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Interview with Jessica Pressman

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ELR: Jessica Pressman since 2012 (?) you are member of the Board of Directions of the Electronic Literature Organization. How did you get started with electronic literature and what fascinates you most about this literature genre?

Jessica Pressman: I actually worked from the ELO far before 2012. I served as the Programs Director for the ELO back in 2001-2 and then took on more responsibilities as Associate Director (2002-4). I did this while I was a graduate student at UCLA. ELO was then housed at UCLA, and N. Katherine Hayles was the Faculty Director. I was the sole staff member, and I got a first-hand education in the ELO and in non-profit organization.

But this is not how I started with electronic literature.

I applied to graduate school to study Victorian Literature. I wanted to study the Pre-Raphaelites; image and text are inseparable in such work (think Dante and Christina Rosetti). I was also interested in what I now understand to be the social networks that configured and propelled that artistic movement. Multimedia, multimodal, social networks: it was all there.

But, I was unhappy at UCLA, so I took a leave of absence. I went to Boston and worked for a company (Cognitive Arts, founded by AI pioneer Roger Schank) that then (in 2000, the height of the dot-com wave) was making interactive training simulations for companies and schools. We basically were making narrative teaching games (again, using language from today to describe the past). I liked the work but wanted to understand it from a more critical perspective. So, I read George Landow’s Hypertext. And, bam: that book hit me. It gave me a critical vocabulary and framework to approach that stuff that I was making, to understand what I was doing and what I wanted to do. I wanted to study hypertext.

Well, it just so happened that the foremost scholar of hypertext and this new thing called “electronic literature” was back at UCLA: Katherine Hayles. So, I returned to UCLA, shifted my focus from the first industrial revolution to the second, and then worked with Kate Hayles in all things e-literature and ELO. Kate is really how and why I started, learned, and loved the field of literary criticism focused on electronic literature. She is a role model and a mentor.

ELR: In your article “Electronic Literature as Comparative Literature” (2014) you state that electronic literature is comparative because it combines text, image, sound, movement, interactivity and design. As a researcher and teacher of experimental American literature would you say that electronic literature is experimental literature, too?

Jessica Pressman: I think electronic can be experimental. More often than not, it is, but this is because right now we are still accustomed to thinking about “literature” with terms and conceptions derived from print. But, “experimental” does not describe a platform or media; it describes use of that platform and media. Some books, films, sculptures, play, etc. are “experimental;” some works of electronic literature are too.

ELR: In your latest book “Reading Project” (2015) you explain how to analyse e-literature. Could you explain why it is necessary to use different methods?

Jessica Pressman: Reading Project does not aim to explain how to analyze e-literature—I would never presume or desire for there to be any one way to analyze anything—but, rather, to offer a model of how digital humanities (DH) practices can produce literary criticism. Jeremy, Mark, and I were tired of hearing critiques of DH that its creation and use of tools doesn’t lead to interpretative payoffs; most of these critiques are valid, by the way. We also wanted to experiment with pursuing literary criticism that employs the actual affordances of computational media to address a digital work; thus, we read the programming code (Mark’s Critical Code Studies approach) and created big data visualizations (Jeremy’s Cultural Analytics work), and we built a Scalar tool (Scalar Workbench) to assist others in practices similar types of collaboration. Finally, we had a professional goal and critique as well: we wanted to show what is gained by collaborating in literary criticism, by eschewing the scholarly model of a solitary researcher pursuing hermeneutics by instead having three scholars work collaboratively and dialogically towards building a single interpretation.

The reason why electronic literature elicits different critical methods is because such work often defies a single genre or disciplinary category. Is Tender Claws’s Pry (2015) a work of film, game, novella? The answer is not interesting but the question compels different approaches, which leads to (or should) interesting opportunities.

Just by designating a work (Pry, for example) as “literature” already implies how one will approach and value it: through a focus on its text. But many of the works that I spend my life reading and teaching could (and often are) identified and understood as other types of cultural objects: visual art, film, games, performances, etc. One of the reasons I love electronic literature is precisely this: because it invites and rewards multiple critical perspectives and practices. In so doing, it pushes literary critics towards reflexive consideration of our normative practices and towards experimentation with new ones. That is exciting to me.

ELR: In the description of the ELO’s role you can read that the organization aims to create “a network of people who produce works of electronic literature and people who read, discuss, and teach e-literature”. How successful has the ELO been in this attempt so far and how do Universities collaborate with the ELO?

Jessica Pressman: I think the ELO has been invaluable. The very fact that we have an annual conference, an archived volume of works (the Electronic Literature Collection), and a website for interpersonal connection means that we have a field. We have a community.

ELR: What do you foresee for the future of e-literature?

Jessica Pressman: I am a literary historian more than a prophet or visionary. But, from this perspective, I believe I can proffer that whatever comes along that seems completely new and futuristic will offer us new ways for understanding our past and for appreciating our seemingly “old” media.

 

 

 

Interview with Judy Malloy

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ELR: Judy Malloy, you have engaged in three decades of creative work in the field of electronic literature, beginning with the publication of “Uncle Roger” in 1986. What in your opinion are the most significant moments in the history of electronic literature thus far?

Judy Malloy: This is a welcome question. The long and rich history of electronic literature in toto is what is most significant. But there are so many significant moments that I can only mention a few — and even then, it is perhaps a longer answer than expected. Another day the list might be somewhat different. Today this is what I am recollecting:

To begin with: significant computational processes in word structures can be traced from Wibold, Archdeacon of Noyon’s 10th century dice-mediated Ludus Regularis, to the circa 15th century dice-generated collaborative narrative of vice and virtue, Chaunce of the Dyse, to formative computer-mediated work in the 1950’s –- including the generative love letters that Lytton Strachey’s nephew, Bloomsbury-bred computer programmer Christopher Strachey, created using Alan Turing’s hardwired random number generator, as well as the work of Stuttgart computer scientist student, Theo Lutz, who entered words from The Castle into a program that generated politically-charged remixes of Kafka’s vocabulary.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a map of significant moments, in France would probably pinpoint the founding of Oulipo, Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes, and George Perec’s Die Maschine, among many others. Pierre Boulez’ Troisième sonate pour piano Formant 3: “Constellation — Miroir” would surely appear on this map, as would – experiments with the cutup method in the work of Bryan Gysin, Williams Burroughs and Burroughs’ partner, computer programmer Ian Sommerville.

Meanwhile in New York City, after composer James Tenney gave a workshop on FORTRAN to Fluxus artists in 1967, Alison Knowles wrote the brilliant generative poem A House of Dust (realized by Tenney), and Dick Higgins created and programmed the edgy Hank and Mary, a Love Story, a Chorale.  Additionally, the lists of words that Fluxus poet Emmett Williams chose for IBM, first created without a computer in 1956, were computerized in this time.

And in Massachusetts BBN (ARPANET contractor Bolt, Beranek and Newman) computer programmer Will Crowther wrote the pioneering Interactive Fiction, Adventure, and then at MIT Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling created Zork and went on to found Infocom, the primary source of classic Interactive Fiction — while in Connecticut, at Yale, Joseph Meehan created Tale-Spin.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, based in Canada with strong roots also in Austria, IPSA (I. P. Sharp Associates) and IPSA’s ARTEX made node-to-node communication possible — we called it “telematics” in those days — hosting collaborative works such as Bill Bartlett’s Interplay and Roy Ascott’s La Plissure du Texte.

Beginning in 1986 in Berkeley, CA my own Uncle Roger, the first realized hyperfiction, was significant in that rather than a game-centered or communications approach, I wrote and programmed it as a work of computer-mediated literature, and it was the first realized work of electronic fiction that was both written and programmed by a woman.

There followed — beginning with Michael Joyce’s classic afternoon, a story and the work of the StorySpace team — a flowering of hypertext. The writers came from many different places; the center was the Massachusetts-based Eastgate Systems, headed by Mark Bernstein. Hypertext literature was central in what Robert Coover called the “golden age”. The four works Coover singled out are Joyce’s afternoon, my its name was Penelope, Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden, and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl.  It should also be noted that in the field of digital poetry, Jim Rosenberg’s spatial hypertext was primary in the pre-web era.

In the period of widening development (1995–2010), places on the map are clustered all over the world, as works of potential significance were created in generative poetry (the work of John-Pierre Balpe and Nick Montfort, Fox Harrell’s GRIOT System, Nanette Wylde’s Storyland, for instance); in Interactive Fiction: (Emily Short’s Bronze, Andrew Plotkins’ Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home);  in hypertext (my The Roar of Destiny, Mark Marino’s a show of hands, Sharif Ezzat’s Like Stars in a Clear Night Sky, Deena Larsen’s Marble Springs Wiki); in electronic manuscripts: (Noah Wardrip Fruin et al’s Screen; J. R. Carpenter’s Entre Ville); in concrete and digital poetry (William Harris’ Armistice, Maria Mencia’s Birds Singing Other Birds’ Songs); and in performative, filmic, and collaborative works. (Ingrid Ankerson and Megan Sapnar’s Cruising; Judd Morrissey’s The Last Performance). There were many others.

I am disinclined to mention works from 2011-  because the dust has not yet settled, but for my own work I like From Ireland with Letters and my generative “the whole room like a picture in a dream”: Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf Writing“.

ELR: In another interview you name four authors of print literature as influences on your works of electronic literature: Italo Calvino, Marcel Proust, Dorothy Richardson, and Laurence Sterne. Can you comment on analogies and differences between electronic and print literature?

Judy Malloy: This is a difficult question, and the answer can be framed in many different ways. Primarily electronic literature is work that utilizes computer-mediation to create literature that is only possible to read on a computer. But the boundaries are becoming somewhat blurred. Many of the strategies developed by writers of electronic literature can influence print literature and even in some cases have been utilized in print, while at the same time we see writers of electronic literature incorporating print components in their work.

I have always believed that print literature is such a powerful interface that it will continue, but that electronic literature is equally powerful and will flourish and run side by side with print literature, so to speak. In the 21st century, the fact that electronic literature and print literature are each influencing each other is greatly enriching both fields!

ELR: In August 2016 you edited “Social Media Archeology and Poetics” a book featuring essays of 28 artists, scholars, and curators who describe computer networks and online platforms. What are your current opinions/thoughts about archiving works of electronic literature and digital art?

Judy Malloy: Social Media Archeology and Poetics is media archeology about how social media platforms with cultural components were developed and flourished in the days before the World Wide Web.

To create Social Media Archeology and Poetics, which was three years in the making, I primarily asked pioneers in the field to write about their work. This is different from archiving works of electronic literature and digital art. However, it does dovetail with my vision, which is that in addition to the work of critics and curators, it is important to make early works themselves accessible and also to encourage creators of electronic literature to document their own work. In this respect, we are in the tradition of conceptual art and performance art, and — in this field that lies between computer science and literature —  we also document electronic literature in the tradition of sci/tech researchers. It is vitally important to publish peer-reviewed first person documentation from the creators or researchers themselves. Thus, the primary source for Strachey’s love letters is Christopher Strachey, “The Thinking Machines,” Encounter, 3 (1954): 25-31. The primary source for Lutz’ work is Theo Lutz, “Stochastische Texte,” augenblick 4 (1959):3-9.  And the primary source for Uncle Roger is Judy Malloy, “Uncle Roger, an Online Narrabase”, in eds. Ascott, Roy and Carl Eugene Loeffler, Connectivity: Art and Interactive Telecommunications, Leonardo 24:2, (1991): 195-202. This does not mean that criticism and theory are not very important.

Contingently, as regards archiving works of electronic literature themselves, when the original platforms are not available, I prefer to translate my own works to contemporary platforms. But I also highly respect and appreciate the curators and archivists in our field, such as Dene Grigar, who have approached this in many creative ways.

ELR: In the year 2003 you edited the book “Women, Art & Technology” a compendium of the work of women artists who have played a central role in the development of new media practice. How do you consider the role of women in new media today?

Judy Malloy: As Jaishree Odin’s Hypertext and the Female Imaginary and Maria Mencia’s forthcoming #WomenTechLit clearly demonstrate, contemporary women artists and writers are equally as important and influential as male artists and writers.

ELR: Have you any thoughts about the future of Electronic Literature?

Judy Malloy: As the rich history of electronic literature begins to be acknowledged, and the field comes of age, it has been a pleasure to both work with students in the creation of electronic literature and to continue to develop my own work.

I look forward to new work from the field as a whole and to a more central place for electronic literature in the literary world.

 

Written by ELR

February 20, 2017 at 7:30 pm