Martine Neddam’s Mouchette allows the user to discover Mouchette, a fictional 13-year-old character who is based on the protagonist of Robert Bresson’s eponymous film. However, Mouchette’s avatar on the Web is not the leading character in a story; rather, she acts as the user’s escort through the various sections of the website: appearing in the shape of a small fly fluttering around the screen, she invites him to perform concrete actions, i.e. he must answer her questions, enter into a dialogue with her, obey her orders and even personify her. Whereas Mouchette, in Bresson’s film, is a young rape victim with an alcoholic father and a dying mother, she becomes, in Neddam’s piece, a morbid and suicidal Dutch teenager.
Navigation through the website, which becomes labyrinthine due to the large number of hidden hyperlinks, allows the user to gradually get to know the young girl, who goads him into carrying out pernicious actions, such as killing a cat, squashing a fly, giving her advice on the best way to commit suicide at 13 or even sticking his tongue on hers. A subtle shift occurs: the user, who could initially take pleasure in exploring a deliberately kitschy website designed by 13-year-old child, suddenly finds himself confronted with difficult issues such as rape, suicide, sexually precocious teens and murder. Neddam fosters the user’s discomfort by adding here and there suggestive images and sounds.
As an artist fascinated with the performative aspect of language, Neddam found through the Internet a space of freedom (especially at the time of Mouchette’s creation) which allowed her to “represent language and participation through language, while at the same time creating life, simulating life through a fictional character” (Item 2008). For years, she chose to remain anonymous in order to maintain the credibility of Mouchette as the sole author of “Mouchette.org.” The website has the appearance of a personal Web page, and calls to mind a young girl’s diary. In this, we find one of the principal issues dealt with in Neddam’s art: the deliberate confusion of the public and the intimate spheres. By soliciting the users directly, asking them to provide their email address, including their responses in the piece, making them guilty of certain actions (such as killing a cat, for example), Mouchette as a character transforms the Internet, an essentially public space, into a private space – a space which allows, nonetheless, the public display of private information. Whether or not the user is aware of the fact that Mouchette is a fictional character is ultimately unimportant. Inevitably, a reciprocal relationship is established between the interactive device – the website – and the person who uses it, as the latter becomes an integral part of the piece, which requires of him that he accept “an artistic mythography and a fabricated identity if he is to enter into the game and to free his emotions by contributing his fantasies to the character’s composition” (Fourmentaux, 2008)
Neddam’s piece, not without reason, has been the object of much discussion in the field of hypermedia art. Not only did the artist explore the basic concepts of net.art, such as interactivity and fictional identity, but she did this using highly charged themes such as suicide and child pornography. The website at the time of its creation caused some very strong reactions. Many created parodies of the piece, Mouchette’s style was imitated, the work was even censored by Bresson’s widow who did not appreciate the fact that images taken from the film where used on the website… Someone even created an anti-Mouchette website (I Hate Mouchette), but, once again, it is impossible to know whether this was the work of Neddam herself or of other users outraged at Mouchette’s insensibility. Today, Neddam has shed her anonymity, yet Mouchette remains in the landscape of hypermedia art a central work because of the vast critical discourse which arose from it as well as the number of works created in its wake. Moreover, Neddam has not lost her fascination for the performative potential of language as embodied by virtual beings. She went on, following Mouchette, to create two new fictional identities, i.e. David Still and Xiao Quian. Though Mouchette no longer responds to her email as actively as she once did, it is still possible to write to her to suggest better ways of committing suicide and, upon receiving the young girl’s thanks, to see those suggestions posted in the site’s forum.