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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].

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Written by ELR

January 20, 2017 at 9:00 am

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.