Lies and transcendence

When the sound of the demolition party in the apartment building where we lived perished in the summer of 1997, Ståle Stenslie and I began playing with the idea of creating an installation together. One year later the Norwegian Cultural Council announced a contest with the theme "Virtual reality and traditional artistic forms of expression" and we decided to submit a proposal.

Ståle’s original idea was to create a synesthetic installation based on Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt, that is to say an installation where the various parts; sound, music, text, computer-generated landscapes and physical sensory experience, would merge into a larger entity, a form of multi-medial gesamtkunstwerk. In this way, an actual leap, which in Ibsen's text is presented as a lie, might be made possible, or at least investigated. This was a fascinating idea, but I felt that we had to expand the installation’s material to include Edvard Grieg's sugary and national romantic music composed to the play. With these two starting points, Ibsen's text and Edvard Grieg’s music, we sent a proposal together with the programmer Karl Anders Øygard, and won the contest in the summer of 1998.

The preparation of the team and the concept started in late summer, and the various elements that constituted the installation gradually began to crystallize; a mechanical buck simulator, an electronic landscape painting representing the mountains around Besseggen, a poetry generator, and finally an immersive soundscape based on Grieg's music. These different elements would ideally merge into a unified sensory experience.

The installation opened at Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo in spring 1999, and at the centre of the installation stood the mechanical buck simulator. With this buck the user could navigate around in the electronic landscape painting that represented the mountains around Besseggen, climb Besseggen and make the leap over the edge. At the same time, the user generated new texts projected behind his back. Surrounding the entire installation was an immersive three-dimensional sound sphere projected over loudspeakers arranged in a cubic shape. Inside this sphere one were surrounded by sound based on continuous re-compositions of Grieg's music.

The Buck ride
The installation The Leap was thus based on Ibsen and Grieg's Peer Gynt. Ibsen's dramatic poem Peer Gynt is a critical story where the main character after a long journey is set in an existential crisis. Grieg's music for Peer Gynt, however, is written entirely in line with the national romantic musical tradition, and it may seem as if it's in sharp contrast to Ibsen's critical work.

The Leap uses the preliminary pages of Ibsen's text as material, the so-called buck ride. Peer Gynt begins with this lie, and the lie is in many ways the core of the drama. It is this lie that is used as material for the entire installation. The buck ride, which ends in a leap, is widely known as a lie, but in the installation you carry out both the buck ride and the leap yourself. The user assumes Peer’s identity and the lie changes its character.

Ibsen and Grieg
Ibsen's dramatic poem Peer Gynt is a multifaceted and complex work, and contains at the same time, descriptions of folk life, poetic dreams, philosophical meditation, social criticism, satire, tragedy and comedy. The play contains elements of romantic fairytale characters and rural environment, at the same time as it is imbued with a critical attitude towards the national romantic symbols and Norwegian complacency. The work is a classic story where the main character after a long journey and many years of emptiness, is set in an existential crisis with a possible way out. At the same time, the story is about a dissolute, comic person's life where the scenes are closer to comedy than existentialism.

The complex character makes the drama enjoyable on several simultaneous levels, and it is perhaps precisely this that is one of the keys to the play's success. When the book "The Norwegian literary canon" was launched in 2007, it was not surprising that Peer Gynt was described as a "Kanon im Kanon" - that is, the Norwegian literary canons very core. But Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt and his other main works in exile during his 27 years long residence abroad. At the same time as Peer Gynt can be seen as the very definition of the Norwegian, the piece is also a harsh criticism of the conceited Norwegian, the characterless egoist. On the other hand, viewed from another perspective; if one peels off one more layer as Peer does himself one can just as well say that it is a harsh criticism of the self-righteous and characterless human.

Seven years after the closet drama Peer Gynt was written, Ibsen was determined to create a stage version, and Grieg was in many ways the natural choice as a composer. Grieg's music for Peer Gynt may seem spineless compared to Ibsen's critical work, but Grieg himself, however, felt that he had written deeply satirical music. As he says in a contemporary letter:

I await that the irony will be felt.2

When this layer of meaning has subsequently been lost, it may have something to do with the national romantic tonal language. Although the National Romantic style seems perfect for ironizing on the smug Norwegianness, this does not appear to great extent in Grieg’s music. It might be difficult to ironize on the Norwegian in a musical language that to such a degree is being perceived as the essence of the Norwegian.

The lie is introduced
Peer Gynt is a comprehensive work and the installation The Leap uses the initial buck ride as its material. The drama begins with a lie where the main character tells a story to his mother about how he rode up Besseggen on a buck and then made a leap right off the rock wall. His mother, who herself has also used imagination and storytelling as a way to manage life with her son, is partially carried away by the amazing story while at the same time being filled with contempt for her lying son. However it is precisely these lies that Peer use in order to master his own life. It is these lies that provide Peer with opportunities, and take him out in the world, and it is these lies that lead to Peers fall towards the end of the piece. In many ways this initial story works like a Mise-en-abîme, that is a story within the story, one that is reflected throughout the entire drama. Peers initial lie becomes defining for the entire drama, and it is also this lie that is used as the main material for the entire installation.

A more profound lie
So the buck ride is commonly known as a lie, but in the installation you carry out both the buck ride and the leap yourself and thus experience that Peer is not a liar in the ordinary sense. You write the story yourself. The user enters the buck, manoeuvres it up Besseggen and hurtles off the rock wall. The choices you make become decisive for the story. But even if the buck ride now has been realized, one is not to say that it is no longer unreal. The realization of the lie has also revealed a more profound, deeper lie. For this new real leap is only possible within the installation's fiction in the same way as the character Peer’s actions are only possible in Ibsen's text. The installation's fictional world is made up of four basic elements: sensory experience, text, sound and image, and this fiction is just another layer of lies.

Realized and un-realized
While Peer masters the world through the lie, the installation expresses how we master the world through realization. Although one should ideally become totally at one with the illusion of the installation, this realization will always be a constructed, artificial world. Since the ride and the leap is obviously an illusion, it is also obvious that this realization is an un-realization. We realize, of course, that we are not riding a reindeer buck through Jotunheimen, but on the contrary are safely placed in an art installation at an art gallery. Through this unrealization we have revealed a deeper untruth, and in this way we can, just as Peer Gynt does, peel off layer after layer, go deeper and deeper towards a possible or impossible – non-existing core. Everything just becomes preliminary drafts of reality. Or lies.

In the installation there is no difference between what Peer says and what is real. Peer speaks the truth in the sense that the buck ride itself is realized. But even if the leap is apparently real, it takes place within the unreal. Only in the installations reality and truth, is this possible. Within the premises of the tall tale, the lie is true; only in the fictional world constructed with the installation's four basic elements, is this a truth.

In The leap we enter a dialogue with this unreality. For even though the buck ride is portrayed as a lie in Ibsen's text while the characters are portrayed as real, one enters a discourse with the realized buck ride in the installation, now appearing as unreal.

Utopian and open
This unreality is created by the installation's basic elements. Through the rider's choice, new routes are constantly being created through the area around Gjende in Jotunheimen, and these choices constantly create new variants, mutations and combinations of the basic elements.

But if the basic elements are constantly changing, are they then real or un-realized? The Leap is certainly no longer a work in the traditional sense, with a beginning and an end. The installation is a large information system, and the road that the rider takes through the landscape creates unique stories for each rider. This ties the installation to a long tradition of open works from the French 19th century poet Mallarmé's utopian and open text Le Livre to John Cage's open compositions from the 1950s onwards. The artist's authority and fingerprints are ideally wiped out, and the installation as a traditional artwork is unrealized. We uncover a new layer of unreality, and penetrate deeper into the nature of the work.

In traditional forms of expression such as literature, it is first in the meeting with the reader that the work is really realized, that the work is created. But in the installation the very basic elements are changed by the user. At the same time this freedom is unreal, because the freedom is not complete. Just as in a game of chess there is no infinite number of possibilities, there are only very many of them. And just like in a game there are rules. These rules define the boundaries of what is possible within the installation's reality, and this defines the limits of what stories the rider can create on his journey through the mountains. Once again, the realization is unrealized.

Starting with the installation's realization of the buck ride, Peer speaks the truth. But with this realization, he is also trapped in the installation's own reality, he is caught in the untrue. Peer is thus guilty of untruths, and no matter what paths he chooses over Besseggen he can not choose to get away from this guilt. In the installation the user experience the untrue aspects of the buck ride. The user enters Peers role and changes identity. But by performing the buck ride the user shows that Peer’s lie is not primarily a story about the unreal. The lie appears as possible, but at the same time un-realized and made possible only within the installation's fictional world, within the rules of the game.

Immanent un-freedom, lies and transcendence
In Ibsen's text the buck ride is revealed as a lie, something that has not happened. But it is precisely the lie that makes it possible for Peer to transcend his own destiny, and it is through the lie, that he breaks away from what he is. In the installation, Peer’s leap is made into an event. But in the installations realization there is no clear end to the buck ride in the same way as in Ibsen's text. In Ibsen's text the buck ride ends with it being exposed as a lie, while the installation's story has no ending. The realization of the buck ride is continuous repetitive and ambiguous, and has many alternative routes. In the installation, one is too busy dealing with the buck ride over Besseggen to see the writing behind ones back or to reflect on the story being created. Just as in everyday life, the leap is already done and you are trapped in the immanent un-freedom of the leap.

Half Ibsenian buck, half dystopian machine
The installation's reality is thus woven together by a fabric which itself is unreal. Within this unreal reality, the illusion about the buck ride can take place. The materials of the installation are not stories in the traditional sense, but an unrealized general information system where the rider's choice creates the installation's basic elements. However this freedom is not total. As in a game, the number of possibilities is not endless, and there are rules that define the boundaries of what is possible within the fiction of the installation. There are limits to what stories the rider can generate on his way through the mountains. Much of the artistic work in the installation consisted precisely in defining these limits, systems, rules and components. And in the centre of the installation's components were the mechanical buck.

In the centre of the installation were the mechanical buck.

It was important that the illusion of the buck ride was as credible as possible. Admittedly, the study of the different layers of lies, realizations, reality and unreality was the basic ideas of the installation, but to achieve this experience it was also important to enable the user  to be completely seduced. Through a complete physical experience, the rider was to experience on his own body that the leap was carried out, and the rider, the buck, and the work should merge into one. Jumping off a cliff is an intense, physical experience and this experience could not be created with ordinary techniques. In order to create this intense physical experience, we built a hybrid of reindeer buck and machine. A cybernetic Frankenstein, half Ibsenian buck and half dystopian machine.

Through the handling of the buck the user writes new stories on his journey through the mountains, and in the physical interface an element of carnival and amusement park obviously enters. The installation is related to both rodeo simulators and cinemas with hydraulic moving floors, but where the aim of the amusement park's roller-coaster rides has always been to provide a sensory escapism, the installations reindeer simulator had a different goal. Through the simulator, the rider could choose his way through the landscape and thus create his own story. At the same time the landscape gave an intensive physical feedback of its character back to the buck and the rider, from flat, smooth plains through the sharp, steep climbs to the free fall. This amusement park element of the installation may appear as  superficial, but it is only through the handling of the buck that the users experiences are merged with the installation. The user goes from being a spectator to become a participant and teller of his own stories.

Electronic landscape painting
So the rider physically orients himself around the landscape through interacting with the buck, but the landscape itself, the very visual experience, takes place on a large electronic landscape painting that covers the entire field of vision.

The electronic landscape painting attempts to recreate the mountains in Jotunheimen around Besseggen, starting down by the water Gjende. Surrounded by mountains on both sides, we can see Besseggen rising dark and threatening at the end of the horizon. A wide panoramic image with Gjende in the foreground, Besseggen surrounded by clouds, and a partially ice-covered and barren surrounding mountain landscape creates associations to classic Norwegian national romantic landscape paintings like Hans Fredrik Gudes Høifjæld.

Hans Fredrik Gude: Høifjæld (1857)

The electronic landscape painting attempts to depicts the mountains in Jotunheimen around Besseggen and creates associations with classic Norwegian national romantic landscape paintings like Gudes Høifjæld.

But whereas the classical landscape painting and landscape photography seeks to depict the landscape, the installations electronic landscape painting goes one step further. Here we made a direct casting of the landscape. Using terrain data we were able to create an exact three-dimensional model of the relevant area and in this way making the illusion and the immersive experience even more credible.

We made a direct casting of the landscape by creating an exact three-dimensional model of the relevant area using terrain data.

Since the installation opened in 1999, this form of electronic landscape paintings has been obtaining an ever-increasing role in popular culture. From the computer game's complete online communities to Hollywood's monumental imaginary landscapes, the digital landscape painting pervades modern popular expression. The means of the 19th century is highly seductive and effective and it is not surprising that it is precisely this romantic aesthetics that is embraced by Hollywood. But in contrast to the entertainment industry's alchemical mix of escapism and economic structures, we applied these means to use in the installation for critical examinations of aspects such as lies, realization and unrealization.

The 19th century landscape painting was also an idea-based form of art. With the diminishing authority of religious painting, landscape painting achieved a higher status, and was regarded as a spiritual activity. In landscape painting nature was attributed symbolic meanings while the painting also reflected19th century man's desire to master nature. At the same time, it was closely linked to national romanticism, and national romanticism was central to a young nation like Norway. In the search for a national culture in Norway one embraced National Romanticism, even though strictly speaking, the movement was deeply German in its nature. The National Romantic’s basic idea of a nation's sovereign volk connected with other contemporary political currents certainly later turned out to be an explosive mixture in both Germany and Norway. In Norway, the ties to Germany were anyway strong to begin with, and both Ibsen and Grieg as well as the landscape painters Tidemann and Gude had their education, residence and audience in Germany.

But where it has been customary to link the national romantic landscape painting’s size with the desire to display national greatness, the large format plays a different role in the installation's electronic version. The combination of the electronic landscape painting’s large dimensions, the buck’s physical presence and the surrounding sound sphere, makes the rider merge with the installation. And it is in this all-immersive landscape that the rider chooses his routes and writes his stories.

In a Chinese picture2 from the 1100's, we meet landscape art in the form of a narrative. The picture that is painted on a long scroll, reads from right to left, and ends as the Emperor boards his yacht. Similarly, the installation's electronic landscape painting is also a narration. Here the rider choose a route and creates his own story. At the same time, the rules of the game are also taking part in creating the story. The freedom only appears as freedom, and although the rider can choose his own path through the landscape, the buck will certainly draw him up Besseggen, beyond the rock wall and toss against his own reflection in the water at the end. Just as in Ibsen's text. And just as in the Chinese scroll there are some paths through the landscape that is more likely than others.

The various elements of the installation are tightly woven together, and the rider's journey through the landscape creates new texts behind the rider's back. National Romanticism was closely linked to linguistic identity, folklore collections and mythology, and in the Asian landscape art the image was directly linked to the text. The artist in the Asian landscape art was often a poet, and landscapes and calligraphy were often placed side by side in the same picture. Similarly, the installation's landscape is also linked to the text. Through Ibsen it has a textual origin as the rider, on his way through the landscape, creates new texts behind his back.

Liquid text
But just like the mechanical buck and the electronic landscape painting, the text also had defined limits. The installation was an open work, and the rider's way through the landscape was supposed to continuously make new stories while revealing new layers in the realization. This should also materialize in the text. The material for the new texts was Ibsen's original text about the buck ride and the interface for writing these texts was the rider's handling of the buck. Behind all of this there would have to be a system, an intelligence that could interpret the rider's signals while understanding the significance of the text material.

Ibsen's original text about the buck ride is a complex web of different elements. The starting point is Asbjørnsen and Moe’s two stories about the buck ride and Peer Gynt that Ibsen has merged together into one event. This was oral narratives that existed in many different versions, and that in the oral tradition has been interwoven in different ways. This was also a point in Ibsen's own text, where Peer's mother recognizes the story of the buck ride from another story, and thereby reveals one of Peer's many lies. The story was, therefore, initially in a liquid state, and in the installation's version it is made even more flexible.

Thinking machines
The material for the new texts in The Leap is Ibsen's original text, and to create new texts from this there had to exist an underlying poetic system. One possible way to achieve this was to look at existing systems from fields such as artificial intelligence, artificial creativity, and natural language generation. The idea of thinking machines already exists in Greek mythology, but it was only with the computer's emergence and the Cold War that this idea would become a reality. Like many other technologies, artificial intelligence also has strong military ties, and research on artificial intelligence was until the middle of the 1960s heavily sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense. The possibility of accurate analysis of information was of great intelligence value. To simulate the human brain, however, proved more difficult than one initially thought, and it was only with the increased computational power of computers in the 90s that artificial intelligence became widespread in systems such as computer games, search engines, trading and medical diagnostics.

Poetry Generator
So we wanted to use logical systems to re-create new stories based on Ibsen's text, we wanted to create a so-called poetry generator. Intelligence is one thing but the system also had to be creative, have a sense of language and to be able to express itself poetically. Systems for artificial creativity must be able to think creatively, choosing unpredictable and inspired solutions. A poetry generator must have an understanding of language, it must "understand" the importance of the various elements.

In a typical model for a poetry generator one starts out with a database of existing text. The text in the database must be understood by the system, e.g. through descriptions of each text fragment. Then, the poetry generator must contain rules in order to put the fragments together in well-formed poetic ways. It goes with the story that almost all experiments with this form of generated artistic expressions are unsuccessful. Whether it's folk songs, sonnets, pulp fiction or visual art that has been generated, there's always something missing even though the formal aspects seems to be correct. The creative process is still too complex to be simulated in a satisfying way.

In the case of the installation it was different. We did not want to produce a simulation of a familiar form, but rather to create a new form of expression through this type of generated text. We defined our own borders and our own creativity, and the algorithms for text generation represented a creative element in itself. The starting point was a database of fragments from Ibsen's text about the buck ride. The Rider's path through the landscape also chose which text fragments that would be selected and how they should be combined. The chance aspects of the algorithm often produced absurd short texts with a haiku-like character. In addition, the text had a three-dimensional, sculptural quality. One could at the same time see several layers of text and meaning inwards in the text landscape, and this landscape was in a constant plastic state of change.

The text had a three-dimensional, sculptural quality, and one could at the same time read several layers of text and meaning.

Grieg's sugary music
The buck, the mountain scenery and the text were thus in constant dialogue with the user, and this plastic state of change was also present in the sound. The installation had two starting points, Ibsen's text and Edvard Grieg’s music. When Ibsen eventually decided to create a stage version with music, Grieg was chosen to write the music, and both Grieg and Ibsen related to the theatrical tradition in Norway which was based on operettas and light musical plays.

Compared to Ibsen's critical and existential work, Grieg's music can seem romantic and idyllic, and as it is said in a post-war Norwegian critique: Peer Gynt is in fact not an idyllic Gala play as Grieg's romantic music makes us believe.[...] Grieg's music is sugary, Ibsen's text is biting.3 Grieg's music is written in the Norwegian contemporary national romantic and sugary musical style. It is as if the music is there to sweeten Ibsen's bitter pill. But Grieg himself said, however, that the music was written as a deeply ironic satire and in a letter to his friend Frants Beyer, he writes: And I have done Something for In the Hall of the Mountain King which I literally can not bear to hear, thus it sounds of cow dung, of Norwegian Norwegianness and self conceit! But I await that the irony will be felt.4

Grieg had thus composed ironizing about the Norwegian. Music that would stink of cow dung and self conceited Norwegians. The music was so repulsive that he could not bear to hear it, and contained an irony that would be felt by everyone. In the Hall of the Mountain King, is perhaps the most recognizable piece of classical Norwegian music through the ages, and has become a symbol of the Norwegian national romanticism, was thus ironically intended. Here, Grieg had smeared on with such thick layers of national symbols that everyone should get the satire.

This layer of meaning seems to have been lost. The national romantic tonal language has become a symbol of the self-righteous Norwegianness to such an extent that this dimension has had a limited reach to listeners of our time. Maybe the 19th century contemporary audience perceived it differently, but in our time Grieg's music is as canonized Norwegian just as the cross country skiers, folk costumes, fjords and mountains. It is difficult to ironize on the Norwegian in a musical language that to such a degree is the Norwegian.

The transformation of the national-romantic sound world
The original idea was that we should use Grieg's Peer Gynt music as a base for the sound in the installation, but transform this national romantic sound world into a more critical and investigative reading of Ibsen's text.

Early prototypes of the installation also used concrete sound sources to construct a sound more akin to sound design for film. In this way the simulation of the mountain landscape would become even more realistic. But it turned out that Grieg's orchestral music had more than enough audio material for the entire installation. Another idea that was experimented with at an early stage, was to take different parts of Grieg's orchestral music, re-compose and extend it, and then record it with an orchestra once more. In this way, the different parts of the orchestral music would more easily be incorporated into the installation's sound world. This proved unnecessary, however, and we ended up using sound recordings of the orchestral music as the only source, and processing of the recordings as the compositional technique.

The complete incidental music to Peer Gynt has a duration of almost one and a half hours, and from this vast material we edited a collection of sounds that constituted the installation's basic material. This was everything from simple triangle strikes, through string timbre to big orchestral outbursts. The material was then analyzed in the frequency domain to study the timbral aspects so that specific parts of the sound could be extracted for further processing. Then the sound was processed in the time domain. Here the different parts of the sound was combined with each other, from small components lasting only a few milliseconds, to longer pieces of audio with a few seconds duration.

Central was also the simulation of three-dimensional sound space. Technological advances in the late 90’s made it possible to realize this in real time, and we built a three-dimensional sound sphere surrounding the entire installation. In this audio space it was possible to place sound sources horizontally and vertically, as well as vary the distance to the rider. All aspects of the sound were controlled by the rider's choices riding through the mountains. The choices brought the rider to different parts of the landscape, and the choices had an immediate effect both on the music, text, landscape and buck.

A synesthetic experience
As mentioned earlier, it was central to the installation The Leap that the different elements - the buck, the poetry generator, the landscape and the sound - should merge into a synesthetic experience. In this way, the different parts could reinforce each other, and thus reveal the world of ideas that the installation wanted to explore, be it lies, reality, realization and unrealization.

The installation outside the National Theatre in Oslo during the Ibsen Festival in autumn 2000.

The synesthetic experience had a strong presence both in the version that was showed at Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo in spring 1999, and in the other version that was projected on the front of the National Theatre during the Ibsen Festival in Oslo in autumn 2000. Some of the origins of the installation’s immediacy, was perhaps the fundamental idea. The interface was simple and direct, the basic material was limited, and so was the thematics.

The concurrence between the late romantic expression and the digital techniques were striking, there was no obvious contradiction between the 19th Century gesamtkunstverk and our digital synesthetic experience. The megalomania proved to be timeless.


1 Finn Benestad and Bjarne Kortsen (ed.), Edvard Grieg, Brev til Frants Beyer 1872-1907 (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget 1993) p. 22

2 The picture in question is "Along the River During Qingming Festival" by the Chinese artist Zhang Zeduan.

3 Hans Heiberg in Carl Henrik Grøndahls, Mannen Peer Gynt (Oslo, Dyade 1997)

4 Finn Benestad and Bjarne Kortsen (ed.), Edvard Grieg, Brev til Frants Beyer 1872-1907 (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget 1993) p. 22

 
 


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