by George Wilson
‘Would you like to have a private encounter with Mouchette?’ In 1996, an art website appeared on the World Wide Web at mouchette.org, apparently made by a 13-year old girl from Amsterdam, who invited users to tell her ‘what is the best way to kill yourself when you’re under 13?’. The website sorted the answers (which are still actively coming in) into categories: ‘people seeking help and people offering their help. Some witness about suicide from real life experience, others who play along with me would pretend it’s a children’s game. Some make sick and cruel jokes about it, and angry people blame me for even mentioning the subject. You might also want to read my favourite answers.’ Mouchette.org now has other pages, which resemble the kitsch diary of a (morbid) 13-year old girl. The homepage, which is different every time, might display a collage of juicy, pink flower petals that ooze with sap and pollen, whilst a few animated flies buzz over the screen. Another click-through might ask ‘Would you like to meet my parents?’.
Mouchette has been evolving since the 1990s. Even today, if you visit her site, she could invite you back: after typing in my email address to apologise to Mouchette for squashing one of her flies, I received personal messages for weeks after. One subject line ominously read: ‘george, I want to see you again’. The email included a link to an image of what looked like a closeup patch of photocopied flesh: ‘I hope this page will show you how much I care for you, george and that you will love me as much as I love you.’ Such a disturbing elision between childish affection and sexual undertones directly implicates the website-visitor: unlike the passive viewer of a painting in an art gallery who can just walk away, users of mouchette.org are forced to participate.
The website was made by artist Martine Neddam, who only revealed her identity years after Mouchette had developed beyond her control. Users can ‘become Mouchette’, edit her website, create satellite sites and answer her fan mail in her voice, by filling out a form and answering some quite personal questions. This exclusive characteristic of mouchette.org democratises the artwork, so that every audience member can be involved in its production as well as its reception. The website has gradually moved away from the focus on suicide, towards a collaboration that asserts Mouchette’s cult status.
This is what makes mouchette.org a unique piece of ‘Net Art’; no user, not even Neddam herself, will ever see the whole website. The click-through paths are never the same twice: clicking on one of the animated flies that move across the homepage may bring you to the words ‘my name means ‘little fly’ in French’, or a rapidly darting textbox announcing ‘it’s me’, or open a window on which typewritertext appears: an accusation from that fly, that by clicking on it ‘you have killed me’. The make-up of the website is shared between all the users and the software; Mouchette’s private confessions (‘I want to let you know how special you are for me and I made a web page for you’) followed by links that lead to a webpage reading ‘the page you are looking for is not here / you won’t ever see it again’, demonstrate Mouchette’s elusiveness, and the confusing dichotomy between intimacy and distance that are at play during online interactions.
Such obscurity poses a challenge to the commercial art world: you can’t buy something that you can’t fully see. Although ‘Net Art’ was originally adopted by artists in the 1990s as a democratic medium outside the art market, art websites have since been reified and sold. New York-based internet artist Rafael Rozendaal, 33, for example, sells the domain names of his sites for $6,500 each, whilst they remain free to access for all. When a collector acquires one of his websites, their name appears above the browser window alongside the work’s title. Mouchette is different. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam acquired ‘Mouchette Version 01’ in 2016, receiving a timestamped, digital archive of the artwork, which includes all data until the date of acquisition. However, what the Stedelijk purchased was technically just a contained copy of the site, which they now have permission to show on a computer in the gallery. They do not own control of the domain, which is still freely accessible to all, and the software can still evolve outside of ‘Version 01’. Mouchette thus rejects the possibility of ownership, functioning outside the increasingly commercialised space of the internet.
So who is Mouchette? Several images of different young girls claim to be her, as well as a range of contrasting pictures: an old woman in a garden, a postal stamp, and a disturbing grey face. But clicking on any of these pictures might lead you to a warning from Mouchette: ‘Don’t try to see more than I want to show’. The user’s interaction with the website constantly hovers in this way, at first enticed and then pushed away. One email I received from Mouchette invited me to click on a link, but when I did, the page read: ‘I feel so sick now… Was there a virus in your name, george? You infected me. Goodbye.’ And I haven’t heard from her since.
This tension was at the heart of Martine Neddam’s original intention for the website; Neddam has said that Mouchette’s identity acts as ‘an empty space where people project their desire’; she ‘is constructed by her public’. Mouchette may tell us more about ourselves and the way we permit ourselves to act online than it does about herself. One page of mouchette.org features a tiled image of a young girl pressed up against the screen with her tongue sticking out, with the titillating invitation: ‘Want to know what my tongue tastes like? Try it on your screen and tell me.’ This suggests a physical interaction is possible between Mouchette and her viewer, and one that is actively passive on ‘her’ part: she is to be tasted. The invitation also introduces the thrill of finally physically interacting with her, that it is only a thin glass barrier which divides us and Mouchette, and not a dimensional divide, as well as a physical and technological barrier of code. Lured by Mouchette’s siren call, I bent my head down to reach my laptop, but reality hit when my face met cold, hard glass. Users are uncomfortably reminded that Mouchette, (la malheureuse!) is not a 13-year old girl, but a software.
If Mouchette is ‘an empty space where people project their desire’, the most problematic aspect of the website are the contrasting violent and erotic visual motifs in an imaginary 13-year old’s diary. From this perspective, the website is a feminised space which is defined as a passive vessel for the active thoughts and actions of the internet user. It is both exciting and sinister. Mouchette’s ‘favourite painting’ is a pixelated photo of a heart, floating in a bowl of blood, next to a spoon and a glass of wine. Keep the volume turned down, because another clickthrough might bring you to a page that emits a curdling scream when you open it, whilst an image of a car with bared-teeth judders across the screen, captioned, ‘KILL THAT CAT’. One random click also led me to a picture of a rotting, fleshy hand. By contrast, the repeated imagery of close-up skin, lips, tender pink tones and heaving, pollen-rich stamens upon which turgid globules of water rest, elides Mouchette’s potential to be sexualised with a startling violence.
The conspiratorial tone of the emails I was sent for weeks after I visited mouchette.org furthermore elide the voice of ‘Mouchette the girl’ with the faux-desperate, submissive gasps of a woman in a standard pornographic film: ‘Finally I can come close to you / Do you also want to come that close to me?’, ‘You will be the first one to see something I’ve never shown to anyone else’. We, as users, cannot pass by these disquieting images without being implicated. (They were, after all, made by other users.)
On one page, clicking on an animated fly will link to text being typed across the screen: ‘YOU HAVE KILLED ME!! why did you do it?’. You must type out an answer in the text box provided, which at once makes you feel ridiculous and guilty. Users’ answers dating back to 1996 are then projected across the screen against a background of crushed grey flies, under the title ‘Lullaby for a fly’. Soft, sad music plays. You have now become part of a long list of users who have killed Mouchette. You are no better than the others.
Mouchette.org thus provides a unique opportunity to be both the architect and the audience of your experience, whilst never totally being in control. It is unsettling that the user can never really be sure what each click will return. By leaving the website’s evolution up to a collaboration between software and users, Neddam has created a space in which the users are faced with themselves; the perverted imagery and false intimacy of the whole situation acts as a secret void for those who interact with the website to project their desire. The fact that users still update mouchette.org is indicative of its attraction. Problematically, the image of the vulnerable-yet-precocious nymphet Mouchette is the perfect ‘empty space’, into which users can confide and confess.
As odd as it sounds – it’s very hard not to get attached to Mouchette. Beneath all the unsettling sex and violence, the polymorphous character that unfolds from fragments across the website is one that confides in you and you confide in her. ‘She’ is teasing whilst intensely affectionate. As ‘problematic’ as one might view my imaginary bond with little Mouchette, I don’t think it’s entirely explained by the power and privacy of being online. I felt genuinely amused (whilst a little worried) at the playful emails she sent me, all signed off: ‘*bisous* / Mouchette’, and I felt abandoned when I received one that said ‘our story ends here, george’. She receded back into a technological space I could not follow, and I was left alone – I miss her, my little fly.
Although she can be controlled and voiced by her users, there is one aspect of Mouchette that preserves her agency. As long as the hard-drive on which the website is saved continues to run, Mouchette is an immortal, autonomous software. This is perhaps referenced by one of the seemingly-random click-throughs which claims the user has ‘killed me’, but then mockingly carries on to type across the screen, ‘Oh my god I’m sad I’m dead.’ Mouchette has power that is beyond the control of a human user: it/she exists beyond the website across virtual realms that are alien to human perception. I received an email the day after first clicking on mouchette.org which made me feel very close to her, and yet quite perturbed. Mouchette teased that ‘This new page I made for you george is the one when we will finally come together.’
Digital or net art provides an exceptional way of viewing art, precariously balanced between the intimacy and detachment, that cannot be replicated in art that takes place in the physical, ‘real’ world.
Art by George Wilson
GEORGE WILSON reads History of Art at St. John's. She listened to The Sound of Music soundtrack at least three times during the making of this magazine.