Hyperrhiz 6

Taking A Scroll: Text, Image and the Construction of Meaning in a Digital Panorama

Roderick Coover
Temple University

Citation: Coover, Roderick. “Taking A Scroll: Text, Image and the Construction of Meaning in a Digital Panorama.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 6, 2009. doi:10.20415/hyp/006.a04

Abstract: This essay discusses a series of projects that use horizontal scrolling composition. The essay considers how the digital panoramic and scrolling formats combined with techniques of layering and compositing provide makers with ways to integrate diverse modes and disciplinary materials in a common environment and how they allow uses means of path-making and choice-making. Works discussed include Cultures In Webs (Eastage 2003), Something That Happened Only Once (2007), and Unknown Territories (2008).

Layering is among the ways that the nature of the (documentary) image is being re-imagined, and the impact for documentary is significant. Layering, compositing and animation tools available in post-production software like After Effects are allowing video artists and documentarists like myself to reconceptualize conventions of cinema. Most notably in my recent work, this has entailed the integration of the cinematic pan and photographic panorama to create what I think of as cinemascapes — interactive cinematic, panoramic environments. In some of these works, such as Something That Happened Only Once (2007), events occurring in differing moments are combined into a single field in a cinematic pan or a seamless but open-ended shot that appears to be circular but might have another shape altogether. In other works, such as The Unknown Territory (2008), viewers create paths through original layered documentary video clips, archival films, and other media presented as objects in interactive cinema environments. In these works, viewers create their own unique documentary viewing experiences through the navigation choices through the clips and materials that they make.

Part documentary, part essay, "The Harvest" (1999) bridges genres. What began as a storyboard for the documentary film evolved into a work of its own: a horizontal interactive media environment in which video clips, text, photos combine to present a picture of a two week period of a wine harvest. A reader-view scrolls through 56 photographs shot at a vineyard in the village of Bouzeron near Chagny in Bourgogne. The photographs chronicle the harvest experience, with special attention given to the relationship between the temporal flow of lived experience and the representational categories, tropes and narratives that, in their various ways, express this flow. The work uses a digital interface to offer reader-viewers a means to bridge visual and verbal ways of learning.

Screen shot of 'The Harvest' (Cultures In Webs, 2003)

The subjects of the photographs vary between those pertaining to the narratives of the harvest period and the environmental details such as the landscape views, grapes, soil, tools, songs and work patterns that gain particular and personalized meaning during the intensive two week period. Beneath the photographs are three bands of text. Each section is written in a contrasting mode so as to juxtapose genres of writing and analysis. The first band of text presents field notes, the second consists of editing observations, and the third is an exposition about the winemaker. The horizontal construction is suitable not only for collecting materials but also for demonstrating associative links that may connect the culturally specific elements of a harvest in a collective consciousness; the images help establish a set of signifiers that are points of reference to narratives of the harvest and relate this event to others in the town, region, or lives of the participants, including the life of the observer.

My second approach to the horizontally scrolling environments, and more truly a panoramic work, is Something That Happened Only Once (2007). This looping animated panorama is built through layering and compositing hundreds of elements recorded on one day in 2006 at a plaza in Mexico City. The work revolves in front (or on all sides) of the viewer as a slow moving pan with both static and motion elements. Audio is also layered. Found-sounds mix with fragments of text spoken and sung by a narrator-protagonist who is trying to express her own sense of place and displacement looking out upon the plaza. Trying to make sense of what she sees, she constructs projections, each of which is denied but the events that unfold, thwarting the realization of narrative potential.

Video stills from the animated panorama, Something That Happened Only Once (Coover 2007)

Events occurring over the course of a day in the Coyocan Plaza in Mexico City are layered to present a composite documentary pan. Select visual interventions draw attention to the visual construct and draw out relationships between characters and actions initiated elsewhere in the video]

The panoramic expression of time is transformed in this format through layering and compositing. Unlike the traditional photographic panorama or cinematic pan, here the panorama is a collection of moments that may be independent from the seemingly definitive but fundamentally illusory authority of the framed contiguity. Each cycle appears to last about 11 minutes; however a viewer quickly recognizes that the cycles differ. The spaces and narratives occurring within them are changing as time passes, and, all the more significantly, they are changing at differing rates.

A conventional panorama is a collection of moments seamlessly combined; it is not one moment. Actions in the cycle in Something That Happened Only Once float freely liberating individual actions (and the worlds of individuals who performed them) from the singular authoritative time frame of the camera. The free floating elements — composited in diverse rates of frequency and order — run counter to the usually dominating singular order of time given by the technological apparatus of the pan. As the image turns, the viewer will recognize that the second time around is not the same as the first. Elements that make up the panorama, such as images of individuals, follow actions at rates shaped by their own narratives and not by the singular structure of time (as traditionally established by the recording device).

How time functions in the documentary image is further brought into question by employing the organizational structure of a mobius strip in which some events that begin in first cycle conclude in the second one, while other events begin in the second cycle and conclude in the first. And individuals who are seen in one part of a panorama may appear in another — they are not spatially confined to a single zone. Some individuals engaged in fore-fronted activities may appear several times in a single cycle as the individual actions function independent of the time it takes to complete a cycle. These strategies, although contrary to many conventions of panoramic representation, may be truer to cognition that the conventional long take or pan. In looking at the world in-action, attention jumps this action to that, pursing changing interests and building a picture of the world active choices and eye moments. Viewers eyes jump to areas of activity glossing over areas that are bland, only to turn to them later when, through changes in the narrative and symbolic structures these other details gain value. The slow pan of works like Something That Happened Only Once accentuate this tension between sight and apparatus, while the interactive cinematic environments of works Shaw's i-cinema works or my current series, Unknown Territories, offer alternatives in documentary form but allowing viewers to construct their own routes through materials with emphasis being placed particularly on how this kind of viewer may raise questions about individual choice-making (in relation to both content and form).

A third approach to panoramic and horizontally scrolling works in the series Unknown Territories, that include among others, Voyage Into The Unknown, which is about John Wesley Powell's legendary 1869 voyage down the Colorado River, and Edward Abbey and the Great American Desert, which is about the works of the iconoclastic environmental writer and novelist of the Southwest who rose to prominence with his works Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang in the 1960s and 1970s. This interactive digital humanities project explores how perceptions of place are shaped through writing and the arts. This project asks how do we come to know and imagine an "unknown territory?"

Paths cut across history and landscapes as reader-viewers take up questions of growth and migration, industry and mining — including the impact of the uranium boom, dam building and tourism, all explored from the perspective of the humanities to ask how are these varying historical developments and arguments framed through language and image.

Overview of Voyage Into The Unknown Territory: >John Wesley Powell And His Voyage Down The Colorado River (2008)
Close-up of the interactive environment in Voyage Into The Unknown Territory

For example, in Voyage Into The Unknown users navigate an interactive environment as they travel with the one-armed Major Powell and his crew of Civil War veterans down the then-uncharted waters of the might Colorado River into a terra incognita. First comes the adventure, then comes its representation. Much later, comes critical examination, and, perhaps, as a whole, re-invention as diary observations from the journey become recast through photographs, illustrations, articles and books. The work offers a learning environment that integrates readerly and viewing experiences. Part narrative, part documentary, the work bridges modes of writing and image making through the use of a sequentially loading landscape and Adobe Flash® movie based segments.

Among the media produced by Powell and his crew are several hundred stereoscopic photographs; the concept of the stereo image becomes a central motif in a work about how differing perspectives combine (or not). Through interactive features, users discover how events and diaristic observations later become recast through photographs, illustrations, articles and books. The work draws its users' attentions to how differing media that were used by Powell and his colleagues might have contributed to popular conceptualization of the American landscape.

In works like these, the paths of hypertextual works are made literal; the user takes a journey along possible routes and departures. The user is gathering information en route and piecing together a narrative. What do these elements add up to? These works confronts the very question by revealed the many ways evidence of the original journey is transformed after the fact; there can be no simple, mono-logical or monolithic summation. Choice-making is fully integrated in the user experience allowing individuals flexibility in choosing to expand or limit narrative, expository and poetic approaches to a documentary's primary topic and its off-shoots. This off shoots lead viewers into specific topic segments with narratives of their own.

The landscapes of Unknown Territories literalize the metaphor of making paths. In these panoramic environments, time-based cognition and text-based knowledge acquisition may go hand in hand, or may clash like objects in a collage colliding on field on which, at first glance, they would not seem to belong. The borders between reading and viewing blur in an active process that reveals its construction and expository processes, leading viewers to engage with the director in the process of constructing meaning out of experience. On the one hand, propositions and arguments are developed through montages that provide a route through the material — a director's cut. However, unlike a linear, single channel work, viewers may alternatively navigate through clips, interviews and other materials through parallel or diverging paths to arrive at differing and multidisciplinary perspectives on shared questions of action, experience and knowledge. Composed of layered tropes, juxtaposed paths, modally varied arguments, and active choice-making, the emerging rhetoric and poetics of documentary in the new media have been scouted by some, but they still remain, for the most part, uncharted... a terra incognita.


  1. Roderick Coover, "The Harvest", multimedia, 1999. "The Harvest" was first exhibited in the solo exhibit, Visualizing Cultures, Midway Studios, Chicago 2001. Selected for the juried exhibition of the Electronic Literature Symposium, State of the Art, Los Angeles, 2001. A version is included on the CD-ROM, Cultures In Webs (2003). For an extended discussion of this work, see "Working with images, images of work : using digital interface, photography and hypertext in ethnography" in Sarah Pink et al, eds. 2004.Working Images: Visual Research and Representation in Ethnography, London: Routledge.
  2. Roderick Coover, The Language Of Wine: An Anthropology of Work, Wine and the Senses, 2005. URL: «http://www.languageofwine.com».
  3. Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire; A Season In The Wilderness. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.
  4. Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1975.