly appreciate what they have until it is gone. When something is no longer as it once was, like the old men who stare at the city’s youth, one can only remember. It is in a moment of remembrance that humans pine for what they no longer have. Time moves forward and the people, places, and choices that once were present are no longer available. Invisible Cities constantly reminds readers of the ephemeral nature of existence (peoples and places) and the memories associated with them. This is a theme I aimed to recreate in Invisible Boundaries.

Invisible Boundaries is a first person virtual experience in which users explore the personal memories of the artist. These “memories” (i.e. levels) represent the lingering vestiges of her childhood home in Lebanon, Connecticut. The player is invited to walk across a mostly linear landscape for an unknown purpose. Invisible Boundaries never makes its objective clear. Users may find the experience trivial, at best, or frustrating, at worst. This is the artist’s intent. All movement is linear; the scenery lacks contextualization (and possibly coherence) aside from the obvious that there is a sense of similarity between the levels; and the message/narrative is extremely abstract. Is it worth your time to venture into the landscape of Invisible Boundaries? The artist’s response is to break it. The majority of the experience is succinct and obvious; however, there are areas where the seams are broken, much like “real” memories. A glitch may be exploited here or there and something unexpected may occur as result. Memories often conceal just as much as they reveal; similarly, Invisible Boundaries suggests that its users break through the invisible walls that confine them.

The prose of Invisible Cites features hazy, dream-like visuals and thought-provoking analogies. Unlike the book, Invisible Boundaries does not feature hazy, dream like visuals and thought-provoking analogies. In these attempts it is likely a failure. What it achieves, at its most base, is to force players along a predetermined path across one of four landscapes. The first of these scenes guides players towards a lake. A stonewall frames the pathway, evoking the historic New England atmosphere. Once players reach the lakefront, they are presented with a wooden dock. When the player walks on the dock they are suddenly transported to the opposite side of the lake and the sun is setting. What does this sudden interruption signify? Could it be a flash-forward in time and space? Or is it a new memory altogether? The player can only move onward; the interpretation is as good as anyone’s.  When Marco (i.e. Calvino) describes Zaira (Cities & Memory) he says that,

“This city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lighting rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls” (p.11). I take this passage to mean that spaces may be “read” like a text; signs (e.g. scratches, indentations, scrolls) leave a minute trace of what once was. In this way, certain signs in a space may evoke memories. These marks/memories within cities/spaces/landscapes are indexes to the past; a past that is often foreign and unknowable because the past that is known about a specific place/time is limited to that of one’s own experiences. A place has different meanings and associations for each person who encounters it. Invisible Boundaries has it’s own marks that may signify different associations for different people.

Calvino addresses the unknowable in terms of place, experience, memory, and self. Invisible Boundaries attempts to channel these themes without blatantly acknowledging them. In his description of the city Tamara (Cities & Signs), Calvino explains that, “The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things…” (p.13). From this, I understand him to mean that one’s daily observances are governed by the reading and interpretation of the images around them. In our memories, we remember vague, but selected, images of privilege and give them vital meaning in order to better understand past experiences. The images, or signs, in Invisible Boundaries have vital meaning for me (the maker) in the way that I remember my childhood home. However, for anyone else, the representations are arbitrary (and possibly meaningless). Despite the arbitrary nature of signs, much of the imagery in Invisible Boundaries is symbolically charged. For example, the lake and river, fresh bodies of pure water, may connote purity because of their association with nature and baptism. The cemetery has strong symbolism of death, decay, and even fear and superstition. The bonfire may evoke death/rebirth because it may conjure thoughts of a funeral pyre or cremated ashes. For me, the meanings are more personal than these broad associations. The lake is where I spent my summers; the river is where I used to camp; the cemetery is where I rubbed the markings of old tombstones; the fire represents the giant bonfire my dad made in the backyard on the fourth of July. Calvino was aware of the power of particular signs in memories that espouse feelings and associations, as am I.

While there is an extent of freedom in respect to interpretation of the virtual signs, the design forces users to subject themselves to the rules of Invisible Boundaries. Calvino’s description of the city of Tamara is useful in this respect: “Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts” (p.14). In Invisible Boundaries, a player may assume that they have agency in this virtual world; in actuality, there is little. A guided path and invisible barriers prevent users from true freedom and opportunity to explore. The world has a discourse that must be obeyed to “complete” the experience; the user is subordinate to these rules, much like a visitor’s relationship to Tamara.

Calvino continues to explain that, “However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it” (p.14). Calvino’s words beg the question: do we ever really know a place? And once we leave, how do we really know that we have been? The more distant our memories are from the real, lived experience, the more dream-like and fictitious they become. People may visit a place, but after they leave it, all that they take with them are the memories. And memories paint an incomplete picture; they are simulacrum of the real. Therefore, it can be surmised that people often leave places “without having discovered it” because they misinterpret/misunderstand it.  At face value, Invisible Boundaries is defined by the invisible walls constructed from “box colliders” and the 3D models of trees, stonewalls, fences, and vegetation that line the perimeter of the virtual world. These objects are purposely placed to structure the experience. They enforce the idea that a user may “visit” this representational landscape, but they will never really “know” it. Furthermore, because this virtual world is a simulation of my personal memories that represent my childhood home, one cannot “know” the real place, either.

Invisible Cities is redundant. Cities share thematic chapters (e.g. “Cities & Memory,” “Cities & Desire,” “Cities & Signs,” etc.); some cities have almost identical allegories and symbolism in the stories as told by Marco Polo. This is intentional. Halfway through the narrative the audience learns that each of the cities is the same; Marco Polo simply describes the city of Venice to Kublai Khan each and every time. This is hinted at early in the book. When Marco (i.e. Calvino) describes Zirma (Cities & Signs) he says that, “The city is redundant: it repeats itself so that something will stick in the mind… Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist” (p.19). It begs me to ponder; does routine habit/practice/experience skew  memories or give privilege to some memories over others? People have a way of explaining a situation or series of events as, “It was all a blur to me.” I understand this in the context of Calvino’s text to mean that certain images/signs are privileged over others in a way to provide an aid to memories. The redundancy in recounting memories allows people to remember, and in the moment one remembers, it is the only instance that the past “exists” again. Invisible Boundaries is likewise redundant. Once the experience is complete, it may be replayed, but only to assume the same cycle. The cyclical experience is not unlike memory recall. Generally speaking, people remember to remember; in remembering, one may remember something that they had previously forgotten. Recollection is an unending, cycle of redundancy; this redundancy is necessary to maintain a semblance of self-awareness.

On his discussion of a “Continuous City” called Trude, Marco Polo/Calvino explains that, “This was the first time I had come to Trude, but I already knew the hotel where I happened to be lodged… The world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end” (p.128). I interpret him to mean that people see familiarity everywhere; for this reason, there are some things that are inescapable, especially the past. There is always a sign (a reminder) that may trigger a memory of familiarity, that unusual feeling of déjà vu. Invisible Boundaries imparts a similar sense of déjà vu with each leap forward to a new scene/memory. There is a sense of familiarity of the landscape that each user will come to understand differently based on their unique, individual lived experiences.

Speaking on Tamara, Calvino adds “Outside, the land stretches, empty, to the horizon; the sky opens, with speeding clouds. In the shape that chance and wind give the clouds, you are already intent on recognizing figures; a sailing ship, a hand, an elephant…” I take this to mean that people constantly construct the world around them through signs in order to make meaning… and sometimes, people make meaning where there is none just to make sense of the perceived reality. Sometimes, a cloud should just be a cloud. But for most of humanity, they want the cloud to be something more than the abstract concentration of ephemeral condensation. Humans, in their vain attempt to understand, want to give the “cloud” meaning, an explanation that provides context; e.g. why must the dark cloud blot out the happy, eternal sunshine? So that the sun may be all the more appreciated when it resurfaces. Similarly, deriving meaning from memory provides comfort that life and experience is knowable; that there is some kind of “point” or value in the suffering and pain that life unexpectedly produces.

Similarly, yet differently, Invisible Boundaries aims to recreate these connotations associated with memories of a place. Memory, not unlike experience, is fleeting. When one recalls a past event/place, the memory of it is likely to change with every retelling; i.e. one may depend more upon the “spoke words” that are used to retell a memory because, overtime, the visuals become less vivid and the “images” that account for a memory are rendered unreliable. Recalling and retelling ultimately leads to an erosion of one’s true memories; i.e. the memories that are preserved shortly after the actual, lived experience. As such, all memories become an imperfect recollection. Memories are a large part of what constitutes the self. Therefore, if memories are imperfect it can be surmised that people are also imperfect. If Invisible Boundaries is flawed or pointless it is as an extension of my imperfect self.

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