Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw / Under the Skin

By Donna Leishman

Firstly, thank you Aurelea for the invite to submit a post!
I find the process of fielding questions especially interesting and productive, it almost always allows me to realise and reflect in new ways on my artworks. So I will await with keenness the students insights and questions.

Some background: I came to the field of digital literature in 1999 from the position of a visual artist/ designer. My formative training in illustration grounded an interest in sequential art and literary themes. My work then and today draws on literary subject matters, contains chronological cause and effect, and strongly features protagonists. I am a thematic recycler similar a re-framer of often folkloric motifs – with an aim to renew, revitalises, or debunk, the pre-existing content.

I often start with what I do not want to achieve, rather than what I do – the standard provocative stance of a non-commercial modern artist perhaps. This quote from Pierre Bourdieu (1979) communicates this feeling well:
“In matters of taste, more than anywhere else, all determination is negation; and tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance of the tastes of others.”

Initially I was anti: Generation Flash’s neo-minimalist tendency for abstraction, anti the gaming paradigm of win or lose. I found the latter too simplistic and capitalistic as the way to premise the emergence of a new creative field (digital auteur interactive literary environments). Then anti an elitist aesthetic where the work, imagery and references where highly specialised and culturally insular which to use a semiotic phrase can result in a null condition (Josephs and Valsiner 1998) where there is no tension between certainty and uncertainty, usually because the participant sees the artefact or expression as totally alien and more importantly does not care to find out its meaning.

Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw  is a historical based work of narrative hypermedia that plays with expectations of both narrative and hypermedia. It was ‘born’ within my PhD: Creating Screen-Based Multiple State Environments: Investigating Systems of Confutation, which covers in detail the aesthetic, poetic and narrative choices of the piece.

*It is still opposed to filmic,
*It returns to the same tableaux rather than new destinations,
*It has little variability in its interaction structure,
*It requires re-readings to access all nodes, as there is no route to traverse backwards to key narrative stages.
“In “Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw”, the artist defamiliarizes her previous attention to plot and linearity and focuses more on the unfolding of micro-scenes that never congeal into what we usually call story but operate more as an interactive experiment in moving visual art…”(Mark Amerika 2004).

Interaction, Interface
This project represents my first move towards a more fully distributed characterisation, where the world interface is conceptualised as an extension of the protagonist Christian. In historical documents Christian was described as being between ten and eleven years old. Her youth  is in part represented by the inherent anti-logic of the readers interactions, the literal playfulness, and the imaginative flora and fauna foster all combine to create sense of the child / childishness. The primacy of ‘the child’ invokes the role of reader as adult protector and jars with the yet to be discover historical narrative.

Folkculture, Themes, Non Fiction,
I authored the title to read as: Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw. This was devised both as a thematic indictor and also to highlight the subject matter e.g. ‘Christian’ as a man/boy, ‘Christian’ as woman/girl, or possibly ‘Christian’ as an adjective relating to Christianity. Another reading may link the church to the term ‘deviance’. The term ‘possession’ has connotations of mental illness and/or supernatural acts of foreign control. The project refers to applicable grand narratives such as the Scottish and New England (Salem) witch trails. It also has links to historical horror and pulp archetypes of malevolent or evil children e.g. Damien in the book /film The Omen by Richard Donner in 1976.

The project is intentionally frustrating, reflecting the notion that the events are ‘trapped in history’, trapped in historical texts. The character of Christian cannot be physically helped and I do not present other more positive outcomes. Instead I have designed the project to utilise the reader’s frustration as a springboard in which they realise the horrors and travesty of the ‘real’ story.
The historical account was written by an anonymous author, thus arguably turning the narrative  into a work of un-interpretable fiction as the historical author may or may not have been a first hand witness. The narrative turned fiction is in itself now deviant, allowing for creative closure and personal interpretations. This notion links to the larger argument of society’s belief in history as irrefutable truth. Within this situation a historical distortion is also found within the contemporary ‘living memory’ of Christian Shaw, who is mainly seen as a tainted and manipulative child and not as a heroine of the Church (the view presented at the time of the said events). See: Hugh McLachlan, H.V and Swales, J.W, (2002) The bewitchment of Christian Shaw: a re-assessment of the famous Paisley witchcraft case of 1697, Brown Ferguson (eds.), Twisted Sisters: Women, Crime and Deviance in Scotland since 1400. Question of living memory and ethics.

Through a recent period of reflection I’ve come to realize that I am keenly interested in characterization by which I mean the narrative environment and the psychology of protagonists rather than the full dynamics of the narrative plot / chronology machinery. In creating characterization I used the pictorial communication, the invisible rules of engagement and the structural shape. I am interested in the notion of archetypal protagonists as historically trapped artifacts, fossilised. I often use flawed protagonists who I conceptualize as a double signs, on the initial or quick reading these characters may confirm the participants expectancies but underneath or as the narrative structure chips away they show either multiplicity a self-reflective unease about their adopted persona or occasionally strong subversive themes.

Recent research has me thinking about the position of a de-powered participant/reader in digital literature (I would argue the normal position) and how you as an author can sustain interest and commitment in such an exchange. Part for this concern is the particular qualities that a visual environment and audio can offer in enticing a reader in a ‘difficult’ text…

Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw, online October 2004 – Pres.

Deviant has been exhibited as installation:
Aug – Sept 2008  ALT-W Retrospective, Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw (Installation), Centre for Contemporary Art Glasgow Scotland. Alt-w: New Directions in Scottish Digital Culture,

Feb – Mar 2005
Scottish Show Comes Home, group show, The Lighthouse, 70 Mitchell Street, Glasgow.

April – Sept 2004      The Bloody Chamber & Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw (Work In Progress) The Scottish Show supported by The Lighthouse & the Scottish Executive, DesignersBlock , New Oxford Street London, also , Studio Zeta, Via Friuli, Milan.

Critiqued in
May 2008     The Aesthetic of Dissonance in
Electronic Literature Organisation: Visionary Landscapes Conference. Vancouver USA.

2008 forthcoming
Will Internet Art Ever Grow Up? Essay in Cross Media Communications: an Introduction to the Art of Creating Integrated Media Experiences. New York: Delmar Cengage Learning

April 2007
Harnessing Disorder and Disaster in Reponsive Narrative Systems. EDA2007 7th International Conference of The Design Academy, Izmir University of Economics, Turkey. 3650 words paper [undelivered due to bereavement]

Spring 2007
TIRWEB Vol 9. No1 Multimodal writing. Online publication specialising in electronic literature and experimental writing.

Oct 2004
Textual Play: Woman’s Work In Literary Hypermedia. Presented by Strickland & Luesebrink, virtual content collaboration. Society for Literature & Social Science Annual meeting, Duke University, USA



Filed under Event, Talk

2 responses to “Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw / Under the Skin

  1. OMG that is great! I adore your work! Guess I am not as up-to-date as your regular readers! I swear I have fallen in love with your blog… Terrific writing! You’re an outstanding and talented person, keep up the individuality 🙂

  2. Lori Gilchrist

    Christian is (was) in my family and she is named after her mother Christian Gilchrist.

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