Shelley Jackson : Skin (2003)

Tattoos are an accumulation of ink pigment particles too large to be eaten by white blood cells, it is a technical invasion designed to exceed the body’s defences. Under the skin, injected, tattoo ink merges with the body, becomes part of it. Shelley Jackson’s Skin “A story published on the skin of 2095 volunteers” began with a published online call for volunteers to agree to merge with a story, to tattoo one word each on their body; the conditions:

“the text will be published nowhere else … The full text will be known only to participants … From this time on, participants will be known as ‘words’. They are not understood as carriers or agents of the texts they bear, but as its embodiments. … Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died. The author will make every effort to attend the funerals of her words.”

Skin forms a distributed network story, a collective meme viral archive of intimate ink injected into social psyche; the internet enabled it. Jackson’s work as an internet hypertext writer was seminal. Patchwork Girl, released by Eastgate Systems in 1995, was a branching narrative, retelling the story of Frankenstein, the word made flesh in cybernetic form available on usb stick for Macintosh at $24.95 (Jackson, 1995). Her work now extends that branching linked structure into the flesh of lived lives, the skin of bodies (that will over time wrinkle, distort and eventually decay) releasing one by one the text they hold. As she visits each funeral, the writing and erasure of the text constitute a story only she is told.


Jackson’s recent work continues this distributed patchwork publishing technique using ephemeral media (snow) and social networking (Instagram): Jackson, Shelley. “Snows” on Instagram, 2014. http://instagram.com/snowshelleyjackson

5 thoughts on “Shelley Jackson : Skin (2003)”

  1. I am checking the website; It is a beautiful artwork also a little scary … Can’t help thinking that these volunteers’ feeling and why they volunteered? Is it like has been recruited by some spy agency or cult organization. But it is also a meaningful network or a network means thing itself, may be some volunteers would rewrite or edit the text through add some other words asides the word assigned to them.

  2. by reading through her website, I was at the same time trying to analyse the initial excitement I have got when first read about the idea in this post. I think it’s sorta like a cult in a way as Jing said above but also a manifestation of the magic of the internet. How could the recruitment be possible in an era without internet? The map of “words” on her website shows that participants are from, while mostly the US, all over the world in the end. That’s beautiful.
    On the other hand, the commitment all the “words” made to the author is also impressive, vice versa. She promised to make every effort to attend all the words’ funerals, with whose lives passing away, the story will eventually die too.

  3. for me, i find that simple detail of promising to try to attend the funeral of her ‘words’ is such a profound sweet gesture … art comes down to those tiny details, which in this case, as a promise is actually an extreme commitment, an extended meditation on mortality (and flesh) enabled by the internet …

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