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£20 (CD-Rom + headset) or £15 (CD-Rom only)
Story and text by Kate Pullinger
Night-dream effects by Stefan Schemat
Day-dream effects by babel
reviewed by Edward Picot
Any New Media work which attempts to tell a "proper" story in a radically new way deserves attention. The Breathing Wall, which attempts just this, is undeniably flawed as a work of art; but as an experiment it's too interesting to ignore.
It's partly a murder mystery and partly a ghost story. Michael, the main character, is in prison for a crime he didn't commit, namely the murder of his ex-girlfriend Lana. When he goes to sleep at night he dreams about her; but these are more like visitations than ordinary dreams. She speaks to him out of the wall of his prison cell, gradually revealing more and more details about the background to her murder. She tells him, amongst other things, a secret about his sister Florence, who was her best friend when she was alive. Back in the waking world, Michael uses this secret to recruit Florence's help; and eventually Florence's investigations lead to his release.
The narrative is divided into two strands - "Daydreams" and "Dreams". Broadly speaking, the "Dreams" deal with Michael's sleep-encounters with Lana, while the "Daydreams" deal with the waking parts of the story. In both strands we hear the voices of the same two actors playing Michael and Lana; both strands are much concerned with Michael's memories; in neither do we ever see a human face; and both employ a similar range of tonal values - brooding, shadowy images (some of them strikingly beautiful) and echoey or rumbly sound-effects. In other respects, however, the two strands are stylistically dissimilar: the "Daydreams" are basically linear text-based storytelling embellished with still images, audio files and spoken lines, whereas the "Dreams" are much more interactive, with film footage replacing still images, but no text.
The great danger of this stylistic division is that The Breathing Wall might break into two completely separate pieces. The Breathing Wall website itself (http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/studio/pullinger/webtaster/) acknowledges that there is a stylistic split which goes right to the heart of the work: "This piece is, in fact, two companion pieces: the hypertext story... and the dream story." The same point comes across from Kate Pullinger's online journal about how The Breathing Wall was developed (http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/studio/pullinger/bwone.html): "The three-way collaboration has been odd; really, it's been more like two two-way collaborations for me, with Stefan and I working on the HTF dreams, and Chris and I working on the hypertext."
All the same, although it creaks at times, The Breathing Wall does manage to hold together: and the main reason for this is the fact that the two halves are unified by the demands of a single narrative. There is information buried in the "Dreams" which is not available in the "Daydreams", and vice-versa: we need to access both parts to understand the story as a whole. This is the strength of The Breathing Wall: being a murder mystery, it has an oldfashioned "page-turning" quality which isn't found very often in new media work.
One peculiarity of the "Daydreams" strand is that it contains several dialogues mixing audio with text. Half the lines are spoken aloud, and the other half are spelt out onscreen. As far as I know, this particular experiment has never been tried before. The problem is that the text seems to be arriving inside our heads as we read it, whereas the spoken words seem to be coming from outside. The text, in other words, seems more internalised: but sometimes the written parts of these exchanges do not belong to Michael (who is supposed to have our sympathy, and through whose eyes we are supposed to be seeing) but to "external" characters. It seems the wrong way round.
On the other hand there is one particularly interesting passage in which Michael calls Florence on the telephone. At one moment we're in the prison with Michael, making the call, and at the next we're on the other end of the phone with Florence, listening to Michael's voice, which now sounds distant and tinny. This reversal of perspective turns the lines the right way round - the text belongs to Florence, whose point of view we are now sharing, and the audio track belongs to Michael, the "external" character. Yet the effect of this is even more problematic: we feel that Florence isn't actually speaking her lines at all, only thinking them, and we wonder why Michael is pausing so long between one remark and the next, a problem compounded by the fact that the dialogue as a whole progresses too slowly.
In the "Dream" sections there is no text, and the still images are replaced by moving ones: grey clouds swirling in the sky, white feathery grasses blowing between dark treetrunks, or a steel pendulum in a glass-fronted clock. It's in this strand of the narrative that the most unique feature of The Breathing Wall comes to the fore: the dreams are designed to interact with their readers and viewers through a headset and microphone, and the rate at which each dream-sequence unfolds is governed by the rate at which the reader or viewer breathes into the mike. At times the effect is really powerful: in the first dream there's a particularly good sequence where every time you breathe you are rushed in closeup past the surface of a brick wall, then you come to a halt, then you rush back the other way when you breathe again. There is also a recurring linkage in all the dreams between the physical sensation of your own breath coming and going and the sound of rushing wind on the soundtrack. In a way this duplicates the interesting confusion of inner and outer worlds which is suggested by the mixture of spoken lines and text in the "Daydream" sections.
Where the technology works well, the feeling that the flow of images and sounds is controlled by our breathing makes the "Dream" sequences authentically dreamlike and immersive. Unfortunately, there are times when the interaction-through-breathing hinders our involvement rather than enhancing it. The brief information-sheet which comes with the disc instructs us: "Place the microphone directly beneath your nose, as close as possible without touching the skin... The more relaxed you become, the more layers you will access." As a matter of fact, however, breathing down your nose generally isn't enough to shift the dream-sequences forward: blowing gently into the microphone is more likely to do the trick. Even employing this technique, the dreams only unfold very slowly, especially the fourth dream, which I abandoned in despair on four or five occasions before I finally managed to get beyond the opening scene. There were moments when I found myself blowing harder and harder into the microphone in an attempt to make something happen. Sometimes I came within a whisker of falling asleep; at other times I was equally close to hyperventilation. One irritating aspect of these sequences is that if you take off the headset and do something else for five minutes, you find yourself having to start all over again. Another - a besetting sin with new media work - is that you don't know how long the sequences are going to last, and it's difficult to tell for sure whether you've finished them or not. From this point of view, the structuring of the "Daydream" sections is much more user-friendly.
Another problem, which affects both strands of the narrative, is that Michael and Lana are given some very unnatural-sounding lines (both in text and spoken aloud) for the sake of heightened effect. At one point, Michael recollects Lana telling him about her mother, who was an artist:
"I used to love visiting her studio at the end of the garden," Lana said, "with its white-washed breeze-block walls and strange, harsh smells of oil paint and turpentine. It was very cold in the studio... She said, I can see more clearly in the cold, blasted air."At another point, in the first Dream, Michael attempts to build up the importance of the story and the symbolic significance of the interaction-through-breathing technology:
It's not always easy to live in the dreams of another. Some stories take our breath, some stories are encrypted... With your breath, you can open doors...The textless "Dream" sequences, which you might expect to be almost wordless, are actually very talky in places, which tends to spoil the dreamlike atmosphere. And neither Michael nor Lana has a clearly-individuated way of speaking, so the actors who voice their lines struggle to put any life into the parts, and the dialogues often come across either as flat or melodramatic.
But the strength of the writing here is in the storytelling rather than the style. There are plenty of new media pieces long on style but short on narrative substance, and The Breathing Wall makes a refreshing change in that respect. Furthermore it has enough interesting ideas and arresting moments to be well worth our attention despite its shortcomings. A masterpiece it isn't, but a fascinating experiment it is.
© Edward Picot, November 2004
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