It's 9:45 PM, and I'm walking through New Orleans Square at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. The water show is in full swing, with miraculous sudden set changes. . . . The giant pirate boat with fifty actors has turned and is completely hidden behind a corner too small for it, and multiple thirty-foot evil magic-mirror faces hang on mist screens above the water. I decide to take a sudden turn myself, to visit the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. A few feet down the path, the crowd is gone, and the water show almost inaudible. The ride is on a narrow waterway with flat-bottom boats inexorably driven forward through the artificial landscape by a fearsome chain-and-gear mechanism hidden under the water. I'm in my seat, and twenty seconds later we are underground, on a river in a cave system somewhere beneath Disneyland, somewhere in the Caribbean, probably near the storage space of that missing water-show pirate ship. And, simultaneously, I am almost back in the Carlsbad Caverns National Monument, true wonder of the underworld, alone, after midnight, during the production of my film WAX or the discovery of television among the bees. Floating on a boat attached by bottom chains to an artificial underground Disney-Caribbean river is not that much different from walking alone, at midnight, through the unbelievable underground and path-determined space of Carlsbad Caverns, moving in half-light among giant rock forms. That afternoon, deeper in the cave, I'd had a beekeeper's suit on and been standing around the corner of the one-way path from a cameraman, almost leaning on a fractionally detailed limestone formation. On the cameraman's cue, I was supposed to create a material wipe suddenly by walking around the corner, but we had to keep delaying the shot as tourists kept appearing behind me on the one-way path . . . surprising me, but not themselves. I was just part of the landscape, and several even said, "The moon, huh?" before turning the next corner and finding the camera. I was part of their ride, but they knew I was also thousands of feet underneath the moon, maybe somewhere in France on the set of a Melies movie, or perhaps back at Disneyland, back at Pirates of the Caribbean.
An interesting and vital part of navigation in immersive environments is the effect of sudden mode change . . . often, turning a corner, you are instantly in another environment, as if you had just passed through the spatial equivalent of a soft-edged wipe. What is shocking is that these mode changes can often take you to an environment that contradicts the one you just came from, both in appearance, and in meaning and use . . . like turning a smooth corner at the base of the Matterhorn at Disneyland, and ending up at the end of a row of urinals.
The first effect of this spatial mode change, I believe, is that one becomes more susceptible to association. In other words, free navigation in an immersive environment leads to mode changes, and mode changes lead to an increase in association, sometimes internal, and sometimes external. The latter we call coincidence.
Back in the early 1970s, I learned a lot from surreal audio theater pieces put out by the group Firesign Theatre. I hadn't listened to them for almost twenty years until I bought them as used records, in preparation for a trip to a computer graphics convention called SIGGRAPH '93. Off the plane under the memorial statue at the John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, in an enormous surrounding glass abutment that was the center of a high imperial postmodern building (so obviously built first in the computer that regular holes had been designed in the mold of the parking garage's poured roof to allow what started as elephant feet underground to turn into a grid of optimistic palm trees above), I realized I'd better go to Disneyland before I got too busy. Four hours later, it was closing time at Disneyland, and I was emerging from the bathroom across from the Matterhorn. I'd just bought my first Walkman the month before, and wasn't used to the dual alienation and audio overlay effect you get from a Walkman, so I put the headphones on again with self-conscious semireluctance, and went back to "We're All Bozo's on This Bus" (Firesign Theatre, 1971), written at the beginning of the age of video as an imagination of what government-inflicted simulation might really be like. Putting the story briefly, a bus comes to town, and Clem gets on board. It turns out that the bus is actually a seamless virtual reality environment, that may or may not take Clem to a future amusement park very similar to what I imagine is Ross Perot's vision of the Information Superhighway.
While meeting the audioanimatronic president on the White House Ride, Clem reveals himself as a quasi-revolutionary hacker, who conversationally forces the robot president into maintenance mode, in order to talk to Dr. Memory, the real program running the simulation. Clem is inside the machine, and inside the program, calling out to Dr. Memory: "Read me, Dr. Memory! Read me Dr. Memory!"There's a full moon out, the Matterhorn is white, and the gondola cables are dark and visible against the sky. Suddenly, there's an additional voice and space on the tape, which it takes about ten seconds to identify as coming from the entire southern slope of the Matterhorn, which has begun to speak in the sublime voice of a woman on a microphone saying: "Shutting Down System A. Shutting Down System A. Check. Shutting Down System B. Check." A male voice replies conversationally to the technical woman from another set of speakers across the way. In the meantime, Clem, who had already succeeded in breaking the president, has just shut down the entire Future Fair.
The effect of modal change and association, - whether the latter takes place in the imagination, or in the world as coincidence, is that you end up with a sort of spatial fiction, what Jay Bolter in his book on electronic writing called a topical, or topographic fiction, a fiction of aphorisms and situations, spread in front of you as a field of places that can change from one to the other in a variety of ways. Traveling through the fiction is like navigating through an immersive environment, and vice versa.