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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.

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#ELRFEAT: Interview with Stuart Moulthrop (2011)

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In 2011 Judy Malloy made this long and extensive interview with Stuart Moulthrop in which they discuss different topics related to electronic literature from IT, to language, programming language and the relation between narrative and games. With the permission of the author the ELR adds this interview, that was first published on her website narrabase.net to the series of #ELRFEAT.

 

About Stuart Moulthrop: One of the first creators of new media literature and a distinguished new media writer, digital artist, and scholar, Baltimore, Maryland native Stuart Moulthrop is the author of the seminal hyperfiction Victory Garden, (Eastgate, 1991) a work that Robert Coover included in the “golden age” of electronic literature.

His works — that include Hegirascope, (1995) Reagan Library, (1999) Pax, (2003) Under Language, (2007) and Deep Surface (2007) — have been exhibited and or published by Eastgate, The Iowa Web Review, the ELO Electronic Literature Collection; New River; Media Ecology; The New Media Reader; Washington State University Vancouver; and the Digital Arts and Culture Conference. Two of his works have won prizes in the Ciutat de Vinaros international competition.

Stuart Moulthrop has served as a Professor in the School of Information Arts and Technologies at the University of Baltimore where he was the Director of the undergraduate Simulation and Digital Entertainment program. He is currently a Professor in the Department of English University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

He has also served as co-editor for Postmodern Culture, was co-founder of the TINAC electronic arts collective, and was a founding director of the Electronic Literature Organization. He is co-author (with Dene Grigar) of the forthcoming MIT Press book, Traversals – The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing.

In this literate and cyber-literate interview, where, as in the reading of poetry, the reader must occasionally interpret the allusions to other works — from contemporary literature to philosophy to computer manuals — Moulthrop recounts the founding of TINAC, the writing of Victory Garden, the founding (with Nancy Kaplan) of a department of Information Arts and Technologies at the University of Baltimore, and the creation with Flash ActionScript of his textual instrument Under Language. And he looks to the future of electronic literature.

More information about Stuart Moulthrop is available on his home page at
https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/moulthro/index.htm

 

Judy Malloy: Writer and critic Robert Coover has called your Victory Garden one of the early hyperfiction classics. What were the influences, ideas, paths that led you to create hyperfiction?

Stuart Moulthrop: I take very seriously the idea of life-stories “broken down, and scattered,” as one book of revelation has it; or self-assembled into “small pieces loosely joined,” to quote another.

“Life’s too short because we die,” Weinberger and Levine memorably say in the opening verse of the Cluetrain; and while I can’t dispute this raw truth, it has always made more sense the other way round. The life we have (or at least, our life in language) tends to expand, or had better do, because we have so far managed to keep breathing. Breath released is utterance, and out of uttering (through confusion, and false consciousness, and metaphysics) come words, and writing, and code, and media, and all the other outerings that mark our distributive humanity.

Cyberspace may be literally everywhere and nowhere, but my connection to hypertext is curiously placebound. My understanding comes in large measure from having weathered the 1970s inside the 200 Megaton High Score Zone of the Chesapeake Basin. To survive the Cold War within tolerable aiming error of the Puzzle Palace (with its semi-mythical Memex) was to receive, however haltingly, a certain insight; McLuhan riffing on Vico says any technology pressed to its limit reverses. Bring the heat of the sun down to earth, (or threaten) and you end up cooling it on the anything-but-final frontier, which is not outer space after all, but an even stranger dimension called the infosphere. Where extinction had been, I realized, we would need to install information, or networks. Having come to “cogito ergo boom,” in Susan Sontag’s memorable formula, there was nothing left but to invent the Internet, and see what that might gain us.

I did not invent the Internet anymore than Al Gore did. As the non-appointed President might better have said, we have all invented the Internet, loosely joining up what small and scattered peace we can salvage from the globalized military edutainment terror multimart. To be sure, some of us have simply discovered a shortcut to the convenience store (or obscurity) while others have revealed new vistas and horizons, passages that lead where no mind has gone before. I have known more than my share of major navigators: Michael Joyce and Jay Bolter, Gail Hawisher and Cindy Selfe, Mark Bernstein, Cathy Marshall, Robert Coover and George Landow, John Cayley, Janet Murray and Kate Hayles, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Nick Montfort, Ian Bogost, Eric Zimmerman, Espen Aarseth, and even the father of Civilization Sid Meier, and the great name-giver Nelson himself. (This list is merely suggestive; the names one drops are never equal to those one carries.)

Anything I’ve done, or may go on to do, belongs to the context of their accomplishments, and to the big job we all have, which after hearing me go on for a while about hypertext, a very wise person once defined to me thus:

“You will have to create a new language.”

Her name was Dorothee Metlizki, Professor of Linguistics at Yale, and she said this to me about a year before I started Victory Garden.

Judy Malloy: Ah -, you send forth a cyber-literary collection of allusions in answer to my question — techno-poetically telling where you are coming from and setting the stage for the beginnings of cyberspace narrative, reminding me of a story that there was a young woman who read your Hegirascope and simply got on a train and went down to see you. (Do I remember this correctly?)

The incredible way that the Internet — with hypertext at its core thanks to the web — has pervaded our lives in only a few decades was perhaps predicted by such individual journeys of discovery; I am also reminded of what a University of California plant pathologist once said to me about science being a river that was fed by many streams of research and documentation, which brings us to the next question:

TINAC has always been a seminal yet mysterious entity to me who arrived on separate paths: library data systems, West Coast cyberculture and in particular Art Com Electronic Network on The Well because art space curator Carl Loeffler — who had hosted Kathy Acker, Taylor Meade, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Willoughby Sharp, and Lew Thomas, among many others who used text in their work — was one day visited in his office by Canadian telecomputing artist Bill Bartlett and immediately deciding that the online environment was the place for text artists, enlisted Fred Truck and then, knowing we were on parallel paths, convinced John Cage and then me and Jim Rosenberg and many others of his vision.

Meanwhile, parallel things were happening in other places in the world, and one of them was the group you were associated with: TINAC — Textuality, Intertextuality, Narrative, and Consciousness. For many years, I have wanted to know more about TINAC. Can you tell me about its founding. Who was involved? How did it evolve?

Stuart Moulthrop: On the drop-ins: Donna Leishman got off the train once, around the turn of the century, and I remember how impressed I was with her work; much the way I’ve felt about yours, especially on first seeing. Ingrid Ankerson and Megan Sapnar, who founded Poems That Go while they were in Baltimore, also stopped by my classes once or twice, though I never had the chance to work with them closely.

I recall feeling in the early years that there wasn’t much of a “there” to electronic literature. People seemed thinly scattered across the invisible landscape, and I often felt I was writing for a small circle of friends. (Maybe still the case, and see below.)

The ACM Hypertext conference once described the literary crowd at their conferences as “small but fascinating,” a phrase Michael Joyce particularly cherished, if that is the word. But things changed with the Millennium, and I began to meet people like Espen Aarseth, Markku Eskelinen, Adrian Miles, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Nick Montfort, Jill Walker, and Scott Rettberg, who seemed to think electronic writing had some coherence, and a more substantial connection to history. Efforts like Sue Thomas’ work on the trAce collective, and Deena Larsen’s tireless teaching and workshopping, also helped me to a broader understanding. Many streams, as you put it. (Many muddy streams, my Michael Joyce Emulation Module wants to say.)

First of all, TINAC is almost entirely mythical. I made up “This Is Not A Conference” in the fall of 1988 to describe what Nancy Kaplan might have been thinking by inviting John McDaid, Michael Joyce, and me to spend several days in her house, and maybe teach a class or two. At that point we were neither small nor fascinating, but had already grown tired of academic conferences — to be fair to the Association for Computing Machinery, mainly with Apple’s Macademia events, where we felt increasingly subject to Marketing. I think Michael came up with “This Is Not A Cabal.” The reading you cited (Textuality, Intertextuality, Narrative, and Consciousness) is pure McDaid. I suppose there may have been something Oulipian going on — some conspiracy of art-inventors — thoough with the exception of Michael, I wouldn’t compare us either to those Parisians, or your friends from the WELL. We were an odd and autotelic assembly, not so much Kids in the Hall (undiscovered talent) as Folks from Downstairs — a term I borrow from the late, wonderful Diane Balestri who wrote a book called Ivory Towers, Silicon Basements, about introducing computers to college writing instruction.

Back in those days, computer labs were almost always in sub-surface, windowless rooms. Maybe it was something to do with bomb shelters. Our day jobs at that point, had we been able to see daylight, all involved some form of College Composition and Communication, another Conference whose badge we sometimes wore; which meant that, again with the exception of Michael, we did not identify primarily as writers or artists, but as teachers. Nancy was and remains a developer of scholastic software for collaborative reading and writing. Michael helped reinvent reading, writing, and the Library at Vassar, and other things besides. John has spent a lot of time defining new communication practices in a high-level business consultancy, and publishing science fiction stories that take on very interesting overtones if you know where he works. After a couple of decades in stranger waters, I have come to rest once again in a Department of English.

Maybe an analogy or two will help. The legend that is TINAC seems less like some intensely obscure indie band whose members are all now shepherds, and more like a college-town FM station that flourished for a year or two before the supremacy of News-And-Talk. By which I mean, there was really not much “there” to TINAC, except as a point of circulation and convergence through which some interesting projects happened to pass — Michael’s afternoon, Nancy’s annotation software P.R.O.S.E., John’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse, Jay Bolter’s Writing Space, Jane Yellowlees Douglas’ End of Books, or Books without End, and my own early tinkerings. TINAC left the air long ago. The call letters are remembered only dimly, the DJs are all forgotten, but somewhere out there, doubtless on the Net, we’ll always have the music.

Judy Malloy:

>The call letters are remembered only dimly, the DJs are all forgotten,
>but somewhere out there, doubtless on the Net, we’ll always have the music.

Yes, and I would also note that such groups of artists and/or writers who got together and created a school — I’m thinking of the Impressionists, the Macchiaioli, the Society of Six, the Bloomsbury Group, Oulipo, Group f/64 and many others — have had a lasting impact on art, literature and culture, although their importance is not always immediately apparent to the wider world.

Now, there are virtual gathering of artists and writers in this Internet world: Cathy Marshall and I sharing meals virtually as we included the details of our daily lives in our correspondence for Forward Anywhere; or the information about the creation and exhibition of new electronic literature in Canada and in California which Fortner Anderson and I exchanged, after we “met” on Art Com Electronic Network. (Actually we have never met in person).

Yet there is nostalgia for a world where the Society of Six went painting together in the hills of California and returned to Selden Gile’s cabin, spreading their work around the room and drinking red wine while Selden cooked dinner. It is nice to hear that TINAC began with an actual gathering at Nancy Kaplan’s home.

So, in this global village of our pasts, you were born in Baltimore, went to George Washington University, got a PhD at Yale. And then?

Stuart Moulthrop: And then fell predictably and more or less happily off the Yale tenure track, where I’d unaccountably landed after my doctoral work, then pitched up in Austin, where Victory Garden was born and largely written. I came down with a severe allergy to Texas politics, and for some reason decided the air would be nicer in Atlanta, so left UT for Georgia Tech, where I stayed three years and did a lot of thinking about hypertext, though relatively little creative work. After that it’s yet more academic CV, I’m afraid. Two generous job offers at the University of Baltimore sucked me, along with Nancy, back down the gravity well of my Old Neighborhood — I ended up working about three miles from my place of birth. During a decade and a half in Baltimore, we founded a department of Information Arts and Technologies, which has a graduate program in Interaction Design and Information Architecture, as well as an undergraduate degree in game and simulation design, which I built from scratch with my good friend Kathleen Austin, who had the original idea.

Being in a major center of the game industry, we’ve been able to place graduates with Firaxis, Big Huge, Bethesda Softworks, and other world-class studios. One of our finest alumnae now works for Sid Meier, who brought the world Civilization. I’m immoderately proud of her.

Building the game degree had other rewards, too: it gave me a practical stake in certain arguments about narrative and ludology, and Espen Aarseth’s notion of “ergodic” culture; it also led me to teach a bunch of things I’d never have dared otherwise, including 3-D graphics and game coding. These engagements promoted my tendency to arrested development, so that more than one recent ex-teenager has told me, “you don’t really seem that old.” More points of pride. Happy as the game program has made me, it was also clearly turning me into an academic administrator; and while I’ve gotten fairly technical late in life, spending six days a week in meetings meant I had no time to design or code anything. So when University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee went looking for a research professor with an interest in digital media, game culture, and electronic literature, I jumped, and ended up in a very happy place. Even if the state does tend to vote Vogon.

Judy Malloy: “The routes through Stuart Moulthrop’s new hyperfiction “Victory Garden” are almost literally countless,” Coover wrote about the work in The New York Times. Can you talk about the creation of Victory Garden? What was the role of the Gulf War in the work? How did you begin using Storycpace. How did you structure and interface the work? Or whatever you want to say about Victory Garden.

Stuart Moulthrop:

>Can you talk about the creation of Victory Garden? What was the role of the Gulf War in the work?

The first Gulf War grabbed my attention about as strongly as September 11 did a later generation’s. While my Texas boots were never on the ground — Victory Garden is largely about war As Seen On TV — there was one arguably related fight too which I was party: George H.W. Bush’s decision to launch a “culture war” (his words) against American progressives. After the horrors and excesses of his son’s regime, people tend to forget that rightward lurch by the old man — a somewhat feeble attempt to spin up the Nixon-Reagan Southern Strategy. I choose not to forget, just as I somehow can never overlook Mr. Reagan’s decision to curtail my teenage brother’s survivor benefits the year after our father died. True, as some of the Gulf War vets I’ve worked with have reminded me, you only really understand how stupid it is to call anything political a “war” when the first actual bullet goes past your ear. But words do not just go past, they enter the ears, and other orifices, and there we are.

>How did you begin using Storyspace. How did you structure and Interface the work?

I started playing with Storyspace in the late 1980s, when Jay and Michael handed me early beta versions. At the time I was more interested in HyperCard, largely because of its multimedia features. There are painters and visual artists in my family tree, I’ve always been powerfully attracted to comics, and HyperCard seemed a better solution for images, animation, and sound. I might have been stumbling toward something like the Miller brothers’ Myst, though clearly I was never going to get there, or anywhere very interesting, on my own. So when the intense desire to write something out of the events of 1990-91 presented itself, I turned back to Storyspace, which was and remains a marvelous tool for a certain kind of writing.

Moving to Storyspace initially took interface issues off the table. There were three sorts of reader module, and I chose the one that was closest to what we would now call an e-book, because Victory Garden was meant to be mainly a literary hypertext. Graphics sneaked back in, of course, in places like the cracked screen, and the graphical map; but these moments came later. The map, which was the very last thing I added to the project, represents the Return of the Repressed Interface. Somewhere along the line I had decided that Victory Garden would have about three dozen default reading paths, all of which could be accessed by repeatedly pressing the Return key after a certain point. (Michael had introduced this idea in afternoon.) Attempting to represent those paths in visual form led to the map, which bears only a highly metaphorical relationship to the actual arrangement of the text.

I also like to point out another component of the VG interface, which is the accreting sentence the reader may choose to construct, one word or phrase at a time, in following initial links into the work. For some reason — mainly, I think, the fact that the old Macintosh interface has been replaced by the more powerful scheme Mark Bernstein developed for Windows — not many readers notice the old forking-paths machine. This makes me a little wistful; though not really upset, since it means people are far more interested in following links than in flipping virtual pages: so much the better.

Judy Malloy: Thanks Stuart! As we move into the present, your words bring up the role of the writer and the role of the reader in new media literature. Having recently played with eliciting language in quite a different way — Andrew Plotkin’s Interactive Fiction Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home is currently featured on Authoring Software — I’m interested in the role of the writer/poet, the role of the software, and the role of reader in your contemporary works, such as Under Language. In Under Language, the idea of language and of a poet’s written words as gift is compelling. The reader participates in the creation of “the poem” (if he or she plays to win) while at the same time spoken “under language” challenges the reader to explore implicit meaning. There is a pleasure in the receipt of the poem, and the whole calls attention to the value of a poet/storyteller’s words.

What led you to work in this way?

Stuart Moulthrop: Simply put, an even-now-still-growing conviction that the idiom of code and the older idiom of human expression are both valid constituents of poetry. I won’t begin to claim originality for this idea — see the work of Jim Carpenter, or Daniel C. Howe, to cite two cases of prior art. I do feel, though, that this sense of convergence is important, especially as writers become increasingly familiar with procedural tools and methods.

Judy Malloy: “Actionscript spoken here” a voice informs me; clearly there is a relationship between the poem and the authoring system. Can you talk about the software tools you used to create Under Language?

Stuart Moulthrop: Under Language is a love-poem to ActionScript 2, written shortly before I eloped with her even more charming cousin A.S. 3, whom I have since dumped for an earlier paramour, JavaScript. The sordid lives of the software poets.

More seriously: I thought it was important to reverse the figure and ground of code and literary expression, because for me at least, the latter seems unimaginable sans the former. I should point out, though, that “ActionScript spoken here” is at least initially an option, not a prescriptive. That is, the player/reader/poem-operator may bypass this possibility and opt instead for “Plain English, please.” If thrown (or expressed) the plain-English switch (or gene) renders all audible/computable statements in pseudocode, which I tend to prefer.

Judy Malloy: And then in a work where reader response can be quite different, there is the question of how the creator of the work knows what the reader will do. In the work that I am now writing, (Part II of From Ireland with Letters) the reader sees four parallel columns where text appears polyphonically at the will of the author, but the reader can also chose to click on any column and advance the text, while surrounding the text that he or she is controlling, other texts will continue to appear. When my work was disk based, and I saw it running in installations, I could watch people interact with it and sometimes I even made changes as a result of this. But on the web, I don’t know if most readers watch while the narrative produces the words, or take control themselves. I suspect the later, but I don’t know. The work was designed to work either way.

The question is: Do you know how readers play Under Language? Is this important?

Stuart Moulthrop: First, I very much want to see/hear/play the work you just described. Which is a way of saying what you just said, namely, How Does Such A Thing Work? I have no idea what anyone does with Under Language. User testing was confined to an N of one, (Jill Walker Rettberg) who crucially advised that the poetry was not good at all. So I stayed up all night, wrote something marginally better, then shipped. Which either makes me a typical software engineer or the evil opposite of one, depending on how long since your operating system last crashed.

Again, though I play here for (probably imaginary) laughs, there’s a serious point lurking. As e-writers, *we don’t know enough about what readers do with our stuff*, especially on the Web. Like you, in the very early days I had the chance to work with captive reader/players, mainly my own and others’ students. But not in a long, long time since, and I think this is bad.

It could be exceptionally important to create a testing program for electronic literature. I am not kidding. I would give huge kudos to anyone willing to operate such a thing. We should write a grant. Or someone should. Anybody?

Judy Malloy: And the last questions are:

What are you working on now?

and

How do you see the future of Electronic Literature?

Stuart Moulthrop:

>What are you working on now?

Right now I’m trying to teach two new courses in Milwaukee while running away to Australia, but in one of those classes, my first ever creative-writing workshop in newly-mediated lit, we are producing “poems of internet of novel.” These are partly found, partly hand-crafted, poem-like objects that begin life as Google searches using phrases from Michael Joyce’s “novel of internet,” known as Was. Since Michael wrote in part under the inspiration of the Searching Muse, (“Googlemena” as he names her) this is a curious exercise in reverse engineering. It’s also (in my mind anyway) a kind of response to the recent “flarf” outbreak in contemporary poetry, which I love and deplore; and also perhaps an experiment in writing-as-reading, or literary reception as (re)production. Also, historians of minor writing take note, this is my very first significantly multi-authored literary exploit, soon perhaps to be some kind of hypertext, or maybe even, who knows, words on actual pages.

Beyond that, I have plans for something called Videogame, a novel, which will of course be neither.

>And how do you see the future of Electronic Literature?

On the one hand, glorious and boundless so long as our species endures (arguably afterward) — because the literary impulse is really nothing but the respiration of language, which I affirm to be cosmic and immortal. On the other hand, perhaps extremely brief — I wouldn’t go beyond the 2020s — because as Kate Hayles points out, “Electronic Literature” is the opposite of an oxymoron, (not oxygenius, but pleonasm) since these days there’s effectively no Literature absent Electrons. In 1990, the computer scientist John B. Smith predicted the term “computers and writing” would seem increasingly ridiculous by the end of the century. Smart man, Dr. Smith. I’m not sufficiently cynical to suggest the Death and Transfiguration of Electronic Literature will stop the experimentation you encouraged me to try. You and I belong to an early generation (probably not the first) of Interface Artists. There are and will be others; but I wonder if they will come to regard the fundamental plasticity of the medium inevitably as an unmarked term. Can we imagine a mate of Proteus, and what s/he must have thought of the marriage?

Anyway, they’ll be on to neutrinos any minute now.

Stuart

Melbourne, Australia

This interview was created via email and posted in October 2011

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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