Technologies: GIF animations, GIF images, HTML
Keywords: cinematic, hypertext, narrative
One indicator of the historical significance of Olia Lialina's 1996 Net Art project, My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (MBCBFTW), is the numerous times it has been appropriated and remixed by other new media artists. On her Web site, Lialina maintains an extensive list of these appropriations that includes versions in Flash, Real Audio, VRML, the Castle Wolfenstein game engine (Mac and PC), PowerPoint, and video. There is even a blog version and a version in gouache on paper. But what is it that makes this particular work so influential? Perhaps it resonates with other artists because it is among the earliest works of New Media art to produce the kind of compelling and emotionally powerful experience that we have come to expect from older, more established media, particularly film.
MBCBFTW tells the story of two lovers who reunite after an unspecified military conflict. Fragments of disjunctive dialogue convey the profound difficulty the couple has reconnecting. The female protagonist confesses that she had an affair with a neighbor while her significant other was away fighting for their country. The returned soldier proposes marriage. The non-linear narrative unfolds through grainy black and white images and bits of text in white text on a black background. Clicking on a linked text or image splits the frame into smaller frames, each revealing a new text or image. The narrative splits as well, unraveling into multiple threads. This flow produces an effect similar to a cinematic montage in which separate but simultaneous actions are edited together to produce temporal and spatial juxtapositions. Eventually, the images and texts stop appearing, leaving most of the screen a mosaic of empty black frames.
MBCBFTW's cinematic quality was not inadvertent: Lialina studied film criticism at Moscow State University and organized Cine Fantom, an experimental cinema club in Moscow. Lialina approached the Internet as she would film, an older medium with which she was intimately familiar, producing a Net art project that recalls the grainy black-and-white imagery and intertitles of an early silent movie. MBCBFTW illustrates media theorist Marshall McLuhan's assertion that each new medium is understood in terms of those that preceded it. Much as films are sometimes called "moving pictures," Lialina calls MBCBFTW a "netfilm."
My Boyfriend Came Back from the War is also an example of hypertext, a literary genre that predated Net Art by three decades. First conceived by Ted Nelson in the 1960s, hypertext is a form of writing in which documents are linked together to form a non-linear structure that can be navigated interactively by the reader. Lialina's use of nested HTML frames to spawn parallel story lines represents an important contribution to the history of hypertext as it made the transition from offline systems to the Web.