November 22, 2005

Reading Can Be a Ball: Philadelphia Fullerine

by Nick Montfort · , 2:21 pm

Philadelphia Fullerine, Lite Edition

I had a most unusual visitor a few weeks ago.

The Philadelphia Fullernie, which stopped by to roll a saving throw, is one of these. J. Nathan Matias, its creator, calls it “three-dimensional hypermedia.” This combination of game-industry and e-lit buzzwords doesn’t happen to entice me; I find it’s more more interesting to consider the work as a “documentary sculpture,” a really provocative combination of concepts that describes some of the project’s strange dimensions.

Nate’s page about the project provides some nice photos of the “official” (and much less portable) Fullerine. As Nate’s award-winning, access-restricted ACM Hypertext paper on the Philadelphia Fullerine explains, the work is “about ethnic and lower class life in mid-19th century Philadelphia. Each of the 60 faces presents primary image material and a short audio documentary. Adjacent faces are linked conceptually.” Nate is finishing his bachelor’s degree at Elizabethtown College, which is not too shabby a phase of one’s studies during which to win the Nelson award for best paper by someone new to the Hypertext conference.

Close-up of the Philadelphia Fullerine
Magic 8-Ball says “Working-Class Living Conditions.”

Nate discusses his writing process in detail in his paper – he used Tinderbox to organize his notes and plan the construction of the piece, and tested his final structrure in Gzz, an implementation of Ted Nelson’s zzstructure system that forms part of ZigZag.

Again, William Gillespie’s excellent “Letter to Linus,” cited in Nate’s paper, provides an antecedent, this time in being a text-inscribed regular solid, albeit a virtual one. Nate originally thought to do his work as a cube, but settled on a more complex structure that had implicit groupings within it. While William’s project is more geometrically modest, less photographic and photogenic, and is not the unusual sort of documentary endeavor that the Fullerine is, it is nicer to read, and the smaller number of sides there connected to each other in more palpable ways.

The audio material was interesting to me as a Philadelphia resident, but not gripping, and I couldn’t really track the track number of each different face I was looking at and listen appropriately – I just played the CD. While I liked the way photos and texts were arranged on the polyhedron, and I did learn some about the city from the work, I’m not sure this is an ideal way of engaging with Philadelphia history, at least in its current form. From speaking with Nate, I got the impression that he liked doing the project and writing about it as much as, if not more than, the specific sculptural outcome. The Fullerine did invite me to think about history in a more associative and less conclusive way, though, which is a rare offering.

Fullerine instructions
A bit of the isomorphic instructions.

One of the things I did liked a lot about the Fullerine was actually putting it together – something that most people who view and inhabit space with the sculpture won’t get to do. Maybe it’s the puzzle-solver in me, but I feel the act of assembling something like this can possibly add to the experience of making mental connections and reframing one’s view of a city and it’s past. Perhaps in this case it didn’t; it was just fun. But figuring out which quintet of triangles to attach to which has more interactive potential that does finding the right audio track on a CD, I think.