Toni Dove’s “Sally or the Bubble Burst”

A collection of works from students in the Interactive Cinema class during the Fall of 2016.

Matthew Elfenbein

Looking into the Face of a Machine: A Commentary

The interactive film, Sally or the Bubble Burst by Toni Dove, raised my skepticism of how a DVD was going to commingle narrative and voice recognition into a coherent piece.  I was not sure how the film would correctly change channels with the various responses or how it would respond to the user because of the more limited technological capacities of DVD.  This was quelled when we began to exhibit the film, which showed that the voice recognition was made of a simple two-way path; however, we will explore the limitations it was confined to.  The responsiveness was remarkably intricate for what was presented in the film, especially knowing that DVDs follow paths, but here it seemed to be mixed as if on a turntable.

The first hurdle was utilizing a computer that seemed to come from a museum because of its archaic construction.  The medium specificity of the computer’s operating system played a role, which was not an original intention of Dove, because the film would not play on any new computers that had more modern technology.  The way this situation is unintentionally intertwined with the narrative of the chair, bubble, and radio shows how the exponential pace technology is changing.  There were many cases of reflexive talk from the objects as “today’s technology is tomorrow’s junk,” and this plot was stringed throughout the piece.  The idea conforms to the notion that each object acted as part of a database, inserting a handful of quotes perpetuating the idea of technological redundancy (Kinder).  The fact that the older computer and DVD were marvels of their time (although some short lived), now in days they are considered relics of the past and are obsolete in many functions of life.

However, innovation was not absent in this piece, especially with the use of voice recognition as a way to interact with the “Human” character of Sally.  Her appearance was jarring, visually cacophonous, and she sounded like an android; thus, giving a creepy connotation to the character.  It is not common for interactions to have physical motions characterized by jerky motions and asynchronous sound; however, this is the case with Sally, imposing that we are no longer interacting with a human but a humanoid, and sometimes a broken machine.

Looking to conceptualize this piece I was at a loss, because there seemed to be no linear makeup to help categorize this in a traditional sense.  When I was pointed towards Marsha Kinder’s article on “Designing a Database Cinema” all the pieces seemed to fall in place.  It became clear that this piece fell into the sub-genre of the “personal memoir,” which Kinder describes as being a building of memories and ideologies that a person collects as they go through life.  A database of experiences becomes the structure behind the narrative of Sally or the Bubble Burst.


Sally the human or humanoid?  Source: Digital Art Archive

A further study into the voice recognition highlights some areas that stuck out in relation to changing the conversation in the film.  On the first hand, when watching the film you must learn how to respond; therefore, there is a learning curve needed to properly talk to her.  For example, she does not recognize long phrases or complicated words, but she will respond to answers of “yes” or “no” well.  In chances where she would give you options to respond to she would often times “hear” the opposite of what we said, which gave the impression that she was not going to have diversity in her answers and they were predestined.  Another odd thing when talking was the changing of the tone of voice, purely talking about our voice; therefore, there were a couple instances where you would say the same word with different inflection and she would recognize only certain phrasing.

One of my roles in the group was to configure and operate the program, which turned out to be easier than I expected because of my familiarity with older Macintosh operating systems.  It is interesting that the DVD technology that seems primitive today worked well in its ideal environment of the older computer.  An interesting conundrum that modern technology lacks of support for these old media and interactive platforms, even in an age where interaction fits in your pocket; however, technology prides itself on being more inclusive in compatibility all the time.

There is complexity in the film’s compositional structure, such as the ability to detect voice commands and being able to manipulate the video with the position of the cursor or voice (which was not so responsive).  When she is dancing there the ability to “edit” the performance in real time, showing that we are in control of her life.  This place the voice recognition was not very responsive, but the cursor allowed easy manipulation.  For its time, the interactive quality is quite ingenious and again shows that technology is constantly changing.

As for glitches, there was one major problem in the “Sally Sings” section.  If the keyboard is pressed rapidly, she would try to achieve the input; however, she would end up sounding out noise fragments and the image would stop attempting to match.  The experience was similar to someone experiencing a convulsive seizure, where there was not much control of the subject just a spectacle (no, not fun to watch) of image and sound.  Also she would make a sound with a key press, but they would be different sounds each time on the same key.  At first you believe you are controlling her every speech pattern, when in actuality it turns out her specific diction was inevitable.

The experience of Sally or the Bubble Burst was engaging and challenging.  This is because a lot of the navigation in the film had to be learnt as we explored, and there was not too much help from the manual.  It was an interesting comparison to see how interaction with the humanoid differs to the faceless dialogue between Siri and the user (or any modern personal assistant type of voice recognition).  This film really enlightened me on the ideas of interacting with humans and the traits that make it a “normal” conversation, compared to the disjointed and robotic Sally.

Works Cited

  • Toni Dove: Sally or the Bubble BurstDVD-ROM, 2003, Bustlelamp Productions
  • Marsha Kinder. “Designing a Database Cinema,” pps. 346-353. Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film. Ed. Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel, ZKM/Center for Art and Media Karlsruche, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2003.

Zoe Jiang

Accessing the Past: Interacting with Sally the Bubble Dancer

The only way we can access Toni Dove’s interactive DVD-ROM-based artwork, Sally or the Bubble Burst (2003), is through a powerbook, an early Macintosh laptop computer manufactured in early 21st Century. It was the first time for me to see a powerbook, same for my friends Victoria and Matthew (The laptop was so ‘new’ to us that we forgot to charge it). In a way this watching experience reinacted the story told in the very work — only through an old object can one access the past. Sally or the Bubble Burst is a mix of sci-fi and noir which are the two genres representing temporalities of the future and the past respectively. From the DVD disc we can watch a short clip from the future story, in which a female scientist secretly uses a piece of old fabric to produce the hologram of a dancing Sally from the 1930s. A better introduction of this story comes from the artist herself:

“The story opens in the future where Spectropia, a young woman in her twenties, lives in the salvage district of an urban center known as the Informal Sector. It’s a black market subculture of salvage and barter where knowledge spans only a person’s experience and recorded history is forbidden. This culture of consumption floats on islands of garbage; saving anything is punishable by law. Spectropia is addicted to the illegal activity of collecting artifacts from the past. Her companion, a cyborg creature called the Duck, (part human and part wireless robot) runs a black market business in retro objects’ heir livelihood. The Duck is a babysitter bot, in loco parentis, programmed by Spectropia’s father, who disappeared in time while searching for a lost inheritance. Using a machine of her own invention to search the past for her father, she discovers William, a man from 1931 New York City after the Great Crash. Spectropia is accidentally transported to NYC in 1931 when her machine short circuits and she finds herself in the body of another woman, Verna de Mott, an amateur sleuth. A mystery and a romantic triangle unfold across centuries as two women in one body drive one man crazy.” (


Spectropia producing a hologram of the past (source: Toni Dove)

This attractive story setting is only to be found on the artist’s website, but not to be traced anywhere from the DVD content, or the pamphlet accompanying the DVD box. Only later did we find out the story of Sally is an interactive scene from the Spectropia project. During the time interacting with the DVD, we were puzzled, unable to piece together all the narrative threads, yet viscerally intrigued by the mysterious affect the performance of Sally had on us. The glitches we experienced, together with the materiality of the powerbook, transmitted us into a dystopian time travel that confuses the past and the future. It echoes what Timothy Barker mentions in his article that “objects never wholly come into contact with one another. Instead they ‘withdraw’ from each other as they interact, with one object never being able to grasp another in its entirety.” (Barker, 66) It is the withdrawal of the artwork that mobilizes us into the role of an active historiographer. We can control or choreograph Sally’s dance through the movement of the mouse in real time; we can call for different objects from Sally’s time through the technology of voice recognition. In a sense we are like Spectropia, who is involved in a process of gaining identity through historical artifacts that enable her to understand the forbidden history broader than that of her personal one.

For me what’s interesting is the way Toni Dove creatively incorporates cinema as a gendered institution in her hybrid form of presentation. She is not only savvy in the grammar of genre films — the low-key light, the role of femme fatale of noir film, etc — but also engages in a critique of the structural violence on female body in both our contemporary unconscious and early Hollywood films. The creepy or uncanny feeling we have when seeing and hearing Sally talk or dance, in a “broken” way, can be read as a reverse effect of “uncanny valley.” Normally, uncanny valley happens when a mannequin appears almost but not exactly like real human beings elicit feelings of eeriness and revulsion among some observers. But here, through the mediation of technology, a real human performer appears like a broken doll, especially when her body movement during the bubble dance is constantly interrupted by glitches. The process of control in the objectification or reification of the female body becomes palpable through our interactions. To quote Matthew’s reaction, “It’s as if we are watching a human losing humanity.” So in a sense, the glitches could even be interpreted as Sally’s resistance to obey our command.

Victoria Zunhiga

Bursting Sally’s Bubble

A click of the mouse. Then another. And another. A set of icons invited us to explore Sally Or The Bubble Burst, Toni Dove’s 2003 interactive artwork. An older Macintosh was our only vehicle to access the piece; the screen was our window to a complex network  of ideas and concepts.

Sally welcomed us by saying she greeted us from the future, yet later confessed her story was set in 1931. Her clothing, mannerisms and way of speaking transported us to another era, and the objects and colors around her enhanced the sensation.

The combination of such elements with the novel interactive features created a peculiar ambiance. To that respect, Marsha Kinder emphasizes the usage of older media in order to produce a new form of art, as a way to ensure that

[…] the borders between the past and the present are blurred.

-Marsha Kinder, Designing A Database Cinema


Throughout the projection, several glitches kept on breaking our concentration and demanding our intervention -and patience- to continue. At first it seemed as if the now archaic technology was the reason. Didn’t one of the speaking objects in the movie mention that today’s state-of-the-art products would be nothing more than trash tomorrow?

The simultaneous use of multiple temporalities, as well as the lack of synchronization between images and sounds, and the system’s reluctance -or rather incapability- to understand our vocal commands, kept us uneasy and puzzled.

Perhaps the glitches were there since the work was created. It’s hard to tell whether the system was intended to allow a seamless navigation or not, after all:

Developing more and more immediate interfaces and increasingly intelligent agents may be important goals for research and development, but they are not necessarily the primary goals for an interactive art practice.

-Erkki Hutamo, Seeking Deeper Contact: Interactive Art As Metacommentary

But perhaps there was another explanation. Were all those glitches a mere product of obsolescence, or were they intentionally set by the artist to change the way her work was experienced?

If we think about it, having had to overcome such hurdles radically changed the way we were able -or unable- to interact with the machine. In other words,

[…] a user does not simply impose their will on the machine, […] the technology is fundamentally involved in the way the user operates.

-Timothy Barker, Objects And Interaction

On the other hand, we wondered if our voices and actions actually meant anything to the system, since certain intonations, clicks and speeds were ignored completely. Just as Sally’s responses were being translated into elements that could be processed by our senses, our commands were surely being translated to the binary language she knew.

[…] is not the physical, materially ‘there’ human, but rather the object that the machine senses.

-Timothy Barker, Objects And Interaction

And not only that; the limitations may have also had the purpose to prevent the audience from immersing completely in the movie, as a form of subversion from the masculine and commercial focus that interactive media has been subjected to.

[…] certain feminist artists […] have appropriated male dominated technology, yet refused to accept the slickness of its aesthetics.

-Erkki Hutamo, Seeking Deeper Contact: Interactive Art As Metacommentary

[…] synchronization serves to maintain the realistic illusion by keeping the spectator sutured into emotional identification

-Marsha Kinder, Designing A Database Cinema

After a first dive into the work, we decided to explore the additional features included in the disc. One of them was a video of the original exhibition; it suddenly became clear that Sally’s voice had never been intended to sound human.

That small piece of information allowed us to observe the work differently once we decided to explore it a second time.

Looking back, there is no doubt that had we chosen to project the movie separately, or under different settings, the way each of us would have perceived it would have differed.

In fact, at many points we all felt lost, and everyone’s interpretation of what was being displayed helped the others understand.

But not only that. One of the very first questions Sally asked was whether our economy was booming or bursting. How much could our experience have differed had we not chosen the latter?

Our experience of the world is constituted by the intersection of […] how we process sense data, with […] the immediately present world of objects and the projection of our senses.
Media systems are not just controlled by their constituent technologies, but by a much more comprehensive political, social and economic flow in which they are caught up.

-Timothy Barker, Objects And Interaction

Our session ended several minutes after the projection did; we simply had too much going on in our heads.

We saw the evils of capitalism, consumerism, and misogynie imprinted on the artwork. Rather than be stunned by the technology, it was our reflections about such metaphors that did. Perhaps Erkki Hutamo’s vision of the future of interactive media wasn’t that farfetched after all.

[…] interactive media would gradually emerge as a philosophical and poetic universe with strong ethical and ideological connotations.

-Erkki Hutamo, Seeking Deeper Contact: Interactive Art As Metacommentary