Interactive Narratives

June 12, 2015 12:24 am
Written by Leave your thoughts

Over the past few months, we have been working on a new project aimed at transforming research objects in the environmental humanities into interactive online exhibits. This project was born in part from a workshop on “Digital Publics and Environmental Humanities,” organized by Cheryl Lousley, Lisa Quinn and Stephanie Posthumus and held at the conference of the Association for Literature, Environment, Culture, in Canada in Thunder Bay, Ontario, August 7-8. At the workshop, participants presented a research object and were given five to seven minutes to weave together a narrative about their object. After the presentations, a general discussion took place about transforming research objects into interactive digital exhibits. We decided to begin work on two or three prototypes, exploring the possibilities made available using different digital tools and technologies.

sealThe first online exhibit presents Ashlee Cunsolo Willox’s experience with documenting the stories of Canada’s Inuit population. Ashlee’s exhibit links the past with the present, offering a modern means for preserving and sharing a predominantly oral culture. Text, images and links appear when the user clicks on certain areas of the exhibit. For instance, clicking on the title reveals Ashlee’s summary of the project. Meanwhile, clicking on pinpoints on the map will bring the user to the respective project page, where additional information and videos can be found. The interactive aspect of this project brings the user to explore the clickable elements and piece together Ashlee’s work and underlying narrative.

ventolinThe second exhibit documents Susie O’Brien’s own personal story rooted in her use of a Ventolin inhaler. Her story supports a broader argument about the harms of using “band-aid solutions” to temporarily mask environmental issues. In contrast to Ashlee’s narrative, Susie’s was primarily text-based. Clicking on different areas of the image of the Ventolin inhaler will progressively add text to the narrative on the left-hand side of the page. Susie’s narrative can be found here.

In comparison with Susie’s object, Ashlee’s image of an external hard drive lends itself to a more multimedia-based online exhibition. Seeing as the project itself was primarily video-based, much of the content reflects the existing digital basis of her work. In contrast, Susie’s object gives rise to more of a reflection on her own reality and how it is representative of broader issues. It is interesting to note the hybridity of the digital platform for creating these projects. While a different approach was taken in their creation, it was possible to create an online and interactive project out of both narratives.

Ashlee’s narrative was created using Google Web Designer, a program for creating interactive online content. While it was initially difficult to grasp the usability of the various features, the program eventually proved to be very useful in creating the online exhibit. What was great about Google Web Designer was the ease with which “clickable” elements could be specified and tailored. I began with an image provided by Ashlee of her hard drive wrapped in sealskin. Next, I designed icons to place onto the blank space on the hard drive, which would serve as clickable elements to build her narrative. In Google Maps, I created a pinpoint map of the towns in which Ashlee was involved with her various projects. By adding all these elements into Google Web Designer, I was able to specify the links and images that would appear once these elements were clicked on. Ashlee’s narrative summary serves as a means to tie in all of these elements together.

Initially, I tried to use Google Web Designer to create Susie’s narrative as well. However, this platform proved to be too complicated when we considered the primarily text-based nature of her narrative. We decided it would be easier to write code and script from scratch and then have the narrative progressively build on the side of the image, once different representative areas on the label were clicked. As a result, both projects are interactive and require participation on the part on the part of the user, albeit in different ways.

The production of these two interactive exhibits is the first step towards an understanding of the possibilities of using more interactive digital formats for disseminating knowledge in the environmental humanities. The next step will be to examine the ways in which users’ interact with the exhibits by creating spaces for commentary, questions and feedback. How do users navigate the exhibits in order to create a cohesive narrative about a research object? How does the digital environment inform their learning about environmental issues? How does the interactive object encourage a form of play and exploration that may be less present in a text-based article? These questions will inform the next step of the project as we continue to develop the platform for digital exhibits in the environmental humanities.

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