Simon Biggs’ “The Great Wall of China” (1996) was inspired by Franz Kafka’s “The Great Wall of China” (1931), and all of its textual elements are drawn from Kafka’s work. This interactive piece was funded by The Arts and Council of England and Eastern Arts, and was produced by Film and Video Umbrella. Throughout the late 1990s and in 2000, “The Great Wall of China” was exhibited internationally.
The reader is initially presented with four links that lead to different webpages that are interactive and functionally similar. The first link, also named “The Great Wall of China,” displays various arrangements of text with an image positioned on the left side. The text changes rapidly when the user hovers the cursor over the selection. On the left side of the screen, an image also shifts through a series of black, white, and grey ink print pictures when the user places the mouse over it or manipulates the surrounding text. The image can be anything from geometric shapes to ink blobs that layer upon each other; the images may overlap into an indefinite conglomeration. In the middle of the screen, a column of Chinese characters also changes very quickly when contacted by the cursor.
The cursor’s effect upon textual and pictographic content in “The Great Wall of China” evokes the forces of influence at play in intertextual systems. In moving the cursor, the reader modifies material elements of the work, thus “performing” the relationship between Kafka’s parent text and Biggs’ derivative text. The position of the cursor may, furthermore, be indirectly related to alterations in content: the cursor does not necessarily have to be touching specific words in order to change them, and may at times manipulate a set of words that it is not directly in contact with. The precise pathway of the manipulation, consequently, remains undefined. The sentences generated are grammatically correct, but they lack context and are difficult to understand as a conventional narrative. For Biggs, the intertext becomes an assemblage of fragments that convey meaning in the obscurity of their arrangement, as opposed to a traditional linear narrative populated by characters with coherent identities. In sampling from and reconfiguring Kafka’s writing, Biggs’ “The Great Wall of China” problematizes the notion of a single text and story, and proposes, rather, an indefinite network of narrative associations.
Tina Wong was a student of Dr. Kiki Benzon for a course in Contemporary Fiction taught at the University of Lethbridge, Canada during the Winter term of 2011.