March 22-25, 2006
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Papers: Whale Chong: An Audiovisual Whaling
Polyphony from the Bergen Museum, Norway

Nina Svane-Mikkelsen, University of Bergen, Norway


Whale Chong is Web-application, a rich media Flash application, published at the official Internet site of Bergen Museum, The Department of Natural History (BNH), as part of the outreach of the museum. The theme of Whale Chong is whales, in a broad sense, but there is a specific focus on the whaling industry and whales as food. The goals of the project included exploring new media and artistic modes of expression, aiming for efficient yet different communication on natural science, seeing art and science as two often very differently organized attempts to explain or describe the world.

In the production of Whale Chong I carried out all roles except the sound work done by the Norwegian sound artist Audun Eriksen. The sound is definitely ‘his sound’.

Key words: whale, Whale Chong, whaling industry, new media, art perspective, polyphony


The idea behind the production was, as part of my master thesis, to explore means of communication using new media within a museum environment with what I called artistic modes of expression. The goals of the project included aiming for possibly efficient and different communication on natural science, seeing art and science as two often very differently organized attempts to explain or describe the world, complementing each other with their sometimes opposite views and insights to the world. The new media project idea I was presenting for the museum with an art perspective was quite far from the everyday mindset of BNH. What I could offer was providing a different trajectory through their material based on an analysis of what stories are not already told or communicated through the museum exhibitions.

In this text I will introduce specific goals of communication of Whale Chong and address aspects of narratology, also including a game perspective and seeing Whale Chong as an ‘instrumental text,’ to use a concept from Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Wardrip-Fruin 2003). I will show how algorithms and other game-like features carry stories within the work and how this is intertwined with the themes and goals of communication. This shows how the form and content are meant to support each other and provides an ‘entrance to the work’ for users at the conference. This is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis. Many issues are not addressed since this text is serving the purpose of ‘wrapping up the project’ for a nice presentation at the Conference Museums and The Web 2006, Albuquerque, New Mexico. A more in depth analysis, discussion and comparison of Whale Chong and physical museum exhibitions can found in my thesis Some aspects of communication pedagogy in museums and new media (Svane-Mikkelsen 2003).

Artistic Practice

Throughout the work I have positioned some parts within the frames of ‘art’. I am referring to ‘artistic ways of expression’ and a work process. I have often used it as a negation due to lack of a better concept: what I was producing was not a documentary, not fiction, not a narrative, not a database for the museum. An artwork seemed to be the most precise description, though the term is used unpretentiously. The best definition might be found in the meaning that Lars Svendsen gives the concept of contemporary art when he argues for finishing up the modern concept of Art, with a big ‘A’, the ‘Big Fine Art’, as a privileged room of reflection separated from other areas of human activities (Svendsen 2000). He's not declaring the death of art, but ‘death of’ monopoly and autonomy, marginality and exclusivity, and proposes a concept of 'all the small arts'. He suggests that we concentrate on the single works of art and what he calls an aesthetic production that every one of us can evaluate aesthetically - works we experience and evaluate and judge and sometimes also learn from when they let us see something we’ve overlooked, or think something un-thought of (Svendsen 2000:125). It is from this perspective my use of the concept must be understood. Furthermore, challenges of representation also concern artists and the arts. Contemporary artists are forced to relate to the grand narratives of (first and foremost) the art museums and position themselves accordingly. It’s part of the work of a visual artist to relate to an exhibition space in some way. Visual artists have valuable practical experience and theoretical knowledge on representation, using a wide range of media types and practical hands-on experience. Museums can benefit from this competency, and with Whale Chong I was aiming to work with unexpected constellations contributing to telling other stories as part of the outreach of BNH, and through this giving my suggestions on how to make use of new story tools within the science museum.

Fig 1: Whale Chong screen shot, close-up, showing the layout and structure of the interface of Whale Chong. Here each of the twelve fields is clicked once; thus the snapshot shows what we can call layer 1.

Fig 1: Whale Chong screen shot, close-up, showing the layout and structure of the interface of Whale Chong. Here each of the twelve fields is clicked once; thus the snapshot shows what we can call layer 1.

Screen Appearance - On The Narratology Of Whale Chong

Whale Chong is made for the Web: this means, by today’s standards, primarily for the computer screen, key board and mouse. It takes up the whole screen when it is launched. Figure 1 showing the interface of Whale Chong gives a first glance at its structural design and visual appearance, and also reveals some narrative aspects. The application appears as a total ‘image’ consisting of 12 fields on the screen space. Each field is an interactive hotspot and contains 13 different layers in depth that can be changed by the user until the fragments of the 12 fields constitute a more whole or coherent image and sound layer than appears if one chooses randomly among the fields.

Fig 2: A model showing a graphical overview of what can be called the ‘4x3x13’ interface structure of Whale Chong.

Fig 2: A model showing a graphical overview of what can be called the ‘4x3x13’ interface structure of Whale Chong.

Thus Whale Chong appears as a kind of jigsaw puzzle of fragmented stories and also as a story of fragments that requires action to be read - it has to ‘put together’ to be better understood. To understand how this is connected to the core messages of Whale Chong, we must take a closer look at the subject and sub-themes of the work.

Becoming A Whaling Project

The Museum in Bergen houses one of the largest collections of whale skeletons in Europe. In fact it is believed to be the biggest collection of whale skeletons from a world perspective (Hufthammer 2003). Doing a whale project for the museum appealed strongly to me. I immediately saw the potential for political scope in the topic, considering Norway’s position within the international community when it comes to whaling. Therefore the theme of whales was quickly narrowed down to an emphasis on the whaling industry and seeing whales as food - with an underlying core issue, communication, a major concern of this work.

The communication perspective of the issue concerns me a lot because I realize that the subject of whaling is almost impossible to discuss on a factual level within ‘International Society’, even if you come up with any, even the most cautious and well founded, pro-whaling arguments. Norway is about the only nation worldwide still having a small commercial minke whaling industry, and this puts Norway in a difficult position since most other nations today are anti-whaling. As a Dane having lived more than 12 years in Norway, I understand better today the complexity of the theme of whaling. I have more of a Norwegian perspective and see how little this perspective is communicated through international mass media. Norway and Japan appear as the ‘bad guys’ in a black and white world where a worldwide ban against whaling is considered the only responsible way to preserve the whales (and which considers all whale species as one). The scale of this ‘black and white’ situation seems to be global: almost everybody with access to mass media, especially television, knows about ‘the whale-case.’ The political correct opinion is a ‘world-wide whaling ban’. On the other hand, coverage of Greenpeace’s activities, for instance, is almost absent from Norwegian media except when it is related to the ‘whale-case’, thus underlining the whaling/anti-whaling dichotomy. Greenpeace’s activities do involve preserving maritime resources in many ways, and this goal, one should think, must be highly important for a maritime nation such as Norway.

Coverage of whaling in the mass media is re-enforcing the discourse of ‘opposite sides in an unsolvable conflict with only one solution’, as if there is only one type of whale in the world and only one whale-case, ignoring, passively or actively, important facts that might contribute to a better understanding of the complexity of the subject. This misinformation and the communication-block are a starting point for Whale Chong - beginning with establishing a sense of polyphony instead of global consensus.

Fig 3: When playing the Whale Chong object, one gets associations to a jigsaw puzzle. The audience-user can put together more coherent layers with corresponding sound, visuals and sub-theme. For instance, here the Chapter Modern Whaling is found.

Fig 3: When playing the Whale Chong object, one gets associations to a jigsaw puzzle. The audience-user can put together more coherent layers with corresponding sound, visuals and sub-theme. For instance, here the Chapter Modern Whaling is found.

The Chapters of Whale Chong

The 13 different layers of depth constitute 12 different Chapters that can be put together. I gave the different Chapters names in the process of working with the material, but these headings are not present in Whale Chong: they don’t interrupt the flow. The headings are:

  • Eating Whale
  • Mrs. Penniman
  • Whaleman's Log (2 layers)
  • Crazy Insights
  • Cartoon Living
  • National Norway
  • New Age
  • Debating Whaling 1 and Debating Whaling 2
  • Modern Whaling
  • Whale TV
  • Looking under Water

The Chapters ‘Mrs. Penniman’, ‘Whaleman’s Log’ and ‘Modern Whaling’ show fragments of the modern whaling history. ‘Mrs. Penniman’ brings in a female voice from the second half of the 19th century, while displaying extracts from a journal made on a long whaling voyage by the wife of the doctor on board (Partsch, Dorinda (ed.) 1989). The texts give glimpses of a more privileged woman’s thoughts and daily work on board the ship. ‘Whaleman’s Log’, on the other hand, shows the drama of 19th century whaling from the perspective of men, whalemen, displaying animated text-extracts from around the same historical period. Here the whale is almost demonised; at the least, monstrous qualities are seen in the animal. Here is an emphasis on the danger of the hunt and the romance of adventure. The voices of these two Chapters give us glimpses from a historic reality where it actually was heroic to approach a whale as a prey - in small boats lowered from a sailing ship, armed with hand-lances or primitive harpoons. ‘Modern Whaling’ shows images from a more modern whaler of the 20th century, taking in a whale, and contains text animations with short factual explanations on how this is done.

Other Chapters address the present dispute on whaling directly, like the chapters ‘Debating Whaling 1’ and ‘Debating Whaling 2’, which present original arguments for and against whaling. These were downloaded from the Internet, animated, and shown on fields of black and white: there are strong connotations of a chessboard when they are put together as a Chapter that displays multiple arguments appearing simultaneously in repetitious loops. In the chapter ‘New Age’, the domestication of nature and the personification of wild animals are handled in an ironic collage of visuals with religious connotations and commercial texts on ‘wild life products’. In the chapter ‘Eating Whale’, whales are further de-romanticised by adding the rare perspective of seeing the minke whale as meat and healthy food. Altogether, a non-romantic view on whales is displayed in different ways, from different perspectives. Whale Chong sympathizes with the Norwegian ‘lack of voice’ in the present situation. This can be found specifically in the chapter ‘National Norway’, showing the Norwegian flag with roll-over texts on Norwegian whaling. The text is from a South African newspaper article of today and reflects a rare understanding of the Norwegian situation, maybe due to the whaling history of South Africa. Cape Town was an important whaling port in the past.

On the other hand, Whale Chong is also advocating responsibility towards preserving all whale species. The whales are celebrated as the fantastic animals they are in, for instance, the playful chapters of ‘Cartoon Living’ and ‘Looking under Water’. These chapters explore and enjoy representations of the animals and details of behaviours. In The chapter ‘Whale TV’, showing fragments from a television documentary on the big whales, rolling texts (as rollover effect) and animation that makes small television screens change in lightness add a poetic dimension. Television as a medium is discussed in several ways through the implementation of fields showing small television screens. In the chapter ‘Crazy Insights’, television anchorpersons utter absurd text-comments that are shown in animated speech bubbles, adding to ‘the feeling of many voices’ that mix with the poetic dimensions of Whale Chong.

There are visual elements that are repeated across chapters and thus function as bridges and get larger symbolic attention. Other elements are noticed because they represent breaks from the overall visual make-up, like the human eye and the mouth animation of high photographic (bitmap) quality. In Whale Chong, the human mouth and eye are used as metaphors for understanding and communicating: for ‘seeing things’ and ‘talking things over’, and also for ‘closing your eyes to things’ and ‘not speaking up’, ‘swallowing things’, ‘uttering’, ‘eating’, ‘watching’ and so forth (the very point of the metaphor being the many nuances that are contained within one ‘image’). These symbols ‘put up an umbrella’ over the different chapters of Whale Chong, pointing to the presence of an interpretative mind and the fact that the whale-case first and foremost is many whale-cases, and, most important, is a human-case. To illustrate this point: we have a situation where the choices of a relatively few people in recent history drove many of the big whale species towards extinction. That a few people didn’t care or think about sustainability was bad enough. On the other hand, today, the resources put into freeing Willy, one single killer whale, from captivity mirror another kind of lack of ‘sustainability’ or balance. One can only imagine how these resources could have benefited wild whale stocks if invested in them. All in all, it is human decisions we need to focus on.

The Game Algorithm As A Narrative Grip

In Whale Chong a lot of factual information is given, and it is done in a very visual manner: Whale Chong looks like a colourful animated cartoon where even text is treated like an image and integrated into the audiovisual animated layout. A computer program ‘dictates’ the accessibility of the information. According to Lev Manovich (Manovich 2001), all new media objects can be described as a database of objects in a fundamental sense, and a program that creates meaning in important ways. The programming possibilities of new media offer expanded possibilities for joining form and content. They transcend the inherent preference for database within new media and provide new perspectives for cultural production. The game worlds of new media make use of these possibilities to a large degree.

According to Manovich: “ (…) computer games do not follow database logic, they appear to be ruled by another logic - that of algorithm. They demand that a player execute an algorithm in order to win.” (Manovich 2001:222). Whale Chong can be seen as a database of different media types, but when it comes to structuring the information and the options it gives the user, Whale Chong is a game-like object, not explicitly a database. Again according to Manovich, in a game the user is given a well-defined task and is thus turned into ‘a player’ who must make decisions and execute actions to make something happen in order to win. The player of games “must uncover the underlying logic of the games while proceeding through them - their algorithm” (Manovich 2001:225), and this is where narratives and games can be considered similar: “… in a game, from the users point of view, all the elements are motivated (i.e. their presence is justified)” (Manovich 2001:222). The process of discovering the rules of the game while completing the task of the game is what makes the user experience the game as a narrative where all elements are motivated, as opposed to databases that: “appear arbitrary because the user knows that additional material could have been added without modifying the logic (…)” (Manovich 2001:222). Considering the structure of the physical exhibitions of whale skeletons at BNH where the whale skeletons are hanging in numbers from the ceiling, it is clear that another skeleton can be added without much notice (if there were more room left...). At the Zoological Museum in Copenhagen, on the other hand, a baleen and a toothed whale are presented, wrapped in a ‘story space’ of the two main types, and here it would be harder to just put in another item without reconsidering the whole exhibition.

Within new media the task of programming can be seen then as ‘organising for an algorithm loop under the imperative of database’. Manovich, using Will Wright, the author of The Sims games, describes game play as a continuous loop between the user and the computer. The users view results and input decisions, and the computer calculates outcomes and displays them back to the users. This way the users are trying to build mental models of the computer model - the game. (Manovich 2001:223) Of course games are not the only structures that activate narrative mechanisms or create narrative structures within new media, but they are an important one, one that takes advantage of the inherent programming possibilities of the media.

When it comes to Whale Chong, one effect of the programming is that the object is experienced as game-like. The user-expectations provided by what we can call the game-algorithm are an important part of the narratology of Whale Chong. Even though Whale Chong is a simple game, a spatial jigsaw puzzle, it will, because of the task of completing it, be experienced more in the nature of ‘story’ than ‘database’. It can be argued that Whale Chong is not much of a game because of the limited consequences of the choices made by the user. It has a very simple algorithmic loop of users’ choices/actions and computer’s calculations of outcome, but it is just as important that the structure invites users to ‘think in terms of game’ because it motivates the interaction as described above and ‘activates narrative (thinking)’. The reward of seeing more total images when putting it together in the Chapters provides the users with the pleasure, to use a concept from Jane H. Murray (Murray 1997), of completing or ‘winning’ identical with that of games. One could say there is pleasure in understanding the algorithm and executing it. In Whale Chong the game structure comments on the information-gap and miscommunication that is part of the theme by making the players collect fragments of information, and just by presenting the controversial theme within the unpretentious frames of the game. Using this strategy also represents an important ‘break’ from the traditional style of museum pedagogy at BNH and is part of my pedagogical strategy for targeting and engaging primarily a younger audience-user group.

Whale Chong is like a Rubrick’s cube without the complexity of choices that constitute the task of putting together a Rubrick’s cube since the fields of the cubes cannot be moved separately. Each interaction on the cube moves 12 coloured fields, all the fields in that row, around the cube, so users have to think ‘spatially’ and ‘algorithmically’ (a choice in one place affects the situation in another place) to position all the colours right. In Whale Chong there is no algorithm that makes the choices the user makes affect other fields: changing one field changes only that particular field. It is simple feedback where only the layer of the field is changed and you lose only the field on top. Whale Chong is predictable on this formal game level. But it could be overwhelming with its appearance of fragments rich in visual and aural information, and it might be a big enough task to try to put this together (with all the extra aural and visual information present that you cannot avoid in the process of finding a Chapter). Playing Whale Chong is a process of trying to understand the inherent logic of the project. The displayed themes and story fragments on the content level (what can be seen/heard in each field) hold rich information and complex logic, but the algorithm is simple and the navigational skills required the same. In many games we find the opposite relationship between algorithm and other content.

The different Chapters in Whale Chong both do and don’t share logic, and it is the user’s task to figure this out. There are two major Chapter principles: some Chapters constitute one bigger image when put together (like, for instance, National Norway showing the flag). Other Chapters consists of a mosaic of smaller images connected by sharing some features, like telling fragments of a similar story or being related visually (like the 12 small television screens in Whale TV). Having these two types of overall Chapter structure makes the normal screen image of Whale Chong, which is in ‘mixed Chapter mode’, a combination of fields of small ‘whole pictures’ (one could say that we here get a whole picture of ‘the particular’) with fields containing big fragments of non-comprehendible shapes that cannot be understood properly without more fields of the same material being collected. (One could say that we here get ‘a particular’ (part) of the whole picture). The Chapters consisting of 12 fields of 12 small images can of course also be understood more fully, and enjoyed as a more coherent whole, if put together, since the fields support each other visually, aurally and theme-wise.

The analogy, within this structure, to the message of ‘complex issues’ in Whale Chong is obvious. The Chapters are both united and separated by visual and phonetic ‘markers’; each Chapter has a logic and appearance more or less separated from other Chapters. Similarity in colour tone, graphic content and animation style indicates that fields in a Chapter are related. For instance, in the chapter ‘Crazy Insights’, the visual pattern is a mosaic of television screens and animated anatomical drawing of eyes sending their field of vision towards the television screens. Thus we find television screens in more than one Chapter. But in ‘Crazy Insights’ they are more cartoon-like than in ‘Whale TV’ and match in style, colour use, and position in the system of fields, the mentioned eye animations. The animated speech bubbles that are also part of ‘Crazy Insights’ are utilized in yet other chapters, but in varied ways. Thus it is diverse principles of similarities and differences that constitute the logic of Whale Chong to be figured out. The cross-chapter similarities make it relevant to also put together patterns of fields that are not ‘chapters’. As I mentioned previously, the chapter headings used here are not present in Whale Chong; consequently, when ‘playing it’ the concept of chapters might be less dominant. Altogether the process of ‘playing’ is more important than ‘winning’.

Whale Chong, by structure, programming and visual appearance, and also through choice of title, draws on game connotations and logic, thus suggesting certain behaviours and providing certain pleasures to its users. But Whale Chong might be more of ‘an instrument for meditation over a subject’, more of a poem, than a clear-cut game. In the next section I will briefly outline how this can be described.

Instrumental Whale Chong

Game features of Whale Chong place it closer to the story than to the database. The concept of instrumental text as outlined by Noah Wardrip-Fruin is useful for getting further understanding of the pleasures an object like Whale Chong offers users and how database elements are motivated. Following Wardrip-Fruin, instrumental texts are new media texts (or objects) meant to be played, and instrumental texts provide ‘affordances’ for such play much as folk musical instruments do (e.g. the frets on a guitar). Instrumental texts provide opportunities for practice, and reward mastery (Wardrip-Fruin 2003). So far, this sounds much like computer games. But following Wardrip-Fruin further, the type of engagement that authors of instrumental texts hope to produce is more musical than game-like. I will add poetry to this analogy. Thus, instrumental texts can also be seen to be more poetic than game-like. The engagement in such texts can be described as more like ‘noodling around’ on a guitar than proceeding towards a winning state. The process comes to the front and there might be no winning state at all to proceed to, like when playing without any element of competition. This is a description that fits very well with and describes my goals for the use of Whale Chong. Whale Chong is an instrumental text on whaling where the task of ‘noodling it’ is big enough and a goal in itself. This makes sense when we consider the reversed relationship between algorithm and other content in Whale Chong compared to other games as mentioned in the last section. The idea of completing all chapters is an option, but when playing Whale Chong there are many combinations of chapters to be explored visually and aurally. It is a combined surreal and factual ‘piece of music’ and ‘musical instrument’ where rhythm (repetition) and pace play important roles. The arrangement of sound, visuals and animation, combined with users’ choices ,creates this pace and rhythm.

Staying with the analogy of a musical instrument, I will finish up by taking a brief look at how sound in Whale Chong is important and how the sound work of Audun Eriksen, the selection of sounds and the programming, support and reinforce seeing and using Whale Chong as an instrumental text. Whale Chong navigation depends on recognition and disguise also when it comes to the use of sounds. All sounds in Whale Chong are placed as rollover sounds and almost each field has a sound. Each chapter contains sounds that are closely related: if the users put together a total Chapter, not only will the visuals form a more coherent totality, but the sound will also do that. Examples of different ‘soundtracks’ are the different sounds of breaths in ‘Mrs. Penniman’, the heartbeats in ‘Whaleman’s Log’, the different radio signals in ‘National Norway’, ‘nonsense’ sounds (including fragments of human speech and nursery rhymes) in ‘Crazy Insights’, and metallic machine sounds in ‘Modern Whaling’. It is actually possible to put together chapters without looking at the visuals, by putting together related sounds. The effect of structuring the sound like this is that each chapter works like a simple instrument, a ‘scale’ of similar sounds, that can be played by activating the rollovers on the whole screen space. Of course one can also create other sound collages across chapters and play them in ‘rollover-mode’ (using the screen space as a musical instrument without shifting fields). Or one can be ‘noodling around’ the fields of sounds and noises of all chapters for the sake of exploring and receiving this polyphonic work.

Even if the goals and pleasures are different within games and instrumental texts/objects, both structures remove the focus from the work as a database, a collection of items from the Internet, and shift towards seeing it as closer to narrative - a work of elements justified by causal relationships. These forms are worth taking a much closer look at for future museum communication work, digital or physical. They are a communicative supplement to the extensive focus on ‘accessibility’ where collections digitized as searchable databases are a prime concern.

Because They Are Stupid…?

When collecting documentation at the Zoological Museum in Copenhagen in 2001, I overheard a conversation between a mother and a child that provides a good example of the general attitude towards present Norwegian minke whaling. That attitude is a consequence of the previously mentioned media coverage of the theme: in the exhibition Animal Life of the Oceans, a little girl in headphones in front of graphical panels on whaling and whale products throughout history is listening to a voice-over narrator. She tells her mother that “Whales have been hunted for thousands of years!” and the mother replies, saying, “Today it is only Norway and Japan doing this.” The girl says “Why?” and the mother replies, “Because they are stupid” (and there the conversation between the two stopped). Meeting that attitude of no real arguments based on no real knowledge on the subject seems, from my experience, to be more the rule than the exception in the western world of today. I hope that by now I have managed to show how that ‘no-room for discussion’, this communication gap, is questioned in Whale Chong - and that, with Whale Chong, I have exemplified how a highly personal contribution can be presented in the institutional setting of the science museum as part of the communication outreach of the place.

In the process of putting together the Whale Chong chapters, users meet a lot of fragmented information and must struggle to find meaning. This way the piece questions easy solutions and comments on the present discourse of anti- and pro- whaling by putting the ideas side by side in an uncommon way. Targeting primarily a younger user group, the idea is to encourage independent thinking in an unpretentious way. I hope that your ‘noodling’ around in Whale Chong unravels a playful and humorous counter strategy to the somewhat aggressive tone in arenas of black and white discourse and reveals the suggestion that absolute points of view doesn’t serve the purpose of either preserving the whale species or protecting whaling communities.


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Karin Hufthammer, A. and J. C. Nordbotten, A Whale Of A Website, IN D.Bearman and J. Trant (Eds.), Museums and the Web 2003: Proceedings. Last updated March 13, 2005. Consulted February 21, 2006.

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Wardrip-Fruin, Noah. September 2003, On New Media, Instrumental Texts and a self presentation (no precise title) at Institute of Humanistic Informatics, University of Bergen, Norway.

Cite as:

Svane-Mikkelsen N., Whale Chong: An Audiovisual Whaling Polyphony from the Bergen Museum, Norway, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2006 at