Digital Memories: The McCoy’s Electronic Sculptures – Wendy Haslem

Abstract: This article investigates the connections between history and new forms of memory that are produced, configured and mapped with the tools of digital media. Digital memories are contained within, and inspired by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy’s electronic sculptures. The article explores the potential for new media technologies to re-imagine the intersection between history and memory as digital ‘lieu de mémoire’, a version of Pierre Nora’s memory sites that block the possibility of forgetting by remembering for us.

The Eternal Return – The McCoys (2003)

The explosion and expansion of digital tools and communication transforms definitions of memory and refines the intersection of memory and history. Digital natives and digitally literate adopters have tools at hand to practice as cartographers, genealogists, archivists, and chroniclers, even historians. This results in the creation of new connections and communities, archives that become virtual as well as material, histories that might be both real and imagined. Image and text based sites like You Tube, Vimeo, Flickr, Wikipedia, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook and the range of pervasive blogging sites across the Internet provide new ways to produce and disseminate digitally configured histories and memories. The influence of the virtual on material sites of exhibition, particularly galleries, museums, cinematheques and public sites is evidenced by an increased reliance on digital tools, particularly digital screens, to reconfigure memory and history. Digital technologies enable myriad approaches to history, expanding definitions beyond the dominance of the empirical or sequential, bringing memory into contact with history. The obsession with the present in status updates, uploads, new blog posts and the seemingly immediate availability of content brings memory into the present. Exceeding the acceleration of history characteristic of Fredric Jameson’s definition of postmodern culture (1991), the present is rapidly superseded by an immediate future/past or the past eternally returning. Concurrently, definitions of memory produced, distributed and exhibited by digital technologies result in the proliferation of innovative forms of remembering and new ways to imagine histories by prioritizing memory. The electronic sculptures produced by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy that reveals how digital technologies can be used to reflect processes of memory and to map new connections. Installations produced by the McCoys frame and direct memories, they don’t remember for us, but instead, they reveal how memories are indebted to, provoked by and shaped by aspects drawn from the archive of visual cultures. But this interrelationship between memory and history, mapped and imagined through digital technologies was not always perceived as entwined, let alone contingent.

The historian Pierre Nora argues that history and memory exist in violent opposition (1989, p. 8). He describes history as a static, incomplete attempt to reconstruct a past that no longer exists, whilst memory is more fluid, involved in a process of rediscovery that “remains in permanent evolution” (Nora 1989, p. 8). In Nora’s words, “history is perpetually suspicious of memory, and its true mission is to suppress and destroy it” (1989, p. 9). This dynamic collision between history and memory is the result of the acceleration of history at a time that Nora defines as: “a turning point where consciousness of a break with the past is bound up with the sense that memory has been torn-but torn in such a way as to pose the problem of the embodiment of memory in certain sites where a sense of historical continuity persists” (1989, p. 7). The notion of memory as ‘torn’, no longer complete, singular, trusted, no longer emanating from a defined date, moment or time, provides impetus for memory as imagined, embodied and defined in sites beyond the scope of the traditional archive. Nora identifies memory as fluid and transformed by its passage through history. “Memory remains in permanent evolution open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its successive deformations, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived” (Nora, 1989, p. 8).  In Nora’s words, memory’s vocation is to record and whilst delegating to the archive the responsibility of remembering, “it sheds its signs upon depositing them there, as a snake sheds its skin” (13). Nora perceives modern memory as above all, archival, relying on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image (1989, p. 13). Whilst Nora’s argument focuses predominantly on French national identity and politics, his discussion of the transformation of history and memory offers a particularly pertinent approach for an investigation of the impact of digital media on remembering. New forms of communications media provide increased access to memory, creating very specific structures for sites of remembering and producing an illusion of memory as immediate, reflexive and interconnected. The digital reshapes the production, distribution, dissemination and exhibition of memory producing innovative approaches to mapping, interacting with memory, and new sites of remembrance. Once captured, memory may contribute another strand of history.

For Nora, lieux de mémoire are sites where “memory crystallizes and secretes itself”, memory sites that block the possibility of forgetting and act to remember for us (1989, p. 7). Nora writes that the “most fundamental purpose of the lieu de mémoire is to stop time, to block the work of forgetting… all of this in order to capture a maximum of meaning in the fewest of signs” (1989, p. 19). In these sites history besieges memory as, “moments of history torn away from the movement of history, then returned” (Nora 1989, p. 12). Memory sites can be actual spatial forms like archives, exhibitions, personal shrines, and they can be tangible objects: collections of photographs, objects, diary entries, notes, tickets and souvenirs. They can also be more ephemeral, taking the form of thoughts, reminiscences and spoken word stories. Lieux de mémoire originate with the sense that “there is no spontaneous memory, that we must deliberately create archives, maintain anniversaries, organize celebrations, pronounce eulogies, and notarize bills because such activities no longer occur naturally” (Nora 1989, p. 12). Nora’s conception of lieux de mémoire arises from the acceleration of history. He writes that: “if history did not besiege memory, deforming and transforming it, penetrating and petrifying it there would be no lieux de mémoire” (Nora, 1989, p. 12).

Extending Nora’s lieu de mémoire into the realm of the visual historical archive, these sites can be reimagined as electronic databases, multimedia projections, or interactive exhibits, sites that preserve, but also revise, reshape, and inspire new memories. Electronic lieux de mémoire are used to construct and deconstruct memory in the multimedia artworks produced by the American artists Jennifer and Kevin McCoy. Across their oeuvre, the artworks build on and complicate definitions of memory, situating it in relation to an archive of recent popular cultural history. Laura U. Marks describes the McCoy’s web based work (1999) as noophagic – sucking in, eating information from other sites, reprocessing images and text and emerging with the advertising, branding and even the special offers of a new, artificial, corporation mined from corporate language on the web (2002, p. 189). is a web-based artwork that trawls commercial sites and creates networks of text, jargon, still images and footage from security cameras in the workplace. Lev Manovich defined Jennifer and Kevin McCoy as postmodern media artists who “accept the impossibility of an original, unmediated vision of reality; their subject matter is not reality itself, but a representation of reality by media, and the world of media itself” (2002a, np). Manovich develops the notion of soft cinema as database art, a specific type of new media art that is indebted to the archive, but reverses the opposition traditionally associated with the syntagmatic and the paradigmatic (2002b, pp. 230-231). For Manovich, database art values the paradigmatic, the tangible range of possible choices, options or possibilities over the syntagmatic, the virtual flow of words and images. Producing art that prioritizes memory, but refuses to narrativize it in classical form, the early installations can be understood as offering a matrix of impressionistic sequences, reflecting the illogical, sensuous workings of memory. In their database art installations, the McCoy’s work opposes rigidity and linearity, even when it is derived from the delay-filled, repetitious parallelisms characteristic of serial narrative form. Instead, the installations offer multiple possibilities and perspectives, splitting and fracturing spectatorship, creating new ways to map memories and a diverse range of possible narrative forms. The ‘electronic sculptures’ created by the McCoys rely on paradigmatic contingency to complicate the notion of memory as personal and individual by reworking and interweaving popular visual histories into their artwork. The resulting new media art reinvent Nora’s lieux de mémoire using miniaturized cinematic technologies, database narration and electronic sculptural dioramas.

The expansion of cinema towards the digital and into the art gallery, produces new ways of mapping, engaging and exhibiting memory. Anne Friedberg identifies the transition towards the digital resulting in an increasingly mobilized, virtual experience of visual cultures (2006). Jennifer and Kevin McCoy’s collaboration creates art that juxtaposes personal with collective memories, offering viewers an interactive experience in encouraging an intervention by the deconstruction and reconstruction of popular narrative. Their art creates a matrix of reference points drawn from some very recognizable popular iconography to exhibit an inextricable connection between individual and collective memory. The installations that were created at the turn of the millennium combine the interactive potential of the database with the seemingly endless array of visual motifs, generic tropes and narrative threads recognizable from popular televisual serials. Every Shot, Every Episode (2001) is a deconstruction and recreation of the Starsky and Hutch (1975-1979) series resulting in a new taxonomy consisting of two hundred and seventy-eight categories. Individual shots and scenes from the series were excised and reorganized to feature new paradigmatic, aesthetic and cinematographic categories including: ‘Every Bloody Clothing’, ‘Every Yellow Volkswagen’, ‘Every Sexy Outfit’, ‘Every Stabbing’, ‘Every Character Looks Left’, ‘Every Insult’, ‘Every Speculation’, ‘Every Extreme Close Up’, ‘Every Pan Right’, ‘Every Tilt Down’, ‘Every Zoom In’ and ‘Every Reaction Shot’. This approach reveals the degree of repetition and the importance of generic tropes and conventions, the foundations of serial television. The shelves of DVDs mounted on the gallery wall positioned next to a suitcase containing the small DVD player and screen offers an impression of open access to secretive imagery. Every Shot, Every Episode reconstructs imagery that blurs the division between individual and collective memory. Viewing and re-viewing sequences, visitors become interactive cartographers, mapping and re-mapping as they select and view paradigmatic sequences from Starsky and Hutch. Nora’s description of memory as “intensely retinal and powerfully televisual”(1989, p. 17) is resonant in the ways that these sequences reflect the fragmented, impressionistic workings of memory. The linearity of television series is here reconceptualised by prioritizing the elements that comprise narrative form. Every Shot, Every Episode points to the tendency to prioritise moments, sensations, effects, color, action or gesture in recalling the larger structure. Paradigmatic selection parallels the ways that specific impressions might be remembered whilst larger narrative structures are forgotten. In turn, the archive of images and narrative that forms the referent – in this case Starsky and Hutch – is modified and transformed by Every Shot, Every Episode.

Every Shot, Every Episode (2001)

This approach was elaborated in Every Anvil (2001). In this interactive installation Looney Tunes (1942-1969) cartoons are deconstructed and reimagined according to generic tropes and violent themes including: ‘Every Explosion’, ‘Every Poisoning’, ‘Every Whacking’, ‘Every Evil Genius’, ‘Every Beg and Plead’, ‘Every Kiss’, ‘Every Slipping and Sliding’, ‘Every Sneaking’, ‘Every Flattening Character’, ‘Every Cooking a Character’ and ‘Every Tornado Spin’. The individual action, aesthetic and cinematographic sign is excised from the animated series, altering the temporal framework to highlight the preeminence of the moment over continuity across the series. Every Anvil, Every Shot, Every Episode along with a further installation, 448 Is Enough (2002), a deconstruction of episodes of Eight Is Enough (1977-1981) displays the McCoy’s interest in dissecting syntagmatic logic whilst recombining the imagery to highlight paradigmatic selection. The use of the new media database helps to develop incursions into conventional narrative form, resulting in sequences that are reconfigured according to impressionistic structures more common to dreams or memories. The McCoy’s subsequent installations use miniature forms to interrogate the exhibition of time, space, narrative, scale and identity. All installations situate popular culture as pivotal in the production of memory.

Every Anvil (2001)

Memory, according to Maurice Halbwachs exists unconsciously in the mind as psychic states of recollection where each act of recollection involves the reconstruction of the memory in the context of the present (1992, p. 24). Memories are constructed and facilitated in association with (or in contrast to) other individuals. Memories as a reconstruction, rather than a faithful recreation of the past are the crucial element in this context. Halbwachs argues that, paradoxically, an individual remembers by placing himself in the perspective of the group, but, by contrast, the memory of a group realizes and manifests itself in individual memories. (1992, p. 22). The McCoy’s practice involves accessing, researching and deconstructing large sources, provoking memories contingent upon popular culture. In an interview, Jennifer McCoy reveals the focus on interactivity and connection between visual culture and memory in their artwork when she suggests that: “one’s memory of a show are placed next to real memories and become part of your mental collection” (2006, np)

Soft Rains (2003-2004) is a serialized collection of six installations that use miniature figures and diorama as the base of these electronic sculptures. The miniature static sets appear as single fragments of time, or frames of film. These tiny sculptures freeze time into instances with the miniature figures representing a single instant, without an indication of the preceding or succeeding events. These instants are resonant. The conflation of the narrative, or genre into instants reiterates the selectivity of memory. In On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Susan Stewart writes that, “miniature time transcends the duration of everyday life” (2003, p. 66). Miniatures, for Stewart, offer “a narrativity and history outside the given field of perception – is a constant daydream that the miniature presents. This is the daydream of the microscope: the daydream of life inside life, of significance multiplied infinitely within significance” (2003, p. 54). Each of the six installations that comprise Soft Rains has its own thematic focus.

Soft Rains (2003-2004)

In Soft Rains #6: Suburban Horror (2004), the miniature imagery becomes decidedly Gothic. A diorama built on the melodramatic iconography of a 1950s scene imagined through a dark cinematic aesthetic reveals suburban settings and suggests the surrounding menace. A woman stares longingly out of a kitchen window, suggesting entrapment and her desire for escape. A car traveling down a road indicates travel to a remote cabin, but the scene at the cabin contains details of blood and dismemberment, revealing a couple that had been murdered with an axe. This installation incorporates fragmented imagery signifying isolation, alienation, multiple time frames and the darker side of the imagination. Screens display low-resolution imagery, where colors are blocked and blurred, drawing from the aesthetic of colorized postcards, or perhaps the saturation and low definition imagery characteristic of 8mm film projections. Soft Rains was inspired by a David Lynchian surrealist aesthetic, and the gruesome imagery also recalls slasher films like the Friday the 13th series. Each diorama is surrounded by lights and tiny cameras suspended and directed onto the scenes via flexible metal arms. Shots are illuminated and filmed by the miniature technologies surrounding the tiny scene. These shots are then projected onto an adjacent screen in the gallery. Exposing sets, lights and cameras, alongside the fantasy projected on the screen deconstructs the illusion, defamiliarizing and reinventing the contemporary Gothic narrative. Suburban Horror draws from the archive of familiar Gothic tropes and imagery to produce disarming miniature fragments, moments that resonate with memorable sequences within the history of cinema. This series of installations rely on tropes of the Gothic and horror genres, impressionistic, distilled, miniaturized and deconstructed. The scale reflects how scale is often distorted by memory, miniature objects are enlarged on screen. In its allusions to iconic cinematic tropes, genres and aesthetics Suburban Horror mimics the potential for memory (and the database) to create a dialogue across time.

How We Met was originally exhibited at Postmaster’s Gallery and then very briefly shown in a decommissioned terminal at JFK Airport in 2004. How We Met is an elaborate series of miniature sculptural dioramas, each representing a moment in time. At first glance the platforms seem to depict aspects of the memory of Jennifer and Kevin’s first meeting as both reach for the same suitcase as it circles a carousel at an airport in France. The dioramas that form the base of How We Met are constellations of small gestures and figures, actions suspended in time with their stillness highlighted by the revolving carousel. These fragmented moments are reminiscent of Nora’s description of ‘true memory’ as comprised of gestures, habits, unspoken knowledge and unstudied reflexes (1989, p. 18). On one platform a miniature figure of Jennifer waits for her bag to emerge whilst Kevin stands to her left, seemingly distracted by a mysterious blonde woman in a red dress. At the edge of the diorama, their moment of connection is depicted through a simple gesture as two disembodied hands reach for the same suitcase. On another platform, a cab waits outside the airport terminal, offering a hint of a transition towards a new space. One camera that is positioned to shoot within the actual airport space incorporates impressions of human sized viewers alongside the miniatures. Customized computer software receives and connects the ‘live’ images, projecting a seemingly random range of sequences onto the screen. This combination of the static miniature diorama with the spectator entwines past with present. Further, baring the device for illumination, recording and projection produces a fractured, but all encompassing vision of moving image and apparatus. The result is that the memory depicted is deconstructed and reconstructed, expanding time into instants and exploding space across the dioramas. Reconstructing the experience in miniature renders the projected sequence dreamlike and impressionistic.

Whilst the title, How We Met, promises a cause and effect sequence, the constellation of images that emerge from the pivotal central gesture, opens up a matrix of connections. Mary Ann Doane perceives cinematic time as diachronic and contingent (2002). She writes about divergent temporal registers that are linked by chance and contingency, a relationship that is characteristic of the cinema.  Chance and coincidence become powerful forces in How We Met, however, this avowal of memory (from the title, from the reconstruction, from the autobiographic presence of the artists in miniature) is playfully recontextualised with the revelation of the extent that this artwork is indebted to the cinema. How We Met consciously references and remixes the bag swapping sequence from Peter Bogdanovich’s screwball comedy What’s Up Doc? (1972). What appears coincidental is in fact memory depicted through the prism of popular film. The slippage between intimate, personal memories and popular visual histories is no more evident throughout the McCoy’s oeuvre than in How We Met. In this electronic sculpture, sequences from film history are inextricably entwined with personal memory.

How We Met – detail (2004)

The recreation of real and imaginary spaces plays an important role in the function of memory. Spaces that include airports, taxi ranks, the cinema, the dance hall and the gallery become actual and imagined sites of remembrance in the McCoy’s installations. These very public, transitory spaces are described by Marc Augè as ‘non-place’, a location created through the excessive logic, space and information of ‘supermodernity’ (1995). Supermodernity arises through excess and extension of time, and in spaces that result from the shift in global scale where distance is reduced by immediate and effective communications technologies. Non-places are essentially empty spaces, locations of solitude, even when they are full of people. These are places of movement and transit where there is little sense of community or connection. The non-place exists as an urban space of little or no distinct identity or particular history. These are temporary, sometimes provisional spaces. Non-places can also be generic spaces of consumption like airports, transit lounges, supermarkets or petrol stations. However, in the installations produced by the McCoy’s, non-places become sites of memory.

Our Second Date (2004) also interweaves the McCoy’s memories with iconic sequences from the history of film. Memory here is contingent upon French New Wave cinema. This electronic sculpture presents an imagination of personal histories as sequences from film, creating a memory site that reveals the influence of film in both content and form. In Our Second Date miniature scenes are positioned at various points on a large tabletop diorama. Each of these scenes blurs the distinction between memory and film particularly when miniature models of Jennifer and Kevin appear inside a tiny cinema watching Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967). Weekend becomes the key visual source for the remembrance of their second date. The table also features a large, slowly spinning disc, a recreation of the traffic jam, complete with carnage, from the film. As the road revolves, the illusion of movement is projected onto the screen. The heightened colors combined with the now familiar use of a soft focus that blurs outlines, produces a dreamlike sequence of moving images. Memories are expressed through screen memories in these exhibits. Digital technologies are used to capture celluloid and possibly personal memories, highlighting the non-linearity crucial to the film, to the exhibit and to the McCoy’s memories. Our Second Date uses cinematic processes like narration, projection and exhibition to provide the framework for and signifiers of memory. Like Godard’s cinema, the McCoy’s Date series defamiliarizes processes of narration, reconfiguring the counter-narrative experiments of the French New Wave, producing a beginning, middle and an end, just not in that order.

Our Second Date (2004)

The McCoy’s create electronic lieux de mémoire by interweaving public, collective and personal, individual memories within the history of visual culture. It is the blurring of public and private, individual and collective memory that distinguishes their new media art. The memories exhibited by the electronic sculptures need not have an actual referent in the viewer’s memory, or even in the McCoy’s experience. Alison Landsberg describes ‘prosthetic memory’ as a link to those histories that do not originate from direct and lived experiences (2004 p. 26). Prosthetic memories are derived from media engagement and arise through a direct connection to screen imagery. Landsberg defines prosthetic memories as: “memories that circulate publicly, that are not organically based, but that are nonetheless experienced with one’s own body – by means of a wide range of cultural technologies” (2004 p. 25-26). Prosthetic memories are direct and indirect – direct in their audio-visual presentation as images, and indirect in that they always refer to another spatio-temporal realm. They are collective, but also individual in that they become part of a specific range of experiences, virtual and real. Prosthetic memories produce an experiential relationship based on a virtual world rather than a ‘real’ world experience. They are created, produced, received and shared via technologies that consciously construct memories in processes of presentation and representation. Echoing the description provided by Jennifer McCoy, Landsberg suggests that prosthetic memories, “become part of one’s personal archive of experience” and that the memories that cinema affords might be as significant for the viewer in constructing, or deconstructing, the spectator’s identity, as any lived experience (2004 p. 26). The McCoy’s installations position memory as contingent on the history of visual cultures. In the case of How We Met, the artwork is indebted to popular film. In this artwork the difference between embodied and prosthetic memory is indistinct. It is possible that the bag sequence, heavy with the romantic tropes of chance and coincidence from What’s Up Doc? stands in for, and could even be entirely unrelated to, the memory of how Jennifer and Kevin McCoy actually met. Accordingly, whilst referencing cinema, exposing the machinations of the apparatus and reworking counter-narrative, Our Second Date may well also define memory as selective, constructed and prosthetic.

The power of the fragmentary detail within photography is well known in the writing on the ‘punctum’, by Roland Barthes (1984, p. 25-62). Writing during the 1950s, Barthes defines history as outside of his lived experience, but inextricably linked to his maternal bloodline. He explores the importance of subjectivity and emotion – eidos – in his encounter with history via photography. Barthes conceptualizes photography working according to a dual system of representation. He perceives the ‘studium’ as those coded, recognizable signs that are open to everyone, whilst the punctum is specific and subjective (Barthes 1984, p. 27). Barthes argues that the apprehension of the punctum is a sudden recognition of meaning that exceeds normal boundaries. This excess becomes an encounter with the self and history. Barthes’ punctum refers to the fragmentary detail of the photograph, the detail that holds significance, so much so, that it overwhelms the context. Barthes describes the effect of the punctum as akin to a sting, a recognition that he feels with a visceral physical intensity. It is this focus on detail, those smaller memory fragments, miniature signs or metonymic symbols that open out to more expansive revelations of the interconnection between memory and history, that structure the McCoy’s electronic sculptures. Whilst Barthes’ punctum refers to a detail within a photograph that linked him to his blood relations, prosthetic memories can provide a similar affective ‘pinch’, by provoking memories arising from his/her visual literacy of the popular culture archive. Prosthetic memories can also link viewers across cultures and across histories. These media images allow identification, perhaps even a visceral response from the virtual or the imagined. In a larger, perhaps more utopian context, prosthetic memories can forge the ground for new identifications, new political realignments through recognition, identification and empathy. Landsberg argues, “prosthetic memories have the potential to generate something like public spheres of memory” (2004, p. 21). The potential for cinema to generate and disseminate memories is highlighted in the work of Marita Sturken who argues that films contribute to the development of ‘technologies of memory’ where memories are shared, produced, archived and given meaning by new communications media (1997).

Eternal Return (2003) inspires the creation of prosthetic memories by situating anonymous miniature figures caught up in the rapture of dance. The presence of Jennifer and Kevin McCoy is less visible in this exhibit, but perhaps evident in the forms and concepts that spin out of the installation. Featuring a nostalgic, black, white and sepia toned dancehall; this elaborate sculptural diorama depicts a scenario set entirely within a distant past. The emphasis on cyclic rotation and repetition performed by unidentified miniature figures adorned in formal ball gowns and tuxedos, create invitations to become swept up in the nostalgia and romance of the exhibit. The wedding cake couples dance and spin in a wistful symbolization of the wheel of time. More than any other electronic sculpture, Eternal Return offers numerous entry points into the past. Encompassing imagined scenes from the 1930s dancehall, iconography and choreography akin to the films of Busby Berkeley, all mirrored in reflective surfaces, Eternal Return, as the title suggests, is a pure fantasy of another time and space. This ‘pure’ memory site renders its temporality cyclic by the repetition of movements and gestures, enhanced by the revolutions of the dioramas and giddy miniature figures. There is no identifiable narrative in this installation, no recognizable characters, endpoint or closure, just endless cycles of repetition.

Eternal Return (2003)

Common to all other projected sequences, images of the diorama are filmed, edited and they repeat and return in a combination ordered by the bespoke computer software. More than any other exhibit, the complexities of the apparatus on display in Eternal Return become part of the spectacle. Exhibiting the intricacies of the technologies involved, demystifies, but its partial concealment also re-mystifies the exhibition. Such a kinetic spectacle, featuring unidentified dancers, imagined spaces and distant past points to history and memory, but also incorporates the present amid the swirl of contingent temporalities. Quoting Gilles Deleuze’s third synthesis of time in the title of the installation, the Eternal Return refers to the complex return of difference, one that may not have existed previously (1985). This installation also manifests Walter Benjamin’s achronological history imagined in The Arcades Project. In this incomplete work Benjamin visualised history by creating a collage of quotes and reassembling fragments through montage, defining history as connection, rather than a linear taxonomy (1999), Eternal Return is built on endless repetition and eternally returning fragments of projected pasts and futures. Quotes from early film history inspire a montage of prosthetic memories, external memories that may not have materialized previously.


The notion of artist or auteur is insufficient to account for the McCoy’s oeuvre. Whilst Jennifer and Kevin McCoy create an impression of quite intimate work in installations like How We Met and Our Second Date, the idea of an individual, coherent worldview expressed across a body of work is not enough to account for the dual dioramas presented back to back in Double Fantasy (2005). Double Fantasy identifies the differences in childhood dreams by using miniature models where images from each are randomly selected and projected onto a screen. There are two contrasting impulses in Double Fantasy. The doubled diorama emphasizes difference, but the screened stills juxtapose and interweave projections of disparate dreams. Dream Sequence (2006) extends this doubling and splitting further, projecting dual visions of dream imagery emanating from two revolving dioramas onto adjacent screens and by incorporating impressions of the miniature dreamers below their dreams. Dream, fantasies and memories are individual, shared and collective.

Dream Sequence (2006)

The McCoy’s lieux de mémoire inspire new ways to perceive and imagine history and memory. Miniature scenes and narrative forms expand the realm of memory by highlighting connections to film, television, nostalgic fantasies and projected histories. The conflation of real and imaginary spaces reflects the potential for locations to provoke memories. Airports, taxi ranks, the cinema, the dancehall and the gallery become sites of remembrance in the McCoy’s exhibitions. Non-places like the airport represent the location of a first meeting, a miniature cinema becomes the place of a second date and the revolving imagined space of the dance hall distills memories using movement, gesture and sound and reproduces them as memory sites.

Their electronic sculptures and database art revise and exhibit memory by incorporating intertextual references to the history of cinema and visual culture. The re-vision of memory through multimedia technologies can instill a sense of hyper-engagement, connecting viewers with personal or public histories. It can also blur the distinction between prosthetic and embodied memories. Whilst many of these works emerge from archives of popular culture and are exhibited in art galleries, they are also made accessible via the McCoy’s website ( and Flickr which includes views of the documentation and images of the live feed of their installations. Such multiple forms of exhibition extend the scope and lifetime of each artwork and, simultaneously, feed the imagery back into the database. In the gallery space and in the virtual world, the McCoy’s art situates the viewer centrally and actively within a matrix of visual references, paradigmatic associations and generic conventions, highlighting the strength of the currents connecting popular iconography with personal memory.

The memories exhibited and inspired by the work of Jennifer and Kevin McCoy have the potential to tease out the hard edges of ‘true’ memory (Nora 1989, p. 13). The electronic sculptures display memory “in permanent evolution” (Nora 1989, p. 8). Furthermore, these artworks display memory as not exclusively linked to an individual, but instead linked by association, or contingency. The McCoy’s electronic sculptures actively exhibit memories as evidence of Nora’s description of recent shifts in history and memory as he describes it “from the idea of a visible past to an invisible one; from a solid and steady past to our fractured past; from a history sought in the continuity of memory to a memory cast in the discontinuity of history (1989, p. 17). Memory is inspired, produced and exhibited according to images outside of the self, popular visual histories. Nora suggests that, “the lieu de mémoire is double: a site of excess closed upon itself, concentrated in its own name, but also forever open to the full range of possible significations” (1989, p. 24). With new and multiple forms of digital technologies, the McCoy’s electronic sculptures illustrate precisely such a doubling whilst emphasizing the increasingly intimate proximity between memory, screen memories and the history of visual culture.


This is an extended and expanded version of ‘Exhibiting Miniature Memories: The McCoy’s Electronic Sculptures’, AntiThesis, March, 2009, pp. 7-11.



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Stewart, S 2003 On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Durham, NC, Duke University Press.

A/V: (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 1999)

Double Fantasy (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2005)

Dream Sequence (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2006)

Eternal Return (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2003)

Every Shot, Every Episode (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2001)

Every Anvil (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2001)

How We Met (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2004)

Our Second Date (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2004)

Soft Rains (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2003-2004)

Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)

What’s Up Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich, 1972).



Wendy Haslem is a lecturer in Screen Studies & Cultural Management and Director of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Melbourne. She is currently involved in researching and writing Gothic Projections: From Méliès to New Media an investigation of the evolution of the Gothic narrative and aesthetic from silent film to digital media.

Moving Through The Narrative: Spatial Form Theory And The Space Of Electronic Literature – Lai-Tze Fan

Geoff Ryman’s 253.

The way that a narrative unravels has traditionally been understood to occur over time: the time that it takes to read words on a page and to process meaning, and the time frame of events as depicted in the narrative. As we increasingly encounter electronic literature, which are narratives that operate on the computer and through computer systems, it becomes necessary to examine how the facilities of new media offer different methods of communication and therefore different methods of storytelling. We must account for qualities unique to new media: the screen, for example, is a space in which the status of text is subordinated by the image.[1] In fact, the screen can hold a variety of representational modes that may be utilized in electronic literature, causing a reader to move among narrative spaces. This possibility raises the question: what does it mean to navigate through these spaces in storytelling? To answer this, my paper offers an understanding of how space operates in the electronic narrative and how it may be mediated through the electronic narrative in a self-reflexive, metanarrational manner.

One approach that can be used to inform an understanding is an examination of how space has been described in a branch of narratology related to reader-response theory. Spatial form theory is the perception that “a degree of spatiality may be achieved [in narrative] through leitmotifs or extended webs of interrelated images.”[2] The structures and modes of operation described in spatial form theory are directly aligned with how they occur in electronic literature. For example, a person reading a hypertext must explore a network of webpages in order to generate enough content for a narrative. So too in spatial form narratives is the reader “confronted with an open-ended array of thematically interrelated factors he must weld into a picture – into a ‘spatial form.’”[3] I will use spatial form theory to examine electronic literature as a spatial reading experience as well as a temporal experience. Following a theoretical exploration of reading literature on the computer, I will demonstrate the execution and mediation of spatial reading through a pioneering hypertext, Geoff Ryman’s 253.[4]

Reading into the “Jump” of Electronic Literature

To begin, I will examine how the spatial qualities of hypertext can be approached by reader-response theory, particularly by spatial form theory. Hypertext differs from print text in its incorporation of hyperlinks, which are embedded upon each webpage, and through which a reader may jump from page to page. These jumps point toward aspects of digital media that dictate the production and execution of digital communication. That is, through the novelty of electronic literature, we recognize that as digital media operate in an ephemeral medium, they inevitably possess unique characteristics of time and space.

In order to better understand these characteristics, I turn to new media theorist Lev Manovich, whose foundational text The Language of New Media proposes five principles of new media.[5] In attempting to distinguish new media from old media, these principles describe methods of communication that are identified in computer-based media. Of concern to my argument are the second and fourth principles: modularity and variability. The principle of modularity describes how the structure of new media is formed through separate parts: as each part is stored independently, the deletion, substitution, and addition of new parts is made simple.[6] The principle of variability explains that, in correlation with modularity, new media artefacts possess branches in their programming; with regards to new media, a user must navigate through these branches to operate the media.[7] As hyperlinks allow a hypertext to operate through branching-type interactivity, Manovich states that a hypertext reader must follow links to retrieve a version of the document.[8] The phenomenon that he identifies is multilinearity, a style that is not common in the traditional narrative. The narrative as defined by print culture has followed the customs of linear storytelling: whether a story begins in the beginning, middle, or end of a narrative, all facets of the story are revealed to the reader. A multilinear narrative, however, possesses more than one narrative trajectory, and the interweaving of these trajectories is what Espen J. Aarseth calls a multicursory narrative.[9] Multicursory storytelling adds an element of interactivity to reading that can be found in hypertext, digital film, and video games.[10] A reader must choose which sections to read first or which to read at all, thereby changing the reader’s experience of the story so that he or she is indeed left with a version rather than a whole.

Therefore, hypertext is unlike print because it is has a modular structure and is prone to variability. Also, it does not possess a material form except in the technological machine within which it operates. Despite these unique structural and operative techniques, “hypertext theorists frequently employ spatial imagery to describe the relations made possible by links and textons … This rhetoric fails to hide the fact that the main feature of hypertext is discontinuity – the jump – the sudden displacement of the user’s position in the text.”[11] The jump must be accounted for, as it is inherent in the hypertext form; with adequate understanding, the jump of the hyperlink provides for hypertext fiction a claim to being a literary genre in its own right.

The jump has in fact been identified as an important element of reader-response theory. The mental processing of a jump in literary narratives has been explored by Wolfgang Iser, who posits that in any given text, meaning is not derived solely from the explicit statement, “but aims at something beyond what it actually says. This is true of all sentences in literary works, and it is through the interaction of these sentences that their common aim is fulfilled.”[12] Iser proposes a theory of the Implied Reader, whose act of reading is “a dynamic, transcendent, meaning-making activity negotiated through the gaps or indeterminacies of a text by the reader.”[13] We may situate Iser’s readerly gaps by recognizing that, in the context of computer-based media, they are reified as hyperlinks. Through the selection of hyperlinks, a reader is able to jump between Iser’s gaps – or the cyberspace between webpages – in order to fill in the text’s meaning.

Manovich’s alignment of new media operations with cinematic principles allows us to examine aspects of film under the terms of modularity and variability,[14] and by extension, under the terms of Iser’s Implied Reader. The cinematic technique of montage follows that elements are also organized in separate sections, each with its own meaning and figurative agency for meaning-making. While variability does not exist for traditional cinema in the way that it may for new media, one may argue that digital cinema, in engaging a viewer with different trajectories of a film narrative, operates in a multicursory manner. Digital film can be understood as interactive because the Implied Reader must, as over the space of celluloid, fill in a text’s meaning frame by frame, shot by shot. The possibility of the digital montage’s direction, however, has now been multiplied over cyberspace.

The Implied Reader also becomes the writer of the hypertext, so that readers of hypertext fiction may also be referred to as “users,” in that they control the sequence of the narrative through the activation of hyperlinks. This paper will hereafter refer to hypertext readers as reader-users. Sarah Sloane explores the way in which hyperlink gaps are filled by re-assessing the act of reading in the face of hypertext. Drawing from Andrea Lunsford and Lisa Ede’s theory of “writing types,” Sloane considers the readerly counterparts to these types. Reading up is how she describes content-based reading, the process of cramming and regurgitating information.[15] Reading out and back are akin to reading aloud or to repeating information to an audience, thus engaging a reader with others.[16] When reading into and between, one reads into a text and between the lines;[17] that is, to read into and between is to have a deep engagement with and absorption of the text. From an internal mediation of content, a deeper meaning can be extrapolated. From each of these types of reading, there occurs the reader’s externalization of him or herself towards the text – a uni-directional movement.

Conversely, hypertext fiction functions in a medium with its own operative logic and is therefore able to engage with the reader-user. We concern ourselves with a different type of reading: reading across, whereby the reader and text reciprocate each other’s actions. There exists a permeable border of which reader-users are the gatekeepers and the decision-makers of how a text unfolds, and these decisions are executed as hyperlinks are chosen. I liken reading across to media guru Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism, process over product, as, in a reader-user’s process of interaction with a text through hyperlinks, he or she will execute the imagination and make mental connections between webpages.

Spatial Form Theory and the Implied Reader-User of Hypertext


Spatial form theorist David Mickelsen describes the reading of spatial form narratives in a way that could be interchangeable with the exploration of a hypertext: “Transitions are perfunctory or entirely ignored, and the arrangement of episodes is apparently not governed by a developmental principle. The chapters are blocks that might have been arranged at random without significantly altering the outcome – either for the protagonist or the reader.”[18] Regardless of the outcome of transitions, the human mind is able to configure elements of a text (whether static or fluid, whether print or hypertext) into a larger whole. The formation of this “whole” is the product of the act of reading, where

to complete the process of telling a story – of exchanging a narrative – the receiver must be constructive and produce or reproduce a coherent understanding of the message. Meaning is never contained or guaranteed by the text alone but requires the reader’s engagement and creative relationship to the text. The user relates to the given parts and generates a whole that makes sense in the receiving context.[19]

Mickelsen draws upon the Implied Reader’s style of reading for the purpose of articulating the act of reading spatial form narratives, as, “the reader’s collaboration and involvement, his interpretation [to fill in the gaps]. If ‘exploration’ is to be winnowed to ‘assertion,’ the reader must do it. Thus the ‘implied reader,’ in Wolfgang Iser’s phrase, in spatial form is more active, perhaps even more sophisticated, than that implied by most traditional fiction.”[20] The eagerness of spatial form theory to adopt Iser’s notion of the Implied Reader mirrors that of hypertext theory, and both have turned to metanarrative theory to describe the reader-user’s experience of interacting with a text.

Metanarratives, as described by Ann Daghistany and J.J. Johnson, are especially sensitive to relationships of fragmentation, which encourage reference and connection:

The reader of a spatial-form narrative cannot perceive the characters of their actions as he does in a traditional narrative – that is, he does not perceive separate, individual characters developing and interacting in a linear time frame, because this linear temporal development is largely missing. Instead, as he grasps the relationships between the parts through reflexive reference, the attentive reader of spatial form begins to perceive a pattern or whole form.[21]

By appropriating the notion and discourse of the Implied Reader, hypertext theorists may explain the self-reflexive processes by which the reader-user is able to make sense of the text. Other hypertexts that may also be examined through spatial form theory include Mary Flanagan’s theHouse, which simulates a three-dimensional space in which text can appear, and Lance Olsen and Tim Guthrie’s 10:01, which is a multimodal narrative utilizing images, text, sound, and multilinearity in its methods of storytelling.

253’s Self-Reflexivity of Spatial Movement

In this section, I will offer an example to demonstrate how electronic literature and hypertext operate through and are reflexive of digital space. I have chosen 253 because it is widely considered a pioneering hypertext. Published online in 1996 by Geoff Ryman, the hypertext demonstrates self-referentiality of the digital medium’s use of time and space.

253 is a hypertext that takes the form of a website with constituent webpages. 253 tells the story of a London Underground subway train travelling on the Bakerloo line and heading toward its destination of Elephant and Castle station. The reader-user is told that the train will not brake at Elephant and Castle, but instead, will hurtle past the station and crash in 7.5 minutes. The title of the hypertext refers to the fact that at full capacity, an Underground train carries two-hundred-fifty-two passengers across seven carriages – two-hundred-fifty-three including the driver. The “narrative” of the text consists of two-hundred-fifty-three passenger profiles, which reveal the following information about each passenger: “outward appearance: does this seem to be someone you would like to read about?”; “inside information: sadly, people are not always what they seem”; and “what they are doing or thinking: many passengers are doing or thinking interesting things. Many are not.”[22]

Each profile contains hyperlinks that reveal relationships between and among passengers, thereby allowing reader-users of 253 to form mental connections – figurative links – between people, and these links are explicit, provoked by Ryman, or arbitrarily conceived by the reader-user. In this way, 253’s theme of linking exists in its two related types of reading: reading through webpages as a reader-user explores links and jumps from page to page, and reading relationships between passengers. As such, linking exists in both the text’s form and content. In order to draw the reader-user’s attention to the theme of linking in form and content, the profiles are coupled with a series of false advertisements and explanatory hyperlinks, which the reader-user may access at any time, providing the possibility that these advertisements and explanations may also become part of the narrative. These additional links accompany and frame the profiles, making tongue-in-cheek references to the theme of linking in form and content, and referring back to the interactive style of reading 253. Whether the advertisements and explanatory links are accessed prior to, during, or after reading the passenger profiles, they serve as self-reflexive commentary on Ryman’s theme.

Self-Reflexivity of Medium

Geoff Ryman’s 253.

First, 253 is self-referential of its structure by calling attention to the medium in which it operates. In the text’s introduction, “253? Why 253?” Ryman states, “Numbers [sic] are reliable. So that the illusion of an orderly universe can be maintained, all text in this novel, less headings, will number 253 words.”[23] The illusion of 253 as an orderly, static, and autonomous object is not actually maintained, as Ryman illustrates the artificiality of the text’s structure through its rigid numerical structure. The “End of the Line” page refers to the temporal novelty available to 253 as a hypertext, as one may choose this option at any point of the narrative. Should a reader-user tire of reading profiles, he or she may go the route of “sensationalism and violence,”[24] and discover the fate of all seven cars. This section has the opposite temporal effect of the majority of the text, as, rather than expand 7.5 minutes of travel into the time it takes to read two-hundred-fifty-three passenger profiles, the reader-user may instead skip to the ending, jumping from A to B, and engaging in a temporal ellipsis. In this way, the linearity of a traditional narrative is shattered as the reader-user is allowed to explore different spaces and times of the narrative.

Self-Reflexivity of Structure and Operation

The advertisements are perhaps the most self-referential aspect of the 253 reading experience, as they call attention to the structure- and content-based linking of the text, while at the same time presenting both as “natural.” Advertisement 7 encourages the reader-user to make connections between passengers, whether they are explicitly stated or need to be arbitrarily created by the reader-user. The text becomes self-reflexive of the branching-type interactivity offered through new media structure when Advertisement 7 promotes the binary-based Ascii Code as a way of forming relationships between passengers. Ascii Code – American Standard Code for Information Interchange – is a numerical code system that uses the numbers one and zero to represent letters on computers. Whether the reader-user realizes it or not, 253 as a text is an exercise in using Ascii Code to form relationships, as all computer data – including hypertext and hyperlinks – are composed of binary code. When a reader-user jumps from page to page, he or she does so through binary code. His or her exploration of passengers and consequent relationships are formed through the use of code, and what appears to be a random means of association is in fact integral to the process of reading a hypertext.

Ryman suggests using Ascii Code in order to select a profile, so that a reader-user may begin the process of forming relationships. He suggests flipping a coin repeatedly to generate the numbers one and zero into a pattern, landing at a number that will dictate which passenger the user considers reading about next. In titling this webpage “The 253 Way of Knowledge,” it is suggested that, like the Ascii Code system, the “knowledge” that the reader-user gains of passengers may be as arbitrary as flipping a coin. The knowledge is based on chance, on the likelihood of the reader-user choosing a particular hyperlink and arriving at its specific code. Unless a reader-user explores the entirety of 253, those passengers whom he or she gets to learn about is based on chance as well. Chance, then, is a subtheme of how one explores the space of the hypertext.

Self-Reflexivity of User-Generated Content

Following the logic of filling in Iser’s informational gaps, the reader-user similarly makes connections between and across profiles in 253. The text becomes self-reflexive of the act of reading in hypertext, and especially of the role of the reader-user, which 253 likens to that of a Godlike observer. New media studies have long emphasized user-generated content as having a huge stake in the production of online information. By calling the reader-user a Godlike observer, Ryman reveals two things: first, that the reader-user’s choices of links will shape the outcome of the text, and second, that in this series of choices, the reader-user moves through the narrative, from subway car to car, from character to character. The reader-user weaves through different elements of the text.

On the first link of the hypertext, Ryman explains the position of the reader-user: “do you sometimes wonder who the strangers around you are? This novel will give you the illusion that you can know. Indeed, it can make you feel omniscient, Godlike.”[25] The illusion offered is one of omniscient power over a text; the reader-user is situated as an observer of the passengers. The role can be best described using literary critic William Spanos’ formalist treatment of metanarrativity: “the critical act begins for the formalist not at the beginning … but only after the reading or perceptual process terminates; at the vantage point, that is, from which, like an omniscient god.”[26] The omniscient Godlike role is reiterated on a second webpage, in which Ryman describes a hypothetical situation in which the reader-user has an omniscient knowledge of others. This webpage functions as a reminder of the reader-user’s “vantage point” in the space of 253, where, similarly to spatial form narratives, “the reader is encouraged to identify not as a particular human being with particular characters but as a human mind experiencing a form, such as a square or a labyrinth, created by the interaction of fictional beings with one another and with their environment.”[27]

Interestingly, the agency of the reader-user in directing the time and space of the hypertext is also counterbalanced by Ryman when he urges, “Please remember that once you leave 253, you are no longer Godlike. The author, of course, is.”[28] While he ascribes to the reader-user a seemingly powerful role, in fact, the reader-user is only “user” insofar as he or she may activate preordained links. The non-diegetic reader-user of 253 has no control over the direction of the links, which all lurch, temporally and spatially, towards the inevitable ending.

Concluding Statements

As reader-users of hypertext, what we encounter is a literary form that may play off of expectations of print narrative, and then invert them so to upset expectations of genre and medium. When asked by journalist Leo Winson, “Do you think hypertext fiction has to break away from traditional concepts to be effective in this new form?” Ryman responded, “Sure do. I’m not sure the word is effective, though. Justified is more like it. Why waste time and energy if the same thing could be done in print?”.[29] With the intention of justifying the hypertext as a unique method of storytelling, Ryman sets out to teach the reader-user as much about the “new form” as possible. The communication is different, the exploration of plotline or plotlines are different, the execution is original, and the reader navigates through the narrative in more than one way. Therefore 253 reveals its own underbelly: the text is conscious of what it and its genre offers the reader-user. It is not the passenger profiles of the text that mediate the hypertext’s form and style, but everything that couples those profiles: the additional links, which shake the reader-user into awareness – awareness of the novelty of digital space. By engaging with this space through electronic literature, the reader-user may recognize that the hypertext engages actively, and forces him or her to make choices and read in a different way. In drawing attention to its interactive nature, hyperlinks and the readerly jump become their own instruction manual. 253 is thus a crash course on hypertext fiction, where the reader-user learns the genre by doing the genre.



Aarseth, Espen J. “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory.” Hyper/Text/Theory, 51-86. Edited byGeorge P. Landow. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Daghistany, Ann, and J.J. Johnson. “Romantic Irony, Spatial Form, and Joyce’s Ulysses.Spatial Form in Narrative, 48-60. Edited by Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany. New York Cornell University Press, 1981.

Iser, Wolfgang. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History Vol. 2 (1972): 279-299.

Jewitt, Carey, and Gunther Kress. “Introduction.” In Multimodal Literacy, 1-18. New York; Berlin: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003.

Liestøl, Gunnar. “Wittgenstein, Genette, and the Reader’s Narrative in Hypertext.” In Hyper/Text/Theory, 87-120. Edited by George P. Landow. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2001.

Mickelsen, David. “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative.” In Spatial Form in Narrative, 63-78. Edited by Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany. New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Page, Adrian. “Constructing Xanadu: towards a poetics of hypertext fiction.” The Question of Literature: The Place of the Literary in Contemporary Theory, 174-189. Edited by Elizabeth Beaumont Bissell. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Ryman, Geoff. 253. 1996.

Sloane, Sarah. “The Materials of Digital Fiction.” Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World, 65-106. Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000.

—. “Muddy Readers, Malestreams, and Splitting the Atom of “I”: Locating the Reader in Digital Fiction.” In Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World, 147-184. Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000.

Smitten, Jeffrey R., and Ann Daghistany. Spatial Form in Narrative. New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Winson, Leo J. “A Reactive Interview with Geoff Ryman author of 253.” Dark Lethe. Reactive Writing. Web. 10 June 2012.



[1] Carey Jewitt and Gunther Kress, Multimodal Literacy (New York; Berlin: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003), 16.

[2] David Mickelsen, “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative,” in Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 68.

[3] David Mickelsen, “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative,” in Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 78.

[4] Geoff Ryman, 253, 1996,

[5] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2001).

[6] ibid., 30.

[7] ibid., 38.

[8] ibid., 38.

[9] Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 44.

[10] ibid., 48.

[11] Espen. J. Aarseth, “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory” in Hyper/Text/Theory, ed. George P. Landow (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 69.

[12] Wolfgang Iser, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History Vol. 2 (1972): 282.

[13] Sarah Sloane, “The Materials of Digital Fiction,” in Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World (Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000), 76.

[14] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2001), 141, 142.

[15] Sarah Sloane, ““Muddy Readers, Malestreams, and Splitting the Atom of “I”: Locating the Reader in Digital Fiction.”,” in Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World (Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000), 158.

[16] Sarah Sloane, ““Muddy Readers, Malestreams, and Splitting the Atom of “I”: Locating the Reader in Digital Fiction.”,” in Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World (Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000), 158, 159.

[17] ibid., 160.

[18] David Mickelsen, “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative,” in Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 66.

[19] Gunnar Liestøl, “Wittgenstein, Genette, and the Reader’s Narrative in Hypertext.” In Hyper/Text/Theory, ed. George P. Landow (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994), 98.

[20] David Mickelsen, “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative,” in Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 74.

[21] Ann Daghistany and J.J. Johnson, “Romantic Irony, Spatial Form, and Joyce’s Ulysses.Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany. (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 53.

[22] Geoff Ryman, 253, 1996,

[23] ibid.

[24] Geoff Ryman, 253, 1996,

[25] Geoff Ryman, 253, 1996,

[26] Ann Daghistany and J.J. Johnson, “Romantic Irony, Spatial Form, and Joyce’s Ulysses.Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany. (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 50.

[27] ibid., 53.

[28] Geoff Ryman, 253, 1996, .

[29] Leo J. Winson, “A Reactive Interview with Geoff Ryman author of 253,” Dark Lethe, accessed June 2, 2012.



Lai-Tze Fan is a Ph.D. Student in the Communication & Culture Program at York University, Canada. Her dissertation focuses on the influence of new media poetics on contemporary print literature. As such, she is invested in the critical evaluation of an emerging and experimental body of literary texts, and in how literary, new media, social, and cultural scholars negotiate these texts in relation to – and while we are still in – the information age.


Reaching for the Screen in Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Lights in the Sky’ – Katheryn Wright

Abstract: During the Nine Inch Nails’ Lights in the Sky tour in 2008, Trent Reznor made use of two semi-transparent stealth screens layered in front of a third screen through which the band performed the second and third acts of the show. A stealth screen is made from reflective elements linked together like a chain, and can appear either transparent or opaque depending upon the lighting. When these screens appear onstage during the concert, attention shifts from Reznor’s body in performance to his physical interactions with the surrounding screens. The screens are not only spaces for the projection of images, but physical objects Reznor interacts with during the course of the show. Reznor plays a game of hide-and-seek with his audience using screens to reveal and conceal his body. The downstage screen also transforms into a touch interface, where Reznor experiments with its responsiveness. Both hide-and-seek and the play of responsivity in NIN’s performance echoes the everyday interactions people have with their screen technologies. As such, the NIN’s Lights in the Sky tour maps emerging bodily habituations forming through the materiality of the screen.

Nine Inch Nails performing ’31 Ghosts IV’ during their 2008 Lights In The Sky Over North America Tour.

“We may debate whether our society is a society of spectacle or of simulation, but, undoubtedly, it is a society of the screen” (Manovich 94). In this quote from The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich recognizes the central role screen technologies play in the digital era. This “society of the screen” has taken on new life over the past decade. A few examples: Mirjam Struppek organized the first international conference about the aesthetic and political potential of urban screens in 2005. Released in 2007, the Apple iPhone brought multi-touch technology to a mass audience; a multi-touch surface can respond to two or more inputs, increasing the functionality of touch screen (or trackpad) devices like the iPhone. That same year, American Express sponsored a program for cardholders during the U.S. Open where attendees were issued handheld televisions to carry around with them during the event to enhance the live experience of tennis. In 2008, life on a spaceship involved living through your own personal screen in the post-apocalyptic film, Wall-E. And, the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 featured Olympic gold-metal gymnast Li Ning traversing the inner rim of the stadium with a media surface unfolded to display images from the torch’s journey across China behind him.

These brief descriptions capture artists, scholars, entrepreneurs, and athletes challenging what the screen can do. Scott McQuire traces the migration of the television set from the domestic spaces of the home to urban spaces of the city, a shift that has developed alongside the rise of global networks and the mobilization of media (2). McQuire and Sean Cubitt argue that contemporary forms of sociality occur through the materiality of screen technology as an architectural façade, a virtual interface, or a personal companion (McQuire 48, Cubitt 105). Uta Casparay, Erkki Huhtamo, and Cubitt trace the material histories of the historical precursors to urban screens and outdoor advertising. Experimental artworks incorporating large-scale video like Krzysztof Wodiczko’s projections on historical monuments or smaller scale interactive pieces like Chris Jordan’s Chrono Beam (2011) has received recent critical attention in the way they interrogate the intersection between the embodied spectator and the ephemeral politics of public displays (Susik 113-114, 118). In addition to advertising displays and experimental art projections, experiments with emerging screen practices are also going on in popular forms of entertainment, especially rock concerts. Trent Reznor, lead singer and driving force behind Nine Inch Nails (NIN), has written and performed industrial rock music for more than two decades, and since the height of his popularity in the nineties has extended his creative pursuits to include digital imaging, remixing, online distribution, and most recently composing for movies including Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). Added to this list are his experiments with screen technologies.

For NIN’s Lights in the Sky tour, Reznor introduced a new twist to the second act of each concert by adding two semi-transparent stealth screens positioned in front of a third screen (Gardiner par. 10). Because a stealth screen is made from reflective elements linked together like a chain, the combination of projection and light cues can make it appear both transparent and opaque at the same time. These screens function not only as spaces for the projection of animations or images, but material objects Reznor interacts with during the course of the show. The screens in Lights in the Sky are an extension of the design concept for his previous tour, Live: With Teeth, where Reznor used a big screen to display video footage throughout the concert. Lights in the Sky (designed by Reznor and Rob Sheridan, the artistic director, with lighting designer Roy Bennett and the company Moment Factory) combines laser technologies, particle-based animation that runs off several Linux-based devices, choreographed staged lighting, a high-resolution  n, and the two semitransparent stealth screens. In addition to these major elements, the production includes a closed circuit camera system streamed live through the Linux-based computer terminal and preprogrammed song cues controlled by the artistic director and lighting designer via the motherboard.

The collection of screens, lighting, animation, and sound create a media environment that Reznor moves within for the rest of the concert. Trent Reznor’s body is the critical touchstone around which every element in the performance revolves. For fans, rock concerts are about being in the moment and presence of the star. Reznor’s introduction of stealth screens during the concert creates an awkward situation where the people there to see NIN perform live do so through a technological interface. When I attended a live performance on September 29, 2008 in Jacksonville, FL, there were two primary types of interactions that occurred between Reznor, the transparent screens onstage, and audience. First, Reznor engages in a game of hide-and-seek where the screen is used to both reveal and conceal his body from the audience. Second, the play of responsivity between his physical actions and digital imagery creates a visual continuity between screen projections and his body in motion that reverberates through the venue. These interactions at the concert echo the habituations people develop as they use the variety of screen technologies at their disposal, making NIN’s Lights in the Sky a compelling case study to explore a privileged moment in time and space when the cultural significance of the screen is in flux.


The lights go out as the screens lower across the stage. Spectators murmur and wait for Reznor to reappear and begin the second set, but he does not immediately come back onto the stage. Instead, a blue field of light begins accompanied by some drums and a xylophone. The silhouettes of Reznor flanked on either side by the other members of the band appear behind the transparent screen. Only after the instrumental section has been going on for a few minutes, additional light floods the stage and spectators realize which body belongs to Reznor.

In this opening sequence to the second act of the show, the stealth screen initially masks and then dramatically reveals Reznor’s position on the stage. During the “Greater Good” track from the album Year Zero, the downstage stealth screen displays what looks like a time-lapsed recording of bacteria growing, pulsating, in a Petri dish – a mound of digital particles. For the first thirty seconds of the performance, these animations appear onscreen while Reznor is nowhere to be found. Then, extremely subtly, Reznor’s silhouette backs into the stage in front of the left corner of the screen. Dwarfed by the vastness of the stealth screen, he faces the offstage wing crouched over in a profile position. He is barely visible and remains completely out of view to many. After several beats, the movement of the digital particles takes the shape of Reznor’s face; the extreme close-up is a video recorded by an offstage camera. During this segment, Reznor’s body overlaps the live feed of his physical image being projected onto the stealth screen. He appears onscreen and onstage at the same time. Reznor hides. The audience seeks. This game adds an intriguing twist for the audience who came to hear and see NIN in person. Rather than getting to see the band perform for the entire set, the lead singer disappears from the stage for fairly large chunks of time. They perform songs like “Greater Good” behind the stealth screen and out of sight from the audience. As such, Reznor controls how much the audience sees him, on and offscreen, during the show.

During the performance of “Survivalism” in the third act of the concert, a closed-circuit camera system installed around the premises records live footage of the audience and projects it onto the big screen. In what looks like a collection of monitors located in a security station, spectators watch themselves watching NIN. This sequence is about the ubiquity of surveillance technologies contemporary American culture, but the audience cannot hide among the screens like Reznor can. Even so, those watching can use their mobile devices to capture the live event as it unfolds in real time. Smartphones enable audience members to communicate ideas and information via text, voice, image, and video. They can send what they record at the concert to NIN’s website. Ironically, audience members also use these same devices to capture a better view than they have while standing, zooming in to get a closer look at the action. The power Reznor has over his visibility onstage dissipates as the territory of the media environment expands into the World Wide Web. Although Reznor plays with the audience in terms of his physical visibility, the overall performance hinges on its technological infrastructure. The production team cannot always manage software, and screens at the venue. Computer glitches continued to crop into the flow of the performances during the tour, including when I saw it. In Jacksonville, animations on the stealth screen kept flickering on and off and, during the final “Head Like a Hole” encore, the red “NIN” symbol flashing on the downstage stealth screen had a part of an “N” chopped off. These glitches form a digital reality outside of any single person’s control. Spectators have no influence over their bodies on display.

When Reznor plays hide-and-seek with his audience using the screens surrounding him, this communicative act challenges the implied materiality of screen space. Critical discussions about the spatial relations of the screen media emerge in apparatus theory of the 1970s. Jean-Louis Baudry argues that the screen is simultaneously a mirror and frame that produces ideological distance between the conscious spectator and the dreamworld of the cinema (352 – 353). Manovich echoes the logic of apparatus theory in his cultural history of screen technologies where he distinguishes between the classical screen (Renaissance perspectival painting), dynamic screen (film and television), and the screen in real time (computer) (96). In all of these cases, “The act of cutting reality into a sign and nothingness simultaneously doubles the viewing subject who now exists in two spaces: the familiar space of his/her real body and the virtual space of an image within the screen” (106). For Baudry and Manovich, the screen marks a border between two qualitatively different spaces that may speak to each other in dynamic in provocative ways as decades of compelling scholarship in media and cultural studies has proven, yet they remain separate. The screen is important in as much as it frames the point-of-view of someone looking through it at whatever movie or show they happen to be watching.

Reznor’s game challenges the implied separation between real and virtual space that Baudry and Manovich trace in their respective theories. Establishing a connection between the spectacle and spectators through the screen transforms the display space into something more than a window frame to a virtual world. Reznor uses to the screen to shield himself from view, and to reveal his presence to the crowd. The juxtaposition between the stealth screen’s transparency and opacity highlights the basic attributes of its materiality. Its surface conceals and reveals as much as the edges frame what is on it. The stealth screen is like the cape a magician uses to hide the bag of tricks from the audience. The turn, however, is when the onscreen spectacle bleeds into the physical space the screen occupies. Through hide-and-seek, Reznor occupies a modular media space. So, too, do audience members who use their screened devices to get a better view of the show. Media scholar Adriana de Souza e Silva explains how “from the merging of mixed reality and augmented spaces, mobility, and sociability arises a hybrid reality…a hybrid space is not constructed by technology. It is built by the connection of mobility and communication and materialized by social networks developed simultaneously in physical and digital spaces” (265 − 266). She describes what others have called augmented space, simulacra, computer-mediated reality, or multimedia environments: concepts with varied connotations that attempt to describe the blending of physical and digital spaces. Reznor experiments with what communication feels like within these spaces that De Souza e Silva among others attempt to explicate. Ironically, the space between virtual and actual space symbolized by the screen for Baudry and Manovich seems to migrate to the body of the user, who in the case of the Lights in the Sky performance is Reznor and not the audience watching him.


A white field of particles fills the screen at the beginning of “Only” from the album With Teeth. A small opening grows out from the center to reveal Reznor’s body. The closer he moves toward the screen, the larger the opening. He walks across the stage, and the opening follows him. He moves upstage and the opening closes.  The field gives way to a violent streaming of digital noise that momentarily reveals the rest of the band playing behind Reznor. The white field returns to view. Again, Reznor paces across the stage as the opening follows him wherever he goes. The drummer comes out onstage and lights up a series of boxes by touching each individual square.

This transitional sequence leads into the performance “Echoplex” when the initial beat he establishes by touching the boxes merges into the song’s introduction. The drummer returns at its conclusion to deactivate the light boxes.

In these two instances, the onstage stealth screens transform into touch screens when lasers running along the back of the screens indicate their position. The animations generated in real-time record their physical movement in relation to the screen to produce the illusion of a haptic interface. Even if the performers do not actually touch anything, the sequences establish a sense of continuity between onscreen and offscreen through the responsivity of the screen. Responsivity refers to the quality of the digital connection between onscreen and offscreen. The screen interfaces of popular technologies like the iPhone react to the touch of a finger or pen. Touch screens work by layering two surfaces with an electric current or laser beam sandwiched between them. When somebody touches the surface of the outer screen, the flow of the current or beam is interrupted and signals the device to react in that particular spot. Slightly different from the touch screen, the remote responsiveness of game consoles like Nintendo’s Wiimote and Xbox’s Kinnect depend on a remote sensor or motion control. Reznor experiments with both types of responsiveness during the performance.

Reznor draws the second type of responsivity for the performance of “Terrible Lie” in the third act. At this point in the show, the three screens have changed position. The stealth screens have been raised to allow for Reznor and the band to move more freely on the stage. However, they remain staggered so as to continue to project images, although intensities would probably be the better term at this point given that approximately 90% of what is onscreen are bursts of color and light. Amorphous red, orange and yellow particles flash on the three screens in the same rhythmic patterns of the song. These animations translate auditory and haptic cues (rock music performed live can be felt just as much as it is heard) into visualizations. These sensory translations, like synesthesia, extend the aesthetic possibilities of live performance. Reznor becomes connected to the (digital, screened, animated) world through the responsivity of his onstage environment. The responsiveness between body and screen draws disparate elements of the performance together into a single rhythm during the course of the show.

During the concert, Reznor appears to cross through the frame of the screen. Even though he never actually steps through it, the animations create the illusion of breaking through the screen’s surface. The stealth screen offers a way to cross the frame that separates the spatial reality of the viewer from the virtual space of representation. The formal separation between real and virtual space plays a pivotal role in Western aesthetics. Writing about this divide, Anne Friedberg traces the cultural history of what she calls the “virtual window” to Renaissance perspectival painting, where the viewer is situated in front of a framed surface. Reznor challenges this tradition by linking the physical and digital through his body. Although screens continue to situate the perspective of the viewer towards onscreen content, Reznor temporarily acts as a node through which the onscreen and offscreen converge. Reznor frames the visual content for the audience by moving towards and away from the stealth screen. He determines the path of the real-time particle animations during the show. Still, he never actually crosses through the frame of the screen. This crossing is an illusion; Reznor remains trapped behind the screen in order for that illusion to work. To cross the frame of the screen is transgressive within the field of modern aesthetics, much like breaking through the imaginary “fourth wall” of the stage, but the interplay between screen and body during the concert translates into an optical effect for everyone watching where Reznor is, himself, on display. Like a painting or film, this performance can only be accessed through a proscenium, a frame, which separates the spectacle from those watching it.

Similar to the responsivity of the touch screen, the integration of sensory components during the show cultivates a sense of continuity between actual and virtual through Reznor’s body. He acts like a remote control for the live action onstage, altering the sense of presence throughout the venue. Every aspect of the concert feels connected, and nobody can get out of it because the surveillance cameras make everyone visible. This feeling of connection continues when video recorded with mobile devices extend into online archives after the concert. The attempt to capture the “live” experience through media by fans reinforces the responsivity that Reznor draws on throughout the second and third acts. After each concert concludes, NIN’s website archives fan videos and chats in an effort to collect the individualized performances together into the broader context of the tour. Like the multiple elements of the live show combining through the responsiveness of the screen, information comes together through the human-computer interface. Mobile devices enable spectators to participate in the concert by recording and archiving the live event. The website clearly organizes its galleries according to concert and tour dates so visitors can easily navigate through the streaming videos. The feeling of connection cultivated through the play of responsivity during the show was reignited when audiences come together to construct their own narrative about the tour through the documentary Another Version of the Truth: The Gift that was produced by fans and distributed through

From my perspective in the crowd, interacting with his audience through the stealth screens seems almost like a spiritual experience for Reznor, who is the obvious centerpiece around which the hybrid reality is constructed. He stands behind the screen and soaks up the spectacle while the audience looks on. For me, however, the experience was ultimately frustrating because the spontaneity and singular intimacy of a rock concert, that feel and smell of bodies cramming next to you in a collective push towards the stage, is lost. We were left watching NIN interact with cutting-edge screen technologies onstage without access to it. Even though the animations and lighting cues were generated live, the concert began to feel closer to performance art (like one of Wodiczko’s projections) than a rock concert. It is the same feeling I have when I watch someone text at the table at lunch, for instance. The person is there, but not in the same way as they would have been otherwise.
Screens for Sale

The Lights in the Sky tour combines industrial-alternative rock, live performance, new media technologies, real-time animation, ticketholders, critics, and fans like myself into a symbolic act of a body reaching out to touch the screen. The game of hide-and-seek and play of responsivity represent different ways people interact with the screens around them. A commercial for the Blackberry Storm smartphone released in November 2008 (and running throughout the following year) illustrates how the appeal of interacting with a screen interface, much like the games Reznor plays, stems from the symbolic act of crossing through its frame. This commercial sells the idea that by simply touching a screen you can connect more efficiently, immediately, and directly with what’s important in your life. The multi-touch interface allows users to make contact with their social networks through a phone, yet the commercial itself acknowledges the reality of the interface, the semi-transparent field at the center of the composition, as the primary point of access. Reznor stands behind his stealth screen; the woman stands behind a rectangular plane and faces forward as she navigates through the textural space of the graphic user interface. Different from Reznor’s live performance, however, is what happens afterward. Animations like the boy with a kite, rock concert, and photographs explode from the frame rather than being projected onto a screen. Touching the interface releases the three-dimensionality of life as it unfolds in real time. The advertisement suggests all we need is a Blackberry Storm to make our experience of the world more real, an ideology that continues to shape narratives about technology in the 21st century. Still, the promise represented by the screen remains tempered by the frame of the television set or YouTube video player. The life falling out from the flat plane, activated through touch, can only be perceived by sitting in front or standing behind another screen, another interface.

Being connected and simultaneously in sync with each other through actual and virtual space creates a sense of presence rooted in the modularity of media space. This spatial arrangement appears to situate the body as a locus of control, benefiting artists like Reznor who embraces the emancipatory promise of new media technology and multinational telecommunications companies like Research in Motion Limited (RIM), the makers of Blackberry, who hope to sell the need to connect with others by touching a really cool screen on your smartphone. Still, like anybody who uses a smartphone will eventually find out, Trent Reznor’s ability to control the terms of his physical interactions with the screens around him is a fantasy. His financial investment, celebrity status, and social positioning coupled with the obvious fact that he and his band are the only people allowed onstage during the concert make him a privileged participant. Reznor chooses what to release on the website. Reznor manages the NIN’s brand. The title of the documentary is called “the gift” because he released high-quality digital recordings to his fans so they could make the documentary. Still, this fantasy – the fantasy of control and connection – is something that commercials for new media technologies ranging from smartphones and video games to Project Glass from Google X continue to promote. Reznor’s onstage encounter with his screens during the Lights in the Sky tour represents a time and place when this fantasy was just beginning to enter into the mainstream, when the potentiality of hybrid reality is being tested within the volatile boundaries of popular culture, and before the games Reznor plays were written into the teleological narrative of technological change.



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