Wandering Through the Labyrinth: An Interview with USC's Marsha Kinder (Part Two)

Marsha, you coined the term "transmedia" in your 1991 book, Playing with Power, where you used it to describe an emerging entertainment supersystem. Your phrase has been widely picked up and applied to everything from transmedia storytelling to transmedia learning to transmedia branding to transmedia mobilization. You have chosen to use it as part of the title of this book. To what degree is this an effort to reclaim and redefine the term? Why did you find this an appropriate framework for thinking about the debates in this collection? Yes, in choosing to use “Transmedia” in the title of our anthology, I was reclaiming the term I had coined in 1991 in Playing with Power. But, in no way do I object to the way the meanings of transmedia have expanded—that’s the way language functions. In fact, Tara and I were also redefining the term "transmedia," for it creates an opening for those new media that our anthology didn’t cover in depth—including smart phones—and those that haven’t yet been invented.

We were also using it as a substitute for the term “interactive,” whose definition and connotations are no longer hotly contested. Transmedia, on the other hand, evokes the issue of medium specificity (still very much in contention), without supporting one side or the other. Yet, as some of the essays in our anthology suggest, it also evokes the historic transformation we are now experiencing, in which all movies, videos, TV programs, and music are being redefined as software or data, a conversion with seismic financial and cultural consequences.

Playing with Power

In Playing with Power, instead of using the popular buzz-word convergence, I coined the term transmedia because I saw it as a deliberate, dynamic move across media. This definition partly arose from my own transmedia experience—of having completed a doctoral degree in 18th century English literature in 1967 and then publishing my first article two months later, not on Henry Fielding but on Antonioni’s Blow-up. This move from literature to film led one of my literary colleagues to accuse me of having “betrayed the 18th century.” Though flattered by the charge, I realized this move was not always freely chosen.

In Playing with Power, I linked this term "transmedia" to a new kind of postmodernist subjectivity that could be historicized. Priding itself on mobility rather than stability, this new protean subjectivity was embodied in those popular transformer toys and in the myth of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,

Playing TMNT

where all four words in their name emphasize this kind of movement—whether it was natural growth from childhood to adulthood; or a de-novo mutation caused by urban pollution; or a fluid transnational identity linked to Japanese ninjas, California surfers, and Italian Renaissance artists; or an evolutionary move by amphibians from sea to land. Given this hyper-plasticity, the only fixed aspect of their identity was their masculine gender that depended on having the right toys and gear, which meant kids could buy into the system.

The turtles acquired their own cultural capital by becoming (what I called) a “transmedia supersystem,” whose fluid movement across many different media (from comic books, to games, to television, to movies, and to a slew of licensed products, all with substantial financial rewards) made them even more worthy of imitation. In fact, you could find this transformative subjectivity not only in children but also in transnational CEOs of the time—like Akio Morita, the founding chairman of Sony, who said shortly after his company’s 1989 purchase of Columbia Pictures:

Playing Sony

Interestingly, Morita’s statement identified transmedia movement not only with transnational moves but also with play, which led me to explore its connection with a particular kind of developmental psychology. Specifically, I relied on L.S. Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development,” an area of accelerated learning created through play where a child always behaves beyond his average age and beyond Piaget ‘s fixed developmental model. According to Vygotsky, when play is guided by an adult or more capable peers, the interaction could function as an accelerant. I argued that interaction with popular media (like television, films and computer games) could also fulfill this function, which is a basic premise of Sesame Street. Thus instead of echoing the dire warnings of many psychologists about the harmful effects on youngsters of watching television, I claimed TV could serve as a developmental accelerant that taught youngsters a form of transmedia literacy, which enabled them to bridge the gap between domestic and public space. For, ever since television became pervasive in the American home [a position now challenged by computers, ipads, smart phones and other digital devices], this medium had accelerated children’s acquisition of a fluid postmodernist subjectivity marked by constant change—a subjectivity that helped explain the popularity of transformer toys and transmedia heroes like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Another key aspect of the original conference and to some degree this book was to broker a kind of conversation between experimental artists working with digital media and academic theorists seeking to imagine digital presents and futures. What do you see as the value of such interactions between artists and academics?

I have always been convinced that there’s an important interplay between artistic experimentation and theoretical breakthroughs. This is true in older art forms—such as literature, as much as in film and digital media. For example, in the 18th century although Dr. Samuel Johnson realized that Shakespeare’s mixture of comedy and tragedy violated Aristotle’s rules, he concluded there must be something wrong with the rules, and he attributed his own theoretical insight to Shakespeare’s artistic experimentation. We can find this same kind of interplay in those artists (such as, Joyce, Beckett, Borges, Duras, Marker, and Akerman) whose experimentation is so radical that it transforms any theory applied to it or inspires the creation of a new one—the way Marcel Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu inspired Gerard Genette’s Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, or Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera and Peter Greenaway’s avant-garde films helped shape Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media. And we find a similar interplay in those figures who combine theory and artistic practice in their own work—such as, Eisenstein, Vertov, Pasolini, Deren, and Godard.

In the early days of The Labyrinth Project, I purposely sought out collaborators who were already experimenting with non-linear, open-ended narrative and associative structures—artists who (I thought) could bring a new level of sophistication to this new medium. Since we had no track record, I had to begin with artists I already knew and with whom there was mutual trust. Thus I chose my friend John Rechy, the gay, Chicano novelist whose City of Night mapped the gay cruising zones of the nation, whose Numbers focused on compulsive repetition in Griffith Park, and whose Sexual Outlaw was an edgy, non-linear fictional documentary.

I also chose independent filmmaker Pat O’Neill, whose brilliant multi-layered films I had been writing about since the 1970s.

Our first signature genre was the digital city symphony, an update of the modernist city symphony with its avant-garde associations. Focusing on contested urban space through layers of time, it deliberately eroded the line between documentary and fiction. In Tracing the Decay of Fiction: Encounters with a Film by Pat O’Neill, the exploratory space was the Ambassador Hotel on the Miracle Mile in midtown Los Angeles, where the downtown power-brokers and Hollywood moguls first mingled. It was also the site where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 and where other historical traumas, both personal and cultural, took place.

In Bleeding Through Layers of Los Angeles, 1920-1986, an adaptation of Norman Klein’s cultural history, The History of Forgetting: The Cultural Erasure of Los Angeles, documentary and fiction vied for control over this multi-tiered narrative. The contested space was a three mile radius in downtown Los Angeles, a neighborhood known for both its real-life ethnic diversity and fictional on-screen violence.

Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles, 1920-1986 (2002) from Rosemary Comella on Vimeo.

Another of our early signature genres was the interactive memoir, which preserves the unique web of memories and associations that an individual builds over a lifetime and that inevitably unravels with old age and death. These works encouraged users to interweave this personal material into a broader tapestry of historical narrative. Thus we chose vintage subjects who had complex relations with several different communities. As we’ve seen, Mysteries and Desires: Searching the Worlds of John Rechy features a gay Chicano novelist whose works purposely blur the line between autobiography and fiction.

The Dawn at My Back: Memoir of a Black Texas Upbringing was the interactive version of a print memoir by Carroll Parrott Blue, an African American photographer from an independent black community in Houston.

And we also did one on Albert Einstein, called Three Winters in the Sun: Einstein in California...

Presented as DVD-ROMs, websites, and installations, these database narratives from Labyrinth were featured at museums, film and new media festivals, and conferences worldwide. Three of our early works were included in Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film, a major exhibition co-curated by Jeffrey Show and Peter Weibel, which ran from 16 November 2002 – 30 March 2003 at ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany, and subsequently travelled to Helsinki and Tokyo.

Despite many exhibitions (both on-line and in museums) of such works and those by others over the past twenty years, there are still very few critics, historians, or theorists who are writing about them—partly because the production process is opaque. I remember when Kevin Thomas, who was then Film Critic for the Los Angeles Times, came to our Labyrinth studio and was interested in writing about Mysteries and Desires. He said he was surprised that John Rechy could draw so well and was so good as a visual artist. When I started explaining who did what, he lost interest in writing about the project. Another time we were delighted to find that Bleeding Through Layers of Los Angeles was positively reviewed by David Ulm in the L.A. Times Weekly Book Review Section. Yet we were horrified that he wrongly assumed Klein’s brief fictional pamphlet that accompanied the DVD-ROM was the primary source of our interactive project, which was merely a visual adaptation. Though several of the essays in our anthology address such experimental works, the history of projects like these still needs to be written. The pace of technological innovation and obsolescence is so rapid that it’s difficult for academics and cultural historians to keep up—both with the specific works being produced and the digital futures they project. But we included some attempts in Transmedia Frictions.


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.