Migrating Stories: Moving across the Code/Spaces of our Time
Department of Management and Social Communication, Jagiellonian University
Citation: Nacher, Anna. “Migrating Stories: Moving across the Code/Spaces of our Time.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 20, 2019. doi:10.20415/hyp/020.mov01
Abstract: In this essay, I aim at developing the notion of transmedia storytelling beyond the standard formula popularised by Henry Jenkins in 2006 and upgraded on several occasions on his blog. I would like to focus on the innovative transmedia poetic storytelling based on data visualisation, concerning the issue of migration and movement across borders. The four prominent examples include Migration Trail by Killing Architects, aimisola.net/hymiwo.po:a poemtrack for a yet-to-be-written dance piece by Álvaro Seiça and Sindre Sørensen, and two projects by María Mencía that can be considered as one creative endeavour due to their genealogical and aesthetic proximity: Gateway to the World and The Poem That Crossed the Atlantic. They might not be an example of “storytelling,” in the traditional meaning of the word, yet they carry some narrative potential primarily in the way they handle the available data on spatial practices. To what extent the idea of movement in space is mirrored in the transmedia characteristics of the texts, often based on real events, which might include layers of information about the processes happening in the real world? Is transmedia just a formal feature of these cultural texts? By answering such questions, I want to point out that transmedia narration (based on the dynamic circulation of content on the Web) became normalised as part of everyday media cultures. Therefore, attention should be paid not only to cultural texts as such, but also to the broader cultural practices within networked media.
Keywords: transmedia narrative, code/space, interactive narrative, media art, locative media, data visualisation.
Francisco J. Ricardo (2010), in his inspiring analysis of locative art, considers the variety of art projects and looks for the interplay between their eventfulness and site-specificity. At the same time, Ricardo is mostly interested in how they constitute a locative consciousness which, he claims, is the faculty encompassing the particular history of the actual place. Writing on Anna Schuleit Haber’s locative artwork, Habeas Corpus (2000), which brings to light the conflicting stories of the abandoned, derelict psychiatric hospital, Ricardo highlights the fact that “Where there is historical consciousness of past events, place becomes transcendentally alive with a force that no structural aim alone can achieve” (288). The author concludes with an insightful rumination on art related to the situatedness of places, by writing that “the presence of technology as an aesthetic microscope for the amplification of overlooked experience provides a special potential for locative art” (290). This comment provides a particularly interesting point of departure for the analysis of recent experimental poetic storytelling projects dealing with the issue of migration and movement across borders, which often explore aesthetics grounded in various procedures of data visualisation. However, it also stirs a few controversies relating to the fact that the understanding of what a specific place means has dramatically changed over the last decades, along with the physical space increasingly becoming saturated with digital data and networks of communication. Such process alone would provide sufficient grounds for challenging the long tradition of the phenomenological understanding of place—its specificity, physicality and concreteness (often contrasted with the notion of space, imbued with more abstraction). Interpreting “the located” and “the locative” as related to a static, physical place can be another problem. Locative media art incorporating movement across space poses a significant challenge in this regard. According to a thread of thinking following Henri Lefebvre’s argumentation, space is rather socially constructed and produced than just given. Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge summarise this idea as follows: “Space is not simply a container in which things happen; rather, spaces are subtly evolving layers of context and practices that fold together people and things and actively shape social relations” (13). Among such contexts and practices, the researchers further add the way communications networks, software and data processing function. Obviously, for quite some time they have been altering “the conditions through which society, space, and time, and thus spatiality, are produced” (Kitchin and Dodge 13). So, as much as Ricardo’s insightful take on locative art provides the exciting point of departure for my investigation, it also raises some theoretical frictions and reverberations that prompt different perspectives.
Therefore, my aim is not limited to explaining the reconfiguration of the notion of place in the age of ubiquitous media and data visualisation, or to highlighting how the experience of (forced) migration is represented in transmedia storytelling. Instead, I am going to propose a need for a shift in the understanding of the very notion itself so that it better acknowledges the artworks and cultural texts based on moving through space, which is imbued with digital data and representing such digital/spatial processes. In fact, in parallel to what Kitchin and Dodge state about software analysis, transmedia practices should be predominantly approached as a spatial phenomenon; as instances of transduction bridging ontologically different realms: the physical and the digital.
Marsha Kinder (1993) has initially introduced the category of “transmedia storytelling” as “transmedia intertextuality” in her study about children, youth television and video games. It is worthy to pay attention to the opening sequence where Kinder states: “As a means of structuring events within patterns of space, time, and causality, narrative creates a context for interpreting all perceptions. Narrative maps the world and its inhabitants, including one’s own position within that grid” (2). Hence, narrative can be understood as a sort of perceptional matrix of the lived world—the assumption has been even strengthened since the emergence of digital maps and processes of interlacing physical world with digital data. But the category of “transmedia storytelling” has been popularised at the beginning of the 2000s by Henry Jenkins in his seminal texts. Both researchers (Rettberg; Dena) and practitioners (Phillips) contributed to further develop transmedia theory, but transmedia text and transmedia practice continue to mostly focus on distributed fictional content and its flow across media platforms. Recent anthological volumes, such as Storyworlds across Media and The Rise of Transtexts prove the tendency that transmedia storytelling is often considered a case belonging to the domain of fictionality. Transmedia theory developed in the context of digital art brings more elaborated modifications of the concept. As illustrated in the anthology Transmedia Frictions, it pertains to the tensions between media specificity and transmedia practice, or the relations linking transmedia and transnationality. The latter means at the same time more sophisticated investigations into the potentialities unfolding with the use of the “trans-” across various contexts.
Nevertheless, I want to stress that shifting this already well-grounded and familiar concept to different contexts might be fruitful for better understanding narrative as spatial practice. Of course, the way I use the term “transmedia” denotes its broad scope and its almost universal operationality. Following Monika Górska-Olesińska’s observation, it boils down to two main features: “Firstly, it refers to the discourse of convergence culture, capturing the dynamics of the intermingling of technologies, distribution platforms, communication and creative strategies, audience behaviours and production models. Secondly, the term designates diverse artistic practices that go beyond the boundaries of the specific medium” (VII). I would add a third characteristic: transmedia is particularly useful as a tool to capture the experience of subjects that constantly move across spaces imbued with digital data, including the many instances of what Ricardo calls “overlooked experience” (290).
Therefore, I am going to discuss examples of transmedia storytelling that are not entirely fictional: Migration Trail by Killing Architects, aimisola.net/hymiwo.po: a poemtrack for a yet-to-be-written dance piece by Álvaro Seiça and Sindre Sørensen, and two projects by María Mencía, Gateway to the World and The Poem That Crossed the Atlantic. These works are based on documents or accounts of real-life events, often represented through digital data, and they contribute to the development of creative, data-driven journalistic forms, usually based on the strategy of blurring the borders between data, social facts and fiction. I must also admit that I am not so much interested in the cross-fertilisation of geography and narratology, to use Marie-Laure Ryan’s phrase (Ryan, Foote and Azaryahu 4). Instead, my point of interest is to investigate the possibilities offered by the modification of the notion of “transmedia storytelling” so that it better acknowledges the fusion of the digital and the physical, which is symptomatic of contemporary spatial practices. They often occur in what Kitchin and Dodge called “code/space,” precisely referring to the above-mentioned processes of blurring the borders which once used to separate real-life practices in physical space from those in digital data processing. Paraphrasing the title of the introductory essay to the anthology The Rise of Transtexts, I would say “The Transtexts Are Rising... and the World Is Changing” (Kurtz and Bourdaa 1). At the same time, I aim to point out that describing such practices as an instance of cross-platform content flow resembling, let us say, alternate reality games, is not sufficient either. So, let us focus on the creative works.
Migration Trail premiered between the 20th and 29th of November, 2017. The interactive online story unfolded during ten days, following in real time the whereabouts of two young migrants to Europe: the 30-year old David Ighiwiyisi, from Nigeria, who started his journey in Tripoli, Libya, and headed for London to join his brother Emmanuel, who had been illegally living there for the last ten years; and the 19-year old Sarah Azmeh, originally from Syria, who had found her temporary shelter in Izmir, Turkey, and wants to get to Germany where her brother Omar has been living for three years. Sarah’s messages are written in Arabic, and the reader is offered the possibility to get them translated into Dutch and English. The characters are fictional, but the script was based on more than two years of research done by the Killing Architects’ team, who started working on the project in 2014. The story can be explored in different layers. Sarah and David report on their whereabouts through the string of messages exchanged with the family members already located in Europe. They are accompanied with real-life data (political, environmental and personal) on the situation of the fictional characters, podcasts enabling the audience to dig deeper into the additional contexts, and characters’ message feeds from various social media platforms located on the mapping interface picturing their itineraries. There is also the timeline structuring the whole story. The readers could also sign up at the project’s fan page on Facebook to get the characters’ messages sent directly to their phones. Migration Trail is archived and still available on the servers. The audience can follow the storyline through the characters’ messages and podcasts on the day-to-day basis (the subsequent episodes are uncovered within ten days, only after another day passes), which echoes the discourse of pop culture seriality (including TV series and soap operas). These streams often convey the heartbreaking details of hardship, hatred, abuse and violence experienced by refugees attempting to cross into the Schengen area, similarly to the stories that started overflowing the news since, at least, 2014. In one of the messages, David describes how one of the women was violently raped and cheated: “Just thanking God I am not a woman here because mehn!It [sic] is hard for them.” However, we can also read the heart-warming exchanges of hope and consolation, which are always contingent and temporary impressions of feeling safe and avoiding the worst scenarios.
The factual layer of the story is conveyed with the visualisation of information. It seems crucial for the fictional content and it helps to better understand the situation of the characters. The left-side menu presents the graphic materials on the importance of the Schengen area to the issue of migration, how difficult it is for an average Nigerian and Syrian to obtain Schengen visa, the number of countries such person can visit, etc. One can also check the strength of the passports issued by different countries, based on the number of states the holder of the document can visit without excessive paperwork. The maps are respectively showing the migration routes running across the African continent to Tripoli, and across the Middle East to Izmir, as well as the ships carrying refugees across the Mediterranean Sea along with data on the number of migrants that were reported missing or dead, in the period between January 2014 and November 2017. In this sense, the interface resembles other art projects bordering with creative journalism, for example Watch the Mediterranean Sea (watchthemed.net), which was awarded at Prix Ars Electronica in 2016. It started in 2012 as an online platform to monitor the maritime accidents and shipwrecks at the European Union borders, and later paired with the “sister project” Alarm Phone (alarmphone.org). In 2018, Poppy Interactive—the interactive factual narrative by journalist Antoinette de Jong and photographer Robert Knoth that presents the complex relationships between organised crime and war—received an honorary mention at the same festival. Another project of this type, Liquid Violence by Lorenzo Pezzani and Charles Heller (Forensic Oceanography), which was shown at the Manifesta 12 in Palermo (2018), is a critique of the militarisation of the borders in the Mediterranean and an examination of the reasons behind a staggering death toll in the Mediterranean Sea over the last twenty years. The increasing number of works of this type signals the emergence of a new narrative genre based on the fusion of physical space and digital data, in addition to blurring the borders between fiction and reality, albeit in an entirely different manner than what has already been done with reality TV. The fact that such borders between different representational modes and distant ontological domains of the computational and the material have been increasingly becoming porous reflects the common experience of moving across our everyday code/spaces. It contributes as well to the growing significance of data visualisation aesthetics, ubiquitous in journalistic accounts of complex realities of phenomena situated on the cross-roads of natural forces, social discourses of knowledge regimes and lived cultural practices: from climate change to migration crises. In this perspective, the nascent genre of data visualisation (often in real time) can itself be seen as a transmedia and transversal endeavour, which is one of the ways to bridge different ontological spaces and to fuse the narrative structure with real-life content.
Extensive, strategic use of infographics and data visualisation is the feature that Migration Trail shares with two poetic interventions by María Mencía, which are related to the marine movement of people and goods: El Winnipeg: El Poema que Cruzò el Atlántico [The Winnipeg: The Poem That Crossed the Atlantic] (2016-17) and Gateway to the World (2013-16). Even if Mencía’s artworks are based on more traditional archives, they still subscribe to the mode of representation fusing the factual (real-world spatial arrangements, historical events and accounts of private stories) and fictional (stemming from the necessity to imaginatively filling up the historical account of events and from the procedures of “storifying” the archive). The proximity of the aesthetics and content in both cases prompts one to read them as the variation of basically one artistic endeavour aimed at uncovering, as Ricardo framed it, the “overlooked experience”—especially in the artwork The Poem That Crossed the Atlantic, which was the direct outcome of the research led by Mencía while developing Gateway to the World. The former work is based on the story of Mencía’s grandfather, who lived in Argentina, and whose trajectory came to the surface after the artist took some interest in his life story. Mencía had done extensive research in the archives documenting the migration from Spain to South America shortly after the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. She discovered the unknown part of her family’s history and the story of her grandfather, who managed to flee the prospect of being transferred to the concentration camps set up in France in August 1939, as he embarked the Winnipeg with 2,200 other exiles. This ship, which “crossed the Atlantic” with the refugees from the Spanish Civil War onboard, was sent thanks to the efforts made by none other than the famous poet Pablo Neruda, a Consul Immigration Officer in Chile at the time. María Mencía’s research—which had initially started as the exploration of maritime data on the movement of shipments in and out of Buenos Aires—then focused on the story of the Winnipeg and its passengers (see the detailed account of how the research progressed at the project’s website). In the end, the content was shaped as a dynamically generated string of text containing the names of the passengers, thus marking the original route of the Winnipeg on the map.
Eventually, the poet Mencía and her team created the archive for the families of the Winnipeg’s passengers where they can share their mutually interwoven stories. Mencía summarised it as follows: “These interconnected stories of the passengers and family which this cargo vessel carried, with their feelings, hopes and farewells, are now represented in the sea of the World Wide Web, together with the poems by Pablo Neruda and relevant information about this event.” (El Winnipeg n.p.) The string of names flowing through the screen across the ocean, upon entering the website, echoes the elaborate mapping of the Mediterranean Sea routes where David and Sarah almost lost their lives in the attempt to make it to the safe harbours of the Schengen area. Therefore, Mencía’s project is a poem “created with love” not only to the members of her own family, but also “to all of those who are currently in similar situations of hardship, displacement, lost and in exile” (n.p.). As such, it can be also seen as a representational vehicle bridging different contexts and different temporal regimes. Apart from this, Mencía’s project points out to the genealogy of data visualisation that is grounded in the work with analogue media archives.
Based on the elaborate, time-consuming and diligent browsing through the archive, The Poem That Crossed the Atlantic seems more factual than fictional—except, as I have already hinted, for the necessary bit of fictionalisation always involved in the processes of abstraction that characterise the sophisticated procedures of data visualisation. Usually, it starts with the act of collecting the data. It may translate into the impulse to reduce complex phenomena to various data points and data sets, as we are reminded by Lisa Gitelman and Virginia Jackson: “When phenomena are variously reduced to data, they are divided and classified, processes that work to obscure—or as if to obscure—ambiguity, conflict, and contradiction” (9). Such warning seems particularly timely, since moving through space that is infused with data often means the massive auto-archiving of data points as the movement of objects (being humans with smartphones or goods enabled with RFID tags) is automatically traced by the GPS-enabled devices, often translated into social media feeds. On the other hand, the loss of complexity can be fruitfully traded in for the possibility of better understanding the phenomena which otherwise would vanish from sight. Such is the case of another research-based art project by Mencía, Gateway to the World, which is depicting the real-time maritime traffic in and out of the harbour of Hamburg, among others. According to the poet, the visualisation of speed, volume and the variety of ships simultaneously serves as the metaphor of the Internet, since the names of the ships are mapped according to the possibilities offered by search engines.
María Mencía is essentially interested in “the in-between of language as both semantic and visual, in order to integrate rational and emotional expression” (“Gateway to the World: Data Visualization Poetics” 152). Hence, it might seem unrelated to the issue of migration itself yet considering the broader socioeconomic and environmental context of the Anthropocene will grant the project enough relevancy in this field of inquiry. As demonstrated by Migration Trail and Liquid Violence, the massive illegal traffic of desperate people is happening in the Mediterranean through maritime routes. Therefore, visualising the speed and density of the transfers between harbours can be considered as part of Ricardo’s notion of “overlooked experience,” which Mencía’s project helps to bring to the surface. Moreover, the way the movement of the ships is globally modified—due to the opening of new areas in the Arctic seas caused by the Earth icecap’s meltdown—shows how climate change affects the coastlines and established marine routes. Climate change and the depletion of natural sources, due to massive mining, mostly so lucrative to European and American companies, are in many cases the direct causes of forced migration from Africa. At least, two other artworks deserve broader attention in this context: All Up in My Grill (2013) by Unknown Fields, which traces the economy and flux of the illegal trade of luxury items (gold, precious gems and rare minerals) from Madagascar to the West and North; The Visible and the Invisible (2014) is a documentary film made by the Austrian artist Oliver Ressler, who is particularly interested in the relationship between abuse and inhuman working conditions in Africa, as well as the flow of profit benefiting the multinational companies located in Switzerland. In this case, the dialectic between “visible” and “invisible” (the title references the well-known book on the Phenomenology of Perception by Merleau-Ponty) advantages the global economic agents. Companies often hide in the canton of Zug, considered a tax haven, behind doors stripped of any names or visual identification. At the same time, it also removes from sight the hard, insufficiently paid African workers, prone to abuse and violence. In the light of these works, María Mencía’s Gateway to the World can be interpreted as the valuable attempt at bringing to the surface the deeply hidden layers of the issues related to the “migration crisis,” which remain barely visible in the global debate on this crisis.
Yet another aesthetic strategy has been employed by Portuguese-Norwegian duo Álvaro Seiça and Sindre Sørensen (2015) in their net performance aimisola.net/hymiwo.po: a poemtrack for a yet-to-be-written dance piece, a born-digital poetic work about African immigrant women in Spain. It was created in cooperation with several NGOs and institutional organizations, as part of Madrid-based ACUDEVA’s AIMISOLA project (the full name in English reads “Integral Attention to Immigrant Women: Formative Itineraries for Social and Labor Insertion”). The work was also grounded in a personal experience of one of the artists, who emigrated from Portugal to Sweden in 2011, to look for new opportunities that required a complete restart of the family’s surviving strategies. The project also aimed to develop aimisola.net, a wiki that hosts the digital archive of various materials documenting the experiences of African immigrant women located in Spain. The writing process, very much like in the case of Migration Trail, was based on extensive research on Spanish immigration policies, African women’s experiences, the status of refugees and all kinds of challenges both immigrants and refugees are confronted with once they reach Spain. The initial idea of developing a kind of musical score where text replaces music, based on themes of Masurca Fogo by Pina Bausch and Tanztheater Wuppertal, was eventually abandoned, due to the legal restrictions concerning the copyrights over audio or video files composing Bausch’s piece. “HYMIWO.PO” stands for “HYmn to imMIgrant WOmen, a POem” and the title of the poem is the exact reference to its URL. Sometimes, the work is also presented as a kind of net performance, where the audience can contribute to the poem’s live discussion and output with 140-character long tweets, which are gathered in real-time under several hashtags, most prominently “#immigrants.” These tweets are displayed onscreen in a smaller sized font, along with the poem’s fixed lines. Álvaro Seiça performed it in this version, for example, at the evening of performances “Shapeshifting Texts,” which accompanied the Digital Media and Textuality conference in Bremen, Germany (held in November 2016). Such interventions contribute to shaping the space of polyphonic discussion, where the voices of immigrant women presented as textual elements meet onscreen with the set of inquiries from the public. At the same time, the instability of the network protocols governing Twitter reflects the lack of stability plaguing the immigrants’ experience, always in flux, subject to replacement and the lack of agency. According to Álvaro Seiça, “they inscribe and ascribe an unstable nature in the work, as each iteration of the work, browser refreshment, or new reading provide a different textscape” (51-2).
The projects I have discussed employ three different aesthetic strategies that work with dynamic data and archives, but they also vary in scope and purpose (three of them can be considered as poetic interventions, while Migration Trail fits better under the category of innovative journalism). However, what seems to unite them is the fact that all four are based on the extensive work in, and with the archive and database. This also includes the more and more widespread situation where human experience is rendered as the chain of data entries when the subjects move across space permeated by digital signals of various sorts. All of projects, to some extent, fulfil the prophetic remark on how data-driven stories should change, which Norman M. Klein expressed a decade ago: “We probably need story forms a bit closer to home, at least home in the United States—data stories closer to our actual lives” (88). Well, the projects seem to fit into such vision only partially, since Klein continues: “That does not mean digitized social realism. It should drift closer to stream-of-consciousness fiction, to what Virginia Woolf called ‘digging caves behind characters’” (88). Yet, the point is that our contemporary data-driven stories became both. In many cases separating the two realms (digitized realism and stream-of-consciousness) has lost its explanatory and interpretative power in a culture heavily relying on data mining, including the digital shadows and digital footprints we inevitably leave behind as we perform the simplest acts of everyday life. Due to the emergence of the phenomenon called by Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge “code/space,” data-based storytelling becomes the work with extensive archives of cultural data, not only digital signals. Kitchin and Dodge provide the following definition: “Code/space occurs when software and the spatiality of everyday life become mutually constituted, that is, produced through one another. Here, spatiality is the product of code, and the code exists primarily in order to produce a particular spatiality” (16). We are increasingly discussing spaces which are “functionally dependent on code” (17). At the same time, “code/space”—even if open to performative instability based on repetitive iterations—is often actively excluding the social subjects defined in terms of authorised digital access, specific devices and specific versions of software (the latter needs to be continuously upgraded) and fluency in new computational skills. This itself becomes part of an “overlooked experience,” which in many cases goes not only overlooked but utterly unnoticed and rendered unintelligible by the fact that it fails to become part of the database.
According to Norman M. Klein, “story is generally organized through absence. Put another way, absence is presence. That seems very much at odds with computer data. But think of the problem this way: absence is a kind of aperture” (89). As we read such phrases in 2018, in the context of the recent discussions on “migration crisis” and discriminatory algorithms, as well as software interpreted as social process, we need to redefine “absence.” Reading it primarily in terms of avant-garde aesthetics is not enough for the majority of data-based storytelling practices, as the presented cases show. One can also argue that absence not so much vanishes from computer data, as it rather gets re-coded. It stubbornly persists in many cracks and mistakes that can be observed in the procedures of networked communication. The metaphor of “information highway” further obscures the very nature of data production and processing practices, imbuing it with the allure of communicative hyper-efficiency. It seems to be the significant illusion of our time. In fact, entirely new apertures are often offered in situations when data gets lost and miscommunicated in all the contingency and messiness of wireless communication networks, as well as in those moments of non-authorised access. They allow for interrogating the digital archives of our everyday lives and tracing the manifold ways they flow across platforms and services we are dependent upon, while confronting on a daily basis the code/spaces without even noticing it. Hence the idea to incorporate and account for such experiences in the very notion of “transmedia storytelling.” The four projects I selected exemplify the understanding of transmedia as grounded in the embodied experiences of subjects moving across spaces, which are increasingly infused with digital data and signals. The characters depicted in the stories walk not only through space but, at the same time, they progress through continually shifting databases and archives. Besides the focus on the data entry points that highlight what is visible, readable and intelligible, such as in Migration Trail, what is also at stake in the nomadic and migratory experience (including forced migration) is all the digitally reconfigured absences one encounters on the way, as demonstrated by aimisola.net/hymiwo.po. Such absences—the moments of miscommunication, trial and error, and data loss—signify yet another level of “overlooked experience” (Ricardo 290) that may be made visible and get amplified with creative ventures in transmedia storytelling.
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