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Database | Narrative | Archive

Seven interactive essays on digital nonlinear storytelling
edited by Matt Soar & Monika Gagnon

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Editors' Introduction

Database|Narrative|Archive is a collection of seven 'essays' by leading thinkers and makers in the emergent medium of nonlinear digital storytelling. Each contribution has been conceived and written for Scalar, an interactive, multimedia, scholarly publishing platform in development at the University of Southern California, under the direction of the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture. All of the contributors have been concerned with investigating and addressing critical, conceptual, and creative questions at the heart of contemporary nonlinear storytelling in this formative era of the Web, while underlining connectivity and historical resonances with earlier media forms and texts.

A profusion of recent scholarly writing and cultural commentary addresses the sprawling, emergent realm of interactive narrative, which is itself part of a profound historical development that has been referred to as “the computerization of culture.” Categories such as “electronic literature,” “interactive database narrative," and ‘transmedia’ scholarship are amongst the many neologisms claiming to describe some of the emergent characteristics of interactive narrative. Given an ever-expanding array of digital production platforms that have broadened opportunities for the delivery of research-based media productions – DVDs, archives, kiosks, installations, data visualizations, mobile devices and social networking software – recent innovations in research and practice in new media and communication studies now focus on the combination of database functionality and digital delivery, producing multimodal forms of scholarship. As Anne Friedberg describes it, “the digital page yields a new axis of depth – a page that layers to other pages, can be seen next to other pages, and can include moving images, still images, sounds.

The nine authors of the seven essays in this collection engage with the multimodality offered by Scalar with creative, critical and historical approaches that explore these new axes of depth and layering. As Suzanne Scott and Chris Hanson’s essay demonstrates with copious keywords, principles and examples, the potential for scholarship is much more than simply using images, video and sound, and the hyperlinks and connectivity of websites, as mere supplements. Indeed, all the works presented in D|N|A both interrogate and perform the potentialities of multimodal representation. As Tara McPherson has described of the multimodal scholar, these nine artist-authors begin to explore the challenge, “How do you ‘experience’ or ‘feel’ an argument in a more immersive and sensory-rich space?”.

Sharon Daniel and Amir Husak engage with particular communities and histories. What Daniel describes regarding her own new media projects (some of which are in Scalar), can be applied to both authors: “What connects all my recent projects is a desire to effect social change. In working with two of her recent socially engaged projects, Public Secrets and Blood Sugar, Daniel explores how “interface is a form of argument,” reinscribing the age-old debate about the relation between aesthetics and politics in a post-Web 2.0 environment. In a similar manner, Husak discusses his documentary engagement with an identity group and community history frequently excluded from the public sphere, ie nationalism and identity in Bosnia.

Jennifer Proctor, Brigid Maher and Monika Kin Gagnon introduce various case studies; in the former, to present typologies of crowdsourced interactive cinema practices, and, in the latter, to compare the traditional and digital archive. Proctor and Maher distinguish conventional narrative film viewing and interactive reader/viewer/user experiences online, drawing on examples from crowdsourced projects such as The Johnny Cash Project and 18 Days in Egypt. They reflect on the changing nature of narrative and what they conclude may be a tendency toward more “emotionally engaged interactivity” that is longer in duration and deeper in substance. Inversely, in examining the online archive of late intermedia artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, hosted by the Berkeley Art Museum, Gagnon explores the changing material characteristics of the archive as a repository of original artifacts and its digital facsimiles, and explores how interrelationships between art and media objects, so crucial to conceptual art, might be more effectively maintained through experimental modes of creative archiving.

Engaging with questions of form, specifically narrative and plot structure in the non-linear database narrative, Adrian Miles explores the importance of affect with specific reference to Korsakow (a software application being co-developed by Soar and used extensively by Miles, both professionally and in the classroom). Invoking Deleuze, Miles argues that “cinematographic database narratives” are to be understood as ‘assemblages’ of narrative fragments. Will Luers also uses affect as an entry point in discussing the fate of ‘traditional’ plot devices in an era of digital, nonlinear storytelling. Drawing on a wide range of examples, from graphic novels, interface design and the work of Peter Greenaway, to video loops, Luers proposes the term ‘vernacular database narrativity’ to account for the transformation of ‘plot.'

Throughout this anthology, analyses and hyperlinks to dozens of mediaworks make this Scalar-produced media-rich collection unique, aggregating some of the most recent crowdsourced and interactive mediaworks that are here made available to readers to explore, such as Katerina Cizek’s Highrise Project (ongoing), David Dufresne and Philippe Brault’s Prison Valley (2011), with references to older experimental films such as Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and Perry Bard’s participatory remake, Man With a Movie Camera: The Global Remake (ongoing), as well as references to the work of Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, and Michael Figgis’s Timecode (2000).

To facilitate reading across the contributions, collection editors Soar and Gagnon encourage readers to make liberal use of the search function, thereby teasing out some of the 'essays's' creative, theoretical, and conceptual alignments. (If the contributors’ respective paths through their own content can be understood as the warp of D|N|A, then readers' additional search 'paths' can be thought of as the weft: semi-autonomous but conceptually integrated meta-paths, each tasked with making thematic and topical connections across and between the seven essays.

Any idle notion we had that working on a 'born digital' anthology would somehow be faster than working in, and for, print was quickly dispelled – as our loyal contributors discovered over time, too. These days, of course, any amount of text can be sent from Santa Cruz, or Melbourne, to Montreal almost instantaneously, but this fact soon gave way to the sheer graft of coming to terms with the affordances of an emergent medium of scholarly publishing. Our authors were asked to write for this medium – reconceptualizing their scholarship in screen-sized, semi-autonomous chunks – and many of them had never done so before. They all rose to the challenge gamely, discovering along the way that Scalar is designed around the concept of the path: these morsels, sections, lexias, of writing are purposefully articulated to one another, and potentially complicated by the addition of further paths, forks, cul-de-sacs. Readers will notice, for example, that one contribution in particular – Sharon Daniel's – makes really adventurous use of these affordances. As our anonymous peer reviewer reassured us, however, perhaps nonlinear scholarly essays do not need to be doggedly read from declared beginning to putative end.

In the time it's taken us to write, edit, design and publish this anthology, other Scalar projects have begun to appear. We're glad of the company and look forward to seeing what else users of this platform can accomplish. Finally, then: much has been said about the impermanence of content on the web; we hope this anthology is useful and relevant at least as long as it remains widely accessible.

Matt Soar | Monika Kin Gagnon
Montréal | January 2013

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