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ThemesOverview of Media ArtNarration
Virtual Narrations
From the crisis of storytelling to new narration as a mental potentiality
Söke Dinkla

During the twentieth century the art of storytelling has undergone drastic changes and weathered many a crisis, in the course of which its death was prophesied more than once. Through the centuries, the narrative craft—traditionally understood as describing the course of actual or imagined events[1]—has not only looked to societal and political changes for inspiration, but, through formal modifications, has also signaled and itself become an expression of these societal developments. Despite all of the intervening caesuras and interruptions, narration as a cultural practice seems to have experienced a virtual Renaissance at the end of the twentieth century.[2] Strikingly, this can be felt not only in literature and film, but with particular intensity in the electronic media. The Internet as a new mode of communication has achieved the status of a mass medium and now requires adequate ways of communicating content. But even the well-established medium of video is once again drawing on narrative strategies and establishing a form of storytelling that raises a variety of questions: Do these narrative practices really constitute a Renaissance ofstorytelling, i.e. do they represent the hope that,after the collapse of the great utopias in the seventies, a new form can be found with which to render narratives viable once again? Is this change in attitude eclectic, i.e. does it represent a step back in time to the era prior to post-modern criticism and before widespread questioning of representation as an acceptable means of reflecting social reality? Or, rather, is a new narrative form emerging, one that is in a position to reflect on the history and stories of the modern era and make an incisive statement on the state of our reality?

In order to pursue these questions, I will first outline the historical conditions and functional changes in literary narrative, using James Joyce as an example, and then describe the transformation in its forms of expression in interactive media and web-based art in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as in video works from the 1990s. I will also examine the aesthetic methodology behind these narrative strategies, with which they work on (re)formulating our understanding of reality. In various phases and across diverse media since the late eighteenth century, the ground has been prepared for what has come to constitute the heterogeneity of today's forms of narration and their expression in electronic media.

The vital historical and theoretical background, without which the narrative strategies prevalent in current media cannot be properly understood, can be found in the crisis of storytelling around 1900. This was expressed above all in the crisis of the novel and was related to fundamental doubt about whether it was possible to represent the complex reality of modern society with the help of linear, causally motivated stories. The repercussions of this development can still be felt today, and are often cited in web works, interactive installations and the cinematic/narrative video art of the 1990s, holding sway not only over form but also exercising an impact on content. In «Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften « («The Man Without Qualities,» 1930), Robert Musil writes: «It's a lucky man who can say ‹while,› ‹before› and ‹afterward› …. And now Ulrich noticed that he had lost touch with this primitive epicness, to which private life still clings, even thoughin public everything had become non-narrative and no longer followed a thread, but instead spread out to form an endless interwoven surface.»[3]

Critique of realism

Early Modern authors did not criticize traditional storytelling in general, but rather directed their misgivings at a poetics of naturalism and the deterministic worldview it implies, one defined by scientific procedures followed by natural scientists. They pulled back the curtain on the principle of cause and effect and on chronological sequences of events that develop causally, revealing them as reflections of scientific methodology. Their criticism centered on Emil Zola's manifesto «Le roman expérimental» (1879), in which he called for a «genuinely realistic poetics.»[4] As means of exercising this critique, modern art at the beginning of the twentieth century developed certain elements designed to counteract this predominant, natural scientific model for explaining the world.[5] Some of these elements have now become relevant once again in the narrative forms used in various contemporary media. Among these are:

* «De-fableizing»: This is the word Jakob Wassermann uses to describe the process of prying stories free from chains of cause-and-effect. Instead, the stories concentrate on mere happening, a sequence of states.[6]

* Simultaneity: Major novels of the twentieth century depict the simultaneous, fragmented, disparate presence of heterogeneous elements in modern (urban) life.

* Detail: In modern narrative one can find detailed descriptions of everyday objects that are seemingly superfluous to the logics of narrative plot development (for example, in the writing of Alain Robbe-Grillet, founder of the «nouveau roman»).

* Authorship: Authorship itself becomes a theme of the narrative, in some cases by linking biography and work (for example, Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, Peter Handke).

An additional narrative tool developed by the modern novel, one that was first able to unfold its full aesthetic force in electronic media, is perspectivization. The narrator tells the story fromvarious perspectives and is also himself a part of the story, allowing for various routes to accessing the psyches of the characters involved. Techniques such as the inner monologue, stream of consciousness and free association shape the narrative. In media theory, this is later developed further into the «endogenous point of view,»[7] which refers not only to the author, but also to the reader/recipient. Due to the fact that perspectivization, although first developed as a narrative means in the modern novel, ultimately unfolded its full aesthetic force in electronic media, where it ended up taking on a radical form, I will take a closer look at this narrative strategy in the following.

Joyce and the narrative principle of ‹networking›

The change in narrative perspectives evokes an unstable perception, already making its appearance as a defining characteristic in the novels of James Joyce, especially in «Ulysses» (1922) and «Finnegans Wake» (1939). Joyce makes use of the process of perspectivization to split up the subject so that it is no longer a uniform quantity and to abrogate the subject's strict discreteness from the object world. This process allows him to express the multi-layered and fluid nature of the character in question. Multiply fracturing the perspective of the fictional subject makes this subject change in relation to the perspective from which it is viewed. Hence, Joyce abandons the idea of an objective reality. This goes hand-in-hand with the dissolution of a strict relationship between subject and object in favor of a more dynamic representation.

In the novel «Ulysses,» over which Joyce labored for seven years, the experiences, thoughts and perceptions of Jewish advertising broker Leopold Bloom, his wife Marion and the young Stephen Dedalus are presented in eighteen epic or dramatic scenes. These scenes are set in relation to selected episodes in Homer's «Odyssey.» In this work, Joyce brings almost all areas of human experience to bear, tapping new areas of consciousness in his use of language. His language shapes images characterized by extreme ambiguity. In its structure and metaphors, the language used approaches visual artistic expression. Particularly in «Ulysses» the perceptual category of «seeing» isendowed with a degree of significance unusual in literature.[8] This is one of the reasons why Joyce's writing not only exerted a major influence on the fine arts—above all conceptual art, with its great mastermind and inspirational figure, John Cage—but also on experimental film. The significance of Joyce is evident not only in individual works, such as John Cage's «Writing for the second time through Finnegans Wake,» 1977, and Werner Nekes' experimental film «Uliisses,» 1982, but is also expressed more generally in complexly structured content, in which ambiguities and semantic oppositions demand a restless, active reader.

Joyce develops text strategies that stimulate the reader's senses and play with his perceptual capabilities. The process of assimilating the work is itself part of the subject matter of the work and assumes an implicit reader.[9] Telling a story is now no longer merely the depiction of the course of real or imagined events, based on a sender-receiver model, but becomes with Joyce an act of intercommunication. In order to achieve this, he develops various narrative strategies that will prove seminal in particular for the media art of the 1980s and 1990s. Especially in «Finnegans Wake,» the linear account of an objective report continually comes up against its limits. The text keeps creating new constellations, which are open for alternating associations and can be tied into a continuing series of new narrative knots. Reading increasingly becomes a matter of «networking.»[10]

The Rhizome—metaphor for hypertextual narratives

This view of Joyce's work would surely not have been possible without the benefit of poststructural theory and without the metaphor of the rhizome conceived by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in 1977. They write: «The rhizome itself can take on the most diverse forms, either branching out and spreading in every possible direction across the surface, or condensing itself into bulbs or knots. … Any given point of the rhizome can and must be connected with every other point.»[11] Thus, the rhizome offers the ideal metaphor for anarrative strategy that was already laid out in Joyce, but which first experienced its aesthetic realization with the advent of the computer. Since the mid-1960s the narrative strategy of hypertext in art has been a topic of discourse. Theodor Nelson, who coined the term «hypertext» as early as 1965,[12] had since the 1970s pursued the idea of developing software that, like the library of Babel, would be able to manage all forms of writing and would make it possible for the user, whenever he/she reached a point in the text requiring further clarification, to immediately call up the appropriate note. Nelson defines «hypertext» as «non-sequential writing— text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen.»[13] Interactive installations and environments, which have been common in Europe and the USA since the mid-1980s, make use of the principle of dialogue by which computers function to tie in recipient participation, not only conceptually but also functionally. Although Joyce already developed some of the central aesthetic categories for involving the reader, these were unable to unfold their full aesthetic impact within the confines of the medium of literature. This became possible with the computer, a medium in which mental interaction is coupled inseparably with a physical re/activity. The computer as «communication machine» at last fulfilled the longing to make aesthetic experience into an active process and at the same time to transform it into a physical dialogue.

Cybernetics as narrative principle

In interactive art, the new digital medium was used to develop non-linear narrative strategies that make imaginative processes physically tangible. Key pioneers in the field of interactive media art were apparently well aware of the significance and role James Joyce could take on in the conceptualization of the new art form. These vanguard artists include Ken Feingold, Grahame Weinbren, Bill Seaman, Simon Biggs, Jeffrey Shaw, and in another sense also Lynn Hershman, who in her works «Lorna» (1983–1984) and «Deep Contact» (1989–1990) in a way carried Joyce's narrative strategiesto their logical aesthetic conclusion. For these artists, interaction is not only active interpretation, but rather a way of ensuring that the text/image continues to be written by the recipient and ultimately takes on a life of its own in his/her imagination. The stuff of the narrative, no longer organized linearly, becomes dynamic and fluctuating. The story does not yet fully emerge as the author is relating it, but rather only upon interaction with the reader, who has now gone from being an implicit reader to becoming a user.

By contrast with hypertext, however, and also with the rhizome, the point of departure and end point of which almost never correspond with each other, central works in the field of interactive art, similarly to Joyce's «Finnegans Wake» are marked by a circular narrative structure, which at least in part suspends the principles of traditional logic. This structure is particularly noticeable in «The Surprising Spiral» (1991) by Ken Feingold, «The Narrative Landscape» (1985–1995) by Jeffrey Shaw, in Grahame Weinbren's «Sonata» (1991–1993), in «The Exquisite Mechanism of Shivers» (1992) by Bill Seaman, and also in «Alchemy» (1990) by Simon Biggs.[14] These works each take an entirely different approach to undermining the principles of cause and effect, principles that find their ultimate paradigm in the logical machine that is the computer. They utilize the cybernetic feedback system, in which every (re)action leads to a corresponding re(action), to suspend causality and to conspire against any kind of narrative linearity. Sequentiality, and with it a progress-oriented understanding of history, are rendered inconceivable in the face of a whirlwind of interactive narrative. The structural principles of circularity in the above-named interactive works stand for a post-modern understanding of history that has lost its faith in the power of progress. The digital machine functions as a continuous loop in a feedback system. The cybernetic principle describes a communication model that assumes the existence of an endogenous recipient, who is an immanent component of the system. In the works of Shaw, Feingold, Weinbren, Seaman and Biggs ambiguity, but also indeterminacy and gaps, form an appeal to the recipient to create some sort of consistency andtemporary completion of the interactive narrative.

A similar structural openness, in which feedback is employed as aesthetic principle, is found in the works of Gary Hill. But here this feedback is marked less by an altered form of narration than by a different form of writing. The fundamental functions and rules of language as a system of meaning and signs are laid bare and tied into functional contexts in such a way as to cause meanings and interpretations to change according to the situation and subject. The video «Primarily Speaking» (1981–1983), originally part of an eight-monitor installation, generates a complex interrelationship between spoken words and images. The spoken text is an assembly of clichés, plays on words and figures of speech seen running across two images. Although the meaning of the mostly simple, «typical American» sentences seems to be obvious, their juxtaposition with the images gives rise to irritating and at times contradictory meanings. They distance themselves from their first obvious connotation to take on other meanings, which change according to the image constellation against which they are framed. The words seem to turn around their own axis, only to return to their original meaning, pause there shortly and then enter into new unpredictable constellations. Nothing is codified and any meaning exists only as a collection of ephemeral associations with other meanings. Gary Hill's elaborate language games generate a reflexive cognitive space that awakens within the viewer the concept of an unending number of possible meanings.[15]

Dialogue experiments in the cinema, theater and television

Interactive films such as «Mörderische Entscheidung» by Oliver Hirschbiegel, a crime story that was broadcast in 1992 simultaneously on ARD and ZDF, work with narrative strategies using dialogue, focusing less on ambiguities than on new forms of involving the viewer. Hirschbiegel picks up the thread of early attempts at interactive cinema, such as could be viewed in 1967 in the Czechoslovakian pavilion at the World's Fair in Montreal. At that time, the film «One Man and his Jury» was stopped at certain points and audience members were able to determine the further course of the story using buttons on their armrests. Atthe theater Nicolas Schöffer with Pierre Henry and Alwin Nikolais produced the multimedia «play» «Kyldex,» which premiered at the Hamburg State Opera in 1973. Before the performance, each viewer was provided with signaling discs of various colors with which they could influence what was happening on stage. «Kyldex» took the strategy one step further than the interactive film «One Man and his Jury,» since audience intervention caused the piece to be completely carved up into narrative fragments, out of which it was hardly possible anymore to reconstruct a causally motivated plot sequence. This process of audience participation, motivated in the 1960s and 1970s primarily by the testing of new forms of political codetermination, was developed further in the 1990s with Cinematrix Software. The system was presented as a prototype in 1991 at the SIGGRAPH in Las Vegas. In 1994 Loren and Rachel Carpenter used it for interactive games played by a large audience on a big screen at the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz. Audience members were given signaling discs covered in red or green reflective foil, with which they could influence what took place on the projection screen or play games with each other.[16] These experiments were not carried any further, because the two antagonistic concepts—the traditional forms of representation and the concept of interaction—existed in them unexamined side by side. The structure of works for interactive cinema, theater and television in both the 1960s–1970s and the 1990s were not designed in such a way that they could be successful at making a critical break with the stage as model of representation merely through the intervention of the audience.

Shared authorship, collective narrative forms

What finally managed to accomplish this goal was the strategy of collective narrative forms, in use since the mid-1980s in telecommunications technologies and the computer as a way of destroying the principle of unique authorship. Roy Ascott was one of the first to initiate a project with shared authorship, with his «La plissure du texte» in 1983. He refers to it as a «collaborative story telling project,» in which artists from Europe, North America and Australia supplied texts that flowed together in the ARTEX computer network.[17] The structure of Andrea Zapp's onlineproject «Little Sister» (2000), which she refers to as a «CCTV Drama» or «24 Hrs online Surveillance Soap» is designed in a similar manner. Narrative fragments are borrowed here from the stereotypes of soap opera. With this reference to coherent self-contained identity blueprints, Ascott as well as Zapp pit well-established types of storytelling, which are often ossified in their uniformity, against forms of non-linear narrative. In non-linear narratives featured in web-based works, fluid personality models take the place of coherent identity concepts. These personalities are founded upon a blueprint of identity which assumes the dissolution of the subject's boundaries as a given. While in Joyce this blurring of subjective limitations was primarily a matter of uniting areas of experience that were in actuality separate, accomplished by expanding the present space of experience with the help of the imagination and consciousness to make it into more of an intermediate or transitional space, Lynn Hershman succeeds in her site-specific works, performances, interactive installations and web projects to almost wholly dissolve the boundaries of the subject. Her protagonists do not only have unstable identities, they are «shifting personalities» who have internalized the non-existence of borders between different levels of reality.

The subject blueprint on which her female personae in «Lorna,» «Deep Contact» and «CyberRoberta» are based is no longer the perspectivized subject as in Joyce, nor are they based on multiple personalities, but rather on the virtual subject—the subject as a form of possibility— whose identity is valid only in the moment and manifests itself anew from moment to moment through intervention by the observer/user. The virtual subject as identity blueprint also characterizes the users of network pieces such as «Die imaginäre Bibliothek» by PooL Processing, which was established as a discourse network in 1990. Its goal is to «assertively play out all metaphors of an ‹electronic library fantasy›.» The purpose of the application is to use branching associative reading and navigation to entangle the user in a network of texts, thereby simulating his/her participation in the imaginary library space. The PooL Processing group found its inspiration for the project not only in Jorge Luis Borges' «The Library of Babel andUmberto Eco's «The Name of the Rose,» but also in the Minitel writing project conceived by Jean-François Lyotard for the «Les Immatériaux» exhibition that took place in 1985 at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.[18]

Discursive fields

While these projects consciously make reference to the cultural practice of writing and storytelling, the Knowbotic Research group tries to avoid any borrowings from traditional representational systems. In their works they draft symbolically organized structures in which visual, textual, narrative and auditory elements are arranged without any hierarchical order. In web projects such as «I0_dencies» (1997–1999)[19] and interactive environments such as «Dialogue with the Knowbotic South» (1994–1997), moving, non-linear orders emerge that can be experienced in space and explored associatively. They form discursive fields or «action spaces» that empower the users to get involved and to arrange the complexity according to their own criteria. It is precisely this ability to form one's own criteria that is put to the test here. The user finds him or herself in a state of permanent insecurity, since his/her attempts at creating representations in a conventional way continually fail. He/She does not succeed even for a moment at forming the abstract signatures into familiar representations.

In interactive environments and web works, the user moves through the work and as he/she moves, temporary, fragmentary narrations arise. The situation of the user can no longer be grasped as the cognitive figure of the «implicit reader» (Wolfgang Iser) or the «viewer inside the image» (Wolfgang Kemp), because «being in the work» is coupled with a simultaneous physical experience of the «outside.» It is not only imagined, but instead caused through bodily movement and experienced physically. The user drafts the narrative space as a form open to possibilities, in which alternatives for action can be tested physically. This makes it possible to mediate between physical experience and intellectual insight. A reality that is organized abstractly and symbolically is thus able to be experienced and provides feedback to the body.

Cinematic non-linearity

Knowbotic Research, with its assessment that only the negation of prior forms of representation —including prior forms of storytelling—could open the way for bringing forth something new, differs not only from artists such as Shaw, Weinbren, Seaman and Feingold, but also from those who quote narrative strategies in their video and film installations in order to deconstruct them, calling into question their potency at representing reality. These artists include Stan Douglas, Diana Thater, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Aernout Mik and Sam Taylor-Wood. Although it first appears as if the choice of a chronological/ sequential medium such as video or film would represent a step backward in terms of plumbing alternative non-linear narrative structures, upon closer observation it becomes clear that the video installation, oriented as it is upon cinematic practice, is particularly well-suited for focusing on cinema, as a technique inherently dependent upon storytelling and as a cultural dispositive,[20] both reflecting upon it and deconstructing it. The video artists work both with and against the specific constellation of the cinema— the immersion effect of the darkened theater, the bright video or film projection, the relationship between projection and audience—and thus with and against narrative strategies that today still account for the power of storytelling movies à la Hollywood. The artists thus become not only critics of the cinematic manner of affecting viewers, but at the same time are also their accomplices. The artist's attention is focused especially on the manipulative potential of the cinema and its tendency to lure the viewer into an illusory state, remote from everyday reality.

In video installations such as «Broken Circle» (1997), Diana Thater applies strategies that make reference to narrative cinema and at the same time develop a new form of cinema as a time and illusion machine. Sam Taylor-Wood and Aernout Mik evince similar intentions, encouraging us to draw conclusions about our own film and cinema experience. They show how ‹anti›-narrative and ‹anti›-illusionary strategies in the viewer's reception ultimately lead to a modified form of narrations and illusions. These artists are well awarethat neither language nor images can be used without invoking the ideologies that accompany them. Some employ obsolete systems of representation in order to show that which cannot be represented. On this subject, Stan Douglas says: «When they become obsolete, forms of communication become an index of an understanding of the world lost to us. This is the basic hook in a piece like Onomatopoeia (1985/1986), an onomatopoeia being a word that makes the sound of what it represents. … An absence is often the focus of my work. Even if I am resurrecting these obsolete forms of representation, I'm always indicating their inability to represent the real subject of the work. It's always something that is outside the system.»[21]

In «Win, Place or Show» (1998), an expansive video installation, a conflict between two men is constructed over several narrative levels, finally escalating into a short scuffle. On two adjacent screens, images appear that complement one another, repeat the same situation from a somewhat different perspective or show a different narrative level. Every time one thinks that a scene is repeating itself, it turns out somewhat differently than before, creating fundamental doubts as to what one has actually witnessed. In «Win, Place or Show» Douglas employs the narrative strategies of the television drama, awakening in us the expectation that we have been witnesses of a TV drama, only to dash this expectation to the ground again, because we are unable at any point in time to identify with the story as we are used to doing. Again and again, we become aware of our uncertain standpoint as observers. Stan Douglas wonders how representation is still possible today at all. He knows that whatever must be said can only be said through a complex system of references. This is why he tries to create meanings that are to some extent autonomous and have no clear reference point in reality. As a consequence, his stories can only begin to be read. They shift between historical authenticity and fiction, between readability and the targeted concealment of any kind of rhyme and reason. They demand of the viewer a high degree of competence in deciphering imagery and an active mentality.

Paradoxical narrative structures

In addition to the elevation of the perspective/s of the viewer, or more precisely, of the perceptual conditions to an essential theme of the work, time is another important means used in the media art of the 1980s and 1990s to deconstruct narratives. In a single setting two or more time levels are folded together. This is paradigmatic not only for the works of Stan Douglas, but also for those of Grahame Weinbren (especially «Sonata») and Eija-Liisa Ahtila. Ahtila's works are characterized by paradoxical narrative structures. Repeatedly, events occur that cannot be placed in the sequentiality of the story and that do not seem to fit anywhere within the chronological order of what has been related. In the video installation «The House» (2002), the viewer jumps from one event to the next, which, with the exception of the introductory sequence, take place either inside a small house or in the thoughts of the protagonist. The protagonist begins to hear noises, but it is never clear whether these sounds are only within her own thoughts or in her memories of past events, or whether they are accompanying parallel events happening at the same time in another place. In «The House,» inside and outside, subject and object, merge. As classic narrative means, Ahtila employs the stream-of-consciousness technique, with the help of which Joyce had already made the process of thinking itself into a theme. This narrative tool allows us to leave the world of linearity, logic and clarity. Her works, like those of Lynn Hershman, take for granted the dissolution of the subject's boundaries. They demonstrate that the compulsive, the absurd and the fantastic are all parts of our reality.

We also find paradoxical narrative structures in the way «The House» is presented in space. The fact that three similar but not identical video films are shown on three projection surfaces gives rise to the impression that events that plausibly must occur have either been skipped over or take place repeatedly. The scenes float between past, present and possible present as Daniel Birnbaum writes: «The past is present. Something has happened: an accident, a catastrophe, a tragic event. The work unfolds as a process ofassessing and working through—a process of grieving that consists of fragments of narration incapable of presenting an overarching and coherent account.»[22] Apart from the interfolding of several chronological planes, one also finds in her works, for example in «Consolation Service» (1999) and in «Anne, Aki and God» (1989), different levels of reality becoming intertwined. This allows narrative elements taken from genres such as documentary film, feature film, music videos and commercials to stand shoulder to shoulder on an equal basis. She interweaves and networks elements from the whole field of audiovisual culture, so that her narrations remain virtual—they find themselves in a floating state in which a variety of potential meanings are simultaneously present and absent.

Deconstruction of narrations

As artists take up the narrative parameter of time in the media art of the 1980s and 1990s, both acceleration and slowness play special roles. Bill Viola's video installation «The Greeting» (1995) is characterized by a strong deceleration of the image rhythm. The original greeting scene between three women, shot on film, is slowed down to such an extent that each individual image sequence is no longer read in the context of the previous and following one, but rather as an autonomous frame in and of itself, positively loading it with meaning. Narrative cohesion is dissolved in favor of the «presence of the moment.»[23] In his film «Bear» (1993), Steve McQueen also works with manipulations of time. Cliplike camera angles, which spotlight details, fracture any overarching narrative references. Narrative elements fail to muster themselves into a plot, so that any meaning ultimately remains concealed. Steve McQueen thus brings the process of observation itself, or more precisely, the process of sensory production into the center of his works.[24]

In «24 Hour Psycho» (1993) Douglas Gordon significantly slowed down Alfred Hitchcock's «Psycho.» He uses this device to override the continuity of the events, making it impossible to read what was once a coherent story. The relationship of the various actions to one another is dissolved, so that the dramaturgy and the psychology of the characters lose their reference points and are dissected into narrative fragments.[25]Jeffrey Shaw achieves a comparable effect in «Revolution» (1989) by accelerating the images while at the same time radically slowing down the movement of the viewer. Here, the viewer becomes user, turning a video monitor with the help of a wooden handle on its own axis. This sets images in motion that show the revolutionary events between 1789 and 1989.[26] Even when the user moves very slowly, the images change so quickly that they flash past. Despite the greatest of efforts, only those events can be deciphered that are already anchored in an individual's knowledge of history.

Activation of memory

In this procedure of using historic narrative fragments, there is an intellectual proximity between the works of Stan Douglas and those of Jeffrey Shaw. Historical elements serve both artists not as references to the story they tell, but for their function for us as a cultural form of communication. They show less what they mean to us than what they can no longer mean for us. Or they evoke a meaning that is suppressed today and that is no longer possible. Historical elements are not used metaphorically either by Shaw or Douglas. The artists use them instead as symbols—symbols that, in the sense proposed by Baudrillard, no longer refer to something being symbolized, but merely back to themselves.[27] Meanings are no longer constituted by symbols alone, but by their proximity to other symbols.

Along these lines, the video works of Aernout Mik and Sam Taylor-Wood also demonstrate the impossibility of using image sequences as signs that refer to something specific. Both employ narrative fragments, or rather narrative bits, which only suggest the possibility of telling a story—a story that must remain a virtual one. The viewer is encouraged to read a causally determined plot, but continually fails to mount the narrative bits into a cohesive whole. Sam Taylor-Wood speaks here of «dysfunctional narration.»

Deciphering cultural codes

This form of narration, which sets the tone for the media art of the 1980s and 1990s, plays with our longing to decipher codes and create coherence. It paystribute to the fact that an iconography equally valid for all societal layers has largely been lost, but that there still remains a collective knowledge of audiovisual storytelling, formed through historic symbols and narrative motifs as well as through stereotypes found in television, at the movie theater and on the Internet.[28] The viewer, his/her gaze, knowledge, expectations— in short, his/her culturally determined sensory conditioning—the procedure he/she uses to constitute meaning and form representations, are the main themes of the media art of the 1980s and 1990s, which works with narrative elements—whether in digital or analogue media. The works are about that which is uncertain (Ahtila, Douglas, Hershman), the surprising (in works by Feingold, especially «The Surprising Spiral,» 1991), intimate dialogue (Runa Islam's «Gaze of Orpheus,» 1998, Hershman's «Room of One's Own,» 1992), about things that are not accessible rationally (Thater, Ahtila, Weinbren), that remain unspoken and that cannot be expressed with words (Bill Seaman's «Passage Sets—One Pulls Pivots at the Tip of the Tongue», 1995).<BR>

The mobile viewer

All of the above artists work with the impression of the unfinished: web-based projects and interactive or multiscreen video installations leave the viewer/user with the feeling of having missed something important that just happened on another screen or in one of the threads of the story that he/she has not been able to follow.[29] At no time does the viewer have the impression of being confronted with a coherent whole, but instead has the feeling of moving within a complex «agencement»[30]—a fabric of interrelationships. The term ‹moving› already underlines the fact that narrative media art assumes a mobile viewer. Video films are shown on multiple screens, which can be viewed from various standpoints (see «Anne, Aki and God,» 1998, by Eija-Liisa Ahtila) or they extend over several rooms, which must be traversed one after the other (see «Electric Earth,» 1999, by Doug Aitken). In these works, just as in web projects and interactive installations, a variety of story directions are offered between which the viewer must ultimately choose. The narrative structure of the media pieces employs the hypertext procedure here: each narrative fragment isconstituted only in relationship to its surroundings. Reception is not linear, but instead corresponds to browsing, aimless surfing through information made up of collections of digital data, a pursuit that is only enjoyable when the user is willing to give up his/her accustomed purposeful reception habits. A story is no longer a representation of the course of real or imagined events, predetermined by the author and merely reconstructed by the reader/viewer; a story is now the momentary manifestation of the narrative route of the user. Browsing through narrative sequences and fragmented information generates a somewhat different ‹story› for each and every user.[31]

Critique of the major narrative blueprints of the modern era

These artists are thus subjecting the modern heritage to a critical interrogation. They choose as their themes the myths and unrealizable utopias that still determine our thinking about reality. They take up the history of subjectivity in order to find a place for the subject and they occupy themselves with the technologies of representation in order to explore how representation could be possible (again) today. There is a hint of hope here, a departure from the nihilism of the 1970s and early 1980s, from the radicalism of «Stop making sense» (the denial of coherent meaning contexts), which in this light now itself appears as a totalizing gesture. The ‹rediscovery› of the narrative in the 1980s and 1990s is hence not a regression to a time before the negation of the great narrative blueprints of the modern age, but rather a critique of these, because it assumes that storytelling as cultural dispositive still very much influences our perception and our processes for constituting meaning. At the same time, modified forms of narration pay tribute to the transformation of media, because they no longer rely on conventional production methods to supply meaning. They attempt instead to create meanings that are autonomous and do not possess any clear reference in reality. In their strategy they take into account the altered character of the digitally encoded information that today determines our reality: digital data in principle has no reference in the physical world and has therefore lost its representational character. By contrast withtraditional analogue reproduction processes, the digital image can be reduced, regardless of original medium, to endless variations on the binary signs 1 and 0. These signs refer to nothing but themselves —they are self-referential. Without this media background, current forms of narration as a contemporary expression of the change in reality cannot be understood. It is only the transformation from analogue to digital medium that makes the fundamental doubt of what is real and the search for modified options for representation comprehensible.

Narration as a connective system

While attitudes, concepts and motifs in the web art and interactive art of the 1980s has much in common with the video art of the 1990s, they differ in one important aspect: their choice of medium. This aspect is not to be underestimated in cases where the sensory conditions of the viewer as well as cultural dispositives of communication play a pivotal role. After all, the choice of medium is always an aesthetic statement. The artists who employ the computer as medium also necessarily convey its ideology of optimism towards progress (sometimes while thwarting this ideology at the same time, as in the above examples). Back in the 1980s, as the computer was on its way to becoming the paradigmatic medium, they are the ones who created the aesthetic conditions under which the viewer was able to practice his/her altered role, that of user.[32] By browsing through hypertextual narrative structures, users could develop the skills that made it possible for them to deal with audio-visual information with only tenuous and obscure links to reality. They practiced producing meaning from that which cannot be said, and found a way to access images that do not illustrate anything. They navigated through a system of related meanings, learning through referentiality to form temporary «stories.» The video installations of the 1990s could then build on this connective competence in constituting meaning. They translated rhizomatic thinking into the medium of video/film and tried in this way to transform this analogue medium. Despite, or better, because of the fact that the artists make use of a medium that is organized chronologically/ sequentially and does not per se suggest non-linear narrative methods as does the digital medium, theirvideo art succeeds in raising the expectation of a causally motivated narrative sequence, only to ultimately dissolve this expectation into hypertextual structures. The hypertextual storytelling technique that has been widespread since the 1980s is motivated primarily by the fact that the artists are not interested in representing reality, but rather in generating reality. The new dimensions of the real that emerge thereby are not fixed but in motion and can continually change their constellations. A space ripe with possibilities opens up—a space for playing with potential, with virtual narrations.


Translation by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

© Media Art Net 2004