AR, Alaska and Augmenting the Circumpolar

Patrick Lichty

Assistant Professor of Animation, Zayed University

Nathan Shafer

Artist, Independent Scholar

Science fiction has been a space for speculative discourse for decades. In In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, Eugene Thacker locates philosophy (and in so doing, theory) in the realm of the alien. [1] Thacker explores the relation between horror and philosophy in stating that both explore the realm of the “unthinkable” and the unknown. Conversely, if we consider the concept of the unthinkable in terms of the political, science fiction has been a vehicle for the taboo and the controversial. For example, in Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein explores the notion of nation states ruled by warrior-citizens located near the edges of fascism, echoing tropes of Plato’s Republic. [2] The plot of Orwell’s 1984 can be read as a story of totalitarian control of the media-sphere and governmental hijacking of the zeitgeist through manipulation of societal history. [3] Huxley’s Brave New World proposed a utopia based on lack of want and constant stimulation through absolute control, [4] which was echoed in Lucas’ film, THX-1138. [5] And lastly, in mass media, Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek series managed to touch on gender, racism, sex, and politics in ways that were often forbidden in the mid-to-late 1960s in America. For the augmented reality-based science fiction anthology, Dirigibles of Denali, Nathan Shafer, along with Patrick Lichty and other augmented reality (AR) artists, are creating a science fiction anthology based on failed speculative urban planning projects in Alaska of the 60s and 70s, such as Seward’s Success and Denali City. The Dirigibles project is one setting of these alternative timelines anywhere from hundreds to thousands of years in the future. This anthology seeks to explore novel narrative forms while addressing critical cultural, societal, and environmental issues through the genre of science fiction. Also, the production of the anthology employs social media and shared documentation to create a collective method of writing. Through the use of AR, science fiction tropes, and collective forms of authorship, Dirigibles of Denali is a project that seeks to explore new territory in creation and e-literature.

Today, the need for Thacker’s notion of the unthinkable still remains, in different modalities around the world. In North America, anthropocenic change is a difficult topic to discuss objectively, and has already been addressed in media such as the movie Silent Running, [6] and Bruce Sterling’s book Heavy Weather. [7] Soviet writers like Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatskys managed to publish critical works under Communist rule. Likewise, in monarchies and authoritarian states like the Gulf Cooperation Council Kingdoms, criticism of the government or aspersions on the country are strictly forbidden, and science fiction becomes a relatively safe vehicle to exercise discursive freedom. (The authors of this text are unsure of the nature of mainland Chinese science fiction serving this purpose, so it is assumed that there are limits to the circumventional power of this discursive strategy.)

The Dirigibles of Denali project is the continuation of augmented reality efforts by artists Nathan Shafer, Patrick Lichty, and others. Lichty and Shafer were both members of the Manifest.AR collective, and Lichty had taken part in Shafer’s annual Wintermoot AR Festival in Anchorage. [8] However, the roots of the collaboration come from Shafer’s efforts in creating literature dealing with Alaskan culture, and Lichty’s research of Alaskan history.

From The Ghosts of Adak, 2009, Patrick Lichty. (Image courtesy Patrick Lichty)

From The Ghosts of Adak, 2009, Patrick Lichty. (Image courtesy Patrick Lichty)

In 2009, Lichty traveled to the Aleutian island of Adak to visit the ruins of NAVSTA Adak, the naval installation where his father had served as part of the 132nd Naval Construction Battalion during World War II. At the time, his father Harold Lichty was in the process of dying, and spoke frequently about his time on the island. Wishing to give his father a gift of understanding before his leaving, Lichty struck a deal with the Aleut Corporation to stay on Adak for ten days, documenting the abandoned facilities and exploring the landscape. What resulted is a book project in progress, tentatively called The Ghosts of Adak that contains over 2000 images, including family archives and documentation from the NAVSTA Adak archives.

Exit Glacier AR Terminus, 2014, Nathan Shafer.

Exit Glacier AR Terminus, 2014, Nathan Shafer.

Also part of this trip was a journey into Kenai Fjords National Park that yielded a panoramic photograph that would become the basis for an augmented tapestry named the Kenai Tapestry. [9] The Tapestry is a 5×21-foot Jacquard loom woven textile with fiducial markers woven into it to allow the utilization of Augmented Reality from the tapestry itself. When used with a smart device like a cellphone, wildlife and information from the US Forestry Service website would manifest on screen. This was particularly relevant when the Tapestry allowed for live updates of the Funny River forest fire in 2014. This project tied Lichty’s interest in AR to Alaska, including Nathan Shafer’s project, Exit Glacier AR Terminus.

Kenai Tapestry, 2013-14, Patrick Lichty, 60”x240” AR-Activated Jacquard Tapestry.

Kenai Tapestry, 2013-14, Patrick Lichty, 60”x240” AR-Activated Jacquard Tapestry.

Nathan Shafer continues with an account of this journey:

In the summer of 2014 Patrick Lichty came to visit my wife Joelle and I for ten days in Anchorage as part of a series of presentations on augmented reality and drone art projects in Alaska. It was also a chance for me to show a beloved colleague some of the augmented reality pieces I had been working on.

Patrick and I had been online friends for several years, and were both members of the Manifest.AR Collective, having shown our work together with that group across the globe since it was founded in 2010. I had also included him yearly in the Wintermoot Festival, a mixed reality festival held in Anchorage at the end of Fur Rondy. Patrick and I had not formally met up to that point, but we both worked in collaborative groups for the past several years, and were eager to develop some projects with each other.

When Patrick arrived, I had just come back from summer fish camp and there was an abundance of freshly smoked red salmon. We ate and drank that night, and the next morning I began taking him around Alaska, showing him various geographically-based augmented reality works I had created, and the places Joelle and I love. We took a day and drove out to Kenai Fjords National Park to look at the Exit Glacier piece I made recreating five of the former termini at Exit Glacier. With my childhood pal, Jory (who joined us on several of our excursions), there was great fun eating homemade smoked salmon with Patrick on the outwash plain at Exit Glacier, where black bears are known to roam. Patrick was amused and taken aback by the public sign informing folks, “If a bear is eating you, fight back…” And, sitting at the mouth of the outwash of the Glacier, holding what was probably the smelliest and most delicious thing possible for the local wildlife, all eyes went to Jory, and what was once a virtual reality was understood to be potentially very, very real.

We then drove out to the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and down the Knik-Goosebay Road to spend some time at Seward’s Success, a “domed city” proposed for Alaska in the 1960s, but was never built. [10] I had found the original city proposal in 2013 and 3D modeled the downtown area of the unbuilt city, then put it on location in an AR browser. Fortunately for the project, there was a cell phone tower at Port Mackenzie, the site of the AR project, and I was able to show the work to Patrick. Unfortunately, the Exit Glacier project had involved a collaboration with the US National Parks Service to run access out there; this is the challenge of doing geographically-based AR in Alaska.

As we drove, I described culturally-rich indigenous place names, talking about Alaska’s original inhabitants, pointing out the preserved forests left over from the 9.2 magnitude 1964 earthquake where the tidewater glacier at Whittier used to extend into the water. We also looked at a large-scale project called Dena’ina Caches, which is an AR version of what I consider to be one of the greatest ethno-geographies ever produced, Shem Pete’s Alaska. [11] In Alaska, Shem Pete, a Dena’ina Athabascan Renaissance Man, tells indigenous place names of every landmark in the Upper Cook Inlet Region, from memory. This is a book that is vast and glorious.

During the trip, we gathered about a hundred hours of drone footage for future projects and discussed future possibilities, but it wasn’t until about a year later that we decided to begin work on a book called Dirigibles of Denali, a digital humanities publication about the three unbuilt domed cities in Alaska. This started with research on Seward’s Success and then Alaskan Senator Mike Gravel’s proposal for Denali City as well as the late Frei Otto’s proposal for Arctic City – another ill-fated dome. We are currently producing three augmented reality representations of these cities in precise geo-locative sites, and AR images of the works forming the basis for an augmented reality book. Dirigibles of Denali comes from the Denali City proposal, where a “Dirigibles for Denali” proposition was offered to shuttle tourists to Denali City using airships, which has since become a common motif for our collective stories.

Beginning the initial research for the project, we noticed several inconsistencies between the original proposals and how the media turned them into sprawling works of science fiction. Our solution to this was simple – ask Alaskan science fiction authors to create alternate history or speculative fiction pieces imagining an Alaska where the domed cities had actually been built. We also saw that the original city proposals included several culturally problematic art pieces adorning the city in the form of public art. Our solution was to ask contemporary Alaskan artists to design more authentic public art pieces for these propositional cities. This idea is expanding, as the project now has over 30 participating writers and artists producing works.

Science fiction, following Thacker, is a way for us to address these urban planning projects. Science-fiction blends cultural relativism with urban planning and utopian philosophies in ways that were unthinkable. And talking about a speculative Alaska using AR seems only natural, given that what was once science fiction, now near future scenarios are being shown by TED, Creators Project, and others.

Given the nature and scope of our topic, that is, alternative urban scenarios for an Alaska hundreds of years in the future, we are firmly rooted in the genre of science fiction and within Thacker’s notion of the unthinkable. However, an exciting consideration (and perhaps chilling in our case, no pun intended), is that artists like Salvatore Iaconesi and Oriana Persico and science fiction writer Bruce Sterling are involved in “Near-Future” studies.

The importance of the establishment of this discursive space is obvious when considering the nature of future scenarios proposed in genre media such as Star Trek and Minority Report. It is a fairly worn trope to mention the emergence of cell phones, sliding doors and even metaphors for 3D printing and virtual reality from features like Star Trek‘s replicator or Holodeck. What is less obvious is that for the famous user interface in Minority Report, Spielberg’s company enlisted MIT researcher John Underkoffler to use his tangible interfacing system as a design in the movie itself. The reality of the interface was shown at Sundance New Horizons 2009, where the video editing room prototype that the Report interface was based on was shown. [12]

What is obvious from Lichty’s personal conversations with artists and designers featured by sites like Creators Project is that much of this work is what Lichty calls “Alpha Revision.” In the 2003 essay, The Alpha Revisionist Manifesto, the will to intellectual territory has resulted in near-future propositions, in which ideas are proposed in “white papers” for submission to venture capitalists, curators, and the like. [13] However by 2015, the speculative has been supplanted by Kickstarter, the home of quasi-science fiction crowd sourced venture capitalism. And, out slightly further in the speculative curve, Iaconesi and Persico’s Near Future Studies Lab creates an open institution that promotes this discursive space, perhaps the “Near-Unthinkable.” With the acceleration of culture, the discursive space that was once the realm of science fiction is collapsing into the space of the near-future, or the merely speculative. Bringing the discussion back into the Dirigibles of Denali project, while the project’s content is surely in the neo-space of the unthinkable, the fact that the anthology will come forth as a discrete, tangible project using emergent technology grounds it in the space of the Near-Future.

Looking at the Dirigibles project as a sort of alternate cultural data visualization of the near future might be an apt metaphor for the speculative fiction that the project is creating. Shafer’s project suggests a 2175-era Anchorage in which the domes connote a way of life. Lichty’s twin stories, The Archive: Anchorage/Dubai, answers Bruce Sterling’s call for 22nd century fiction [14] where humanity is storing the whole of its cultural capital within domed archives around the world while it waits for the world’s carbon dioxide levels to recede.

As mentioned before, using AR to tell a speculative future is a self-referential near-future metaphor in a McLuhanist sense that the idea is embodied in the medium used. Although the use of augmented reality in literature is not new, its holographic nature refers to tropes like the Princess Leia hologram, the monsters in Forbidden Planet, and the advertisements from Minority Report. With the collapse of the future as trope, monsters move increasingly from the realm of the unthinkable to that of the propositional. Therefore, the monsters from the Lovecraftian universe that Thacker refers to as the unthinkable are now potentially real, and they live in your cell phone. Although the Denali futures projected by the project are far from Lovecraftian dystopias, they do call into question the notion of space and time in electronic literature.

This notion of collapse (or expansion) in space and time through genre and form is not new to either artist. Lichty, in his essay, Art in the Age of Dataflow, discusses how technology is changing the notion of space and time in literature. [15] Lichty goes on to discuss how Joseph Frank’s notion of Spatial Form in literature [16], allows for the exploration of a single moment or day, as in the cast of Joyce or Proust. This leads to the use of web narrative [17, 18], blog, and data generated narrative [19]. Using this trajectory, the use of AR in electronic literature takes the collapse in space and time in digital media and places it back in space, through reconstructing scenarios in physical space or locating them via GPS. AR spatially situates the content and text as a form of database realization that combines with the text. This also agrees with Lichty, et al’s writing [20] that multimedia-saturated culture, inhabitants within and of that culture, use metaphors of communication that reflect the use of concurrent media – time-based, print, web-based, and so on. Dirigibles of Denali is then an expansion of current theories in e-literature extended into the realm of Alaskan cultural heritage.

The manner in which Dirigibles is being authored is also reflective of near future media practices. The notion of pure authorship (another unthinkable) is brought into question as texts in process are located on Google Docs to spark collective ideation. This conversational approach is expanded as Dirigibles has a closed Facebook discussion group for sharing of images, content, and research materials. While this is not revolutionary in itself, both Lichty’s Art in the Age of Dataflow and Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture [21] were both initially published as open documents, open for crowd editing and little if any took place before each text was put to paper. While the collaborative model of Dirigibles is far from a science fiction scenario from a New Media perspective, it is from a literary one.

Dirigibles of Denali is a manifest form of science/near-future fiction, both formally and literally. It takes Thacker’s idea of the unthinkable, not in the sense of horror as the uncanny, but more as the philosophical notion of the unthought and applying it to literature. Using AR also places the project in a cultural space where it takes the position of the fantastically unthought – semiotically, technically, politically, and culturally. While projects like Seward’s Success were fantasies for the time in which they were proposed, their use in augmented stories create scenarios where issues like catastrophic climate change, Viking renaissances, and rogue micro-nations are honest prognostications. Maybe it is the case, as Thacker suggests, that to think the unthinkable, and in terms of science fiction/fantasy, is to build realities as if we were mad gods at the end of time.

References:

1. Thacker, Eugene. In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, 2011, Winchester: Zero Books.

2. Heinlein, Robert. Starship Troopers, New York: Berkley Books, 1980.

3. Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Penguin, 1992.

4. Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World, London: Random House (Chatto & Windus) 1932.
5. Sturhahn, Lawrence, George Lucas, Walter Murch, Donald Pleasence, Robert Duvall, Ian Wolfe, Sid Haig, Robert Feero, and Lalo Schifrin. 2004. THX 1138. Burbank, CA: Distributed by Warner Home Video.
6. Grushkoff, Michael, Morty Hornstein, Douglas Trumbull. Silent Running. Universal Pictures. 1972.

7. Sterling, Bruce. Heavy Weather. New York: Bantam/Spectra Books, 1994.

8. Shafer, Nathan. Exit Glacier AR Terminus Project, https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/995145724/exit-glacier-ar-terminus-project.

9. Lichty, Patrick. Kenai Tapestry. Augmented Reality enhanced Jacquard Tapestry, http://voyd.com/kenai-tapestry.html, 2013-4.

10. Porco, Peter, “City of tomorrow a failed dream of yesterday – THINKING BIG: Domed suburb across Knik Arm was planned in detail.”, November 3, 2002, Anchorage Daily News.

11. Pete, Shem and Kari, John, Shem Pete’s Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Inlet Dena’ina. This book is one of the bibles of Alaskan culture, being one of the most expansive and complete ethnogeographies ever produced. It is a standard other cultural groups in Alaska use when discussing indigenous place names. At the advice of a Dena’ina anthropologist friend of mine, Aaron Leggett, I try to look at it every day, to stay aware of the unseen world around me.

12. Underkoffler, John. “Pointing to the future of UI“, February 2010, Web, TED Long Beach, https://www.ted.com/talks/john_underkoffler_drive_3d_data_with_a_gesture?, Accessed 29/4/2016.

13. Lichty, Patrick. “An Alpha Revisionist Manifesto: Concept White Paper.”Leonardo 34, no. 5 (2001): 443-445.

14. Sterling, Bruce. BLOGTABLE V: Cyberpunks on the State of Science Fiction, Then and Now (Part 2), http://www.nerds-feather.com/2015/06/blogtable-v-cyberpunks-on-state-of_9.html, 2015.

15. Lichty, Patrick. “Art in the Age of Dataflow.” Variant Analyses: Interrogations of New Media Art and Culture (2013): 143-157.

16. Frank, Joseph. “Spatial form in modern literature: An essay in two parts.” The Sewanee Review 53, no. 2 (1945): 221-240.

17. Gillespie, William, Scott Rettberg, Dirk Stratton, and F. Marquardt. “The unknown.” DOI= http://www.unknownhypertext.com (1998).

18. Amerika, Mark. “Grammatron.” FICTION INTERNATIONAL 28 (1995): 107-115.

19. Levin, Golan, Kamal Nigam, and Jonathan Feinberg. “The dumpster.”Whitney Museum of American Art (2006).

20. Epstein, Jonathon S., and Patrick Lichty. “Machine: Mapping the multimedia terrain of postmodern society.” Sociological Spectrum 17, no. 3 (1997): 323-338.

21. Lessig, Lawrence. Free culture: How big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity. Penguin, 2004.