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#ELRFEAT: Language’s Uncertainty Principle: An Interview with Eduardo Kac (1999)

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The ELR is happy to feature this interview made by Simone Osthoff to Eduardo Kac, a contemporary artist and professor of art. In this interview Kac talks about his concepts of art, poetry and multimedia which are at the base of his projecects since the early 1980s.

The interview is republished with the permission of Eduardo Kac and it marks the first attempt of the ELR to do a research on art themes in relation to electronic literature.

In 1983, Eduardo Kac invented the word and the concept “holopoetry,” around which he developed a groundbreaking body of work. For this work, a unique word-and-image blend centered on interactive readerly strategies, he received the prestigious Shearwater Foundation award in 1996. Kac’s holographic poetry, with which he pioneered the use of computers in holographic art, has been shown in several countries and has, in recent years, gained increased attention.

A tricultural, multilingual, interdisciplinary writer and artist, Kac (pronounced “Katz”) has centered his work around the investigation of language and communication processes, emphasizing dialogic experiences in a world increasingly dominated by the mass media. In the summer of 1997 he accepted a position as Assistant Professor of Art and Technology in the Department of Art and Technology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he teaches a wide range of media and issues, including digital imaging, multimedia, computer-holography, interactivity, telecommunications, critical issues in art and biology, and the history of electronic art.

 

Employing language both as material and subject matter, Kac explores in his holograms, multimedia texts, digital poems, and telepresence events the perplexities of language, culture and consciousness in a new participatory paradigm. Working in the intersection of literature and visual arts, Kac investigates the verbal material in a constant state of flux, engaging the participants in a dialog that is continuously generating new meanings. On the following pages Kac talks about the development of his work since the early 80’s, focusing on his holographic poetry. He addresses both theoretical questions and social concerns, areas that remain inseparable in his work.

 

Simone Osthoff: You seem to move very easily between different languages and cultures. You have at least three strong cultural influences. With which one do you identify the most?

 

Eduardo Kac: I like to think of myself beyond national boundaries, and beyond media boundaries as well. I work between literature and art. I don’t see myself as “Brazilian” or “European” or “American”. I was raised by Europeans in Brazil and became fluent in English at an early age. Neither do I focus on a single medium or material. I find that labels are not very helpful and are often used to marginalize people. I have shown work in holography shows and the same work in shows that address word and image issues, or shows that address experimentation with new media. My name has been included in shows as representing the U.S. I have also shown my work in Brazil, as part of national surveys. I publish often in literary and art journals. I prefer not to be bound by any particular nationality or geography. I work with telecommunications trying to break up these boundaries. Obviously, Brazilian culture is an important part of my identity, but it’s not the only one. I don’t see why I should have to choose only one aspect of my interests or my identity as the predominant one. I am comfortable with them all. I would like them all to be equally present in my experience.

Simone Osthoff: In the early 80’s you worked with performances, visual poetry, graffiti, and other media, before focusing on holography. What was this process like?

Eduardo Kac: In the early 80’s my interest for word and image issues continued to increase as my dedication to oral and versified poetry ended. Between 1982 and 1983 I was very unsatisfied by what I then considered the blind alley of visual poetry. Aware of the multiple directions the genre had taken in the twentieth century, I experimented with different media. I worked with multiple media — billboards, Polaroid cameras, artist’s books, fine graffiti, electronic signboards, video, mail art, photocopiers, videotex, and finally holography.

Simone Osthoff: The show “Como Vai Você, Geração 80?”, (How Are You, ’80s Generation?) which happened in Parque Laje, Rio, in 1984, is still considered one of the most important shows of the decade, in Brazil. It launched many careers and highlighted artistic tendencies. What kind of work did you show there?

Eduardo Kac: I had already made my first holopoem when the Geração 80 show came up. But, I was also working with public installations, billboards. I was making twenty-seven meters square murals based on Cro-Magnon cave paintings that were displayed publicly, both in São Paulo and in Rio. And that’s what I showed in the Geração 80 show. On a personal level, it was very important for me to participate in that show because it defined that generation of artists, presenting the multiplicity, the diversity of media and interests, from those who were mimicking Bonito Oliva’s Italian trans-avant-garde, to those, like myself, who were interested in exploring new technologies and multimedia possibilities.

Simone Osthoff: Could you trace the formal development of your work up to this point?

Eduardo Kac: I was first dealing with traditional language, then the body became the issue. Then the body was performing verbally. Then the body became written language itself. This work is partially documented in my artist’s book ESCRACHO, from 1983. I had moved so far away from the page, from the surface of the page, that I didn’t see any going back. Having moved so far from stable surfaces, such as those of objects and those of the surface of the page, I had to find something else. I started to explore a lot of other media and became interested in holography.

Simone Osthoff: When did holography become reality, so to speak, for you?

Eduardo Kac: I recalled having read in ’69, when I was 7, a comic book, of all things, in which the main character was going to fight this villain. And the villain was this gigantic hologram. As a kid, I used to collect comic books, and I still have this one comic book in Portuguese. The hero, in order to fight this villain, had to become himself a gigantic hologram. In some of the balloons, the villain and the hero explained what holography was in a very indirect way. So that sort of came back to me. I kept reading about the dematerialized image, the multiple points of view, the 3D image contained on a 2D surface. But that seemed to be a pure paradox. I was intrigued but I could not visualize it. An encyclopedia article I read in 1972, when I was 10 years old, described the scientific principles of holography, but that was not enough. In São Paulo in 1983, a little before the Geração 80 show, Otavio Donasci, an artist I had included in ESCRACHO, knew a psychologist called Fernando Catta-Preta who was building a small holographic lab. I called him and came over. It was there that I saw my first hologram and I realized immediately that that was what I wanted to do. So, having no clue exactly how holograms were made, or anything, it became obvious that that was the medium that would allow me to solve the aesthetic problem I had imposed upon myself. I worked with him for a couple of years on my project, which resulted in a show—Holopoesia, realized in 1985 at the Museum of Image and Sound in São Paulo. A few months later, the show came to Rio. I received excellent press coverage including from many TV stations. Because on top of everything, this was probably one of the first times that art made with holography was seen there. So, there was all that curiosity about it. That was very stimulating.

Simone Osthoff: Did you have any financial or institutional support during 1983-85, in the Rio-São Paulo period?

Eduardo Kac: No. Against all odds, I was able to fund this work out of my pocket, as a college student, basically. You know, I was still in college, working part-time and doing whatever I could. I was buying film that was not available in the country, that had to come from the U.S. I was paying for my own expenses, traveling back and forth between Rio and São Paulo, which represents a distance somewhat equivalent to the distance from Chicago to Detroit, on a very regular basis, either flying, or taking the train, or taking the bus, for two years. I guess I carried the same obsession from the performance period into holography in this first phase, but you have to do that. Because it’s that initial moment where you’re developing, you’re learning, you’re exploring. This initial two-year period resulted in two shows and also some publications, and then later, in a residency at the Museum of Holography in New York in ’86, and a trip to Europe in ’87 to show work. Back in Rio, I presented the work in a second solo show in ’86. I also organized with Flávio Ferraz, a Brazilian artist who also works with computers, the Brazil High Tech show, which was a national survey of Brazilian artists working with new technological media. That was also in 1986.

Simone Osthoff: After you came back from New York, did you continue to make your holograms in São Paulo?

Eduardo Kac: No. I managed to put a simple lab together in Copacabana, two blocks away from the beach. I went to the beach to get sand to build my vibration isolation table. To pay the bills I worked as a journalist for several newspapers in Rio and São Paulo. I worked all day, came back home exhausted, and went to the lab until 2 or 3 in the morning, basically every night. It was extremely difficult, not only because of my daytime schedule, which, I guess a lot of people had to deal with too. The biggest problem was that none of the materials I had to work with were available in the country. I was never able to buy any film there. Optics were very hard to get. Everything that a holographer needs to work with is virtually impossible to get there. But when my laser broke down for the first time, that’s when reality settled in, and I realized that it was impossible to continue to work in Brazil. I sent my laser back to the U.S. once. I got it back. The manufacturer said it was fixed and it just wouldn’t work. Either they fixed it and it broke on the way back, or they didn’t, but the fact was, I couldn’t use it. I sent it back, and got it back and it still didn’t work. After the third attempt to fix it, and having spent a couple years doing that, from ’86-’88, I realized that this was a dead-end. I was never going to be able to actually be productive and experiment and get my work done. In the meantime, I was working on my first computer-generated, fully synthesized holopoem, which resulted in my third solo show entitled Holofractal, in 1988. I realized then that I had to leave, and the country of choice was the U.S.

Simone Osthoff: Would you define your work as visual poetry or language art?

Eduardo Kac: If we consider these two extremes, writers going towards the world of visual arts developing what is known as visual poetry, and visual artists going towards the world of writers developing what is known as language art, I would like to oscillate between these two poles. I hope that my works would engage the viewer or the participant, both at a literary level and a visual level.

Simone Osthoff: You coined the term holopoetry and have been developing holographic poetry since 1983. Could you relate your holopoems to the tradition of visual poetry, and talk about the process of transformation between verbal and visual elements in your work?

Eduardo Kac: Many contemporary artists use language, but most seem to be interested in the way language is used in the media. I’m more interested in the zone of intersection between literature and visual arts. Visual poetry, for example, has a long ancestry, which runs from Simias of Rhodes (circa 325 BC), through the Baroque poets, to Mallarmé, to Marinetti, Apollinaire, Housmann, Kamensky, Cummings, and Beloli, and to the experimental poets from the 40’s to the 70’s, including those associated with French Lettrisme and Poésie Sonore, Brazilian Concretism, NeoConcretism, and Process/Poem, Italian Poesia Visiva, French Spatialism and Oulipo, and many others. The reason I got involved with holography in the first place was again because of language. Each of my holograms addresses a different problem, a different issue. But there is something that underlines them all — my interest in communication processes. I am not interested in holography as a 3D form; we might as well look at sculpture. I am really interested in holography as a 4D medium, as a time-based medium. In many of my holopoems, you have a bi-directional path for time. I just don’t think linearly, in terms of one word after another, as we normally speak and write. I just don’t think in terms of art works that way anymore. In my holopoems, I’m less interested in conveying the result of my thought. I’m more interested in conveying the process of my thought. That’s why the language in my holopoems fluctuates and oscillates and changes, and disappears. I only work with language, I don’t use objects, I don’t use people, I don’t use any form of figure.

By not having a linear sequence, you can explore the word-image in any direction you want. You have a time-reversal possibility. There is no hierarchy, no climax. There is no suspense. It’s almost like if you had a dematerialized strip of film that you suspended in time, and that you can, in your mind’s eye, project that, in any direction that you want, but not only horizontally, also vertically, diagonally, any way in space. You plan, you orchestrate time structures in space. You’re really dealing with a space-time continuum and breaking it into orchestrated discontinuities. I think everything that I have done is a consequence of this fascination for communication processes in multiple forms. Be it communicating with the body on the beach, or through an electronic medium, the fascination is to investigate the communication process itself.

Simone Osthoff: How would you define communication in art?

Eduardo Kac: By communication process I mean a reciprocal space, a shared space, a space in which there is what Baudrillard has referred to as responsibility. There is room for response, interaction, interactivity, change. Interactivity here is not necessarily that of the computer, where you pretty much interact with something that is already pre-encoded, although that is also interesting because it pushes the work beyond the stable object on the wall. I don’t have a definite solution and answer to this. Iif I had I wouldn’t be writing and making art. The point of being involved in this process is an attempt to understand the complexity of these issues, and that’s what fascinates me.

Simone Osthoff: Then, you are defining communication as discovery, is that what you mean?

Eduardo Kac: Discovery is very important. If something is totally predetermined and leaves no room for the reader or viewer there’s no communication. It could be unilateral transmission, or persuasion. Communication must imply openness. Communication must imply bi-directionality or multiple directionality, as in the case of a network. It could be bi-directional as on the phone or it could be multi-party, as on the Net. I think communication implies, as again Baudrillard has said, responsibility. When Baudrillard talks about restoring responsibility to the media, I love the ambiguity of this sentence because it refers to the social responsibility that the media has, but it also opens up the idea for the artist to restore the responsibility of the media, in the sense that the media must allow people to respond. The media must bring people closer, not keep them apart, as television does. The media must allow for people to interact, to share, to discover together, rather than be at the end as consumers. So, this idea of shared spatiotemporal responsibility is what I truly understand by communication. Holography today must be recorded, but in my work I show that it is possible to undermine the stable recording process with unstable syntaxes. In the future holography will be scriptable, and it will be possible to transmit, receive, and transform holographic images in real time.

Simone Osthoff: When you deal with language in your work, are you thinking of language as a universal category? Does it make any difference which specific language you use?

Eduardo Kac: The fact that I am working outside syntax is very important. I remove language from its function as social intercourse and try to get to more fundamental levels. I respond to different contexts. I will either use one of the languages I am comfortable with or do research and work with a particular language, if the concept calls for it. Very often, because I am working outside the syntax of English, some of these pieces can work in multiple languages at the same time. Because once the words are removed from a grammatical continuum, they can be read in multiple ways and in many languages as well, not to mention that certain fragments that float in the holographic space-time can also be read as full words in other languages.

Simone Osthoff: What is the importance of holography as a medium to the way you deal with language?

Eduardo Kac: The reason I was attracted to holography was because with it I can create very complex discontinuous spatiotemporal events that I could not do in any other electronic medium, like LED signboards, which I have used since 1984, in Rio. There is something intrinsic about the holographic medium that allows me to work with language floating in space and time, being discontinuous, breaking down, melting and dissolving, and recombining itself to produce new meanings. That kind of work reveals a distrust, a disbelief in the idea that we can simply use language to communicate a message. We say–” Do you know what I mean?”; ” Do you know what I am talking about?”; these sentences which we use on a regular basis express our attempt, our desire to dominate language, to make language the slave of a meaning. I’m more interested in suggestion and evocation.
I believe that meaning will emerge only through the engagement of those involved in the process. In the case of the holopoem when the viewer comes to see it and starts to look around, bounces his or her head, squats down, orchestrates that whole dance in front of the hologram, meanings will or will not emerge based on the personal experience of the viewer. The work asks that the viewer or reader be active and explore it, and when the viewer explores it, it changes. Not much is seen otherwise from a stationary point of view. The engagement of the viewer with the piece reveals the fact that reality, language, the way we perceive and interact, what we think communication is, all takes place according to our point of view. There is no detachment from the language we use and the reality we observe.

Simone Osthoff: Other contemporary artists, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger for instance, are also situated in this same intersection of word and image. The way I see it, they are using language in a more direct way, conveying straightforward messages that are presented as factual, even when they sound ambivalent. Could you comment on the different approach to language in your work and in theirs?

Eduardo Kac: You can not resolve the problem of meaning. Words are not containers that hold “meaning” like a cup contains coffee. I don’t think one can even “fully” understand anything or anyone. I believe that there will always be a tension between what one tries to communicate and what one tries to understand, and this tension oscillates with the dynamic web of language. In holopoetry I don’t simply allude to this tension, but create the very experience of its oscillation. Static media can allude to the problem, but due to their stable material condition they can’t create the unstable language experience I seek in holopoetry. I don’t really believe in the idea of a message that exists prior to the engagement of those involved in the process. I really distrust the idea of communication when it comes from one end and it goes towards the other end, with no opportunity for the other person to participate, or negotiate the meaning. That’s what happens in television, radio, the mass media, that pretty much define our collective unconscious, the mass media defining what we see, what we hear, what we are exposed to, what we dream of. I really distrust these systems when it comes down to language. If one tries to subvert the content of the message but uses the same mass media logic, we still find ourselves in the same monologic space. I am interested in proposing alternatives to the unidirectionality of the system of art. I think that we have come to realize that language is truly unstable and absolutely turbulent. Language speaks us instead of our speaking the language. We would like to be in control of language, we would like to arrest this flux of events that surrounds us. I believe in negotiation of meaning, not communication of meaning. When I defend a model of language as fluctuating, oscillating, and turbulent, I am not talking about ambiguity in a stable model of language that can be interpreted in one way or another. I am talking about a completely different model of language, a model in which language in a sense escapes us. The realization that language has its own dynamic, and no matter how much one tries to grasp it, how much one tries to arrest it, how much one tries to condense and objectify it, no matter how much one tries to make it concrete, language will resist, it’s going to continue to spill off, and spill out, and blend and merge and dissolve. Even in poetry language is not concrete; it’s fluid, malleable, unpredictable. When we use language in a linear or rigid way, in art and in poetry, we are in danger of bypassing the fundamental problem of our own medium, which is language itself. What about language’s role in shaping our perception of the world? I am trying to deal with a problem that I see as being essentially epistemological. I am trying to reflect on the very nature of language, focusing particularly on written language. How does language shape our reality, define our own identity? How does it engage or not, our thoughts in the process of dialogue?

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Written by ELR

March 9, 2018 at 10:00 am

#ELRPROMO: Arabic Electronic Literature: “New Horizons and Global Perspectives”

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The ELR is happy to announce the first international conference of electronic literature dedicated to Arabic electronic literature. The event takes place from 25 – 27 of February 2018 in Dubai and bears the significant name of “New Horizons and Global Perspectives”.

After her first interview for the ELR in which she presented the AEL research group and its projects, Reham Hosny talks here about the topics, the international guests and the meaning of this event.

 

ELR: Reham Hosny, the call for papers for the conference was open to many topics ranging from archiving, to translations, to best practices for creation and history of electronic literature. Will all these topics be discussed at the conference? Where lies the main focus of the presentations?

Reham Hosny: The world literary scene has witnessed an increasingly widespread presence of electronic literature (E-Lit). With notable exceptions, this growing area of literary creation, co-creation, and reception has received little attention in languages other than English and other European languages. Nonetheless, speakers and writers of diverse language communities have been creating interactive online forms of literary works for some time. Indeed, in some of these traditions, there is a rich tradition of interactivity and collaboration that predates but informs the digital era.

While much of the prominent current scholarly and artistic work in e-lit is based in the USA and Europe, e-lit is, in fact, a diverse global practice. In the Arab World, there is a growing network of e-lit scholars, many of whom are also practitioners or are deeply connected to artistic practices. The RIT Dubai, in collaboration with RIT New York, hosts the first international conference on Arabic e-lit under the title “Arabic Electronic Literature: Current Perspectives and New Horizons”. This conference gives artists and scholars the opportunity to look beyond the hegemony of the English language of Anglo-American cultural concerns. Featuring invited presentations from the major artists and scholars in the field, as well as emerging scholarship from researchers in different parts of the world, the conference brings together multiple perspectives to announce this new horizon of electronic literature.

The main goal of this conference is to establish a shared discourse on Arabic e-lit amongst the practitioners of the field all over the world. We intend by this event to provide a high profile public discourse around Arabic E-Lit by bringing Arab and international scholars and artists whose interests transect Arabic, informatics and the arts together.

ELR: How many speakers will participate in the event and from which countries do they come from?

Reham Hosny: Many scholars and artists from all over the world have confirmed their attendance at our conference. There are Arab participants from the UAE, Egypt, KSA, Iraq, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Tunisia, Algeria, and western participants from the USA, Canada, France, Ireland, Poland, and Italy. A group of prominent scholars and artists are brought together to create an international network on Arabic E-Lit. The conference keynote speakers are Prof. Katherine Hayles, the most leading figure in the field in the West, Prof. Zhour Gourram, a prominent novelist and digital critic in the Arab World, and Mr. Karim Sultan, a distinguished figure in the field of Arts in the UAE.

ELR 3 What was the biggest challenge from the point of view of the organization of the event?

Reham Hosny: Organizing an international conference has been a long and complex process. For two years, the conference organizing committee has done its best to organize this unique event. The president of RIT Dubai, Dr. Yousef  Al-Assaf, and the Organizing Committee leader Dr. Jonathon Penny in collaboration with Dr. James Myers and Dr. Babak Elahi from RIT, New York, are working hard to deal with any challenges we face.

ELR: One of the topics of the conference are intercultural issues. In your opinion how can an innovative and unconventional literary genre as electronic literature evolve in the Arabic culture that is known to be rather conservative and traditionalist?

Reham Hosny: How could we consider the Arabic culture conservative and traditional while visual and concrete poetry appeared for the first time in the Arabic poetry?  In the twelfth century, the Andalusian poet al-Jalyānī al-Andalusī al-Dimashqī was the first poet in the world, to write concrete poetry in his collection of poems al-Tadbīj (Adornment). I conceive visual and concrete poetry by some Andalusian, Mamluk, and Ottoman poets, starting from the twelfth century, as the early spatiotemporal and procedural precursors of e-lit. Additionally, Alf  Layla wa-Layla (The Arabian Nights), one of the most canonical texts in the Arabic cultural heritage, could be considered an early hypertextual precursor of e-lit by employing the technique of embedding stories within stories. The Arabic calligraphy itself is a rich artistic form to the extent that it is used in decoration.

Everything we know about electronic literature needs to be shaken and expanded. Some of the most energetic, critical, and exciting work in e-lit is coming out of the Arab world. Through innovative literary forms and incisive cultural and historical concerns, Arabic e-lit is transforming digital writing and taking it to broader horizons. Through genre-busting and form-expanding approaches, from Facebook novels, video poetry, to radical hyperfiction, Arabic e-lit is giving new expression and new tools to the literary scene.

ELR: There will also be several authors and artists who will present their works. Did you organize an exhibition, too?

Reham Hosny: The schedule includes presentations by researchers, an exhibition of e-lit pieces as well as eight performances. Events will take place at the RIT campus in Dubai, UAE.

The conference will be open to the public. The format is intended to ensure discussion, debate, and learning. The scientific committee considered high quality submissions on the conference topic for inclusion in the program.

Written by ELR

January 26, 2018 at 10:00 am

Interview with Mez Breeze

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What lies beneath our screens? Can humans read programming languages? Where lies the boundary between human langugage and machine language? The ELR has invited Mez Breeze, artist and writer of new media works, to participate in this interview to talk about code works, Mezangelle and the importance of learning to code. Also, we have tried to draw a distinction between fiction, video games and art in some of her latest works that are characterized by multimodal narrative, game mechanics and VR technology.

 

ELR: Mez Breeze you are an artist and a writer who works with new media. You began in the early 1990s and your work includes many different literary genres (electronic literature, transmedia, code poetry, codework, literary games, etc) and net art and game art. How did you become interested in digital culture, where did your original inspirations come from?

Mez Breeze: If I had to pinpoint a specific catalyst for my interest in digital culture, it’d probably be when researching the Internet for an Arts Institution talk in the early 1990’s. The talk was based on the concept of Cyberspace and was given either in 1992 or 1993, though my Cyberspace interest was piqued originally when I was studying an Applied Social Science degree back in the late 1980’s [when I was first introduced to the term].

Regarding original inspirations, there’s two that spring to mind: the first being my exposure in 1992 to VNS Matrix [who I later wrote about/interviewed in Switch Magazine]. Their mix of feminism, text/image merging and virtual engagement intrigued me; at the time I was creating mixed-media installations involving painting, computer text and computer hardware. I was prompted by my intrigue with VNS Matrix to Internet-delve in 1994 when using Telnet/Unix, and exploring avatar use and identity-play with other virtual participants through projected text and interactive, game-like fiction. Two of my avatar names from that time included “ms post modemism” and “aeon”.

My second main inspiration in relation to digital culture can be traced from my love of gaming. I’ve been a gamer since way back when, madly playing first-person shooters Doom and Quake in the mid 1990’s. I was also thoroughly immersed in Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs including Everquest and World of Warcraft [in which I co-ran a guild for a while] and have used these platforms to produce creative projects too. An applied example of inspirations that have filtered down into specific digital works is seen in the sense of space and oddness that you’ll encounter in the “Mo’s Universe” section of All the Delicate Duplicates gameworld: this was in part shaped by my own personal intrigue with language and landscapes in general, and how the vastness of the rural [especially like here in Australia] can seem open, alien, fascinating. When I was a kid, my Dad would take us on Sunday drives into the countryside, and we’d spend hours trekking through abandoned houses and dilapidated sheds, finding and collecting strange objects – once we explored a half-burnt house where I found several abandoned chess pieces that I kept for years, and remember thinking how weird these objects – designed for placement in a game – seemed when placed outside in the dirt, in a completely different context. It was during these treks that I also came to view the half hour or so before dusk as a weird, fantastical time when anything could happen: when the light shifted so suddenly sometimes that a real sense of almost David-Lynch-like strangeness could result.

ELR: This year you released “All the Delicate Duplicates” (2017) in collaboration with Andy Campbell with whom you also worked on: “#Carnivast”, “#PRISOM”, in 2013, and “The Dead Tower“, in 2012. The description on the homepage of “All the Delicate Duplicates” states that it is a work of fiction, but it is also a PC game. What relationship exists between video games and literature in your opinion? What is priority in “All the Delicate Duplicates”: the plot or the game mechanics?

Mez Breeze: The relationship between video games and literature is a complex one, especially in today’s muddied cultural climate where a proliferation of narrative based games [think: walking simulators, indie games, altgames, artgames, XR games, interactive fiction etc] has shifted the definition of what constitutes a game, and prompted questions concerning the validity of digitally-produced literature [and how both intersect]. There’s been so much said about whether video games can be considered art [or as high literature] in the past few years that the topic seems played out [pardon the games pun!] and almost redundant – my feeling is: games can be art, games can be literature, and the combination of game mechanics and literary conventions can act to create emergent artgame/game-art forms.

In relation to our literary game “All the Delicate Duplicates”, there’s no clear priority in terms of the plot or game mechanics. At present, the project consists of two main parts: a narrative game and a fragmented web-based fiction version, both of which delve into the delusional life of a computer engineer named John, his relationship with Charlotte, his daughter, and how the memories and inherited objects of John’s enigmatic relative Mo skew both their lives. We’re currently working on the third aspect of the project to complete an “element trilogy” of sorts: this third angle is being developed as a standalone Virtual Reality [or VR] work – it presents an angle of the story that is yet to be unpacked.

ELR: As an artist and writer who has worked in different fields like literature, video games, and art. Where do you put the boundaries between these different modes of expression? Are there any boundaries at all? Is it possible to correlate the aesthetics of literature, video games, and art?

Mez Breeze: In a sense my entire practice has been [and continues to be] one big creative experiment. From creating code poetry using Mezangelle back in the 1990’s, to transmedia [Alternate Reality Games and “Socumentaries” in late 2000s], to literary and AR games, to VR sculpting/modelling, I see all these modes of expression as elements in a progression web. As long as the work, or experiments, produce engaging and interesting output, I’m there. One fascination I have is how to best embody storytelling in works that are largely viewed as technologically ephemeral [VR, AR or XR based] and that operate at the intersection of a multitude of boundaries. At present, I’m interested in embodiment here in how it encapsulates a mix of intimacy and identity projection that comes from diving into a high-end VR-based experiences: the immersive quality is entirely different in this type of VR medium in that a VR user has to make a distinct effort to participate, has to don gear that firstly reduces their ability to engage in their actual physical space in standard ways [such as their vision and hearing being “co-opted” into the VR space]. The leap of faith a user needs to make in order to establish a valid “willing suspension of disbelief” [as Coleridge so beautifully phrased it] is already set in motion by the fact a user is entirely aware that their actual body is involved in the VR experience [haptically, kinetically], as opposed to a more removed projection into a story space via more traditional forms [think book reading, movies, tv]. In my experience, this body co-opting can lead a user to either be on the alert from the beginning of the VR experience, and so they are harder to get onside in terms of true immersion, or they readily fall into the experience with an absolute sense of wonder.

Another example of how I’m constantly prodding and testing creative/mode-based boundaries is how I’m currently using VR to create 3D models/tableaus [sculptures?]. For example, within 24 hours of first using Blocks, Google’s poly 3D asset creation tool, I’d created a script for a VR Alphabet Book, as well as the first two 3D models of the 26 animated scenes. With continued work, this VR-based book will operate through interactive navigation via use of haptic controls [that is, primarily by touching objects and invoking movement] rather than relying just on the written word as the primary method of conveying meaning. We’re attempting a similar spatial and haptic emphasis through the latest instalment of the Inanimate Alice franchise, a digitally-born set of stories relating the experiences of Alice in episodes, journals, games, and other digital media. The latest instalment is a VR Adventure Experience called Perpetual Nomads, a Coproduction between Australia and Canada, that combines aspects of game-like literary storytelling in a Virtual Reality form.

ELR: You invented a programming language in 1994 called Mezangelle. You use Mezangelle in your printed book “Human Readable Messages”. How are readers supposed ‘to read’ this book? Could you explain to us what aesthetics of computer code means?

Mez Breeze: I’m reluctant to suggest [or indeed unpack] definitive explanations of Mezangelle works and/or computer code aesthetics. Works created in Mezangelle are designed to function and meaning-establish via an individual’s own subjective meaning framework. There is no “wrong” way to interpret Mezangelle: many people parse only the poetic underpinnings, whereas some in the code-loop absorb the programming elements or ascii-like symbol. Output is dependent on the structures that are being emulated, mashed, and/or mangled, and again have less to do with my manifest intention and more to do with a more universal lattice-like cohesion. While engaging a Mezangelled text/snippet, a reader/user is encouraged to construct meaning [but isn’t necessarily forced to absorb: there’s always the option to omit, to resist] in a tumultuously fractured meaning zone that bends and happily shifts comprehension goalposts. Shattered rule-fragments exist [t]here, but determination of meaning depends on an acknowledgment that there is never only one level of interpretation, or an ultimately correct [or incorrect] option: there is never a singular definitive/functional interpretation involved in order to construct valid meaning.

Others have attempted to analyse Mezangelled works on a more granular level: one of the better-known attempts comes from theorist Florian Cramer, who says of one of my earliest codeworks “_Viro.Logic Condition][ing][ 1.1_“: “What seems like an unreadable mess at first, turns out to be subtle and dense if you read closer. The whole text borrows from conventions of programming languages; it presents itself as a program with a title, version number, main routine – indicated with the line “[b:g:in]” – and several subroutines or objects (which, like in the programming language Perl, are indicated with two double colons). But the main device are the square brackets which, like in Boolean search expressions, denote that a text can be read in multiple ways. For example, the title reads simultaneously as “Virologic Condition”, “Virologic Conditioning”, “Logic Condition” and “Logic Conditioning”. This technique reminds of the portmanteau words of Lewis Carroll and James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”, but is reinvented here in the context of net culture and computer programming. As the four readings of the title tell already, this particular text is about humans and machines and about a sickness condition of both. The square bracket technique is used to keep the attributions ambiguous. For example, the two words in the line “::Art.hro][botic][scopic N.][in][ten][dos][tions::” can be read as “arthroscopic” / “art robotic” / “Arthrobotic” / “horoscopic” and “Nintendo” /  “intentions” or “DOS”. So the machine becomes arthritic, sick with human disease, and the human body becomes infected with a computer virus; in the end, they recover by “code syrup & brooding symbols”. So mez has taken ASCII Art, as we can see it in the exhibition above, and Net.art code spamming and refined it from pure visual patterns into a rich semantical private language. She calls it Mezangelle which itself is a mez hybrid for her own name and the word “to mangle”. But why did we accept and shortlist the piece as software art? In the jury, we defined software art as algorithmic code and/or reflections of cultural concepts of software. In my opinion, mez’ work fits both parts of the definition. Since her square-bracketed expressions expand into multiple meanings, they are executable, that is, a combinatory sourcecode which generates output. But it’s also a sophisticated reflection of cultural concepts of software which rereads the coding conventions of computer programming languages as semantical language charged with gendered politics. It’s imaginary software which executes in the minds of computer-literate human readers, not unlike the Turing Machine which was an imaginary piece of hardware.”

ELR: How important is it today to study programming languages? What do you think about the idea of teaching code, like foreign languages, being taught at school?

Mez Breeze: It’s a fantastic idea to implement an educational strategy that includes teaching programming languages, absolutely: teaching code as early as possible [say, in the primary school curriculum] while keeping inclusivity and diversity as a priority [as well as emphasising emotional intelligence, a chronically neglected subject] would be my preference.

Interview with Eman Younis

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Many roads lead to the study of electronic literature – and eventually to the ELR. In this interview Eman Younis, a member of the Arabic Electronic Literature research group, tells us how she found her way to the New Media Studies and what challenges the research group meets when it is faced with cultural issues of tradition-conscious Arabic countries.

 

ELR: Eman Younis you are a member of the Arabic Electronic Literature research group. How did you start studying electronic literature and how did this organization come about?

Eman Younis: In fact, my interest in Digital Literature started by accident. I was looking for material on the Internet about Contemporary Youth writing in preparation for writing my Ph.D. dissertation in modern Arabic literature. In the course of my search, I came across articles that deal with Digital Literature in general – Arabic and Non-Arabic. The subject drew my attention a lot and aroused my curiosity and I started looking for more and more information about the field. When I was sure that there is sufficient information and data to conduct a scientific research, I decided to change the subject of my dissertation to ‘Digital Literature’. At that time, I was among the first Arab researchers who conducted a scientific research about this genre of literature.

Regarding the group of Arab researchers in Digital Literature, they are a small group of researchers whom I joined by recommendation of the scholar  Riham Hosni, who is in charge of this project. She thankfully initiated  the building up of a special Website under the name of AEL (Arabic Electronic Literature) that aims to put the Arabic Digital Literature on the World Map and introduce its most important Arab creators, researchers and critics in this field to the world.

ELR: In 2015 you published the essay titled “Interaction Between Art and Literature in Arab Digital Poetry and the Issue of Criticism” in which you discuss the critical approach to electronic literature. You suggest that an open and dynamic form of expression like electronic literature needs a “hypercritic” that allows the analysis of the audio-visual effects that interact with the literary text. Can you tell us more about this concept? Where is that critic? Which role does technology play in the analysis of works of electronic literature?

Eman Younis: Before I start talking about this term and concept, I want first to talk about the research from which the term emerged. Nearly two years ago, I and one of my colleagues wrote a research about the “Interaction between Art and Literature in Digital Poetry.”  We chose the poem “Shajar al-Bougaz/ al-Boughaz Trees” by the Moroccan poet Mun’im al-Azraq to be our sample of discussion and application. It is a very long and compound poem. What characterizes our research is that we are two researchers in two different fields. She comes from the field of art and I come from the field of literature. We decided to mix between the tools of ‘artistic criticism’ and the tools of ‘literary criticism’ in analyzing the poem and the result was amazing. We reached conclusions, which we would not reach if each of us worked separately.

In this way, the term and concept of ‘Hypercritic’ started to crystallize. We  found that the electronic text requires both an extraordinary writer and an extraordinary critic, which we called ‘Hypercritic’, who is a critic that possesses different critical tools that enable him/her to deal with a text within broader horizons. In my opinion, the most important one of these tools is the ‘tools of artistic criticism’ because Electronic Literature goes under the category which has become known by the name of Digital Art. If these tools are not available in one critic, then it is possible to rely on a group of critics from different fields as my colleague and I did in order to analyze the text.

Some people might object to the idea of Hypercritic from the point of view that each writer interacts with the text in a different way according to his or her culture, education and vision, but we believe that here lie the aesthetics of the Digital Text.

In reply to this claim, I say that we should differentiate between an ordinary reader and ordinary critic. When we talk about the reception of the literary work by the reader/receiver, there is no doubt that the process of interpretation remains confined within the abilities of the readers to decode the text, and each reader might reach with the work to a point that differs from the other reader. In return, when we talk about the reception of the text by a knowledgeable critic, we expect that he/her will reach with it interpretative points that are deeper, more stable and more convincing because his/her conclusions depend on serious theories and critical directions.

ELR: The AEL has organized an event together with the Rochester Institute of Technology dedicated to electronic literature which will take place in Dubai from 25 – 27 February 2017. What are some of the topics that you are especially looking forward to?

Eman Younis: As I have mentioned, the main goal of the conference is to put the Arab Digital Literature on the international map of digital literature. Lots of Western critics do not know anything about Arabic Digital Literature.  Besides, they are ignorant of our researches in this field due to the fact that this literature has not been translated into English. In view of this situation, the conference constitutes an opportunity for us to introduce some of the Arabic experiments and the most important academic and scientific researches and studies in this field.

In fact, we have put down several axes for this conference. The most important of these are: critical studies; the impact of the social networks on literature; experiences of individual writers; children’s digital literature; challenges and obstacles; future of the Arabic Digital Literature.

ELR: What does the panorama of the Arabic electronic literature look like to date? How many authors and academic scholars are there? Is there a development in the community?

Eman Younis: Digital Literature appeared in the Arab world in 2001, when Muhammad Sanajleh wrote his first interactive novel titled Zilal al-Wahed/Shadows of Oneself, which was followed by several other works. Very few Arab writers have followed his steps such as the poets: Abd al-Nur Idris and Mun’im al-Azraq and Muhammad Ashweka from Morocco; the poet Mushtaq Abbas Ma’en from Iraq and others. Despite these attempts, the Arab Digital Literature is still moving very slowly in quantity and quality in comparison with what is taking place in the Western World, not only on the level of the number of texts, but on the level of critical research and studies that accompany these works, and even on the level of electronic sites and magazines that take care of it.

In spite of the efforts that are made in the Arab world in this direction, the written literature still occupies the first place in the Arab countries. However, Digital Literature at this stage seems to be not more than a problematic experience that dangles between the tide and ebb of acceptance and refusal in the critical sectors.

Certainly, there are lots of reasons that hinder the rooting and establishment of the digital literature in the Arab countries such as: the political reasons that the Arab world suffers from these days, the economic conditions, and the abysmal digital gap between the developed countries and the developing countries. Digital Literature requires large economic resources and entails high expenses, which are not available to most writers in the developing countries. This situation explains the slow growth of Digital Literature in the Arab world and its absence in some countries of the Third World. Besides, a large number of the Arab writers, especially the older generation, suffer from “Computer Illiteracy”. Generally, the Arab mentality does not accept change and diverting from the familiar conditions easily. Thus, the Digital Literature entails breaking of many fixed postulates upon which we have grown regarding the concept of literature and the roles of the writer and the reader.

Furthermore, lack of interest in teaching Digital Literature in many institutes and universities in the Arab countries and its exclusion from the official teaching programs also constitute an additional crisis that hinders the movement of its development and awareness of its importance on the desired level.

I would like to point out here that I have written a study about this issue, which has not been published yet, in which I deal with the most important challenges that face the Arab Digital Literature these days, which is the subject that I will talk about at Dubai Conference, too.

ELR: What does the organization of the AEL want to do in the near future to develop the research, the discussion and the creation of works of electronic literature?

Eman Younis: This question can be better answered by Riham Hosni because, as I mentioned before, she is the person in charge of the project of AEL. However, in my opinion, our goal today is to show the world what we have achieved in this field so far regarding the creative experiences and critical studies on the one hand,  and our accompaniment of the international development and our benefit from it, on the other.

Interview with Reham Hosny

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What do Scheherazade, a Persian mathematician and the Rochester Institute of Technology have in common? Electronic literature!

The Arabic culture has contributed in many different ways to the history of electronic literature and there are many works of Arabic electronic literature. The ELR has interviewed Reham Hosny, the director of the Arabic Electronic Literature research group which aims to the creation of a network of Arabic authors and scholars and the promotion of Arabic electronic literature.

 

ELR: Reham Hosny you are a member of the Arabic Electronic Literature research group. How did you get involved with electronic literature and what is your role in the research group?

Reham Hosny: Well, it just so happened that I started working with Sandy Baldwin at WVU and then RIT in my Ph.D. project, which focused on digital poetics in the Arabic and Anglo-American contexts. I am lucky to be the first Arab scholar to study e-lit internationally with a prominent professor like prof. Baldwin who has become my role model and mentor. By the time, I have participated in many conferences focusing on the development and pedagogy of e-lit and proposing new perspectives on e-lit such as my newly presented concept of Cosmo-Literature.

This start opened many avenues for joint projects in the field; an important one of them is Arabic Electronic Literature (AEL) network. It is the first project of its kind ever that is interested in globalizing Arabic e-lit and putting it on the world map of the field. Prof. Baldwin and myself noticed that the Arabic e-lit and the Arab e-lit authors are not represented in the world e-lit scene. Much of the digital poetics is drawn from a small range of Anglo-American texts and critics. To get a broader understanding of the field, we should reflect upon different perspectives on e-lit from different parts of the world. We felt that it’s the time to shift the world e-lit community interest from the western e-lit to e-lit in other parts of the globe such as the Arabic e-lit as well as propose new concepts and ideas on e-lit derived from the Arabic culture specificities.

In September, 2015, we launched arabicelit website with many goals in mind: Firstly, uploading the data of Arabic e-lit writers and their works upon the world databases of ELMCIP to be available for researchers. To do that, we created connections and networks with all the Arabs interested in e-lit. The first stage was completed by uploading the personal data of Arabic e-lit writers. The second stage will include uploading data about their creative works. Secondly, considering holding a conference on Arabic e-lit at RIT Dubai in Feb. 2018. There might be a follow-up conference that will take place a year later at the RIT-Rochester campus. Thirdly, creating academic programs and workshops, publishing research papers on Arabic e-lit works and making comparisons with the world e-lit works to define the place of Arabic e-lit on the world map of e-lit. We will deliver the first of these workshops in the Dubai conference. Moreover, some research papers in English have come out recently addressing Arabic e-lit aesthetics.

Our efforts in the field have already started paying off. For the first time, the Arabic e-lit community was represented on a world interactive map designed by Scott Rettberg depending on the data that we uploaded on ELMCIP. The Arabic e-lit is more recognized now in the world e-lit community than before.

ELR: You participated in the ELO Conference 2017 which took place last July in Portugal with a paper entitled “Roots and Shoots: History and Development of Arabic Electronic Literature”. The Arabic culture has an important influence in the electronic literature. The word algorithm, for instance, derives from its inventor Al-Khwarizmi, a Persian mathematician and also the literary work “1001 Nights” is often quoted as an early example of hypertextual work of literature. What is your point of view on this matter?

Reham Hosny: The Arabic culture is one of the richest cultures that has its effect on different literary and scientific fields. The Arabic language is the official language of 22 countries and one of the most spoken languages around the world. The Arabic calligraphy undergone many changes to arrive at its present shape with three components: The plain unpointed letters, a pointing system above or under some letters to differentiate them from other similar letters which is called “i’jam”, and supplementary diacritics that control pronunciation which are called “tashkil”. These three components of the Arabic calligraphy along with its writing from right to left in a cursive way make it a visual language that can be used in decoration and artistic works.  

In “Roots and Shoots: History and Development of Arabic Electronic Literature”, I addressed the printed genealogies of Arabic e-lit. The reason behind my interest in following these precursors is the fact that “innovative e-poetry will continue to exist in relation to innovative print poetry” as Glazier believes.  

“Alf  Layla wa-Layla” (“One Thousand and One Nights”) which is considered a canonical text in the Arabic cultural heritage since the heydays of the Islamic civilization represents, with its succession of linked stories, a hypertextual precursor to e-lit. The concrete and visual poetry of the Andalusian age in the Twelfth century and the Mamluk and Ottoman ages after that represent rich precursors of e-lit. Moreover, the experimental modern Arabic poetry has many examples that could be considered precursors to Arabic e-lit.

ELR: The Manifesto of Arabic Electronic Literature reads that the community intends to look beyond the hegemony of English language. One interesting development in this respect concerns the creation of a programming language in Arabic as we can see in the code work of Ramsey Nasser and also in the work of the Quwaiti company Sakhr Computers that arabised the programming languages BASIC and LOGO back in the 1980s. What is your opinion about the development of an Arabic code language?

Reham Hosny: Unlike the languages that change every century, the Arabic language is consistent and rich language to the extent that texts from 1400 years back are still readable and understandable. The English language is the dominant language of programming; however, there are some infamous Arabic programming languages. One of the objects of AEL is to create a network and connections among Arab e-lit writers and programmers for future joint collaboration.

Qlb by Ramsey Nasser is an artistic piece that mocks the hegemony of English language in programming to show how biased the field of computer science is. This ambitious work is a good step upon the way of developing programming in languages other than English.

Sakhr is the first leading software company in the Middle East that depends on the Arabic language as its main medium. It has played a great role since 1980s in Arabizing some programming languages, manufacturing computers, and providing different kinds of Arabic language-based software.

I believe that one day, an Arabic code language will be developed to provide many potentials and privileges to the computer science field.

ELR: Another point of the Manifesto is that the community of the Arabic Electronic Literature wishes to expand its field of work and influence. In 2018 the city of Dubai hosts the first conference dedicated to Arabic Electronic Literature. Could you tell us more about the event?

Reham Hosny: As I stated before, holding an international conference on Arabic e-lit is one of the AEL project goals. The conference will be hold on Feb. 25-27, 2018. We already launched a CFP and received many submissions from all over the world in Arabic and English on the topic of Arabic e-lit. The prominent digital critic Kate Hayles will be the keynote speaker of the conference as well as the Moroccan critic Zohor Gouram. We also organized a meeting with many Arab and international scholars in March, 2017, at RIT Dubai to figure out the details and logistics of the conference.

The first workshop of its kind in the Arab World will be delivered at the conference to highlight the digital tools used in creating e-lit and featuring new e-lit genres that are not famous in the Arab World. Additionally, a digital cultural project focusing on the theme of Dubai and Arabic heritage will be coincided with the conference in collaboration with RIT New York and RIT-Dubai. It is supposed that a model of the project will be presented at the conference and Expo 2020 after that. The scientific and organizing committees of the conference include renowned international and Arab scholars. The conference is organized by RIT, New York, hosted by RIT, Dubai, and sponsored by many great foundations like ELO.

ELR: What do you foresee or wish for the future of Arabic literature?

Reham Hosny: The field of Arabic e-lit still needs many sincere efforts to explore its potentials and specificities. We need much collaboration with the world e-lit community to get more experiences on the ways of employing digital media in literature. We also need to close the digital divide in the Arabic e-lit community to compete internationally by training young writers how to use advanced software in writing. A lot of attention should be paid to the Arabic e-lit pedagogy because teaching e-lit in Arabic universities will guarantee its development and circulation. Most Significantly, we are in a bad need of adopting an archiving project because software like Flash is no longer in use that is why some Arabic e-lit pieces were lost.

I dream of Arabic electronic literature that helps rediscover the potentials of the Arabic culture and to be represented and appreciated internationally . AEL is a leading initiative in this vein and our future hope is to get more support to complete achieving its message and join the great project CELL as a partner.

#ELRFEAT: Interview with Stuart Moulthrop (2011)

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In 2011 Judy Malloy made this long and extensive interview with Stuart Moulthrop in which they discuss different topics related to electronic literature from IT, to language, programming language and the relation between narrative and games. With the permission of the author the ELR adds this interview, that was first published on her website narrabase.net to the series of #ELRFEAT.

 

About Stuart Moulthrop: One of the first creators of new media literature and a distinguished new media writer, digital artist, and scholar, Baltimore, Maryland native Stuart Moulthrop is the author of the seminal hyperfiction Victory Garden, (Eastgate, 1991) a work that Robert Coover included in the “golden age” of electronic literature.

His works — that include Hegirascope, (1995) Reagan Library, (1999) Pax, (2003) Under Language, (2007) and Deep Surface (2007) — have been exhibited and or published by Eastgate, The Iowa Web Review, the ELO Electronic Literature Collection; New River; Media Ecology; The New Media Reader; Washington State University Vancouver; and the Digital Arts and Culture Conference. Two of his works have won prizes in the Ciutat de Vinaros international competition.

Stuart Moulthrop has served as a Professor in the School of Information Arts and Technologies at the University of Baltimore where he was the Director of the undergraduate Simulation and Digital Entertainment program. He is currently a Professor in the Department of English University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

He has also served as co-editor for Postmodern Culture, was co-founder of the TINAC electronic arts collective, and was a founding director of the Electronic Literature Organization. He is co-author (with Dene Grigar) of the forthcoming MIT Press book, Traversals – The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing.

In this literate and cyber-literate interview, where, as in the reading of poetry, the reader must occasionally interpret the allusions to other works — from contemporary literature to philosophy to computer manuals — Moulthrop recounts the founding of TINAC, the writing of Victory Garden, the founding (with Nancy Kaplan) of a department of Information Arts and Technologies at the University of Baltimore, and the creation with Flash ActionScript of his textual instrument Under Language. And he looks to the future of electronic literature.

More information about Stuart Moulthrop is available on his home page at
https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/moulthro/index.htm

 

Judy Malloy: Writer and critic Robert Coover has called your Victory Garden one of the early hyperfiction classics. What were the influences, ideas, paths that led you to create hyperfiction?

Stuart Moulthrop: I take very seriously the idea of life-stories “broken down, and scattered,” as one book of revelation has it; or self-assembled into “small pieces loosely joined,” to quote another.

“Life’s too short because we die,” Weinberger and Levine memorably say in the opening verse of the Cluetrain; and while I can’t dispute this raw truth, it has always made more sense the other way round. The life we have (or at least, our life in language) tends to expand, or had better do, because we have so far managed to keep breathing. Breath released is utterance, and out of uttering (through confusion, and false consciousness, and metaphysics) come words, and writing, and code, and media, and all the other outerings that mark our distributive humanity.

Cyberspace may be literally everywhere and nowhere, but my connection to hypertext is curiously placebound. My understanding comes in large measure from having weathered the 1970s inside the 200 Megaton High Score Zone of the Chesapeake Basin. To survive the Cold War within tolerable aiming error of the Puzzle Palace (with its semi-mythical Memex) was to receive, however haltingly, a certain insight; McLuhan riffing on Vico says any technology pressed to its limit reverses. Bring the heat of the sun down to earth, (or threaten) and you end up cooling it on the anything-but-final frontier, which is not outer space after all, but an even stranger dimension called the infosphere. Where extinction had been, I realized, we would need to install information, or networks. Having come to “cogito ergo boom,” in Susan Sontag’s memorable formula, there was nothing left but to invent the Internet, and see what that might gain us.

I did not invent the Internet anymore than Al Gore did. As the non-appointed President might better have said, we have all invented the Internet, loosely joining up what small and scattered peace we can salvage from the globalized military edutainment terror multimart. To be sure, some of us have simply discovered a shortcut to the convenience store (or obscurity) while others have revealed new vistas and horizons, passages that lead where no mind has gone before. I have known more than my share of major navigators: Michael Joyce and Jay Bolter, Gail Hawisher and Cindy Selfe, Mark Bernstein, Cathy Marshall, Robert Coover and George Landow, John Cayley, Janet Murray and Kate Hayles, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Nick Montfort, Ian Bogost, Eric Zimmerman, Espen Aarseth, and even the father of Civilization Sid Meier, and the great name-giver Nelson himself. (This list is merely suggestive; the names one drops are never equal to those one carries.)

Anything I’ve done, or may go on to do, belongs to the context of their accomplishments, and to the big job we all have, which after hearing me go on for a while about hypertext, a very wise person once defined to me thus:

“You will have to create a new language.”

Her name was Dorothee Metlizki, Professor of Linguistics at Yale, and she said this to me about a year before I started Victory Garden.

Judy Malloy: Ah -, you send forth a cyber-literary collection of allusions in answer to my question — techno-poetically telling where you are coming from and setting the stage for the beginnings of cyberspace narrative, reminding me of a story that there was a young woman who read your Hegirascope and simply got on a train and went down to see you. (Do I remember this correctly?)

The incredible way that the Internet — with hypertext at its core thanks to the web — has pervaded our lives in only a few decades was perhaps predicted by such individual journeys of discovery; I am also reminded of what a University of California plant pathologist once said to me about science being a river that was fed by many streams of research and documentation, which brings us to the next question:

TINAC has always been a seminal yet mysterious entity to me who arrived on separate paths: library data systems, West Coast cyberculture and in particular Art Com Electronic Network on The Well because art space curator Carl Loeffler — who had hosted Kathy Acker, Taylor Meade, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Willoughby Sharp, and Lew Thomas, among many others who used text in their work — was one day visited in his office by Canadian telecomputing artist Bill Bartlett and immediately deciding that the online environment was the place for text artists, enlisted Fred Truck and then, knowing we were on parallel paths, convinced John Cage and then me and Jim Rosenberg and many others of his vision.

Meanwhile, parallel things were happening in other places in the world, and one of them was the group you were associated with: TINAC — Textuality, Intertextuality, Narrative, and Consciousness. For many years, I have wanted to know more about TINAC. Can you tell me about its founding. Who was involved? How did it evolve?

Stuart Moulthrop: On the drop-ins: Donna Leishman got off the train once, around the turn of the century, and I remember how impressed I was with her work; much the way I’ve felt about yours, especially on first seeing. Ingrid Ankerson and Megan Sapnar, who founded Poems That Go while they were in Baltimore, also stopped by my classes once or twice, though I never had the chance to work with them closely.

I recall feeling in the early years that there wasn’t much of a “there” to electronic literature. People seemed thinly scattered across the invisible landscape, and I often felt I was writing for a small circle of friends. (Maybe still the case, and see below.)

The ACM Hypertext conference once described the literary crowd at their conferences as “small but fascinating,” a phrase Michael Joyce particularly cherished, if that is the word. But things changed with the Millennium, and I began to meet people like Espen Aarseth, Markku Eskelinen, Adrian Miles, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Nick Montfort, Jill Walker, and Scott Rettberg, who seemed to think electronic writing had some coherence, and a more substantial connection to history. Efforts like Sue Thomas’ work on the trAce collective, and Deena Larsen’s tireless teaching and workshopping, also helped me to a broader understanding. Many streams, as you put it. (Many muddy streams, my Michael Joyce Emulation Module wants to say.)

First of all, TINAC is almost entirely mythical. I made up “This Is Not A Conference” in the fall of 1988 to describe what Nancy Kaplan might have been thinking by inviting John McDaid, Michael Joyce, and me to spend several days in her house, and maybe teach a class or two. At that point we were neither small nor fascinating, but had already grown tired of academic conferences — to be fair to the Association for Computing Machinery, mainly with Apple’s Macademia events, where we felt increasingly subject to Marketing. I think Michael came up with “This Is Not A Cabal.” The reading you cited (Textuality, Intertextuality, Narrative, and Consciousness) is pure McDaid. I suppose there may have been something Oulipian going on — some conspiracy of art-inventors — thoough with the exception of Michael, I wouldn’t compare us either to those Parisians, or your friends from the WELL. We were an odd and autotelic assembly, not so much Kids in the Hall (undiscovered talent) as Folks from Downstairs — a term I borrow from the late, wonderful Diane Balestri who wrote a book called Ivory Towers, Silicon Basements, about introducing computers to college writing instruction.

Back in those days, computer labs were almost always in sub-surface, windowless rooms. Maybe it was something to do with bomb shelters. Our day jobs at that point, had we been able to see daylight, all involved some form of College Composition and Communication, another Conference whose badge we sometimes wore; which meant that, again with the exception of Michael, we did not identify primarily as writers or artists, but as teachers. Nancy was and remains a developer of scholastic software for collaborative reading and writing. Michael helped reinvent reading, writing, and the Library at Vassar, and other things besides. John has spent a lot of time defining new communication practices in a high-level business consultancy, and publishing science fiction stories that take on very interesting overtones if you know where he works. After a couple of decades in stranger waters, I have come to rest once again in a Department of English.

Maybe an analogy or two will help. The legend that is TINAC seems less like some intensely obscure indie band whose members are all now shepherds, and more like a college-town FM station that flourished for a year or two before the supremacy of News-And-Talk. By which I mean, there was really not much “there” to TINAC, except as a point of circulation and convergence through which some interesting projects happened to pass — Michael’s afternoon, Nancy’s annotation software P.R.O.S.E., John’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse, Jay Bolter’s Writing Space, Jane Yellowlees Douglas’ End of Books, or Books without End, and my own early tinkerings. TINAC left the air long ago. The call letters are remembered only dimly, the DJs are all forgotten, but somewhere out there, doubtless on the Net, we’ll always have the music.

Judy Malloy:

>The call letters are remembered only dimly, the DJs are all forgotten,
>but somewhere out there, doubtless on the Net, we’ll always have the music.

Yes, and I would also note that such groups of artists and/or writers who got together and created a school — I’m thinking of the Impressionists, the Macchiaioli, the Society of Six, the Bloomsbury Group, Oulipo, Group f/64 and many others — have had a lasting impact on art, literature and culture, although their importance is not always immediately apparent to the wider world.

Now, there are virtual gathering of artists and writers in this Internet world: Cathy Marshall and I sharing meals virtually as we included the details of our daily lives in our correspondence for Forward Anywhere; or the information about the creation and exhibition of new electronic literature in Canada and in California which Fortner Anderson and I exchanged, after we “met” on Art Com Electronic Network. (Actually we have never met in person).

Yet there is nostalgia for a world where the Society of Six went painting together in the hills of California and returned to Selden Gile’s cabin, spreading their work around the room and drinking red wine while Selden cooked dinner. It is nice to hear that TINAC began with an actual gathering at Nancy Kaplan’s home.

So, in this global village of our pasts, you were born in Baltimore, went to George Washington University, got a PhD at Yale. And then?

Stuart Moulthrop: And then fell predictably and more or less happily off the Yale tenure track, where I’d unaccountably landed after my doctoral work, then pitched up in Austin, where Victory Garden was born and largely written. I came down with a severe allergy to Texas politics, and for some reason decided the air would be nicer in Atlanta, so left UT for Georgia Tech, where I stayed three years and did a lot of thinking about hypertext, though relatively little creative work. After that it’s yet more academic CV, I’m afraid. Two generous job offers at the University of Baltimore sucked me, along with Nancy, back down the gravity well of my Old Neighborhood — I ended up working about three miles from my place of birth. During a decade and a half in Baltimore, we founded a department of Information Arts and Technologies, which has a graduate program in Interaction Design and Information Architecture, as well as an undergraduate degree in game and simulation design, which I built from scratch with my good friend Kathleen Austin, who had the original idea.

Being in a major center of the game industry, we’ve been able to place graduates with Firaxis, Big Huge, Bethesda Softworks, and other world-class studios. One of our finest alumnae now works for Sid Meier, who brought the world Civilization. I’m immoderately proud of her.

Building the game degree had other rewards, too: it gave me a practical stake in certain arguments about narrative and ludology, and Espen Aarseth’s notion of “ergodic” culture; it also led me to teach a bunch of things I’d never have dared otherwise, including 3-D graphics and game coding. These engagements promoted my tendency to arrested development, so that more than one recent ex-teenager has told me, “you don’t really seem that old.” More points of pride. Happy as the game program has made me, it was also clearly turning me into an academic administrator; and while I’ve gotten fairly technical late in life, spending six days a week in meetings meant I had no time to design or code anything. So when University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee went looking for a research professor with an interest in digital media, game culture, and electronic literature, I jumped, and ended up in a very happy place. Even if the state does tend to vote Vogon.

Judy Malloy: “The routes through Stuart Moulthrop’s new hyperfiction “Victory Garden” are almost literally countless,” Coover wrote about the work in The New York Times. Can you talk about the creation of Victory Garden? What was the role of the Gulf War in the work? How did you begin using Storycpace. How did you structure and interface the work? Or whatever you want to say about Victory Garden.

Stuart Moulthrop:

>Can you talk about the creation of Victory Garden? What was the role of the Gulf War in the work?

The first Gulf War grabbed my attention about as strongly as September 11 did a later generation’s. While my Texas boots were never on the ground — Victory Garden is largely about war As Seen On TV — there was one arguably related fight too which I was party: George H.W. Bush’s decision to launch a “culture war” (his words) against American progressives. After the horrors and excesses of his son’s regime, people tend to forget that rightward lurch by the old man — a somewhat feeble attempt to spin up the Nixon-Reagan Southern Strategy. I choose not to forget, just as I somehow can never overlook Mr. Reagan’s decision to curtail my teenage brother’s survivor benefits the year after our father died. True, as some of the Gulf War vets I’ve worked with have reminded me, you only really understand how stupid it is to call anything political a “war” when the first actual bullet goes past your ear. But words do not just go past, they enter the ears, and other orifices, and there we are.

>How did you begin using Storyspace. How did you structure and Interface the work?

I started playing with Storyspace in the late 1980s, when Jay and Michael handed me early beta versions. At the time I was more interested in HyperCard, largely because of its multimedia features. There are painters and visual artists in my family tree, I’ve always been powerfully attracted to comics, and HyperCard seemed a better solution for images, animation, and sound. I might have been stumbling toward something like the Miller brothers’ Myst, though clearly I was never going to get there, or anywhere very interesting, on my own. So when the intense desire to write something out of the events of 1990-91 presented itself, I turned back to Storyspace, which was and remains a marvelous tool for a certain kind of writing.

Moving to Storyspace initially took interface issues off the table. There were three sorts of reader module, and I chose the one that was closest to what we would now call an e-book, because Victory Garden was meant to be mainly a literary hypertext. Graphics sneaked back in, of course, in places like the cracked screen, and the graphical map; but these moments came later. The map, which was the very last thing I added to the project, represents the Return of the Repressed Interface. Somewhere along the line I had decided that Victory Garden would have about three dozen default reading paths, all of which could be accessed by repeatedly pressing the Return key after a certain point. (Michael had introduced this idea in afternoon.) Attempting to represent those paths in visual form led to the map, which bears only a highly metaphorical relationship to the actual arrangement of the text.

I also like to point out another component of the VG interface, which is the accreting sentence the reader may choose to construct, one word or phrase at a time, in following initial links into the work. For some reason — mainly, I think, the fact that the old Macintosh interface has been replaced by the more powerful scheme Mark Bernstein developed for Windows — not many readers notice the old forking-paths machine. This makes me a little wistful; though not really upset, since it means people are far more interested in following links than in flipping virtual pages: so much the better.

Judy Malloy: Thanks Stuart! As we move into the present, your words bring up the role of the writer and the role of the reader in new media literature. Having recently played with eliciting language in quite a different way — Andrew Plotkin’s Interactive Fiction Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home is currently featured on Authoring Software — I’m interested in the role of the writer/poet, the role of the software, and the role of reader in your contemporary works, such as Under Language. In Under Language, the idea of language and of a poet’s written words as gift is compelling. The reader participates in the creation of “the poem” (if he or she plays to win) while at the same time spoken “under language” challenges the reader to explore implicit meaning. There is a pleasure in the receipt of the poem, and the whole calls attention to the value of a poet/storyteller’s words.

What led you to work in this way?

Stuart Moulthrop: Simply put, an even-now-still-growing conviction that the idiom of code and the older idiom of human expression are both valid constituents of poetry. I won’t begin to claim originality for this idea — see the work of Jim Carpenter, or Daniel C. Howe, to cite two cases of prior art. I do feel, though, that this sense of convergence is important, especially as writers become increasingly familiar with procedural tools and methods.

Judy Malloy: “Actionscript spoken here” a voice informs me; clearly there is a relationship between the poem and the authoring system. Can you talk about the software tools you used to create Under Language?

Stuart Moulthrop: Under Language is a love-poem to ActionScript 2, written shortly before I eloped with her even more charming cousin A.S. 3, whom I have since dumped for an earlier paramour, JavaScript. The sordid lives of the software poets.

More seriously: I thought it was important to reverse the figure and ground of code and literary expression, because for me at least, the latter seems unimaginable sans the former. I should point out, though, that “ActionScript spoken here” is at least initially an option, not a prescriptive. That is, the player/reader/poem-operator may bypass this possibility and opt instead for “Plain English, please.” If thrown (or expressed) the plain-English switch (or gene) renders all audible/computable statements in pseudocode, which I tend to prefer.

Judy Malloy: And then in a work where reader response can be quite different, there is the question of how the creator of the work knows what the reader will do. In the work that I am now writing, (Part II of From Ireland with Letters) the reader sees four parallel columns where text appears polyphonically at the will of the author, but the reader can also chose to click on any column and advance the text, while surrounding the text that he or she is controlling, other texts will continue to appear. When my work was disk based, and I saw it running in installations, I could watch people interact with it and sometimes I even made changes as a result of this. But on the web, I don’t know if most readers watch while the narrative produces the words, or take control themselves. I suspect the later, but I don’t know. The work was designed to work either way.

The question is: Do you know how readers play Under Language? Is this important?

Stuart Moulthrop: First, I very much want to see/hear/play the work you just described. Which is a way of saying what you just said, namely, How Does Such A Thing Work? I have no idea what anyone does with Under Language. User testing was confined to an N of one, (Jill Walker Rettberg) who crucially advised that the poetry was not good at all. So I stayed up all night, wrote something marginally better, then shipped. Which either makes me a typical software engineer or the evil opposite of one, depending on how long since your operating system last crashed.

Again, though I play here for (probably imaginary) laughs, there’s a serious point lurking. As e-writers, *we don’t know enough about what readers do with our stuff*, especially on the Web. Like you, in the very early days I had the chance to work with captive reader/players, mainly my own and others’ students. But not in a long, long time since, and I think this is bad.

It could be exceptionally important to create a testing program for electronic literature. I am not kidding. I would give huge kudos to anyone willing to operate such a thing. We should write a grant. Or someone should. Anybody?

Judy Malloy: And the last questions are:

What are you working on now?

and

How do you see the future of Electronic Literature?

Stuart Moulthrop:

>What are you working on now?

Right now I’m trying to teach two new courses in Milwaukee while running away to Australia, but in one of those classes, my first ever creative-writing workshop in newly-mediated lit, we are producing “poems of internet of novel.” These are partly found, partly hand-crafted, poem-like objects that begin life as Google searches using phrases from Michael Joyce’s “novel of internet,” known as Was. Since Michael wrote in part under the inspiration of the Searching Muse, (“Googlemena” as he names her) this is a curious exercise in reverse engineering. It’s also (in my mind anyway) a kind of response to the recent “flarf” outbreak in contemporary poetry, which I love and deplore; and also perhaps an experiment in writing-as-reading, or literary reception as (re)production. Also, historians of minor writing take note, this is my very first significantly multi-authored literary exploit, soon perhaps to be some kind of hypertext, or maybe even, who knows, words on actual pages.

Beyond that, I have plans for something called Videogame, a novel, which will of course be neither.

>And how do you see the future of Electronic Literature?

On the one hand, glorious and boundless so long as our species endures (arguably afterward) — because the literary impulse is really nothing but the respiration of language, which I affirm to be cosmic and immortal. On the other hand, perhaps extremely brief — I wouldn’t go beyond the 2020s — because as Kate Hayles points out, “Electronic Literature” is the opposite of an oxymoron, (not oxygenius, but pleonasm) since these days there’s effectively no Literature absent Electrons. In 1990, the computer scientist John B. Smith predicted the term “computers and writing” would seem increasingly ridiculous by the end of the century. Smart man, Dr. Smith. I’m not sufficiently cynical to suggest the Death and Transfiguration of Electronic Literature will stop the experimentation you encouraged me to try. You and I belong to an early generation (probably not the first) of Interface Artists. There are and will be others; but I wonder if they will come to regard the fundamental plasticity of the medium inevitably as an unmarked term. Can we imagine a mate of Proteus, and what s/he must have thought of the marriage?

Anyway, they’ll be on to neutrinos any minute now.

Stuart

Melbourne, Australia

This interview was created via email and posted in October 2011

#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

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