Collective Narrative

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Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, Hole-In-Space: A Public Communications Sculpture, 1980.

Narrativity takes on new meaning and form in networked practices, through collaborative, many-to-many systems of writing, media-making, and other forms of online expression. In connection with open source thinking, the collective narrative is a sharing and open exchange of conversation, ideas, information, and media that leads to a synthesis of voices: forming a common thread among peers.

Collective narrative can also be traced back to 20th century avant-garde movements in which social interaction was integral to the invention of new forms of artistic expression. One of the best known examples would be the Surrealist game: Exquisite Corpse (exquisite cadaver), in which a group of artists would compose words or images collectively using pre-determined rules to construct a composited work that is the summation of each artist’s contribution.

The Happenings and performance art of the 1960s, a seminal emergence of audience participation, provides another model for the collective narrative. Performance artists including Allan Kaprow and Yoko Ono created participatory works according to rules or guidelines. In Cut Piece (1964), Ono required that audience members take a scissors to the artist’s clothing until she was stripped bare: a radical critique of the role and treatment of women in society, in which the collective interaction on the part of the audience produces a powerful narrative of control, invasion, and exposure.

Works such as Cut Piece precede later examples of networked media art that involve not only audience participation, but many-to-many interaction between viewers. One of the most significant early works from the 1980s was Kit Galloway & Sherrie Rabinowitz‘ “Hole in Space.” This telematic artwork incorporated viewer participation by connecting audience members via satellite linkup between New York and Los Angeles, distributing the work over a 3000 mile distance. Participants engaged one another in spontaneous interactions, charades, conversation, and even proposals of marriage. This form of social engagement through the collapse of the local and remote into a networked space or “third space,” can be traced back to Allan Kaprow’s notions of the Happening encouraging simultaneous actions in disparate locations, an idea now revisited through live telecommunications.

In the 1990s, the World Wide Web advanced the many-to-many paradigm of multi-user interaction much further, in which there were new, previously unimaginable opportunities for collective narrative. One of the seminal examples would be Douglas Davis’ 1994 “World’s Longest Collaborative Sentence,” an open source invitation to an online audience to collectively author a single run-on sentence in the telematic writing space of the Web, just one year after its public launch. Another work by Jenny Holzer, the 1997 “Please Change Beliefs,” invited viewers to remix the artist’s well-known “truisms,” aphoristic commentary on society and politics. By engaging a worldwide audience to edit the truisms stored in an online database, the work suggested that there was no longer such thing as a singular interpretation of truth in the age of the global network.

In the 2000s, with the emergence of blogging and social media, the idea of collective narrative has become nearly ubiquitous. The advent of database technologies such as the metadata of hashtags has catalyzed collective utterances with a speed and urgency that is now known as “trending.” Such platforms as Twitter, an entirely public telematic writing space, has encouraged collective forms of narrative on a mass scale. While this may not be thought of as traditional narrative, social media sharing and asynchronous dialogue constitutes a form of narrative that is compressed, often playful, and multi-threaded. There is clearly a connection between the early forms of spontaneous invention found in the work of Douglas Davis, for example, and the collectively-inspired free-form exchanges that take place in Twitter or Facebook.

The possibilities of peer-to-peer authoring of the collective narrative is now native to our writing tools, such as Google Docs, Microsoft Word, and WordPress, in which multiple authors can co-author and collaborate on writing projects, often in real-time. This dramatically alters the act of writing and narrative, from the singular activity of a very personal form of individual expression, to a collective activity that is highly collaborative: all publishable instantaneously to a global audience.

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