Friday, October 14, 2011

Frankenstein’s Monster Comes Home: Digital Remix and the Ends of Origin

Frankenstein’s Monster Comes Home:
Digital Remix and the Ends of Origin

Jim Barrett
Language Studies/HUMlab
Umeå University

“The labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind. ”
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus.

“One text that shows the disaster of the divorce between science and poetry would be the one by Mary Shelley whose name is Frankenstein.”
Avital Ronell, Body/No Body (in conversation with Werner Herzog)

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (published 1818) represents a historical and literary divergence between the poetic and the technical, and is a significant reaction against this split as part of English Romanticism. It is the contention of my presentation that in contemporary digital works of art and narrative we are witnessing a re-marriage of science and poetry. However, this union should be no automatic cause for romantic joy, as the present situation in the education sector of most Western democracies indicates. Today, the natural sciences are separated from and weighted favorably in relation to the production and analysis of culture.  There is little to indicate that this is an effective strategy in light of present global ‘network culture’ initiatives. Today, the union of science and poetry in digital media is felt most acutely in reading, or the performative interpretation of imaginative works. Computer games, websites, digital works of literature, apps, virtual worlds, interactive art, and spatial media (GIS, Kinnect, GPS, Wii) are interpreted as they are performed and often require some knowledge of the medium by the user in order for the work to function. This situation represents a form of reading that has not been practiced widely in Western academic and literate circles for several centuries. We are not witnessing a return to what Walter J. Ong famously terms a “secondary orality” (10-11), but rather we are seeing a form of inscription rapidly emerge that is spatial, multi-temporal, performed, place-bound, visual, sonic, and navigated. Two central concepts are important for understanding how digital works are generally interpreted, and these are simulation and remix. Representation has become the domain of mediating objects, both virtual and physical, while reading is as much about arranging and appropriating as it is about reference, symbolism, iconography and interpretation. Based on a relatively small selection of digital works this presentation examines reception practices involving digital media, which suggest an expanded concept of reading where the material technology of a work determines meaning as much as its representative elements do. In this examination I demonstrate how performance, participation, co-authoring, and remix make the reading of the digital works.  These works are

Patchwork Girl by Shelley Jackson (1995)
Last Meal Requested by Sachiko Hayashi (2004)
Façade By Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern (2006)
Second Life
CONSTRUCT by salevy_oh (2011)
The Celebration by Iris Piers (2011)

Patchwork Girl is a work of electronic literature by American author Shelley Jackson. It was written in Storyspace and published by Eastgate Systems in 1995. It is often discussed along with Michael Joyce's 'Afternoon, a story' as an important work of hypertext fiction. "Shelley Jackson's brilliantly realized hypertext Patchwork Girl is an electronic fiction that manages to be at once highly original and intensely parasitic on its print predecessors."

The actions of the avatar, which is the identity of its operator in SL, conform to the traditions of Varjrayana Buddhism. The combination of the actions of the avatar and the audio is a two fold signifying structure, with the operator of the avatar at the center. In a simulative sense the operator of the avatar is enacting a practice that is firmly contextualized in religious and social contexts.

Last Meal Requested is an interactive net art work by Japanese/Swedish artist Sachiko Hayashi. It deals with themes of gender, state power, violence and the rhetoric of the image. The original work can be accessed at


Selavy: What happens when you write in a diary? Of course, some people write down “got up at 7am, drank a coffee, had lunch with Jim, went to bed early”, but that’s not the type of diary I’m referring to. It is rather the idea of keeping a record of selected thoughts, feelings, moods, ideas, etc. The important part is, of course, that you do that regularly. And that is exactly what I did in CONSTRUCT: I added one room each day. Every one of the 75 days of the residency has its own room, often relating to the topic of the residency itself, a time capsule of ideas, artifacts, or reference to other work. If you read a diary, you may get an idea about the writer and her life. If you visit CONSTRUCT, you may get an idea about Selavy Oh and her residency.

The Celebration "combines a circular display of flatscreens, reminiscent of a giant zoetrope, containing amateur film footage from the 1910's-1940's with different soundscapes that can be manipulated by the audience" (Piers). How the audience manipulates the various audio and images, and how they combine to create an interactive and immersive space, makes The Celebration an engaging work of interactive digital art. The visitor enters a darkened space, where the only available light comes from the 10 screens showing the films of The Celebration. By moving around the space and judging their own distance, speed of movement, posture and height in relation to the (largely invisible) Arduino trackers, a dance begins with the audio and the cracked black and white images from almost a century ago. Each of the screens that make up The Celebration has an Arduino tracking sensor attached, which maps the movements of the body of a visitor, and implements pre-programmed changes in the presentation of images and sound. Unknown faces stare out from the screens, mostly laughing, talking (unheard) and often looking straight at the camera, and at the audience. As these faces watch, the visitor dodges and weaves, hops and slides, while the images and sounds change. At the same time the visitor is watching the faces, along with their bodies, their families and friends, competitors at sports events and classmates, neighbors and colleagues. It is according to this arrangement that a circuit of movement and gaze is achieved by the programming of The Celebration.

Façade is a prototype of interactive drama, a new genre of character and story-intensive interactive entertainment. Façade is freely downloadable at In Façade, you, the player, using your own name and gender, play the character of a longtime friend of Grace and Trip, an attractive and materially successful couple in their early thirties. During an evening get-together at their apartment that quickly turns ugly, you become entangled in the high-conflict dissolution of Grace and Trip’s marriage. No one is safe as the accusations fly, sides are taken and irreversible decisions are forced to be made. By the end of this intense one-act play you will have changed the course of Grace and Trip’s lives – motivating you to re-play the drama to find out how your interaction could make things turn out differently the next time. In this video Facade is used to promote an abstinence program.

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