At the Digital Play exhibition, a few computers displayed “new narratives” and animations. One of the ones I liked best was Julia 1926, an “interactive” documentary about a woman with Alzheimers by Johannes Weymann, who has a website at Heltersk3lter. I put quotation marks around interactive, because when I returned home and played with the piece some more, it seems to be an entirely linear animation which you simply have to click in order to make the next bit play out.
At several points the interface looks as though you’re going to get a choice – for instance when you get through the first opening sequence, and are presented with what looks like a menu of aspects of Julia’s life – places, people and times. Each title has four items listed below, so beneath “people”, you see children, family, friends and enemies. Clicking on any of these takes you to a stylised and flickering black and white image of a woman sitting on a sofa, with a short text (“times, people, places change”) and an list of her features, like on an ID-card. When you click, the words begin to fall apart, degenerating into noise, dates shifting into the impossible (“Date of birth: 33.03.26”) and through into nonsense. This imagery of deteriorating memory as akin to the corruption of data on a computer works well, of course.
Stuart Moulthrop’s Reagan Library does something similar but carries the metaphor further, including the reader’s actions in its working. Reagan Libraries is also a story of confused memories, and each node of the story is initially full of noise: the words are literally unstable, many of them random. But each time you return to a node, it becomes more stable, finally, after four readings of each node, being fairly comprehensible. The deterioration in Julia 1926, on the other hand, is more a charming visual effect that doesn’t add meaning.
I was disappointed when I realised that there was (as far as I can tell) no interactivity at all. That is, yes, I need to click to see the whole story, but when and where I click makes no difference whatsoever. Because there’s no way to go back without restarting, you don’t notice this for much of the piece, unless you reread it, but there are certain jarring moments. For instance, both Julia and her husbands’ lives are presented through two three paned window where each pane holds an image from a time in their lives – youth, maturity and loss or senescence. I started by clicking the youth pane, and sure enough, a short text describing Julia’s youth was displayed. Then I clicked the old age pane, and was given a text describing her maturity – the illusion of reader choice was broken. Even here the story is told completely linearly and the reader in fact has no choices.
There are many things I like about Julia 1926. The design is beautiful, and the images and the words often interplay very well. The combination of the facts and the bits of individuals’ lives are also effective, and the graphical disappearing of connections and the corruption of data also works well. There were some Germanisms in the language, and a proof-reader for the English would have been useful, although I should also point out that many of the short texts are well-written and evocative. It really irks me that this is billed as interactive, though. So much more could have been done. Probably scale is one reason it’s not truly interactive – the whole thing only takes 5-10 minutes from start to finish, and no doubt even that has taken a lot of time to create in such beautiful design.
Julia 1926 is not only exhibited as one of the few examples of new narrative at the Digital Play exhibition, it has also won several prizes and medals, though these are mostly from design competitions rather than new media sites, and certainly the design is good. It’s a pity, though, that more innovative new narratives weren’t also shown at the Digital Play exhibition.