"The Politics of Perspective"

Talk by Joline Blais and Jon Ippolito

cAT conference in Lisbon on July 6, 2000

Thanks for inviting us. Cornelia Solfrank spoke of her hope that online art would outgrow the myth of Net art as it existed in 1997. We are going to talk about some other myths that continue to plague online art, particularly in its narrative aspects. The myths we're thinking of reveal profound misunderstandings about what we might call the politics of perspective.

To choose a recent example: Mark Amerika, the dean of online hypertext, praised Shelley Jackson's _My Body: A Wunderkammer_ in the June-July 2000 issue of ArtByte magazine for "reconfiguring the reader of her patchwork narrative into an interactive participant whose own choices help construct the writer's story." What's wrong with this assertion?

First, Mark claims that the reader's choices help construct the writer's story, implying that when left to their own devices, readers will invent their own spontaneous structure to fit their own point of view—which is to say, their arbitrary peregrinations from one page to the next. My experience—and that of most seasoned hypertext readers we know—suggests the opposite. If the work suggests no structure by itself, it is very unlikely that its readers will be inspired to invent one after ten minutes of random clicking. More likely they will conclude that the work has no structure—and as far as everyone besides the author is concerned, they will be right.

If you're going to liberate readers from the authoritative structure of sequential narratives, you have to do more than do more than just remove narrative structure altogether. You have to discover or invent a structure that is *itself* liberating.

The other accolade Mark offers Jackson's work reveals a second misunderstanding about the politics of perspective. He claims that the narrator's unusual perspective "defamiliarizes our readings of the body," implying that the best way to open someone's mind is to offer another point of view. Now, it's a good sign when an artwork offers a underrepresented or unique point of view, but it's of limited political use. We enjoyed Jackson's narrator describing her various tattoos, her creatively cropped pubic hair, even her vestigial tail. But just because we react open-mindedly to such outré revelations doesn't mean my grandmother would. Simply offering another point of view rarely persuades someone whose politics is premised on a point of view facing 180 degrees in the other direction.

The best way to liberate the readers of a narrative, it seems to us, is not to leave readers on their own, nor to provide a dissenting opinion—but to build dissent into the narrative itself.

Inventing structures to represent dissenting points of view--that is the goal of the adversarial collaborations we have pursued at Three.org with Janet Cohen and Keith Frank. We've tried two different strategies to build structures of dissent.


The first strategy is to give clashing points of view a single visual form. In place of the linear path of authoritative narratives, we hand the reader a map to the battleground of conflicting ideas.

Conversations, of the formal and informal variety, have played an important role in the evolution of the Internet. This has been true both among the general population (where the most frequently used application is e-mail), and among artists in particular (the first artistic forays onto the Internet were flame wars on electronic bulletin boards like The Thing).

The premise behind _Agree To Disagree Online_ [by Cohen, Frank, and Ippolito] is not to design a container for conversation--a visual icon to "stand" for conversation. We thought it would be more consistent to allow the conversation to create its own container. To write _My Body: A Wunderkammer_, Jackson started with a familiar map and found words to associate with it; in _Agree To Disagree Online_, the map emerges from the argument rather than vice versa. It is the free-ranging contest of opinions that determines the system of hyperlinks rather than some preconceived icon or map.


Keeping in mind that *contest* is a verb as well as a noun, we've also investigated a second strategy: to "contest" the authoritative version of a story by bending it to fit different points of view. Viewers are not witness merely to a different perspective, but to the process of forcibly accommodating new perspectives in an old story. This process gives rise to an alternative paradigm of reading, in which meaning accrues not by navigating among linked episodes but by navigating among alternative versions of the same story.

For example, in the _Variorum of Past Projects_ [by Cohen, Frank, and Ippolito], the viewer's implicit agenda sets the tone for interpreting works of art. The format uses color to highlight the effects on interpretation of agendas that viewers bring with them. You are not jumping from one block of text to another, but altering the assumptions behind the text as a whole with a single click.

Similarly, viewers of [Cohen-Frank-Ippolito's] _The Unreliable Archivist_ can customize the language, images, style, and layout of ada'web, an influential art Web site. By manipulating sliders so as to rearrange ada'web's components in ways its authors never intended, viewers can span the universe of all possible ada'webs.

_Fair e-Tales_, a DHTML-based fable [by Joline Blais, Keith Frank, and Jon Ippolito] due to premiere this September, permits the reader to revise the very premises underlying the story as a whole. Cinderella, one fable on which _Fair e-Tales_ is based, is premised on the alliance of the heroine and her Prince. But what if Cinderella allied herself with her stepsisters, or the Prince allied himself with the stepmother? By permitting every possible combination of alliances between the main characters, _Fair e-Tales_ reaches beyond the strictures of conventional narrative to create a dynamic "hyperfable" where all of the characters have equal opportunities to choose their own destinies.

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