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#ELRFEAT: Interview with Mark Bernstein (2010)

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In 2010 Judy Malloy made an interview with Mark Bernstein, chief scientist at Eastgate Systems, the publisher and software company founded in the year 1982 and headquartered in Massachusetts. With permission of the author the ELR republishes this interesting and insightful interview that was first published on the webpage narrabase.net.

 

About Mark Bernstein: Mark Bernstein is chief scientist at Eastgate Systems in Watertown, Massachusetts, where he develops new hypertext tools including Tinderbox, Twig, and Storyspace. He is the author of The Tinderbox Way, which describes the design philosophy of Tinderbox as a personal content assistant for visualizing, analyzing, and sharing notes, and co-editor with Diane Greco of Reading Hypertext. For over twenty-five years, Eastgate has published original hypertext fiction and nonfiction and pioneered hypertext tools for writers. A graduate of Swarthmore College, Bernstein received his PhD (in Chemistry) from Harvard University.

In addition to his work as publisher and software developer, he is an internationally known lecturer for hypertext learning and literature. In 2010, he was a keynote speaker at the 1st International Conference on Web Studies at Toluca, Mexico, as well as a speaker at The Futures of Digital Studies 2010, the University of Florida and at Hypertext 2010 in Toronto.

In his interesting, informative responses to the interview questions, Bernstein talks about the history of Storyspace and Eastgate. The interview concludes with his lively, educational, sometimes practical, sometimes provocative advice to new writers of hypertext narratives and with a look to the future of computer-mediated literature.

 

Judy Malloy: How did you get started working with hypertext literature?

Mark Bernstein: I met Ted Nelson in 1976. Ted was briefly flirting with an academic career. I was in college. Computer Lib had just been published, and Ted was working on what would become Literary Machines.

Years passed; I got my doctorate and went down to DuPont to help set up an AI research group. When that blew up — DuPont wanted all its AI work to be done in FORTRAN IV — I came back to Eastgate to work on electronic books. Even in 1987, it was clear that the future of serious reading lies on the screen. I wanted to be part of that, and this seemed to be a research area within the scope of a small, independent firm. We started to publish hypertexts after the second hypertext conference in 1989. In those days, everyone was desperate to know whether people would (or could) read hypertexts. Everyone in the field had built their own hypertext system; they wrote hypertexts themselves, assigned graduate students to perform evaluative studies,and recruited their own undergraduates to serve as test subjects. It was the very definition of a methodological problem, and it seemed a good solution might be to provide some well-known “standard” hypertexts.

And so we published afternoon, and Victory Garden, and then King Of Space and Quibbling and its name was Penelope.

These hypertexts helped focus discussion. For the first time, if you and I wanted to talk about the craft of hypertext writing, we could talk about a specific work we’d both read, a work with some ambition and scope, a work we could admire and with which we might disagree. That gets us beyond the broad generalities and simple-minded media essentialism that still dominates so much discussion of the Web.

Judy Malloy: You did a great service to the field by being one of the first to publish classic works in the field. In addition to scholarship and research in the field, from a writer’s point of view the enrichment of our practice through being able to read what others in the field were/are creating has been very influential in the development of hyperfiction. The continuing role of Eastgate, of your vision in bringing together the writers in this field, publishing their work in a publishing model that includes royalties for writers, is very core to the field. And it has also helped bring literary hypertext to a wider audience. Eastgate’s continuing role in developing and publishing authoring software is also important.

Can you talk about the creation of Storyspace? How do you see the role of Storyspace in the field — past, present, future?

Mark Bernstein: Michael Joyce, Jay David Bolter, and John B. Smith worked together to create the first Storyspace in late 1986-7. I saw a prototype at Hypertext ’87, the first hypertext conference. I wasn’t part of the original design, though I did make some contributions to the final user interface.

I think Storyspace was shaped by two overriding desires. First, a hypertext system that would truly embrace links. The TINAC Manifesto said, “Three links per node or it’s not a hypertext.” The other widely-available hypertext tools of that time – GUIDE, HyperCard, Intermedia – were all somewhat ambivalent about undisciplined linking, anxious that readers would be lost and confused. We only gradually learned that readers didn’t feel lost, and that at times a little confusion is exactly what we want.

A second desire called for concrete writing spaces that students could pick up, hold, and move around. This grew, in part, from the needs of composition instruction; as Michael Joyce once said, many students in community college composition classes find abstract editorial structures confounding. They have no difficulty dealing with writing made concrete; many have been battered all their lives by writing — report cards, probation reports, job applications — whose material weight and underlying structure was to them, altogether clear.

Storyspace’s guard fields, which let the writer change link behavior depending on what the reader has already seen, were tremendously important for the development of serious hypertext, especially hypertext narrative. That let people craft important large hypertexts with meaningful interaction – three links or it’s not a hypertext! – and with the scope we associate with the novel. The result was an outpouring of large, ambitious, and beautiful fiction. afternoon of course, and Moulthrop’s Victory Garden, and Jackson’s Patchwork Girl. But also the miniatures, like Mary-Kim Arnold’s “Lust” and Kathryn Cramer’s “In Small & Large Pieces“. Bill Bly’s We Descend, Carolyn Guyer’s Quibbling, and Ed Falco’s A Dream With Demons are every bit as good.

At the same time, Storyspace inherited the Intermedia legacy, most notably George P. Landow’s Victorian Web. There’s tremendous scope for writing hypertext in this vein. Bill Bly’s got a sequel under way; Susan Gibbs is doing fascinating small pieces; and Steve Ersinghaus’s Life of Geronimo Sandoval spring to mind. After a decade or so, the frothy fringe feared that hypertext wasn’t shiny enough, while some critics began to lambaste Storyspace as a symbol for postmodernism. They’ll all be back, because we’re all writing with links; we need to write with links; and we don’t understand links. Tools like Storyspace and Tinderbox — a tool for notes that adopts Storyspace’s mission for constructive hypertext — remain uniquely powerful for crafting, annd teaching, linked writing. Adrian Miles has a terrific new essay in Reading Hypertext on hypertext teaching.

Judy Malloy: Thanks Mark! Storyspace and the works that you mention were important in creating a new literature, in providing new media writers who wanted to create hypertext structures with a flexible creative tool and in making hypertextual writing accessible to a wider audience.

With experience as a database programmer and years of trying to create nonsequential artists books, I came to hypernarrative from a different background. But the advent of Storyspace was of great interest. My copy of Michael Joyce’s afternoon came when I was in New Hampshire, I think in the summer of 1992. A Mac, needed to run that copy, was not available at home, so I made a trip to a New Hampshire city library to read the Eastgate publication of afternoon. I still remember the experience of sitting in a library and reading this work. I also remember having lunch with you in Boston to talk about the Eastgate publication of its name was Penelope. Carolyn Guyer came to New Hampshire, and we talked about our work. Michael, Carolyn, Stuart Moulthrop, and I met in New York City at an MLA panel hosted by Terence Harpold. It was an exciting time to be a creating a new kind of literature. And Eastgate was core to this new field!

It is also good to see that new writers are working with Storyspace. Has Tinderbox been used to create fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction? Are there any other Eastgate tools and/or new editions of Storyspace that would be of interest to writers of electronic literature?

Mark Bernstein: Any hypertext system will, sooner or later, be used to make art. Tinderbox was designed as a tool for making and analyzing notes, but that hasn’t kept people from doing fascinating things with Tinderbox for crafting hypertexts. Susan Gibb has been writing a big sequence of small hypertexts in Tinderbox, working in a vein that sometimes recalls Deena Larsen’s pioneering Web work. Steve Ersinghaus, too, is building terrific work in Tinderbox. Bill Bly is using Tinderbox to construct a new artifactual hypertext, set in the world of his Storyspace classic We Descend. And there’s lots of interesting work behind the scenes. That’s the role for which Tinderbox was envisioned, after all: making notes, world building, analyzing connections and experimenting with textual structures. Sarah Smith (, Chasing Shakespeares) did a terrific talk at Tinderbox Weekend a while ago on world building in Tinderbox. Jeff Abbott has written some intriguing notes on planning a thriller. And I understand Michael Bywater is currently at work with Tinderbox on a musical!

Judy Malloy: Do you have any advice to new writers in the field as to how to begin?

Mark Bernstein: Know what you want to say. Have something to say.

Some topics seem to suggest themselves to people who want to try their hand at hypertext but don’t know what to say. Hypertexts about madness – attempts to use hypertextual fragmentation to suggest paranoia, psychosis, or intoxication – arrive in the slush pile with great regularity. They seem easy, but they’re hard to do well. Annotated maps are another refuge of beginners. Nonfiction writers who are losing confidence in work sometimes decide to claim the work is really intended for children. This seldom ends well. Young readers are a demanding audience with strong preferences and sophisticated taste.

Whatever you do in electronic literature, it’s not likely to get you on Letterman. This is not a sign of the irrelevance of serious writing: People Magazine has never been rich in serious thinkers in Physics or Philology. Write with ambition, but be sure that your ambitions and your medium are not at war with each other. Read broadly. If you want to write hypertexts, you should know the work of people who have written good hypertexts. That your work might not resemble theirs does not matter; know what they sought to do and learn how they accomplished what they did.

Acquire whatever skills you need to create what you have in mind. Do not rely on vague ideas of collaboration or appropriation to supply what you currently lack. Be prepared to learn new things: computer programming, figure drawing, medieval Italian, narratology, or the intellectual life of Victorian parlor maids.

Master your computer, and know how to use your tools well. Look for new tools and techniques that can improve your work or open new creative opportunities. But don’t let the dazzle of fresh software displace your own work; use new tools to make new things, not merely for the sake of using new software. Don’t let the accident of having purchased a particular brand of computer limit your horizons; computers are not very expensive, and professionals frequently use two or three computers. Avoid the politics of Open Source or Web standards or DRM or Apple v. Google v. Microsoft. Capitalism is not your fault and these are not your battles. A writer who pledges to use only Open Source is the modern equivalent of the early 20th century writer who took the Temperance Pledge.

Ask questions. Almost no one in the field is so busy that they won’t read your email or take your phone call. Get to know the people who are doing the work. Ask for help, and offer it. Invitations are always good, and an audience is always welcome. Arrange a terrific session at a suitable conference or and event at a university or bookseller; this is a gift that almost any writer will welcome. (Some writers are busy, some shy, and everyone has too much to do; make generous offers, and don’t read the tea leaves should some people have a previous engagement).

Read criticism. A generation of thoughtful readers have studied electronic writing and have read earlier electronic works with care. But always remember that some critics don’t know the subject, and some may at times have been mistaken. Magazine editors know even less, and because referees are often shoddy, the fact that an essay appeared in a good journal (or even a book) does not always ensure that the critic knew their subject.

Even when sound, a critic’s taste may not apply to your own work. Balance each critic’s views with what you are trying to achieve; if a critic is interested in different things than you, they may not be a reliable guide. Do not concern yourself with demonstrating that your work is unprecedented. Claiming that your work is the first of some sub-genre may impress an occasional newspaper reporter, but that news story will soon wrap fish. The novice shouts that her work is like nothing ever written. I find it preferable to show how your work is influenced by work you admire, since this helps both your colleagues and your own audience to grasp what you are trying to do.

Write criticism. Participate in the discussion, bringing an open mind and generous understanding and, if possible, a sense of humor and humility. Studying other writers’ hypertexts gives you a chance to see how they accomplish what they do. Do not hesitate because you think yourself unqualified, but do your best and let the reader assess your judgment. Don’t worry about being able to publish your criticism: there are plenty of places to put it, and you could do worse than simply posting it on the Internet and emailing your twenty favorite writers and critics to let them know it’s there.

Today’s literary world is shadowed by an industry that exploits wannabes and careerists and those who covet the accoutrements of writing. Beware of those who want money from writers and avoid hollow and superficial “literary organizations”; their goals are not yours. Many contests are scams. Readings and signings are at best a marginal proposition for booksellers. Selling books is hard work; if a bookseller asks you to do a reading, try to oblige them as best you can and do your best to fill the store. Ask not what your bookseller can do for you; she has to scramble.

Promotion is part of the business of writing and it can be fun, but this is not where the work is done. Be wary of parties and readings and tours, and if you aspire to have drinks with famous writers, you can arrange this more easily in other ways. Do not be shy of explaining your work. Lead those you meet toward it, describe it frankly and candidly, and always accept that people are busy and not every acquaintance will find every work congenial. Seek out new people to know, introduce your work to them, and be open to fresh reactions.

Don’t worry excessively about the size of your audience. If you require an audience of millions, write for television. The serious writer – the writer with ideas – accepts that their audience, though it may be influential, will not be numerous. Let posterity take care of itself. Ignore the archivists; they’re thick on the ground right now because the government handed out a bunch of grants, but as soon as those grants expire the pack will be off again, chasing some shiny new thing.

Judy Malloy: From my point of view, there has been some good work by archivists in making sure that the work of hypertext writers is documented. This is important in the literary field. I’m thinking, among many others, of the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin; the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library; the Dickinson Electronic Archives; and the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas at the Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about the ways in which archivists can be important in the electronic literature field?

Mark Bernstein: Libraries have long been a great supporter of literary hypertext. Good hypertext collections are important. David Durand’s work with the 1960-vintage FRESS was terrific. Xerox PARC used to have a fine collection of hypertext for people to read. Jim Whitehead and the UCSD library have built a terrific reading room and lending library for early and contemporary computer games. But not all the work is good. There’s been far too much hand-wringing over access and preservation by people who don’t actually improve access or preserve very much. In their writing, one senses that they really like to discover that works are endangered or neglected or even lost. What we need is intelligent criticism, but that’s very different from book collecting.

Judy Malloy: But as computer platforms and software change, preservation can be continuing issue for creators of new media art and literature. Do you have any thoughts about how writers can ensure that their work survives?

Mark Bernstein: I think you’re mistaken. Preservation isn’t an issue for creators: it’s not their business. The business of the creator is making wonderful new things that inspire and move us. If you capture imaginations and inspire an audience, your work will be preserved. If not, it might not. The technical issues of preserving new media are not much greater than those that confront conventional media — and are trivial compared to the challenges of preserving dance and drama. Do your best. Gather your rosebuds, and let the archivists worry about pressing the flowers.Do good work and find the readers who need to hear what you have to say; if you do, people will take care of preserving it.

Judy Malloy: And looking to the future, do you have any thoughts about how electronic literature will develop?

Mark Bernstein: The future of serious writing lies on the screen. This is now settled beyond doubt, except of course for the doubt that serious writing (or we ourselves, for that matter) have a future. Tomorrow’s screens might not look precisely like today’s.

I think one great opportunity is historical fiction. Twentieth century critics weren’t especially eager to embrace historical fiction, but obviously there’s been a tremendous amount of great and important work — Mailer and Wouk and O’Brian and so much more. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which won the Booker, is obviously historical fiction, but so is McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. But historical fiction always fights constraints of size and sequence — look at Wouk. Hypertext in skillful hands should completely change the equation.

Creative hypertext nonfiction is another great opportunity for hypertext. And we know much less than we ought about managing plot-rich hypertext narrative.

Many people, most notably Robert Coover, have predicted that electronic literature will become more visual. I’m skeptical; artists have been trying to meld film and hypertext for twenty years now, and I don’t think we have seen an entirely convincing path.

Writers have indulged themselves for a generation with the illusion that they are somehow above the drudgery of programming and using computers, tasks some wish could be left to technicians and repairmen. This was never a very worthy fantasy, replicating as it did the old, obsolete separation of elite arts and menial crafts. But the fantasy in any case is now insupportable; there is work to be done, and no one will do it for us.

A great deal of energy has been spent on exploring the essence of the digital and the essence of mediated language. This has all been very interesting, but I’m not convinced it has gotten us very far. The chief successes of experiments in electronic language that transcends meaning have been inside the white box of the gallery and institutional exhibitions, and here we have an awkward mix of erudition and what Mamet calls the audience’s desire to elect itself superior to reason: “The stockbroker is not going to lie awake worrying about truths or questions raised by a framed canvas painted one shade of green (which is why he or she purchased it)”. (“Second Act Problems”, Three Uses Of the Knife).

I believe publishers will continue to have a place in the literary ecology. They will not relieve the writer of the responsibility of promotion, but they never did: Sam Johnson worked tirelessly to promote his books and Shakespeare wrote for money. Publishers can praise your genius, which you cannot gracefully do yourself, and they can introduce your work to people you do not know. Publishers sometimes employ editors, and a fresh, experienced pair of eyes can sometimes transform a work. The natural size of the publishing enterprise is small — we call them publishing houses for good reason – and small, agile publishing houses will be increasingly prominent in the coming years.

What seems most important right now is actually to take the leap and do the work. This requires tremendous faith, since today’s writer is called upon to step into the void without knowing whether an audience will come to catch him in their embrace. But in the end, this is true for all art, especially all literature; you cannot be confident you’ll find an audience until you have found one.

New media writers are fortunate; they can work without obtaining permission from investors and patrons, where filmmakers (and novelists of a former age) cannot. But if you do not undertake the work, it is certain you will have neither the audience nor the work.

Judy Malloy: Thank you so much Mark! Eastgate has been at the forefront of publishing literary hypertexts, and it is of great interest to hear not only about the history but also your point of view on the future of the field. The following sources provide more information about Mark Bernstein, Eastgate, Hypertext Literature, Storyspace, and Tinderbox.

Note by Judy Malloy:  This interview was created via email and posted on August 2010. The page was retooled in March 2014, but the original interview remains the same.

Written by ELR

July 20, 2017 at 10:10 am

#ELRPROMO: “Other Codes / Cóid Eile: Digital Literature in Context”

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In a few days the event “Other Codes / Cóid Eile: Digital Literature in Context” will take place in the Irish city of Galway. The organizer Anne Sofia Karhio, a researcher in the field of electronic literature, accepted the invitation to participate in an interview to promote the event.

This is the first #ELRPROMO, a new topic in the blog that aims to the announcement of forthcoming events in the field of electronic literature.

ELR: Anne Sofia Karhio you are a researcher in the field of electronic literature. When did you start studying electronic literature and what are your main research interests in this field?

Anne Sofia Karhio: I have, like many others working on electronic literature, been trained in more traditional literary scholarship. I studied comparative literature at the University of Helsinki, and then English literature at Trinity College Dublin and finally at the National University of Ireland, Galway, where I got my doctorate and where I’m still based.  I’m not sure whether “traditional” is exactly the right word here, though, as I was always drawn to the more quirky or experimental. My initial interest in electronic literature was also a result of that: I simply became curious about what happens when words move from page to the digital domain, all the strange shapes and forms they can take, and what this means for how we understand language and literary expression. It was only after my PhD that I really started looking into digital literature, and I have to admit that it has been quite a learning experience, though a really rewarding one.

My postdoctoral research project, co-funded by the Irish Research Council and the European Commission via Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, took me to the University of Bergen to work with Scott Rettberg, Jill Walker-Rettberg and other researchers in electronic literature and digital culture there. It is difficult to explain how life changing that experience was – the research community in Bergen is quite amazing, and really welcoming for newcomers. Due to the Bergen connection I have also been lucky to be able to connect with many well-known scholars, authors and artists, some of whom have since visited Galway – these include Scott Rettberg, Rod Coover, Maria Engberg, Jason Nelson, and Alinta Krauth.

My current research focuses on poetry, technology and landscape, and I’m therefore particularly interested in the shifting border between verbal and visual expression in all kinds of multimodal environments. My research has been largely focused on form, aesthetics, and close reading and analysis, and there has been less of that practical or creative input that characterizes the work of so many scholars of electronic literature. At the same time, practice has started infiltrating my research in all kinds of small and perhaps unexpected ways – like trying out augmented reality apps to explore how these technologies frame the visual environment, and so forth.

ELR: What is your approach to electronic literature? Do you see electronic literature as experimental literature? Do you make a comparative study with other artistic practices?

Anne Sofia Karhio: I have no background in IT or programming, so I have had to learn a lot of things from scratch just to get beyond the level of surface aesthetics of many works. I also continue to work on print poetry as well as digital literature, and want to consider questions of landscape, for example, thematically as well as through the technological platforms and practices. To jump to the last part of that question first, the concept of landscape has its historical roots in the visual arts, so this is a constant point of reference. Overall, I guess it is safe to say that the borders between art forms are currently in turmoil, which means that cinematic expression, music and sound, and all kinds of embodied and haptic technologies are also increasingly relevant. It can be a little bit of a balancing act, sometimes, to retain an openness to these developments, and still keep a focus on the specific topic of one’s research. But I suppose as a researcher I’m most comfortable in inhabiting that transition zone, historically as well as aesthetically. For me, the new digital homes for literature were never a sign that literature would be discarding print to embrace the digital; rather, there is a range of transformative exchanges between these two domains.

It is hardly controversial to say that experimentation often characterizes electronic literature, not least because of the relative novelty of the medium. Many dislike the term “new media”, as computer technologies as well as electronic literature have been around for decades. I speak of “new media technologies” in my own research, but more in the sense of technologies that are new, rather than New Media as shorthand for late 20th-early 21st century digital technologies. This also allows for a historical perspective: I’m quite interested in the work of poets who relate the current historical moment to how writers and artists engaged with the technological changes in the Victorian era, for example – the “new media” of that period. The Northern Irish poet Sinéad Morrissey is a wonderful example of that.

I suppose that like any other art form, electronic literature can be conventional or experimental, depending on whether it repeats pre-existing forms and practices, or finds new ways of challenging them. But one does encounter particularly many practitioners who are drawn to the idea of testing new methods of creativity and dissemination. There is more than a hint of that eccentric scientist mentality, and of course the question is how patience with scholarship and aesthetic craft relate to the fascination of the “new”. And then there is the issue of aesthetic and artistic communities, and the national and cultural institutions that foster them (or fail to do so). Experimentation and artistic license are not part of the culture in quite the same way in different countries. Ireland, for example, has produced pretty revolutionary experimental writers, like Beckett and Joyce – but they did their experimentation elsewhere, for reasons that relate to the culture and society here. Experimental literary communities may have found it more challenging to prosper in Ireland, for various reasons, though there are individual scholars and practitioners who are testing new platforms here, too, like Jeneen Naji in Maynooth, the electronic literature author Michael J. Maguire, or James O’Sullivan who runs New Binary Press. Not to even mention quite a few younger researchers that are curious about the field.

ELR: In 2015 you co-organized the ELO2015 Conference “The End(s) of Electronic Literature” and co-edited the Conference Program and Festival Catalog. What are in your opinion some of the most important outcomes of that event?

Anne Sofia Karhio: The ELO2015 conference was quite an overwhelming experience, partially due to the sheer number of proposed papers and art works. The diversity of the material covered in the catalog, for example, makes it quite difficult to make any kind of a generalizing statement on the conference contributions thematically or even technologically. But the conference topic or title, “End(s) of Electronic Literature”, does suggest a certain coming of age of the field, I think, though perhaps those who have been a part of the organization longer might be better equipped to evaluate that. I believe there were varying opinions on that title, and whether it reflected some kind of pessimism regarding the future of electronic literature, e-lit being “done”. But more than that, I’d say it reflected a historical moment of a kind of coming of age – now that electronic literature has been practiced for decades, and has more institutional recognition, there is also a need to reflect on its purpose, its changing forms, and perhaps even its key concepts in a way that may not have been similarly possible before. What the ELO2015 conference certainly highlighted for me was that the sheer variety of what is now covered under the term “electronic literature” is such that it raises all kinds of questions, mostly very interesting ones, on what we understand even by the term “literature” in a wider sense. The question is far from new, but we can now approach it from new perspectives.

ELR: From 11-12 May 2017 the conference “Other Codes / Cóid Eile: Digital Literature in Context” will take place. What will be the topics discussed on this occasion?

Anne Sofia Karhio: I spent quite a long time trying to find the right phrasing for the title of the conference. The term “context” is not entirely groundbreaking, of course, but here it partially stems from this sense that formal, aesthetic and technological questions still overshadow an awareness of that extra-literary (or extra-artistic) terrain from which electronic literature, too, emerges. It is interesting – and sometimes slightly frustrating – to see how the old debate regarding formalism and aesthetics versus cultural identity or context still keeps repeating itself, even in the field of electronic literature. But I’d like to go beyond that and seriously consider how literature in the digital domain can offer a new aesthetics for social critique, how new technologies make it possible to examine the more sinister aspects of the new digital society from within in the context of globalization, for example, and how questions of linguistic difference now also assume a new relevance. The bilingual title of the conference, “other codes” as well as the Irish language “cóid eile”, is not there just for a bit of exotic cultural flavor! I’d like to think that the approaches of the invited speakers that we will hear from at this event reflect the variety of ways in which “context” can be understood: Sandy Baldwin, Jessica Pressman, María Mencía and Scott Rettberg have all engaged with it differently, like looking at non-Western electronic literatures and global issues, questions of gender and sexuality, precedents in literary movements in the 20th century, multimodal art practices, and aesthetic communities or new genres.

ELR: What do you hope or foresee for the future of electronic literature?

Anne Sofia Karhio: I think as humanities scholars we are naturally equipped to defend the importance of art and literature and have a sense of how they shape the human experience, and how they profoundly interrogate our relationship with the non-verbal as well as the non-human domain. But the more I learn about how digital media technologies impact on our environment, and how their connections to all kinds of questions of economic and political power, surveillance and control work, the more convinced I am that literary scholars and practitioners, as well as digital artists in other fields, have a huge responsibility to make visible (sometimes literally!) what these technologies do what they are used for, and what possibilities of expression, agency, or resistance they give us. Digital arts and humanities are too often understood merely as applying new technologies to humanities research on established forms of cultural expression. This might sound a little bit bombastic or lofty, but I think if we are at all worthy of calling ourselves humanities scholars, we also have to do the opposite (and this is what so many practitioners of electronic literature already do): we must apply the rigor and critical force of humanities creativity and scholarship to all aspects of the digital. Too much is at stake for us to leave the digital for the engineers alone. The old joke applies: science can tell you how to clone a dinosaur – humanities can tell you whether it might be a good or a bad idea!

 

Interview with Jessica Pressman

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ELR: Jessica Pressman since 2012 (?) you are member of the Board of Directions of the Electronic Literature Organization. How did you get started with electronic literature and what fascinates you most about this literature genre?

Jessica Pressman: I actually worked from the ELO far before 2012. I served as the Programs Director for the ELO back in 2001-2 and then took on more responsibilities as Associate Director (2002-4). I did this while I was a graduate student at UCLA. ELO was then housed at UCLA, and N. Katherine Hayles was the Faculty Director. I was the sole staff member, and I got a first-hand education in the ELO and in non-profit organization.

But this is not how I started with electronic literature.

I applied to graduate school to study Victorian Literature. I wanted to study the Pre-Raphaelites; image and text are inseparable in such work (think Dante and Christina Rosetti). I was also interested in what I now understand to be the social networks that configured and propelled that artistic movement. Multimedia, multimodal, social networks: it was all there.

But, I was unhappy at UCLA, so I took a leave of absence. I went to Boston and worked for a company (Cognitive Arts, founded by AI pioneer Roger Schank) that then (in 2000, the height of the dot-com wave) was making interactive training simulations for companies and schools. We basically were making narrative teaching games (again, using language from today to describe the past). I liked the work but wanted to understand it from a more critical perspective. So, I read George Landow’s Hypertext. And, bam: that book hit me. It gave me a critical vocabulary and framework to approach that stuff that I was making, to understand what I was doing and what I wanted to do. I wanted to study hypertext.

Well, it just so happened that the foremost scholar of hypertext and this new thing called “electronic literature” was back at UCLA: Katherine Hayles. So, I returned to UCLA, shifted my focus from the first industrial revolution to the second, and then worked with Kate Hayles in all things e-literature and ELO. Kate is really how and why I started, learned, and loved the field of literary criticism focused on electronic literature. She is a role model and a mentor.

ELR: In your article “Electronic Literature as Comparative Literature” (2014) you state that electronic literature is comparative because it combines text, image, sound, movement, interactivity and design. As a researcher and teacher of experimental American literature would you say that electronic literature is experimental literature, too?

Jessica Pressman: I think electronic can be experimental. More often than not, it is, but this is because right now we are still accustomed to thinking about “literature” with terms and conceptions derived from print. But, “experimental” does not describe a platform or media; it describes use of that platform and media. Some books, films, sculptures, play, etc. are “experimental;” some works of electronic literature are too.

ELR: In your latest book “Reading Project” (2015) you explain how to analyse e-literature. Could you explain why it is necessary to use different methods?

Jessica Pressman: Reading Project does not aim to explain how to analyze e-literature—I would never presume or desire for there to be any one way to analyze anything—but, rather, to offer a model of how digital humanities (DH) practices can produce literary criticism. Jeremy, Mark, and I were tired of hearing critiques of DH that its creation and use of tools doesn’t lead to interpretative payoffs; most of these critiques are valid, by the way. We also wanted to experiment with pursuing literary criticism that employs the actual affordances of computational media to address a digital work; thus, we read the programming code (Mark’s Critical Code Studies approach) and created big data visualizations (Jeremy’s Cultural Analytics work), and we built a Scalar tool (Scalar Workbench) to assist others in practices similar types of collaboration. Finally, we had a professional goal and critique as well: we wanted to show what is gained by collaborating in literary criticism, by eschewing the scholarly model of a solitary researcher pursuing hermeneutics by instead having three scholars work collaboratively and dialogically towards building a single interpretation.

The reason why electronic literature elicits different critical methods is because such work often defies a single genre or disciplinary category. Is Tender Claws’s Pry (2015) a work of film, game, novella? The answer is not interesting but the question compels different approaches, which leads to (or should) interesting opportunities.

Just by designating a work (Pry, for example) as “literature” already implies how one will approach and value it: through a focus on its text. But many of the works that I spend my life reading and teaching could (and often are) identified and understood as other types of cultural objects: visual art, film, games, performances, etc. One of the reasons I love electronic literature is precisely this: because it invites and rewards multiple critical perspectives and practices. In so doing, it pushes literary critics towards reflexive consideration of our normative practices and towards experimentation with new ones. That is exciting to me.

ELR: In the description of the ELO’s role you can read that the organization aims to create “a network of people who produce works of electronic literature and people who read, discuss, and teach e-literature”. How successful has the ELO been in this attempt so far and how do Universities collaborate with the ELO?

Jessica Pressman: I think the ELO has been invaluable. The very fact that we have an annual conference, an archived volume of works (the Electronic Literature Collection), and a website for interpersonal connection means that we have a field. We have a community.

ELR: What do you foresee for the future of e-literature?

Jessica Pressman: I am a literary historian more than a prophet or visionary. But, from this perspective, I believe I can proffer that whatever comes along that seems completely new and futuristic will offer us new ways for understanding our past and for appreciating our seemingly “old” media.

 

 

 

Interview with Judy Malloy

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ELR: Judy Malloy, you have engaged in three decades of creative work in the field of electronic literature, beginning with the publication of “Uncle Roger” in 1986. What in your opinion are the most significant moments in the history of electronic literature thus far?

Judy Malloy: This is a welcome question. The long and rich history of electronic literature in toto is what is most significant. But there are so many significant moments that I can only mention a few — and even then, it is perhaps a longer answer than expected. Another day the list might be somewhat different. Today this is what I am recollecting:

To begin with: significant computational processes in word structures can be traced from Wibold, Archdeacon of Noyon’s 10th century dice-mediated Ludus Regularis, to the circa 15th century dice-generated collaborative narrative of vice and virtue, Chaunce of the Dyse, to formative computer-mediated work in the 1950’s –- including the generative love letters that Lytton Strachey’s nephew, Bloomsbury-bred computer programmer Christopher Strachey, created using Alan Turing’s hardwired random number generator, as well as the work of Stuttgart computer scientist student, Theo Lutz, who entered words from The Castle into a program that generated politically-charged remixes of Kafka’s vocabulary.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a map of significant moments, in France would probably pinpoint the founding of Oulipo, Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes, and George Perec’s Die Maschine, among many others. Pierre Boulez’ Troisième sonate pour piano Formant 3: “Constellation — Miroir” would surely appear on this map, as would – experiments with the cutup method in the work of Bryan Gysin, Williams Burroughs and Burroughs’ partner, computer programmer Ian Sommerville.

Meanwhile in New York City, after composer James Tenney gave a workshop on FORTRAN to Fluxus artists in 1967, Alison Knowles wrote the brilliant generative poem A House of Dust (realized by Tenney), and Dick Higgins created and programmed the edgy Hank and Mary, a Love Story, a Chorale.  Additionally, the lists of words that Fluxus poet Emmett Williams chose for IBM, first created without a computer in 1956, were computerized in this time.

And in Massachusetts BBN (ARPANET contractor Bolt, Beranek and Newman) computer programmer Will Crowther wrote the pioneering Interactive Fiction, Adventure, and then at MIT Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling created Zork and went on to found Infocom, the primary source of classic Interactive Fiction — while in Connecticut, at Yale, Joseph Meehan created Tale-Spin.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, based in Canada with strong roots also in Austria, IPSA (I. P. Sharp Associates) and IPSA’s ARTEX made node-to-node communication possible — we called it “telematics” in those days — hosting collaborative works such as Bill Bartlett’s Interplay and Roy Ascott’s La Plissure du Texte.

Beginning in 1986 in Berkeley, CA my own Uncle Roger, the first realized hyperfiction, was significant in that rather than a game-centered or communications approach, I wrote and programmed it as a work of computer-mediated literature, and it was the first realized work of electronic fiction that was both written and programmed by a woman.

There followed — beginning with Michael Joyce’s classic afternoon, a story and the work of the StorySpace team — a flowering of hypertext. The writers came from many different places; the center was the Massachusetts-based Eastgate Systems, headed by Mark Bernstein. Hypertext literature was central in what Robert Coover called the “golden age”. The four works Coover singled out are Joyce’s afternoon, my its name was Penelope, Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden, and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl.  It should also be noted that in the field of digital poetry, Jim Rosenberg’s spatial hypertext was primary in the pre-web era.

In the period of widening development (1995–2010), places on the map are clustered all over the world, as works of potential significance were created in generative poetry (the work of John-Pierre Balpe and Nick Montfort, Fox Harrell’s GRIOT System, Nanette Wylde’s Storyland, for instance); in Interactive Fiction: (Emily Short’s Bronze, Andrew Plotkins’ Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home);  in hypertext (my The Roar of Destiny, Mark Marino’s a show of hands, Sharif Ezzat’s Like Stars in a Clear Night Sky, Deena Larsen’s Marble Springs Wiki); in electronic manuscripts: (Noah Wardrip Fruin et al’s Screen; J. R. Carpenter’s Entre Ville); in concrete and digital poetry (William Harris’ Armistice, Maria Mencia’s Birds Singing Other Birds’ Songs); and in performative, filmic, and collaborative works. (Ingrid Ankerson and Megan Sapnar’s Cruising; Judd Morrissey’s The Last Performance). There were many others.

I am disinclined to mention works from 2011-  because the dust has not yet settled, but for my own work I like From Ireland with Letters and my generative “the whole room like a picture in a dream”: Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf Writing“.

ELR: In another interview you name four authors of print literature as influences on your works of electronic literature: Italo Calvino, Marcel Proust, Dorothy Richardson, and Laurence Sterne. Can you comment on analogies and differences between electronic and print literature?

Judy Malloy: This is a difficult question, and the answer can be framed in many different ways. Primarily electronic literature is work that utilizes computer-mediation to create literature that is only possible to read on a computer. But the boundaries are becoming somewhat blurred. Many of the strategies developed by writers of electronic literature can influence print literature and even in some cases have been utilized in print, while at the same time we see writers of electronic literature incorporating print components in their work.

I have always believed that print literature is such a powerful interface that it will continue, but that electronic literature is equally powerful and will flourish and run side by side with print literature, so to speak. In the 21st century, the fact that electronic literature and print literature are each influencing each other is greatly enriching both fields!

ELR: In August 2016 you edited “Social Media Archeology and Poetics” a book featuring essays of 28 artists, scholars, and curators who describe computer networks and online platforms. What are your current opinions/thoughts about archiving works of electronic literature and digital art?

Judy Malloy: Social Media Archeology and Poetics is media archeology about how social media platforms with cultural components were developed and flourished in the days before the World Wide Web.

To create Social Media Archeology and Poetics, which was three years in the making, I primarily asked pioneers in the field to write about their work. This is different from archiving works of electronic literature and digital art. However, it does dovetail with my vision, which is that in addition to the work of critics and curators, it is important to make early works themselves accessible and also to encourage creators of electronic literature to document their own work. In this respect, we are in the tradition of conceptual art and performance art, and — in this field that lies between computer science and literature —  we also document electronic literature in the tradition of sci/tech researchers. It is vitally important to publish peer-reviewed first person documentation from the creators or researchers themselves. Thus, the primary source for Strachey’s love letters is Christopher Strachey, “The Thinking Machines,” Encounter, 3 (1954): 25-31. The primary source for Lutz’ work is Theo Lutz, “Stochastische Texte,” augenblick 4 (1959):3-9.  And the primary source for Uncle Roger is Judy Malloy, “Uncle Roger, an Online Narrabase”, in eds. Ascott, Roy and Carl Eugene Loeffler, Connectivity: Art and Interactive Telecommunications, Leonardo 24:2, (1991): 195-202. This does not mean that criticism and theory are not very important.

Contingently, as regards archiving works of electronic literature themselves, when the original platforms are not available, I prefer to translate my own works to contemporary platforms. But I also highly respect and appreciate the curators and archivists in our field, such as Dene Grigar, who have approached this in many creative ways.

ELR: In the year 2003 you edited the book “Women, Art & Technology” a compendium of the work of women artists who have played a central role in the development of new media practice. How do you consider the role of women in new media today?

Judy Malloy: As Jaishree Odin’s Hypertext and the Female Imaginary and Maria Mencia’s forthcoming #WomenTechLit clearly demonstrate, contemporary women artists and writers are equally as important and influential as male artists and writers.

ELR: Have you any thoughts about the future of Electronic Literature?

Judy Malloy: As the rich history of electronic literature begins to be acknowledged, and the field comes of age, it has been a pleasure to both work with students in the creation of electronic literature and to continue to develop my own work.

I look forward to new work from the field as a whole and to a more central place for electronic literature in the literary world.

 

Written by ELR

February 20, 2017 at 7:30 pm

Interview with Christine Wilks

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ELR: Christine Wilks as you can read on your website crissxross.net you published your first works of electronic literature in 2004 “Sitting Pretty” and “Social Dis-Ease”. What was your motivation to start creating works for the web and where did your inspiration come from?

Christine Wilks: I started out as a visual artist but I couldn’t bear turning my back on storytelling so I quickly moved into filmmaking (and animation). It was difficult to make indie films in the UK, there was so little funding, and, although I tried, I didn’t feel at home in the TV world. What I really wanted was a multimedia creative practice but it seemed like you had to specialise. Then, when I came across the internet, the world-wide web – wow! Here was a medium that encompassed all other media and there were few, if any, barriers for a hard-up independent multimedia-maker to create and distribute their work – no gatekeepers, nothing stopping me – theoretically.

At first I hadn’t a clue how to create anything for the web, but I came across the trAce Online Writing Centre, set up by Sue Thomas, and lurked around that creative community for a while. Then I took part in their pilot online course, ‘Digital Writing: an Introduction’, led by Tim Wright, and I was absolutely blown away by it. At last, I had found my element! Not only could I work with multimedia but interactivity too. I loved that! I made my first work, ‘Sitting Pretty’, during that course. It was a tongue-in-cheek reflection on my condition at the time, flouting ergonomic advice, forever hunched over my desktop computer, my portal to another world. Way back in my pre-internet days, I got a grant to make a short science-fiction film called ‘Zombie UB40’ in which I depicted aliens whose form had evolved to be perpetually hunched over computers. Oddly prescient, now I think about it. Actually, it’s just occurred to me that the film bore some aesthetic similarities with my animated multimedia poem, ‘Out of Touch’. There’s a network of invisible threads connecting the works I’ve made but I’ll avoid getting tangled up in that for now.

ELR: From 2007-2013 you were as a core member of the collective R3M1XW0RX (Remixworks, 2006-2014), which was conceived as a collaborative space for remixing visual poetry, e-poetry, playable media, animation, art, music, spoken word, texts and more. What were the main challenges in the creation of a network and why did it stop in 2014?

Christine Wilks: Actually, R3MIXW0RX is still active here – remixworx.com – although not in the same way. But I’ll come back to that.

R3MIXW0RX was started by Randy Adams (runran) after the trAce Online Writing Centre closed down. He missed the collaborative creative environment of trAce, as did other people, such as Chris Joseph (babel) and myself (crissxross), who also joined the group. For the first year or two Remixworx was a stunningly productive, fertile environment – new works being created, remixed and posted online every week, almost every day at some points – it was fantastic! A great place to learn and develop. For instance, I learnt to love the random and to really appreciate Dada through collaborating in R3MIXW0RX. I talk about it more fully in my crissxross trail through Remixworx. However, with busy lives to lead and other creative projects to work on, that level of almost feverish productivity couldn’t persist. The initial whirlwind of creativity gradually calmed and new works blew in on the breeze or in occasional gusts. It might have carried on in this manner for some time if Randy hadn’t died (too young, from cancer) in 2014. It took the wind out of our sails. Randy and I collaborated on our last piece for R3MIXW0RX, ‘A Revolution of Words’, while he was undergoing chemotherapy.

Chris, however, is still doing wonderful stuff for R3MIXW0RX . He now maintains and hosts the site. His new remixes are created in HTML5 and JavaScript, whereas, in the past, both he and I worked almost exclusively in Flash. I’d love to start remixing again but until I finish the major interactive digital fiction I’m creating for my practice-based PhD, I haven’t got time. The great thing now is that, with platforms like Codepen.io, the ability to remix using HTML, CSS and JavaScript has become even more accessible. Currently, I’m using my Codepen for tests and research, but I’m really looking forward to having the time to use it for pure creative remixing fun!

ELR: In your works you use a wide range of different media like sound, ambient music, visuals and videos. How important are these audio-visual effects in your works and how does multimedia content effect the reading process of a work literature?

Christine Wilks: Marie-Laure Ryan says, “The ultimate goal of art is to involve the whole of the embodied mind, the intellect as well as the senses” (Ryan 2014). She argues that language most readily engages the intellect, whereas sound and imagery appeal to the senses, so combining them is a way of striving towards that goal, and that’s what I aspire to.

Multimedia content is vital to my work, and I’ve experimented with different forms, but what I’m most interested in is how the multimodal elements operate within the user interface to create an engaging interactive experience. I always think in terms of reading imagery as much as text, indeed, reading the whole interface, including audio – everything is part of the reading process. For my current interactive digital work, I’m aiming for something akin to the experience of having a conversation. In human-to-human interaction, you communicate through language whilst simultaneously reading the signs – facial expressions, body language, what’s happening in the environment, etc. – the context and the subtext, all of which affect the choices you make.

Film and TV are also plurimedial art forms and you ‘read’ those media too but not in the same way. Interaction demands a more attentive reading of the user interface (that is, until you become familiar with it). In a game or interactive narrative, it’s often the case that the player must read the interface rigorously in order to work out how to interact and how to progress. It’s part of the pleasure. This kind of vigilant or scrupulous reading is not a requirement of moving through the narrative of screen drama. Although, in some viewing situations, you can choose to close read film and TV – you can pause a video, study still frames, re-run a scene over and over – screen drama is not usually designed for viewing like that. All the same, with interactive works, it would be too much to ask the reader-player to constantly pay equal attention to every modality within a given work. Some modalities should, by design, affect the reader-player more subliminally (e.g. ambient sound or motion, colour schemes) depending on what effect the author/s want/s to achieve.

ELR: Your works Inkubus (2014), Underbelly (2010), A Revolution of Words (2013) and Rememori (2011) are game-like works in which the reader becomes a player, as you explain in the description, and thus is invited to play a poem or play on words. What strategy lies behind the use of ludic elements in your works and what is, in your opinion, the difference between a work of electronic literature and a videogame?

Christine Wilks: My strategy? Well, it just seemed to me that as soon as I started ‘playing’ with interactive elements – creating interactive works – ludic elements arose, as if naturally, without me consciously trying to include them. In other words, while creating a work, I would become aware that the feature I was developing or thinking about was game-like in some way, so I went with it. Why resist the affordances of the medium? I’m of a generation that didn’t grow up with videogames, so I don’t tend to think in terms of videogame mechanics, but interactivity feels playful to me, and playful interactivity tends towards the ludic. At least, that’s been my experience. When my narrative works include gameplay, I try to meld the two together somehow. I’d rather avoid chunks of narrative interspersed with gameplay or vice versa. However, it all depends on the central idea behind the work. It’s entirely possible that an idea might be best expressed with gameplay and cut-scenes, for example. Never say never…

What’s the difference between a work of electronic literature and a videogame? I’m not a theorist so it’s not something I think about very much – apart from when I struggle to explain or describe what I do or create to someone whose unfamiliar with it. As a maker of works, the distinction is mainly useful in so far as it helps to inform a potential audience – to make the thing being offered understandable in broad terms and therefore potentially attractive to them. One difference is that a videogame has to have some form of gameplay but a work of e-lit need not have. ‘Videogame’ is a more commercial descriptor and is likely to attract more people, but may also repel others – and there’s possibly a sizeable audience among them for e-lit. However, outside academia, I doubt if many people have heard of ‘electronic literature’. Both categories are so broad, we need more focused terms, more genres to emerge.

ELR: In your critical writing “Interactive Narrative and the Art of Steering Through Possible Worlds” (2016) you discuss the disparity between men and women in the field of game development through your latest work “Stitched Up” (in progress). Would you say that there is a similar issue of gender discrimination also in the field of electronic literature?

Christine Wilks: I haven’t specifically studied the issue of gender discrimination in the field of electronic literature and I haven’t experienced any personally. Certainly, there are a lot of great women creative practitioners, researchers and theorists in the field and there seems to be a pretty fair gender balance amongst the artists, writers and editors represented in the various anthologies of electronic literature produced by the E-Lit community. Also, I’m really thrilled to be part of a forthcoming book, #WomenTechLit, a volume of essays by pioneering female creative practitioners, critics, historians and scholars, edited by María Mencía (West Virginia University Press). Look out for it!

Reference: Ryan, M.-L., 2014. Narration in Various Media | the living handbook of narratology. the living handbook of narratology. Available at: http://www.lhn.uni-hamburg.de/article/narration-various-media [Accessed December 2, 2016].

 

 

Written by ELR

January 20, 2017 at 9:00 am

Interview with Jason Nelson

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ELR: Jason Nelson you have been creating works of digital poetry since the early 2000s and since 2005 you have been teaching Net Art and Electronic Literature at Griffith University in Australia. Could you tell us how you got started with Electronic Literature and where your inspiration came from?

Jason Nelson: Curiously, I began adventuring into this world very much by accident. Prior to 2000 I was a City Planner type, working with GPS, GIS and other mapping playthings. And while I adore the idea of planning, good, creative, freethinking planning of cities and places, the reality of paperwork and politics and mindless development sapped by interest, away, away, so far away.

And as the anxiety of my un/sad/dis-satisfying career built, I revisited my creative brain, attempted to find ways to combine my interest in the textual and my technical prowess.

Holy cats…I can see this just might be a very long story. A tale filled with grand gesturing cliff falls and long swims to the shore led by apologetic dolphins. So I’ll reduce it back a bit.

So after deciding to leap into creative waters, I finished an MFA in Poetry at Bowling Green State University. And honestly, the program was rather conservative, rather bland, so I was forced to find fuel for my experimental synapses elsewhere.  And as I already had considerable experience with tech/code/software, and could think/build spatially from my Cultural Geography/Planning Days, I explored ways of combining screen wonders with my abstract writing.

At BGSU there was a graduate computer lab, with six old Macs. At the time I didn’t know how to crack software, so I figured I had six months to learn Dreamweaver and Flash, with a 30 day trial on each computer, moving from the window to the door.

And yet even when I started creating my interactive poems/fictions, I had no idea there was anyone else creating such things, no notion of Electronic Literature or even digital art more broadly.  My inspiration instead came from maps, 19th century engineering, early magicians, L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry (I took a creative writing class with Elizabeth Robinson at the University of Oklahoma during my Cultural Geography days) and a general interest in the way technology worked and didn’t work.

Ok, ok….I’ll stop there. As I’m started to ramble, ramble on, a horsey car, doors flapping in the dust of gravel roads, the wires, the telegraph wires are still there, waiting for some future/past day.

Briefly, I , very much, started creating digital literature without any idea such a world existed. Perhaps, just perhaps, that explains my unique style, that…or a bike ride concussion.

ELR: Most of your works are similar to video games. What is the purpose of the use of ludic elements in your works?

Jason Nelson: Hmmm. Actually. I’m not sure I agree with the word “most”. Statistically only a small percentage of my over 50 digital poems/fictions are directly related to games, or use, what others would call, game engines.

Sure, all, or most, of my digital creatures have play and interactivity, interface and movement as central textual elements. But only, around ten of my works would be considered games, or game-like by the game masters, those Ludic overlords who require the gates to art-games be held fast by those who alter game rules, not those who use game land/screen-scapes.

Admittedly my most well known works tend towards the game end. The idea that my game-works have spread so much more, so widely (to the millions) is interesting. What is it about a game that draws in readers/players, holds them in the creatures gaze, and compels/propels them into sharing/re-visiting?

I suppose. Hmmm. Maybe. Hmmm. Ok. How about this. When you play a game you live inside the game (at least partially). So readers tend to inhabit the gameish digital poem, they internalize the textual elements

Sidenote:  By textual elements I mean more than just words. I consider all the facets, the movement and image, the sound and interface, the video and code, the words and animations to be critical, integral textual elements of a digital poem/fiction.

Indeed, I was asked recently, during an interview for an academic position at the Rochester Institute of Technology (for which I placed second unfortunately…sniff…sniff) what makes a good digital poem. My response was, in part, that the words of a digital poem should be inter-related/connected/bred with the other textual elements (mentioned above). And if the words could be ripped out, forced on to a page, and they formed a perfectly happy poem, there was something wrong.

Jeez. I have segued massively. Back to games.

I love the language of games. It’s one of the languages I, and so many others my age and younger, learned from adolescence. A game’s grammar fires forth from triggering and gathering, from exploring/adventuring/deftly tussling, the same mental play that great/good/readable books/stories/poems entice. The world is a sad and exciting little/big game, one we lose and lose and lose and lose. And yet, holy hello, we keep playing.

ELR: You clearly establish a relationship with your readers by inviting them to actually “create a poem” as in Series Eleven or Five by addressing directly to them in the instructions as in Evil Hypnotizing Mascotte or by providing them with different options of interaction. What do you think about the apparent freedom of the reader in the digital context and how important is it for you that readers sort of “dive” into your works?

Jason Nelson: I want to reach the back of a reader’s brain. To snake my hand through the vessels in their arms/hands/ears, past all manner of organs and bones, crawling up the spinal cord/chord, past the brain’s more logical homes, and grab the grey matter home of the subconscious.  Dearest gawd I want to shake the hell out of your subconscious.

This is, of course, a baffling thing for many readers/critics/reviewers. Most people equate game with puzzle or fiction with story as treasure hunt. So when my work attempts to bypass all that, and thrust itself directly into your dreamy, floaty hidden voice that makes you, ummmm…you, it’s difficult to dissect, analyse and then re-assemble.

I’ve been told by writers, famous and beginning, my creative creatures are hard to encapsulate in an article. Hurrah me thinks.

It’s been said ten trillion times by ten trillion scholars, across ten trillion dimensions, that interactive work makes the reader part of the writing process. My digital writing doesn’t really exist until someone adds themselves, moves and chooses, and each experience will be very different, deviant from others.

The directions thing is curious. Adding directions into my first few dozen creations came from insecurity. I was alarmingly worried my readers wouldn’t understand where/how/when to move and click and write and select and push and run and jump and fire and cry, so much crying. So I added directions and signs, like arrows pointing to critical moments, or endgames.

And now I include an arrow or arrows in everything I create. It’s become an internal meme. The directions have shifted from useful to meta-play, self-disregarding and ego-booming. The reader is driven to the park, shown the various paths, wooded or concrete or muddy hollows, and then pushed into the grass while dogs come running, come running, their digitally paws leaving growling, barking marks, go play, go play.

ELR:  One of the major innovations brought by New Media technology concerns the literary aesthetics. Along with the ludic elements and the possibility of interaction mentioned above there are audio-visual effects and hypertextual links which transform the plain text into a work of art and the act of reading into a complete new experience. Could you describe your concept of aesthetics in digital poetry?

Jason Nelson: I so totally want to just say “No”. In a kind-of curt, aren’t I an arrogant and superior bastard whose work is unapproachably beautiful and self-perfect. And the aesthetics can only be described by seeing/reading/playing the work itself.

But that is an easy place to live, one devoid of discourse. And as my work is too messy and broken and playful and frayed and strange to be allowed seating in the Perfect Club, aesthetics are the crutch my digital poems/fictions use to cross the swollen river (the deer enclosure was empty, but the horses still expected apples).

Nothing about the world, the land/city/nature/culture-scapes around us is clean and well formed and exacting. Despite roads and the square shapes of buildings, the networks and calendared schedules, most of our surroundings are tethered to chaos theory, to incomplete stories, brief visions/expressions heard while galloping past.

And yet so much of New Media art/literature borrows from the clean lines and perfectly proportioned, complementary colours of design. It pretends to work, everything intentional and inter-locked and design-porn perfect.

So my aesthetic comes from this place. This imperfect, messy, collided swirl of clanging ideas, smashed together stories, brief and disconnected phrases/visions. Sure there is always a strange attractor, always a hovering point, around which the theme of my literary creatures swarms.

And yes, sometimes my works  (odd using the term work for creative digital text play) do collapse into straight narrative, direct point, simple and clear visuals. But always with the hand-drawn, the organic line and carolling poetics in mind (in the back of my mind…mind you….minding…ok ok. I’ll stop)

Did I even answer your question?  How about this.

When all the various media, interface, texts, words, coding, interactivity hold hands, gather up power tools and build treehouses for wolves with jetpacks, I’m super darn chuffed (happy in Aussieland).

ELR: You have launched the new website dpoetry.com for the Dispersed Digital Poetry Project. Could you illustrate the process with an example and use this very blog to host one of your poems?

Jason Nelson: Of course I can and will!  Your site/audience rocks.  The notion of the Dispersed Digital Poetry project is somewhat simple. I’m creating a series of digital poems, possibly up to 50. Each of those digital poems will be hosted on a different website, with all the various sections then inter-linked and connected. So there will eventually be 50 different entry points, and as the reader moves through the series, they will be continually entering new domains (literally).

I have around 20 or so started, and will launch the series soon. Part of the process comes from my ever-experimenting creative methods. On my hard drive there are dozens of half-started/finished digital poems/fictions. Some of them are ambitious giants and others are smaller inventions, playful gizmos. The Dispersed project will give all those orphaned interactive poems homes, and in turn, bring new audiences to both my work and the sites that host a section.

So, yes, do come and play.

 

Written by ELR

September 20, 2015 at 8:22 am

Posted in English

Interview with Erik Loyer

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ELR: Erik Loyer since the mid-90s you have been creating and studying works of electronic literature. What was your approach to this field and where lies your main interest?

Erik Loyer: Early on in my career, I was interested in using interactive media to explicitly recreate the mindset of the author in the reader. This is a pretty universal goal for an artist, but I had a theory that interactive media might be particularly good at doing this in a more literal way. Like anybody, I’ve got a network of associations and memories that give context and meaning to my experiences, and I wanted to find out if I transcribed those relationships into an interactive work, whether it would convey more of that authorial perspective to a user/reader than other art forms could.

After following this trail for a while, however, with “The Lair of the Marrow Monkey” and “Mnemonic Membrane” in particular, I felt like I got an answer—that in interactive media, as with many other art forms, translation (processing and transforming my internal landscape with an eye towards evoking a specific response from the user) was a more powerful technique than transcription (attempting to recreate in digital form a set of relationships that were in my head). And so at that point I more or less left the “built it and they will come” mode of making behind.

“Marrow Monkey” crystallized my approach in other ways as well, with the poetic, graphic use of words, an emphasis on tactile interaction and real-time animation, strong musical and rhythmic influences, and narrative. An all these are still very much the sandbox I like to play in! It reminds me of the line from that Steve Reich piece “Proverb”: “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life.”

ELR: On your profile on Patreon.com your short biography reads that you create “stories that are played like instruments. Combining elements drawn from video games and comic books with dynamic music, gestural control, and synaesthetics (…)”. What is the purpose of the use of such features a how do they affect the reading experience?

Erik Loyer: Well, I enjoy playing the piano because it’s fun, because you can make beautiful sounds with it, and because it has a powerful effect on the emotions. Those are all the same reasons why I make the kind of work I make. I have a reasonable amount of facility with the piano, so I can step right into that experience pretty much whenever I want, but it took years to get my skills to that point. What I think interactive media can go is lend the user a bit of “instant fluency” with a voice or instrument that is unfamiliar to them, and through fun, beauty, and emotion, lead them through an experience that they wouldn’t otherwise have had. I often compare the sensation I’m after to what it would feel like to live inside a musical. Characters in a musical can break into song and express with complete fluency exactly what they are feeling and thinking, with seemingly no effort. I’m trying to create that experience for users, both literally and metaphorically—what would it feel like to be in a musical where you got to sing all of the songs, and where each song was its own instrument, its own possibility space constrained by circumstance and character?

ELR: Your latest work is a digital graphic novel called Upgrade Soul which is “built using a new engine for digital comics”. Could you tell us how Panoply works?

Erik Loyer: Sure. Panoply is an add-on for the Unity game engine that combines the visual language of comics with the dynamism of games. I think comics have a lot to teach us about how to design for screens, which are increasingly subdivided and increasingly being used to show us multiple streams of content at once, and so I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and playing with digital comics lately. The basic premise of Panoply is that each panel is its own camera in 3D space, and what the tool allows you to do is to choreograph what those cameras are looking at and where they are rendered on the screen over time. You can use it to create multi-panel layouts that change and develop as the user swipes from step to step. Some creators use the tool to emulate traditional comics, with each camera pointed at a separate piece of 2D artwork, while others are experimenting with creating 3D environments and dropping the cameras into them at different points.

Traditional comics gone digital are kind of the Trojan horse for the tool, but I think the implications of this kind of media for “born digital” interactive storytelling are much broader. The great thing about bringing the visual language of comics to the digital realm is it enables you to create story-driven experiences whose interfaces don’t grow out of a traditional “game mechanic” but are instead heavily tied to the graphical presentation of the story itself. The presentation actually can become the interface. We’re starting to see this in interesting comic/game hybrids like “Storyteller” and “Gorogoa,” and it’s something I’m very keen to explore and enable with tools like Panoply.

ELR: Your first work Marrow Monkeys from 1998 is no longer available online and the last works you created run on iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch only. These restrictions raise questions about preservation and adaptation of the work of electronic literature. How do you cope as a creator with the fast changes in the digital realm?

Erik Loyer: Like many artists who work with technology, I’m lured by the promise of the new and shiny, and probably always will be. The ability to reach a broad audience with powerful, tactile forms of interactivity is one of the medium’s biggest draws for me—and why I’ve never felt especially led to do installation work. While I still have video documentation of my Shockwave-based works like “Lair of the Marrow Monkey” and “Chroma” online, seeing the work itself become increasingly inaccessible is definitely painful, and the specter of Flash going the route of earlier technologies is especially troubling given the number of works I and others have produced in that format.

I don’t regret my work in Shockwave and Flash, though, and I’ll always choose the ability to reach a wide range of people with innovative interactivity today over other approaches that may be more amenable to preservation. I am, however, quite fastidious about making backups (I have basically my whole output since 1986 stored in multiple locations) and when there’s critical data that’s in danger of becoming truly inaccessible I try to convert it to another form—this past summer I enlisted my son to help me rescue musical cue point data from “Chroma” that I feared would soon be lost, and without which it would be nearly impossible to reconstruct the piece in the future.

ELR: Last March you were at the International Comics-Festival Fumetto in Lucerne in Switzerland where you taught a digital comic workshop. Could you tell us more about this project and what your next projects will be?

Erik Loyer: This was a week-long workshop in “Motion Comics” that I taught at the Hochschule Luzern during the Fumetto comics festival, and it was a blast. First of all, it was a real luxury to have that kind of time to devote to exploring split-screen media and digital comics in so many forms, and to have students who were so eager to dive in, especially given that “motion comics” are often misunderstood, if not outright derided, in the traditional comics and media worlds at large. To avoid the baggage that comes with trying to call anything “comics,” I’ve taking to calling this practice “timeframing”—the art of choreographing boxes of time. My goal with the class was first, to get the students to think deeply about what it means from an expressive standpoint to put time in a box; whether freezing it with a still image, repeating it with a video loop, or constructing it algorithmically as video games do. Next comes the ability to think critically about the creative potential inherent in juxtaposing boxes of time: what does it mean to put two GIF animations next to each other, and what can we say by doing so? We looked not only at digital comics, but at parallax scrolling websites, split-screen movies from the 1960s, video games, and more.

The students produced their own projects over the course of the week, with really fascinating results. One of them decided to use Panoply to do her project because she already had a 3D environment built in Unity as a first-person “walking simulator”-type experience. She adapted the navigation from first-person to a multi-panel swipe-based interface with captions, and felt that as a result she was able to convey the story more effectively. For me this was a great example of how the singular perspective that tends to get privileged in video games, whether first-person or third-person, isn’t always the most effective way to tell a story.

I’ve started a site at Timeframing.com where I’m very gradually adding my thoughts about this practice of choreographing boxes of time on digital screens, which I don’t believe has really been explored systematically before. In addition, I’ve been working towards the commercial release of the Panoply tools, and developing an open source framework for one-button performance of electronic literature called Stepwise that I hope to release next year. Beyond that, I’m doing a lot of experiments in split screen, in music-driven interaction, and in storytelling—my intuition is there’s something powerful in that combination of elements, so I’m noodling around trying to find it. We’ll see!

Written by ELR

September 14, 2015 at 12:44 pm

Posted in English