Interviews

Porpentine Charity Heartscape

Porpentine Charity Heartscape, With Those We Love Alive (screenshot), 2014.

Porpentine Charity Heartscape is a writer, game designer, and self-described dead swamp milf. In addition, she is a 2016 Creative Capital Emerging Fields and 2016 Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Story Lab fellow, a 2017 Prix Net Art awardee, and a 2017 Whitney Biennial participant. Here she speaks about her work on view at the Whitney, and discusses the origins of her hypertext narratives.

THERE’S SORT OF A MINIRETROSPECTIVE of my Twine stories in the Whitney Biennial. With Those We Love Alive is projected on one wall of a room. People can play it on a computer and they can draw their responses to the game on a tablet. Flanking it are some other key works on laptops. So it’s kind of a little arcade, net-café, hell-portal zone. Some of the stories are better known, like Cyberqueen and Howling Dogs, but some are kind of deep cuts, like Begscape. We were going for a balance between stuff that was notable and popular and stuff that’s also good to play in person—because those aren’t always the same thing.

It’s always been tricky to think about all this being exhibited. I do a lot of different work: I do a lot of visual work, I do graphical games—little critters plonking around a zone. But hypertext has always been extra tricky, because I always envision someone playing a hypertext game alone in their shitty apartment, on their computer in the dark, holed up and reclusive. But I’ve been lucky that a lot of people I’ve worked with have been very sensitive to my concerns, and done a good job setting up the works. I definitely hope people will check out my work at home in a more introspective way after bumping up against it in the museum setting. But I’ve also always been very interested in having words that are splintered up, so you see screens where there’s just a sentence or two of big text. I feel very claustrophobic when I’m stuck on a page full of words. So my hypertexts probably have an evolutionary advantage over other forms of text in that setting: People can walk by and see visceral, brief sentences.

One of the elements of With Those We Love Alive is that it asks players to draw things on themselves throughout the story in response to prompts—you’re instructed to draw sigils representing how you feel about what’s going on. Usually, a lot of the people encountering With Those We Love Alive choose to draw on their arms. That’s a very classic spot. I think that’s because the arm is a very convenient place, but also because it’s very expressive and powerful—and weaponized, in a way. Though I also really appreciate when people have drawn on their thighs, their feet, all over their body. Anyway, it’s not the preference of museum spaces to have pens and markers that can be used to draw on the environments. So having people draw on tablets was our compromise. I think it’ll be interesting to have these tablets create a communal drawing space as opposed to a personal one. A hundred thousand people have already experienced With Those We Love Alive online, so this will be your chance to play it and have other people be scrutinizing your every move, and also to have your decisions left behind, like graffiti.

I was just a little kid when I started making my first games. I would play console games, like Nintendo 64, and then I’d take index cards and make my own cargo cult versions of them. I’d draw little levels with pen, and then go to other kids, and I would tell them to play, while making decisions and telling them what happened.

I guess I later got into making hypertext narratives on Twine around when I was going through a lot of heavy stuff—a decade and a half of solid homelessness or displacement, and extremely bad shit. These games represented the simplest, most energy-efficient way I could transmute my feelings into something people could put inside their word hole.

I don’t know if video games are even the right framing. It’s confusing because, based on who’s looking at my stuff, they come away with a totally different impression of me and what format my Twines are. And they are kind of a patchwork of literature and game elements, but I’m most interested in the textural aspect of those formats rather than some idealized payload. I do love games. I think about them all the time, and they inform a huge part of my aesthetic. But the game industry tries to make something that someone can play forever. What they’re manufacturing is the promise that you will not have to consider the ruinous passage of time, if you just lock yourself inside a game.

A lot of what I make is so janky and short, pretty directly about being trapped as time passes, marking away the days, so those pieces kind of invert and unsettle that structure. It’s an unstable fantasy, it spits you back out and hopefully you had an interesting ecological interaction with it. Most of my emotions come from dreams, so I guess what I make is handmade dreams.

You could say there are a few reasons I make things. The frequency of thoughts I experience is so intense I have to lance them out somehow. It’s just this art-pus that’s constantly oozing up. And there’s so much poison I have to convert, have to turn into an atmosphere I can breathe, because I can’t breathe here on earth. It’s how I make space for myself. I’m like those insects that eat shit and secrete nectar.

Another reason is I need to pay for health care and my friends’ health care and other costs of being happy—so people should give me money, definitely.

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