Dungeon Threads (Part 1)

Published on 2018-10-02

 I just returned to my studio from Pittsburgh where I shot a week's worth of motion capture data and wove together a few lectures for students and teachers at CMU. These lectures were framed around my thinking about film, games, and dungeons that have been leaking into my years-in-the-making "Aria End" project.

As with much of my work, the genesis concept of this project stemmed from unresolved ideas I left in my prior work with "Special Effect", a cinema performance that re-imagined Tarkovsky's "Stalker" in a trashy America-centric digital landscape. It's core environment is known only as "the zone".... an inexplicable place that is impossible to rationally comprehend yet remains pregnant with hope and possibility. In thinking about this place, I teamed up with writer & game designer Porpentine to develop the seeds of a new project. Our first musings on this topic created this short manifesto, written by Porpentine:

In video games there is the concept of an infinite dungeon – an endlessly regenerating death labyrinth. There’s an intimate quality to a structure that remakes itself after each horrible demise and invites you to try again. 

Dungeons are the study of structures as living things. Their diet is your curiosity, and their luring plumage is gold and gems.

There is another kind of labyrinth — a zone that has been subtly, horribly altered by something beyond human understanding. It has a set of strange rules that must be understood to survive. In this zone, the opposite of survival is not death–it is change.

I like the word Zone because maze feels so architecturally prescriptive–after all, the prayer labyrinth proves that the walls of a maze are not its defining characteristic. The zone is vague like god is vague. It’s whatever you want it to be. It doesn’t give a shit about you.

The Zone is feral architecture. City aesthetic, jungle biology. The Zone is an infinite hallway, or claustrophobia under an open sky. The Zone is full of monsters. Thank god.

With this, I was delving into the concepts behind "Generative Death Labyrinths" and the idea of emergent narrative in video games (This refers to situations in games that emerge from the interaction of relatively simple game mechanics resulting in a meaning created neither by the player nor the designer).

GDLs remind me of the act of painting or drawing or doodling whereby the image accumulates on a blank field through a process of marks made in response to the previous gestures. This is something that I've always loved about image-making and it found its way into the center of "Aria End".

In researching the varied history of labyrinth iconography I came across a zillion examples of artists who have built their own twisted versions, but only a handful  that resonate with me in this curious void between games, film, and painting. Below is a random-roll from my on-going collection of inspired labyrinth architects:

Giovanni Piranesi  was an Italian artist who lived in the 18th century. During his youth he wanted to become an architect but did not gain much traction in the field. Instead he became known for his highly-detailed etchings of ruined architecture. One influential series he made called 'Le Carceri' envisioned a collection of imaginary prisons that defies logical architectural space. This work pre-dates MC Escher’s etchings of invented architecture by 150 years.

Archigram was an avant-garde architectural group from the 1960s that drew inspiration from technology and pop culture to create hypothetical architectural proposals. While the individual artists in the group did practice architecture, they primarily participated in art exhibitions and created publications. A few of their works include:

Plug-in-City - A mega-structure with no buildings, just a massive framework into which cell-like dwellings could be slotted. This proposal framed the people inside as raw material to be processed through the city’s machinery. 

The Walking City - A herd of intelligent buildings - self-contained living pods that can roam the cities. The pods are independent but can plug into way stations to exchange occupants or replenish resources. 

Instant City - An event that borrows from current advertising aesthetics, drifting into underdeveloped towns via air balloons with provisional performance spaces in tow. Ahhh, colonialism never looked so fun.

Paolo Soleri was an architect who flourished during the same era of Archigram. He became a key figure in this field of modernist architecture because he actually started to build one of his conceptual buildings, Arcosanti. He coined the term ‘arcology’ to describe structures like these.

You can visit Arcosanti yourself in the Arizona desert. My experience of living inside a structure that has remained in a state of 4% completion for over 20 years was revealing. Perhaps the best way to achieve utopia in reality is to always leave it massively unfinished.

Will Insley was an artist from this same era as Soleri and Archigram who chose a different context to frame his architectural ideas. He dedicated the second half of his life to creating paintings, drawings, writing, models and photomontages based on his concept for a visionary city entitled ONECITY. 

ONECITY is a 675 mile square architectural labyrinth buried in the central North American plains. It is designed as an imaginary space to house the entire population of the United States.

In future posts I will be looking into the way these ideas manifest in the creation of my own ways of getting lost in an endless hallway under an open sky. And in the meantime, if you are interested in seeing some of this work in the flesh, I've got the following shows coming up this month:

October 13: Opus @ Merriweather Post Pavillion. Columbia, MD

October 20-26: Cinekid @ MediaLab. Amsterdam, NL

October 25: Gene Siskel Film Center. Chicago, IL