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Video-Graphic Alchemy

Transforming ''Dear Diary''

Elayne Zalis

Video-Graphic Alchemy:
Transforming Dear Diary
(A Multimedia Retrospective)
Elayne Zalis
Revised February 19, 2012
2012 by Elayne Zalis
All rights reserved
In this retrospective, I explain the unconventional methodology I used to compose Vagabond Scribe
(Leahs Backstory), a literary experiment I began in the late 1980s while under the spell of video art and
emergent digital technologies. That literary experiment influenced my approach to Arellas Repertoire, a
novel I later wrote that elaborates on and takes to new levels the earlier work of fiction. I am now working on
a memory play that transforms the novel into a production for the interactive, digital age.
Video-Graphic Alchemy: Transforming Dear Diary also brings together the artistic, multimedia, and literary
work from my personal repertoire that inspired the retrospective. On some level all these projects resonate
with one another, as well as with my critical work, and invite readings greater than the sum of the parts.
Id welcome your comments, and Id be happy to answer any questions you have about my work. Please
feel free to e-mail me: This text is available as a paperback and an e-book on
No part of the manuscript, including the images, may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any
means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and
retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.

Video-Graphic Alchemy:
Transforming Dear Diary
To supplement a new edition of Vagabond Scribe (Leahs Backstory), a literary experiment I
began in the late 1980s, I reedited the multimedia projects I was working on while that text
gestated: Give-A-Show Projector, a black-and-white computer graphics series inspired by my fifthgrade diary; Fifth-Grade School Sing, a collection of dreamlike color photographs based on videos
of those graphics; and Video-Graphic Alchemy, image-text compositions that further transform
those impressions. I was then a graduate student at the University of Iowa, where I had the chance
to explore interdisciplinary, multimediaeven hypertextualapproaches to literature and art.
Before long I was switching back and forth between the autobiographical art projects and the
fictional writing. Fact and fiction blurred and my literary experiment took shape.
Too unconventional to interest most book publishers, Vagabond Scribe occupied a special place in
my personal archives, preserving for me an invaluable memory bank that I often consulted. In fact,
I relied on that memory bank years later when I wrote Arellas Repertoire, a novel that
reintroduces characters from Vagabond Scribe. For these reasons, I decided to revise Vagabond
Scribe and to explain how it evolved. Although I had no idea in advance where I was heading when I
started that text more than twenty years ago, I see now that my multimedia projects had a major
impact on the creative choices I made as a writer.
A turning point occurred in the mid-1980s when I learned to use a word processor. Excited by this
new technology, I was eager to discover what else a personal computer could do. I met some
multimedia artists who introduced me to the wonders of computer graphics and I got hooked. With
a black-and-white Macintosh computer and Superpaint software, I explored new creative territory,
yet my training as a writer and longtime diarist proved harder to shake than I had expected.
Instead of becoming an artist overnight, as I secretly had hoped, I designed projects that
inadvertently reaffirmed my attachment to the written word. My childhood diary, which I had been
rereading, provided the inspiration and source materials for these initial forays into the digital
realm. Operating intuitively, without any artistic precedents in mind, I transformed the young girls
writing in unexpected ways. During the first phase, I used the Superpaint software to rework
selected diary passages, a process that resulted in a series of black-and-white drawings called
Give-A-Show-Projector (see appendix A).

Meanwhile, I had added video to my repertoire, reviving my interest in its creative potential. For
the next phase, then, I adapted the series of computer drawings Id made to a video format,
hoping to further transform my childhood diary while also introducing another layer of media to the
open-ended compositions. Because I had access only to basic analog cameras and editing facilities,
I improvised more than I might have if I had been working in a state-of-the-art studio. I also
focused more on concept than on technological prowess. I saw as my audience enthusiasts of
innovative work across a range of media and genres.
After much trial and error, I produced the video Fifth-Grade School Sing. To achieve the desired
effect, I mounted hard copies of each drawing on a television screen during a live broadcast, and
then I videotaped the intermedia convergences that unpredictably ensued. At the same time, I
used my remote control to channel surf and thus change the patterns of light, color, movement,
and sound from the televisual background that faintly peered through. I treated each drawing
separately and relied on chance to determine what emanated from the background.
Viewers see a modified TV that doubles as a frame of reference. In this context, my fifth-grade
diary, transposed into a series of computer graphics, interfaces with live televisual broadcasts on
a customized video screen, an event that I documented from behind the lens of a portable video
camera set up in my living room. Like the young girl who wrote in her diary long ago, I also found
comfort in a private space beyond the spotlight, a matter of geography as well as of the mind:
somehow I recreated the childs space, and I felt at home. (For the young girl, writing was one
refuge; watching television was another. She often did both at the same time.)
It seems fitting, given these dynamics, that during my transitions from one creative medium to
another I drew on my childhood diary for guidance and support, since it preserved traces of that
early scene of writing and the magic I had felt there. Looking back on the video experiments, Id
say I recaptured a little of that magic: it provided the impetus to keep going, to trust my intuition,
and to indulge my curiosity. Most of all, it recharged my imagination.
Fifth-Grade School Sing remains a work-in-progress that, among other things, documents staged
performances in my living room on several different occasions. After accumulating many hours of
footage, I retreated to the editing room to figure out what to do with this material. There I began
an instructive laboratory exercise that allowed me to experiment with the drawings as well as with
voice, sound, and character-generated text. I spent a lot of time trying to assemble my footage in
a satisfying way. When I reached an impasse, I made still prints of selected shots (see appendix B).

Video-Graphic Alchemy

The dreamlike color photographs represent another transmutation of the early diary writing. These
photographs bear little resemblance to the black-and-white computer drawings from which they
originated, though traces of the diary writing can be discerned. In this respect, the color images
resemble a palimpsest.
I enjoyed making all these artifacts and working with different media, yet after a while I realized I
was searching for something else, something elusive I couldnt defineand there were no maps to
help me navigate through the space I had entered. Inexplicably compelled to proceed, despite
feeling lost, I moved ahead with the project, which seemed to acquire a life and momentum of its
own. In retrospect, I suspect that I wasnt as alone as I thought, for I believe unconscious forces
were at play, offering subtle hints and providing clues. During a particularly frustrating phase, I
found myself returning to the original diary writing to work through an idea that had come to me
while editing my video. Back at my computer, I typed passages from the diary and cut up the
printed copies into hundreds of little pieces that I then collaged together and taped onto sheets of
paper and large poster boards, sort of like assembling video footage or editing a film. Next, I
retyped the diary passages according to the collaged layouts. After finishing with my diary from
1964, I repeated the procedure for my diary from 1965.
These collages morphed into another transformation of the young girls writing, act 1 of Vagabond
Scribe, and Leah, a fictional character, emerged (see appendix C). Blending fact and fiction, I
developed the technique further in later chapters. Before long I had assembled an elaborate paper
trail corresponding to the first twenty-five years or so of a womans life. In this way the
protagonist of my story acquired a personal history along with a unique memory bank.
Video-Graphic Alchemy represents another experiment with image and text. Designed for both
the printed page and the computer screen, the intermedia collage brings together video stills from
Fifth-Grade School Sing and passages from act 2 and act 3 of Vagabond Scribe (see appendix D). In
this rendition, the childs diary writing evokes not only its distant past but also its recent
transformations and the conditions under which they occurred.
My excursions into new creative territory served me well. I learned that when I reached an impasse
with one medium, I could always turn to another medium or even create hybrids of my own. This
approach stimulated my imagination and opened me to unconscious stirrings that I might have
otherwise missed. By working through privately written texts in new spatial, temporal, and
discursive contexts, I expanded my repertoire and rechanneled memories. Intermedia convergences
played into the stage-by-stage construction of my stories. These dynamics also informed the
construction of a novel I wrote, Arellas Repertoire, the next transmutation of my personal
archives. On the cusp of 2000, Arella finds a home in cyberspace where she and Leah, her alter
ego, look backward to move ahead (see appendix E).
The transformations continue. First published as a printed book, Arellas Repertoire may resurface
in other formats, including scripted dance performances designed for interactive digital platforms,
as well as for print, film, or video.
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