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Posts Tagged ‘aesthetics

Interview with Alan Bigelow

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Co-edited by Maíra Borges Wiese

ELR: Alan Bigelow on your website you have published your flash works from 1999-2011 and your HTML5 works published from 2011-2015. Could you tell us how you got started in the field of digital literature?

Bigelow: I got started in electronic literature for a very selfish reason: I owned the domain Cinema2.com, and I wanted to protect it from any corporation that might want it for themselves. This was in 1999, and the domain name craze was at its height, with names like Cinema.com selling for US $700,00 (I even called the sellers, Great Domains, during the auction for Cinema.com, and told them I had Cinema2.com and were they interested? A polite “no” was their answer). So I created a story based on the domain name. The story is about a moving company called Cinema2.com. They don’t physically move people from location to location, like a typical moving company does—instead, they emotionally move them to catharsis using unique and innovative practices. They even have special devices to test for emotional states and effect treatment. The piece was part HTML, part Flash, and it was my first introduction to electronic literature. But back then, I didn’t know it was called electronic literature. I thought I was doing something completely original and new to the internet. It was shortly after that I found other people doing the same thing online, and I realized there was already a community of writers doing what I was doing, and we had the whole web to talk to each other about it.

NOTE TO SELF: Hopefully, one day we won’t have to call it “electronic literature” anymore. What we do will be so commonplace as to be simply called “literature.”

ELR: Can you tell us where your inspiration comes from? My source of inspiration has changed over the years. Early on, in addition to the basic elements of traditional fiction like plot and character (which drove, for example, PamelaSmall.com, “Saving the Alphabet,” other earlier works), I was also driven by the thrill of exploration just to see where it would lead me next; the path was just as interesting as the story itself. Then the goal became (or was it always my goal?) to create a thing of beauty. I may have done this already, but I am not sure yet… Now my source of inspiration has come full circle to plot and character again. Despite the innovation of what we do, it seems that people still like a good story with a beginning, middle, and end (despite what order they are in). They also like a character who they recognize as themselves, someone they know, or someone they have never met before. A good character or plot can drive a story and give it enduring value. It also offers the reader what the French sometimes call attention: there may not be any pages to turn on the web, but a page turner can still keep a reader’s attention. Character and plot can move people, and in the attention-deficit world of the web, moving people with fiction is getting harder and harder to do. So it is back to basics for me. Perhaps this approach might help build a better bridge between the old and the new, from print readership to a readership expecting, and appreciating, multimedia stories on the web. Like the movers in Cinema2.com, my goal is to move people to catharsis. I am getting closer to that goal, I hope, with recent works like “Life of FLY” and “Protect the Poet.”

ELR: Is there a particular reason for the change from flash works to HTML5?

Bigelow: My reason for leaving Flash was simple: there was an iPhone in my pocket, and I could not see my own work on it. I resisted, though. I thought an app would come along to display Flash in a seamless and effortless way (there were some apps, but none were good). I emailed Steve Jobs about how Flash was great for creative work and an artistic tool unparalleled in the marketplace, but he never replied. (I understood—he was busy dying and had more important things on his mind). Finally, because it is adapt or die, I switched to HTML5. Thanks to a good coder I know who helps me with the difficult parts… Well, I have not looked back.

Has switching to HTML5 changed the way you write?

Yes. First, not having Flash as a tool has forced me to revise my approaches as to how readers navigate through the pieces. I have simplified the navigational interface in some newer pieces, and often made them more linear in user interaction. This is convenient because with my renewed interest in plot and character, a linear approach to navigation can be useful. Second, adapting to HTML5, and particularly mobile devices, has forced me to renegotiate with a story’s text as it appears on the screen. Only so much text can comfortably fit on the screen of a phone, so where I can condense, I condense. Where I can cut, all the better. Third, in HTML5, since visual effects are not yet as easy and seamless as they were in Flash, I find myself using visuals where they will do the most good to support theme or action. I try not to include any extraneous visual effects or non-essential coding. The story is primary, and every element supports that, and only that. If a visual or audio element does not have a specific reason for being there, it goes in the garbage heap. The final product must have an expressive and efficient synthesis of all its elements to create the overall effect.

ELR: Where do you see the main challenge in such a fast changing and variegated field like electronic literature?

Bigelow: Keeping pace.

ELR: In many of your works the topic is life as in “The Human Mystery” and “Last Words.”

Bigelow: If it’s not life, it’s death. And anything in between. As a writer, I am not unusual in this.

ELR: Is life (or death) one of your favourite topics? What other topics do you write about?  

Bigelow: Death is a preoccupation in my daily thoughts, rather than a major theme in my writing. I also write about (************************************************************* ******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************). NOTE TO SELF: Continue to vary the topics you cover in your work. It will stop you from being typecast and never working in Hollywood again.

ELR: Readers who are used to reading printed books may be surprised or even irritated and challenged by the audio-visual effects of works of electronic literature.

Bigelow: I am certain this is a temporary phenomenon. Children growing up now will have no problem with multimedia stories, because they are already reading them on their handheld devices. They are also reading and interacting with multimedia in virtually every aspect of their online life. I feel sorry for these kids when they get to college and some professor (like me, for instance) asks them to read stories from a print anthology. It is like they are taking one huge step back for humankind.  

ELR: How does multimedia change the aesthetics of literature?

Bigelow: Other writers about electronic literature have already addressed this question better than I can. In addition to the many individual articles that touch on this topic, two recent anthologies address this question in a variety of ways: The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media (eds. Marie-Laure Ryan, Lori Emerson, and Benjamin J. Robertson) and New Literary Hybrids in the Age of Multimedia Expression (ed. Marcel Cornis-Pope). However, as a writer, one thing I have learned from the aesthetics of digital literature is the importance of conserving words. Saying more with less is a unspoken mantra on the web, where there is so much competition for the reader’s attention. I have always been a spare writer, but elit has forced me to make every word count and to treasure the sentence over the paragraph, the short word over the long, and the period over the comma. One day, I may return to text-based writing just to see how I can apply the lessons about language, graphics, and audio that are at the core of my digital work. Going retro to push print forward might be an interesting game to play.

ELR: Your Ten Predictions about Digital Literature are rather optimistic.

Bigelow: That blog post was published on August 28, 2010. I was too optimistic in some places, but in general, I could probably find up-to-date examples to support each of the ten claims. In fact, I might do a follow-up blog just to make my point… J

ELR: What would you say about the present status of digital literature in academia?

Bigelow: I have mixed emotions about the current status of electronic literature in academia. On the one hand, it is truly great how so many new media and literature classes around the world have incorporated elit into their curricula. It is also terrific how many scholarly articles, books, presentations, panels, and conferences have emerged in the field. This indicates an extremely healthy life for electronic literature within academia, a life I am extremely thankful for both as a writer and a lover of elit. But I have misgivings. Any new artistic movement (and in many ways, elit is still new) needs an expanding culture to incubate in. It needs to grow new readership, encourage new writers, and create an economic platform so it is commercially viable. In other words, the general public must be involved somewhere in the early or middle stages of any artistic movement.

NOTE TO READER: For purposes of definition, I distinguish what we in academia generally understand as electronic literature versus how it is seen in the wider public arena. For us in academia (and of course, I do not speak for everyone!) electronic literature might be described as the more refined fiction and poetry you see in journals, festivals, on and off-line galleries, and in the course readings for many colleges and university classes. In the wider public arena, electronic literature is already a significant presence in social media like Facebook, blogs, and Instagram, although not typically identified by the name “electronic literature.” In these, and many other online venues, images and text—and in the case of Facebook, audio and video and text—are already a common occurrence in the telling of stories and daily events. If our brand of electronic literature remains predominantly in the world of academia, and stays relatively removed from the general public, its academic incarnations, for the most part, will remain alive, but our brand of electronic literature as a viable art form will atrophy. It will atrophy because despite all the great analyses, books, presentations, and conferences (not to mention the dynamic works of elit themselves)—all of this will fade from public memory because they were never in the larger public memory to begin with. The elit movement, as we know it, will have been stillborn into academia. But the risk is really only for writers like myself and others whose work is recognized within academia but not so much outside of it. We (and by “we” I mean all of us within the world of elit) need to have contact with a larger audience because there already is a larger audience for elit—they’re just not reading the same things we are. The larger audience is gaming their stories, tweeting their traumas, and plurking their pathos, all without ever hearing the phrase “electronic literature” or knowing that writers such as myself, and so many others, even exist. And if they do not know about our brand of elit, whose fault is that? For sure, the ELO, I ♥ E-Poetry, and other organizations and individuals have done much to bring our brand of elit to the public eye. Their good work continues, and they have our lasting thanks. We would be so much worse off without their help and hard work. But in the end, it has to be a group effort if we want electronic literature, as we know it, to survive us.

So here is my call to everyone involved in electronic literature: if you are not doing it already, get the word out. Write about and talk about and teach as many different types of elit as you can because the young writers-in-waiting, the ones who are aching to try something new, must have the full panoply of creative works to model from. They must not believe that elit is just randomly generated poems any more than elit is solely stories with traditional plots and characters. We have to share elit in all its iterations and all its platforms, even sharing pieces we do not like. If these students and others see that elit is wide open in terms of form, and has plenty of space for new practitioners… Maybe they, as the next generation of writers, can widen the circle of creative works and engage a larger audience.

NOTE TO SELF: PUT YOUR POETRY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS! Make sure in your next literature class that you demonstrate a wide variety of electronic literature for your students (even the pieces you hate, because some of the students might love them), and give them opportunities to explore more. Encourage the ones with even the slightest interest in elit to come to you if they would like suggestions for further readings, or tips on how they can create and publish their own electronic literature. Make sure they know there is help out there and plenty of publishing, gallery, and festival opportunities.

IMPORTANT! FINAL NOTE TO SELF: Once a month, identify and reach out to at least one writer outside of the known elit community who is writing elit but may not call it by that name. Congratulate them on their work, introduce them to the ELO, and encourage them to get involved with our organization. Do this at least once every month, and more, if possible.

Interview with Andy Campbell

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co-edited by Maíra Borges Wiese

ELR: Andy Campbell, since 1999 you publish your works on your website Dreaming Methods. How did you get involved in the field of digital fiction?

Campbell: When I was in my teens I worked in a large warehouse on night shifts unloading deliveries of sand and cement. During the daytime, when I wasn’t asleep, I taught myself to program video games for the Commodore Amiga, until eventually I became accomplished enough to make money out of it. I also started writing fiction.

I bundled a few of my games with prologues or epilogues that could be read from the screen or printed. I made disk-based short story collections for distribution in the Public Domain. My games and ‘digital writing anthologies’ were reviewed around 60 times during the early-mid 90s in the international computing press, and often featured on magazine cover disks and CDs.

During 1998-2001 my writing became heavily audio/spoken word-based, and I did a lot of performance gigs at local (and not so local) cafes, arts centres and theatres. I also began to experiment more seriously with ‘electronic fiction’ or ‘digital fiction’ – and in 2000 registered the domain name Digital Fiction which is now Dreaming Methods.

ELR: The visual composition in your works is very impressive, for its complexity, originality and high quality. How important is aesthetics in your works?

Campbell: For me, very important. I spend a lot of time on the visuals – months. I get many of my ideas and inspiration from the life and work of my grandmother, who was a painter, and even these days I imagine her sitting with me and looking at my work and commenting on its appearance and colours. If she approves, in my mind, then I’m happy. If she thinks it sucks, I work on it more, until I get the reaction I think she’d have if she were here.

ELR: Many of your digital fictions have game features, like Inkubus and #PRISOM, especially for using navigation and immersion tools to make the story progress.  How do you consider the ludic aspect of works of digital literature in general?

Campbell: Because of my background in programming games on earlier home computers, I’ve always had a ‘video game style’ approach to this kind of work. Dreaming Methods is about extreme experimentation, risk-taking, pushing the written word into unusual/unexpected digital places. It’s also about creating glimpses or ‘portholes’ into atmospheric, often short-lived worlds, where text exists as an integrated part of the fabric. The technology that powers video games provides a fantastic platform for that kind of realisation. Game-style mechanics allow for reader/player exploration through common control systems. And, for me, game engines allow many layers of media to be mixed in ways that would be very tricky through browser-based technologies alone.

ELR: Some of your works, like The Dead Tower and #Carnivast, mix programming code language with verbal language in the composition of their textual parts. How to read them, or interpret their functionality (especially to readers that are not used to programming code language)?

Campbell: You are referring here to my work with Mez Breeze, which began in 2012 with The Dead Tower.

I’m fascinated by the idea of ‘digitally born’ narratives that carry little or no obvious ‘baggage’ from the ‘traditional’ writing world. Much of my non-collaborative work (including The Flat, Glimmer and Dim O’Gauble) was written spontaneously into software GUIs (Graphical User Interface) and edited/modified ‘live’ as the work evolved. Mezangelle appealed to me as an entire poetic language born out of digital, and, after being lucky enough to collaborate with Mez, is now a beautiful part of a series of increasingly rich and evolving narrative worlds.

Although Mezangelle can exist in print, I see it primarily as a kind of ‘liquid’ or ‘quantum’ language; challenging to uninitiated readers, of course, but also infused with meaning and ripe with dazzling aesthetic potential. Mezangelle can be experienced in as many ways as it can be interpreted, from studious unpacking to an almost mesmerising visual flow.

ELR: Many of your digital fictions have a kind of enclosed atmosphere, like Glimmer, Duel and The Flat, and sometimes provoke a mix of feelings of curiosity, fear and anxiety. Why is this atmosphere common in your works?

Campbell: For me, digital is a multi-layered medium which invites a curious but also fearful exploration, a drawing back of curtains behind curtains, lies inside truths inside lies. Stories don’t just start at point A and end at point B, they ripple and twist and duplicate and rewrite and mutate and bend in on themselves, much like human memories and experiences. That can be frightening, but also compelling and rewarding.

My work started out extremely enclosed and dark (Fractured, Facedown for instance) – far more than it is now. Some of it is rendered in black and white. Chaotic, scrambled, enigmatic, bordering on horror. When I look back, I feel like that was my direction ‘being born’. I was finding my way, shedding a sense of confusion and anxiety about the world around me as a young person no doubt, but also as an artist getting to grips with a complicated medium.

Interview with Dene Grigar

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ELR: Dene Grigar, you have been working in the field of media art and electronic literature since the mid-1990s. Could you tell us something about your background and how you became involved with electronic literature?

Dene Grigar:  Actually, it goes further back than that.  In fall 1991 I took a graduate course from the new faculty member, Nancy Kaplan*, who specialized in something called hypertext.  We studied books by George Landow and Jay David Bolter, explored software called Storyspace, and read afternoon: a story by Michael Joyce.  Having owned a Macintosh computer since 1986 for designing, I took to using it quite easily for writing––and reading.  Because of that course and my exposure to electronic literature, I began collecting works from Eastgate Systems’ inventory.  A part of my collection comes from those early purchases.

*Nancy was Stuart Moulthrop’s partner at the time; they have long since married.

ELR: You are a professor, a researcher and you also have successfully directed or curated a number of conferences and exhibits centred on Electronic literature. What can you tell us about your latest project?

Dene Grigar:  “Electronic Literature and Its Emerging Forms,” which was the exhibit hosted by the Library of Congress and part of the Electronic Literature Showcase, posed a large challenge for my co-curator, Kathi Inman Berens, and I.  What I mean by “challenge” is that the Library of Congress is probably one of the most venerable institutions in the U.S., and it had not yet been actively involved in collecting electronic literature.  Our exhibit was the first one of this nature the Library had ever done, so we wanted it to be memorable.  To that end, I rented large iMacs and brought in two of my own vintage Macs for showing older works, shipping all seven of them across the country to Washington D.C.  [Getting them through the Library’s security due to the necessary precautions took close to three hours.]  I hand-carried works of electronic literature from my own collection, from Vancouver, WA to D.C., to show along with the electronic literature works found online and the wonderful books and other media the Library contributed.  I also brought eight undergraduate students and one alumna with me to assist as docents at the exhibit. This was one of the smartest things I did because the students were immensely well-trained, passionate about electronic literature and the field, and exceptionally hard-working.  So, when the exhibit filled up with visitors, there were 11 of us who could answer questions and guide visitors through the electronic literature, instead of only Kathi and me.

Probably the most interesting challenge to surmount, however, was finding the best way to integrate electronic literature with the Library’s collection of books. Originally, when Kathi and I were first invited to curate the exhibit, the discussion centered around remounting the show we had done at the Modern Language Association 2012 convention .  That exhibit was very large, with 160 works and 10 computer stations.  Once she and I conducted a site visit at the Library of Congress and saw the Whittall Pavilion, the space where the show would be held, and gave some thought to the kind of collections the Library has at its disposal, we changed our minds.  I hit upon the “antecedent” idea and developed a set of parameters for the show that would make sense for the time and place with which we would be working (e.g. a three-day run in a gorgeous but small space). Drawing upon my research into the electronic literature and artists like Anna Maria Uribe and thinkers like Ted Nelson, it seemed to make sense to lay out the show so that we could make the argument that electronic literature is not some alien art form that dropped down to Earth some far-out planet but, rather, is part of a long tradition of experimentation with literature that has been going on for ages.  As someone who studied ancient Greek literature for my PhD, I always wondered what the Homeric poet’s contemporaries were saying (not writing, of course) when they saw that he (or she) was writing the story of the Odyssey.  That, in itself, constitutes a literary experiment as strange and exciting as Uribe animating Typoemas.  Dante wrote the Commedia in the vernacular––yet another grand experiment that we living over 700 years later do not even give a thought to.  So, the idea was to demonstrate that the drive to create something new and experiment with form in different ways are what visionary artists do.  With that idea in mind, I came up with five approaches––concrete to kinetic, cut up to broken up, pong to literary games, the Great American Novel to multimodal narratives, and artists’ books to electronic art.  This plan made it possible for Kathi to research the Library catalogs and identify works from the collections that fit well with this vision and, so, made our case.  She also developed the third aspect of our exhibit:  the creation stations.  This was a “maker” area where visitors could create literary art themselves.  For example, visitors could look at ee cummings’ concrete poem, walk across the aisle and see Dan Waber’s kinetic poem,“Strings,” and then walk across the aisle and make their own concrete poem on the typewriter that Susan Garfinkel, our collaborator from the Library, brought from her own collection.

To be honest, a lot was riding on the exhibit.  Obviously, we were promoting electronic literature to a new audience, moving it from academic conferences to a library, where Literature (with a capital L) is generally found.  It wasn’t just any library but the most important one in the country.  So, the show had to be good.

But more than good, the show had to make it clear that curating counts as scholarship.  This was a personal goal that I set for myself for “Electronic Literature and Its Emerging Forms.”  You see, I work in the intersection of media art, digital humanities, and media studies.  While my colleagues in media art are very comfortable with the notion that curating is a scholarly activity, the other two fields are still deliberating about it and trying to figure out how curating counts for tenure and promotion.  Books like Burdick et al’s Digital_Humanities go far in helping to make my case, but I thought that, perhaps, if scholars from these two fields see the intellectual processes, the conceptual thinking, and deep research that go into mounting an exhibit like this one, they would understand that curating is a scholarly activity.

I was very happy to learn that the exhibit was mentioned by scholars in blog posts and articles and was delighted that it was reviewed by Leonardo Flores at I ♥ E-Poetry and by Illya Szilak and Melinda White at The Huffington Post.

ELR: Could you tell us what you consider to be the main distinguishing features of new media literacy, with regard to the shift from traditional reading to multiliteracy or transliteracy?

Dene Grigar:  I used Vince Dziekan’s Virtuality and the Art of Exhibition for a course I taught on curating last fall and was taken by his notion of the multimedial museum.  By multimedial he means interactive, experiential, and participatory.

It seems to me that this idea can be mapped on to other aspects of our lives touches by digital media.  Anyone reading a Facebook post, for example, is reading participatorially, right?  Our posts can receive a “Like” from our Friends almost as quickly as we hit the “send” button.  The interactivity of this environment provides enough feedback to keep us online for hours, whether it is chatting with Friends or playing one of the many games Facebook makes available to its users.  Finally, we see the experiential aspect of Facebook in the way we design our “covers” or in the photo we choose of ourselves to represent us.  These three elements are going to be part and parcel of everything we read in this early age of digital media and perhaps even years beyond.  It is important for publishers to understand these three elements and make use of them in the media they publish.

ELR: On your website you write that “the computer is not a tool but rather the medium in which I work”? Can you please explain this “conceptual shift”?

Dene Grigar:  That is an easy one, thanks 🙂  I think a lot of people who work with computers see the computer as separate from what they do––that the computer is a tool that helps them do whatever it is they do.  This may make sense if someone is an accountant and uses computers to crunch numbers.  But it does not make sense if one is a media artist whose main medium of exploration is a computer and everything she creates takes place on a computer screen.  My own mother was a painter who worked in oils.  She would never say that the canvas and the paints she used were separate from the art of oil painting.  They were her medium.  I feel that the same way about my computer and HTML/CSS or PhotoShop, etc.  The computer does not “help” me––it is what I do.

ELR: In some works of digital literature we find a combination of text with audio-visual effects. What do you believe are the implications of new media technologies in relation to the aesthetics of a work of digital literature?

Dene Grigar:  Obviously, one of the biggest implications is finding a way to talk about it, of reviewing it, and critiquing it in a way that takes into consideration how all of the parts contribute to the whole.  N. Katherine Hayles suggests media specific analysis as a method.  Jessica Pressman, Jeremy Douglass, and Mark Marino suggest close reading.  These are both excellent ways to make sense of multimodal literature.  I also think an approach that brings in the various kinds of critique indigenous to the art form is also helpful.  This would mean that if a work of digital literature has sound, visuals, and words, then someone critiquing that work would need to address all three of these features with some level of expertise and, then, synthesize them into a larger discussion of how the work works.  This depth of knowledge, of course, is difficult since we generally develop strengths in particular art forms.  The bottom line, however, is that we need to find ways to talk about, review, and critique digital literature in order for it to be brought into the traditional academic realm as a scholarly topic of discussion and mainstreamed to the public for enjoyment and consumption.