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Glorianna Davenport’s Media Legacy

Tracing the Media Lab’s influence on video games, architecture, and more
October 20, 2008

Most retirement fêtes are about looking back. But when dozens of students and colleagues of Media Lab cofounder Glorianna Davenport gathered in June to reflect on her 30-year career at MIT, they focused on what’s happening in digital media right now.

An interactive installation at the new Museum at Eldridge Street in Manhattan was designed by Phillip Tiongson ’96, SM ’98. On June 20, Tiongson and other former students of the MIT Media Lab’s Glorianna Davenport participated in the Media Fabrics for Media Makers Symposium. The panelists spoke passionately about the value of interactive storytelling in the presentation of information.

Many of the projects they explored could be traced back to MIT’s Interactive Cinema research group, which Davenport founded in 1987 and ultimately renamed the Media Fabrics group to reflect the broadening landscape of interactive media. (Before cofounding the Media Lab in 1985, ­Davenport worked with the Film/Video Section, which she joined in 1977.) The projects ranged from a computer-aided storytelling system from ­Barbara Barry, SM ‘00, PhD ‘05, to the interactive museum installations of Phillip ­Tiongson ‘96, SM ‘98, to video games from Black Ops Entertainment, which was founded by John Botti ‘90. Earl Mark, SM ‘85, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Virginia, showed how movie­making techniques could be used to create architectural designs. Mark presented animations he used to test fantastical buildings made from moving parts or folding fabric. “You throw away the movie at the end,” he said.

“It’s so great to have everyone back and see the span,” said Davenport to her fellow ­digerati. “Film and cinema are really becoming something else.” But she was quick to add that no matter what changes tech­nology introduces, moving pictures will remain, essentially, a way to tell stories.

Davenport’s own projects, such as the interactive video New Orleans in ­Transition: 1983-1986 and Flights of Fantasy, an art installation that appeared at the ­DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, MA, have used technology to explore how the creator of a story might share its telling with his or her audience. Many of Davenport’s students have followed suit; others, such as Barry, have experimented more radically. Barry records video of a person’s life story and feeds it into a program she designed that cross-­references the true-life narrative with mythological archetypes. The result is an oral history transformed by myth.

“I’m a media junkie. But I’m not so much a media junkie for the media that’s out in the world as I am for using video to try to understand what I see,” says Davenport, who spent her three decades at MIT pursuing that goal and teaching students to do the same. So while she officially retired in July, ­Davenport will continue to teach some classes, and she says that her interest in media will remain as keen as ever. “I’ll keep making movies. I’ll keep doing interactive work,” she says. “If you have something you love, keep doing it.”