by Dene Grigar, Director, Electronic Literature Lab

In 2004 I attended Incubation, a conference hosted by Sue Thomas, Director of the trAce Online Writing Centre at Nottingham Trent University (UK), from 12-14 July. While there I attended the world premier of Kate Pullinger, Stefan Schemat, and babel’s (pen name for Chris Joseph) experimental born-digital narrative, The Breathing Wall. What fascinated me about the work is that to navigate through the story, the reader breaths into a headset instead of clicking on links.

Shortly after the conference, I interviewed Kate for an article for Computers and Composition about The Breathing Wall. Our conversation focused on the challenges of creating an immersive environment for a born-digital thriller where navigating through the work requires the non-trivial activity of clicking on links. The question that we both posed was:

How do we sustain tension in a hypertext narrative that does not interrupt the reading process by scrolling or clicking on links?

The author wearing the HTF created by Stefan Schemat

Kate answered the question by turning to Stefan’s Hyper Trance Fiction (HTF), a software that responds to the human breath. HTF involves a headset that a reader positions under their nose and “enables the computer to register the physiological effect of the story on the reader and to alter the experience accordingly. The more relaxed the reader becomes, the deeper they enter into the piece” (“The Breathing Wall”). 

The story focuses on the death of a young woman, Lana, whose boyfriend, Michael, has been falsely accused of her murder. While in jail, he is haunted by Lara who comes to him during his dreams, both during the day and night. So, the story moves between Michael’s day-dreams and night-dreams. The day-dreams occur through images, text and sound, which relay the story as a linear multimedia experience, while the night-dreams employ video and sound loops that take place as sequences are accessed via headset’s earphones and a microphone. 

In August 2005 I demoed The Breathing Wall for Kate at SIGGRAPH. The space was outfitted so that readers could recline comfortably on a bean bag chair and concentrate on the work. The audience responded positively to innovative approach to navigating digital fiction, the writing, and the rich media experience the story provides.

The Breathing Wall‘s media was built with Flash software, a platform that lent itself well for visually appealing born-digital narratives––and one that babel was a master of. And so after the demise of Flash in 2020, the work was no longer accessible on computing devices. Even before that year, it was clear after the success of the iPhone (2007) and iPad (2010) that Flash would be losing Adobe’s support. Ironically, the work was never ported to the Mac environment, but Apple’s influence over acceptable software affected the Windows market. Thus, the work has not been accessible for many years now. 

My friend and colleague (and ELL Affiliate Scholar) Agnieszka Przybyszewska spent last year at Bath SPA on a research leave documenting Kate’s many born-digital works in preparation of a book she is writing on the author. During that time Agnieszka conducted a Traversal of The Breathing Wall and is in the process of finalizing the footage, reshooting a bit of it, and readying it for public access. 

Wanting to include the work in the forthcoming exhibition that I am curating for ACM Hypertext, entitled “Hypertext and Art: A Retrospective of Forms,” I reached out to Agnieszka for video clips from the Traversal that, along with Erik Loyer’s Ruben & Lullaby, Breathing Room, and I Was a Ship in Space; and Franci Greyling’s Byderhand, will be part of the “Beyond the Click” section of the exhibition that highlights hypertexts that experiment with new ways to hyperlink in born-digital narratives. In the meantime, I began sleuthing around in the Internet Achives’ Wayback Machine to find the original video that had been featured on The Breathing Wall‘s website. Once I found it, I turned to my Flash preservationist Andrew Thompson to test the file and, if possible, capture a video recording of it. 

My reaction after Andrew got the Flash file to work on the iMac

And he did! I notified Agnieszka, who then sent me all five Flash files that make up the day dreams and promised to send other media she had of the work over the weekend. Andrew spent today recording the five videos Agnieszska sent me so far. 

Documentation cannot replace the actual experience I had with The Breathing Wall when I first read the work, but it does make it possible for people to understand the story that Kate had written. As importantly, it shows the innovative thinking that went into conceptualizing a new way to experience born-digital fiction at a time when hypertext functionality was becoming subsumed by net art aesthetics, expressed as interactivity, and reimagined for immersive experiences.

More information:

At Incubation 2004, Kate and Chris demoed the work on Wednesday, July 14, at 2:00 p.m. in Ada Byron King 012. 

It originally included Talan Memmot as one of the authors. 

In the C&C interview Pullinger states that she did not see the work as an example of hypertext.

The citation for the project at SIGGRAPH ’05 is: SIGGRAPH ’05: ACM SIGGRAPH 2005 Electronic Art and Animation CatalogPages 136–137