This was Labyrinth’s most ambitious project—exploring concepts in Russian Modernism (dialectic montage, constructivism, synaesthesia ) that can now expand the language of multimedia. We were creating a unique model of on-line courseware, where students learn by helping to build the site and where a wide range of scholars, teachers and artists become involved in its construction, which includes a wide range of art forms—from poetry, fiction, opera, architecture and cinema to the latest developments in world-building and game design.
Working with Scott Mahoy as creative director from the Labyrinth team, I recruited the most original scholars I knew in Slavic Studies—film scholar Yuri Tsivian at U/Chicago (whose Immaterial Bodies in our Cine-Discs series won a BAFTA Award for best interactive project in the Learning category); visual arts specialist Jon Bowlt at USC (who has his own extensive archive of historical materials); and literary scholar Olga Matich at UC/Berkeley, whose writings on Russian Modernism were always experimental. I also recruited USC doctoral student Chris Gilman as co-writer, who understood the exciting possibilities of new media but was still solidly grounded in the historical specificity of Russian Modernism. Scott and I also hired some of USC’s most talented grad students in Cinema, such as Jenova Chen, who later became the most innovative student to come from USC’s interactive game design program, and a number of talented animators who came from DADA (the Division of Animation and the Digital Arts).
Using GUM (Russia’s famous 1893 department store, still located on Moscow’s Red Square) as our primary interface, we made it the main entrance to the three realms of our site: 1) an array of interactive lectures, each housed in a different shop, including Bowlt on Nothingness and Velocity, Tsivian on the Bomb, the Tango, and Charlie Chaplin, Matich on Petersburg (the Novel and the City), and Prof. Tatiana Vinogradova from the Nizhny Novgorod State University of Architecture on The Great All-Russian Expo of 1896 in Nizhny Novgorod; 2) an archive of visual materials, located in the basement, that students could use for their own projects; and 3) on the upper floor a game called Montage: A Russian History Game for the Masses, set in the 1896 Russian Expo in Nizhny Novgorod, where the Tsar and his court assessed the hot-air balloon as a military weapon and where the Lumiere company had its first public screenings of cinema in Russia. At the Expo, players could explore historical reconstructions of the actual pavilions or help build others, they could interact with historic figures like Maxim Gorky who was covering the event for the local paper, and they could control the moves of an avatar based on an historical figure who came to the Expo to launch her singing career and escape her lowly origins. The game featured 3 pathways—art, politics and new technologies—the combination of which helped define what was unique about the Russian version of modernism. Though we were generously supported by NEH, we never finished the courseware (partly because we developed it in flash which is no longer supported on line), but the assets remain and could still be transformed. Still, as the Adobe promotional movie clearly shows, this courseware was used successfully in experimental courses at USC.Professor John Bowlt reads Daniil Kharms The Red-Haired Man