American Ghosts, Alan Bigelow
Originally published as part of project muster, Apr 26, 08.
>>MF: It seems like that over the last few years, both the format and the story texts in your projects have been evolving. The earlier ones, especially PamelaSmall.com and Saving the Alphabet feel somewhat more like illustrated digital ‘books’ compared to the more recent ones, which tend to be shorter, pithier and more visual.
>>AB: Over the past few years, my efforts have concentrated on making these digital stories say more with less. In particular, I try to have the elements of each story (text, images, and audio) be as archetypal as possible, to be sometimes less character-specific and more concept-focused.
For example, in When I Was President, the character talks about “emptying the Internet” and “painting himself gray,” not so much as realistic actions that accompany his character progression, but as prototypical statements that imply a larger goal, a universal longing, in an imperfect world, for something better. Likewise, What They Said, my most recent piece, is not just about how we perceive mass media–and the pervasiveness of authoritarian messages, both outright and subliminal, that dictate our future–but also how such messages (and our often lethargic acceptance of them) are common in all societies.
The visuals in What They Said and later pieces (like Lord’s Prayer, The and Because You Asked) are intended to synthesize better with the text. As you point out, earlier works like PamelaSmall.com and Saving The Alphabet use visuals more as “illustrations,” and they do not provide as much of a dynamic synthesis with the text.
Do you draw a conceptual line to any other particular writers or artists working in the same way?
I am not conscious of any writers or artists that I draw a direct conceptual line to, but certainly there are writers who deeply influenced me in the past. The shortlist would include Samuel Beckett, Samuel Clemens, Jean-Paul Sartre, Laurence Sterne, Virginia Woolf, John Barth, Sophocles… the list goes on, with such wildly divergent authors (in terms of period, style, and subject matter) that my references to them are based pretty much on the fact that, at one time or other, I was voraciously reading them. Artists are no easier: the Abstract Expressionists, Pop Art, Impressionists, Renaissance artists… I like them all. When I was a growing up in New York City, one of my favorite pastimes was to visit the Met and deliberately get lost in its many rooms. My purpose was not to find my way out–it was to enjoy the art in an environment that had no exit and no entry, a seized moment in a place with no expectations other than those demanded by the art itself. Does that sound like how we feel as artists and writers when we are engaged in creating our own work? For me, yes…
What for you is the advantage of taking this on in a web format as opposed to, say, a screenplay or performance? It certainly seems that some of your recent pieces riff off the monologue as a format.
In my view, Flash is a superbly streamlined and robust application with which to create work for the web. It seems that virtually anything I can imagine, story-wise, can be accomplished. It allows for the use of mixed media in the same way a live performance does, but typically only to an audience of one, and with only the illusion of three-dimensionality. I have done plenty of traditional text readings and some performances in the past, and live audiences are wonderful to work with, but right now, the web offers such promise: a world-wide audience, 24/7 access to my work, and the opportunity to work from home. So right now, writing for the web is my preference.
Could you take me through your sketching/drafting process? How do you edit ideas to decide what to make next? And in what way does the format you’ve chosen influence your concept of ‘story’? What makes a good webyarn?
As any net artist will tell you, coming up with a story idea is often (if you’re lucky!) the easiest part of creating online work. The hard part is making your idea a reality…
The first step is the concept. I use this word advisably–at one time, when I wrote fiction for the page, not the web, I would have been thinking “character” or “plot line,” or “situation.” With net art, for me it is still sometimes character or plot, but more often “concept.” By this I mean a more general idea–a political statement, or a commentary on art or a social structure–that provides the organizing principle for the work.
After the concept comes many hours of visual drafting, much of which is creating a user-friendly and (hopefully) beautiful interface. My work is all in Flash, so once an interface is created, and the basic “story” is down in text form, I get to the job of making what I want to happen, happen. In Flash, in addition to working with imagery and sound, this usually means ActionScript coding. I am a text-based writer first, a relative newcomer to Flash, so this technical side of net art has always been a challenge. Fortunately, there are many talented and generous Flash people on the net who provide open-source coding (i.e. free for anyone to use), so I often find the code I want on the web and then hack it to my needs. For visuals–anything from still images to video–I either create them myself or also get them off the net. As always, I am careful to acknowledge the source of any help on the credits page…
The last step in the creative process is testing the work on various browsers and computers to make sure the load times are quick enough and that the processor speeds are sufficient to make the story play correctly. A typical project might take several months to finish.
What makes a good webyarn? I wish I knew, because then I could make more of them…
In what ways do the challenges you mention shape the work you make?
Certainly, there are times when what I intend for a piece is not what eventually happens because of the challenges in coding. Sometimes, it’s because I run across a piece of coding that’s better than what I had in mind, and sometimes it’s because I lack the skills to do exactly what I want, so I go in a different direction. One criteria I always try to follow, within reason, is never to settle for anything less than what I consider to be the ideal choice for a piece: one way or another, no matter how much I might gnash my teeth or tear my hair out, there’s a snippet of code out there that will do the job.
Do you think that writing, finding or hacking code is now what you’d consider part of your writing process? Do you think it has any implications for the sort of underlying genetic structure of your work–sort of another kind of assemblage or bricolage that’s in parallel with the collection of images and sounds you use?
Unfortunately (because I find no joy in it), searching for code and hacking it is part of the writing process. Fortunately, as I said, there’s plenty of coders on the web who are happy to share their work. I also, on occasion, find help from local artists/coders who know more about Flash than I do, and are happy to help. If I did not have such resources, I would be significantly restricted in what I do.
Imagining code as a genetic structure, a living organism, is the stuff of nightmares. Please wake me up…
Several of your works offer options for visitors to contribute, both guestbook-style and also by offering whole new works. Could you talk a little about this decision and how it relates to your larger project?
There are three works at webyarns.com that offer the option for visitors to write into the story. PamelaSmall.com is, as you point out, a guestbook which also generates a reply email from the main character to anyone who posts.
MyNovel.org offers readers a more ambitious option: to write a four sentence novel. First, they read some classic novels (Moby Dick, On The Road, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and so on) that I have reduced into four sentences apiece and played against a Flash background of images and sound. Using these as models, the viewer is able to write their own four sentence novel–either a reduction of a classic novel or their own original novel–which is saved into a database so anyone visiting the site can read it (again, with varying backgrounds of images and sound). I am happy to say that over the past two years, many people from all over the world have written their novels into MyNovel.org–it is thanks to them that the site continues to evolve.
Finally, I-Pledge.org is a site which offers visitors the opportunity to revise the Pledge Of Allegiance. The site gives them the first one to three words of each line of the Pledge, and they are invited to write the rest which, like MyNovel.org, plays out against a backdrop of images and sound and is saved into a database. The project offers a venue for people to comment on the current political climate in this country (and the world), and leave those comments for anyone to see.
These write-in functions give readers a chance to contribute to the continued growth of the stories. Works like MyNovel.org and I-Pledge.org don’t realize their potential without the contributions of viewers; they are meant to be ongoing public collaborations, and they rely on their visitors for additions to the collected works. Without those contributions, the sites stagnate and, as digital fictions, miss one of the best opportunities the internet has to offer: the chance for anyone online, anywhere in the world, to have a voice on the web.