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Electronic 'Lucy' site invites storytellers

"This is the story of Lucy Anna Morel, who lived in the year 1900 until an accident with electricity turned her into electricity itself. As a result of this accident, Lucy has traveled in time to our year 2000. She is inside the Internet, inside your computer, and she wants to talk."

Thus begins The Electric Travels of Lucy Anna Morel, the brainchild of performance/installation artist Ellen Zweig, MIT artist-in-residence, who calls her web-based creation a "science fiction story about science history."

The project, which Ms. Zweig has developed over the past three months with a team of eight MIT undergraduate and graduate students, will run from December 11-15.

Lucy's "story" will be presented as what Ms. Zweig calls a "distributed, collaborative, interactive story" -- a serial narrative written over the five days by Ms. Zweig herself, members of her MIT student team and visitors to the web site.

The inspiration for the fictional Lucy Anna Morel came from Ms. Zweig's interest in "lady travelers" from the Victorian era. "As a child, I dreamed of traveling to China, but I was afraid it wouldn't be the same as my fantasy," she said. "When I was older, I became interested not so much in travel but in people's fantasies about travel." The Victorian lady travelers provide "a good place to explore fantasies about travel," she said.

"I've been making performances about Victorian lady travelers for the past 20 years," the New York-based artist continued. "I wanted to see what would happen if one of my travelers went into the Internet."

The web site will feature a chat space in which Lucy (played by Ms. Zweig) will communicate (in character) with visitors to the web site and with other characters that have been created by the MIT students involved in the project. The site will also include a webcam, through which Lucy will view -- and respond to -- objects and people from the here-and-now, which will be visible to web site visitors as well. "Imagine this as a combination of a written story and a play," said Ms. Zweig.

Ultimately, visitors to the site can help decide Lucy's fate, says Ms. Zweig. "Will she go home to the year 1900 or will she materialize in the year 2000?" the web site will ask. By adding facts to an "interactive, zoomable map of knowledge," visitors can build up alternative world views from each century; Lucy will live in the world with the most facts, says Ms. Zweig.

"I'm not interested in bringing back the 19th century or going back to it," Ms. Zweig said. "I'm interested in what it's like for the 19th century to invade the present, because it still lives in the present. Inventions like cinema, photography, the typewriter, computer, phonograph; ideas like psychoanalysis, alienation, sexual repression -- all these we have from the 19th century," she said. The web-based project will allow visitors to "explore the past in order to understand the present," she added.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 6, 2000.

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