Wednesday 6 July 2016

Three Unconventional Narrative Structures

Narrative takes a central role in most, if not all of my artworks. I am often to keen to tell a story, something that develops over time. When it comes to site-specific works that I have made, the narrative might even be driven by details from a place.

Recently, my artwork has been becoming more stand-alone and often a narrative will be confined to just one book (as opposed to a series) and because of this I have been keen to think how I might escape the linearity of the form. Instead of looking out there at other book-objects, I will look at three works in different media to see whether ideas from those could translate across.

Journey Into Fear, Stan Douglas
Journey Into Fear, Stan Douglas
The first is a video installation called Journey Into Fear by Stan Douglas (2001), which I saw at the Serpentine Gallery many years ago. The work is a single screen projection which at first glance appears to be a feature film; some kind of drama set on a ship. The film is mostly made up of exchanges between characters inside the boat - these scenes are interspersed with exterior shots or views of the ship at sea. Except for the exchanges appearing a little cryptic and the dialogue jarring slightly, as if it has been dubbed, the film seems like any other thriller of the genre. Things begin to change however once the viewer sees the same scene repeated, but with the characters saying different dialogue. It turns out that the scenes loop randomly and have several possible dialogue tracks for each, changing the nature of the interaction and subsequently the flow of the story itself. A viewer would have to watch the film for 157 minutes to witness all the possible permutations - this in itself means that each gallery visitor is likely to have a slightly different experience of the artwork, as they are unlikely to see the entire work.

Her Story, Main Screen.

The second example I would like to talk about is Her Story; a video game (Android and Apple) where players must assume the role of a detective, watching interview footage from a case in order to work out the details and solve it. On the surface the game sounds straightforward, but compared to others, it is pretty unique. When you first open the app you are presented with the desktop search terminal from a police computer (circa 1994) and apart from viewing the 'Read Me' files on the desktop, all you can do is enter key words into the search bar and view the footage that is returned.

Her Story, Interview Footage
Each interview clip is short, only giving you a partial scene, so you are forced to think up different key words (terms that you think might appear in a dialogue) in order to piece the scenario together. This technique makes the game mysterious, but compelling, as the player has to listen and look out for clues that might suggest a key word or phrase that might broaden the search. As clips are sorted by key words and not date, the player might be hearing interview footage from any part of the enquiry. Playing the game makes you feel like you are creating a huge jigsaw, but without knowing how many pieces you have left. This narrative device is fascinating and hugely compulsive.

Still from Imitation of Life.
Imitation of Life is an imaginative music video for the group R.E.M., which features a crowded scene at what appears to be a party. The camera zooms in and out and the footage plays backwards and forwards throughout the video, highlighting snippets of action at the party. The thread that ties the video is that characters in the midst of actions at the party appear to be lip-syncing the words to the song. The technical devices used make us unaware of the real duration of the events we are seeing, and the constant refocusing of the frame tease out new narratives, making us think of the endless possibility in each moment.

Still from Imitation of Life.

Is there scope for this type of story telling in the book form? Could the author replay scenes but with different elements as Stan Douglas does, or could a reader be guided through a book in different ways in order to discover different events first as in Her Story? Or maybe the reader could pick a new narrative out of an existing one like Imitation of Life? 


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