(Un)changing History: Bleeding Through and the Illusory Barrier Between Past and Present
Norman Klein’s Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles (1920-1986) functions as a complex concatenation of database narrative, docu-game, i-doc, and digital archive charting the web of intersecting histories (both real and imagined) existent in Los Angeles from the 1920s to the year of the game’s release in 2003. The story itself recounts the history of Molly, a woman navigating the vicissitudinal moments circulating and colliding in a dense and ever-changing Los Angeles. Molly’s story, told in seven “chapters,” details her experiences in Los Angeles as a means of uncovering her possible involvement in the murder of her second husband. The narrative, however, functions less as the primary mode of engagement for the viewser, and more as a mode of what can be understood as affective dispersal. Specifically, the loose, almost improvisational style of storytelling enacted by Klein encourages a distracted navigation of the database in which disconnected media (historically, narratalogically, and materially speaking) dialectically converge and resist effectively leading to a complex form of emotional engagement in which story becomes one small piece of a larger affective map. Photos, sound, video, topographical maps, newspaper clippings, advertisements, and film randomly intersect in the disjointed “timelines” of each chapter inviting a mixture of nostalgia, mystery and intrigue while Molly’s story fluctuates between that of a necessary glue and simultaneously an extraneous distraction.
The disjunctive and discursive nature of the work is articulated not simply through the random intersection of modes of address (documentary, archive, narrative fiction, etc.) and media (photos, videos, maps, etc.) but additionally through the hypermediacy and interactivity of the platform itself. Klein’s recounting of Molly’s story is scaled down to a small box in the upper right hand corner while the rest of the content scrolls across a relatively small window in the center of the screen. Both Klein’s recounting of Molly’s story and the scrolling and randomized timelines of each chapter can be manipulated. Norman Klein’s narration (the story), for example, can be closed altogether leading to a wholly different mode of engagement with the material within the timeline—no longer tethered to the story, the viewser can engage the material as pure archive. Additionally, the windowed timeline allows for spatiotemporal shifts backward and forward to different locations and moments in time through clicking but more complexly, it also allows one to carefully navigate up/down/left/right within particular images themselves. This functionality approximates the physical navigation of the cityscape (objects on the visual periphery, looking up at tall buildings, etc.) and points to one of Bleeding Through’s most powerful components, particularly the multiplicity of temporalities present within the work and the way each of these “bleeds through” the material itself. The permitted navigation within discrete frames encourages the viewser to locate fragments of Molly’s unfolding fictional story within seemingly fixed and frozen archival images thus collapsing the distance between an unchanging past and a constantly evolving present. Through this recombinatory process—positioning and repurposing these historical fragments within a personalized fictional narrative—an immobile, distant, and anonymous history becomes a living document offering insight into Molly’s world and the events leading up to and surrounding the murder.
Just as these historical fragments are reconfigured and given new meaning based on their confrontation with the present, so too does Klein illustrate the ways in which the present is inherently bound in the past. Through the use of a slider bar, viewsers are able to manipulate the opacity of particular layered photos essentially toggling between past and present images of the same Los Angeles’ landscapes “disappearing” and transforming the bodies featured within the images. This functionality creates the uncanny effect of both regrounding the present in the past geographically speaking and pointing out the myriad occluded potentialities and histories simultaneously embedded in and lost to the present.
In “A Cinema in the Gallery, A Cinema in Ruins” Erika Balsom discusses the ways in which ruins (and film as a physical medium) effectively function as a sort of Bergsonian notion of the virtual image. Reaching both backwards toward a closed reality while simultaneously projecting a pantomimic and nostalgic string toward the future, or what could have been. These “nonsynchronous temporalities” reflecting an “admixture of hope and dread” (Balsom 422) play a primary role in Klein’s piece. Molly’s story, in conjunction with the opacity slider’s ability to make the past “disappear” into the present, forcefully reminds us of the vast pool of histories and lived experiences buried among the “ruins” of time. Molly’s narrative is merely one of many in this complex web of streets and spaces known as Los Angeles. Klein foregrounds this concept in the Tier 3 (Excavation: Digging Behind the Story) chapter titled “What Molly Barely Noticed or Managed to Forget” in which the “unpleasant” realities of Los Angeles’ past are portrayed via video, photo, and audio fragments reminding us of the intricate complex of subjugated knowledge and repressed histories always threatening to bleed through the layers of a seemingly fixed past forever altering the present and future.
Balsom, Erika. “A Cinema in the Gallery, a Cinema in Ruins.” Screen 50.4. 2009.
Klein, Norman. Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles, 1920-1986. DVD-ROM. 2002.
Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles 1920-1986
We are told that by 1986 Molly can no longer tell day from night, a metaphor perhaps for cinema’s semiotic place in this exploration of new media form by the makers. Bleeding Through’s deconstructed narrative moves the viewser from a literary (linear reading/the past) into a new expanded form, as database media. How do past and current technologies challenge each other to go beyond the limits of time and space?
We encounter Molly on the first image page. We understand that introduction as the beginning of the story narrative, a way to approach Klein’s novella. This is when we are told that she cannot tell day from night but we later find that this does not happen until 1986 which is the end of the story. The end is told at the beginning but we don’t know it until the end. It functions like a temporal loop taking the viewser on a journey that the makers manipulate through subtle and often cinematic references and messages. This suggests that the interactive power given over to the viewser is more limited than it appears. This is important because Molly’s story provides the initial encounter with the framework of the piece. In order to enter the layers we must begin with Molly’s story. The literary structure is first established and then quickly deconstructed by the interactive strategies that allow the viewser to select from the navigational options. An interesting activity is comparing the experience with and without Klein’s authorial narration. By clicking on the box his image and function are housed in, the viewser can delete the sound and the structural element he provides as “storyteller” which seemed to have been designed in contrast to the rather elegant design of the rest of the piece. The filmic quality of the documentary images, both past and art directed, feel more so when placed in proximity to his talking head in the top corner. He is very present, yet his delivery is off-putting, and seems even unprepared at times. His commentary seems actually out of character and may be purposefully engineered. Turning him “off” is not only an option but an imperative, leaving the viewser to make internal decisions about the nature of the characters and history encountered beyond the narration. This could cause a deeper interactive resonance to be created in relationship between the viewser and the material. It suggests one of the ways the makers have enforced a kind of narrative mediation within the medium. Kinder speaks of the Labyrinth projects as narratives “whose structure exposes the dual processes of selection and combination that lie at the heart of all stories and are crucial to language.”
This project evokes the passage of time into new visual language that is no longer accessed a page at a time (literary) or a minute at a time (film) through references embedded in the multiple layers of the piece itself. The archival images refer beyond a documented reality as the viewer continues to look for Molly. Images are brought forward by way of past cinematic structures such as the Day for Night construct or the use of mapping, where the landscape is layered over the cinematic “history” of what only occurred there in a film and not IRL history. Klein and partners have designed a deeply affective architecture that in 2003 exposed an access to innovation that Kinder has ascribed to Bunel’s work as a way to follow any narrative strand, that she says, “although ingeniously interwoven, purposefully never cohere–– a networking enabling the viewer to observe the narrative engine in action.” This idea suggests that it is the interactive encounter with countless images, cinematic metaphor and literal meaning that stimulates the viewser to combine the narrative with a history, that they recognize from their own memory and experience.
Kinder, Marsha. The Labyrinth Project, website: https://dornsife.usc.edu/labyrinth/about.html
Klein, Norman. Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles 1920-1986, ZKM Digital Arts Edition, DVD Rom 2003.
Marsha Kinder describes this narrational element of Bleeding Through as: “the vigorous stream of Klein’s verbal commentaries on history, swirling with vivid details, comic asides, and fascinating digressions.” This was not at all, however, how I experienced his presence in encountering the work for the first time. For me, his tone was an unwelcome drone; it was background noise. The narrational pop-up frame seems to be that of traditional documentary commentator, complete with the flat lighting and inclusion of the computer on the desk, but due to his delivery, I immediately understood this interactive project in the context of the faux documentary tradition—i.e. using the same form as a standard documentary but around a fictional subject or made-up history. I collaborated as a director and dramaturg on a dance-film-mockumentary, The Bentfootes (2004-08), and the tone used by the “experts” in our intermedia project was quite similar to that of Klein in Bleeding Through. A quoting of documentary. A distancing from the form while in it.
So, within seconds, I understood that the central figure of Molly is fictional, while the photos and videos of Los Angeles and many of the events described in the large central frame appeared to be archival and historically based. However, I found this blurring—this bleeding through of fiction into history, and vice-versa—off-putting.
Is this a question of comedy versus irony? The talking heads in This Is Spinal Tap and Christopher Guest’s subsequent mockumentaries (I, for one, cannot wait for Mascots) are a brilliant element and add to the humor. Norman Klein’s narration only frustrated me. It was fictional chocolate in my historical peanut butter and I did not want it mixed up. I did not want to play detective with a fabricated character when the layers of “real” Hollywood history were there to explore. Perhaps if his raconteur style about a fictional character were matched with a more fictional database or, conversely, if it were a light tone regarding a real figure? I found the disjunction and ironic tone, for some reason, irritating. Tone matters. Words matter.
As Bleeding Through is an interactive DVD-ROM, within the narrator frame the user/viewser has the ability to slide ahead, pause, fast-forward or jump ahead in Klein’s narration. There is also the small-x of freedom, to turn off his drone, to erase this oral storytelling element entirely from the experience of navigating through the database of archival images, and the Tiers and Chapters of Molly’s story. Yet, unlike the randomizing algorithms scrambling the time-based order of the databases of archival material, Klein’s drone is linear in each segment and a constant reminder of the fabricated nature of this project. On reflection, it seems that I wanted either/or and his ironic tone reminded me that history is also a story. In Designing a Database Cinema, Kinder points out that the element of chance occurs in the film only when Klein’s “commentary is suspended.” I shut him off, but like a visceral after-effect of a fly’s presence even after swatted, his drone continued to buzz around–and bleed through–my experience. It spoiled my desire to play detective, to collaborate on Molly’s story, or go digging, look for bodies (wounded in the flesh or allegorically), in the archive.
Kinder suggests that Bleeding Through is a “meta-narrative reflection on storytelling in this new medium.” I find the idea that both database and fictional narrative are inherently and structurally compatible fascinating. She writes “all narratives are constructed by selecting items from databases that usually remain hidden” (348).
A final thought: In navigating Bleeding Through, theories surrounding palimpsests recurred to the point that I needed to consult the OED. The idea of memory being layered in physical places and objects, and the past bleeding through across time, is thought-provokingly conveyed in the interactive design of the film, which allows the user to experiment with visual lapses around specific points in space, so that the past and present collapse.
 Kinder, Designing a Database Cinema, 346.
The Recombinatory Panoramic Experience of Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles
Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles, 1920-1986 is a multimedia database narrative (produced by The Labyrinth Project and ZKM) delivered through a printed novella and a DVD-ROM. The novella, by Norman Klein, tells the fictional story of Molly, an inhabitant of Los Angeles who is based on a real life story about a woman who murdered her second husband. The novella supplements the contents of the DVD-ROM that is arranged in three broad sections, or tiers: Molly’s story rearticulated through archival photographs and moving images recontextualized in the fictional narrative; research (again comprised of archival material) that serves to “fill the gap” between the novella and the version of Molly’s story in the first section; and finally a deeper exploration of the themes of history and memory and city symphony that circulate throughout the work.
The tiered structure of the film parallels an increasingly deep exploration and interaction with the work’s database structure. Drawing on Marsha Kinder’s definition of database narratives, Bleeding Through demonstrates a “structure [that] exposes that dual processes of selection and combination that lie at the heart of all stories and are crucial to language.” Its recombinatory logic highlights what Kinder identifies as the “subversive potential of the database narrative,” which is its ability to destabilize master narratives and demonstrate the arbitrary nature of the selection process in creating all narratives (349). The narrative that is purposefully undermined throughout the work is the long-held conception of the authoritative truth claims of archival objects as history by reappropriating these objects to narrate Molly’s fictional storyline as well as create a metanarrative reflecting on the work’s relationship to history and subjective memory as relating to the popular and historical construction of the city of Los Angeles. Its palimpsest aesthetic creates overlaps of history and memory, fact and fiction, past and present, most strikingly exemplified in the “bleeding through” effect created by overlaying a current photograph of an area of the city with one from the early twentieth century in varying opacity for each.
While navigating the work, I found myself personally fascinated by the interface design, which suggests a framework of linearity only to continuously subvert that expectation. For example, within a chapter, the viewer-cum-user interacting with the piece, or viewser, is presented with a series of images that are visually laid out horizontally, which can be clicked on, explored by panning around the image, and navigated by clicking to the left or the right to see the next image. However, my expectation of the chronological order of the images was quickly proven incorrect, and further exploration showed that the images of a chapter are not only presented in random sequence, but as you navigate the stream left or right, your trajectory is constantly being rewritten and further randomized so that you cannot return to the same image by the path that you arrived.
What appears to be a timeline might be more productively conceptualized as a panorama, in which “the point of view is not fixed but mobile, [and] the audience chooses and decides the parts to which it is going to pay the greatest attention” (Dinkla 28). The panorama parallels are even more apparent when the viewser explores the Navigator view, in which all the objects in a chapter are presented and color-coded by type (red outline denotes “bleeding through” images, turquoise photo series, and yellow video), and the viewser is free to survey all the elements in a quick move of the cursor to the left or right of the screen, a different, freer gesture than clicking from one to the next. In this way, the work is interactive on two levels: intellectually, as the viewser constructs the narratives of Molly and the metanarrative of the development of the work itself; and also between the user and the interface through click exploration and gestures that allows for a non-linear narrative to be created through its database structure.
Dinkla, Söke. “The Art of Narrative – Towards the Floating Work of Art.” 27-39. Print.
Kinder, Marsha. “Designing a Database Cinema.” Print.