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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.

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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