Wandering Through the Labyrinth: An Interview with USC’s Marsha Kinder (Part Four)

Since the conference, you and your co-editor Tara McPherson have gotten deeper into work around the digital humanities. I’d love to hear you talk about the visions underlying these projects and the somewhat different agendas for digital humanities they each embody.

One of the goals shared by Labyrinth, Scaler and Vectors, is to make the digital humanities embrace visual and audio culture as equally important to the word. We all are involved in making multisensory works that are as intellectually rich, rigorous, and subtle as any traditional essay or book.

Another shared goal is to encourage and validate collaboration both among humanities scholars and with artists, scholars and scientists from other fields. Although we have different models for the scope and range of such collaborations (partly based on issues of scale, funding and who is involved), we all recognize its importance and realize that it’s always a touchy subject. While most academics and administrators are usually willing to support collaboration verbally, the problem arises when it’s time to make decisions on promotion and tenure. Suddenly issues of credit (who’s doing what) become insurmountable problems.

Labyrinth’s collaborations usually involve a small team of theorists, scholars, artists, programmers and designers who (with the help of student assistants from Cinema) make a specific database narrative that provides a new model of digital scholarship. Each work requires a different collaborative team and individual funding. Sometimes we include interns from other nations and cultures, or volunteers from other departments or schools. The team is tailored to the specific project. These goals are narrower than those of Vectors and Scaler, which, through the development of unique user-friendly software, enable humanities scholars from across the nation to produce their own individual digital projects.

In developing different signature genres (e.g., digital city symphonies, interactive memoirs, archival cultural histories, health-science education), Labyrinth engages in an on-going process of reframing. For example, although its first science education project, Three Winters in the Sun: Einstein in California, was an installation in the Skirball Cultural Center’s major exhibition on the famous scientist, it combined an interactive memoir (Einstein’s complex relations with six different communities) with a digital city symphony (Los Angeles in the early 1930s).

Einstein in California

Though it told us more about the contradictions in his life than about his scientific discoveries (which were covered by other installations in the Skirball exhibition), it led the way to Labyrinth’s next signature genre—the health-science-education project.

Produced in collaboration with molecular scientist Dr. Jean Chen Shih from USC’s School of Pharmacy, A Tale of Two MAO Genes: Exploring the Biology and Culture of Aggression and Anxiety, was another translational work in science, but this time designed for use in the classroom. The project used live action video and 3-D animation to cover basic molecular biology and to explain Dr. Shih’s pioneering research on MAO A and B. The project’s strongest elements were 3-D animations (by USC animation student Debra Isaac) of protein folding and other biological processes, visualizations that were both extremely beautiful and rigorously accurate.

To fulfill its secondary goal of encouraging youngsters to become scientists, it includes a brief biography of Dr. Shih and interviews with several scientists explaining how they entered the field. The project was translated into Mandarin and is being used as a model both in China and Taiwan.

Both of these earlier science-education projects laid the groundwork for a video-based website called “Interacting with Autism,” a collaboration with documentary filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris that drew on an impressive list of scientific consultants who are specialists in this expanding field.

Interacting with Autism

Funded by grants from AHRQ (the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality), it was launched on-line in September 2013. This bilingual website (in English and Spanish) is now being translated into Mandarin so that it can be used more productively in China. It is also being tested by an evaluative group at the Rand Corporation, who seek to use it as a model for comparable websites on other health disorders. We’ve had particularly good response to the brief animated film that shows what sensory overload feels like to some individuals on the spectrum.

While working on this website, I became very interested in neurodiversity, a key issue in the cultural debates between autism activists on the spectrum and those who see it autism simply as a disorder to be cured. We were determined to include the points of view from those on the spectrum—on both sides of the camera.

While working on these science translation projects, I realized it was possible to reframe many of the issues I had dealt with in previous works within a new conceptual framework. That’s the book I’m working on now, which is titled Narrative in the Age of Neuroscience: The Discreet Charms of Serial Autobiography.

Kinder New Book

Marsha Kinder began her career in the 1960s as a scholar of eighteenth century English Literature before moving to the study of transmedial relations among narrative forms. In 1980 she joined USC’s School of Cinematic Arts where she continued to be an academic nomad, with narrative as her through-line. Having published over one hundred essays and ten books (both monographs and anthologies), she is best known for her work on Spanish film, specifically Blood Cinema (1993); children’s media, especially Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Video Games (1991); and digital culture (including her new anthology Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, The Arts and the Humanities (2014), co-edited with Tara McPherson. She was founding editor of innovative journals, such as Dreamworks (1980-87), winner of a Pushcart Award, USC’s Spectator (1982-present) and since 1977 served on the editorial board of Film Quarterly. In 1995 she received the USC Associates Award for Creativity in Scholarship, and in 2001 was named a University Professor for her innovative transdisciplinary research.

In 1997 she founded The Labyrinth Project, a USC research initiative on database narrative, producing award-winning database documentaries and new models of digital scholarship. In collaboration with media artists Rosemary Comella, Kristy Kang and Scott Mahoy, and with filmmakers, scientists and cultural institutions, Labyrinth produced 12 multimedia projects (DVD-ROMs, websites, installations and on-line courseware) that were featured at museums, film and new media festivals, and conferences worldwide. Kinder’s latest work, Interacting with Autism, is a video-based website produced in collaboration with Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris and Scott Mahoy. Since retiring from teaching in Summer 2013, Kinder is now writing a new book titled Narrative in the Era of Neuroscience: The Discreet Charms of Serial Autobiography.