“Found” Art

I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about the use of “found” art, as in re-appropriating images, video, code, etc., in stories.  Obviously, in my case, that means digital fiction, though I don’t really think it’s tied to any one communication genre or medium.  After all, there are plenty of news stories I see that use stock images that either really enhance the piece, or freakishly contrast with it.  It affects the piece, one way or the other.

I also think it’s related, but a bit different, from palimpsest (as defined by Genette).  I recently supervised a fantastic MA dissertation on how everything we create (specifically speaking about creative writers) is palimpsestical: re-envisioning our lives, what we’ve read, what we’ve written.  It may be done on purpose – those intertextual references we love to embed so much – and it may be done entirely subconsciously, but in the end, the idea boils down to that frustrating and yet liberating adage that “nothing is original”.

But with much of what I’m doing, it’s something other than palimpsest, and closer to a one-sided collaboration, a permissive theft almost.  For example, for a visual Flash story that I’m putting together, I simply can’t take all the photos I’d like to use myself.  I’d need models, and sets, and a budget (yeah, right), and frankly, a whole lot of time and travel to collect them all.  It’s beach shots and interiors and transport and aerials and portraits, in addition to composite images of the important details.  So I trawl Creative Commons images for those that come close to what I’ve envisioned in the script.

And here’s where it gets interesting.  If I had unlimited budget and time to put this together, the images would be exactly what I’ve envisioned.  If I wanted a video clip of a little raggedy blond girl staring out the back window of and underground train as it pulled away amidst cycling carnival lights, I could totally set that up somewhere exactly as I’ve storyboarded it.  But I can’t do that.  And so I find images and videos and bits and pieces here and there that come close.  Some of them are compromises – not quite what I’d really want, but I just can’t get anything better without applying for a business loan.

Some of them are magic.  Some of them I never could have imagined on my own, and their art contributes to and influences – and at times, even changes – what I’m creating.  I think of those cheesy driftwood sculptures, where the shape and color and texture of what washes ashore inspires and forms the final artefact; in a way, I’m driftwood sculpting here.  I do an exercise with my writing students sometimes where I give them some photographs as a prompt for a story – I feel like I’m doing this exercise in a little way when I incorporate others’ art into my work.  Even just searching for the right image or clip seems to bring up things that are inspiring or interesting, taking me in different directions, or adding different mood or nuance.

In this way, I’m collaborating on the work before I’ve really even invited collaborators.  These bits of “found” art definitely contribute in a significant manner to the story I’m creating, not just through the actual visual illustration and content of the work, but in the process of creating the work itself.  It’s an implied collaboration, to use the parlance of the literary theorists, but it’s there all the same, and it would be delusional to deny it has an important role to play in the work.

I’ve even wondered, in the case of coding, where this implied collaboration starts to become plagiarism or copyright infringement.  Mostly I think about this when building interactive fictions with Inform, where authors often are very generous in sharing their source code, and there are a finite number of ways to code certain actions.  I know it’s possible to infringe software copyright, so clearly it can be done in these story games as well.  And these are stories – you’re not only possibly “stealing” someone’s software coding (which, granted, they mostly share with you so you can borrow it for your own work), but you could be stealing their story as well, which I would never want to do to another writer.  I acknowledge that different writers can and do do wildly different things with the same tools, but when does my collection of software actions become story…and if I’ve borrowed the coding for those actions largely from someone else’s source code, when does my story infringe upon yours?  When is citing your contribution to my work no longer sufficient?  I don’t really know the answers to these questions, and they may lie in theory and arguments about fan fiction, or about software copyright.  Something I suppose I’ll be looking into.

I’ll be able to discuss these effects more once the pieces in question are finished, particularly with regard to influences on the creative process and the final result.  For now, I just wanted to note this new aspect of my process, and that it’s both changing the process and likely changing the finished piece.

One thought on ““Found” Art

  1. "Some of them are magic. Some of them I never could have imagined on my own, and their art contributes to and influences – and at times, even changes – what I'm creating."

    Magical yes, in so many wonderful and unexpected ways. In the spirit of finding and being found, I've shared a few excerpts from your thoughts today at my blog. Thanks for reflections about ongoing collaborative creations.

    Susan Bourne

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