Individual Work
About Time

Rob Swigart's About Time is a web-based digital fiction that juxtaposes two temporally remote narrative strands. One involves an aboriginal named Mouth with a penchant for exploration and discovery; the other tells of Crockford ("Cro") de Granville, a voracious business mogul who heads the Institute for Cognitive Emergence. Mouth's present is 40,000 years before de Granville's, which is described as the "present day" but appears much more like a mildly dystopic near-future, where a pretentious and egotistical de Granville targets his clients to secure their popular and financial support in the form of "skinny-casts" (an inversion, we can presume, of the less discriminate and mass-cultural "broadcast"). Mouth likewise spends his time trying to convince his dull cousin, Tuber, of a world much larger and more complex than their current way of life would allow them to grasp. Thus both Mouth and de Granville conspicuously crave knowledge, but for vastly different ends.

Using Flash animation software, About Time incorporates both sound and images, but relies on the primacy of the text for its dramatic and aesthetic effect. Composer and performer Allen Strange is credited with the "sound design," which includes introductory music for the text as a whole, musical effects for many of the episodes, and voice-over audio for some of the interactive media elements.

The subtitle of the work, "A Digital Interactive Hypertext Fiction, Two Braided Parallel Paths, A Double Helix," is a fairly accurate comment on the structural composition of the text. The navigation is organized in two ways. Each page contains a sidebar menu of links to individual narrative scenes or episodes. In addition, the body text of each episode is populated with a number of links. These links will either open other textual episodes (color-coded by blue text) or, in the de Granville strand, open small windows containing media elements that are typically images with voice-over audio (color-coded red). The result is a reading environment that accommodates a linear, hierarchical reading—from the top of each menu to the bottom—as well as the ability to traverse the lateral linkages.

A further navigational element joins the two "parallel" narrative paths, effectively braiding the text into its "double helix" composition: a dynamic image sits at the foot of each sidebar menu. For "Mouth's Journey" it is a futuristic-looking glass sphere in rotation; for "The de Granville Files," it is a rather austere skin of water that ripples in perfect red spheres with the perpetual disturbance of a single droplet, against what could also be a background of screen static. This is the portal between the Mouth's world and that of Cro de Granville, and for the reader a way to imagine two disparate realms but, in effect, experience them in striking and eerie proximity.

This is a work about two "times" that are, on the surface, far removed, but nevertheless continually bumping up against one another. The result is a telling commentary on human nature and its "progress" through the ages refracted through the juxtaposition of the two anchoring characters, along with a commentary on a topic toward which all narratives tend—the nature of time itself.