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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.

Entrevista a Rui Torres

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ELR: Rui Torres, começou a estudar e a criar obras de literatura digital em 2004. Como se envolveu neste campo e de onde veio a inspiração?

RUI TORRES: Comecei um pouco antes, talvez em 1998, embora sem publicação imediata. Estas coisas levam o seu tempo a maturar e a desenvolver, pois envolvem processos novos, exigem muito tempo de conceptualização, desenho e programação… De qualquer modo, a inspiração foi a obra de Pedro Barbosa (utilização de procedimentos combinatórios e generativos na ciberliteratura), E. M. de Melo e Castro (teoria e prática da poesia experimental) e Herberto Helder (montagem textual), em Portugal, mas também o trabalho de Philippe Bootz em França… De um modo geral, interessa reconhecer que a intermedialidade que encontrei no futurismo, no concretismo, na poesia visual…. foram fundamentais para a dissolução de um conceito rígido de texto. As propostas de John Cage, nesse sentido, estão na base de tudo isto. Envolvi-me neste campo porque fui aluno do Pedro Barbosa, tendo estado presente na altura em que ele fundou o Centro de Estudos sobre Texto Informático e Ciberliteratura na Universidade Fernando Pessoa, no Porto, em 1996, talvez o primeiro Centro de I&D dedicado ao estudo da literatura electrónica… Por fim, reconheço que sempre me interessei pelas expressividades do software, pelo que cedo resolvi experimentar utilizá-lo, não tanto para a programação em hipermédia, mas para a produção literária…

ELR: Numa obra de literatura digital autores/as e leitores/as são ambos confrontados com novas tipologias de criação, publicação e fruição de obras literárias. Entende a literatura digital como uma experimentação literária?

RUI TORRES: Sim, entendo a literatura digital como uma experimentação literária. Mas admito que toda a criação é experimentação, por isso talvez seja melhor clarificar este conceito, já que ele é contestado e criticado por vários poetas de inovação, do concretismo à poesia visual. Não situo o experimentalismo num dado período, mas como uma tendência intemporal para o jogo, a relação lúdica com a linguagem, a ergodicidade textual e os maquinismos semióticos. Mas há que reconhecer que toda a arte é, de certa forma, experimental, já que ela promove, no acto da sua construção, uma relação de deformação do real, de actuação com o espaço e o tempo humanos. O problema da arte e da literatura experimental situa-se no momento em que passam desse estado de performatividade, mutável e líquido, para uma certa literariedade, isto é, quando se transcodifica a acção integradora e actuante da arte num espaço filológico de museu. Por isso, de facto, talvez a literatura digital, a par da performance, constitua o melhor exemplo de experimentação literária, já que depende de procedimentos variáveis e de metamorfose.

ELR: Em alguns dos seus trabalhos, tais como Tema procura-se (2004) e Mar de Sophia (2005), combinou texto escrito com som ambiente e uma voz a recitar texto. Em que medida a multimedialidade determina a fruição e, consequentemente, a estética da obra literária?

RUI TORRES: O meu objectivo era precisamente essa integração, principalmente de som e texto, mas nesses dois exemplos, como aliás em todos os meus trabalhos, o procedimento fundamental é a aleatoriedade da e na geração textual, por isso embora se trate de uma multimedialidade, ela não é linear. Interessa entender a complexidade estrutural que o algoritmo introduz no tratamento da linguagem. Embora o surrealismo, por exemplo, tenha tentado afastar a criação literária da subjectividade autoral, que sempre vem acompanhada de um determinado reportório e de um certo número de convenções, os processos eram processos criativos humanos, portanto derivados, até certo ponto, de uma cultura. A utilização da combinatória maquínica afasta esse aspecto pré-adquirido pela introdução de um nível de complexidade enorme: a maioria dos textos que programo são variáveis e não fixos ou pré-determinados, alguns deles entregando ao leitor a activação de possibilidades textuais que são uma entre vários milhões…

ELR: Na grande maioria dos trabalhos da sua autoria o/a leitor/a tem a possibilidade de criar texto, guardá-lo e publicá-lo no blogue. Qual a importância da interactividade por parte do utilizador nas obras de literatura digital e qual o relevo da criação de uma memória do processo?

RUI TORRES: Esse exemplo apontado é um dos modos de interactividade. Há outros, eventualmente mais ricos, como a possibilidade de alterar a própria obra, conferindo-lhe uma certa mutabilidade ou variabilidade. A indeterminação dos processos poéticos que programo (sempre de uma forma colaborativa) obrigaram-me precisamente a considerar a possibilidade de usar um dos mecanismos retóricos da web 2.0, os blogs, para criar uma espécie de diário de bordo da comunidade de leitores destes poemas.

ELR: Tendo em consideração a rápida evolução das linguagens informáticas, do software e dos dispositivos electrónicos, quais as estratégias disponíveis para arquivar e preservar trabalhos literários nativos do digital?

RUI TORRES: Esse é de facto um aspecto fundamental. Eu julgo que a preservação deve estar acima das nossas preocupações com a obsolescência, embora ambas se articulem. Se quisermos estar sempre a seguir a última tecnologia para não ficarmos com trabalhos obsoletos (isto é, ilegíveis), acabamos reféns da retórica da inovação e da novidade; somos presas fáceis da política do software, que naturalmente interfere na camada cultural. Assim, devem os autores escolher livremente as ferramentas que usam nos seus processos criativos, mesmo sabendo à partida que algumas delas poderão eventualmente tornar-se obsoletas. Neste sentido, as ferramentas de código aberto, baseadas num procedimento associado ao software livre, são mais adequadas para garantir preservação a longo prazo. Mas fundamental é que os autores disponibilizem as fontes dos seus programas, documentando todo o processo e tornando acessíveis ao público esses materiais não encriptados que tornarão possível uma futura arqueologia das plataformas e das aplicações.