Bits & Bytes Column: Zoe Beloff

Bits & Bytes Column: Zoe Beloff
January/February 2004 issue
Posted with permision by dialogue Magazine

Business marketing strategies that employ such words as stronger, faster and sleeker have been developed to lure the consumer to purchase new products and discard the old as obsolete and irrelevant. Even though filmmaker Zoe Beloff may use computer-based tools to create some of her projects, she does not necessarily believe that "new is better." On the contrary, Beloff embraces the past. Three of her interactive projects, Beyond, Where Where There There Where, and The Influencing Machine of Natalija A, were recently on view at the Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Galleries from November 17 through November 30, 2003.

Interactive computer-based narrative projects like Beloff’s, require the participant to act as an agent–a user who assembles a version of the story through a series of choices. When the participant begins Beyond, a small black and white movie appears at the center of the screen with camera shots of the Hindenberg blimp flying above New York City coupled with pages of text being stacked upon one another.

The participant is then introduced to a panoramic landscape interface. The viewer moves the mouse from one side to another, encountering a 360 degree view of a landscape depicting the grounds of an abandoned mental institution with collaged icons that invite further investigation. The participant has an option of choosing multiple "hotspots" to explore. Once chosen, the viewer may be confronted with collaged fragments of early 20th century film footage or another panorama. According to Beloff, Beyond "explores the paradoxes of technology, desire, and the paranormal posed since the birth of the mechanical reproduction."

In a sense, Beloff’s Beyond is much like a haunted house adventure. Her use of ominous music and sounds juxtaposed with forgotten film footage set the stage for a "paranormal" experience. The possibility of choice and unknown outcome also adds to the uncertainty that one encounters in a traditional ghost story. She states, "I’m interested in creating some kind of dialogue with the past. Media can allow us to imaginatively travel in time in some ways. Looking at films or listening to recordings can perhaps transport us back to when they were made."

Her interactive project, Where Where There There Where, a collaborative project with the Wooster Group, employs the same technology and format as Beyond. However this project, inspired by Gertrude Stein’s play, Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, examines issues of language, logic, and "thinking machines." Within the panorama, the participant has the opportunity to select various characters. Beloff states, "The logic of the interface is that immediately upon entering the panorama, if you click on a character, you will see a movie that follows a train of thought, inspired by the previous [character selected], but if you turn 180 degrees, the character will now lead you off on a tangent, a new idea."

The most recent work in the exhibition, The Influencing Machine of Natalija A. departs from a monitor and mouse experience to an installation-based immersive environment where the participant engages with what appears to be a large game board. Completed in 2001, the project is based on an early 20th century psychoanalytic case study in which a young woman believed an electrical apparatus dubbed the "Influencing Machine," had been implanted in her brain causing her mind to be manipulated.

In the installation, a chair is placed next to a small stage with a stereoscopic diagram of the body and electrical components simulating the "Influencing Machine." Beside the chair is placed a pair of 3-D glasses and a pointer. The viewer uses the pointer to select an icon. Once activated, a digital video projection is triggered that relates to the icon selected. The participant also wears 3-D glasses to reveal an optical illusion created by the stereoscopic diagram, while the remaining audience does not have this ability–much like Natalija who saw the world differently than the people around her because of her schizophrenia. Beloff states, "My interactive video installation attempts to materialize Natalija’s hallucinations for the participant. I wish to reveal how the fantastic machine imagined by a schizophrenic is not nearly as bizarre as it appears."

The three works presented in the exhibition are compelling interactive environments of picture and sound that challenge the viewer to re-examine traditional narrative structure.

Updated September 2006