chris ziegler / movingimages

Designing Tradition: ancient pine trees and 3D hyperlink interfaces

Soon after its publication, the Improvisation Technologies CD-ROM was selling very successfully in Japan and Tokyo Media Connections, known for its documentaries about Noh and Kyogen Theater, asked ZKM to design a CD-ROM like Improvisation Technologies about Kyogen. The aim was to bring Kyogen closer to the next generation, which was seen to be losing its connection to performing arts traditions resulting in a lack of attendance at performances.

Kyogen is a Japanese theater art form that has not changed for 500 years. It is traditionally performed as twenty minute long comedy plays in-between sections of the longer more serious Noh Theater. All together, this could comprise a full day and night of drama, dance and comedy. There have been approximately 120 Kyogen plays created in the 16th C., but since then these texts have not changed and no new plays have been written. The art of learning and performing the comedy plays has been passed down from one generation to the next. There could not be a starker contrast with the Improvisation Technologies project. It was difficult to fully grasp the differences between the Japanese and European traditions in the time we had for the project, but I needed to learn enough to come up with an appropriate design for the interactive interface and information structures for That's Kyogen (the title of the DVD-ROM).

Mansaku, the son of one of the most famous Kyogen players of Japan, gave us an interview in which he described his life long training in the tradition of Kyogen. This training has no parallel in the relatively short term Western training in acting techniques. It is almost evolutionary in nature, as only at a certain age is one is able to play a particular role. For example: the "mushroom" characters in one Kyogen play are often played by children; whereas another character, the "fox", performed in a fur costume covering the whole body, needs the physical strength of a young adult actor; and many of the more humorous characters require subtle qualities and a layer of seriousness that is best achieved by actors of an older age. Learning skills per se is not the most important part of training to play a character on the Kyogen stage. Training is also evolutionary in the sense that the Kyogen actor repeats one role many times and through this routine evolves or develops his capacities from one level to the next. This is how life-long training enables an actor to transform slowly into new characters over time, which may be one of the reasons that the two families in Tokyo teaching Kyogen are only doing so inside their families.

Through researching I eventually discovered an appropriate visual metaphor for the general design drawn from the painting of the ancient pine tree that stands in the back of the Kyogen stage. The pine tree is symbolic in Japanese Noh Theater. Not only is it the site for divine creation, as the place where the gods descend to earth from heaven, but Noh was traditionally played on outside stages in front of these old pine trees. The pine tree became my visual metaphor for the design, which became a three-dimensional tree-like interface layout. The branches were 'characters' which are linked to 'acting' and these chapters were also was linked to 'plays'. [Insert Three Figures: "That's Kyogen" Screen Shot. Character branches. "That's Kyogen" Screen Shot. Character branches to acting. "That's Kyogen" Screen Shot. Acting explanation branches to plays.] The links are relational, in other words, in the 'plays' section the user can also find all the 'characters' of that play [see Fig. 9] as well as access an 'explanations' section just by switching branches. [see Fig. 10] In addition to this tree design, the interface offers an evolving set of information links beside the display window. So, in the 'plays' chapter, for example, when watching the performance different links appear when new characters appear on stage. This emphasizes the temporal dimension of the performance and makes the connection to one of Kyogen's defining characteristics; that it is knowledge of acting that can only be achieved through a lifetime of training and performing.

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