Mise en Abyme in Software Art: a Comment to Florian Cramer
Troels Degn Johansson

Author: This text applies the concept of mise en abyme in order to analyse software art’s exploration of representational problems in the computer medium. According to comparative literature, the use of the literary trope of mise en abyme (the “staging of an abyss” cf. André Gide’s pun on the French expressions mise en scène, staging; and the word abyme, abyss) has, in experimental fiction, tended towards the Symbolist tradition, where the limits of language are tested in an extreme self-reflexivity closed off from the reference function of language. In the study of narrative and visual representation in general, the concept has thus come to capture the instability or fragility of representation, for example by thematizing the perishable or transitory character of the material of expression (e.g. the paper of a book), an erratic structure of enunciation (e.g. an insane narrator), or that the epic depiction of a human being eventually turns out to be staged as if a game (e.g. Peter Weirs film “The Truman Show, USA, 1998). In my analysis I will approach the figure of mise en abyme in software art in terms of how abysmal structures are established by the interplay between the interface design, the literary expression (pictorial, literal, narrative), and the thematization of the computer medium’s various levels of virtuality (that is, from the binary code to various higher levels of program languages). Following a general survey of various traditions in software art, I will seek to categorize the artistic strategies that I have found in my analysis. I will focus here especiallt on the way artists make use of the self-reflexivity and the thematization of representational problems that are usually connected to the figure of the mise en abyme. Finally I will discuss my findings and the applied concept of mise en abyme with a similar concept from the study of software art and new media, namely Marie-Laure Ryan’s concept of metalepsis which also seek to capture the way certain strategies in computer-based art and entertainment make use of various levels of virtuality in computer medium. In this discussion I will argue that whereas Ryan’s concept applies well to functional narrative strategies it does not seem to capture the way software art may play with representational problems and less functional modes of expression.

This essay was written for Read_Me Software Art and Cultures conference and is published in read_me Software Art & Cultures Edition 2004 .

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