Cherchez le texte: Proceedings of the ELO 2013 Conference

The Hyperfiction Conduit d’aeration (Air Duct) : the Figures of Reading and Strolling

Lucile Haute
Alexandra Saemmer
Aurélie Herbet

Conduit d’Aération is an hyperfiction for tablet written and designed by a group of artists and researchers with the support of the Laboratoire d’Excellence Arts-H2H and produced in collaboration with Actialuna. It was also presented as a performed installation within two festivals. The creative process and design required a strong conceptualization of the action potential of the hyperlink in a narrative text. It was thought the staging of texts in a participatory installation, anticipating further on the movement of the listeners-spectators. We present in this article both the theoretical issues of hyperfiction and a first feedback.ABSTRACT

KEYWORDS: Hyperfiction - participative installation - hyperlink - narration - reception theory - performance installation

1. Introduction

Conduit d’aération, recently translated in English (Air Duct), is a hyperfiction designed for tablets, which was created by a group of artists-researchers with the support of the Laboratoire d’excellence Arts-H2H. From 2012 to 2015, we were invited to present Conduit d’aération as a performance-installation or as private reading staged, in the context of international festivals. The digital book for iPad (application and ePub) was also presented on these contexts.

The creation/design process of the different versions of this project is based on the theory of the "action potential" (a term borrowed from Iser1) of the hyperlink in a narrative text. For both the "digital book" and the performance-installation, the objective is to anticipate the reason for the listeners-spectators’ shifts from a text to another. In this article, we introduce the theoretical issues of the three versions of the hyperfiction, and the feedback on the two performance-installations that have already taken place.

Since the first experiments with hyperlink in narrative texts in the early ‘90s (see for example afternoon, a story2), hypertext has been associated with fragmentation, non-linearity, the questioning of "traditional" story outlines. On the contrary, in Conduit d’aération we wanted to explore the potential of a hyperlink supporting logical-temporal coherence between several episodes of a story, while offering alternative paths. Therefore, we place the digital book Conduit d’aération in the contemporary movement of "renarrativization3": nevertheless, a few "areas of indeterminacy" are provided for in the logical-temporal structure of the story.

The Conduit d’aération project is part of a "research-creation" approach. This approach is based on the postulate that there is no creation without the reflexivity leading the author to position their project with regards to the existing field. It also questions the potential distance between the creator and their object. As both authors-designers and researchers, we will try in this article to adopt a phenomenological stance shifting from personal involvement, required in the context of creation, to reflexive distance.

A first version of the Conduit d’aération project was presented to the public at the Espace Centquatre, in the context of the Festival Futur en Seine 2012. As we emphasize the narrative nature of Conduit d’aération, it seems important to first give a short overview of the story.

It begins in January 2011, when the body of a young man is found in the air duct of an office building, in Lyon. This building is the head office of a bank. The police report mentions asphyxia by thorax compression. Who was this man? How and why did he fall in this deadly trap? The media have put forth several hypotheses: attempted robbery, vendetta, fit of madness... They have revealed that the young man was of Palestinian origin but that he claimed to be North African, that he had told during a police check that he was an illegal immigrant, although he had papers in order and had been working since his arrival in France. After a few days of investigation, the case was closed.

We have decided to explore some of the hypotheses put forth by the media, while "augmenting" them through a fiction story. Since we found it interesting to analyze the relation between the "great history" and private life, we have focused on this group of people who find themselves rejected when a political regime collapses: the group of people who "adapted" to the former system, that of the collaborators, the "good servants", excluded from the revolutionary movement and now outcasts, inexorably isolated.

While we were interested in this theme because of its universality (the repudiation of the "adapted" can be observed every time a political regime collapses), it seemed impossible "to put ourselves in the skin" of this man who ended up in an air duct. In this way, Mohamed Ahardane is the stranger around whom this hyperfiction revolves. He is the one who does not speak, who does not offer any solution to this mystery. We have chosen our writing system according to this question, this lack of meaning. We gave a voice to the characters surrounding him, who presumably knew or saw Mohamed Ahardane. His sister Sonia lives in Lille and has been married to a French man for several years. His best friend Amine is French and a pro-revolution activist; his grandparents have immigrated from Tunisia. Lia is an art student who is fascinated by anti-establishment movements. She projects a romantic image of the revolutionary onto Mohamed. A policeman questions Mohamed Ahardane as he arrests him for an unpaid train ticket... The circle of characters is wide and allows to define the "mystery" of the air duct in its socio-political and psychological complexity. As for Mohamed Ahardane, he remains "voiceless". The texts surround him like a rebus containing a shifting empty box. This committed stance works in a metonymical way in the various implementations of the project. We have first modeled it in an accessible blog available at <>4; its already hypertextual structure serves as a basis for the digital book application and ePub.

For the two versions of the performance-installation, the spatial layout focused on recorded voices, not on the text. During the first public presentation at Futur en Seine, the reading of these texts was triggered by the interaction of the participants and performers with "electronic book" devices.

These interactive devices were developed on the basis of an existing game which never hit the European market and was provided by our industrial partner Ubisoft. This game consisted of high frequency (HF) radio guns that we appropriated: the features of these guns were put into transparent boxes equipped with control buttons.

Participants would arrive in the dark room where the performance was taking place. A voice would be heard, which would then start to tell the story of Conduit d’aération. By pushing the buttons, each participant in possession of a box could direct a light beam towards another electronic book in the room. By doing so, they would symbolically hand over to another participant: a new voice would be heard, telling the story of Mohamed Ahardane from another point of view.

The possibility of influencing the progress of the story through the manipulation of the box buttons confronted the public with the same crucial choices every reader has to make when faced with hyperlinks: the participants have interrupted a voice and "launched" another, always unaware of what would come next. After the performance, a few participants have expressed their frustration when they would interrupt a particularly "beautiful" or "interesting" voice.

These issues expressed by the participants and collected in an exploratory manner have inspired us to renew the project in 2013. We have decided to further conceptualize the action potentials of the hyperlinks in the narrative text, as well as to re-write and re-script the texts according to the outcomes of these theoretical reflections.

3. Designing a hyperfiction by anticipating the reading practices

Our approach to hyperlink borrows key concepts from the "theory of reception". Wolfgang Iser’s original objective, formulated in his book Der Akt des Lesens5, is to study reading as an individual and social practice of meaning co-building. Reading is driven by the socially shared individual elements constituting the reader’s "horizon of expectation6" on the one hand, and on the other hand the "directories", "strategies7" and forms of the text and device which offer a reception mode in advance. The "directory" of the text contains elements that allow for the setting up of a situation of encounter with the reader: for example, references to historical events (like the Tunisian revolution in Conduit d’aération). The "strategies" of the text link these elements of the directory and outline the conditions of reception of the text.

Like any other text, the digital text resorts to directories and strategies. When it includes a hyperlink, the text displays a readily visible development within the spatial continuity of the screen-page. Moreover, it proposes an activatable development, the volume and content of which can only be "guessed" by the reader. Once activated, the text linked to the hyperlink proposes directories and strategies in its turn. The author can influence the development of these expectations through signs and the selection of words on which to place the hyperlink. The degree of contiguity between two texts linked via a hyperlink depending on the individual and socially shared horizon of expectation allows for the emergence of a satisfying, surprising or disconcerting situation of reception. A great many of these "reading figures" of the hyperlink have already been identified in studies on bodies of works8). In Conduit d’Aération, these typologies have been put to the test and completed.

On the one hand, the author anticipates the reception practices by linking two texts via a hyperlink. On the other hand, the reader approaches this hyperlink with a certain number of expectations (for a list of the imageries of the hyperlink in France9). As authors, we had to take into account the fact that a "presumption of information" regarding the hyperlink is expressed in numerous authors’ and readers’ discourses: most of the time, the reader approaches the hyperlink in the hope of obtaining "factual" information.

Besides, hypertextual reading is often associated with fleeting attention and superficial practices, considered as incompatible with the attention required to read a narrative text "in depth10". For the first theoreticians of the hypertext like George P. Landow11, the hypertext is indeed "inherently" fragmentary, both because of its structure and the practices which it anticipates. In the ‘90s, some authors have yet experimented with the maintenance of temporal and logical coherence in hyperfiction (for example, see Zeit für die Bombe12). In Conduit d’aération, our objective was to further explore the action potential of a hyperlink that would support the logical and temporal coherence of the narrated story in the first place.

The reader may start to explore the digital book Conduit d’aération with a table of contents visually representing almost all the pages. As they proceed with the reading-decoding of a screen-page, they are able to adjust the "zoom" at any time on this interactive table of contents, one of the innovative features developed by publisher Actialuna. The screen-pages included in the table of contents can be "leafed through" with a press-slide gesture. As we arranged the texts of Conduit d’Aération, we made sure that each and every screen-page included a complete micro-episode of the story, told from one of the mentioned points of views.

The "leafing-through" reading thus offers a first possible path through Conduit d’Aération. Most of the screen-pages also include one or two hyperlink(s) that have been placed at the bottom of the page, in order to avoid a dilemma often brought up by readers: choosing between not clicking and carrying on with the reading, or immediately clicking. These hyperlinks prefigure several reading practices that the rhetoric of reception will allow to name.

Figures of "pro-informational" reading

Certain figures of hyperlink reading can be called "pro-informational", because they respond to the "presumption of information" according to which many readers approach the digital text13. In the narrative discourse, the rhetorical mechanisms prefiguring these practices expand the world of fiction by providing the description of a place or details about the historical context, for instance. Some of the hyperlinks in Conduit d’aération give access to documentary material about the Tunisian revolution for example, providing an instructive perspective on the events mentioned by the characters.

Figures of "pro-chronological" reading

In Conduit d’aération, many relations between the texts linked via hyperlink have a temporal action potential. On one of the screen-pages for example, Amine is watching videos which Lia is editing for an "exhibition at the art center". The activation of this hyperlink directly plunges the spectator in the atmosphere of the private viewing. The rhetoric of reception refers to a hyperlink with a "proleptic" action potential. In another episode, Sonia decides to join her brother on the platform. As she realizes that the train has left, she feels like jumping "right now". This indubitably enigmatic sentence gives access to an analepsis recounting a childhood memory illustrating the emotional bond between Mohamed and Ben Ali. Other hyperlinks offer an immediate chronological continuation. All of these relations of contiguity prefigure a reader who is accustomed to the structure of narrative texts, with its chronological continuations, analepses and prolepses, and can be called "figures of pro-chronological reading".

Figures of "pro-topological" reading

Some texts linked to the hyperlinks in Conduit d’aération not only propose time jumps, but also a change in places resulting in the emergence of reading figures which are called "pro-topological" in the rhetoric of reception. As they activate the hyperlink placed on the expression "as if it were yesterday" in an episode told by Mohamed’s sister, readers discover an event that occurred during their childhood in Tunisia, a few years before Mohamed’s departure to France.

Figures of "pro-dialogical" reading

The figures of reading that are called "pro-dialogical" propose to shift focus between two texts linked via a hyperlink and anticipate the reader who agrees to put several points of view into perspective. In the episode dedicated to a pro-revolutionary meeting, told from Amine’s perspective, Amine introduces Mohamed to Lia. The reader has the opportunity to activate a hyperlink on the sentence "Lia smiles and gets going". The linked text puts the reader in Lia’s shoes, who explains the true motives of her artistic work: her grandfather was a collaborator during the Occupation.

It is important to mention another specificity of the tablet version of Conduit d’aération: some of the screen-pages that can be activated via hyperlink do not appear in the table of contents and therefore cannot be leafed-through. In the episode mentioned, the reader has the opportunity to explore one of these "hidden" pages and understand Lia’s personal motives. Leafing through this hidden page then leads the reader to the same page they would have reached, had they not activated the hyperlink, which begins with Amine telling Lia: "You don’t have to tell us all that." For the reader who has activated the hyperlink, this sentence refers to Lia’s family history. For the reader who has just leafed through the text, the sentence certainly means that Amine has had enough of Lia’s soliloquizing about her artistic practices. Such "areas of indeterminacy14" refer to the characteristics of the device and reveal the "constructed" nature of fiction.

4. Experimenting with the spatial layout of hyperfiction

Following our experiment with the performance-installation of Conduit d’aération in 2012, as well as our theoretical reflections and re-writings for the tablet version, we have also re-designed its spatial layout. In the version of February 2013, the hyperfiction is literally set in time and space. We found it important to reflect on the benefits of this new spatial dimension and involvement of the listener-spectator’s body in the exploration and perception of the fiction.

Our postulate is that the action potential of the hypertext which can be explored on the screen can be transposed to space, and that certain issues - for instance that of the crucial choice to activate the hyperlink placed in a text - are passed from a version of our project to the other. The participative stage design that was tried out in the first version of the performance-installation questioned the performative nature of hypertext, the influence of participativity on the shared event, as well as its ritual and plastic aspects. The observations made among the audience have led us to adopt committed stances in the second version, which was presented on February 25th, 2013 at the Palazzo Farnese, in the context of the "Festival of Francophone fiction".

Here is a short description of the new apparatus of the installation: as the audience enters the dark room, the voice of a narrator tells the news item on which Conduit d’aération is based, before giving a first interpretation. Soon, other voices can be heard, alternately coming out of four loudspeakers located in various places in the room. They tell the story of Mohamed Ahardane from several points of view, over a set period of time (30 minutes).

We put forth the theoretical notion of "strolling hypertext" to characterize the apparatus of this second version. Each of the four loudspeakers plays a recorded voice in a linear and predetermined sequence. The exploration of the hyperfiction from various points of view can only be carried out through the listeners-spectators’ strolling in the room.

Influence of participativity on the strolling hypertext

For the first version of the performance-installation, the logical-temporal link between the episodes was compromised by the decision of the participants who were holding "electronic books": since they could interact at any time, by clicking a button on the box, and interrupt a voice in favor of another. In the new version, it is the listener-spectator’s movement in the physical space of the apparatus that conveys the hypertextual "click": the listener-spectator invents and draws their navigation in the hyperfiction by moving between the four loudspeakers.

In the first version, some listeners-spectators were given a "manipulable" box allowing them to participate in the progress of the story. Their interactions would trigger the reading of this or that fragment: in this way, they would make "fatal" decisions for all of the other listeners-spectators in the room who did not have a box. In the second version, the logical-temporal link between the texts was predetermined through the distribution of the voices over the four sound sources. The individual shifting from a point of view to another would not influence the other spectators’ discovery of the story.

Above all, the first version fell within the category of the participative installation: its structure was endogenous. The apparatus would collect the participants’ interactions, via the manipulation of the boxes: these participants would be in plain view, for the manipulable buttons were flashing red lights. Highlighting the interactions would potentially attract the spectators’ attention (participants and non-participants alike), while further focusing it on the participation to the apparatus itself rather than on the fiction.

The second version is closer to a show. It follows from Richard Schechner’s researches15, who insists on the porosity of the stage/profane space and the spectators’ space. Every session was a "time bubble" surrounded by strong markers (opening and closing of the front door of the room, room lights turned off at times, etc.) Lighting played an essential role, emphasizing some moments of the performance, enhanced through short sequences of theatrical play. Light and video projections would "inform" the spectator-listener that something was going to happen, creating "heterotopias16": within these zones which both represented a "here" and "there", the performer was supposed to become a screen onto which certain elements of the fiction would be projected.

Materialization of the crucial choice of hypertext

Contrary to the digital book Conduit d’aération designed for tablets, which will allow the reader to explore the whole textual material, the reception of the story in both versions of the performance-installation remains partial and fragmentary: the listener-spectator must make a crucial choice between the voices and adopt the subjective point of view of a character. When visitors decide to settle in front of a loudspeaker and remain there, they will not perceive anything but whispers coming out of the other loudspeakers, once "theirs" has become silent. They cannot hear those voices distinctly and therefore, they can only guess what the other voices are saying. On the other hand, if they move too fast from a loudspeaker to another, the temporal and logical coherence of the entire story is compromised. The apparatus thus materializes two "possibles" of hypertextual reading: that of inaction, which restricts the reader to the exploration of a single point of view; and that of the frenetic clicking, which potentially results in the lack of contiguity between the proposed materials.

Between these extreme experiences of the installation, there is an array of other possibles. For example, figures of pro-chronological reading, pro-topological reading or pro-dialogical reading can be updated between the different screens: we have anticipated these potentially coherent crossings of the voices of the story, not only during the re-writing of the texts, but also by "embodying" them during the performance sessions, through our own strolling between the loudspeakers. In fact, we have not materialized "clickable words" through visual projections, but we have suggested that the audience move towards another voice, through our own movement as performers, in the most demonstrative way possible. Following some "keywords" in the soundtrack, we would proceed to move, hoping that some of the listeners-spectators would follow us.

Despite this "click-move" proposition, each participant was given the opportunity to invent their own way to occupy the apparatus17: for example, the choice to stay with the same voice throughout the whole performance.

Inventing a spatial form of hypertext

From what we have observed through the videos that were shot during the two performance sessions, some listeners-spectators have adopted a behavior considered as fitting a form that they would identify. They would observe the performers’ attitudes, put themselves in the situation of external spectators and settle in a fixed point. Many participants would then remain in the same place throughout the performance, focusing on a voice and watching the performers stroll alone from a point of view to another. They have adopted the attitude of a traditional theatre-goer, similar to that of a digital medium reader who would not activate any hyperlink.

On the contrary, other visitors would stroll in all directions, listening to parts of the text, already going elsewhere. The presence of performers was no longer acknowledged. The listeners-spectators have adopted an equally frenzied and uninhibited attitude, like a reader who would click on every hyperlink without questioning their motives or the consequences of their interactions. From a heuristic perspective, these observations were interesting: we had indeed presented our project as a "hyperfiction" with a spatial layout, which allowed for the exploration of certain characteristics of the digital text in a perceptible way.

5. Conclusion

We had a story to tell: that of a young man, turned into an inert and forgotten body. We have chosen to tell it in a singular way. The use of participativity is a potential metaphor for the erasure of the subject: Mohamed Ahardane disappears behind the words, intentions and choices of others. The "others" are both the characters of the story and the participants, whether they would simply observe or make the story unfold.

Every technological device raises the issue of the freedom of its readers, spectators and participants18. To what extent are the interactions between the participants and the device predetermined? Is it possible for them to go against the authors’ expectations or against the readers’? Is there a chance that they may favor new forms of experience and interpretations?

Conduit d’aération is characterized by the constant wavering between the possible fulfillment of the reader/listener-spectator’s expectations via figures of temporal and logical coherence, and the esthetics of de-coherence. The latter is induced by the hypertextual reading habits on the one hand, and on the other hand, by certain pre-scripted areas of indeterminacy which challenge and put expectations to the test. In this perspective, we would like this story, in its digital book and performance-installation forms, to become "mediator[s] for floating times", another expression borrowed from Bruno Blanckeman19.


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