Dossier | De/générative Narratives: Net Art and Textual Adaptation

De/générative Narratives: Net Art and Textual Adaptation
By Frédérique Arroyas

Over the past two decades, Internet art, an emerging art form within the category of new media art, has been gaining in popularity and status. The study of net art is particularly relevant to the notion of literary adaptation. Given its inherent flexibility, networking capabilities and information digitalization, the Internet offers numerous and innovative opportunities for importing and adapting print texts into an electronic environment. Rachel Green has pointed out that the web provides artists with “an environment uniquely hospitable to many diverse media: programming and animation, video and audio, gameplay and community. Given this environment, individual artists pick up these threads and weave them in novel combinations.” (1)

The net artworks under discussion here present instances of textual adaptation. Given that adaptation is a “transpositional practice, an act of re-vision in itself” (2) we take the opportunity here to examine how two traditional narrative forms have been altered by the creative exploitation of digital technology and specifically the use of interactivity. Media specific analysis of these adaptations will bring out not only the specificity of both traditional print and digital media but also the motivations and ideologies instantiated in these particular textual transformations.

As with any adaptation, re-vision implies varying degrees of ideological re-orientation. The very fact that the artworks under consideration are made available on and disseminated via the Internet is an indication of an aesthetic that drives much of web art whose networking capabilities hold out the (utopian) promise for the advancement of democratic social structures. (3) Furthermore, the net gallery Rhizome.org where these works are archived also promotes such a social re-vision. Alluding to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of rhizome, its structure is that of an anti-hierarchical, decentralized network. Founder Mark Tribe describes it as a social sculpture, an interconnected, collaborative platform run by new media artists, curators, critics and viewers. (4) Offering a new model of distribution for artists and a more open and inclusive curatorial process, it provides an alternative to “institutional hierarchies and centralized business models.” (5)

The works discussed below share a common ideology to, on the one hand, challenge or disrupt traditional channels of communication and, on the other hand, open up new ones. Nathalie Bookchin’s The Intruder and Zoe Kavanagh’s dms26713 are stand-alone pieces, which is to say that other than on the web, they can exist on DVD or CD-ROM. In both works, we witness the transformation of text traditionally presented in fixed, linear and printed form into a multi-layered, multi-modal object. Furthermore, interactivity and materiality are salient features that contribute to the transformation of conventional paths of textual communication. Our objective is to examine how transposing texts to the electronic medium affords artists definite opportunities for intervention and as one might expect subversion

The Intruder (6)
The Intruder, created in 1999 by Natalie Bookchin, an artist and educator at the California Institute of the Arts, is an adaptation of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story of the same name, “La intrusa,” first printed in the third edition of El Aleph (1966). The story was written late in Borges’ career, when he was sixty-six. It is uncharacteristic of the Argentinean author’s legendary intellectual and abstract constructions and has been read by several critics as a biographical reflection of the author’s problematic relationship with women and perhaps indicative of repressed homosexual desires. (7)

“La intrusa” is about two brothers who fall in love with the same woman. One day, Cristián Nilsen brings home a woman named Juliana Burgos to live with him and his brother, Eduardo. With Cristián’s consent, Eduardo is allowed to share her sexual favours. Eventually however, the brothers become jealous of one another and, in order to alleviate tensions, decide to sell her to a brothel. Still, each continues to see her in secret and finally, the brothers decide to buy Juliana back. As the jealousy between the two brothers worsens, Cristián, fearing the breakdown of their fraternal bond, murders her. He informs Eduardo that he killed her so she could no longer separate them. In an ultimate act of reconciliation the two brothers bury her together. The last line of the tale, “One more link bound them now—the woman that they cruelly sacrificed and their common need to forget her,” indicates that the shared woman continues to act as a conduit for their love for one another. Her death becomes a “sacrifice” that allows them to preserve and even reinforce their relationship. (8)

Bookchin’s adaptation of this novella addresses the problematic nature of a relationship built on a foundation of violence and misogyny. The story is narrated by a female voice-over and advances through a series of seminal electronic games, from Pong to war simulations. The story’s progress is conditional upon a player’s actions—such as shooting, fighting or catching characters and thus, instead of winning points, a player is rewarded with a piece of narrative.

The Intruder’s participatory dimension highlights a specific feature that so often characterizes Internet art. As Rachel Green points out, “Game environments crystallize some of Internet art’s most distinctive characteristics, chief among them interactivity: a game literally depends on a player.” (9) Indeed, The Intruder’s unfolding requires a player’s actual physical participation. S/he must contribute to and join in symbolically aggressive behaviours: for example a shootout between two cowboys or a Pong game (“Hit Girl”) in which the traditional ball has been replaced by a female stick figure.

Later on, at a point in the story where the brothers decide to sell Juliana to a brothel, the script requires the player to catch the woman’s belongings and fragments of printed narrative in a pail, as they are expulsed through her vagina.

In these two games, unconventional graphics highlight an explicitly critical stance with regards to the treatment of women. The game scenarios illustrate in a very direct manner the woman’s status as a traded commodity and reflect the augmenting threat of violence directed at the female protagonist as the brothers’ jealousy and lust rise to its climatic and violent end.

The Intruder’s hybrid form, a fusion of computer games and literature, both distances players from the narrated events and, paradoxically, draws them closer through its participatory nature. On the one hand, there is a distancing effect as the psychological tension built up in the original narrative is replaced by a drive for asset accumulation. Here, Bookchin’s adaptation plays on an innate competitive instinct to accumulate points (or, in this case, advance through the plot). The story thus becomes objectified as “the reward” in the context of the gaming economy. Yet, this emotional detachment is offset by the physical involvement (the interactive component) required of players.

Becoming an active participant, through the manipulation of the mouse and cursor, provokes an opposite emotional response to the excitement of gaming: disgust at having “participated” in the Nilsen brothers’ cruel acts. This response is reinforced by the unconventional gaming images. These offer a condemnation of the basic instinct to dominate and objectify others in order to further one’s own ends. Thus the synchronization of the narrative (the audio file) with the type of physical involvement required for its unravelling is effective in crafting a feminist critique of Borges’ novella.

dms26713 (10)
London-based artist Zoe Kavanagh’s dms26713 was conceived to increase public consciousness with regards to asylum seekers held in UK detention centres. It presents one man’s story through an interactive journal. Upon entering the website, the visitor is directed through a series of street photographs of an immigrant community to a Traveller’s Pocket Book thrown among other objects in an open and abandoned suitcase. Placing the cursor and clicking on this book opens an illegal immigrant’s diary and, as one continues to click on links embedded in its pages, the man’s story is revealed.

This participatory narrative in which the worlds of London and Liberia intersect presents a story based on real events and people. We learn for example that the diary’s author was a teacher in his native country and was forced to flee. He finds a job as a printer’s assistant but then, arrested and incarcerated in a detention centre, he waits for two years before being extradited to Liberia. The hopelessness of his situation brings him to consider crime and suicide.

Like the interactivity in Bookchin’s The Intruder, Kavanagh’s piece exploits the potential of digital media to break down barriers between the website visitor and the story it presents. In adapting the traditional journal from print to the digital medium, dms26713 is successful in bridging geographical distances and overcoming reader apathy by initiating a feeling of intimacy and engaging the visitor in an autobiographical pact that will bring the narrator closer. Its interactive nature transforms the visitor’s experience by providing immediacy and direct testimony through voice clips of actual interviews with the detainee. What’s more, a dynamic quality emerges from the presence of physical artefacts. In this digital format, a click of the mouse can fire off a rifle or make an apartment key appear. In a fashion similar to some children’s books with, for instance, letters in envelopes one takes out to read, a princess’ locket to wear around one’s neck, the ability to interact with the narrative increases the reader’s engagement with the protagonist and his plight.

The interactivity is further enhanced by the singularity of “textual” events produced by a visitor’s choices of hyperlinks. Since the navigational paths through the narrative are not fixed (as in a traditional linear narrative), multiple readings or narrative events are possible and increase the ways with which a visitor can interact with the story. In her media-specific analysis of hypertext, Katherine Hayles states that, “As a result of its construction as a navigable space, electronic hypertext is intrinsically more involved with issues of mapping and navigation than most print texts. (11) Of course, reading practices of print texts are not necessarily linear: one can flip forward and backward, skip passages, etc. The linking mechanisms of hypermedia however increase the mutability of the narrative as well as make possible the fusion of words, images and sounds.

Thus, dms26713 adapts the traditional print diary to a medium that effectively facilitates the bridging of psychological and geographical distances. This, as a result, heightens public consciousness with respect to the plight of illegal immigrants. Moreover, hyperlinks, providing multiple pathways of navigation through the diary, give visitors greater autonomy in creating their own personal interaction with the narrative. They also, through the virtual presence of the protagonist’s surroundings, voice and personal effects, increase visitors’ emotional connection, rendering the detainee’s experience more potent.

The two artworks examined here provide a sampling of digital media’s potential to present and adapt text in innovative ways. The capacity to connect to remote sites as well as alter and recycle digital artefacts has opened up opportunities for further experimentation with human communication and analysis of cultural production. Finally, computer-human interface, in the form of interactivity, has greatly assisted the exploration of geographical and psychological spaces.

These net artworks are prime examples of how digital media and the Internet provide opportunities for interaction with text. In adapting narratives traditionally bound to the page surface, these artworks highlight the subversive power of adaptation. Bookchin’s The Intruder shows how a gamer’s required participation in objectionable acts forces him/her to critically engage with the misogynist elements of a novella. Kavanagh’s dms26713, as an interactive journal, tactically breaks down geographical distances and emotional apathy by rendering a detainee’s experience more vivid.

As we have seen, Internet art has the capacity to exploit and transform traditional paths of textual communication by mapping content from an existing source text into a new space, non linear in nature, which promotes oblique, tangential and tactical activity. Generating multimodal and multilayered artworks that are critical of their source or embrace it, digital media and web technologies offer the possibility for intervention, an irresistible call for adaptation.

NOTES
1. Rachel Green, Internet Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 15.
2. Julie Sanders, Adaptation and Appropriation (London New York: Routledge, 2006), 18.
3. Steven Wilson points out that “the Internet represents a new challenge for art. It foregrounds the immaterial and underscores cultural propositions, placing the aesthetic debate at the core of social transformations. Unique to postmodernity, it also offers a practical model of decentralized knowledge and power structures, challenging contemporary paradigms of behavior and discourse.” Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science and Technology (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 563.
4. Green, 57.
5. Nathalie Bookchin, “Grave-digging and Net Art: A Proposal for the Future,” Network Art: Practices and Positions, ed. Tom Corby (London New York: Routledge, 2006), 72.
6. http://www.calarts.edu/~bookchin/intruder/ consulted Feb. 21, 2008.
7. See for example Martin Stabb, Borges Revisited (Boston: Twayne, 1991) and Robert Lima, “Coitus Interruptus: Sexual Transubstantiation in the Works of Jorge Luis Borges,” Modern Fiction Studies 19 (1973): 407-17.
8. As Herbert J. Brant writes: “the erotic desire of the two men is plainly not directed towards a female, but rather towards each other, with the female as the intermediary focal point at/in which the two men may coincide. This type of sexual activity has the dual objective of fulfilling the societal mandate of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ when the males use the requisite female body for sexual purposes, while at the same time circumventing the proscription of male homosexual contact. In other words, Borges has substituted an intervening female body between the men as a way to permit the men to connect physically without transgressing heteropatriarchal prohibitions.” “The Queer Use of Communal Women in Borges’ ‘El muerto’ and ‘La intrusa’,” Latin American Studies Association: LASA95 Papers Pilot Project, 1995, http://lanic.utexas.edu/project/lasa95/brant.html, consulted Feb. 21, 2008.
9. Green, 145.
10. http://www.dms26713.com, consulted Feb. 21, 2008.
11. Katherine Hayles, “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep. The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis,” Poetics Today 25(1) (2004): 67-90, 83.

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