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The Exquisite Forest

There is an old game that you have probably played in one form or another over the years. The first player starts to tell a story and at a suitable point passes it on to the next person who continues the tale. They are free to embellish and elaborate before passing it on in turn themselves. This game has a history stretching from the very earliest humans to the internet age, with nods at Victorian parlour amusements, literary experiments and collaborative role playing exercises.

One famous variant called ‘The Exquisite Corpse’ was invented by French surrealists in Paris in the 1920s that involved each player contributing a single word in turn to construct the story. This has inspired the artist and designer Aaron Koblin to create an interactive art project called the Exquisite Forest using the visual metaphor of branches and leaves as nodes of a story that starts from a fixed point and can split off at any point in different directions.

The project is currently supported by an installation at the Tate Modern, with projections and digital workstations enabling visitors to the gallery to easily contribute. If you can’t get to the Tate, you can of course join in online. A number of professional artists and animators including some from Film 4 have also been invited to participate and provide starting seeds for others to add to.

Opening the site in a web browser finds a misty forest filled with trees of different sizes. Clicking on a tree zooms in closer to show that tree in isolation. Hover over a leaf and a small preview window of the story opens, and clicking will zoom in again to a full screen view. You can then choose to add your own animation, using a simple but effective set of animation tools, brushes and effects to create an eight frame sequence.

Simple procedural music and sound effects – from dripping water to sci-fi noises – can be attached using a set of dials to generate a pleasing accompaniment. When you are happy with your piece, simply save it and click publish.

There is help available at each stage of the process with a useful tour of the interface that tells you everything that you need to know. If you have a Wacom graphics tablet then there is an option to use it for drawing. Otherwise, you can draw using a mouse or trackpad. The site is just about usable on an iPad, although some features are missing or awkward to use. It does show the potential that a specially developed app might have, perhaps along the lines of the game ‘Draw Something’ which has inspired some amazing pictures using only simple tools.

Each tree can have a theme chosen by its original creator, and can be open to all submissions or be curated so that additions are approved before being seen. One particularly fine example that I contributed to was a project to illustrate the haiku ‘Under My Tree Roof’ by the Japanese poet Basho. The rules were simple – take a word from the poem and place it in the centre of the frame, then create an animation around it. Even with my meagre artistic skills I was able to add slanting rain and lowering clouds to a previous picture. (You can see my branch here.)

The Exquisite Forest is an intriguing and engaging piece of experimental digital art that encourages participation, and shows the possibilities for using technology and the internet in collaborative storytelling.

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