A brief chat with digital artist, Jacob Garbe

In 2014, while in Chicago attending the annual MLA Convention, I visited the “Pathfinders Exhibit” curated by Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop. I was introduced to a number of works, including Jacob Garbe’s Closed Rooms, Soft Whispers. During the exhibit, I spoke with the work’s creator, which prompted some further correspondence, a portion of which I present in this post.

Closed Rooms, Soft Whispers, by Jacob Garbe
Closed Rooms, Soft Whispers, by Jacob Garbe. From “Pathfinders Exhibit”, MLA Convention, Chicago, Jan 2014.

James O’Sullivan: How would you classify Closed Room, Soft Whispers? It was in an electronic literature exhibit at the 2014 MLA, but would you classify it as electronic literature?

Jacob Garbe: Personally, as a creator of these works I find the term literature to be evaluative, so I would never myself classify it as literature, any more than a short story writer would say they were working on a new piece of literature. The act of classifying things as e-lit or not e-lit is more of a curatorial stance, so I’d leave that to Dene (although naturally I was overjoyed to be part of the exhibit).

I think I would classify the piece as an augmented reality interactive fiction, but that’s all form, isn’t it? Not much about the substance. It’s a translation of lexia to a different triggering mechanism, a re-mapping onto visual space. And the reason I chose that was to obfuscate a bit, honestly. Breaking apart the narrative into chunks requiring work from the viewers to discover means the story—which is all about the fragility and transience of memory—is reflected in the medium.

JOS: Closed Room, Soft Whispers adheres to something of a self reflective aesthetic, in the sense that, it questions its digitality through its use physical materials (beyond your typical hardware). Why did you take this approach? Why digital and physical in the one work?

JG: I think with augmented reality I was interested in binding text to an image, and forcing people to uncover that text to find it. Making it more difficult to interact with actually makes the piece itself more transient, more ephemeral, although for me it makes that interaction more meaningful. The cabinet component was my own reaction, I think, to the nested screens-within-screens of the first part. So in the first part you have printed medium, with projections on top of it, with augmented reality on top of that, and therefore related through the screen of the mobile device. It’s incredibly mediated. I felt it needed balance, something to connect it more viscerally to the narrative. I was trying to communicate that these objects—the matches, the monkey souvenir, the Buddha pendant and the medallions—all existed. And the cabinet was a way to make that happen. You could see the object in the screen-within-the-screen, but you could also hold it in your hand. You could touch it. And the same manner you interrogate the digital images to give up their digital story, you interrogate the cabinet physically (by knocking) to give up its physical story (the objects and scraps of paper with text).

JOS: I think you can’t separate ideology from works of this nature. Would you agree? Is the meaning in the piece contained entirely within its content, or is the decision to use a form of this nature significant in itself?

JG: There’s a lot tied up in the choice of medium. Especially with new media works, “electronic literature”, or new media of any kind. The freedom to engage with form means that there’s an implicit or explicit choice before one even gets to the content. I think part of my choices with Whispers was just the desire to present something whose form would delight and astonish people. Honestly, if you talk to anyone working in AR about the tech in this they will be completely unimpressed. And if you talk to any electronics engineer about the cabinet, they’ll be completely unimpressed. But for the viewer, in a gallery, it combines to become something special, in this instance. And that was what I wanted to try out as well. For me, it’s not the form or the content that’s important, but the interplay and affect between the two.

JOS: “Materiality dictates the politics of a piece.” Would you agree? And how does this tie into Closed Room, Soft Whispers?

JG: Of course! The biggest flag is, of course, the requirement of a mobile device to view it. I did a showing at a gallery where there wasn’t a mobile device provided, and someone did actually call me on it. If you make the smartphone assumption, you are really restricting yourself to that hardware, and the politics that come with that. Really there are politics just in it being shown in a gallery, before even getting into the requirement of a mobile device.

But I also see doing art with mobile devices as a way to put a flag in the ground. Whenever I see something like augmented reality, which is being used mostly in a commercial fashion currently, I want to try and co-opt that or extend the dialog by making art with it. I wouldn’t be so bold as to say it’s an intervention, but I’d say I’m both prey to the politics and trying in my own way to subvert them a bit.

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