Citation: Rock, Joellyn. “FISHNETSTOCKINGS.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 14, 2016. doi:10.20415/hyp/014.f06
Abstract: FISHNETSTOCKINGS is inspired and informed by historical mermaid legends and their myriad literary variants. Across the globe, one discovers mermaid tales clinging like barnacles onto historic seaports, sharing themes of the cross-cultural outsider, economic injustice, environmental imbalance, and gender inequality. The mermaid tale provides a subject of richly mixed signals. A surreal hybrid, the little mermaid's silhouette is an opportunity for both fetishistic objectification and feisty rebellion.
Part illuminated manuscript, part digital sandbox, FISHNETSTOCKINGS offers a participatory space for a playful audience to spin an alt version of an old tale. Digital projections integrate a mash-up of historical references, folk patterns, and story fragments fished from the project twitter feed. In the darkened gallery, a layered mix of digital video, crowd-sourced text, and cutout elements are motion activated. The audience has multiple modes for participation. Physically, they step into the projections and interact with jellyfish, nets, ships, mermaids and other hybrid sea creatures floating through the narrative. Textually, they cast their own words into the twitter net and voice alternative endings to the bad bargains made by little mermaids.
Both cautionary and emboldening, mermaid tales inhabit the blurred boundary between childhood longing and adulthood regret. In variants of the little mermaid tale, we find a story of the passage between worlds. Den lille havfrue, Hans Christian Andersen's sacrificial rite-of-passage story sings out for alternative endings. For the exhibition in Bergen, I wanted to create a new work that would integrate the historic Bryggen wharf and fish market as part of the thematic texture of an interactive installation. I also wanted the work to reference our inland seaport in Duluth Minnesota, where invasive species, climate change, indigenous water rights, and sex trafficking are contemporary issues.
Drawn to the multivalence of fairy tales, it is strategic to ground new work with experimental media in the well worn tale. When asking the audience to contribute, the context of the fairy tale, presumptions and pre-knowledge, provide a starting point for engagement. Passed down from oral and literary traditions to new media, fairy tales are altered by the agenda of the storyteller and the aesthetics of the time. Very old tales have weathered this remediation many times. Duplicated, mistranslated and subverted, the mermaid's tale can be altered significantly but still remain resonant with a contemporary audience. Prying it from the bony fingers of Disney is another story.
In FISHNETSTOCKINGS the story has been simplified, and then amplified. Broken down into 3 short acts, video projections furnish audio-visual prompts for improvised writing. In each section, the audience may add text to the story via Twitter or step into the projection layers and interact physically via Kinect. In #fishnet1, Little Mermaid lives with her family in her underwater palace, longing for a view of the upperworld. In #fishnet2, the mermaid encounters a prince on his ship, their worlds collide, and a stormy shipwreck leads to a rescue. In #fishnet3 we revisit the bargains and choices possible in the tale. Will the mermaid sacrifice her tail, lose her voice, and/or will she reinvent herself in the market?
FISHNETSTOCKINGS builds on previous collaborative experiments that hijack social media to embellish crowd-sourced fictional worlds. Earlier works such as the Sophronia Project (2014) and Netprovs like I Work for the Web (2015) and Grace, Wit & Charm (2012) used Twitter to gather text and aggregate stories. During ELO 2015 in Bergen, writers from near and far fed FISHNETSTOCKINGS. Netprov writers Cathy Podeszwa, Kathleen Roberts, Mark Marino, Jeremy Hight, and others tweeted threads of the tale remotely. Meanwhile, visitors to the gallery installation could use their mobile devices to add text, watching their words flow through the video projections.
FISHNETSTOCKINGS was created by a crew of collaborators. At the University of Minnesota Duluth, several colleagues joined the multimedia project. Graduate student Logan Sales, working with Computer Science Professor Pete Willemsen, created the project's code for text flow and motion interactivity. Sales used Processing 2.2.1, Kinect v2, twitter4j, and the VRPN client built for Java. The VRPN server started by the Flexible Action and Articulated Skeleton Toolkit (FAAST) allowed us to track the movements of users' bodies in 3D space with the Kinect. This data is present in many ways in the project as a method of manipulating various images and animations. Motion + Media Across Disciplines Lab Director, Lisa Fitzpatrick helped test and guide experiments with motion interactivity as the project evolved.
Art & Design Professor, Alison Aune brought her expertise in Scandinavian folk culture, integrating research on Hans Christian Andersen's literary tale Den lille havfrue, and his remarkable paper-cuts. FISHNETSTOCKINGS incorporates paper-cut collage images created by Aune, inspired by Andersen's improvised performance art of live scissor writing. Both analog and digital, bifurcating imagery, like that made by folding and cutting, plays a role in the aesthetics of the work. Duluth textile artist, Kirsten Aune also contributed original abstract patterns and thematic visuals throughout the project, later remixed into the layered videos.
Working in the Motion + Media Across Disciplines Lab (MMADlab), I wanted to create color saturated video projections as backgrounds for the flowing text and interactive cutouts. Dancers and performers, Linnéa Hinkel, Mary Myers, Henriette Söderlind, Theresa Koenig, Kaity Hagen, Rob Wittig, and Cathy Podeszwa improvised story vignettes and background silhouettes in the chromakey studio. Hinkel and Söderlind were even game to don a Mermaid Fun Fin and take a dip in the chilly waters of Lake Superior. Dan Fitzpatrick shot underwater with a Go Pro camera in the campus pool. Layers of live action footage was combined with video of aquarium tanks, vintage mermaid images, paper cuts by Alison Aune, and textiles by Kirsten Aune. Composited and edited in Final Cut, each 5 minute video carries a segment of the tale. For the continuously running installation, multiple versions of each video were remixed. The projections loop and subtly morph to incorporate variations on the story arc. Electronic music for the installation helps establish a hypnotic space, mood shifting with the narrative. Original tracks were created for the project by musicians Tobin Dack and Jay Sivak. Additional soundtrack music came via the curatorial generosity of Bob Duskis at Six Degrees Records. Thanks goes to all the artists and musicians for their playful contributions to this experimental project.