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By Christine Wilks
Underbelly is a playable media fiction about a woman sculptor, carving on the site of a former colliery in the north of England, now landscaped into a country park. As she carves, she is disturbed by a medley of voices and the player/reader is plunged into an underworld of repressed fears and desires about the artist’s sexuality, potential maternity and worldly ambitions, mashed up with the disregarded histories of the 19th century women who once worked underground mining coal. (The texts are drawn from testimonies of women miners collected by Lord Ashley's Mines Commission of 1842, which exposed working conditions in the pits.) Created in Flash for the web, Underbelly incorporates a rich and often grotesque mix of imagery, spoken word, video, animation and text within a traversable map-like narrative terrain.
The many voices and layers of histories--of people and places--in Wilks’s work Underbelly reveal the complexities of recovering, retelling and re-experiencing women’s history. Through a woman sculptor’s eyes, the work’s layered aesthetics underscores the exploration, indeed unearthing, of women miners’ stories of their hardship as miners and women. The cultural work that Underbelly performs goes beyond its literary and aesthetic exploration of the operations of a multimodal work, to ask questions about the historiography of modern society. The work’s voices, at times speaking many at once, insist on our attention, and the voices of women who have long since died are revived and heard anew.