Reflections on Troubles with Sex, Theory and History (1997)
By Chao Sun
Usually a DVD game is designed to cater to its audiences by being visually pleasing or having inviting plots. But this work, with its distinct features, is totally different. Here I will try to understand the work and present my own ideas.
Troubles with Sex, Theory and History is one of Marina Gržinić and Aina Šmid’ s early works, which focused on history and other grand aspects of modern world. With experiences in an Italian minority family and in subcultural movement, Marina has a sensitive idea toward culture and ideology. Her background in philosophy and Aina’s knowledge in art history also contributes to the intriguing work.
A Comprehensive Work and An Uncanny World
As can be seen from the name, the DVD game addresses several significant themes in contemporary world. To deal with the complex themes, they edited many clips of their own works in the past. Some are reflections about history. For example, Labirint (Labyrinth) (1993) “is a sort of condensed poetical and cynical look on the situation in the ex-Yugoslav territory”. Some cope with theories in post-modern time, such as Post-socialism + Retroavant garde + Irwin (1997). A famous comment was included in it: “An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist.”
Since the DVD game consists of all the former works, and if people, especially the residents underwent the drastic changes in eastern Europe, are familiar with the history, they will definitely find something that are reminiscent. But what they can recall is distorted, by treacherous memory, by mass media, which has been constantly shaping people’s awareness. The uncanny is thus produced. “The uncanny is a psychological feeling that something is strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious.” 
Such production process is not confined to the issue of history. As for the sex and gender, perhaps every person has their own attitude or philosophy about these everyday issues. But when these issues are represented in a game form, and when audiences are forced to reflect on them, then, the strange familiarity occurs again.
By presenting common issues in a brand-new way and by summoning up collective memory, the work creates a world full of uncanny spectaculars.
Dictated Navigation and Unconventional Choices
When playing the DVD, what we see is an arrogant statement: “From now on, you cannot go back! You must go head or choose quit”. For me, the metaphor here is evident. Destiny exists. Free will also exists. But every person is at mercy of their life (if the word destiny is not proper), once they have made a choice. It is easy to quit a game if participants are not patient. But it would be much harder to abandon the real life. Then, naturally, the issue arises of how to face an otherwise unsatisfied or miserable life. “To be or not to be, that is a question.”
One more detail should be noted. Unlike most DVDs which ask the audiences to choose what they like among different items, this piece of work askes its viewers to choose what they do not like. At first glance, it is interesting and illuminating because the choices are provided in a reverse way, challenging the stereotyped modes of thinking. However, after audiences make a choice, this option is removed, i.e., what remains is still the pictures that they like. I think such design is nothing more than a conceit, for it does not challenge people’s entrenched values. If the DVD keeps what audiences do not like, then audiences may be forced to watch the whole work, and during the course they may actually reflect on why they are in favor of something rather than others.
Paradox of Interactivity
I find the interactive feature of the work is in a predicament. First, I can see the efforts by the authors to break down the traditional narrative logic, to give audiences the right to choose. But the choices are tough. Maybe such a dilemma is suitable for telling a life lesson as have been discussed above. But apart from that, the interactivity seems useless, at least has nothing special.
Second, the work is not so much a well-designed work as an unfinished experimental draft. It is really hard to find the coherence between different sections, a drawback which will greatly undermine its expression of ideas. If ideas cannot be expressed clearly, then it is hard to say the interactive features could do more than just entertaining.
 Information is all from Wikipedia, and I make a conjecture.
 Mladen Stilinović, 1992
 From Wikipedia
- Marina Gržinić and Aina Šmid, Troubles with Sex, Theory and History, 1997
- Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marina_Gržinić
- Labirint (Labyrinth) (1993) http://grzinic-smid.si/?p=473
- Mladen Stilinović, An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist, 1992 http://ci13.cmoa.org/artwork/3415
By: You Wu
Our group is doing Complete Artintact 1994-99: The Artists’ Interactive CD-ROM, and we chose Frozen Palace by Hugo Glendining and Trouble with Sexes: Theory and History by Marina Gržinić and Aina Šmid.
Frozen Palace features a set of panorama images that users need to navigate through via the cursor. Users are prompted that if the cursor changes, it means that it is clickable and it will lead to a new panorama. However, the clickable areas are well hidden within the panoramas. Users have to look closely to find these areas. While doing so, users simultaneously get involved in the panorama. In other words, users start to picture what is going on in the scene as well as imagining what the next scene would be like. For instance, the first scene users get to see is the living room looking like people are resting after a party. After users look around the room and find one of the clickable area, for example, it leads to the bedroom with people lying on bed and clothes everywhere. Users, like myself, might start to picturing a wild party held in the house. Soon, when another clickable area is found, for example, it leads to the bathroom with a woman holding a knife with blood, and on the other side, a man lying in the bathtub full of blood. This is where things get interesting, users tend to seek connections among the scenes. What happened? What is going on? What else will I find? This keeps going throughout multiple scenes. As professor Marina defines in her article, “Narrative pleasure is derived chiefly from interactions with cinematic objects; much of that pleasure for viewers lie in the active discovery of narrative instead of narrative comprehension and other conventional modes of spectatorship”. In this case, as my group has concluded, users become detectives to navigate through each scene, and capture any clues they think that are valuable. Users figure out the order of the events, the relationship between the people, and what happened in each scene as well as if there are any connections among the scenes.
Another thing worth noted is that the scenes are connected in a circular way. There are multiple clickable areas in each scene, and any of the clickable area would lead you to another scene. It is highly likely that users would return to the same scene after a couple clicks. This loop structure is fascinating. Similar yet different slightly from the Marsha Kinder’s description of database narrative, Frozen Palace does require users to “select characters, images, sounds, events and settings to generate specific tales”; however, users are not able to see the actual result in this case as they generate the story themselves from the “frozen” sequences without being able to know what really happens. In other words, the story of the Frozen Palace is written by themselves based on the materials provided by the author. The author constructed the panoramas and suggest the connections to the users. This is exactly the point why I love Frozen Palace as a kind of interactive cinema. In other kinds of interactive cinema, users are tend to stay passive; yet, in Frozen Palace, users are more active as a lot of thinking are involved during the exploration of the panorama. Users decide what the story is like.
In addition, I made a music video mashup features the aesthetic shared by both of my group’s selections. It has scenes from Trouble with Sex and Frozen Palace, as well as some interesting clips from that period. I hope you guys will like this. The background song is Billy Idol’s White Wedding.
Troubles with Sex, Theory and History and Frozen Palaces: A study in contrasts and parallels
By: Navnidhi Sharma
Our group was tasked with analyzing two artworks from the Artintact 1994-99 collection, of which we chose Hugo Glendinning’s Frozen Palaces (1997) and Marina Gržinić and Aina Šmid’s Troubles with Sex Theory and History (1997). The reason we chose the two pieces was because they presented both parallels and divergences, thereby possessing interesting synergies for analysis. This blog post attempts to posit Troubles with Sex Theory and History (TWS) and Frozen Palaces (FP) against each other to illustrate the experience as a user (although the word ‘participant’ may be just as applicable) of their interactive art.
In the first instance, TWS unfolds like a perplexing combination of surrealist music videos from the 1980s: an inscrutable artistic exploration geared towards multi-media hybridization, apparently made with a singular intent to mystify unsuspecting users. FP, on the other hand, encourages languid exploration of moments frozen in time, only to lead to strange and disturbing layers hidden behind seemingly ordinary facades. Their visuality too is a study in contrasts. TWS mixes gritty imagery with documentary, found footage and B-movie scenarios. FP favours warm hues, bright colouring and soft glow, which soon take a deceptive turn for the sinister. TWS is a multi-media art project that unabashedly perplexes and challenges participants to find meaning, while FP is a deceptively warm toned, conventional narrative that subverts easy interpretation by turning increasingly unsettling. Neither enables linear progression. And both require viewers to mentally fill in gaps, make connections, interpret and attempt to push the narrative forward, even as the artwork itself resists easy interpretations.
The artworks display interesting parallels in terms of the mechanics of their navigation and progression. TWS uses a mediating ‘voice’ that directly addresses the user and dictates (or directs) movement. It gives choices, and often lays down rules of the game. While explicit choices are given for entry points and progression, they often lead to inexplicable images and videos with indirect meanings and functions. There is therefore an element of randomness in the choices; there is no way to predict what is being chosen, yet the user tries to gauge it from the images presented. The process is at once random, yet subliminally informed. Likening the user to a gambler, Grizinic says, “It is not possible to travel through the four structures without changing them in accordance with our particular history, intimacy, prejudices and stereotypes.” Another interesting aspect of the progression in TWS is that the user is constantly reminded that there is no option of going back to an earlier point in the CD, they can either “go forward or quit”. In this way, it subverts traditional CD functionality. The user is also constantly asked to choose what they do not like, perhaps pointing to an important aspect in the cognitive process of decision making- that we do not necessarily pick what we “like”.
In the case of FP, there is no mediating ‘voice’, instead technology itself acts as mediator. The user is required to undertake “detective” work. The directions are silent, and the user is guided by haptic navigation to find entry points which lead to progression of the narrative. Scenes lead to other scenes, with no moving/speaking images or videos. The experience is similar to Kinder’s description of Tracing the Decay of Fiction in which visitors wander through abandoned spaces looking for “historical traumas and personal encounters” This requires the users to uses their cognitive impulse to construct narratives. Also, there are no choices given, challenging the idea of “choice” as an interactive method, and as a tool for narratorial direction.
In terms of format, both projects are digital art and rely on the logic of hyperlinking, to produce a story within a story or story to story (depending on how the user visualizes the narrative- if at all). But the deployment of the digital in each case is different: one uses still images, and the other mixed media (videos, moving images). The difference in experience can be explored through the question of subjective engagement and interpretation enabled by the two formats. In other words, how does engagement, interaction and interpretation with stills (single fragments of time) differ experientially from that with mixed media combining videos/prompts/moving images along with stills. I also feel the projects ask questions of contemporary resonance; in terms of evolving platform usages on instagram, snapchat etc. experimenting with live streaming, filters, carousels, often mish-mashed together.
Finally, the format itself becomes an archive of digital technologies. The art works were first released as CD-ROM (at the time, expected to last in perpetuity as opposed to the fallibility of the VHS). Instead, the CD ROM was soon redundant, and the work was then converted to DVD, which now has also lost ground. Such works therefore need active efforts for archiving and preservation. At the same time, being interactive, their experience changes with the fates of changing technologies.
In discussing the question of temporality, TWS makes explicit references to points in contemporary and older history (fascism, Russian Revolution, Cold War, Bosnian Crisis, Kennedy assassination), while FP is silent on makers of time, giving it a sense of timelessness of human experience. This leads directly to the question of the public and the private. While it is tempting to see the two as being about outer and inner lives, I feel that would be too simplistic a paradigm. The introduction on TWS reads that the work “displays the end of psychology… Each sentence in the CD-ROM is a cliché from a B-Movie, yet somehow the trivial dimension of these clichés is lost and subdued into a metaphysical depth.” Similarly, the introduction to FP says that “people themselves have a status of objects”- perhaps to be explored as part of the scenery, serving a de-privileged function of helping the users navigate and form narratives- as important (or unimportant) as any other props in the frame.
Marsha Kinder, in describing Database Narratives writes “I see database and narrative as two compatible structures whose combination is crucial”. I would take this thought further and argue that it in the case of these artworks, it is the user’s own cognitive processes and imagination that ultimately reconciles database components into narrative.
- Kinder, Marsha. “Designing a Database Cinema.” Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film. Ed. Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003. 346-353.
- Website of Marina Gržinić: http://grzinic-smid.si/?p=513
- Forced Entertainment Website (artists collective): https://www.forcedentertainment.com/project/frozen-palaces/