Archive for the ‘English’ Category

#ELRBOOKS: Book reviews by Kathi Inman Berens

leave a comment »

The ELR is delighted to share a very generous contribution by Kathi Inman Berens that she defined “Five Books About E-Literature Interfaces”. The Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities and Publishing in Portland State University’s English Department chose books that were all published between 2015-2018 to bring to our attention the concepts of materiality and interface in both electronic and print literature. More importantly, what really shows how central the print book as a medium is in digital culture, is the concept of liberature (with b) which reveals in which ways a book conveys literary meaning to the reader.

Good read!

These five books declare new aspects of e-literary interfaces as material sites of inquiry and cultural intervention. Challenged to write short reviews of five books about e-literature, I selected these recent books written by authors living in Poland, Denmark, Norway and the United States paying particular attention to interface as a site of encounter. In addition to being erudite, these books are all immensely pleasurable to read. I sequence them to tell a story from general to specific and back again: from a definitive overview of electronic literature, to the medial history of one interface, to playable books as genre, to a close reading of one e-lit work from three vantages, to a critical treatment of mobile and pervasive literary interfaces.

  • Electronic Literature, by Scott Rettberg
  • The Book, by Amaranth Borsuk
  • Liberature: A Book-bound Genre, by Katarzyna Bazarnik
  • Reading Project: A Collaborative Analysis of William Poundstone’s Project for the Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit}, by Jessica Pressman, Mark C. Marino, and Jeremy Douglass
  • The Metainterface – The Art of Platforms, Cities and Clouds, by Christian Ulrik Andersen & Søren Bro Pold

In Electronic Literature (Polity: 2018). Scott Rettberg offers a definitive introduction to e-literature suited for classroom use and field overview. Rettberg’s comprehensive vision attends to origin stories that make the claim for e-literature as an essential component of 21st-century literature and art by connecting e-literature to print-borne avant-garde literary movements such as surrealism, Dadaism, Flarf, concrete poetry, and metafiction; and to performance art movements such as the Situationists, psychogeography, Happenings, and various installation artists. Compendious in scope and playful in tone, Electronic Literature is that rare book that can teach things both to specialists and newcomers, inviting everybody to the banquet that is e-literature’s generic diversity. “The Internet is the most important contemporary communication network, but earlier discourse networks, such as the postal system, have also been used for literary art” (156) Rettberg writes, noting postal art as a precursor to network fictions such as netprov, cellphone novels and codework.

This is just one early example in the book of how “commerce-driven communication technologies can be configured as venues [where] the network can take the place of the gallery.” The history Rettberg traces from local or embodied spaces to networks, is structurally replicated in chapters on “Hypertext Fiction” and “Interactive Fiction and Other Gamelike Forms.” E-literature is perhaps still most associated with hypertext in the cultural imagination, which Rettberg calls “a strange situation” because it’s “the genre that has been most written about in the field while simultaneously the genre least actively pursued by writers in recent years” (86). (Don’t worry, Twine fans: Rettberg devotes a good chunk of the “IF and Other Gamelike Forms” to discussing this open-source hypertext framework and community, which Rettberg depicts in his discussion of Porpentine’s works as a lovechild between hypertext and interactive fiction.) The traffic between community formation and technopoesis is an abiding theme of this book, attending carefully to who made what and when. That kind of documentation is especially important because e-literature works are highly ephemeral. Rettberg masterfully charts a field of literary influence with emphasis on nodes; his work distantly reading e-literature dissertations and citational practices, and his curatorial practice of exhibiting significant media archeological archives such as PO.EX, supplies a bird’s eye view of a field that Scott Rettberg knows intimately, having founded the Electronic Literature Organization in 1999, an organization now global and multilingual. “In spite of the short life span of many works of electronic literature,” Rettberg notes, “genres of electronic literature don’t die, nor do they fade away. It is more appropriate to consider how genres and forms . . . serve as building blocks for other forms that follow them” (201).

One implication of Rettberg’s comment on genre is that the traditional literary standard for canonicity is imbued with the technopoetics of print as a durable technology. Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book (MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series: 2018) historicizes “the book” as a medial creation space whose capacities stretch beyond genre or canon in a well-scoped, -designed and -executed “pocket” book written in accessible language. Like Rettberg’s book, Borsuk’s is also ideal for classroom use. The book ushered forth a number of significant and enduring literary relations: between author and reader, author and publisher, publishers and readers. Borsuk grounds each chapter in book materiality; the first, “Book As Object” includes hand-drawn illustrations depicting the evolution of writing technologies. Chapter two, “Book as Content,” focuses on the book as “body,” an “intimate” space, and attends to the paratextual cues that have evolved over time and made the book a remarkably efficient random-access interface. (I like Borsuk’s clever demonstration of a pointing-finger manicule on p. 87). An avant-garde poet herself, Borsuk’s chapter on “The Book as Idea” distills how artists’ books depart from the book-as-commodity. The book is a surprisingly stable category given the bold experiments with book size and today’s multiplication of commodity formats. “Amazon offers us the same ‘book’ in paperback or Kindle edition, at slightly differing prices . . . . When books become content to be marketed and sold in this way, the historic relationship between materiality and text is severed” (112). Borsuk tours through artists’ books by William Blake, Stéphane Mallarmé, Ed Ruscha, Ulises Carrión, “theatrical” bookmakers like Fluxus artist Alison Knowles, and Bob Brown’s “Readies.” Her personal fascination with computational book arts manifests in this chapter’s extended rumination on moveable books of all sorts: the recombinant poetics of Queneau; CYOA books, flipbooks and unbound books; and “ephemeral” books, such as Marcel Duchamp’s wedding present to his sister, a geometry textbook to be suspended by strings from a balcony during their honeymoon in Buenos Aires, “where the elements would gradually wear away at it” (185). Borsuk’s emphasis on book materiality moves discussion of “the book” away from well-worn notions of books as “a space of fixity, certainty and order” (194) and springs the radical potential, in the digital era, inherent in a stable publication format. Borsuk’s untaming of the “book” is evident in both grand and quotidian gestures, such as noting the Renaissance readers who used the book as a storage system: “pressing flowers, copying recipes, keeping photographs, compiling clippings”—personalizations that persist today. “Defining the book involves consideration for its use as much as its form,” Borsuk argues. “Our changing idea of the book is co-constitutive of its changing structure” (195).

What are the definitional implications of books’ changing structures? Katarzyna Bazarnik’s Liberature: a Book-bound Genre (Jagiellonian University Press: 2016; Columbia University Press distribution 2018) culminates two decades of work as both book arts practitioner and theorist. The “b” in liberature draws attention to the book’s active role in co-producing literary meaning with readers: print-bound technotexts. Popular versions of liberature in English include Danieleweski’s House of Leaves, Johnson’s The Unfortunates and the amusing graphical oddities of Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. The preëminent Polish liberatic author, poet Zenon Fafjer, launched his career with the liberatic poem Oka-leczenie [“Mute-Eye-late;” “healing/hurting of the eye]” (2000, co-authored with Bazarnik); and his 1999 manifesto “Liberature: Appendix to the Dictionary of Literary Terms.” The manifesto sparked a literary movement that Barzarnik’s book classifies as a genre. In Liberature: a Book-bound Genre, Bazarnik tests generic parameters, taking up phenomenology debates of mid- and late-twentieth century about how sequential space supports reader decoding, and more recent scholarship of genre that examines why generic boundaries are unstable but still useful. Bazarnik defines liberature as “spatialized, multicoded writing inextricably bound up with the material form of the book” (46). Bazarnik’s focus on physically playful books pivots on spatial metaphors: book as “meaningful space,” “navigating device,” “buildings” and “bodies.” These spaces are made meaningful by the creative ways they require people to read (in sections on book as “event” and “performative space”).

Bazarnik’s definitional work in parts one and two sets up the final section on “The Question of Genre.” This one challenges fundamental principles of e-literature scholarship because, as Rettberg’s book and many others make clear, technotexts’ generic parameters can be vanishing points. Bazarnik defends the value of genre as “an important analytic instrument” (110) of technotexts because genre is a common “frame of reference” that rewards efforts to “modify regulatory conventions in the literary field” (117). In her survey of genre’s theoretical contexts, Bazarnik finds common ground by yoking genre to readerly performance, a “repeated verbal behavior that is meaningful in social situations . . . a way of doing things in the world” (168). This relational, contextual definition of genre makes good sense, and does battle with strict enforcement of generic markers that invalidate liberature as “too liberal to be functional in any serious sense” of literary classification (21). One can finish reading Liberature: a Book-bound Genre and wonder why genre is a noun, a thing, as opposed to an adjective: liberatic qualities of engagement. Agnieszka Przybyszewska proposes grading a technotext’s playable properties as varying degrees of liberatic encounter, as do other scholars. Bazarnik’s turn to interactive reading validates liberature as genre, refurbishing genre for an age when reading is interactively heterogenous.  

If Bazarnik aims to situate liberature using existing generic tools, Reading Project: a Collaborative Analysis of William Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit} (University of Iowa Press: 2015) underscores the limitations of strict classification in parsing even one e-literary work. Collaborative authors Jessica Pressman, Mark C. Marino and Jeremy Douglass braid together media archeology, critical code studies and visualization as they exfoliate William Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit} (2005). Attribution matters in Project, but the authorial divisions are deliberately, productively messy. Identifying who wrote what discloses the edges of expertise and allows readers to chart the progress of the authors’ mutual influence. Writing very much for each other, such openness requires emotional “vulnerability” (140) as discoveries “reroute individual interpretive efforts and [lead] to group epiphanies” (138).

The result is a suspenseful book of literary criticism. Chapter one teaches the reader how to read media archeology, visualization and Flash. Chapter two excavates the tachistoscope as a media instrument and Flash as an authoring tool. In chapter three, Douglass’s “core samples,” volumetric readings of Project’s screen output, segue into readings of the “optical unconscious” and the “detritus” of Poundstone’s code, a materialist reading of authorial intention where .fla files [production files] are an “archive of writerly process and intention” (79). Chapter four, “Subliminal Spam,” is the analytic pièce de résistance where the critical limitations of any one vantage on Project dramatically play out then give way to a satisfying synthesis. “I had been foolish to rely too much on my eyes,” Douglass confesses. “Project’s fixed sequence of words had been flickering by me the whole time, disappearing behind video frames and hiding in low contrast black-on-black changes. On reflection, I realized that [his and Mark’s] conflicting viewpoints lead to greater understanding” (97) because the results were neither random, nor fixed, but both: an insight that siloed expertise would not have yielded. Reading Project: A Collaborative Analysis shows that “collaboration is not just a trendy practice but a powerful sea change in academic knowledge work” (140).

In The Metainterface – The Art of Platforms, Cities and Clouds, Christian Ulrik Andersen & Søren Bro Pold track what it means that “today’s cultural interfaces disappear by blending immaculately into the environment” (10) and propose net art and e-literature as materially self-conscious practices that reveal “fissures” in “habitual” (159) ubiquitous computing. What is the “metainterface’? It’s the movement of human/computer interaction from the desktop to the smartphone and cloud. Humans are both agents and quarry, where they use smartphones to electively inscribe themselves on the network, but also shed enormous quantities of data harvested by media companies such as Facebook and Google. For Andersen and Pold, e-literature resists the mostly invisible ways interfaces manage us. Chapter one renovates Benjamin’s theory of art’s “tendency” to reveal “fissures” in the smooth surfaces of technical revolution (24). Resetting Benjamin’s “The Author as Producer” essay in our contemporary media ecosystem, where shifts in the culture industry preview the broad shifts from owning to licensing, sharing and leasing, we see loss of of ownership as also a loss of the vernacular web, and the privacy it fostered. Chapters two, three and four canvas a range of metainterface manifestations: cloud-based computing as a “grammar” of interface aesthetics and algorithms that anticipate behavior (chapter two); the ongoing “territorialization” of the urban landscape (chapter three); cloud interfaces touching everything (general) everywhere (global).

Fissures made visible by art call attention to the evitability, the choices, that undergird our engagement with technical architecture. Metainterface highlights many art interventions that make labor and production visible in examples such as Super Mario Clouds (Arcangel, 2002), Summer (Olialina, 2013), Toxi*City (Coover and Rettberg, 2014) and SNOW (Shelley Jackson, 2014-present), among others. Metainterface also surveys how a database art can intervene in the war on terror or climate change by using “interface tactics” for reading (172, emphasis in original). A final chapter on “Interface Criticism By Design” teases out how self-conscious interface design shuttles between use and context. Articulated in case studies of the Poetry Machine (Anderson, Pold and others 2012-present), and A Peer Reviewed Journal About ___ (Cox, Anderson and hundreds of participants, 2011-present), this final chapter shows the radical potential of mindful interface design as an intervention in the black boxes and hidden processes that characterize corporate-owned metainterface materialities.

#ELRBOOKS: Book reviews by Mario Aquilina

leave a comment »

In line with the main purpose of the series #ELRBOOKS to show the interrelation between print books and electronic literature Mario Aquilina, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Malta, presents us in his reviews boos that reflect on literature and text. Undoubtedly, these works of metaliterature and metalinguistics can bring to light aspects and concepts that are crucial in electronic literature such as text structure, linearity of the plot and new ways of reading.

Good read!

‘The Library of Babel’, by Jorge Luis Borges

‘The Library of Babel’ is not the only short story by Borges that is relevant to electronic literature. ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, for instance, may be read, among other things, as providing a textual analogy to and a critique of hypertext, while ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ brings to the fore issues of authorship and what Marjorie Perloff calls ‘uncreative genius’, both of which are central to debates around electronic literature. However, I’d choose ‘The Library of Babel’ for the way that the story simultaneously expounds both the possibilities and the inherent problems with text generation. I’d describe ‘The Library of Babel’ as a prefiguration of e-lit. Like Jonathan Swift’s writing machine in Book III of Gulliver’s Travels or Roald Dahl’s ‘The Great Automatic Grammatizator’, Borges’s library prefigures, before the time of electronic literature, the potential repercussions of the writing machine of electronic literature. A mechanical contraption that could have had the capability of producing the “extremely vast” though “not infinite” collection of books in Jorge Luis Borges’s story-as-thought-experiment, “The Library of Babel”, is never mentioned in Borges’s text. Indeed, “the origin of the library” is “one of the fundamental mysteries of mankind,” and, we read, it has led to centuries of unsuccessful research by “official searchers, the ‘inquisitors’”. However, even if the technology of the books’ origin and production is obscure in Borges’s story (it has to be: which machine could already have produced a total library?), the story may be read as an exploration of what the effects and implications of very powerful and prolific text generators may be on us and our attempt to construct meaning when we are confronted by that which we cannot understand. And, for me, this is one of the key sources of fascination of electronic literature. The vertiginous feeling of conceiving, or trying to conceive, the idea of every possible combination that the library contains, including recursiveness and self-reflexivity, suggests the mind boggling and sometimes confounding implications of contemporary text generators.

Exercises in Style, by Raymond Queneau

A book list like this would be missing something if I didn’t include at least one work by a member of the OuLiPo, of course. I could have gone for something by Georges Perec, like Life: A User’s Manual, or A Void. Electronic Literature is often a literature of writing machines generating texts from a series of constraints. OuLiPo writers show the experimental drive – the idea of literature as experiment — that would become central to electronic literature. Queneau’s generative and combinatorial poem Cent Mille Milliard des Poemes is a classic of electronic literature, in print. The slightly lesser known Exercises in Style recounts the same event in ninety-nine different ways, retelling the same story according to the principles of a wide range of rhetorical and stylistic modes and figures. In doing so, it prioritises formal play and highlights the textuality and materiality of the medium it employs in ways which anticipate and recall electronic literature. Most importantly, the book exhibits a celebration of textual pleasure that some of the best works of electronic literature also embody.

The Biography of ‘The Idea of Literature’, by Adriano Marino

This is one of the most underrated books I have come across, and it should really have a wider readership in my view. I mention it here because the book is a detailed and thoroughly researched discussion of the historical development of what we mean by ‘literature’. Electronic literature scholars have often focused on what is innovative and new in their subject. They have often focused on what Katherine N. Hayles describes as its media specificity. But I believe that we still need to understand more fully how electronic literature relates to the literary tradition and how it challenges some of its key assumptions. This book is a good place to start and provides an alternative to arguments like, for example, those of Jacque Derrida, who locates literature as a specific historical phenomenon that coincides with legal and technological developments in the seventeenth century and beyond. Marino finds ‘literature’ before its recent formalization, and his work is relevant to those who would position electronic literature after the age of print.

Digital Art and Meaning: Reading Kinetic Poetry, Text Machines, Mapping Art, and Interactive Installations, by Roberto Simanowski.

I wanted to include one book in the list that, in my view, reads electronic literature the right way, or, at least, the way I think we should be reading electronic literature more frequently. Again, there are many other authors whose books I could have chosen instead to make my point, including Joseph Tabbi, Jessica Pressman, Marjorie Perloff, Stuart Moulthrop and others, but I chose this one because it was one of the first books I read when I started developing an interest in electronic literature around 2013. I said, ‘reading electronic literature the right way’ because this is a book that tries to bring the methods of close reading to a study of works of e-lit. Close reading is what departments of literature can teach better than anyone else, and as a lecturer in literature, I believe that many works of electronic literature can sustain close reading even if they may have been ‘born digital’.

#!, by Nick Montfort

I find Nick Montfort’s #! (pronounced ‘shebang’) to be a fitting fifth and final choice because while it is a print book, it is also clearly a work of electronic literature. #! is a 2014 print collection of poems that presents readers with the output of computer programs as well as the programs themselves, which are designed to operate on principles of text generation regulated by specific constraints. Montfort’s work is computational because it can be run on a computer and also because it involves computation –often mathematical – of some kind. It is also procedural in that it involves the algorithmic (rather than simply manual) generation of text in the form of letters, punctuation marks, sequences of letters, words, phrases, verses, and stanzas. However, I find #! most intriguing because it operates at the interfaces of diverse literary and non-literary traditions while also depending on computation for its existence. In so doing, it opens up a series of questions that are central to my interest in electronic literature. In which sense or senses could we think of this work as literary? Is electronic literature always meant to be ‘read’? And when it is not (some of the output of the programmes in #! are literally unreadable), what do we do with the work? How do we relate to it if not by reading it? As such, #! is a work of electronic literature that puts the spotlight on the question of ‘literature’ in the age of computerization.  

Written by ELR

December 6, 2018 at 10:00 am

#ELRBOOKS: Book reviews by Mez Breeze

leave a comment »

The series #ELRBOOKS continues with Mez Breeze’s top five recommendations. In her first interview for the ELR Mez Breeze, talked about her work in the field of new media with a focus on her way of working with different media. With the following review the XR artist and VR/electronic literature developer brings us back to classics like “1984” and “Neuromancer”, but adds some refreshing new titles to our survey.

Good read!

a. A House of Leaves

Having been a massive Mise en abyme fan since reading Orwell’s 1984 at the tender age of 13 [or was it 14?], A House of Leaves scratches that distinct appreciation itch. A book that’s definitely re-readable for its ability to convey distinct dread in a creative and uncompromising form, unfortunately it’s the only creation from the author, Mark Z. Danielewski, that I’ve found palatable.

b. Neuromancer

On encountering William Gibson’s Neuromancer in a discount book bin in the early 1990’s, it soon became a fast favourite in terms of it mixing punkshot poiesis with techno-fetishistic concepts. Read it for the foregrounding value of the now hackneyed “Cyberpunk” label [if nothing else].

c. Writing Machines

Termed a “Media Pamphlet” by MIT press, Writing Machines by N. Katherine Hayles and Anne Burdick is an experiment in merging theory written through a semi- biographical cypher with[in] an experimental book format/layout. Having reviewed the book for Metamute back in 2002, although finding it problematic, […conceptually] it still resonates.

d. #WomenTechLit

Published in 2017, this book seems more than relevant in the era of the #MeToo movement. Edited by María Mencía, #WomenTechLit is part of the “Computing Literature” series distributed by the West Virginia University Press, and is a comprehensive overview of theory and practice from/of key figures [and their contributions] to the Electronic Literature field.

e. Attn: Solitude

Attn: Solitude isn’t a straight poetry book, nor is it a strict collation of cyborgian- emulated chapbook texts. The codework contents in this book do fragmentally fold [+ spit out of/from] poetic conventions. These microtexts do presentation-lap gently [yes: gently, albeit clinically, in some instances] at the cusp of code and poetry. Attn: Solitude employs mezangelle – a type of quasi-cobbled conventionset born from 90s digital fomentation – to form packets of code-laced and culturally inflected output.

Written by ELR

November 29, 2018 at 9:00 am

#ELRBOOKS: Book reviews by Sandy Baldwin

leave a comment »

The following review for the series #ELRBOOKS comes as a series of recommendations by Sandy Baldwin who is currently working as an independent writer. Nevertheless, this review features far more than five books and, in the best tradition of metafiction, his suggestions are directly addressed to the readers who are interested in electronic literature and may well be writers themselves one day.

Get inspired!

Warning: I do not recommend that you read books about electronic literature. I will offer no such recommendations here. Should you read those books at some point? Yes, and I assume you already have. And if you have not, go do so and come back later. But I am not going to waste my time recommending them. Of course, you should have read everything. Read them all. Get technical: read hardware and software manuals, read esoteric systems diagrams, read lists of random numbers, or, the best homework of all: read the RFC’s put out by the IETF. From beginning to end, the RFCs delineate the emergence and existence of the net. They contain the debates and assertions that make the network possible, and certain of the RFCs, such as Postel’s Telnet specification (#854), are epochal and read like the hidden scripture of all that follows.

But my point is that if I discuss books specifically on electronic literature, if I serve up recommendations or a syllabus of sorts, then you will just go and emulate those work, you will copy the forms, you will try out the techniques, you will imitate the themes. To be clear: you will and you should do all that, and you do not need me to recommend it. I am not encouraging you to do what you will do anyhow. Get past it. Emulation and evolving your practice is good but I want no part of it. More of the same holds no interest for me. Go somewhere else and leave me alone. I would be happy if I never read another thing about electronic literature.

 I am addressing this as if you are a writer, as if you will write your own electronic literature. Perhaps that’s not the case, perhaps you will read and appreciate the work, perhaps you will write critically and historically about electronic literature. It is all the same: I am recommending books for all. Getting going and with a purpose: that is the hardest thing. Believe me I know. Get real. Burn incandescent and consume the surface of writing, etch yourself into the depths, whether page or screen, it does not matter. I recommend you read works for the material they provide and, secondly, for the existential orientation, for the project.

The material: it has to come from elsewhere, it has to be rubbed in and burst through the electronic. It: whatever the material you make use of, whatever matters and materializes in the digital. Take the digital medium on whatever platform and code and insert information. If not “insert” then infect or spew or weave. All these metaphors are useful and their point is planes of information rubbing against other strata of information, all to produce the effervescence of the new. This is true even if that “elsewhere” is the otherness within the electronic: you can find material within the otherness that already inhabits the platform or medium. Go discover esoteric programming language, odd codes, archaic remainders in digital domains. In all cases, you create a strata that crosses and disrupts, and that provides the way for your writing.

So, you need material. And you need the project: forms and themes are distractions; the point is why write at all? What drives us and what is demanded of us? We are “useless passion” concludes Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness and only by seeking, over and over, a use for ourselves do we exist. For this reason, find yourself through action and expression. Let’s do it is the whole point of writing. So, I recommend works that give a purpose to writing, and particularly to digital and electronic writing.

Do it.

Rather than stick to the binary of material and project, I will make five recommendations that each feed both; that is, each suggestion directs you towards the material and the project you need. The first is about getting started, about the recognition and imperative to write. The second is about the interactions and habits of mind that situate us in the world. The third is about the diagrams and maps that result from the first two. The fourth is about the resulting fictions and world we inhabit. And the fifth is a bonus round, as they say on game shows, or rather: it is the way to make the work your own and to move forward towards new works. Finally, keep in mind, these recommendations are mine and you need to adjust for you. Be warned.

Read Sartre, but even more, go grab any book by Alphonso Lingis. They are all amazing and necessary. Perhaps Excessesor Abuses, just for the titles! Perhaps best known as a translator of Levinas and Merleau-Ponty, among others, Lingis is beyond unique as a philosopher in his own right. His writing resembles nothing more than a travelogue of encounters that stage or perform philosophy. Lingis describes the self not as identity but as exposure, as opening to the world. We may armor ourselves against exposure or welcome its dangers. We risk what we are to contact another, to reach out and touch their skin, to hear their voice. The risk and the touching make them other and make them reachable for us. The text is exuberant and anxious, up front with the risk that is writing. To read Lingis is to inhabit writing and the be inhabited. Believe me I know: writing is risky and Lingis faces it head on. Kathy Acker or James Ellroy (boy oh boy are they not comparable) work in similar ways for me. The point is to take on the risk that is writing and living in the world.

Read weird theories of mind. Perhaps psychoanalytic theory. Again, the point is too pen up your head and discover your mind is already spread out across the writing surface – you would not be writing otherwise! It is the weird edge of psychoanalysis that already takes on systems and networks, that anticipates the internet of things and an “always on” world. Take in Sandor Ferenczi’s flows of introjection and Melanie Klein on part objects. Or perhaps neuropsychology. Read Metzinger’s Being No One. Well, it is massive, so read the ending! Better, try Sherry Turkle’s Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. It has been around for a bit but it stands up. But if you are going to read deep into psychoanalysis and mind, make it odd and unsettling. So, read Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror which breaks down the self in relation to a non-symbolic “primal order.” Why is this important here? Abjection online is overwhelming, whether displays of intimate private bodies or in acts of shaming and display. But I say abjection is how we enter into any intersubjective relation including online environments. For all the highly codified and protocol-driven space of the digital, its core is archaic relations to part objects and body parts. So much of online culture is about command and control, but every command is over a body with unseen interior states, and all control is an operational claim over living beings. “Online” or “digital” or “electronic” is a label for a wilderness of interiority and abjection.

Third, get into cybernetics, especially the second and third and beyond orders of loops and complex observational systems. Focus on the tension, the breakdown, the cyborgian, and the strange. Works such Gregory Bateson’s Steps Towards an Ecology of Mind outline a reflexive embedding of the subject in the world. Check out interesting technical works such as Wiener’s Cybernetics or Ashby’s Introduction to Cybernetics. Both attempt to be rigorous in describing humans as elements in the circuit but also to humanize and enliven the circuit. What I am most interested in here is the feedback and complexity of our being in the world, which is both written and writes. One accessible staging is Heinz von Foerster’s The Beginning of Heaven and Earth has No Name, which uses a conversational setting to describe the oddly embedded loops that position the observer as part of the system observed. Alternatively, check out R D Laing’s curious book of poems and language bindings, Knots, and combine it with Paul Virilio’s Speed and Politics, which illuminates the frantic limit of cyber-processes.

Fourth recommendation: read literature. OK, this is obvious and I want to pressure its obviousness. Read all literature, but avoid the obvious. In particular, avoid cyberpunk or innovative fiction, avoid language poetry or vispo (i.e. visual poetry). To be clear: again, I am not saying you should not have read these at some point, I am not saying they should not be in your repertoire. Notice, for example, how a piece of abstract art is at the center of each of William Gibson’s works, whether the Cornell boxes of Count Zero or the “footage” of Pattern Recognition. What is going on here for electronic literature in terms of the productive aesthetics of such abstraction and the narrative that surrounds it?

What I am saying is that at this point the call and response for those works (the usual suspects such as cyberpunk or innovative fiction) are clear, the context and precursor relation is set out. It is all given and there is little more to be said. Do not fall for it!  No, go far away. Choose nineteenth century realist fiction or obscure poetry from the Renaissance. Genre fiction is excellent as well: obscure detective novels or overwritten romance fiction. Or dive deep into history. Choose Cicero or Ovid. Let’s say the Metamorphoses, Ovid’s tales of transformation. At first glance, they are far from contemporary electronic literature and digital culture. Of course, a few jump out: Narcissus was crucial for McLuhan and eventually for the understanding of human-computer interfacing. Pygmalion turns out to be the origin myth of artificial intelligence and chatbots. In truth, every Ovidian metamorphosis is useful and necessary in thinking about digital culture. Take Orpheus: is this not the taleof YouTube and Spotify and all the rest? (Pandora is not in the Metamorphoses, alas.) In fact, almost any work you choose would end up orienting itself to digital culture and the network. The talk of “precursors” is silly because every work is a precursor. The allegorical space of the fiction and the poetic invention of the language always seeds itself into the present. The more seemingly distant and unlikely the connection, the more you will be able to understand electronic literature. Whether you choose Jane Austen or the Bhagavad Gita, you will discover a space of analogy and productivity. All literature already anticipates the network and the network incorporates all literature.

Final recommendation? You need to choose this one: make it work for you. When I wrote I did the weird motor drive and Lurid Numbers – both are collections of codework, hybrids of code and poetry – I included sources that were “mine,” that were my own subjective written output, but also sources such as alchemical texts, anime scripts, and manuals for technical apparatuses such as adding machine and printers. When I worked on the Coaldust intervention in Lord of the Rings Online or Poems You Should Know interventions into Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, I drew on folk songs used by miners in West Virginia and on Edward Lear’s poetry. These sources provided content and inspiration for the work. I also drew on the work of Paulo Freire, whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed provided a way to think about dialogical encounters with audience and the other. In each case, I drew on books that suited the project and the need. The works were not intrinsic to electronic literature, not at all so, but were intrinsic to the project. As a result, they came to inform the digital space around the project. Let’s be clear: the books chosen evolved and grew to become significant in relation to electronic literature and the electronic literature I made become significant in relation to the books. Every book you choose will do this, assuming it is part of your project. Orient yourself through texts and your project will follow. I always operate this way: I write through reading; texts provide my orientation. They will do the same for you.

Written by ELR

November 23, 2018 at 11:00 am

#ELRBOOKS: Book reviews by Mark Bernstein

leave a comment »

The second review of books related to electronic literature and digital culture is provided by Mark Bernstein, Chief Scientist at Eastgate Systems, Inc. The first publishing and software company to publish works of electronic literature and hypertext fiction appears already in one of the featured interviews. Scholars and fans of electronic literature know the historical significance of Eastgate Systems and for this reason Bernstein’s thorough and varied review of printed books is all the more surprising.

Good read!

Allegra Goodman, The Chalk Artist

This charming, sensitive and closely-observed novel is the most thoughtful examination to date of what computer games mean, and how meaning works in immersive media. Much academic study of narrative in games has been tendentious or indecisive, but Goodman seizes the moment (and the medium) by imagining the collision of a small, passionate group: a sidewalk chalk artist, a young high school teacher whose students won’t listen, a student whose online life is far more interesting than his classroom, and a teenage viral marketing maven.  Sooner or later, they all wind up in the periphery of an immersive fiction, a massive multiplayer game in which each, in their different ways, become deeply involved and within which they each separately inscribe their stories.

Goodman understands and acknowledges, but ultimately avoids, the clichés and archetypes that distort so much writing about the video game world. Exceptionally, she draws game artists and coders well. Better still, she understands that games are a medium, and that we see all our questions about art refracted anew in the prism of computation. What is the use of a beautiful line, if that line is written on the back of a restaurant check or scrawled on the pavement?  Can art matter if it is effortless?  Can effort matter if — as is the case of our struggling school teacher — the audience doesn’t care?  Most importantly for understanding new media, Goodman appreciates the hazards of flow, projection and transference in fictive worlds that (as fictive worlds always have) interpenetrate the fields we know.

Also: William Gibson, The Peripheral; Jennifer Egan, A Visit From The Goon Squad.

Lars Spuybroek, The Sympathy Of Things

A difficult book whose challenges are amply repaid by its insights, The Sympathy Of Things reimagines Ruskin’s aesthetics — and specifically his idea of Gothic architecture — in the context of the digital.  Crucially, Spuybroek understands that Ruskin’s conception of the Gothic was ahistorical. He doesn’t attempt to repair Ruskin by explaining away the errors, discrepancies and misunderstandings; instead, Spurbroek develops a theory of what Ruskin meant — of the ideas he sought to illustrate and explain by reference to Gothic buildings — and recovers that meaning in a novel theory of digital design.

What Ruskin fundamentally rejected, in this view, was the industrial achievement of superficial finish through infinite replication of identical machine-made goods.  A dime-store tumbler might well be superior in clarity and geometrical regularity to the finest 16th century Venetian glass, but the tumbler, made without thought or care, means nothing to us where the Venetian master’s work, flawed as it may seem, bears the mark of that master’s hand. A set of mass-produced flatware is better in almost every regard than our great-grandmother’s battered old ladle, but that ladle has magic simply because it is itself, and because there is none just like it.

Ruskin tried to revive a tradition of craft, of handmade items that might not be perfect but that would retain the mark of their creator’s thought. Arts and Crafts failed as a force for social revolution; we might prefer the hand-made but we also prefer to save money.

Spuybroek’s digital design allows infinite variation without requiring infinite human care and attention. A designer can set boundary conditions and initial parameters and then let algorithms and numerically-controlled machine tools manufacture as many items as we require, each of them unique. You can choose the one you like best, and I can choose another, and through that choice we might understand something about the item, or about ourselves, that neither you, nor I, nor the computer, nor Spuybroek knew before.

Though he never addresses narrative specifically, Spuybroek’s vision notion of a Gothic cathedral created by placing the bases of ribs and then allowing them to grow and intertwine autonomously fits precisely into the crafting of stories. We begin with characters, or with a dramatic situation: we set a stage in the imagination, and see what happens. Spuybroek’s approach, uniquely, explains the constructive hypertextuality of the embedded (and re-embedded) narratives of The Chalk Artist: in particular, how an actor/facilitator can enter into a player’s narrative world and, exploiting projection and transference, adjust the experience in new and unexpected directions. 

The codex book is a product of mass production, of infinite, accurate reproduction of texts forever fixed in their canonical sequence, even if that sequence is arbitrary.  Hypertext frees literature by allowing the work to reform itself under each reader’s guidance, and Spuybroek for the first time provides a framework for thinking carefully about that process.

Also: Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics for its intelligent reconciliation of distinct media without Mucluhanesque excess; Jo Walton; Among Others for understanding the magic of things and exploring Spuybroek’s underlying problem — that critique cannot be built.

Belinda Barnet, Memory Machines: The Evolution Of Hypertext

Electronic literature has long affected a deep interest in history, prehistory, and preservation.  This interest may not always have been sincere: historicizing your rivals can let you put them in their place by placing them in a vanished world. Still, the grand universal library of the World Wide Web realizes an ancient dream, and the hypertext link is clearly the most important textual innovation since the medieval invention of the comma.  The Web today may be a playground for bullies and villains, but this is the literary machine we have built: it behooves us to look carefully at how it came to be.

The conventional history of electronic media begins with Vannevar Bush’s popular science essay “As We May Think” and runs through the pioneering work of Ted Nelson, Andries van Dam, and Doug Engelbart.  This familiar story is incomplete and arguably wrong: H. G. Wells had the world encyclopedia in the 1930s, Emanuel Goldberg built a Memex-like machine in the 1930s and used it to run a large company, and Murray Leinster (William Fitzgerald Jenkins) published a story about web porn and web-borne violence in 1946.

Still, no one contests the great importance of the canonical pioneers, and Barnet is by far the most careful and insightful historian of their work.  Of particular importance is her insight into the central role played by van Dam, and her intelligent portrayal of the Bush, Engelbart and Nelson. She captures the underlying ideas well, and conveys both the strenuous work required to realize those ideas and the fact that our familiar answers were not always obvious and may not have been ideal.

Of course you’ve read: Ted Nelson, Computer Lib/Dream Machines.  George P. Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology.

Also: The Proceedings of the ACM Hypertext Conference in 1987, 1989 and 1991 make fine reading — not exclusively for their historical interest. Silvio Gaggi’s From Text To Hypertext: Decentering the Subject in Fiction, Film, the Visual Arts, and Electronic Media is the best introduction to postmodern ideas for scientists and engineers.

Jason Morningstar, Night Witches

Non-sequential narrative has long been fragmented among rival schools who seldom pay much attention to those outside their familiar orchard: hypertext fiction, interactive fiction, electronic literature, interactive digital storytelling, digital memoir, hyperdrama. Tabletop role-playing games (which descend from Gary Gygax’s brilliant but unreadable Dungeons and Dragons) inspired interactive fiction and provided a foil against which hyperfiction defined itself, but the past decade has led a generation of extremely thoughtful (and theoretically-grounded writers) to explore the ramifications of malleable and socially-constructed narrative in the context of narratives tabletop games.  

Among these theoreticians, Jason Morningstar stands out for his versatility, his prose, and for the ambition of his subjects.  In Fiasco, Morningstar examined the off-kilter logic of the caper tragic-comedy.  In Grey Ranks, he explored a game universe (the 1944 Warsaw uprising) that cannot and will not come to good. In Night Witches, he turns to the story of the Soviet 588th Night Bomber Regiment, an outfit in the Second World War that was staffed exclusively by women and that was, as a result, constantly at war with its own army as well as the Germans. Against this intolerable situation (for which see Svetlana Alexievich. The Unwomanly Face of War), Morningstar sets up a complex dramatic problem: how can these women perform their duties, avoid the snares of hostile bureaucrats and secret police, and still find love and meaning in the time available to them?  Most interestingly, how can a group construct satisfactory stories about characters in a world where fate is not entirely in the author’s hands, a world where there is neither God nor Narrator?

Of particular interest in Morningstar’s work is his approach to creating characters from the intersecting tensions of multiple conflicts and multiple, disparate aspirations.  In Grey Ranks we cannot hope to win in any conventional sense, but we can strive for desirable, contingent outcomes. We might sacrifice ourselves for love. We might do all we could, and more, and escape into madness. We might become a historic martyr, an inspiration to future generations. We might take arms against our sea of troubles. All these are conceivable and conceivably-acceptable outcomes, but which we can achieve is contingent not only on the outside world but also on our relations with other players.  Night Witches is even more open: again, we cannot expect to win in any conventional sense and we cannot escape, but within the constraints of this terrible war, anything might happen.

A particular concern of narrativist games in this century has been the problematic role of the “game master” or dramaturg, and its replacement by some sort of emergent behavior. Just as recent years brought revived interest in the familiar pleasures of plot (Michael Chabon, Amor Towles, Nick Harkaway, and Jill Lepore are just four names that leap to mind), narrativist games have done remarkable work in exploring just what plots are, how the machinery works, and what characters actually want.

Also: D. Vincent Baker, Dogs In The Vineyard; Paul Czege, My Life With Master.

Iain Pears, Arcadia

No reading list about electronic literature is now conceivable without including at least one hypertext. As a publisher, though, I suppose I ought not to single out work we’ve published, like Michael Joyce’s pioneering afternoon, a story or Shelley Jackson’s evocative Patchwork Girl, much less my own school story, Those Trojan Girls. Hence Arcadia, which is hypertextually simple (though not without interest) but brilliantly and accessibly written.

Arcadia describes an Oxford don and his fantasy world, interleaving his own life with that of those who inhabit his portal fiction. That Oxfordian himself might be a fictive subject, imagined (or constructed?) in a dystopia future. These interpenetrating stories are woven into a textual tapestry (for which compare Michael Joyce’s web fiction Twelve Blue) and are intended for reading on a phone or tablet. The framework was lovingly developed and implemented by Faber & Faber, once implacably hostile to literature on computers. Times change.

Written by ELR

November 16, 2018 at 10:10 am

#ELRBOOKS: Book reviews by Alan Bigelow

leave a comment »

In the last six years the ELR has published different formats of interviews from the actual reviews of works of electronic literature, featured interviews published in other web sites, promotional interviews for events and a series centered on a specific topic like digital publishing.

To shift the attention from the digital context and to focus on print literature instead, the ELR has created a new series entirely dedicated to print literature called #ELRBOOKS.

Many scholars of the e-literature community have participated in a survey about their personal favourite books which deal with topics related to electronic literature or more in general to digital culture and cyber culture, but also print literature that feature characteristics of works of electronic literature namely hypertextual structure, multilinear plot, multiple authors or interactivity. Moreover, the series also includes theoretical books considered important, emblematic and innovative that they would suggest to somebody who is new to electronic literature.

The series #ELRBOOKS aims to show the links between print literature and electronic literature and the continuation of some literary features of print literature in electronic literature.

The ELR is happy to start the book reviews with Alan Bigelow, Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Medaille College, Buffalo, NY USA. In his review Bigelow includes works of different literature genres and with different writing styles in a concise way. Interestingly, as Bigelow suggests, conciseness can also be regarded as an important literary feature.

Good read!

Alan Bigelow: Five books that I consider important, emblematic, and innovative and would suggest to somebody who is interested in writing their own creative work in electronic literature:

BOOK#1: Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy This is a book I not only loved while I was reading it the first time (the year after graduating from college), but later, when I began to write elit. Sterne’s experiments with images, layout of text on the page, and his overall ability to change course and suddenly do the most unexpected is what, to a large degree, informs my practice today.

If you are new to writing your own creative work in electronic literature, read this book first and then ask yourself, “Does anyone in elit today do anything more experimental than what Sterne did three hundred years ago?”

If your answer is no, then you are that much closer to recognizing how the forms we use to tell our stories have been invented before. The only difference is that technology allows us to put those forms into new practice.

BOOK#2: James Joyce, Ulysses (and other works)

I was confounded by Ulysses in college: entranced by its meta-language and intensive details but somewhat overwhelmed by the vast human landscape Joyce portrays. He was a premier experimentalist, and my shock of awakening at what he could do as a writer–with his incredible vocabulary, insights into the human condition, character portrayal, and textual pyrotechnics—reverberates with me to this day.

If you are new to writing your own creative work in electronic literature, consider any of Joyce’s works. They can still teach us how to construct a story.  

BOOK#3: Samuel Beckett (any of his works)

In some ways, Samuel Beckett taught me how to write. There is nothing extraneous in his work; every page, paragraph, sentence, word, and punctuation mark has a purpose, and nothing is wasted. His conciseness and conservation of language, where everything has its place and words are always aware of their own limitations, taught me about the compression and efficiency of language that is so necessary for writing on the web.

Beckett was writing for the web before the web was invented.

BOOK#4: Sam Shepard (any of the plays he wrote)

Sam Shepard was a multimedia artist for the stage. He knew how to interpret and portray character and plot through not just dialog but lighting, audio, projections, props, and scenery. He was a master of theatrical multimedia, and he took his generation to the edge of new media before “new media” was born.

If you are new to writing your own creative work in electronic literature, and want to see how multimedia can effect space (3D or virtual), Shepard might be of some use.

BOOK#5: comics (any)

If you are new to writing your own creative work in electronic literature, look at some comics. They could be the old-fashioned kind in magazines, or graphic novels, or online anime, or TV animations, but they all have something to offer.

Mostly, it’s a conciseness of language and a recognition that text is just one part of a story (the other parts being image and, more recently, audio, video, animation, and so on), and that conciseness of language absolutely requires us to compress language and make it more efficient, to say more with less. How writers use the physical or virtual spaceof comics is instructive to writers on the web.

It’s also the pure energy of plots as they appear in so many comics. The plot is usual simple, with limited characters and straight forward complications, but the plot usually captures us with the need to find out what happens next, to get to the end. Simple as the plot may be, or because it is so simple, we must finish the story.

If you can say this as a writer, that when reading your work, your audience feels an irresistible urge to read it all the way to the end… Congratulations. That is probably the highest compliment any reader could offer.

Written by ELR

November 8, 2018 at 11:00 am

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

leave a comment »

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?

Written by ELR

March 9, 2018 at 10:00 am


A Kingston University Student Anthology

Damocle Edizioni Venezia

Bookshop / Casa editrice indipendente


Artists Books, Original Prints and Drawings


stories, poems & toys for the web…


Machines, noise, and some media archaeology by Jussi Parikka

Sonia Lombardo

Ebook editor, richiedi i miei servizi di formattazione, editing e SEO per i libri online


Un libro è per sempre.

Reading Digital Fiction

We aim to introduce more readers to digital fiction and investigate digital fiction reading using cognitive and empirical approaches (funded by the AHRC).

Poesia Ú~ ///// Dia Inú~ ////

o primeiro poema a ser escrito que serve realmente para alguma coisa

Coeva, the novel

by TheCoevas: Musicians of Words / Strumentisti di Parole