Tracing the Decay of Fiction

Looking at Decaying Architecture Through the Lens of Database Narrative

by Konan Ito

Tracing the Decay of Fiction: Encounters with a Film, an interactive DVD-ROM software created through the collaboration of Pat O’Neill and Labyrinth Project, takes place in the ruins of Hotel Ambassador, known for holding many grand ceremonies, as well as, the place where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. The interactive software invites users to wander through vacant spaces lingering with a sense of loss. The architectural spaces are embedded with optical and auditory experiences assembled by enigmatic fragments of archival photographs, recorded conversations, radio sounds, and apparition of characters from noir films in a ghost-like form.

As far as the interactive interface goes, the users can either navigate through the spaces by clicking on the edge of the screen to move to another space, or by placing the cursor at a designated space to allow fluid “panscape” camera movement to take over user’s control. As Soke Dinkla (2001) mentions, in “The Art of Narrative —Towards the Floating Work of Art”, a panorama, or a “panscape” in this case, is “perceived as a world between worlds, where unique aesthetic experiences are possible”. These “panscapes” play an essential role in creating the consistent cinematic experience users encounter through the interactive tour inside the hotel.

Although the transitions to another room are cognitively linear, most of them are nonlinear in their spatial relations. In fact, the software interface has an option to reveal the floor plan of the hotel, which then lets you click and jump to specific rooms on different floors. Gradually, as I navigated through different rooms and met various narrative encounters, I noticed many of the architectural elements, such as doors, windows, stairs, walls, and elevators, were been used as cognitive tools to aid the viewsers to accustom and orient themselves in this foreign virtual reality. For instance, the stairs acted as an index to go up or down (navigational device); the architectural openings such as a window or a door represented some sort of a portal between inside and outside, or an interface between public and private spaces (optical experience). Especially, whenever a window acted as a button, we would immediately know that it would activate an action to look outside. Conceptually, architectural elements were often used to represent continuity of spaces in order to transition naturally from room to room, for example, moving from inside a room to a place somewhere that is outside (doesn’t necessarily have to be directly outside the room).

Once users are out in the periphery of the hotel, the users would instantly feel the apparent change in the atmosphere and the interactive interface itself. A sense of “realness” is heavily integrated in the form of documentary taste interactivity. The users are moved to a bird’s eye view of Los Angeles and are allowed to freely engage in listening to the canny commentaries offered by cultural theorists and historians about the historical and cultural background of the area. Also, by clicking the designated places on the screen, the users are revealed with a screen presenting footages of contemporary everyday lives of people inhabiting the streets of the city, or archival photos of the Hotel Ambassador. The world outside of the hotel disclosed records of memory of a place in a more raw and pure form. A sudden shift from a setting where everything seemed to be a mixture of “real” and “imaginary” to a setting where it exposed its raw document materials was remarkably sensational. In addition to this divergent experience, up to this point, the users were treated as guests inside the Ambassador guided through a tour with diverse interaction of narrative events and historic archives. However, once users are outside the hotel, they become tourists visiting LA. The change in the point of view is evoked by the change in the scale of the view, height, and angle. This experience is similar to when we visit a foreign place for the first time; and, we tend to want to visit the highest point, a tower, a hill, or a skyscraper to gaze down the city as a way to understand the foreign urbanscape. The quick changes of spectatorship, which could happen at any time the user clicks the map button, are very natural and are made possible through the use of the aspect of interactivity.

What is most unique about this interactive project is that the narrative was based on O’Neill’s experimental film,Decaying of Fiction (2002), which was filmed in parallel to the interactive project. Although both the film and the interactive software are made to complement each other to some extent, even if the viewsers were to participate in both of them, they would find their consultation to make sense of the story trivial (Kinder, 2003). This project was successful in constructing cinematic experiences through the convergence of architectural elements and database-structured interactivity. In this case, the cinematic experience is dominantly occupied by the feeling of nostalgia, which is often paired up with the notion of loss (the iconic hotel was soon to be demolished at the time of filming). Through user interaction, the computer screen visualized the subjective, intangible qualities of the abandoned architectural spaces of Hotel Ambassador and the urbanscape of LA. Furthermore, the constant cluttered superimposition of present vs. past and real vs. imaginary heightened the sense of “existential insideness” and caused the dissolution” of the boundary of reality —a decay of fiction. The term “existential insideness” can be referred to as a situation of deep, subconscious immersion in place and an having a sense of belonging to a place (Relph, 1976). The most obvious moment when “existential insideness” (architectural quality) and “database narrative” (interactive component) converged was when a sudden earthquake took control of the interface at a random occasion, and a series of montage images materializes on the screen; the ghost-like figures that I once encountered, the rooms that I once visited were generated into a montage sequence from the database memory. Reuniting once again with the familiar images and settings, it conjured a strong sense of nostalgia —a sense of belonging and loss.

An architect Louis Kahn (1973) stated that “…[W]hen the building is a ruin and free of servitude, the spirit emerges telling the marvel that a building was made”. As long as this interactive software cease to exist, the memories embedded in the ruins of Hotel Ambassador will be remembered. By exposing the users to multiple layers of reality in the form of fiction and nonfiction, this interactive media held an ontological enquiry of “reality” and challenged the users to critically think about the reality we live in. Through this interactive DVD-ROM, I learned that the way we conceive “reality” represented in films could be shaped through the synthesis of architectural elements and database-narrative.

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Works Cited 

1. Dinkla, Soke. “The Art of Narrative — Towards the Floating Work of Art”. 2001.

2. Kahn, Louis. “The Room, the Street and Human Agreement”. In ja+u’s 500th Issue. 2012.

3. Kinder, Marsha. “Designing a Database Cinema”.

4. Relph, Edward. Place and Placelessness. 1976.

5. Tracing the Decay of Fiction: Encounters with a Film (interactive DVD-ROM and museum installation in collaboration with Pat O’Neill, 2000-2002).

The Subversion of Narration:The Discontinuity and Multiple-choice Environment in the Tracing the Decay of Fiction

by Zhaoyu Zhu


:” Users of the DVD-ROM might turn to the film in search of a sequential order or narrative continuity to make the nonlinear story cohere. Conversely, viewers of film might turn to disc to linger in those mysterious spaces that flash only briefly across the movie screen or to consult archival materials possibly able to fill in some of the gaps.”

—- Marsha Kinder

The first impression that the interactive program Tracing the Decay of Fiction gives me is that it replaces the “special feature” documentaries, mostly used to portray the whole production workflow and historical background of the contents in the culture of home entertainment. “Special feature” documentaries are the additional audiovisual materials that spectators cannot view when the film theatrically releases. They reveal the medium specificity of the DVD which can store more than one videos within the memory of a digital disc. However, they mostly conform to the conventional linear narration pattern. Their narration is still based on the chronological basis and production logic.

Conversely, in the Tracing the Decay of Fiction, the generic, normative linearity of the documentary narration is subverted with the discontinuous narration through the interactivity between the users and the software interfaces. It is no longer based the temporal order or the spatial continuity. In terms of the temporality, the film does not provide a structured storytelling or a chronological historical track that most documentaries or fiction films have. There are a large quantity of recordings of oral histories, antiquated analog footage or classic Hollywood film footage, inserted in the most rooms. Although they emphasize the historical significance of the recorded site Ambassador Hotel or the temporal condition of the events which have happened there, the organization of these materials are in an unorderly or random manner, The appearance of some clips depends on the certain rooms which they are linked to. Some clips even appear all of a sudden after a shaking earthquake.

In terms of the spatial structure of the architecture, the film does not show a complete landscape of it. As the floor plan shows, the rooms are pre-selected by the creator. The rooms, linked and edited together in this software, sometimes are not adjacent to each other. This discontinuity causes a problematic visual perception. When the cinematic movement moves from a room to another room, the smooth pan shots gives a clear manifestation of the boundary line of these rooms. Pan shots can be considered as a conventional cinematic technique for the narration within continuity, however, the technique cannot camouflage the spatial discontinuity of the hotel scenarios.

This discontinuous narration is also amplified by the multiple-choice environment of the software itself. Although the software provides a rule for users to explore, to browse, and to interact, the rule is not a temporospatial arrangement which is preset by the creators. Some rules are implicitly carried by the software interface and cursors. After the users’ acknowledgment of the rules, they need to create their methods of application and narration discourses within the scope of interactivity. The users always face multiple-choice questions. In the most rooms of the Tracing the Decay of Fiction, for the users, the multiple-choice environment can be embodied in several questions as follows: Should I move to another room? Should I watch the video stored in this room? Should I jump to the map of the surrounding area of the hotel? Should I open the floor plan to jump to another room? These questions do not contain all the possible questions that the users encounter when they enter a room. Moreover, some questions can produce another multiple-choice question. For example, when the user wants to move into another room, he will have four choices: upstairs, downstairs, left or right.

In conclusion, the interactive documentary DVD-ROM provides a subversively discontinuous narration pattern that most conventional documentary films do not have. This pattern can be considered as the result of the interactive potentials that the creator makes full use of within the digital DVD-ROM media. From the example of the Tracing the Decay of Fiction, the interactivity provides many multiple-choice environments. The users’ responses to these environments deepen their impressions of the discontinuity of narration during the course of using the DVD-ROM software.

Cites Quoted:

Kinder, Marsha. “Designing a Database Cinema”.

Discuss on Tracing the decay of fiction: Encounters with a film by Pat O’Neill

by Babejide Olusola


Considering the views as regard this interactive medium been an interactive film or interactive installation; Tracing the decay of fiction: Encounters with a film is an interactive installation, rather different from it primary source- The decay of film, which is more or less an interactive film for the cinema. This interactive installation(as i prefer to call it), conveys a dynamic form of narrative, bringing together shots of different classic Hollywood films-which are particularly not related-to give an account of the decaying elements of the closed Ambassadors Hotel.

Different from the other interactive installation, it uses a rather different type of narrative.The narrative structure is in two folds:

  • Fiction- This consist of actions(events) that took place within the Ambassador Hotel and the fictionalized characters in which the narrative evolves around. The interactive installation deploys a style of ghost-like feature, creating a convergence between reality and hallucination in the mind of the interactor. This distinct style guides the interactors’ consciousness through the narrative to know that the events taking place during the course of the interactive installation are not of present time, but are placed in the present.
  • Non-fiction- This involves the Ambassador Hotel  building, the footage of Robert F. Kennedy speech/audio footage of his assassination, Live footage of LA, audio footage of views from archaeologists/historians, comments from witnesses.

Since, the framework of the narrative is built on the history of the locale, at some point there was a merge between fiction and nonfiction. That is, in a bid to actualize realistic content of the story, real event are placed side by side with the fictionalized events in order to have a concrete narrative. O’Neill uses outside view of the Ambassadors Hotel, the surrounding, Live footage of the street of LA, audio footage of views from archaeologists/historians on matters as regards the Ambassadors hotel-the reason for it construction-historic events focusing on “life in LA”, and comments from witnesses to create a sense of realism to the entirety of the story.

In this interactive installation, the interactivity experience varies from person to person. It is structured to give a random experience to the interactors. This allows the interactor to create his/her storyboard from segment to segment. That is, there isn’t any standard structure to the  story. The placement/arrangement of events changes as interactor change.  Therefore, the story is constructed in the consciousness of the interactor. As the interactor ventures through the Ambassador Hotel, he/she feels more like a guest, but when the navigation goes outside the Hotel, the interactor seems to be a tourist. Also, there isn’t any form of recurrence of characters during the course of the interactive installation.

The interface of each segment has distinctive features that lead to event(s). The interactor also has access to survey the interactive space through panning, which sometimes leads to an event(s). During the navigation of the installation, at some point, the system takes over the user’s control-which shows the limitation in navigation. So also, random montage sequence are drawn from the database. This installation uses a great deal of cinematic camera movement.