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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simone Osthoff: How would you define communication in art?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Written by ELR

March 9, 2018 at 10:00 am

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by ELR

January 26, 2018 at 10:00 am

Interview with Mez Breeze

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Eman Younis

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Christine Wilks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Written by ELR

January 20, 2017 at 9:00 am

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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