Decentralizing Peggy

By: Joshua Glenn
February 14, 2010

The Nieman Storyboard is a cool project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard; it’s a website that features the best examples of print, visual, audio, and multimedia narrative reporting. NS’s focus is on how storytelling and long-form narratives might be evolving. So who better to interview, late last week, than HILOBROW’s friend, one-time Artist in Residence, and regular contributor Peggy Nelson?

As our readers already know, Nelson has intrepidly charted the possibilities of decentralized, episodic storytelling with her Twitter projects @adelehugo and @enoch_soames, not to mention with her augmented-reality walking tours. Here’s an excerpt from the Nieman Storyboard Q&A:

NEIMAN STORYBOARD: You’ve worked on stories in just about every medium — even PowerPoint. How do you think about the idea of story?

PEGGY NELSON: I’ve always been a lover of anecdote and telling a good tale at a cocktail party or family Thanksgiving. I’m attentive to oral tradition, making that as good as it can be. But that feeds into the fact that I’m the kind of person who walks around, and in my head, I’m captioning things. I see a funny thing, and I come up with a one-liner to describe it.

If I had worked at a newspaper back in the day, my ideal job would have been to write the comments under the pictures. I don’t know if it even was a separate job, but I would have been a caption writer. So these two strains appear in my life and my personality: the raconteur/tale-teller and the captioning person. The reason I’m drawn to experimental storytelling is that it brings those two things together.

The augmented reality stuff and the Twitter stuff, and the PowerPoint, and the animation that I did at SXSW in 2006, which was an old-style slide show — those are all telling stories in a list of captions or sentences. I find that appeals to me when I do it in these media, but I don’t want to read a book that’s all lists.

I know some authors do that quite well. But for myself, I’d rather use all this other stuff than just see a list printed on a page. I guess because I want to play with the rhythm. There’s a strong comic strain in my work, and comedy is often very dependent on the pauses you take. Maybe that’s the appeal to me — but then also I’m attracted to what’s new.

NEIMAN STORYBOARD: Tell me a little about the two Twitter feeds.

PEGGY NELSON: @adelehugo is what I’m calling a Twitter movie, but it could also a Twitter novel or a re-enactment. It’s based on a true story. Adele Hugo was the youngest daughter of Victor Hugo and was also a very talented writer and musician, very popular, and a proto-feminist. At a crucial point in her mid- 20s, she met a guy who was a kind of a player, and she really fell for him, and she never lost that obsession that he was the one. She spent the rest of her life hatching these very creative, elaborate schemes to get him back.

She essentially lived a very virtual life. So I thought I’d bring her back to the 21st century and see how she fares here. My idea was that I would open a Twitter account in her name and essentially tell her story from her point of view, as if she was Twittering it. I expected the project to go for about a year, and it looks on track to do that.

NEIMAN STORYBOARD: What about @enoch_soames?

PEGGY NELSON: Adele Hugo is “history” history. Enoch Soames is kind of intellectual history. He was a character in a short story written in 1919 by Max Beerbohm, in which Max Beerbohm is also a character in the story. He meets this guy Enoch Soames. Enoch is upset because he’s a writer and no one is paying attention to him — he thinks he’s a genius, and he’s not recognized. A lot of the famous people of the day are woven into the story as ignoring Enoch.

Enoch decides that he’s going to make a deal with the devil. He’s going to go 100 years into the future, read all about himself in the reference materials at the British Library. He’ll get that five minutes of satisfaction that people are paying attention. He makes the deal, and off he goes. He comes back, and just before the devil whisks him off, he says that he’s very upset with Max because the only reference to himself that he found in the British Library was as a character in a fictional short story written by a guy named Max Beerbohm.

So I thought I’d bring Enoch back as a Twitter character, and that way he gets a little more reality than he had before. He was a real fictional character, and now he’s going to be a real virtual character. He’s kind of an ongoing project. He’s going to tell his story, but he might continue on. Whereas Adele is going to finish her story and then she’ll be done.

NEIMAN STORYBOARD: Most newspaper and magazine readers are comfortable with narratives that follow a very traditional path. In my head, it’s kind of a 19th century construct: a print piece with a classic, chronological, single major narrative arc — I’m generalizing here. Your work seems to take that apart, blowing up that traditional narrative. Do you worry about readers or viewers being able to follow the narrative? Do you worry about accessibility?

PEGGY NELSON: That’s been something that we’ve been talking about a lot in my artistic circle. I have not solved the problem for myself. I wonder how much to explain, and how to get people to really follow it. There’s a lot to be said for the traditional 19th-century narrative, and I enjoy that as well. I don’t see my work as trying to replace that, I see it more as accompanying that for the new media.

When I joined Twitter, I realized that the people who use it are checking it pretty consistently throughout the day. So I want to make an art project specifically for this medium that these people are checking anyway. I wasn’t thinking, “Okay, no one is reading The Atlantic anymore, so I’m going to substitute with something like this.” I was thinking, “Okay, people are using this a lot. It’s creeping up to be a bigger part of their day and more of what they’re thinking about.”

So I want to put art in there as well, so they’re not just getting another link to BoingBoing. To make a scripted narrative for this space. So in a way, it’s kind of shoehorning the 19th century story idea into the new medium, one in which people are so fractured and they only have 15 seconds to look at something anyway.

Accessibility is a challenge, and I’m going to continue to work on that issue. When Adele is done, my next Twitter project involves a pretty well-known story that I hope will be another step toward comprehension and also people enjoying it. I want them to enjoy the experience itself and not just say “Well, it’s an intellectual project, and isn’t that interesting.”

The complete interview | Posts by Peggy Nelson at HILOBROW | Peggy Nelson homepage