Tag Archives: Donna Leishman

The Cheery, Eerie World of Christian

leishman__deviant_the_possession_of_christian_shawDeviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw, is the electronic literature piece I have chosen  from the ELC1 to review this week. Deviant is a visual narrative, a with story with no words or voices, simply an interactive animated story. It recreates the true story of an 11 year old girl in 1696 Scotland who was believed (at that time at least) to have become possessed by evil spirits. She blamed up to twenty local townsfolk for her possession, accusing them of being witches; an investigation was held and seven were found guilty. One of the men killed himself in jail, the other three women and three men were strangled, their bodies burned. It is now generally thought that Christian was most likely manipulated by the local priest and doctor.

Donna Leishman’s Deviant is as strange as the story of Christian Shaw. The story starts with an upside down tree. When reader clicks it an odd little town appears. There are four large buildings, a treed area with a lake, a church and a small house on the left, apart from the rest of the town, as well a large hill in the foreground. One of the trees has a ladder going up to it, like a tree house. The reader, who must seek out clues with the mouse on the screen to see parts of the story, first notices that the buildings make music when you run the mouse over them, eery electronic organ music that makes some of the trees grow larger and blossom. The blossoms can be knocked to the ground by the reader. This weird, childish activity sets the tone for the story.

This is the first electronic piece that I don’t want to give to many details about what unfolds because it is a story, with a beginning and end, although possibly not ordered like one would find in a book; to tell you what happens would spoil it. I will say that Leishman has created the first piece of electronic literature that really got to me. It was scary, not in the horror movie sense, although maybe it actually was a little bit, but mostly in the tension that is created by the cheerful yet disturbing  design and churchy music. It made me feel the same way I did when I saw the movie There Will Be Blood, tense and on edge. It was so atmospheric that I felt like something fucked up was going to happen at every movement of the mouse. And every time I watch it I see a new clue, another glimpse in strange Christian’s childlike (and possibly demonic) mind, which adds to the haunting feeling it evokes. This is the first piece of electronic literature that uses the platform perfectly. It is my favourite so far.

Jordan Harbord


I know the author, Donna Leishman, has discussed Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw in this blog, but I have chosen not to read it until after I am finished my review, and then any extra things I have to add after reading her post I will put in the comments section.


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Shelf Space for the Artist

By Chris Wilcox

Electronic literature (e-lit) seems very hard to try and place on the collection rack of artistry. It’s new and it can be seen as dangerous as it challenges us to do what we’re not normally comfortable with. This makes it hard for e-lit to have a voice in the world because of the way in which people are required to interact with it.

So where does e-lit find room to fit in our lives and how does it have a future? Currently e-lit seems to be a very small form of art yet has influences from all over the digital media realm. It’s biggest challenge as something small and new, lies within the viewer. This is because when people are faced with the “new” and “different” it can be hard to understand and easy to become frustrated. This is how I feel e-lit has been for me and I believe that because its hard to accept the “unknown”, e-lit will have a difficult time finding it’s way in the world.
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Donna on “Deviant: The Students’ Questions”

As with J.R. Carpenter’s responses to our questions in early October, I am bowled over by the Donna Leishman’s fulsome generous responses to the lines of questioning worked up by the students last Friday.  Check back tomorrow for the English 214 students’ closing thoughts on “Deviant” and our guest blogger pilot programme.  For now, Donna’s responses to the student-generated questions from Friday, November 14th.

1) In your blog post, you state that you often start with what you do not want to achieve. This implies that you possess a primary objective. Is this the case?

DL: This is a very pertinent question — simply answered no I don’t have a primary (sic ‘singular’ or ‘main’) objective in my artworks in general nor with Deviant. What I normally have is a set of questions or aims which run alongside more primary / Meta artistic concerns. Within Deviant I specifically wanted to test the affects, purposes and limitation of a narrative that ‘confutes’ the participant. That challenges a set of premises namely: the expectations of hyperfiction, what constitutes narrative/ history, functionality in interaction, visual immersion / limits of attention. These multiple issues layer and mix between each other allowing the participant to feel and grasp tastes of these confutations depending on their immersion and understanding (there is no clear right or wrong reading). I sense/believe that trying to create work that has a singular objective within an interactive and often non-linear environment works against the natural mediation. My more Meta concern is creating an experience that is aesthetically engaging and generally more inclusive than a lot of electronic literature. Given my interest in creating ‘difficult’ texts I work particularly hard at the visuals and sounds to try entice, engage and sustain the participants’ interests.

2) In your blog post you state that the reader is supposed to feel like a “child protector”, however everything the reader does seems to push the protagonist deeper into his/her possession so where does the feeling of the protector come from within the story? How does it come about in the beginning?

DL: You are correct the whole project is essentially a linear trajectory, which always results in Christian performing her roles as unnatural child, and accuser, the modern interpretations of what her ‘possession’ may have been vary greatly from the proposal at the time. It is my position that all interpretations have consequences on the living memory of who and what Christian Shaw was and as such have a ethical dimension. Personally I was drawn to the narrative because of the young age of such a key protagonist (10 years old at the start 11 by the end), and a feeling that it was more likely that she was a tool in larger political narrative, the inherent immovability of this narrative backbone in Deviant reinforces the tension in a flawed or instable history. This quote communicates my aim well:

“I personally felt, she being a child, that it was something that threatened her–and not that she might be a threat to others, though those are co-ordinate. I think the piece is extraordinary at building up the sense of secret bad stuff happening that ‘the authorities’ have no authority over. By contrast Red Riding Hood, though flipping that story, seems jocular, eye-winking. Of course, the fairy stories to begin with have done the job of ‘normalizing’ frightening content.” [Stephanie Strickland email correspondence 22.06.04]

The participant does have the power to deconstruct the various interpretations and consider their own understanding. I try foster a feeling of responsibility ‘child protector’ or close connection to Christian in the visual vocabulary of how she looks: passive, lonely, dreamy. And through the interactions a participant a empathy with the protagonist’s suffering:
“I feel complicitous. Its funny, but when the monsters are touching her I feel it must be painful but the old lady’s touch seems that it might be therapeutic” (George Fifield).

“The girl spits coals (actually until I read the final summary of the story I didn’t realise they were coals and I thought the lines were of smell, not heat. I was disgusted anyway, so I don’t think it mattered)…”(Jill Walker).

The viewing platform (the internet as both symbol of remoteness and connectivity), also gives a highlighted intensity of private space.

3) In the conclusion you make explicit mention of how you go about including the “real story” through the use of invisible rules of engagement and shapes. Does the reader require prior knowledge of the events surrounding Christian Shaw in order to aquire an understanding of the work?

DL: The conclusion or epilogue offers only a partial elucidation. At the end of the project the narrative source is available, a little is given about the context of the tale and I visually depict the different hypotheses on Christian. This new narrative enlightenment combined with participants’ sense of the missed links are designed to encourage at least one more new re-reading. Gaining access to the source text reframes what the participant has just experienced. Between one and three re-readings may be required to gain a full sense of the whole world. As stated above there is no intended/ authored singular or main or correct understanding of the project, its more experiential with a plethora of emotional and narrative understandings on offer.

4) Is all history a kind of folklore “possessed” by the perversions/predilections/preferences of any given community (of readers)?

DL: Personally I think yes, however the authority of the reader to intellectually challenge or pervert the history comes from social and formal educations, the general default at least in the UK is to asborb history as true, somehow factual.

5) “Deviant” is an incredibly visceral piece: how do you feel your sense of colour plays into creating an intensely physical response to the work?

DL: I’m really glad you asked me that question — I rarely get questioned about the visuality of the project (normally its the treatment of the narrative and or the interaction style). There were a few things I considered for the colour of Deviant: overall subtlety was important thus the use of muted colours and rendering detail, a palette of ‘off’ pastels were led by Christians blue shift dress and the unrelenting block sky. Generally colours were ‘cool’ whereas ‘hot’ colours such as orange or magenta were used to draw the eye to interaction key links or areas of interest. I hoped the project would yield a visceral experience for the participants and indeed conceptualised the world as an extension of Christian’s character / worldview / possible psyche. This bodily or sensual level relates to the above potential for participant complicity or manipulated and powerless sense of responsibility as much of the acts of so call possession manifested around her body.

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Ruminating on “Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw”

On this autumn morning in Vancouver, the sky is stripped of colour.  The only brightness in this landscape is synthetic and man-made.  Surrounded by dull greys and greens, it is not almost not jarring to enter into the muted world of Donna Leishman’s “Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw”.  We click, and begin exploring.  But no, the images (and the provocative use of colour) are as disquieting this time as they were last time.  And so we begin to consider Donna’s posting on “Deviant”, nudging towards the generation of our questions for her to chew.  After a general discussion, the students begin to work in small groups.  Here are their final questions:

1) In your blog post, you state that you often start with what you do not want to achieve. This implies that you possess a primary objective. Is this the case?

2) In your blog post you state that the reader is supposed to feel like a “child protector”, however everything the reader does seems to push the protagonist deeper into his/her possession so where does the feeling of the protector come from within the story?  How does it come about in the beginning?

3)  In the conclusion you make explicit mention of how you go about including the “real story” through the use of invisible rules of engagement and shapes.  Does the reader require prior knowledge of the events surrounding Christian Shaw in order to aquire an understanding of the work?

4) Is all history a kind of folklore “possessed” by the perversions/predilections/preferences of any given community (of readers)?

5) “Deviant” is an incredibly visceral piece: how do you feel your sense of colour plays into creating an intensely physical response to the work?

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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 6amhoover.com.
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


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Electronic Literature Conference

Stop Reading

Andrew Klobucar and I have just come back from the Electronic Literature Organization conference in Vancouver WA this past weekend where 120 artists and scholars met to present and talk about electronic literature. Hosted by Dr. Dene Grigar and Dr. John Barber from the Digital Technology and Culture program at Washington State University – Vancouver, the conference offered a dizzying sense of eletronic literature’s global vibrancy with participants from Asia, Australia, Europe, North America and South America. As the conference organizers noted, the presentations and art works demonstrated that electronic literature (however we might define the term) is very much alive and of interest to both the pioneers and a new generation of digital remixologists. I left the conference inspired by the diversity of projects on offer and a desire to collaborate with new media artists and programmers alike.

A few of the artists that caught my attention:

Serge Bouchardon
J.R. Carpenter
Ian Hatcher
Donna Leishman
Victoria Welby


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