Midterm: Critical Section

Partner: Alexander Straus, Dehao Tu

Word Count: 1013

Assigned Evaluating Project:  Critical Section(Greg Smith)



An Evaluation of Critical Section


Critical Sections is both a tool for digital expression and a piece of digital scholarship. The project explores contemporary critical practice through the manipulation of architectural and cinematic ephemera and associated simulacra within a digital medium. Critical Sections focuses on melding iconic domestic spaces present in the cinema and architecture of Los Angeles, creating a space for users to create new narratives and explore alternative contexts through promiscuous substitution. The project’s creators, Greg J. Smith and Erik Loyer, state their aim to create a space where “signifiers can take any shape or size and cultural work can be accomplished by mashing up disparate sign systems… we attempt to translate acts of drawing and visual composition into navigational gestures which cumulatively map a geography that is both fictional and physical, while hinting at more fluid strategies at achieving hybridity in form and content.” This interdisciplinary work signifies a contribution to the humanities in its novel perspective of critical cultural analysis. This significance lies in the questions Critical Sections elicits:  


  • As non-residents of foreign places, can we understand structure beyond photography or architectural tourism?
  • How do we understand and manipulate symbolic icons and cultural zeitgeist?


These represent both traditional concerns for the humanities, symbolic icons, as well as issues that are now becoming more relevant in digitized culture, interacting with space at a distance.

This project is also significant in its contribution to previous humanities work, particularly that of Bernard Tschumi and his drawing project, The Manhattan Transcripts. Tschumi’s distinction between “books of architecture as opposed to books about architecture,” the first seeking to reveal the complex ideas design embodies as opposed to illustrating detailed images, is reconsidered and built-upon by Critical Sections. The methodologies Critical Sections employs make use of contemporary hypermedia and database technologies that reflect the growing nature of our contemporary digital culture. In addition to its scholarship and research, Critical Sections provides a meaningful tool in which the user can idiosyncratic and dynamic narratives of their own, becoming something more handcrafted and metaphorical than algorithmic and data driven.

The project interface designed and programmed by Greg Smith’s partner Erik Loyer is by all means a beautiful piece of minimalist art work. The interactive web content was maximized by the way Loyer arranging the trivial navigation buttons and bars to the sides of the page, leaving the central space for the audience. The choice of the full white background ensures the least amount of distraction when audience play with the “clusters”. These “clusters” are the main component of this project, which are very similar to tiles with each of them has a layer of drawing of an iconic architecture, a layer of animated image clipped (supposedly in .gif format) from the movie where the architecture was presented in. Though it was default that the drawing is overlaid on the image on each tile, the audience still can deselect the “mask” to see the full image. The audience, by manipulating the “clusters” and positioning them improvisationally, they are interactively creating a new space while establishing new links among architectures. Each of the “clusters” also have building/film info and commentary annotations which are essentially tags identifying the shared characteristics among the buildings, these tags, in this case, are typical impressions established either by historical or cinematical influence.

The links among movies and architectures are pre-established, but other then that, a user can drag his cursor and click wherever he wants to place “clusters”. He can also move them around, enlarge or downsize them freely after he placed them. By the time he fill the space with the “clusters”, a montage of drawings and images of architectures is thus created. Undoubtedly, Critical Section has one of the most interactive forms among other Digital Humanities projects.

One would be amazed that such a flawless project was created in 2008 and still runs smoothly and performs stably on different browsers such as Chrome, Safari and Firefox nowadays. The reason behind such compatibility is the standardization of XML in years recent to 2008, and the way Loyer neatly organized the programming codes in the back-end for continuous maintenance. In the front-end, Loyer adopted the Flash Player for visualization, which is a multimedia platform that is still being used massively to this day. Although the users have no authorities to change the pre-established links, or extend the existing architecture and movies database included in the project, the project gives sufficient perspectives of the relationships among architectures and movies to the general public and scholars alike.

Grey Smith as the director of this project, played a significant role in communicating with the designer and programmer Erik Loyer. If we divide any Digital Humanities projects into two parts, we will see the backbones of the project are always the scholarship and visualization. Scholarship, in this project, was led by Greg Smith who was a researcher in digital culture with a background of Architecture. In addition, Smith is also a designer which was a major advantage him leading the project since his knowledge in design helped him collaborate with Loyer effectively in visualization the project as Smith wrote in Project Credit page : “Erik was extremely intuitive in reading my desires for this project and consistently brought new ideas to the table from brainstorming the interface right through final revisions.”

As a piece of research and scholarship, Critical Sections is true to its message and intentional in everything it implements. It is simple in its minimalism and intuitive for a first time user to interact with. The project’s success lies in its ability to create an archival tool in which a user can both learn and express themselves. Although Critical Sections is impressive and a success for its time, there are some alternative features and potential improvements that could be implemented. Alternate sensory experiences can be utilized through the introduction of audio files into the archive. Temporal space can also be better represented, for example through time-lines or video files. Despite these possible areas of improvement, Critical Sections represents a sound piece of scholarship and an interesting tool for exploring digital humanities.