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Interview: “I Don’t Want To Be Captivated”

Copyright:  Kloos & Co. Medien GmbH, Florian Thalhofer
Scene from the Korsakoff film Planet Galata: Bayram, a paper collector in the quarters around Galata Bridge in Istanbul, takes a break. (Photo: Kloos & Co. Medien GmbH, Florian Thalhofer)

21 May 2011

Ordinary films drive him mad; he gives his audiences laser pointers to play with. Florian Thalhofer is the inventor of the Korsakow System. In an interview he talks about interactive presentations, alcohol and a stroke of luck called the Internet.

Mr Thalhofer, what was the last film you saw?

The last linear film? That was Fargo by the Coen brothers.

What differentiates such a film from your Korsakow films?

The concept of linear film comes from the technical restrictions of the pre-computer era, which pastes the individual scenes together for eternity. That’s not the case in a Korsakow film. The scenes are linked to one another in a variable way.

Can a quite “ordinary” film with a linear narrative captivate you at all anymore, or does it drive you mad when you are unable to intervene in the action?

On the contrary, a linear film can captivate me very much – like anyone. But, it drives me totally mad to be captivated. In linear films I have the feeling that someone wants to push something into my head and I hardly have the chance to fight it.

You invented the Korsakow system. Can you tell me in two or three sentences what that is?

It is software for making rule-based, non-linear and interactive films. It sounds complicated but is very simple: The writer describes the individual scenes of a Korsakow film. Based on these descriptions, the scenes are then re-arranged for each viewing in a meaningful way. Usually, the viewer can choose the next respective scene from a series of suggestions. But, there are also Korsakow films that run automatically, where the computer chooses the next scene. A film like this can then no longer be visibly differentiated from an “ordinary” film.

This is a SNU. by intermediated on Vimeo

What is an “SNU”? In a short animated video, Florian Thalhofer explains how Korsakow works.

How did you get this idea?

While I was studying in Berlin at the University of the Arts in 1997, I began to become interested in the way stories are told. At the same time, I discovered my interest in computers...and I simply put the two together. Ultimately, I had no idea how to do it properly. I am pig-headed and put something together by myself. It was a little like putting the cart before the horse...but it can still work that way, of course.

Korsakoff’s syndrome is a kind of amnesia that damages short-term memory. It was first described by Sergei Korsakoff in chronic alcoholics. Alcohol was also the subject of your first Korsakow film. Do we need to be concerned?

Copyright: Kloos & Co. Medien GmbH, Ahmet Sel
Korsakow inventor Florian Thalhofer (Photo: Kloos & Co. Medien GmbH, Ahmet Sel)
No. The subject matter of alcohol was the result of my very first computer-based work, Kleine Welt. It was about growing up in the Bavarian province. Whenever I showed this work, people always reacted by saying, “It’s all about alcohol.” I hadn’t even noticed it at first, but then turned out to be a prolific theme. I was travelling a great deal in America and Germany, spoke with many people and conducted interviews. Alcohol is a topic that you can use to start up conversations with people easily because almost everyone has some experience with it.

You were just in Montreal for the Goethe-Institut and gave a Korsakow talk at the symposium DNA: Database/Narrative/Archive. So, an interactive talk. Can you describe that to us?

There are two talks I have held again and again. Now, I cut these two talks into small bits and fed them into the Korsakow system. The audience has laser pointers and chooses which part of my lecture I should hold next.

How does your audience react?

The audience is not always enthusiastic. Some criticize that the films are boring and don’t explain what you’re supposed to think. But, that’s the strength of Korsakow: I don’t tell the audience what to think; they have to think themselves.

An SNU from the Korsakow film Planet Galata. The complete Korsakow film

But, it’s more than just playing games?

Of course. The system has existed now for about eleven years and it is slowly conquering the world. Universities use it, film students work with it. But, the development was never spectacular. It went slowly because you have to learn the format.

Do you also consider Korsakow a particularly effective teaching method? Will we have to get used to the Korsakow method for Latin lessons in school in future?

I can only guess at that since I don’t have much experience in that area. But, there are some people who have examined the Korsakow concept under that aspect and were very enthusiastic about it. Korsakow is simply a good tool for structuring information and making it tangible for others.

Since you began making Korsakow films back in the year 2000 there have been some technical changes. What was the most significant development for you and your project?

The Internet. When I began with Korsakow, the medium of the times was the CD-ROM and later the DVD. But, I didn’t want to design Korsakow for that because DVD authoring, the intermediate stage between post-processing and multiplication, is just completely daft. So, I built the system the way I wanted without the technical foundations yet existing for it. And then the Internet came along. The bandwidths are already there, you can stream videos. While you once had to compress an image infinitely to put it on the Internet, today you can watch films in a resolution that is far better than on television. Until just recently that was unimaginable.

The interview was conducted by Anne-Kathrin Lange

Florian Thalhofer, born in 1972, is a documentary filmmaker and media artist. He has received a Literatur.Digital Award, a Red Dot Design Award, a Werkleitz Award and other prizes for his work. Thalhofer studied at the Berlin University of the Arts, where he worked for a number of years after graduating as lecturer. He was a guest professor at the Deutsche Literaturinstitut Leipzig and teaches at the Mediamatic Institute in Amsterdam.
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