Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Thesis Extract: Layering in Design

Layering operates in the design of the works from the underlying code, whereby “the practices of concealing and revealing [that] offer fertile ground for aesthetic and artistic exploration […] reveal themselves according to time sequences, cursor movements, and other criteria” (Hayles 2005 54). Hayles cites the example of Coverley’s Egypt, as an example “where the visual tropes of revealing and concealing resonate with the multiple personae, patterned after ancient Egyptian beliefs, that cohabit in one body” (Hayles 2005 55). The representation of temporality, as Hayles suggests “according to time sequences,” is related to the spatial configuration achieved by layering. Design does this by “re-creating on the screen dynamics that both depend on and reflect the ‘tower of languages’ essential to code” (Hayles 2005 54). [1] The concealing and revealing in design effectively bundles code-created objects in a digital text, providing a sense of temporal progress in narrative. The following analysis explores further the techniques used to make layering part of design, specifically in regard to narrative.  
The works dealt with in this study are coded at the point of reception; with inputs from readers developing narrative according to the conditions of spatial configuration in design. Clicking and following links, along with word recognition, cultural and social references, and the combinatorial possibilities found in spatial navigation, activate narrative progression. Thus layering in the works includes reader attention to these structures, such as the keyword parsing in Façade. Layered bundles, such as the audio, visual and spatial content together, are arranged in meaningful sequences, which can be repeated and therefor emphasized in reading. In some examples layering results in narrative metalepsis, grounded in how layers transgress narrative boundaries through the use of perspective, depth and temporal representations in design. By functioning in this way, layering is a fundamental part of reading new or digital media, which Lev Manovitch compares to the effect of montage in film, as a defining element in digital media reception (Manovitch 2002 143-147). In my analysis I develop Manovitch’s observation in relation to narrative as it is affected by design.
My analysis of what David Shepard calls “the executed layer” of the digital work, or “what the user experiences” (Shepard 2008 np), reveals that it is actually composed of multiple layers when read for the effect on narrative. These layers include combinations of characters and settings, writing, audio, video and still images. Each of these are composed of further sub-layers, for example the audio layer of Façade can be arranged into sub-sets according to individual keywords, or as layers of music, character voices and sound effects, and even further according to how dialogue is parsed by the program in narrative progression. Each of these layers conceals and reveals other layers during reception. The reader organizes the layers via linkages, not just via clickable points but also using keywords and virtual objects. All these linkages are examples of material meaning and navigation joined in reading, where “by traversing the gap that is the link, the gap is filled with meaning” (Parker 2001 np). Meaning is associated with the link as “a syntactic, structural, and distinctive feature” (Raley 2011 1). The activation of a link by the reader is therefore a meaningful part of the interpretation of narrative. As the reader navigates via links, and arranges the layers according to design, particular narrative features blend, are obscured or transmute into each other. In this sense, layering is the organization of narrative, which results in both restrictions and meaning in reading.

[1] Hayles cites Rita Raley as the source of the “Tower of Languages” trope. Describing the gradients that exist in a digital program between the base code and the layer experienced in reception, Raley explains, “The tower of programming languages that underlies the representation of natural languages on the screen. For all of the differences among particular instances or events of codework, they all incorporate elements of code, whether executable or not. Code appears in the text, then, in whole or in part, in the form of a functioning script, an operator, and/or a static symbol” (Raley 2002 np). The code of the text, at the point of reception, is precisely the concern of this present study.  

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