Langsamkeit: Telling Stories in a Small World – Florian Thalhofer & Matt Soar

Langsamkeit: Telling stories in a Small World

This interview took place (in English, via Skype) on 18 July 2010. It focuses on ‘Kleine Welt’ (or ‘Small World’), an experimental interactive narrative created by Florian Thalhofer in 1997, when he was 25, and published in modified form on CD-ROM by Mediamatic in 1999.

Florian Thalhofer is a Berlin-based artist and filmmaker, and he is the inventor of the Korsakow System, a free/libre, open source, software application for creating database narratives. His Korsakow films include Forgotten Flags (2007), 13terStock (2005), and 7Sons (2003). His current Korsakow project, Planet Galata: A Bridge in Istanbul, is being produced in association with ARTE, the European television network.

‘Small World’ was Thalhofer’s first attempt at creating an interactive narrative, and predates his development of the Korsakow System by several years. ‘Small World’ comprises “54 little stories on what it is like to grow up in a small town”, i.e. Schwandorf, population 28,000, in eastern Bavaria, less than 50km from the border with the Czech Republic. ‘Small World‘ has been exhibited internationally, and won the literatur.digital award in 2002. It can still be viewed online in German or English (requires Shockwave plugin), but we recommend downloading it (in German or English) for viewing on PCs or Macs (OS 9 or OS X) – in which case there is no need for Shockwave.

Matt Soar: In English there are two meanings to ‘Small World’: a small place, but the phrase also refers to coincidences in an increasingly connected world. Does it work that way in German?

Florian Thalhofer: Yes, it works the very same way. What’s so funny about ‘Small World’ is that the things I found there I found later on in very many other places. Like going to New York: the same principles that are in a small town you can find any place else.

MS: But there must be something unique about a small town experience that you don’t get in a city?

FT: I can’t really compare it, because I grew up in a small town and I didn’t grow up in a big city so I don’t know what it is like to grow up in a big city. I mean I can imagine of course. There was this crazy thing, in Schwandorf, and I did not realize how crazy it was when I was there: when someone came into the room and said something I could hear ‘ah, this person comes from Büchelkühn,’ a village next to Schwandorf; it has five hundred inhabitants, and I’ve never been there myself. But I could hear it, like, from one sentence, from the accent. And this density of information – I could not find that anymore. I can still hear if someone comes from Bavaria, but even there I sometimes have difficulties… to hear if the person comes from Munich, or Austria, or even the region I come from. That’s quite embarrassing, really. The space for the world in your head is always as big, whether your home is a small town or you are travelling the world. What changes is the level of detail.

MS: To what degree, when you made it, were you talking specifically about the experience of growing up in Schwandorf and how much were you aware of, or were you proposing or arguing that this was not a unique experience?

FT: When I made ‘Small World’ I did it for university for my bachelor’s degree. I was studying interface design, so I wrote the stories in ‘Small World’ in perhaps three evenings. So I had a couple of beers and I wrote these stories. I was not really aware of what I was doing; I didn’t have a plan. But I wanted to write about what it was like to grow up in a small town, not so much about Schwandorf. I think it’s a general experience you have when you grow up in a small place, but I think it’s also an experience you have in any place: you have certain types of people, and you find them everywhere. The knowledge about life that I had at that time was based on my experiences in Schwandorf. When I made it I’d been in Berlin for about three or four years, and I didn’t really know what to think about this place. Well actually I still don’t know.

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FT: [laughs] When I showed ‘Small World’ in the beginning I always said ‘All the stories in “Small World” are true, except the ones that are not true, but those could be true as well.’

MS: So, why fictionalize?

FT: It’s easier. We’re not that responsible for writing the truth. If I’d have said that this is the truth, then people could have blamed me and said ‘this is not true’ or ‘this is wrong’. When I wrote the stories in a couple of evenings, and I didn’t know the names of the shops anymore, I came up with some fake names. For example there’s one place in ‘Small World’ where they sell knives and weapons, and I gave it a name and later I found out that the real name of the place is ‘Killermann’ – which is spelled Killer-Man! This is unbelievable! This is so much better… so I missed out on that one. There were a couple of things that I just wrote together; I kind of made two stories into one. And for my friends these things then became true after a while. This was like our shared memory, and ten years later, we’re referring to ‘Small World,’ and I remember that this was not exactly what it was like; it was just a story, but people referred to it, friends of mine. I think even if you fictionalize something it becomes true in a way. It doesn’t really matter.

MS: If the stereotype of country life, especially for teenagers, is that it’s boring, do you think in some ways fictionalizing was about making it more interesting?

FT: No. I never wanted to make stories more cool than they were; I just wanted to describe the boredom of it, in a way.

MS: Do you think it does a good job, overall, of conveying a sense of the place, of being there?

FT: Yeah.

MS: When was the last time you watched it?

FT: I think two months ago.

MS: Are there any surprises in there, any more?

FT: I think it’s cool. ‘Small World’ is the best piece I made, I think.

MS: Are you serious? Ever?

FT: Yeah. I always try to get back there. I mean, I did not make ‘Small World’: it was so long ago; it was not a process that I was aware of; it’s not all brilliant, but some things are just cool. For me, now, it’s really hard to tell a story without having in mind what I want to say with it, and in ‘Small World’ there are so many things that I just named, and they say so many things, even more than I actually thought of, really. And now when I write texts, I’m usually quite aware of what they should mean.

MS: So is the problem, the change, in you, or is it that you somehow can’t capture those things with Korsakow in the way you could when you built ‘Small World’?

FT: It has nothing to do with Korsakow. I think Korsakow is a great tool to get there, to be able to say things where you don’t necessarily have a ‘message’. I think I have more of an opinion now than I had when I was younger. The beauty in things is when someone has a really cool observation, I enjoy that; and now if someone tells me something it’s very rare that I didn’t have that thought before. Know what I mean?

MS: Your brother did the narration in German and English. Why do it that way, when you often do the narration in your Korsakow films?

FT: It was a presentation for university, and I’ve always thought it sounds a bit odd when the person who does the presentation is the same voice that appears in the piece. But in the end people thought it was me anyhow, because of the accent.

MS: I detect some irony in your brother’s delivery; was this intentional?

FT: Yes, there’s some irony there. But he took the recorder with him and I wasn’t there when he recorded it – because he’s my older brother and he didn’t want me to tell him what to do [laughter]. And I wouldn’t have told him anyway – because he’s my big brother.

MS: Was he distancing himself from the material or was it because he felt he was doing you a favour?

FT: I think it’s part of the text; it’s distanced. But it’s odd because it describes things that are quite funny and even ridiculous sometimes – like my schoolteacher who didn’t like the poster I did. It’s a ridiculous story but it was very serious at the time. It’s in the text but it’s also in my brother’s narration. We did the English text much later – two years – when it was published with Mediamatic.

MS: You’ve said it’s your best piece, but if you had to make it again with everything you’ve learned, with Korsakow around now, with the technical advances we’ve witnessed, would you make it differently or would you reproduce it exactly?

FT: I think I would try to reproduce it. Actually, every now and then I think about doing it again [laughs]. It could be that in the process you find that you can add stuff, or there is more to say, but I’m not sure.

MS: What about the interface, or the feedback sound when you click on things?

FT: Oh yes – I’d change the sound loop that’s in the background. I would work more with music. And the screen resolution: they were quite disappointed when they set it up for this installation (‘Provinz’ in Lindau, Bavaria, Aug 2010); you know, it’s 680×460 pixels. That was standard at that time – not for the web, but for computer monitors.

MS: How have your ideas about database narrative changed since you made Small World?

FT: It was the first time I made a narrative piece. I was very blank, I had no idea how to properly write a story. I used a computer to organize the material, because I liked computers and because I thought it was adequate for the way these memories are in my brain. I still think it makes sense to tell stories that way, more and more so. Actually I started to question if the linear way of storytelling makes any sense at all [laughs].

MS: If you had to choose one word, in English or German, to sum up rural life, what would it be?

[Laughs] In Bavaria? ‘Beer’ [Long pause.] ‘Langsamkeit’. It means ‘slowness’.

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Small World is available for streaming or download. You will need Shockwave player to stream this project (but not to download it).

Matt Soar is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Concordia University. As the principal investigator for CINER-G, he is co-directing the redevelopment of the Korsakow System. CINER-G will be hosting a symposium and gallery show called Database≤Narrative≥Archive in Montreal in May 2011. http://www.mattsoar.org

Florian Thalhofer was born in Bavaria. He lives and works in Berlin. Florian is the inventor of the [korsakow system], a software to create database narratives. He studied at the University of the Arts in Berlin (MA and Meisterschüler) and at UCLA in Los Angeles. http://www.thalhofer.com



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