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Stained Linen

David Jennings

Linda Duvall’s Stained Linen throws us into the middle of a family trauma: “you’ve got five people all crazily upset about the whole situation; if she had told them in the beginning, she wouldn’t have all this happening.” As we navigate through a branching sequence of overheard conversational snippets, the circumstances of the trauma begin to become clear. Sometimes the sequence we follow has occasional small loops, so we hear some sound-bites a second time, and they take on new significance in the light of the richer narrative context.

Each fragment of conversation is set against a still photograph of a meal for twenty or so participants, who we assume are the conversationalists. As the discussion develops, the meal progresses and night falls. Then — this being a non-linear medium — the sun is up again! It’s like a hypertext version of Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen/The Celebration. Only in this case, the main protagonists — Genevieve, Sean, Brian, Renee, Marianne, and Collette — are absent from the meal.

Stained Linen holds attention both in the form and content of its revelations. The first thing you want to do is make sense of what is going on. The fragments reveal how the protagonists responded to events, or speculate as to their motivation or ethics, rather than providing any direct diegesis. I’m not going to give away the story, but the one- or two-word links that appear superimposed on the photograph’s titillate with their allusiveness: ‘femininity’, ‘suck’, ‘mouth’, ‘plague’, ‘taboo’, ‘living a lie’ and, umm, ‘station wagon’.

This use of links is an inversion of standard web page conventions. Normally you see a linked word in the context of a full sentence and click on the link to find out more detail. Here the links have only an uncertain, visual setting, and you click on them to get the fuller semantic context. A bit like tabloid headlines.

As often in this form of hyper-linked narrative, the structure of the links remains hidden, though groups of sound-image fragments are clearly organised in ‘neighbourhoods’ (keeping an eye on the address bar in your browser helps you track these). The Stained Linen site invites you to apply to take part in the next ‘dinner date’, so I assume Duvall is plotting a series of these cryptic meditations on ‘family secrets’ and ‘digressive acts’. However, as well as having a skeleton or two in your cupboard, it looks as though you’ll need to have several friends and relatives able to visit northern Saskatchewan for their dinner. You can post your opinions about the site, though at the time of writing the guest book does not make inspiring reading.

Stained Linen is in some ways an extended exercise in what is known in UK slang as ‘picking up fag (cigarette) ends’: the kind of voyeuristic overhearing of others’ intimacies that encourages you to speculate on the possible scenarios that would explain the judgements being made of the principal protagonists. As a ‘user experience’ it foregrounds your own attempts to make both logical and moral sense out of what is being said. The design is simple and effective — though it would benefit from better sound editing in a few places — and makes for an engaging way of spending an hour of your surfing time.