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Turning Viewers Into Storytellers

The Labyrinth Project’s multilayered “Three Winters in the Sun: Einstein in California,” a portrait of Albert Einstein during his three winter terms (1931 to 1933) at Caltech, shows at L.A.’s Skirball Cultural Center through May 29, 2005.

USC’s Labyrinth Project has hit the museum circuit in a big way this fall, as three of its interactive installations open back-to-back in museums across Los Angeles.

With venues and themes running the gamut � from a multilayered portrait of Albert Einstein at the Skirball Cultural Center to ghostly encounters with history in the Ambassador Hotel at the Santa Monica Museum � Labyrinth has embarked on an unprecedented series of simultaneous showings.

“The Labyrinth Project is the only art collective based in an American university that has this kind of exhibition history,” said founding director Marsha Kinder, a professor of critical studies in the School of Cinema-Television and a USC University Professor.

This fall’s offerings join a string of Labyrinth works that over the past five years have premiered at festivals and academic conferences worldwide � in Germany, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Finland, Mexico, Australia, Japan and China.

The offerings have garnered major awards � a Jury Prize for “New Narrative Forms” at Sundance, a British Academy Award for best interactive project and a NewMedia Invision Award for best overall design.

As a research initiative on interactive narrative at the Annenberg Center, Labyrinth creates individual works that differ dramatically in visual style and emotional impact, but their overall objective remains constant: to make users active participants in generating stories.

“All of our works contain a network of story fragments from history and fiction that users remix in a variety of ways,” Kinder said.

Skirball visitors perform this remix as they explore “Three Winters in the Sun: Einstein in California,” a portrait of Albert Einstein during his three winter terms (1931 to 1933) at Caltech.

Using this period as a lens, the installation highlights paradoxes in Einstein’s meanings as a cultural icon and in his interactions with six different communities.

Visitors navigate through six streams of light, each filled with particles containing narrative fragments from newsreels, interviews, love letters, unpublished diaries, film clips, photographs and animations.

“Our design was inspired by Einstein’s theories,” said project director Kristy H.A. Kang. “The interface evokes Einstein’s expansive radiation, which reaches out into the universe and shapes how we perceive it,” added interface designer Andreas Kratky.

“Capitalizing on USC’s unique strengths in interdisciplinary collaborations and communications technology, the Labyrinth installation provides illuminating insights into the life of Einstein the man, as well as the remarkable legacy of Einstein the scientist,” said President Steven B. Sample, who spoke at the Sept. 13 Skirball opening.

The installation runs through May 29. The DVD-ROM will go on sale in December.

On Oct. 8, Labyrinth premiered its newest creation, “Cultivating Pasadena: From Roses to Redevelopment,” at the Pasadena Museum of California Art.

Co-produced with the Automobile Club of Southern California, the exhibit features 25 archival photographs of unique sites in Pasadena, each paired with a contemporary “re-photograph” of the same location taken by Rosemary Comella, Labyrinth’s creative director on the project.

“Re-photography is an idiosyncratic way of getting to know a locale, like playing detective or archaeologist,” Comella said. “Each pair generates stories.”

An accompanying interactive installation, also designed by Comella, enables visitors to move fluidly between each pair of images, and to enrich these comparisons with oral histories, maps and additional archival materials. It shows how urban communities negotiate two conflicting desires: to retain their unique history and keep pace with changing times.

The Pasadena Museum of California Art show, which runs until Feb. 12, is documented in a print catalogue and a DVD-ROM, to be released in December.

These Labyrinth efforts build on their earlier database documentaries created in collaboration with independent artists. Among the earlier works is “Tracing the Decay of Fiction,” a multiple-screen installation based on a film by Pat O’Neill. This piece currently is part of the O’Neill retrospective, “Views From Lookout Mountain,” at the Santa Monica Museum of Art through Nov. 13.

Labyrinth is also designing new teaching models with seed money from the provost’s office. Their e-learning courseware, “Russian Modernism and Its International Dimensions,” interweaves three primary components: an on-line archive featuring materials from USC’s Institute of Modern Russian Culture; interactive lectures by leading Russian studies scholars (USC’s John Bowlt, UC Berkeley’s Olga Matich and the University of Chicago’s Yuri Tsivian); and a role-playing game called “Montage” where students participate in 3-D simulations of historical events.

“Games offer an unprecedented level of engagement that can radically change how we learn,” creative director Scott Mahoy said.

“We plan to make this courseware available as open-source software and authoring tools,” Kinder said. “Our goal is to create active e-learning communities.”

Turning Viewers Into Storytellers

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