Loose Ends/Connections:
Interactivity in Networked Space



Loose Ends/Connections: Interactivity in Networked Space was published in Style: Style in the Media Age, Volume 33, Number 2, Summer 1999. Style is published by Northern Illinios University.


How many of us understand the complex set of interactions that make up a world scale network like the Internet? The hardware, the translation of digital data across physical distance, pulsations of light fed through fiber optic tubes on the bottom of the ocean, or transformed into invisible beams of electromagnetic energy beamed to floating reflectors hovering above the earth's atmosphere? (1)

Clearly not many of us.

Yet we come to understand this network as we project our sense of its usefulness onto it.

The business community has done this—the global network is a place to do business; it is useful for the development of new markets. Researchers have done this—it is a place for information gathering and exchange.

Artists, many of whom have operated initially under the business and information paradigms, are also exploring alternatives.

What new uses does their participation make possible?

How might these help them rethink their own practices as writers, visual artists, composers?

How will these practices change?

The following, which draws on my short experience in the digital realm both as an artist and as director of the Turbulence website (2), is about these questions.
What is the separateness of things when the current that flows each to each is live?-Jeannette Winterson, Gut Symmetries
Narrative has been a lifelong interest of mine. I began my writing career with stories that failed completely to conform to the traditional notion of what a story is. While initially retaining a small cast of characters, the familiar linear and climactic plot was gone; there was no accumulation of information about events. They were not stories about people but about ideas, and their energy derived from the connections they made between apparently unrelated subject matters. North Country, which was written for the page in 1995 and has since been adapted for CD-ROM, the web and radio, is a latter-day case in point.

North Country moves from the newspaper account of the discovery of the skeletal remains of an unidentified woman—

The skeletal remains, believed to be
that of an adult female between the
ages of 37 and 47, were discovered
by a couple fishing in a small lake
off route 73 near the town of North Elba.
The skull had a gunshot wound in its
right side. Additional bones and the
remains of clothing, including jeans,
work boots, a shirt, sweater and a
leather jacket were also found.
In spite of the grisly scene, suicide, not
murder, is the suspected cause of death.

to a forensic expert describing the findings of the investigation,

The investigation revealed numerous signs of animal activity in the area.

The lower portion of the skeleton was missing and while the upper part, including the skull, was relatively complete, the heads of a number of the bones, including those of the long humeri and ulnae from the arms, were bitten off postmortem. The remains of the victim's jeans, shirt and jacket were found near the bones.

An hour after the police brought them in, I removed the remains from the carton and systematically laid them out on a tabletop in my office. The reassembly process began with the skull.

to the Question: "WHO IS SHE?"

to the voice of Simon Says (3) insisting that the story be told from the beginning, followed by the a response of an unnamed woman, who

goes back as far as she can...thinks of astronomical space...thinks of the picture she has seen of matter propelled forward by the hypothetical explosion known as the big bang—great chunks of spherical matter moving toward her from some distant point, some earlier moment.

and yells back at Simon,

"I can't think a time with a beginning."

to Wittgenstein's sly remark:

"It's always difficult to find the beginning. Or better, it's difficult to begin at the beginning and not try to go further back."

From the description of a northern lake, and the remains of a tamarack tree, to the forensics expert singing "Tie a yellow ribbon round the whole crime scene...", to the sudden forgetfulness on the part of a female character—

"veni, vidi…I came, I saw..." She can't remember the last word—

and later, the equally sudden return of the word she has sought—

"vici," she says, "I conquered. No wonder I couldn't remember."

—all in the interest of
North Country's central themes: continuity/ discontinuity; beginnings/ends, fiction/reality and the questions they raise about perception.

With a broader view than most the forensics expert suggests the arbitrariness of cordoning off a small section of earth and labeling it "the crime scene", while the story's beginning—the discovery of an unidentified skeleton—describes an end not a beginning and introduces a story that can't be told. The bones are of an unidentified woman.

Connections—patterns, rhythms, shifts and over time the lines of thought they trace—these are the life, the activity of the
North Country story.

You see a misty lake. Fading into it, a newspaper account of a skeleton found near a small lake. The words “small lake” and “additional bones” shimmer. They are links. The code is simple:

on mouseup
go to "lake"

on mouseup
go to “forensics”

Click on small lake and you will move to the section of the story describing the lake and its shore. Click on additional bones and you will move to the section in which the forensics' expert describes the investigation and its findings.

Code 2: HTML (for WWW):

<a href="Thorington/nc/page2.html">additional bones</a> -"additional bones" is a link.

<a href="Thorington/nc/page6.html">small lake</a> - "small lake" is a link.

Choose one or the other. Click on it and a message requesting page2.html or page 6.html will be sent to the server on which "Thorington/nc" resides, a connection will be made, the distant computer will respond, locating the requested page and returning a copy to your computer.

This is interactivity at its simplest: by clicking on the highlighted word, you interact with the work; you play a role in how the story is told (to you).

In moving
North Country to the digital realm, interactivity was my first concern.

Pins and Thread: Mapping the text

North Country story was written for the page. The challenge presented by the text was to provide options—multiple pathways through the story. As I did not know about Eastgate's "Storyspace" or the other available software used to author hypertext stories, I sat on the floor, cut my text into paragraphs and with pins and thread determined a number of possible navigational routes. After three days and considerable aggravation, I came to the conclusion that to create new paths through this story, would be to create totally arbitrary - "twitch" - routes, i.e., a series of buttons or links that users could click on just to be able to click and move on. They would in no way advance the meaning or complexity of the story.

And so I accepted the limited, predetermined navigational route through my text, adding only 3-4 options between sections, and turned to what I considered legitimate interactive possibilities in sound.

The very nature of the digital realm begs multi-disciplinary development: the use of more than one artistic discipline to tell a story, (4) and the concomitant enlargement of the possibilities of interplay between them: new connections.

If interactivity was my first concern in recasting North Country as a CD-ROM, the enlargement of the work to include images and sound was my second.

The sound
With 580 megabytes of space available on the CD-ROM, it was possible to think of recording the text using actors and actresses, create a soundscore for the full work, and have quality graphics as well. With a background in “radio art”, this was a familiar undertaking for me.

North Country has a full sound track: voice, and music composed of processed accordion, ambient sound and sound effects. In the CD-ROM version (5) there are additional sounds as well—three on each page—that the interactor can add to the track by moving his/her mouse across their locations (right middle, left middle and center top) as he/she listens. In the scene with the forensics expert these include the sound of bones; in the woods they include a gathering of noisy crows, the chatter of an angry squirrel; on the lake, the sound of paddling, the cry of a northern loon. Along with a limited choice of navigational possibilities, the selections and manipulation of these sounds were the ways in which the user could interact with the story.

The images
I am not a visual artist. My artistic career has been divided between writing for the page, and writing, composing and producing for radio, and composing for installation and film. The initial visual work for
North Country was none-the-less easy. The images would derive from the small lake in upstate New York—the real North Country of the title and the source of many of the text's descriptive passages. Mirroring aspects of the text, they would be both images of the shoreline and of its reflection in the waters of the lake. Later graphic artist Isabelle Sigal would manipulate some of the images, causing mist to move across the small lake, embedding skeletal remains in the North Country landscape, creating a moving collage of bones and skull.
North Country CD-ROM (6) (1995/96) lives in its multi-disciplinary connections—the patterns, rhythms, shifts and reflections in its spoken text, sound and images—and in the "experience" its smooth progression makes possible for its user.

By comparison, the 1996 web work,
North Country is paler, flatter and more apathetic (click and wait, click and wait)—a story trapped in an environment of underdeveloped and yet to be realized possibilities. The bandwidth does not exist to present the full soundscore or the spoken text and still maintain a reasonable download time for decent-sized graphics.

If you have embedded sound in your work, as I have, for instance, on the title page of
North Country (click on Part 1), what you are doing is initiating a series of actions. First, your click sends a message to the server (computer) on which North Country is located, to download a “metafile” to your computer. This metafile is actually a little text file I have written that has the location of the RealAudio file in it. Once this is downloaded your browser invokes the RealPlayer, the “helper application” needed to playback RealAudio files. RealPlayer then reads the metafile and contacts the server specified in the metafile. It then buffers the RealAudio file and plays it back for you.

What you see is first of all the metafile on your desktop. Then the RealAudio download popping in over top of the page presumably to let you know the download is taking place but also to let you know RealAudio made it possible. This is followed by a box that gives information about the artists and the title of the piece and provides yet another reminder that you are using a RealAudio product. That was '96. Today the box also gives you the option to switch to preset destinations: Real Audio News, Biz/Tech, Sports, Entertainment, and the new RA logo is no longer stationery but circles round and round. Then or now, you must click on your browser to be rid of the box.(7)

In 1996, the appearance of the box signaled the coming of RealAudio 1.0 sound replete with static, drop-outs, and other artifacts of a developing technology. (8)

How can this work possibly deliver the delight and surprise of its unlikely connections, its sudden changes, how surround its users with the beauty of carefully composed ambient and instrumental sound? How in short deliver an experience for its user when it jerks and staggers across the screen in a spastic imitation of its original digital incarnation playing music with a hiss, crackle and pop accompaniment?

A wiser and more experienced web artist, Marianne Petit, approached her narrative work of the same year,
The Grimm Tale, with an understanding of the network, the limits of available software, and an intuitive sense for the web's emerging (1996) aesthetic. Her decisions—to break the original tale, "The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was" by the Brothers Grimm into small increments, to limit each page to a single event, action or piece of dialogue, were decisions made in the interest of fast viewing. For quick and easy download, she made efficient use of imagery and animation.

She created GIF (9) animations that ranged from 4 to 31 kilobites, checked download times—if a page seemed to take too long a time loading, it was preceded by pages with virtually no download time; her tiled backgrounds were designed with the browser's cache (10) in mind: when she introduced a new, larger visual element, she made sure all the other elements on the same page had been introduced on earlier pages, so that they were already resident in the browser's cache and available for faster downloading. In creating sound for her work she used MIDI, (11) a method that makes use of files so small they add virtually nothing to the download time, and introduce no extraneous sounds.

But perhaps the most intriguing thing about
The Grimm Tale was the appropriateness of its use of animated GIFS.

Scene from "The Grimm Tale," [Andrew Leonard wrote in The Jerk-Stop Aesthetic]: Man holds club. Man swings club. Man thumps demon cat on head. Gout of red blood spurts from cat. Lather, rinse, repeat. Four frames jerking forward in endless, cyclic succession, a textbook example of "gif89" animation technology.

GIF animations are helping comprise an emerging aesthetic for Web-based creativity.

Call it "jerk-stop art"—a stuttering, jittery, clunky mode of expression rising up in response to the low-bandwidth, high latency limitations of the Web as a medium...

As Leonard went on to note,
The Grimm Tale profits from the web's restrictions "Cartoonish, clumsy, and stark, the endless cycling" of GIFs picks up on the repetitive theme of brute horror in this, one of the darkest of Grimm stories about a boy so obsessed with his inability to experience fear, that he sleeps with dead men, uses skulls as bowling balls, and commits all sorts of violence.

There is a tendency to compare and disparage web works because they do not share the aesthetic of works produced in other, more technically sophisticated media. (12) But these works are not poor competitors. They are necessary parts of the ongoing process of creating more lasting and meaningful art in this medium. The Grimm Tale made efficient and imaginative use of the tools available to it and ingeniously exploited the shortcomings and limitations of the medium to become one of Turbulence's most popular works ever;
North Country did not. But it too had its redeeming features. (13) And both are part of what net artist and theorist Andy Deck so aptly calls "the unfinished insufficient precursors of what one may expect tomorrow" (Deck).

North Country (web version) did one thing its earlier iteration as a CD- ROM could not. It invited public participation. (14) And it is here that North Country’s importance for me lies. Twice in the web telling, the work shows the skull of the unidentified woman and asks the question: WHO IS SHE? (fig. 1) A form is provided for the user's reply. CGI scripting transfers the reply to a storage bin on Turbulence's server, and returns it to a special page in North Country where it can be accessed by others. (Thorington, turbulence).

It was through the use of the simple CGI scripting in this work that I first became involved as a writer with the public imagination. (15) The surprise of the unexpected, and the challenge it presented to me as a writer were unbelievably exciting. (16) This was the beginning of an understanding of what network might mean to me— connections with others that could be profoundly and unexpectedly creative (17) —the potential for digression and development in almost any direction—work that could continue for years—work that could be larger than the expression of a single artist or artist/ programmer.

A yearning for the epic possibilities of narrative in this medium began to shape.

The following are examples of early responses to the question and my replies. (18)
Fig.1 WHO is SHE ?
Message 1
I think she's my granny, who went missing around August 1990. Roxanne Coy-Martin. The old bat went out into the woods near Lake Placid an wan't heard from since. About 5'2 and so dumb she couldn't tell deer shit from hard black cherries til she chewed on it. You think it was her? Arkie*%* Mon Apr 1 12:24:57 EST 1996

Tues April 2 9:30:47 EST 1996

Dear Arkie: Your grandmother's body was found in upstate New York. However at the time it was discovered it was still in relatively good condition. It was shipped back to a location in Harlan County, West Virginia. As neither family claimed the body, it was buried in a pauper's grave. Police said that foul play was suspected. Mrs. Coy-Martin was ostracized from the Coy family for marrying a member of the Martin family. Hostility has long characterized the relationship of these two mountain families as you well know. In an interesting turn of events Coy-Martin was buried on the very day West Virginia legislators met to discuss a promotional campaign to alter West Virginia's image (see The New York Times, March 24, 1996). It is said that the song celebrating this long-standing family feud will soon be banned in the state. The Civil Liberties Union is gearing itself up for yet another court case on free speech.

Message 2
she is Lucy, the neandertal. *%* Tue Apr 2 16:23:30 EST 1996

Reply (i)
Wed Apr 3 9:30:46 EST 1996

We checked with the museum where Lucy is supposed to reside and they did in fact report a theft in the summer of 1991. We'll look into this one.

Reply (ii)
Sun Apr 14 15:24:20 EDT 1996

Lucy appears to have been a "progressive" Neanderthal. She is believed to have carried a spear and done her share of big game hunting. Typical animals hunted by Lucy would have been wild horses, woolly mammoths, reindeer, and rhinos. Lucy's skull was returned in 1992 to the museum from which it was taken—sad to say, considerably the worse for wear—so we must rule her out as a possible answer to our question. Thank you, however, for your intelligent suggestion.

Message 3
some dead chick *%* Tue Apr 9 14:21:28 EDT 1996

Thurs Apr 11 9:46:30 EDT 1996

Dear (who are you?):
No, you've made a serious mistake. These are human bones not chicken bones. If, as it appears, your tastes run to the traditional dead wings and leg stumps that make up most holiday dinners, you may want to consult the Poultry Internet Resource Hotline: http://www.oneglobe.com/agrifood/aginform/poultry/idxpltry.html

Message 4
With long legs and a plain face she seldom got the double take. But talk to her for more than five minutes and you wanted to know her for the rest of your life.

If you were a girl she'd be your new best friend. If you were a guy she'd be the one you didn't want to get away.

But if you knew her for more than a few days you'd know that neither was possible. All that would be left of the encounter was memories; fond or furious depending on how much you gave in the beginning. *%* Tue Apr 16 03:47:57 EDT 1996

Sat Apr 20 12:28:30 EDT

And the memories would fade as well. And she would be, as she is, unsought and unidentified?

Message 6
Perhaps she did commit suicide. Why has everyone written that off so fast? Maybe she was bored with work, bored with tv, bored with the bars, bored with boys and girls, bored, bored bored. She has fallen victim to our times. She has realized that life is getting worst, not better, and she figured she have a nice picnik an get out while the gettin out's still good.

P.S. for bad days I recommend finger painting and food fights *%* Fri May 3 12:27:24


I was concerned for the writer of this message. I replied asking her to be in touch with me. I never heard from her.

Message 7
Gaia is her name, but she looks like a normal bewildered western girl who forgot her name. Somewhere in space someone is calling her name, but she doesn't know what it means. She is cold from having her bones exposed, which is her profession. Perfect bones in perfect limbs, just that. *%* Tue Apr 30 05:52:34 EDT 1996

Wed May 106:58:36 EDT 1996

In the hopes of securing a firm identification, your message was forwarded to the U.S. Government Department of Criminal Investigation, Bureau of Unsolved Crimes. The following reply was received: "The Bureau of Unsolved Crimes is unable to process your request due to insufficient information. When resubmitting, please include Gaia's first name and middle initial."

How might North Country have become an epic work?

Imagine it as the core and each of the responses to the question, Who Is She?, as entry points for new narratives. Imagine programming that would make it possible for each of the respondees to continue developing their stories at will. Imagine programming that would make
North Country and all of its responses (developing narratives) available to you. Imagine that you , with the click of your mouse, could link a new page to any word or section of any narrative that interested you, and without interfering with anyone else’s story, begin your own. Imagine that everyone else visiting the Turbulence site could do the same. Imagine this “work” five years hence.

Is this technically possible? I don’t think so. If it were technically possible, would it happen? I’m not sure.
Solitaire (1998) takes another approach to narrative. relying on a process built into it for its development as a multi-authored work. A collaboration with Marianne Petit (drawings and Flash programming) and John Neilson (CGI programming), it combines a card game with story telling, and it allows the interactor to put his/her own story together using (for the time) my texts and some of his/her own.

Fig. 2
Click on the card. (fig. 2)
Give yourself a name

Shuffle the deck
Deal yourself a hand

Draw a card, and another, and another.
Click on each

Black and white drawings appear. They are roughly drawn; they look like woodcuts: the face of a woman, a city in shadow, a dark figure fading in and out of focus. (fig. 3)

Click again and there is text

Fig. 3
Each Solitaire deck contains 54 cards picked randomly from a database of cards. 52 of these have drawings on one side and a line of prewritten text on the other. Two are jokers or free cards on which the interactor can write his/her own text. The game begins with three cards. If the text on any one of the cards interests the interactor, he/she can select it. If not he/she can "throw it away" and call up another. Each time a selection is made, the text comes up on the right side of the screen making it possible to keep track of the progress of the developing story. When finished, the interactor can name and sign his/her story and store it (or not) in the online gallery. New texts, ones written on wild cards, are recycled to the data base of possible cards. In this way the texts that I’ve written become over time some among many, and the stories increasingly the work of many writers.

The following are samples of my texts:

(1) she comes to believe that darkness is her natural habitat...
(2) but a shadow she had thought her friend confuses her.
(3) he glides quietly among the ghostly buildings...
(4) he listens for a presence he knows he will never find again

And here is a section of a user's story. The user’s contribution is in italics:

(1)A milky twilight settles over the city, tall buildings become ghostly shadows.
(2) As he slips through the night her thoughts unfold in him
(3) eggs, lettuce, cereal, cigarettes...

There is something wonderful for me in the unexpected transformation of my vague, gloomy, almost vampiric text into a grocery list, my more literary style into the familiar style of everyday life.
During the late Spring of '97, I was invited to take part in the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria. I was interested in developing a "performance" work for the occasion and asked Jesse Gilbert and Marek Walczak to work with me. Both had participated, as had I, in PORT:
Navigating Digital Cultures, an online festival of works organized by Artnetweb in Feb-March 1997 and presented simultaneously in the List Center for the Visual Arts at MIT and on the Internet.

The initial idea for this collaboration was that I, acting as a writer, would compose texts during my week-long stay in Linz, Austria, and send them via the Internet to Gilbert and Walczak, who were at separate locations in New York City. Walczak, who was in the East Village, would respond with VRML (virtual reality modeling language) and Gilbert , who was in Greenwich Village, would respond with live and pre-recorded sound. Text, VRML and sound, unified by a Java applet on our Boston server, would be returned to me in Linz, and projected there for a live audience. (figs. 4, 5, 6, 7) Simultaneously it would be made available to Internet users. (19)

Streaming technologies: audio, VRML and text transmitted on demand under real-life conditions, technologies that allow them to play as soon as they are received... visuals in motion, texts appearing, disappearing, sound—movement, the work unfolding before you like a film...

The Spaces of Online Performance
My collaborators and I met at a distance. I was in Linz, Austria. Walczak was at home in the East Village, NYC; Gilbert was in his office.

The space of the performance was elsewhere—framed by the computer screen.
[4 screen shots from Adrift]
My pre-performance activity was filled with stress. Unfamiliar with the Linz setup and the computers I would use I relied on two young engineers to help me to assure my access to the Internet through the welter of wires feeding multiple projects at the Ars Electronica festival; through the hub where access lines came together and on to Boston where our server resides. Gilbert was similarly stressed. If Walczak was less so it was only because he was at home, familiar with his own setup and using his own computers.

There was no real space of encounter for the three of us. Rather we wrote to one another using a small program called Ircle. Ircle is basically a way to do real-time chat between sites. For us it was a "back-stage," another space on the computer screen.

The real time of our performance activities was similarly devoted to technology, for me, the activation and manipulation of the application that governed my performance. To relieve the pressure I had pre-written a series of texts and given each a number. I kept a book at my side in which text and number appeared. Once the performance began I selected a text by writing its number into my application, clicked a button to preview the text, and another to send it to the Boston server. I could have written a new text. There is a place in my application for me to write, but I didn’t have time. I have never had time.

Following an agreement on Ircle, I initiated the performances from Linz by sending my first text. Within seconds after hitting the send button (6-10 seconds on an average) the interactivity became visible. The text appeared on the bottom part of the computer screen with Walczak's VRML above. Gilbert's musical response began to fill the room.

I heard the music, but alone at my desk in Linz, absorbed with the correct functioning of my application, I was too busy to pay any but the most cursory attention to the space of the performance.

About the Texts
Adrift texts were partially developed stories, fragments of stories, some related, some unrelated. Adrift’s idea of story was of many stories, any one of which might be developed. Or not.

The texts centered around a harbor and its city. There was no sustained action, no central characters, no plot. The performance watcher was, in a sense, set adrift in a medium whose text content was fragments or potential stories, each of which could be perceived differently by differently situated and differently disposed observers.

Herbert Muschamp speaks of looking as an architectural act. "A city ," he writes, "is constructed daily by the glancing perception of its parts."

Adrift texts were intended for individual construction in a similar manner...Situated as they were in a sensory context where visuals and sound rivaled for attention, they were there to be assembled by the observer's own organizing processes and combined and connected as he/she chose.

Inevitably there were associations, shared language and shared sentiments in the texts that gave rise to meaning. To my meaning. In the initial Linz performances, for instance, there were numerous head references: decapitated heads, heads suspended in liquid nitrogen, heads to be filled with memories and new systems.

At the same time movement was stalled. The ferry boat, which was the center piece of these early
Adrift versions, drifted, "making no headway against the soft white billows." The story didn't get ahead. It didn't have a head—there was no hierarchy, no structure.

Now and again a phrase or paragraph suggested that all of the fragments were parts of a larger, more inclusive story . The phrase: "The circumstances are unexceptional", for instance, appeared in these early versions. When selected for use at the end of the performance, it suggested some modest form of closure, a kind of summing up for all the fragments that preceded. A way of saying: There's nothing exceptional in what you've read. All of this happens all the time; i.e., it 's a part of the stream of potential ongoing stories here to be perceived and possibly developed (or not), and to be differently perceived by differently situated observers.

When the same phrase, "The circumstances are unexceptional" was used elsewhere, it failed to carry the same weight and implied closure only to what immediately preceded it.

Without the benefit of a printed text, I did not expect performance viewers to pick up on all of the planned connections between texts, but it was my hope that over the course of a performance the texts would begin to reveal connections—a temporary and changing web of relationships between water, weather, sky, city and people, a fluctuating view of events happening simultaneously, or nearly so, in the same harbor/city area. (20)

My first complete viewing of
Adrift occurred in Walczak's studio in late September 1997, on my return from Linz. It was at a party of celebration. We had given five live performances—one that began on time and was completed without technical problems—four that suffered technical problems of varying degrees of gravity, usually originating from the European side where the complexities of routing were at their greatest. It seemed something to celebrate.

My memories, however, are of how completely startled I was. I have no idea now what I expected, but what I saw sent two thoughts shooting through my head: first: The text doesn't work. The text has to go. (later revised) and second: the VRML—its colors were beautiful, its space a continuous flow. There was no horizon, no top or bottom, left or right , just a continuous topological transformation. The world it created was wiped clean. It was a world of space and surface—futuristic, cleansed.

It was, on reflection, the text and the sound that introduced into the work whatever of humanity it had: the text that spoke in fragments of the homeless, the demented, the silly, the brutish; the sound that represented for the ears the sound of the harbor, ferry, and its urban travelers.

What we had created was a mirror of a divided world-the virtual above with all its slick beauty and seductive power—and beneath and separated from it the local, the geographical, the deteriorating community of human life.


9. A gull hovers above the ferry deck. Its beady eyes introduce a new perspective.


13. Mottled sea water sloshes against the ferry pier. You lean forward and see a head twisted into the flecked gray patterns. You recognize the image as your own.

14. The body was found at 5:14 a.m., its clothing snagged on a metal bolt between two pilings at the ferry wharf. The head was missing. Apparently severed before immersion.

16. Clouds gather—long ribbons of gray close to the horizon...They weave their way, in and out of the picture.

22. The terminal is full. The bored, impatient bodies of sedentary urbanites crowd the waiting space, push and argue with one another to relieve the tedium of waiting. You try for an inconspicuous place. Lean sideways against the cinder-brick wall, looking out. Your view of the harbor and in-coming ferry is blocked by the docking enclosure. You pass the time spying on the exhausted reflections in the dirty window.

27. A tall disheveled man materializes in the window: he laughs uproariously. His head moves first up, then down, then to either side, while his arm rises, points at you, and the blurred face streams gibberish.

As if someone had pulled a switch, he stops and recedes. To begin again.. running off identical copies of himself across the terminal floor.
You turn to authenticate the image.

32. The light shifts. The sky is awash with small clouds. In each one a ferry boat drifts, making no headway against the soft white billows.

34. There's a tightness in your chest. The terminal is too crowded; the atmosphere too close. To your right a mother shouts at her child. The child is crying. She wants her dolly. The mother turns away. As her eyes meet yours, she throws you a fierce, challenging glance.

You retreat into the dirty window. The child shrieks hysterically.

Following the Ars Electronica Festival, programmers Jonathan Feinberg and Martin Wattenberg joined the Adrift group as programmers. A lot of things changed in a short time.

One thing that was immediately apparent to me was that many of my texts were too long. It was almost impossible, given the ongoing transformation of the VRML and the sound score to focus on and understand long paragraphs.

Another, that the texts needed to relate visually—by color , placement and movement—to Walczak's VRML. That they had to become parts of the setting/landscape as well as conveyors of content.

Martin Wattenberg reworked my java applet making it possible for me to place the texts—left, right, center—to fade them in, scroll them in or make them appear abruptly, and to color them. At the same time Walczak began to take some of my texts into his VRML, creating for each performance yet another connection between our disparate contributions, and defining yet another relationship between Adrift texts.

In some of the later performance, for instance, the partial text: "always ask why" appeared in Walczak's VRML. Sometimes it appeared at the same time as the text "The day began with a question mark", appeared beneath it. At other times it appeared with the text "excuse me, excuse me" or "pictures enter my mind." Each time it set up a new relationship, both between texts and between the text and the VRML spaces.

While we made these changes, Gilbert revised his initial contribution, moving away from the partially scored instrumental work with which he began, toward an increasingly environmental and immersive work, one that would surround and help bind all of our work together.

The idea of story grew.

The programmers made it possible for me to talk into the sound. Wherever I was, I could tell stories or partial stories and my voice would be available for inclusion in Gilbert’s sound.

It became possible for users to input text to the work.

Gilbert’s score evolved to include an even wider range of sound sources. In addition to my voice it included taped pieces, short wave radio broadcasts, and citizen band radio captured through a scanner. The radio signals added an element of unpredictability; the scanner introduced into a fictional work fragments of actual stories in progress. Their energy can be felt.

Later we took yet another step in the direction of interpenetration. We tested and began to stream video into the VRML space, thus introducing scenes from "real life" into the its fictional spaces.

New artists have become involved.

In the performances that lie ahead, we will begin to address other issues—the nature of user participation. Is it wanted in a work like this? should there be limits set? How might it be used?

Each step adds new connections in and to a work whose form is and will continue to be in process.

There is no conclusion to this paper. Only this final thought, that as artists explore and test the connections the Internet makes possible, as boundaries once thought indissoluble disappear and reconfiguration begins to take place, the question so often asked: why would anyone want to watch this? how does it differ from the experience of watching a video or TV? what makes it special? will be answered by: Perhaps they won’t want to watch. Perhaps they will want to participate. Or: perhaps participation, not objectification will define the work that lies ahead. The kind of interfaces that would make this possible are absent from most corporate and museum sites. But as Andy Deck writes in In Search of Meaningful Events, “the amazing growth of the web is evidence of the will of the people to leave a mark-- aesthetical, rhetorical, or otherwise—and it is with this in mind that one must ask whether museums and other public institutions, will endorse or reject that will?” Even whether the majority of today’s artists will.

1. Based on a statement by composer/engineer, Jesse Gilbert.

2. Turbulence is an experimental site. It commissions artists to create work that engages with the networked medium. Launched in 1996, it has commissioned thirty web projects, hosted over twenty online performance events, and is home to seven additional works, including an ongoing story.

3. Years ago I interviewed Native American poet, Simon Ortiz, who told me that his father always insisted that a story be told from the beginning. This practice, Ortiz said, made for some very long stories, but it also placed the Native story teller and his listeners in a context, an historical continuum. It made them part, but only part of the long on-going flow of the life of the tribe. You would not of course know about Simon Ortiz or his father from my text, but his argument is there, representing at the time the story was written my own ambiguity toward a new medium that seems to discourage ideas of context and continuity.

4. Writers will doubtless hold onto the text only approach to narrative on the Internet, but it seems unlikely to me that the text only approach will survive as the dominant way of telling a story in this medium. Visual artist Annette Weintraub, in a 6/7/99 email to the author, describes what I think will become the more characteristic ways of using narrative: “I don't think of my work [Sampling Broadway (downtown on the Turbulence website) as primarily narrative, yet it does have narrative elements--it mixes multiple narratives in diverse media. I am interested in work that simultaneously blends reading, hearing and seeing. For me, narrative acts as a grounding or cohesive element which is useful when mixing technologies or working in a mode that emphasizes fracture. I've used narrative as a means of establishing tone or ambience, and also as carrier of information; it also can be used to amplify an experience by giving it momentum or resolution. I think about writing in a particular voice, shaping the narrative almost theatrically and finding a way to marry that "characterization" (though not literally a character) to images and sound. Narrative also lends the work a particular flow or tempo” (Weintraub)

5. North Country, CD-ROM is a demo only and not available for purchase. Eric Schefter was the manager for this project; Isabella Segal, the graphic designer, and Steve Jones, the programmer. I wrote the story, shot the video, and created the soundscore with Guy Klucevsek, accordion. The work was funded with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts and a grant from the Meet the Composer/Readers Digest Commissioning Program.

6. In the three years since North Country ROM was completed, enthusiasm for the CD-ROM as a medium has abated considerably. In the American publishing world, fewer ROMs are being published than in earlier years and those houses that are still publishing are focusing on what they assume will be sure hits.

Still the CD-ROM combines a number of strengths not available in other distribution media—For instance: it provides a great deal of disc space; 580 megabytes was the practical limit of the ROM at the time we created North Country. The DVD available now provides much much more. But even at 580 megabytes, it is impressive. It can store audio, video, animation and high quality graphics. Or if you prefer, 250,000 pages of text. It is also compact, virus resistant, and easy to distribute and easy to store.

I think of the CD-ROM as a transitional medium—something more like a book than a web work—first, it is an object, and second, it is self-contained, ie., when transferred to your computer, it exists there in its entirety, and unless setup to do so, does not require connection to anything else to be experienced.

7. This is a good example of 1) the process that makes fluidity in this medium virtually impossible, and 2) the intrusion of outside business interests into an artistic presentation.

8. Today and particularly if you have a fast connection, such as a T1 line, unwanted noise has diminished considerably. But heavy Internet traffic still impacts unfavorably on RealAudio sound, as the Real Player (in your computers) waits for the arrival of all the units or packets of encoded information necessary to reconstruct the audio you requested. Pops and crackles indicate that not all the material has arrived and that the Player is reconstructing the audio from the data it has, using a complex buffering system.

9. GIF animation—one of the two main online image formats for the web. GIF animations can be set to play once on a web page, or to loop continuously or a set number of times.

10. Files retrieved from the Web site are kept on the user's hard disk in a temporary storage area called cache. Since a browser can load files from local cache faster than by going back to the Web site on the Internet, elements that are already in the cache will load faster tahn new ones.

11. MIDI, a standard protocol for digital musical instruments. MIDI is not for acoustic instruments or prerecorded sounds, such as the music (accordion) and ambient sounds used in North Country.

12. “It all feels so FLAT,” a friend of mine wrote. “No depth. A kind of opaque space that sits on the surface. The exact opposite of the experience of going to the Bill Viola retrospective exhibition at LACMA. Truly transporting physically, emotionally, spiritually. For many of my students it was a kind of epiphany.”

13. Not the least being that it taught its author how to work and how not to work in this medium.

14. The Grimm Tale made use of CGI programming in such sections as “Grimm Thoughts”, where the user is asked significant questions like “What is your first recollection of shuddering in fear?” These questions characteristically evoked short autobiographical responses. North Country, as evidenced by the examples cited, challenged the imaginations of its users more and their “fictional” responses were often deeply, even painfully, personal.

15. There are, of course, many places you can go on the web where public participation is a fact of life: chat rooms, discussion groups, and my favorite, the MOOs and MUDs. The latter are multi-user environments, where people with even modest programming skills can add to the existing environment by creating their own rooms and objects, and where they carry on extensive conversations, sometimes as themselves and sometimes in chosen roles.

My interest here, however, is public participation in the work of individual artists.

16. I feel a similar excitement today when I find such a work as the email narrative, A Mystery by Eric Idle, also know as the Dysson Story. Whether the Dysson story was developed through an exchange of emails or not, and as reprehensible as the idea may be of harassing an unsuspecting human into creating your story with you, as Idle appears to have done, the idea of initiating such a work and carrying it through with multiple recipients creating overlapping layers of emotional and informational response is totally thrilling. I also see it as a challenge that would require me to be as idle as Eric in other parts of my life in order to participate fully in the narratives’ development.

17. Not all connections will be inspiring ones, but if the artist is open to the experience he/she will find many responses, even those most clichéd, can be stimulating.

18. Users regularly responded to North Country’s question through ‘96 and well into ‘97, at which time the number of responses began to fall off, while the number of hits remained close to the same. There was a similar falling-off in contributions to an online narrative, The Story of X that first appeared on the Turbulence site in ‘97. I am unable to account for this. It may be as simple as the fact that this kind of work is no longer new; that there are ever increasing demands on everyone’s time; that the enormous and continuing growth of the net as a site of consumption and entertainment has altered expectations in favor of “the spectacle”; or it may be as complicated as the convergence of all these—favoring the role of the passive consumer over the more demanding role of participant in the development of mind imposed meaning.

19. Mark James was our programmer and the creator of the initial applets that made our performances possible.

20. I once, regrettably only once, had the opportunity to see two performances run simultaneously. The texts visible to the observer (me in this case) were doubled and the order in which they appeared depended on which of the two performances I focused on. The resituating of the texts, the differences and similarities in the continuously transforming vrml spaces made for the most exciting and suggestive viewing I ever had. Simultaneous multiple performances are somewhere in my future as a must.

artnetweb. "Port Navigating Digital Cultures." http://www.artnetweb.com/port

Deck, Andy. "In Search of Meaningful Events: Curatorial Algorithms and Malleable Aesthetics." http://andyland.net

Idle, Eric. "A Mystery." Also known as the Dysson Story. http://pythonline.com/fakeopen/dysson/

Leonard, Andrew. "The Jerk-Stop Aesthetic." http://www.hotwired.com/packet/leonard/96/42/index3a.html

Muschamp, Herbert. "street Dreams That the Eye Can Cherish." New York Times, 8 January, 1999.

Thorington, Helen. "North Country" (CD-ROM).

Thorington, Helen. "North Country." Black Ice #14 (1998): 52-61.

Thorington, Helen. Turbulence Web site. http://turbulence.org/Works/Thorington/nc/page24.html

Weintraub, Annette. E-mail the author. 7 June 1999.

Winterson, Jeannette. "Gut Symmetries." London: Knopf. 1997.


© Helen Thorington, 2004