riding vs. interacting: fictional sensory immersion in Brighton

June 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

[UPDATE 21 Jan. 2014. This entry dates back to June 2012 and I have never finished writ ing it. I’m still posting it in the hope you find it slightly thought-provoking. It was a peculiar feeling to be able to understand the pleasures of (early) cinema down on the Pier while watching (late) game simulators — experiential time-travel of sorts.]

On the margins of the orgy of stimulating thoughts that Domitor ’12 has turned out to be, this week, in Brighton, I found some time, after 3 busy days, to amble down the Brighton Pier —  a place, I might add, screaming for some 21st century attention from a 19th century scholar. And a media scholar, it turns out to be, as there were a couple of surprises waiting for me, as it were.


I went in there partly to see the sea — and in Brighton, it turns out, this takes some doing. You could be forgiven, walking down as I did from central Brighton, if you thought the sea the most inconsequential of sights in the area, an afterthought of the land, an ending in grey flatness for so much vertical, multicolored sensory appeal, from the Pavillion to the Pier. A space, indeed, waiting for the activities of Man to be written on, more than a place to go to, sail across, and experience.

The other reason I was going there was an early talk back in Monday by Jon Burrows that had reconstructed the arcade, slot-machine context of very early film exhibition — reminding us that film, as one participant at that panel had put it, had indeed started as “a coin-operated machine”. And it seemed a gross oversight to me to be soon leaving the town without paying a visit to its Amusement center.

The surprises, then. There are two arcade centers on the Pier, housing mostly slot betting machines, and “the most recent” (as advertised) video-games in elaborate steel structures that proclaim the prowess of 19th century steel architecture with a proud oblivion to the din that goes on below — and which it succeeds, still today,


in accommodating (at least for the 1st, larger structure, now called “the Palace of Fun”. The 2d, aka “The Dome”, is further down in the pier and is a more recent addition and feels like it).There weren’t that many people on the (rainy, mid-week, non-holiday) day when I went, and possibly on a hot, crowded summer day it could be very different (and the ominous down-wind drifts of grilled food that one could smell were not reassuring, in that respect). But to me the place felt perfectly designed to the noise, the gaming activity, the crowd movements, with its dome sitting majestically at an ironic distance from the futility of the crowd activities below. Distantiation, architecturally, programmatically built-in, to allow for the enjoyment of one wasting one’s money. (UPDATE: and it doesn’t help, either, that the Palace of Fun, with its fine ironwork interior, is all that’s left of the Winter Garden where, you guessed it, theater and music hall — and probably films too — took place).

Remember the Sensorama — this supposed grand-father of virtual reality, offering a motor-cycle experience of driving through New York Streets. Brighton Pier has the “Typhoon”:


Two “players” sit back in back-reclining seats that move during the ride while the players hang on to bars located on the sides of the seat. In front of them, and large enough to occupy most of their scope of vision, is a screen where computer simulations of rides are shown. The players get to choose which “game” they want to play, but in reality they are not playing any game as much as enjoying a virtual ride — completed by the sensation of movement and wind blowing on their hair as they “move” along.


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