Incremental Experiments: An Interview with New Media Artist Peggy Nelson

By Emma Alvarez Gibson

We may claim to be only “looking stuff up,” but our obsessive approach to online experience partakes less of the reference librarian and more of the fortune teller. [Peggy Nelson]

As one does, I followed Peggy Nelson’s Ernest Shackleton Twitter account on the recommendation of an online friend. (Antarctic exploration being a longtime obsession for me, it’s always a thrill to find someone I’ve not yet bored to tears on the topic.) Charmed by the idea that someone so admired the story of Shackleton’s ill-fated ship, The Endurance, that she would retell it 140 characters at a time, I did a bit of internet research and found that this Antarctic-themed Twitter account was (oh, forgive me) just the tip of the iceberg.

Nelson’s theories and explorations are deceptively simple at first glance. But be warned: excessive consideration of these ideas can lead to the feeling that one’s brain is folding in on itself in an effort to keep up.

How do you describe your work?

I am a new media artist, in that I work with social media spaces to make art and tell stories. Generally, my themes investigate virtual spaces, the performance of identity, our media-saturated lives, and what we can, or should, make of fragmentation and interruption.

What led you to create this type of art?

I have an M.F.A. in painting and drawing from CCAC in Oakland, CA, so I have a traditional fine-arts background. But even with paintings, I was always trying to escape a single frame of reference. In grad school, I turned to large-scale collage and panoramic-type work (series of wall-sized works that would surround a space) so that the viewing experience was undermined and fragmented even as it became larger and more immersive. I’m more interested in how art can respond to culture and reveal things about it than in any particular medium or mode of representation.

About 10 years ago I had done the set design for an opera at Burning Man, “DJCS” (a rave version of Jesus Christ Superstar), and afterwards I wondered how I could follow that up. How could I make something big enough that wouldn’t blow down in a windstorm, that would be relevant to an outdoor, desert, carnival-type experience? Paintings didn’t seem to fit the bill. Then I realized I could paint with sound. A few sounds can cover a large space even with a lot of gaps: by positioning nodes here and there, a web is formed. So I wrote and recorded “The Audio Tour” (2006), a set of narrative fragments that people could shuffle while they wandered around, “distributing” the nodes, while their eyes made connections with what they were seeing in the landscape. Not only what entry they listened to, but where they listened to it, was chosen by them at random. The Audio Tour is a tech accessory to the Fluxus practice of psychogeography, a guide for a truly wandering dérive. I’ve done a similar one with QR codes and cellphones, about real and fictional Bostons (“Web021…”; 2007), and am creating a new one for GPS-enabled alerts that could be programmed for many different locations. All of these mix fiction and non-fiction, just as the thoughts in our heads do while walking around.

Anything in a sequence or a set starts to create a story, and from collage and working in series, my work has become more overtly narrative. I do more writing and am more of a storyteller now, and am more interested in humor and entertainment. I’ve made a number of short films, including “Filmstrip” (2005), which was shown at SXSW in 2006. With the advent of social networking and especially Twitter, I saw a space that I could manipulate artistically, in ways that were very similar to how people were using it in their real lives. In a sense, every Twitter account (and, I would argue, every mediated communication, even email or letters — remember letters?) is a character, a “performance,” even if that performance is “me” or “you.” So I create accounts for various characters, often real ones from history who had interesting lives, and Tweet from their perspectives. I use a combination of primary sources and mix it up with contemporary links, such as YouTube videos and my own historical fiction.

What is it about the marriage of art and technology that fascinates you?

My interest in technology is not the technology per se, but in how we are using it. Specifically, I am fascinated by technologies of communications and surveillance, how we’re trying to connect, what we’re trying to reveal, and also how we’re disguising ourselves.

Artists have always been interested in new technologies, from charcoal on cave walls to oil paintings to film and computers. New technologies can give us a different perspective on how we’re struggling to create meaning, what kind of assumptions we’re basing our actions upon, and what kind of room we might have to maneuver with any of that.

Our current communications technologies — texting, Facebooking, Flickr, Twitter, to name just a few — are all ways we are trying to connect, even as they fragment the experience. And what I see happening is performance, as people try out different ways of presenting themselves, and different ways of interacting. It is playful but it’s not necessarily just playing around; social media use in more politically-restricted countries has shown how the freedom to experiment virtually might lead to more freedom in reality. It’s not a straight path or a guarantee, but there is a connection.

Often, laughter reveals a disconnect somewhere. We’re sailing along on a narrative, and then there’s a gap, and the story falls into a instant hole, or mistakes a rock wall for a painted tunnel, or takes a 90-degree turn into a different perspective. That’s when we laugh. I’m very interested in how comedy and humor can reveal these gaps, and what that further reveals about the solidity of any particular landscape or framework.

For example, with “The Cones Project” (2009), I used the idea of people using orange traffic cones to reserve parking spots in the winter, and took a cone all over town, to bus-stops, bars, a public restroom, the couch, to “reserve my spot.” It was a performance and photo-essay that then became a Flickr-maps mashup. There is a real issue that underlies it, the ongoing negotiation of the private uses of public space, but my project also highlights the absurdity inherent within the concept of ownership. When we laugh, we’re bridging an ontological gap, and with bridges come additional options.

Finally, my day job is in web and experience design, and so I am using image software, HTML, and social networking applications constantly for work. I can’t help thinking about how anything I use frequently might be turned to artistic purposes, might be thought of as, in some sense, art materials.

What I do with art and also my essays comes out of an everyday use of new technologies; it comes out of an experience. It’s not that I make things up and try to argue for them, it’s that I experience things, and observe how other people are experiencing them, and try to make sense of them.

We’re constantly online, constantly connected, constantly interrupted, and constantly distracted. The space and time required of us by traditional artworks is in very short supply. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t have time for art, or that art is only relevant to an earlier time. What appeals to me about my Twitter projects, specifically, is that they fit into a few seconds a day, when you’re checking in on a space you’re using anyway. You don’t need to make a special trip to a museum or gallery, and you don’t need several hours to do so, either. You can experience this art in tiny increments, at the store, waiting for the train, catching up on email, working on a Powerpoint. But paradoxically, these tiny increments might allow you to work on a much larger or longer-term scale than before. “In Search of Adele H” took about 10 months; “Shackleton” will take almost 2 years. When you start thinking of space in terms of time, whole worlds of experience open up.

Tell me about your most recent projects.

In 2011 I debuted “Scryberspace”, which is an online search oracle. “Scryberspace” plays with the sense of occult anticipation that we bring to even our everyday computer use. To scry is to search, and to interpret the signs. And to scribe is what much of our online interaction is literally composed of: we write blog posts, email, and the code that displays, encrypts and sends everything. The character behind “Scryberspace,” “John Dee,” was named after Queen Elizabeth I’s court astrologer. Online John Dee is us, collectively, filtered through the virtual spaces we have literally written into being.

We imbue the unknown with mystery, and if anything is large enough not to be seen or experienced all at once, it becomes mysterious. This is true even for man-made spaces, like the internet. We may claim to be only “looking stuff up,” but our obsessive approach to online experience partakes less of the reference librarian and more of the fortune teller.

John Dee “answers” questions with short videos or sound-pieces, sourced from public web content. The ambiguity in art is here used both to echo the ambiguity in occult predictions, and to to try to answer the question someone might “really” be asking.

In 2009, I created my first Twitter narrative, “In Search of Adele H,” which was a Twitter account that blogged from the perspective of the real Adele Hugo, Victor Hugo’s youngest daughter. I called it a “Twitter movie” in the style of Fluxus, in which the “movie” happens in scenes in your head, as you read the tweets. The real Adele (1830-1915) lived a fantasy life that she tried to write into being. When I resurrected her on Twitter, Adele confronted her new existence as a cyber-entity, which turned out to be oddly similar to her 19th century existence, in ways that were both absurd and excruciatingly familiar. Cyber-Adele felt free to use 20th century media snippets to help journal her story and emotions.

Adele concluded in 2010, and in 2011 I began “Shackleton,” a new Twitter narrative, where I am blogging from the perspective of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton as he proceeds on his doomed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1917.

I also have an ongoing series of conceptual merit badges, begun in 2010, which are embroidered “scout” badges that you can earn for completing virtual tasks, inspired by the virtual badges people earn on apps like Facebook and 4sq. Our lives have had virtual reality since the debut of language and imagery; really, since the first time we started to use our imaginations. The badges commemorate the virtual in physical space.

Why Shackleton?

The story of Edwardian Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and his ship The Endurance is one full of so many narrow escapes, near-misses, death-defying feats, and unbelievable events that it almost defies telling.

After The Endurance was crushed by pack ice off Antarctica in 1915, stranding his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition beyond hope of radio or rescue, Shackleton led twenty-seven men on a nearly two-year journey across shifting ice floes, treacherous oceans, and uninhabited island edges, culminating not only in a near-suicidal 800-mile lifeboat journey across the roughest seas in the world, but an impromptu, inexperienced and unequipped traverse of an uncharted and glacier-ridden mountain range. Yet Shackleton survived, and more than that, he returned everyone under his care alive.

It’s a story that’s almost too incredible. Every movie and almost every book and chronicle of the adventure has left out significant events in order to construct a believable narrative. In part, this is due to time compression. The several hours of a film, or the several weeks of a book, only have so much room before the viewer or reader begins to suffer from that plague of the picaresque, novelty fatigue. Once novelty fatigue sets in, the adventure ceases to impress, or to cohere. There are simply “too many notes.”

A number of day jobs ago, I worked for the director of a museum of natural history, whose hobby it was to collect books on polar exploration. Occasionally, I would be asked to track down one of these books, and one day I asked, “What kind of a hobby is that, anyway? What’s so great about polar exploration?” In answer, I received a raised eyebrow.

But several days later, I came in to a book left on my chair. It was Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing (1959), an account of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17. I felt obligated to actually read the thing, so I took it home and took it up — and didn’t put it down until I finished. The adventure it told was so incredible, so action-packed, so unbelievable in fact, that I could not stop reading until I made it to the very end. Lansing had been able to interview many of the survivors and had combed through detailed diaries of others (the diaries Shackleton had insisted they all keep during their long ordeal). After that, I was hooked on Shackleton’s amazing adventure, his failure and his triumph.

After my first Twitter narrative, “In Search of Adele H,” concluded in 2010, I decided “Shackleton” would be next. Twitter presented an interesting possible solution to the problem of “too many notes.” Telling a story in tweets takes at most few minutes a day, for a number of months, and any fallen disbelief can be restrung in the hours in-between. And although each tweet is short, they accumulate, and in accumulation can combine to form complex characters — or almost unbelievable adventures.

There’s something universal about adventure stories. By seeing how far we can — or should — go, extreme explorers help define what it means to be human for all of us, even armchair travelers.

What would be your dream project in this genre?

That’s a great question! I’m not sure, but one idea might be to pursue a large-scale, multimedia intervention of public advertising spaces, so that a message, a fragment, flickers into view when you approach, and multiple messages aggregate into a coherent story or collection of stories, once you see enough of them. A kind of updated “They Live,” perhaps, including text but not limited to it. We do have the technology for Minority Report-style personalized-in-public messaging, both passive in the form of QR codes in the corner, and active, in the form of a digital display changing when you approach, although it’s not implemented widely. But most non-graffiti messaging in public spaces is used to sell us stuff. I’d like to see those spaces hacked for creativity and real stories, not just the perpetuation of false desires; I’d like to try to un-enclose public virtual spaces.

What’s next for you?

My next two projects take a step out into physical space, and involve more installation and sculptural elements, along with computers in the background to run things. I shouldn’t say too much about them except that they both use motion sensors and either video or audio loops to play with art and media history in an interactive and funny way. I am hoping the experience of each, or both, will make people laugh out loud. I’ll need to do some “user-testing” for laughter! These pieces will both require additional funding, so I’m in the process of applying for grants now.

I’m working on a new short film, which looks at body language in historical beauty pageants.

And I’m thinking about possible afterlives for some of my virtual projects. “Shackleton” will be re-visioned for a day-for-day virtual reenactment starting in 2014, the 100-year anniversary of the expedition.

How can we keep track of what you’re up to?

My portfolio website is I am Arts Editor at HiLoBrow, where I blog regularly about art and the virtual life. Day-to-day, keep up with me on Twitter, where I am @otolythe. Fair warning: I do use the account as my voice, but I am also very interested in experiments going on in the space, so often my tweetstream can be very “Dada.”




Emma is a cheerfully obsessive writer, editor and creative gun-for-hire.  She’s had a hand in all types of media, at every step in the process. Jack Move is her fifth from-scratch magazine. (Clearly, this has become A Thing.) She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son. Follow her on Twitter (@ealvarezgibson) and find out more at

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