The Erl King and its Digital Emulation

Parts of this essay will be published in 2011 in Marsha Kinder and Tara McPherson (eds.), Interactive Frictions, forthcoming from the University of California Press.

Roberta Friedman and I produced The Erl King between 1983 and 1986. It is composed of a cinematic database of material connected to two 19th century Romantic narrative texts: Goethe's Erlkoenig, including the lied set to music by Schubert, and The Burning Child Dream as described by Freud in the last chapter of The Interpretation of Dreams. The two stories are each enacted on film in several different ways and together they form the foundation of the work. We collected and concocted every possible association with the two texts we could imagine, no matter how mundane or arcane, both from their own historical periods and from aspects of the way we realized them on film, and found ways to picture these associative materials cinematically. For example, the Schubert lied, sung by Elizabeth Arnold, was filmed in a studio filled with potted palm trees. Consequently palm trees became a major theme of the piece, not only in natural environments and in botanical greenhouses, but also as printed on Hawaiian shirts. After spray-painting the lines of Goethe's poem as graffiti on abandoned cars, we took up cars as a theme, especially damaged or disfunctional examples: we filmed stock car racing and trips along crowded city thoroughfares. Erkoenig mentions "wild flowers blooming on a river bank" in one verse, so we filmed silk tulips being inserted in the muddy banks of New York's East river as well as pink rhodendra, reflecting like blood in a muddy brook in the Botanical Gardens. We also researched Goethe's sources in Danish folktale, and filmed stories of Sir Olaf and the siren-like fairies both narrated and enacted. There is much more, but this was the general iconoclastic approach. About two hours of film and still images were transferred to tape, and from tape to three laser discs sides. With the help of Jon Weinbren and Stephen Bannasch, we developed a computer program to organize, address, and access the cinematic materials by communicating serially with laser disc players, eventually enabling the viewer to explore the database by means of a touch screen. Touching the screen at any moment brings up a new image, sound, or film-segment, connected by association to the image touched, and always matched in such a way that there is some kind of cinematic continuity. The experience of The Erl King is like wandering through a landscape where one can collect fragments of stories which one is able, after a while, to knit together into a coherent narrative cloth.

In 2003, John Hanhardt and Jon Ippolito, curators at the Guggenheim Museum, proposed employing The Erl King as a test case for the concept of media art preservation that the museum had developed. The key term in their “Variable Media Program” is emulation, the idea being that physical devices are emulated in the form of software structures independent of specific manufacturers or technologies. The supposition is that specific technologies, both hardware and software, will become obsolete because of both advances in technology and the requirements of the market-driven economy. However, eliminating all products is far from straightforward and may not be possible, since software development packages require operating systems (which are usually proprietary), and tend to exploit the attributes of specific chips and other hardware. But emulation of hardware on open source software is an ideal that the Variable Media Initiative is committed to pursuing, despite (or possibly because of) the pursuit’s utopian underpinnings. And naturally it was a program I was thrilled to participate in, since the hardware that The Erl King depended on was twenty years old and had been off the market for almost as long.

The project was to reconstruct The Erl King as software on a single computer—replacing physical video players, switchers, and other hardware devices with data files accompanied by supporting software to access the data and present it as motion images on screen. The programmer Isaac Dimitrovsky developed a scheme in which the original Erl King “limosine” source code was installed on a contemporary computer and interpreted line-by-line by a program written in the Java programming language. Video frames are encoded as images, which are presented on screen, 24 per second, in a simulation of cinema. Contemporary CPUs and data busses are at last fast enough to handle video in a way parallel to laser video disc technology. Since each frame is individually encoded, access to it is random, but now the frames are digital data, each frame a single image file, rather than a set of variable physical pits engraved in a groove of a twelve inch disc. And since access to files on a hard drive is almost instantaneous, the worst-case one second delay of the video disc player is eliminated.

However, this apparent advantage of minimal access time turned out to be somewhat of a liability. In developing The Erl King, we were very much aware of the inherent lags and hesitations of the system, the friction and slippages caused by the physics of real world gears and bearings. Like the prized delay between pressing a key and hearing the note in church pipe organs, these infelicities became something we exploited as the piece developed. The timings and rhythms of the video flow depend on the ‘grain’ of the system. The physical limitations of the components of the early 80s were embedded in the program of The Erl King to such an extent that they became determinants of the way it produced meaning.

But the very first version of the emulated Erl King had no delays. When I touched the screen, the upcoming video appeared and began playing immediately. It was so fast that one could not believe that one’s action had had an effect on the system, and the power and complexity of the piece dissolved into an arbitrary porridge with no distinction between viewer-caused changes and those built in. Isaac Dimitrovsky painstakingly worked on replicating, in computer code, exactly the right balance of delays and pauses, distinguishing between those caused by disc search time (which depend on the distance the focusing head has to travel to find the requested frame), and the time required for the computer to communicate with the laser disc players and the touch screen.

It is an irony that, in order for the emulation to retain a meaning that had a relationship to the original, the very limitations of the original had to be reproduced by software, effectively making the 2004 system appear less efficient, and undercutting some of the advantages and potential of the update.

There is a way that this point can be generalized. Timothy Binkley argues strenuously that the computer is not a medium or tool, by which he means that it does not have inherent characteristics that can be explored and exposed in kind of modernist gesture. The computer is a chameleon, the universal tool whose qualities can be defined and redefined from project to project and from use to use. The granularities that we depended on so heavily for The Erl King are material properties of film, video, and the laser disc player. When everything becomes software, qualities are indeterminate, undefined until fixed by code. This is simultaneously the liberation and the burden of computer-based art.


Another way of describing the double-edge, the shackles and freedoms simultaneously generated in the conversion to Digital, is in the understanding that the notion of the final or autograph text is an anachronism. Digital technologies facilitate change in places and at stages of production where previously it was highly problematic and consequently exorbitantly expensive. Even after a text has been printed, editorial changes are easily managed, movable type being a long outdated technology, replaced by digital plates output at the touch of a key. Zizek has pointed out that there is no longer such a thing as a ‘master’ text. I may be disappointed in my hope and assumption that this is the master version of this essay.

My interest in interactivity is tied to the notion that flux is among the few defining characteristics of the digital. I am seeking a cinema that encompasses variability while retaining cinematic power, a cinema based first on random access to its atomic elements, and now on their digitization. The ironic aspect of the ‘digital emulation’ of The Erl King is that its digitization undercuts its aura (in the Benjaminian sense of signs of the artist’s labor ‘marking’ the medium). Qualities that were inherent to the base media can be peeled away when the base media are no more than simulations, so that these qualities have to be replicated piece by piece, rather than worked with and against as currents or resistances in a physical world. There are no qualities inherent to the digital: the interplay between artist’s desire and friction-encumbered media vanishes when every friction and abrasion is deliberately determined, placed there by the artist.

One component of The Erl King was digital from the beginning. This is the routing dataset that defines the possible paths through the audio-video streams. Each time the piece was exhibited, we would revise and add to the navigation database, using the authoring component of the software. Thus, not only did no two viewers ever see exactly the same sequence of images, each exhibition (considered as the sum total of all possible paths through the audio-visual database) was a different version of the piece. However, the cinematic material, imprinted on the set of laser discs, remained the same throughout the multiple iterations.

Now that the cinematic database is digital, it can also be effortlessly added to or subtracted from. It is as simple to add an image or a sequence to the database as to change a pathway through the database, using exactly the same data management techniques. Why would an artist not improve a piece in any way he could if it was about to be exhibited again? Digital emulation has disturbed the foundations. The piece can evolve like a city, until an archaeological study would be required to reconstruct the original, through traces unearthed; except that, unlike the physical world, changes of digital data leave few remains. Had The Erl King been produced as a 100% digital work (impossible in 1983), the idea of the an original would be meaningless. Only the physical videodisc media, encoded with images and sounds, anchor the work. The Erl King, Sonata (1991/93), and Frames (1999) may be the last interactive cinema works of mine for which the notion of an original is tenable. From now on, there will be only versions.

I plan to move on. But at the same time I constantly look back. In life we can look back in anger or regret or satisfaction, we can misremember or lie to ourselves based on our desires or our fears, but we cannot alter the past. However, when we enter the realm of the digital, change will always be an option, removed only when data is burned, encoded, imprinted, etched, painted, chipped, engraved, cut, carved, or bitten into a non-reversible medium.