Issue 17 : Fall 2009







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In Search of Adele H: a Twitter movie

by Peggy Nelson

9 Sep 2009

“In Search of Adele H” is a Twitter movie, a re-imagining of the life and mind of Adele Hugo, the youngest daughter of Victor Hugo. Brilliant, troubled, and sensitive, Adele had as much creativity and willpower as her famous father; she was an incessant writer, and a composer of some reputation. But she poured most of her creative energies into chasing a guy who “just wasn’t that into her.” (Sound familiar?)

And yet. The qualities that she applied to her personal life (or her attempt thereof)--perseverance, imagination--are ones absolutely essential to an artist. Was she just not talented enough to make the jump to artistic independence? Or was it something else?

I've been interested in her story since I saw Francois Truffaut's 1975 biopic The Story of Adele H, which my title intentionally mirrors. Adele, born in 1830, was a not-overly-assertive woman of the mid-19th century. Adele longed for an independent life in the arts, but only a very few women back then had all the resources to so completely flaunt the conventions of the times: feminism had hardly reached its infancy.

I wondered: had Adele lived in the early 21st century, when there are so many career and lifestyle options for women, and so many different approaches to relationships and independence, might her path have led somewhere else?

In re-telling her story my impulse was to investigate whether a successful artist's life might be determined more by structure than by talent, and to examine the degree to which that structure might itself be determined by the society in which it finds itself. I am referring, in other words, to the importance of a "room of one's own"--and a society in which one can find it.

I considered making an actual film, a Sherman's March (dir. Russ McElwee, 1986) for girls, where I would travel to the places Adele lived, ostensibly filming her history while revealing my own stories along the way.

I assembled the material, including found footage, reenactments, and personal video. But then I joined Twitter, and then I realized that Twitter is, in a way, a time-based medium, not unlike film. (Posts are read in the moment; no one "rewinds." No one settles in to read through at leisure, like a novel; it's something to experience as it happens.) In creating Adele in Twitter I wanted to use the time-dependency to construct a sequence of images in the mind, 140 characters at a time.

The narrative is carried by Adele's voice (as re-imagined by me), and interrupted and augmented by other voices: "Dad" (Victor Hugo), the Narrator, any Twitter user who "@replies" her, and other links. It should take about a year to play out, in daily increments of a few seconds.

I do link out to clips, images, and narrative "voiceovers," longer documentary-type reflections, in addition to the Twitter stream. But the clips supplement rather than comprise the film; the actual film is not the clips but the Twitter stream. Which means that a central component is intentionally missing, i.e., the moving images! The Twitter film happens in your head, much as Adele's life happened in hers.

In dealing with the "gap" in this way I was strongly influenced by Fluxus, the 1960s conceptual art movement. Embracing a Dada sensibility that blends social critique with a sense of philosophical absurdity, Fluxus works emphasized: events over products, unconventional materials, chance occurrences, and a sense of humor.

I was especially inspired by Yoko Ono's "Instruction Pieces" (, in which index cards were printed with various instructions. The viewer was intended to imagine the image or event, playing off the fact that we each have our own unique reaction to every work of art. In other words, we can all look at the same painting, but we each "see" a different piece in our mind's eye.

Like the "Instruction Pieces," "In Search of Adele H" is interactive, and not only because the viewer is constructing the image in their mind. Viewers ("followers") can reply to Adele and impact the flow of the narrative.

And also like many Fluxus pieces, Adele is a meta-project as well as a story, exposing and examining the materials of its construction. When I was planning this project as a film, I intended to have Adele confront her image of herself by incorporating clips from the Truffaut film, as well as found footage. But now that she's in Twitter, she is confronting herself as a virtual entity, and as a story.

The screenplay is exposed, rather than being the hidden skeleton upon which images are overlaid. In Twitter there is a lot more dialogue, a lot less description, and Adele's problematic relationship with her father is emerging as a major motivation. But Adele is also discovering that she has opinions about her new medium, cyberspace, avatars, networks, and other concerns relevant to a virtual existence.

And she's in good company. There are now a number of other Twitter accounts reenacting past lives and work: Marcel Proust, Sigmund Freud, Jane Austen, even George Washington! I am doing an additional Twitter piece myself, Enoch Soames (, who is a fictional character from the Max Beerbohm story of the same name ( So Adele is part of a healthy community of virtual reenactors. (But unlike them Adele is telling a specific, and finite story, not just Tweeting observations from her past life and work.)

I am on Twitter as myself too (, and I am as new to the medium as Adele is. This also mirrors something in Adele's story--she was both author and character, she constructed her identity and wrote and rewrote herself throughout her life (in a personal code no less, and only a small portion of her journals have been decoded/translated). I am re-creating her in Twitter while also jumping in, intentionally mirroring the structure of the character's life with the construction of the piece.

Finally, a Twitter movie requires a different kind of viewing, and not only because it is conceptual or interactive. It is watched or read or imagined in the moment, in little interruptions throughout the day, not all at once in a time and place reserved for it. The project has more in common with graffiti, guerrilla theater and micro-cinemas, in that it lives outside the white-walled galleries and functions instead as an intervention in public, common space. In this case the cultural commons is virtual, but the approach is the same. There are any number of complaints these days about our shrinking attention spans. This is an attempt to make an art for the speed and fragmentation of contemporary life.

The movie:
Companion blog: