1.5 Word-Image Chains

Thus far this chapter has dealt with relations of text and image on a single screen or page; with on-line Web display, a third dimension of sequence comes into play and allows words and images to be anchors of links to other words and images, sometimes in chains of word-image-image-word- etc. When such chains are the structural backbone of a site, an easy equivalence as anchor and target arises. Hypertext linking becomes an image of signification (i.e. clicking on this gives/takes you to that) in a way that levels the difference in mode of signification which we and Magritte have attempted to keep distinct. One has the feeling of manipulating a language that does deserve the term "imagetext."

Joseph Squier: Urban Diary Page 1 (1995)

Figure 1.52
Joseph Squier: Urban Diary Page 1 (1995)

In this section, we will look at two quite early pieces by Web artists (Joseph Squier and Carol Flax) and two more recent ones (Carmin Karasic and Liz Miller) who extend the interactivity of early work with JavaScript.

The fragment at the left is the upper left-hand corner of page one of Joseph Squier's Web classic Urban Diary. (Its classic status is assured by its inclusion in the Walker Art Gallery collection.) The core of this work is a sequence of eight such (full) pages which link each to the next. The pages are snapshots of somewhat rumpled and soiled three-hole-punched cross section paper on which some words have been typed and hand written, and to which various images are attached. Most of the pages are dated in a November (no year), but Page 7 is dated in April. Although the pages are linked serially, there is no narrative ordering one can discern, for they seem to be self-contained diary pages. Whether they have been selected from a more complete set cannot be determined. They are, he tells us, a found object of which we know nothing. He gives us certain themes to get started making sense of the fragments ("control, faith, desire, and obsession") and the navigational tip that the pictures and images, as well as the circled items on one page of numbers, are link anchors. The "technical note" spells out for us many things that now would be taken for granted, suggesting a date of making of very early graphic Web (1995). The words, snapshots, lists, calendar pages, jottings--all are signifiers, but their meanings are known only to the absent consciousness that collected them. (One should not take this display of Modernist impersonality as Squier's distinctive approach: his most famous Web work is Life With Father, a very personal, expressionist settling of accounts.)

link map of Urban Diary

Figure 1.53
Link Map of Urban Diary

Urban Diary has always seemed very rich and complex to me, going always in multiple directions, but in analyzing its link structure, I see that it has the structure of a wagon wheel with a central entry point with paths (spokes) to the individual pages and links around the rim from one page to the next. This is a basic hypertext structure, very easy to navigate. The richness and complexity come from the invitation to interpret all these "clues."

Carol Flax: Home is Not What You Imagine It to Be

Figure 1.54
Carol Flax: Home is Not What You Imagine It to Be

The thumbnail to the left is the "home page" image for another classic piece of net art by Carol Flax dealing with adoption. The image is itself an unstable mixture of text fragments (which appear in fuller form later) and an image of a young girl, presumably adopted. It is also the anchor linking to another image (perhaps of the girl) overwritten by text and surrounded with fragments of the word nurture. This in turn links to a page just of the words "I am illegitimate" repeated four times. One of the illegitimates links to an animation of the words "out of wedlock" which collapse inwardly and fall into a heap, but also link to a page of words (etc.). Flax likes to make animations of words fading, collapsing, or disintegrating. She also does this with images, but dissolving is particularly striking with text, which is presumed permanent and unchanging. The site is made up of such chains (and there are cross-links and returns). The initial "Home" image is also the center of another page with the caption "what makes you think you've come home?" This recapitulates the experience of adoptees who learns at some point that home is not what they think it is.

Carmin Karasic: With Liberty and Justice for All (1998)

Figure 1.55
Carmin Karasic: With Liberty and Justice for All (1998)

The fading aside, the images and pages of these early works are stable and can be revisited when you will. Nor do they load other pages or change without your clicking. With the availability of usable Javascript, however, writers enjoyed greatly enhanced ability to make self-modifying pages, and a prize-winning trend has been to exploit these powers. We will look at two pieces from the 1999 Digital context sponsored by Arts and Science Collaborations, Inc. (ASCI). The thumbnail to the left is one from many "family album" pictures used in Carmin Karasic's With Liberty and Justice for All, a recollection of growing up Black in the Navy in mid-twentieth-century.

Carmin Karasic: Opening text-panel for WLAJFA

Figure 1.56
Carmin Karasic: Opening text-panel for WLAJFA

From the moment the page opens by slowly running up the window frame like a flag and then sprouts three satellite windows, two with pictures on the right and one with text on the left, we realize we are entering a scripted world which may be active in various ways even without our clicking. The text window (on the left) provides a certain narrative and table-of- contents effect, since clicking on the one or two anchor words in each panel either advance the text-story or change one or both of the picture windows. (Online, this is a true text panel: the somewhat uneven hand-written look of the text is produced by MS Handwriting font, which is found on many Ms-Windows machines. ) This panel grabs the window focus every five seconds so that it insistently pops up even if buried by other opened ones. It on the whole controls the two "albums." The upper album frame is labelled The American Dream and offers a series of images from the media, often ironic in relation to the text and the other window and even to the preceding or following Dream image. But the American Dream window also has images of stirring moments for Blacks of the period and also images of the horrors of fire-bombed churches and lynchings. These last images tend to revert fairly quickly to the preceding, usually commercial images of "house beautiful." One can force changes by clicking in the Dream window, even in the lower window ("My Life") which is largely filled with snapshots. Many of the images in these windows have text in them as well, so that the distinction of text v. image is neutralized. The main focus of attention is what the links do, not whether they are text, or image, or image-with-text.

Formally, it is a scripted world; in content, it is a world polarized by race (and secondarily, gender). So we have another site committed to "showing the contradictions" which it does by juxtaposition, sometimes side-by-side and sometimes by sequence (as in the slipping back of the Dream images from violence to dream house decor). The double toy flags, the one switching white to black and inverting the blue field to its complementary green, require little interpretation as emblems of the two Americas of race (especially in the light of the words of her mother which begin the piece), and they appear when the text speaks of saying the pledge of allegiance in school and in fact displays the text of the pledge. Here image opposes text, but image can also oppose image, as when the word disobey loads new images into Dream and also My Life: Dream shows a scene from the Selma acts of civil disobedience while My Life shows her father's receiving a military decoration, the fruit of the most literal and explicit obedience. Thus both words and images are capable of expressing ideological illusions but also of critiquing these illusions: neither one is reliably or consistently the truth-teller.

Although there are contradictions aplenty to be found in With Liberty and Justice for All, they are not all laid out at once and thrust in your face, as it were. The cards have been laid out, but most are face down. As we browse and click, we find them and even though we know they have been laid out exactly for us, we still feel we are choosing how we experience them, even though they do seem to have something of a life of their own. That some of the links are words and others are images does not seem to matter very much, as long as we keep turning the cards and making sense of what comes up.

Another memoir, quite similar to Karasic's in general outline but strikingly different in technique, is Colette Gaiter's piece "SPACE/RACE" published in the e-journal Bad Subjects in 1997. 17 Gaiter also uses family snapshots and some of her own collages to evoke growing up Black in the 1960s (in the service) but a reflective, essayistic (and linear) text predominates.

Liz Miller: Moles: a Web Narrative

Figure 1.57
moles.node.net (1999)

To browse the next site, the viewer has to be even more inventive in finding and synthesizing cues. Moles is multi-media self-examination," Liz Miller says, calling it an autobiographical narrative, which is promising a lot for a site that opens with a black screen and seven thumbnail images which align themselves on the left to make up a table of contents. Each of these if touched fills the main window with a large version of itself partitioned into three sections. The central, slender section of each is the clickable part and activates reloading with a bit of narrative text appearing, usually over image and sometimes as a mouse-over with one of the moles. One of the seven strands has some "refresh" auto-loading, but the general mode rewards engagements with the mouse in various ways: the effect is sometimes of sliding panels that the viewer must pull back to read the text behind them, sometimes of painting the screen with the mouse to trigger mouse-overs, and often of touching the moles with the cursor to trigger text or jump to the next screen. The bits of story are there, linked to the moles, waiting to be released.

In case one wonders what an artist does after completing such an intensely self-focused work, Miller's most recent project worked with residents in the Parkville Senior Center in Hartford, Conn. to construct a site showing how their community had changed over the last century. 18

Liz Miller: Moles: the letter

Figure 1.58
Moles: the letter

The seven narrative segments are not in simple chronological order, but do advance a theme of growing up, leaving home, discovering attraction to women, wanting to and finally telling her parents in a letter of her lesbian identification. This screen capture illustrates how this all works as technique and content:

The gray text-over in monospace type can be readily made out as the text of the letter she has been struggling to write. The cursor is touching a mole on her thigh and triggering the appearance of the text on the calf of the leg. This is imagetext and even pushes the notions of text and image beyond the static page or screen into a stream of interchange.

Shelly Jackson: The Body

Figure 1.59
Shelly Jackson: The Body

Moles brings to mind the other quasi-autobiographical site built around the image of the author's body, namely "thebody" which we looked at in the section on maps. Shelly Jackson's site opens with a drawing of her naked body which a imagemap and map of the site, which become a hypertext web of annotations on various parts and features of her body. Most of the other pages have drawings, but the top map is the only image that has link anchors. All of the other anchors in the web are text. Though the body map has boxes drawn around parts of it, it is the unifying center of the site: the text pages are reminiscences about developing body image and sexual attitudes, along with some leg-pulling and blarney.

With Moles, the image of the body is broken into pieces and does not provide the unifying center. Her body does not provide a map for the site, and the site does not appear under a general rubric "a propos my body." Miller observes:

The site has a clinical aesthetic look, typical of autopsy records, x-rays, or other medical procedures that fragment the body as a part of the diagnostic process.

One point she is underlining is that moles such as she has bear watching for signs of dangerous changes, a theme of the piece that even provides its concluding segment, built around a scar on her knee that is the lingering effect of a medical excision of one such mole. But a second sense of self-examination is apposite as well: the piece is housed at two different servers, one of which is contrition.net. contrition.net offers other pieces by Miller as well as a substantial discussion of Catholic doctrine concerning contrition. What unifies Moles is not an image but the narrative of attempting to prevent her sexuality from separating her from her parents. The attempt fails, as her mother cannot respond to her letter disclosing the facts.

Andi Freeman and Doll Yoko: Death of the Zombie Princess

Figure 1.60
Doll Yoko and Andi Freeman, Princess Zombie

The final piece is a fairly small web of about 20 pages, 6 of which are text; several of the remaining images include words and phrases. The images are all imagemaps with one to three hot areas, many of which are eyes, faces, and lips of figures (in one case an ear). There is a sense of physical transgression and violence in the piece, as there is in most of Doll Yoko's pieces, here focused on activating or releasing what the eye sees or lips say (or do, in one case spew or drool) by touching it with your "finger tip." Once you get past poking someone's eye to get another screenful of text or image, you join the game and begin to size up the next screen to guess which spots she has made hot. And, it turns out, a number of the words included in the images are hot (though of course they are not underlined as the link anchors are in the pure text pages). This is discussed further in 5.2.

In his little book on Magritte (1973), Michel Foucault lays it down as axiomatic that images and text, as rival semiotic systems, cannot coexist in a single work; one will try to subdue the other. In this chapter we have certainly seen cases where their difference has been mobilized to make a point, or the tension between them seems to provide a good bit of the pleasure and interest, but this section makes it clear that this difference can also be neutralized or ignored. When word and image become digital and can be marked up as anchors or targets of links, they become functionally quite alike: they become the hot spots or connecting points that connect pages into a network. In turning that way, they turn away from making representations of the world, and hence the different ways they do that is of little concern. Digital words and images have after all a common mode of material existence, and that mode is not one of paint or ink or emulsion, canvas or paper or plastic; it is one on the spinning platters of hard drives and the memory registers of ram; it is those alternations in magnetic polarity and in electrical charge that we represent as strings of 0 and 1.