Nothing ever happens
It's hard to find a definition of minimalism that doesn't fall into the pitfalls of either self-pity or new age gibberish. We often think of minimalism in terms of voluntary simplicity and anti-consumerism, reducing the material footprint of our lives to its bare minimum. In many ways, the Amish are paving the way for the worldwide minimalist movement. Paris Hilton's The Simple Life, not so much.
Clearly, getting rid of "stuff" seems to constitute the bulk of contemporary minimalism. But in the same way we cannot reduce human experience to economics and consumption patterns (you are NOT what you eat, or the car you drive), we should not attempt to reduce a movement to its material, consumer-centric dynamics.
Minimalism is an idea, an ideal, that bears the promise of taking hold in a variety of areas, artistic, architectural, from urbanism to advertising.
One such example is the entertainment industry, and more specifically, the cinema-television-webtv continuum that strives to reinvent itself in ways that can still provide cultural and economic value. The recent American Broadcasting Companies Inc. v. Aereo Inc. Supreme Court decision notwithstanding, efforts are being made (by some) to look forward into the future of content production and broadcasting.
In fact, despite the continuing glory of recent Hollywood productions, several key players are struggling. For years, the focus has been on adding additional elements of experience — from the pathetic and mediocre pre-rolls and quizzes, to 3D glasses, reclining vibrating seats, curved screens and larger-than-life imax projections…
In so doing, promoters and vendors have made an attempt to capture ever greater value from a diminishing user base, and driven away those at the lower end of the spectrum, who enjoyed quality narratives, contemplative scenarios and intellectual experiences. For those, a new wave of minimalist approaches is stemming — and surprisingly, some using the latest, most exciting technologies.
Strangers: between experience and experiment
One such immersive experience is Felix & Paul's "Strangers: a moment with Patrick Watson", which we had described succinctly in May 2014. While it is exciting to know that immersive technologies are thriving in Montreal — one of the Oculus Rift's main rivals, TruePlayerGear's Totem, is made here — the most significant contribution stemming from Strangers is how it involves a new relationship to the frame of reference, both spatially and chronologically.
What happens in Strangers is nothing short of nothing. Patrick Watson is there. He plays the piano. Strikes a cigarette. There is a dog in the corner. For eight minutes, you are immersed in an alternate reality, and what's most confusing is, that reality is exactly like this one. One where, most of the time, nothing happens. There are no Godzilla monsters coming from the sea, no TransformersTM trying to save the universe. Just you, Patrick Watson, the piano and the dog.
The future of storytelling?
It has been 20 years since Johnny Mnemonic, fifteen since the release of The Matrix. Many experiments in immersion have failed since then, many for technological reasons, but several due to their inability to separate the immensity of the technological feat that such products represent from the simplicity of the stories they allow us to tell. Perhaps the future of stories is the absence of a story.
Plunging into alternate realities that resemble our own, with less effects, less scenario, is the embodiment of true minimalism. It is something whose main feature is emptiness, perhaps a lack of suggestion, a focus on the ephemeral nature of experience rather than on preciseness of the frame, the contribution to the story, the end game that the director is playing with you, his audience. In minimalism, there is no single focal point.
A paradox emerges from this new type of minimalism, one which, for technical reasons, poses a choice between immersion and interaction. Indeed, either the experience is immersive and thus predetermined in terms of path (during production, the technology that captures and renders immersion must be situated in a given space and moved according to the director's will — following a narrative logic or at random), or it is interactive but then, it is necessarily the product of synthesis, a video-game-like type of production that assembles a "world" to explore, but that cannot, at the moment, be lived as a reproduction of reality.
Actually, the outside world may be as close as we get to experiencing minimalism. But we don't see our lives as experiences or experiments. We most often see them simply for what they are: our lives. The Oculus mask, the music, the otherworldly aspect of it, makes a creation like Strangers something rememberable. But in so-doing, it may also remind us of the value of taking time, of emptying our schedule, of living the experience of the world as it is delivered to us, in its strangeness, unexpectedness, and interactivity.
Indeed, sometimes, less is more. That's probably why the world is so exciting.
In many ways, "nothing" ever happens, except for the meanings and actions we decide to enact into and onto it.
Don't be a stranger. Build something.