New Media Artist Peggy Nelson: Exploring the Parallax of Identity
Interviewed by Molly Hankwitz, Contributing editor, NewmediaFIX
Peggy Nelson is a Boston-based new media artist, writer, and filmmaker, who has been exploring Twitter as a medium for literary interaction with audiences, and using various high- and low-tech tools to explore urban history and psychogeographic casts upon places. Nelson’s work is part of trends in art and writing to more fully engage public spaces through use of new technologies to probe and intervene in the surface layers of human memory, thought and interaction.
MH: Twitter literature, what is it and how is it collaborative?
PN: Twitter literature is published via Twitter, 140 characters at a time. Some authors are posting their already-written novels, one tweet at a time. Some are re-posting diary entries from real people, often long-dead. I am creating a narrative within Twitter as I go, and leaving it open for responses by other people who might ask the main character questions. In a sense, every Twitter account is a character, a “performance,” even if that performance is “me” or “you.” So when I create an account for a character, the character is actually telling their story, and I am not just pasting in sentences from a prewritten novel. I don’t co-write or crowdsource. I still believe in individual creation, and Twitter as a propagation medium, or platform. However, during my recent project, In Search of Adele H [https://twitter.com/adelehugo], people didn’t interact as much as they might have or I thought they would. They realized it was art, and kept a respectful distance. I was not encouraging them to step back. It just happened.
MH: You create the work through a Twitter account and individuals receive the tweets and can weave their own stories with the fiction subconsciously or even start a thread. How do they get to the work, or you to them? Through Twitter?
PN: Yes. The first piece was inspired by The Story of Adele H, by Francois Truffaut (1975). My ‘Adele H’ happened within Twitter. ‘She’ was a public account. Thus Adele H gained followers just like any other Twitter account and she followed people back. I had a supplemental blog for the project, where I explained the piece, and periodic articles in various journals, including OtherZine [http://www.othercinema.com/otherzine/index.php?issueid=22&article_id=89]. I also invited interested people by asking them to follow and participate. However, what happened was that almost no one intervened with their own replies or tried to change the narrative. Even though all these tools allow interactivity, we don’t always avail ourselves of it. We still like to kick back and “listen.” I think there is great value in being an audience for each other.
I called Adele H a Twitter “film,” following along the lines of Yoko Ono’s Instruction Pieces. The movie occurs in your mind as you read the tweets. Ono’s paintings were supposed to occur in your mind as you read the Instructions. I started with an outline for a “normal” art film that I had written about Adele Hugo, Victor Hugo’s youngest daughter, as my narrative structure. I intended to take a similar approach to Ross McElwee’s in Sherman’s March (1986), where he sets out to do a documentary about Sherman’s March and ends up telling the story of his own relationships and girlfriends. I intended to tell Adele’s real history woven through with my own relationship stories; to tell tragedy as comedy. But once I got on Twitter, it occurred to me that it would be more interesting to bring “Adele” back to life as a cyber-entity, and to have her tweet, in the present, from both her own century and ours. This would give the feminism more depth.
Her own writing was obsessive fantasies created with quill pen and diary; these fantasies became her life. Today many people journal very publically through blogs and Twitter, and while it’s not always clear exactly where reality leaves off and fantasy takes over, when it goes public, numerous differences emerge which can be very intriguing. First of all, audiences can read what is written immediately, or at least this is possible and it’s increasingly more difficult to secrete away thoughts in some attic endlessly embroidering them. Online, writers need to be self-aware. It’s substantially different from a diary. Also, readers and authors are both “in” Twitter, in the same narrative space as the characters, so there can be some wonderful overlaps. Thirdly, we are using this technology to reinvent ourselves and our characters. A parallax is provided, therefore, to what we are doing in the present, by using an older character, one from another time, to mediate.
MH: Are you working on other social media projects?
PN: I have begun a Twitter novel, Shackleton [https://twitter.com/EShackleton], about another real person, Ernest Shackleton, and his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton’s ship was crushed in the ice, and he spent two years trying to escape; they couldn’t get a message out because they had no radio system, and radios didn’t reach that far back then anyway. There were other mishaps while trying to survive and get the men back alive. Numerous films have been made and books published on this adventure; the 1999 exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York rejuvenated Shackleton’s reputation and publicized the story. However, most of the books and films leave out significant events – there is too much to absorb.
Paradoxically, the micromoments of Twitter allow me to tell stories of substantial length, and to reveal all the close calls and death-defying escapes, without them all hitting at once, since you don’t have to stay with micromoments all the time. You don’t have to make a special interruption in your day, to enjoy them per se. They fit into minutes, bus rides, ordinary activities. You get the tweets and in your mind you can start aggregating the larger story. But fragmentation is fine. You don’t have to get the whole story. You can miss some and get the rest of it later, you’re never locked into a strict chronological narrative.
Best of all, the medium is truly democratic. Anyone can make one of these Twitter projects. Twitter accounts are free. I’m influenced by graffiti, and public art of this kind; the idea of many messages all over the city; small interventions into urban spaces. Tweeted characters (like Adele H) are interventions into cyber-spaces. I use computers and communications technologies constantly, in my job as a designer. I am always thinking of how I can repurpose them for art.
MH: Do you think personal blogs perceived to be written by males are read differently, as something more like gaming, identity, news?
PN: We still have a gender differentiation in the culture about how we receive written material and male authors still tend to be taken more seriously, more quickly, even if what they’re writing is a series of extemporaneous personal reflections; while women still have to prove themselves, often over and over. Men can also be very critical of and aggressive toward each other’s writing, sure, but the fact is that there is still a gender gap in perception. We have a lot of work to do as feminists in this area.
MH: In this work on Shackleton you play a male character. Do you think audiences may choose to interact more with this narrative character?
PN: Good question. They might. Not only is Shackleton a male character, but the narrative is an action-adventure story, whereas Adele H was about unrequited love that took place in a woman’s head. I don’t know if readers will react more aggressively to such an alpha-male story, and try to post or interact with “him” more because of that, or if they will again keep a respectful distance because they see it as art. I don’t have a preference for a certain reaction, I’m fine with the distance, but if there’s more interaction, I’ll see how it goes. I’m not hiding the fact that I am a woman and I am writing Shackleton’s life, but will they see the character as male, or have an issue with a woman writing it? I don’t know. I’m sure you have had the experience of having to identify with male characters in a story or film because that’s what was there. That feels familiar to many women. Men don’t tend to have the same problem.
MH: Talk about your outdoor public mobile projects, please.
PN: I am working on some distributed narratives in real space. The first one, The Audio Tour [http://theaudiotour.com], premiered at Burning Man in 2006. I recorded various sounds and impressions from blogging my travels both on and off the playa. These were downloadable to any mp3 player, and I also had mp3 players to take or borrow at my camp. I was inspired by the Situationist concept of the dérive, which encouraged not conforming to main avenues and official urban spaces; finding your own version of a city or place, when coming up with the tour. I tried to do a dérive of the space of Burning Man, if you will, and then let others hear it.
The Audio Tour drew from museum audio guides, the kind where you are told to “play No. 3″ and an art historian tells you about the art — but with a twist. My audio was randomized. You play the entries at random with no “listening stations” marked as such. Thus, the listener decides what a listening station might be. You wander around with the downloads and arrive at a listening station — simply by deciding you are at one! The recorded passages, juxtaposed with the place the listener is, tend to match up. We are pattern-making and pattern-seeking animals. Whenever we walk around, we are flowing along with our stream of consciousness. It might be about the place we are in, it might be about a conversation we need to have, it might be music, some ideas from a book, or concerns about public affairs. Our experience of a place is not only determined by the place but all that we bring to it, vertically, historically, and especially when traveling. I wanted that kind of “mash-up” to comprise the content of the tour. The basic idea is: stream of consciousness out in the world.
The second project was Web021 [http://www.web021.org/]. “021” is the beginning of the Boston zip code. Web021 was somewhat similar to The Audio Tour, but not as random. It was about real Boston history plus quotes and passages of fiction set in Boston. It used 2D barcodes (or QR codes) on stickers. You see them more often in magazines now, advertising various things, but you can make your own. I designed my own 2D barcodes on stickers and put them up all over Cambridge, MA, where I live; each one was linked to a unique URL that would give you one of these passages, from Hawthorne, or Santayana, or Samuel Adams, about Boston. It was location-specific in that the stickers were intentionally put at particular places and the text was centered around both real and fictional “Bostons.” Of course, the piece was in Boston. I was very influenced by graffiti and all the stickers we see drawn on with Sharpies. I guess it is locative art. I think of it like Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, as art in the environment, except not all in one spot; Web021 was distributed; deliberately made not to be seen all at once. Twitter is also a distributed medium, more in time than space. The audiences doesn’t need to read it all at once and the distributed fragments can add up to something much larger, deeper and more substantial.
MH: Your pieces differ on the grounds of their interactivity, and what’s interactive changes from contexts of the computer at home to an augmented reality context/QR code application. Do you feel a greater familiarity with Twitter and social media and, perhaps, continued exposure to these mobile literary art forms in your audience, will lead to their participation in your future works? Will you design for this?
PN: That’s a good question. I have not been as concerned with interactivity being a central component of my work up to this point. I have included it as a possibility in some of my pieces, especially the Twitter work, but it’s optional, and does not “break” the piece if it doesn’t happen. What I’d really love to see is other people becoming inspired to do their own locative art, either in real space or in cyberspace, so we can have many artistic and cultural interventions like these, similar to how we have lots of graffiti by different makers. In many urban environments graffiti is the norm, not the exception. I’d love to see narrative and sonic interventions achieve a graffiti-like saturation.
MH: Thank you.
Peggy Nelson, New Media and Film – artist’s website