Hyperrhiz 06: Artist statements

Dissonance in Multi-Semiotic Landscapes in the Work Of Donna Leishman

Donna Leishman

Dundee University


I come to the field of digital literature from the position of a visual artist. My formative training in illustration grounded an interest in sequential art and literary themes. My work draws on literary subject matters, contains chronological cause and effect, and strongly features protagonists. I am a thematic recycler similar to that described by H. Wozniak (2008) a re-framer of often folkloric motifs - with an aim to renew, revitalises, or debunk, the pre-existing content. Visuality, the auteur interface, and folk narratives are fundamental features in the communication of my aesthetic. How then these aspects function and their importance in terms creating a meta dissonance will be detailed and discussed in the paper, with reference to how such an approach sits within the context of interactive literary art.

1 The Pictorial Literary

Recent practice exhibited at the Electronic Literature Organization's Visionary Landscapes Media Arts Show has seen a move towards intrinsically multi-semiotic landscapes using image, sound and words — typified by Roderick Coover's Something That Happened Only Once (discussed in this issue), Gail Scott White's Nature On A Leash and Talan Memmott's Twittering. This semiotic slide fundamentally changes the types of communication and reception of the messages. The traditional and oppositional word as perceived (learned) and image as received has blurred. Today we often see pictorial icons with illegible text, a crossover instigated in and by contemporary culture. Western society's proliferation of image-based and time based communication allows for an ever more sophisticated understanding of complex images turning combinations of pictures and movement into visual icons.

Unlike words pictorial communication is essentially driven by inherent ambiguity and has the potential for a personalisation and stronger subjectivity. In the context of electronic literature this can lead to potentially easier immersion and opportunities for stronger reader self-identification.


Examples of the pictorial in literature include monastic illuminated manuscripts, William Blake's visionary imagistic poetry (1783 -1827) and Alistair Gray's Lanark (1981), which contained drawings appropriated from the frontispiece of Hobbes's Leviathan (1651). Recent and entirely pictorial examples are Craig Thompson's substantial memoir Blankets (2003) and Andrzej Klimowski's surrealist Horace Dorlan (2007).

In the majority of cases the image functions in a supportive and confirmatory manner to the textual meaning, ultimately subservient, often visualising the content. Even in such instances the ability to create an identity for the words is a powerful function. More interestingly, and best located in the field of editorial illustration the pictorial can also add a layer of commentary, insert extra meaning, or occasionally confound that which the textual content suggests. This latter mode has influenced my thinking on the role of my image making versus the 'narrative truth'.

The role of the visual in my work is given primacy when establishing my aesthetic, alpha-numeric words tend only to be used when explicit meaning is required (Figures 1-3).

Figure 1. Red Riding Hood dream junction (1999)
Figure 2. Bluebeard's command (2002)
Figure 3. Protagonist's personal details revealed (2004)

Red Riding Hood (1999)

A goal of this project was to be interesting to both male and female readers. A highly stylised comic imagery helped serve this and bypass the technical limitations of dial up speed Internet connection typical circa the late 1990's. In developing my interpretation of Redan eclectic mix of visual and literary referents were used. For example the Borderline era musician Madonna, particularly the hydrogen peroxide hair, and black eyebrows fused with the attitude of Yoshitomo Nara's malcontent innocents influenced her appearance. Subtler references are Popeye The Sailor's forearms and within the dream sequence — Worzel Gummidge's detachable headed Aunt Sally . The 'secret' diary cites a variety of texts to help the reader construct her emotional references. "Every night I cut my heart out but by morning it has filled back up again." Laszlo de Almásy from The English Patient (Minghella 1996). Lyrics from The Cure's Lovesong, Nick Cave's Let Love In, Radiohead's Karma Police, Depeche Mode's I Feel You, Slipknot's Diluted and Prosthetic and Mudshuvel's Staind. These texts all help date her persona within current popular trends.

The Bloody Chamber (2002)

I chose to portray this environment as an enclosed and limited world. There are no horizons, nowhere in the distance to dream about, no avenue for salvation. This helps to condense the relationships between the characters triangularly between themselves and the location; this limitation helps to give a feeling of claustrophobia.

Unlike Little Red Riding Hood, The Bloody Chamber used a limited colour palette to highlight the symbolic use of Red. Although visually re-imagined, the key narrative symbols can still be seen within this retelling of The Bloody Chamber — the key, the blood, and the private chamber. The decision to render the project in shades of black and white was taken to highlight the idea of 'limitation' and the usage of the colour red, would be seen as more conspicuous when placed in a monochromatic colour range. The palate also suggests the mundanity or melancholy of the narrative world. "Leishman portrays a man (Bluebeard) who is utterly isolated and suffering from acute loneliness." [Olshefski 2003]

This limitation of colour is only broken once and is found within the final chamber. In there, I use pale blue to narrate the presence of the outside world.

Deviant: The Possession Of Christian Shaw (2004)

A decision was made torender Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw (hitherto Deviant) in detailed hand drawing and patterns rather than using the quicker intrinsic software line tools. It was hoped that this would give a sense of both sensuousness and preciousness as experienced by the quality of the line combined with the movement, colour and sound. In the totality of the project, it was devised as one picture, one prescribed landscape in which things appear, grow, retract, and evolve. Another way to describe it is as a series of tableaux — frozen moments in which narrative events can be drawn out by coaxing interactions (Figure 4).

Figure 4. As tableauxs (2004)

Contemplating Flight (2008)

As a work in progress project, Contemplating Flight builds upon comments on isolation and stillness that can be found in previous works. The visual context of the narrative is an interpretation of Bettelheim's forest as transformative space. Drawing on the metaphor of growth (both positive and negative cancerous connotations), the forest space is arterial / vein like (Figure 5) based on the lobes and alveoli of the lungs (Figure 6). The protagonist birds are subtly anthromorphic in their eyes, facial expressions and human feet and legs. The whiteness and minimality of their appearance is an attempt to portray them as character signified 'blanks' hollow of any historical associated imagery.

Figure 5. The forest (2008)
Figure 6. Lung Interior (courtesy of Wikipedia)

4 Interaction, Interface

When discussing interactive media the paradigm of clear hierarchy, articulation, and concrete outcomes is the prevailing one hegemony in Human Computer Interaction and an argument could be made that this attainment of understanding, of being clear, of being singular, underpins the majority of commercial games production. In interactive electronic literature this goal is proven to be problematic. A defining characteristic of the medium are that its' messages resist or are fundamentally incapable (structurally) of a unified communication, singularity, or consistency. This inherent nature already sets up a challenging premise, removing the culturally conventional desired closure, denouements, and perhaps any reader mastery of the communication — thus exemplifying dissonance.

Both the established, and still emergent, technology mediated possibilities of digital postmodern and structualist thinking, are attractors to artists, who see the world in similar patterns. As stated I don't originate narrative, but rather my inclination is to create interpretative layers, multiplicity, and poly-dynamic meaning — which seems to be allied to postmodernity where things are illusive, complex and unstable.

When reflecting on the place or purpose of an aesthetic of dissonance, it is worth noting that dissonance refutes the primary ideological assumption about technology — that it should work and make our lives easier. Digital interactivity presupposes a fait accompli — that links and connections will be successfully made. The tradition of faulty or actively destructive interaction (see Jodi.org and donniedarkofilm.com) also sits alongside the notion of 'post-digital', a term that refers to work that actively rejects the hype of the first digital revolution (Cascone 2000) in which purity, pristine sound, images, and perfect copies, are abandoned in favour of errors, glitches, and artefacts that become not whole, but incomplete and may conceptually decay — thus imbuing the work with a sort of humanity/reality.

Readers find it difficult to grasp a singular or overarching intention within my work, legitimate excuses can be laid down, the multi-linear structuring, the layering of pictorial imagery, the experiments with simultaneity, looping content, and the mix of recognisable and opaque narrative sources. All aspects combine to offer a communication that is noisy (in the McLuhan sense), complicated, and imbued with a sense of different authorial intent. I select narrative sources that would suit this kind of flaying, ambiguity and multiplicity.

I often start with what I do not want to achieve, rather than what I do — the standard provocative stance of a non-commercial modern artist perhaps. This quote from Pierre Bourdieu (1979) communicates this feeling well:

In matters of taste, more than anywhere else, all determination is negation; and tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance of the tastes of others.

I was opposed to early Flash or Generation Flash's (Manovich 2002) emphasis and interest in neo-minimalist abstraction, which emerged strongly as a result of their personal experiments with programmatic data visualisation. This ultimately led to a return to visual style over conceptual substance. I also refuted the commercial gaming paradigm of win or lose. I found the latter too simplistic and capitalistic a way to premise the emergence of new creative fields — digital auteur interactive environments and intelligent gaming. Within electronic literary experience a singular sense of success or narrative comprehension is redundant. Finally I opposed formal conceptualism and post-conceptualism where the work, imagery, and references are either removed or significantly privileged or elite. Contrary to such orientations, my aesthetic aims to explore and express hybridity and doubleness, digital vernacular, and new folk 'pop' concerns — inevitably touching on issues of taste, class, identity and irreverence.

Red Riding Hood

In terms of interface Red Riding Hood explored the concept of multiple browser windows as animated panels which came from my increasingly multi window/tasking work process and the medium of comics (Figures 7 & 8). These split 'frames' contained their own individual timelines, but have a relationship to the parent or main window. In Red Riding Hood there are the main interface or launch window, the main story window, hidden domestic interior window, secret diary window (inspired by the premonitional cuts scenes in gaming) and the random dream sequence window. The maximum window reveal for the reader is four. Inevitably closure over multiple timelines yields a non-sequitur narrative experience for the reader.

Figure 7. Window panels (1999)
Figure 8. Multitasking (1999)

The Bloody Chamber

To compliment the re-imagined narrative world, I designed a navigation system that allows the voyeuristic reader to view either in minute detail or at a distance (Figure 9). Clicking the small magnifying glass icons or pressing the designated keys on the keyboard achieves this. These magnification icons are explicit in their usage as they sit within the same space and retain their function through the entire project.

Both the husband and wife characters are imperfect and are revealed to have equally flawed dysfunctional psychologies. This is uncovered by the reader through the various windows and entrances within the project. These interactive apertures of sight mirror the limited understanding that the protagonists have of one another. The reader is that of a voyeur who is in control of his or her own larger vantage point, as they can see both of the protagonist's limited perspectives. This control means that they can see the fuller metamorphosis of the original text. With The Bloody Chamber the reader is the enactor of the multi perspectives, at times becoming the Bluebeard, the wife, a vehicle and interpreter of the combined perspectives, and the narrator of the project — in as much as they can chose their sequential path and the final outcome.

Figure 9. Scale in The Bloody Chamber (2002)

Deviant: The Possession Of Christian Shaw (2004)

This project represents my first move towards a more fully distributed characterisation, where the world interface is conceptualised as an extension of the protagonist Christian. In historical documents Christian was described as being between ten and eleven years old. Her youth is in part represented by the inherent anti-logic of the readers interactions, the literal playfulness, and the imaginative flora and fauna foster all combine to create sense of the child / childishness (Figure 10). The primacy of 'the child' invokes the role of reader as adult protector and jars with the yet to be discover historical narrative.

Figure 10. Close up of Deviant (2004)

Deviant was designed to push both the interpretation of the visual space, and the role of the reader. Thus the physical fullscreen nature of the project was devised (rather than reducing — suffusing memory load . This large fullscreen format demands more memory and attention as the reader attempts to comprehend the picture plane and its meaning.

Contemplating Flight (2008)

This project elaborates on pushing readerly perception of interaction hot spots. Like Deviant detail and small scale are used to focus the readers attention (Figure 11). It also defies the filmic expectation of moving away from a sense to another, rather it promotes a fixed perspective in which things grow and retract.

Figure 11. Close up of Contemplating Flight (2008)

4 Folkculture, Themes, Non Fiction, Objects

"History is a nightmare from which we are all trying to awaken."
(Observation attributed to James Joyce)

"Our identities belong permanently to the conceptual world. They cannot be seen, heard, smelled, touched or tasted. They are merely ideas."
(15:39 McCloud 1993)

Thematically my work questions social norms and paradimical behaviours and in particular the representation of un-natural orders, and trapped or repressed protagonists normally located within folk or history narratives.

In the typology of dissonance an inevitable point of reference is the Gothic canon or Gothic tradition . Particularly pertinent to dissonance is the notion of medieval dualities; rationality and romanticism, metamorphosis and entropy. Today Gothic like Horror is often deemed as somewhat juvenile given its propensity towards fantasy — where fantasy is seen as escapism. Interestingly within Horror an argument is made that fantasy has the potential for a coded and 'safe' expression of the tension between social norms and subconscious desires (Wood 2001). This description of tension resonated with the aims within much of my work and is similar to the problem of duration and intensity of semiotic ambivalence which can be described as the point at which the reader is curious and is willing to act on their curiosity i.e. I want to understand — — after which two exits present: I am satisfied or I am unsatisfied. Only for a limited period will the reader sustain and pivot between these reflective states. Alternatively if this act is too strenuous, the reader may move on to having no ambivalence a null of not wanting to achieve the meaning or alternatively, it may escalate into maximum ambivalence a need to know (Josephs and Valsiner 1998). Note there is some evidence of this more gaming orientated behaviour in the expert group readings of my doctoral project Deviant .

The thing about playing is always the precariousness of the interplay of personal psychic reality and control of actual objects. (Winnicott 1971)

A Gothically orientated expression needs the very context of reality to decode that which is other and oppositional, to allow the fantastical immersion. Within my work the real can be located within both the 'psychic reality' of the reader and as a literal representation within the hybrid text. For example 'dressing' protagonists in viable clothes, mannerisms, and visual environments that are in part familiar. Similar to the ethos of literary minimalism I find that closely observed visual detail could help provide reader correlation to a narrative reality that is more complex than fictive escapism.

Through experience and reflection, I have come to realise, that I am keenly interested in characterisation of the narrative environment and in the psychology of the protagonists, rather than the full dynamics of the narrative / plot / chronology machine. In creating characterisation, I use environmental pictorial landscapes, figurative protagonists, invisible rules of engagement, and structural designs that shape and inform the whole 'character'. I am interested in aesthetically flawed protagonists whom I conceptualize as a double sign. These protagonists on the initial or quick reading may confirm some of the reader's expectations, but underneath, or as the narrative structure reveals they show either multiplicity, a self-reflexive unease about their persona (see Laccetti 2007), or occasionally explicit subversive tendencies.

Red Riding Hood

In attempting any characterisation of Little Red Riding Hood, it pays to be mindful of the forbearing imagery (Bonner 2006) as initiated by master wood-engraver Thomas Bewick in 1803. This bank of interpretation was used as a context from which my deviations and hybridizations resonate. Red is imbued with a sense of mutable adolescent morality and poses questions around issues of assumed and desired identity. Inserted in the project is a hidden diary which if uncovered reveals a new pre-history to the tale including insights into Red's motivation and desire for a radical transformation. In the conclusive intimate bedroom scenes Red (as anti objectified female) directly challenges our gaze as readers (see Laccetti 2008). "

The Bloody Chamber

The bride in The Bloody Chamber has antecedents are Eve and Pandora, emblems of female curiosity that subsequently unleashed evil consequences onto the world. Feminist readings of this narrative have repositioned her, not as a victim but as a survivor, as an empowered victor who escapes (or kills) her brute of a husband (Carter, Atwood et al). In this artwork I portray another repositioning, that being that both the husband and wife characters are imperfect and are revealed to have equally flawed dysfunctional psychologies.

The original story has distinct sexual overtones, of power and subservience, of blood and murder, of beauty and beastliness. I wanted to readapt these elements to include some of our contemporary and modernist fears, whereby loneliness and a non-nurturing environment creates an individual with distorted sense of sexuality. Within this version, both of the protagonists are inherently alone. We see no family or friends but only them seeing one another. This project infers a reciprocal relationship between the objectifier and objectified.

Deviant: The Possession Of Christian Shaw

I authored the title to read as: Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw. This was devised both as a thematic indictor and also to highlight the subject matter e.g. 'Christian' as a man/boy, 'Christian' as woman/girl, or possibly 'Christian' as an adjective relating to Christianity. Another reading may link the church to the term 'deviance'. The term 'possession' has connotations of mental illness and/or supernatural acts of foreign control. The project refers to applicable grand narratives such as the Scottish and New England (Salem) witch trails. It also has links to historical horror and pulp archetypes of malevolent or evil children e.g. Damien in the book /film The Omen by Richard Donner in 1976.

The project is intentionally frustrating, reflecting the notion that the events are 'trapped in history', trapped in historical texts. The character of Christian cannot be physically helped, and I do not present other more positive outcomes. Instead, I have designed the project to utilise the reader's frustration as a springboard in which they realise the horrors and travesty of the 'real' story.

The historical account was written by an anonymous author, thus arguably turning the narrative into a work of un-interpretable fiction as the historical author may or may not have been a first hand witness. The narrative turned fiction is in itself now deviant, allowing for creative closure and personal interpretations. This notion links to the larger argument of society's belief in history as irrefutable truth. Within this situation a historical distortion is also found within the contemporary 'living memory' of Christian Shaw, who is mainly seen as a tainted and manipulative child and not as a heroine of the Church (the view presented at the time of the said events).

Contemplating Flight

As discussed previously, using the symbolically charged image of a forest as a context, the artwork explores entrapment, the expectancy for and lack of transformation. The protagonists are anthropomorphically transposed as symbolic/totemic birds. This project plans to use a bank of folkloric narratives to explore the paradigm of interaction as empowerment. In this early iteration the first protagonist Rapunzel's gestational mother is stilled by her insatiable 'hunger' for Rampion. The consequence of being fed by the reader is that the forest captures her secret egg/Rapunzel. Rapunzel, once fully-grown, is alone until/unless the reader's explorations reveal another protagonist based on Hansel from Hansel and Gretel. The current conclusion shows these birds inescapably trapped in mutual birdsong.

5 Conclusion: Balancing The Tension

Key issues in electronic literature, for the non-expert reader, are how to maintain ambivalence, how to stop the expression from becoming totally alien, and how to sustain intrigue overtime. The majority of electronic literature, similar to my work uses structures, themes and/or reader's positions that are challenging, unparadimical or highly experimental. In such an instance the author risks losing the reader's attention and creating a null condition. Dissonance can be thought of as akin to an unfolding mystery (Ryan 2001). This familiar position comes with reader expectancies that can be explored and played with. It also can lead to the beginnings of a commitment (I want to find the reason for the tension) and a premise (I think I am in a normal paradigm) that can be augmented or indeed subverted depending on the conceptual goal of the artwork.

My work offsets this reader distancing by fostering dissonance based on a hybrid experience of familiar and unfamiliar, resting on the strength of visual communication. A more visually orientated literary experience can foster a better flexibility and a more easily, more accepted ambiguity, given the inherent instability of pictorial signs. In multimodal expressions, the constituent elements (image, sound, words, live action, animation, logic, interactivity etc) can be recombined and weighted, as the author desires. Such semiotic hybridism invokes other streams of new discourse within electronic literature — digital remixology (Amerika), poly-attentiveness (Raley), trans-literacy, and anti-text hegemony (Thomas) and may herald a significant reconfiguration and/or a new direction for the field at large.


  1. Professor AndrzejKlimowski and his collaborator Danusia Schejbal have also recently produced a visual telling of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (published by Metro Media).
  2. Editorial illustration can be described as illustration driven and placed alongside journalistic content namely in broadsheet newspapers such as The New York Times, and The Guardian. Editorial illustration can also be found in high-end or specialist magazines such as Penthouse, Wallpaper or Dazed & Confused. The illustrator is commissioned by an art editor to interrogate and respond to the pre existing content. Interestingly visual journalism has now been established as a sub/new genre with the likes of Joe Sacco's War's End (2005), a phenomenon that sits on the shoulders of Ralph Steadman and Hunter S. Thompson's Gonzo journalism in the early 1970s.
  3. Worzel Gummidge is a British children's television programme that ran between 1979-81. Aunt Sally was a 'real' actress dressed and painted as a fairground doll of the type used as a target for throwing competitions. She considered herself to be of a superior class to Worzel, a scarecrow and her frustrated suitor.
  4. "This generation does not care if their work is called art or design. This generation is no longer is interested in "media critique" which preoccupied media artists of the last two decades; instead it is engaged in software critique. This generation writes its own software code to create their own cultural systems, instead of using samples of commercial media . The result is the new modernism of data visualizations, vector nets, pixel-thin grids and arrows: Bauhaus design in the service of information design. Instead the Baroque assault of commercial media, Flash generation serves us the modernist aesthetics and rationality of software." (Manovich 2002). «http://www.manovich.net/DOCS/generation_flash.doc»
  5. The concept of hybridity, an important concept in post-colonial theory, refers to the mingling/ fusion of cultural signs and practices. In post-colonial theory this would be from both the colonizing and the colonized cultures. This mixing can be done from positions of desperation, manipulation or good will. By which people adapt themselves to the necessary change.
  6. The ultimate goal of HCI is to enable fluid or intuitive interactions with the particular computer system in question. In this fluid state the user would not have to think about what menu to choose, or which mouse button to click, but could naturally and fluently perform the necessary actions to achieve their goals - the interface would then become transparent.

    This ultimate goal is broken down into eight notional golden rules of HCI:

    1. Strive for consistency.
    2. Provide shortcuts for experts.
    3. Offer informative feedback.
    4. Ensure closure of tasks.
    5. Avoid user errors.
    6. Provide easy reversal of actions.
    7. Support user control.
    8. Reduce memory load.
  7. The Gothic Tradition can be attributed to the emergence of a particular aesthetic around mid-12th century to the 16th century and once again in the mid-18th century with the Gothic revival. The early 1980s music scene also yielded a highly reductive and in some sense 'cartooned' version of the Gothic (villain / heroine axis, stereotypical over usage of black).
  8. «http://www.6amhoover.com/viva/chapter_two/participants/amerika.htm». Accessed August 2008.
  9. "Literary minimal style, an obsessive concern for surface detail, a tendency to ignore or eliminate distinctions among the people it renders and a studiedly deterministic, at times nihilistic, vision of the world." [Robert Rebein 2001]


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