August 16, 2005
Every night for 1001 nights, Barbara Campbell is performing a short text-based work via web video. Her project 1001 Nights Cast is structured around the frame of tale of Scheherazade and 1001 nights. Participants contribute stories through the following procedure: each morning Campbell wakes and scans the headlines for a short phrase to use as a prompt. She then creates a watercolor image of the text of the prompt, which she posts to the site. Reader participants then respond to the prompt, writing story 1001 words or less in length. Each night Campbell reviews the day’s submissions and adapts one for performance, or, if she’s received no suitable submissions, generates a text by other means, such as a Google search. The stories are preserved in on the site as a text archive, though the video performance occurs only live, at a scheduled time published on the site. As of August 15th, fifty-seven nights into the project, it seems to be going well. Thirty-four different authors have contributed stories. The stories don’t seem to be interwoven into each other outside of the frame tale, so each story stands on it own. Although the editing process is expedited, the 1001 word length, longer than a short short but shorter than a typical short story, is conducive to concise stories with a well-honed sense of economy.
The performances themselves leave something to be desired, at least dramaturgically. The live videos are of Campbell reading the story, in a charming Australian accent, but the camera remains tightly focused on her moving lips. The viewer is denied the full range of facial expressions one might expect from a storyteller. Perhaps this choice is meant to reflect on the Scheherazade frame. Perhaps Campbell is denying the viewer her body, just as Scheherazade conspired to use stories to delay King Schariar’s destruction of her own. On the other hand, Campbell’s choice to restrict the performance to her moving lips might be a reflection on the collective nature of the project itself: these aren’t, after all, Campbell’s stories alone, but have been contributed by others. Delivered in this oracular fashion, the disembodied lips might emphasize the collectivity and anonymity of the oral tradition, which the project emulates. The fact that the videos themselves are not archived but available only as a live webcast similarly echoes the oral tradition. The texts are archived, but to experience the performance, the viewer must be “present” at a scheduled time. The project is an ingenious mix of contributory participation and individual performance.