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wayne dunkley : double vision
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Double Vision
The story sharing art of Wayne Dunkley
by Ian Samuels

The encounter with online interactive artworks often puts me in mind of two contrasting (though not necessarily opposed) visions proposed for the Internet. At its most interesting, this "double vision" can create fruitful tensions that make for fascinating, multi-layered art projects; works in which both visions of the medium - one concerned with community and technology, the other with aesthetics - inhabit each other in the same moment. A survey of the story sharing projects of Toronto-based new media artist Wayne Dunkley has brought this concept vividly to mind again, and I'm hoping it will bring some illumination to a discussion of his work.

The Concept
First I'd like to clarify my thinking about "visions" of online art.

For those interested in the cultural implications of technology, networks have long seemed to hold a powerful promise of social connectivity. In its extreme form, the argument that bandwidth would unite humanity - "connecting" people and surmounting old ills of intolerance, racism and alienation by spreading knowledge about the Other's views - developed into a kind of messianic notion of the Net as the end (or the beginning of the end) of a history of strife. This was the stuff, we might say, of a not-so-distant (but now fading) Age of Digitopian Innocence. In a more modest form, however, the argument that the Net might provide unique ways for people to interact is still in force. It is impossible to ignore the myriad options that technology offers us - to participate, to discuss, to exchange views (both good and bad), and to interact with texts and works of art in less unidirectional producer-and-consumer relationships. This is what I'll refer to as the First Vision.

It may also be argued that practical reality skews toward networks that actually fuel - or force us to face - alienation. The Internet by its nature has a way of pointing up the limits of traditional modes of narrative, of throwing us into the deep waters of information immersion with no guidelines, no map, no pre-set strategy or destination, and no purpose. This is a frightening thing for some, but also a reality with hopeful connotations of myriad possibilities. Just as nonlinear notions of society and progress have gained ground in historical scholarship and cultural studies during recent years, so too has online art often made nonlinear composition one of its central concerns. This has enabled artistic projects that deliberately play on the moral, aesthetic and intellectual problems that face people trying to "interface" or "connect" through technology, and which make it clear that the process is far from simple. That goal is what I'll call the Second Vision.

The Context
Each of these Visions are active in the commitments and discourses of two of Wayne Dunkley's major artistic influences.

Let's begin with Jean Vanier, whose avowed goal as the founder of l'Arche - an international network for persons with intellectual disabilities - is "the liberation of the human heart from the tentacles of chaos and loneliness, and from those fears that provoke us to exclude and reject others." Were he an Internet artist, M. Vanier might be called an apostle for the First Vision. As he is not, his ideas might best be thought of as the First Vision in analog format. Vanier's is a strongly religious commitment to community that has its roots in the most populist and inclusive traditions of Christianity. The principles laid out in his book Becoming Human (House of Anansi Press: 1998; originally conceived for the CBC's 1998 Massey Lectures ) - that all people are sacred; that maturity lies in working together; that choice (and responsibility for one's own life and the lives of others) is key; that reflection on truth and meaning is a necessity - can in many ways be seen informing Dunkley's online projects.

The idea of online story sharing - an approach to interactivity and community-building which invites online participants to contribute stories about their own experiences related to a given subject - is also present in many of Dunkley's projects. This is likewise the central factor in two works by Canadian expatriate Margot Lovejoy. Parthenia (1996) - an extension of her 1995 gallery installation of the same name - was dedicated to healing the wounds of domestic violence, while her more recent TURNS (2001) project (still active online at www.myturningpoint.com) invites Web visitors to share stories of major "turning points" in their lives. TURNS bears several striking similarities to Dunkley's work, and seems conditioned by the same goals: a vision almost of art as the facilitation of a common history or consciousness, the creation of an interactive context that makes reflection - on one's own experiences and those of others - both possible and necessary.

Lovejoy's work reveals the possibility of a "doubling" of the two Visions. TURNS allows its readers to post, unedited, stories about transformative experiences in their lives, and provides an application for building "life maps" that visualize those stories. Interactive projects that encourage participation and intervention from the viewer do of course extend back to a time well before the Internet came into its own. But interactivity on the level of TURNS, wherein viewers provide the very textual content that the project revolves around, push us even further outside the traditional humanistic view of the artist as "producer" of an aesthetic, and the viewer or reader as "receiver". Here Lovejoy provides a framework, an interface, a starting point - but nothing more. It is the audience who, through this interface, gains the opportunity to furnish narratives of their own lives, and to access those of others. As a result of that opportunity, the TURNS participant must come face to face with the problems and questions of representation: in particular, the matter of how far the "stories" they are viewing can be trusted as authentic - or whether these stories even need to be authentic.

Degradation, Removal, Longing, Suspension
My first encounter with Wayne Dunkley's work was the award-winning Web project www.sharemyworld.net (2001), subtitled The Degradation and Removal of the/a Black Male. From its beginnings, the roots of this project lay in the idea of inviting shared perspectives to emerge through public participation. A series of street posters were distributed in Toronto, featuring the artist's face and a kind of "comments space" below it, which encouraged passers-by to fill in blanks reading "the ______" or "a ______". The online component of the project (still accessible on the Web) began with a photographic documentation of the ultimate fate of these posters (defacements and graffiti), and an interactive design structured to gradually reveal text stories culled from Dunkley's personal experiences with racism and alienation. Site visitors were then encouraged to email Dunkley with their own anecdotal experiences in response. These anecdotes were gradually added to the site by the artist - first as animated interactives, and later in journal format.

Degradation and Removal adopted an approach to shared storytelling quite different from Lovejoy's TURNS. It brought the artist into something of an editor's role, Dunkley working to shape the submitted stories, searching for the core of their narratives in a process similar to the way in which sculptors "find" a figure in a block of stone. The results were compiled in an elegant online setting, carefully crafted to provide visitors with an accessible venue for engaging the work. Indeed, Dunkley's aesthetics of text and image appear to have been governed in important ways by the need to create a Web site that would function as a space for interaction. His approach to selecting stories reflected a similar concern for inclusiveness across social boundaries. It worked to emphasize that problems arising from notions of "race" are multi-sided, that they extend beyond the experience of visible minorities, affecting everyone in the involved society.

As such, Degradation and Removal is an excellent example of the First Vision in action - it is heavily occupied with connectivity. But in the act of connecting, and filtering connections and stories through Dunkley's aesthetic, much of the project also necessarily engages a nonlinear format as a fundamental element of its composition. Though there is guidance aplenty, there is no absolute order to be followed, no final message or summary moral to be delivered. The nonlinear framework that allows the First Vision to emerge so clearly also inescapably brings the Second Vision into play.

This same fascinating tension carries over into FEEL: the longing for home, a collaborative project guided by Dunkley's artistic vision which went live in mid-February on HorizonZero. This time, Dunkley's search for core elements of the human experience inspired him to make poetry the initial seed of the project.

the longing for home, like Degradation and Removal, provides a story-sharing space, a context for connection. In many ways, it is a context that feels more carefully minimal, elegant and concise, despite impressive graphical and animated elements. (My favourite is a screen featuring a night skyline: the moon tracks over the blackness and illuminates Dunkley's poem like a searchlight.) This is a space that welcomes us with subtle ambient music (or sometimes sound existing just on the edge of what most people think of as music). Yet, as an online artefact to be navigated, its nonlinearity is more pronounced than Degradation's. The provision of interactive devices (almost games) for the visitor to explore is more extensive. The Second Vision is intensified here. But, as a result, the First Vision - that of a space that draws the viewer in and almost compels them to share - intensifies also.

Interacting with the longing for home made me anticipate Dunkley's forthcoming project, Diaries of Suspension, all the more. According to the artist, it will bring together a series of interviews about the sense of dislocation that immigrants often experience - the feeling of being "suspended" between two places, cultures and realities. These interviews will appear as a set of cross-referenced stories; it will be possible for the viewer to slip from one story to another at points where both resonate with the same themes. The project will play with accepted notions of "whose story is whose". And like all of Dunkley's work, Diaries will emphasize the commonality of the experiences it discusses, moving beyond traditional frames of thought and resonance.

If the progression of his work thus far offers any indication, Wayne Dunkley's designs for shared spaces will continue to grow more compelling, and his mobilization of the Two Visions more challenging and instructive. The expansion of these spaces may continue to offer a hopeful "double vision" of how the Internet can be used to explore some of the most painful and difficult territories of human experience. It will be interesting to see where he goes next.

Ian Samuels is a writer who lives and works in Calgary. His work has appeared in periodicals including dANDelion, Open Letter and The Capilano Review, and has been anthologized in Side/Lines: A New Canadian Poetics (Insomniac Press: 2002). His first book of poems was Cabra (Red Deer Press: 2000), and he has recently completed a second.


Wayne Dunkley

Margot Lovejoy



Vanier: Becoming Human


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