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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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Intervista con Fabrizio Venerandi

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ELR:  Nel 2010 hai pubblicato due ebook. Le Polistorie sono una novità assoluta! Come funziona l’ipertesto negli ebook ?

Fabrizio Venerandi: Penso che l’ipertesto sia uno strumento estremamente interessante per la costruzione di interactive fiction. Quello che ci siamo proposti con la collana delle polistorie è di uscire dai ghetti e abbandonare l’idea che la narrativa non lineare sia una sperimentazione. Le sperimentazioni ci sono già state, abbiamo un linguaggio elettronico che ormai ha più di quarant’anni e che è pronto a diventare un territorio delle storie e non solo delle tecniche con cui raccontarle. È stato interessante per me, come curatore di collana e anche autore di un testo, vedere come scrittori tra loro molto differenti alle prese con lo stesso strumento retorico, l’ipertesto, abbiano dato vita a idee di mondi completamente diversi. I primi cinque testi che abbiamo pubblicato dal 2010 fino ad oggi spaziano dall’interactive fiction, alle storie a bivio, agli iperromanzi di natura calviniana, a vere e proprie opere letterarie multi-lettura. Tutti gli scrittori hanno proposto opere di narrativa interattiva matura, perché ormai il linguaggio elettronico fa parte della vita di ognuno: è nella rete, nella comunicazione, nell’informazione, nelle idee. L’ebook è un luogo molto più accogliente del libro per sviluppare queste forme di racconto.

ELR: Sei anche il fondatore della casa editrice digitale Quintadicopertina. Cosa prevedi per il futuro dell’industria editoriale?

Fabrizio Venerandi: Penso che avverrà una separazione, graduale ma sempre più decisa, tra una letteratura tradizionale e letteratura digitale. Buona parte dei testi digitali continueranno ad essere testi pensati per la tipografia e poi convertiti in formato elettronico. Ma a fianco a questi prenderanno vita in maniera autonoma storie, didattiche, contenuti pensati per una fruizione del tutto digitale. Anche al di fuori del formato ebook.

ELR: Gia nel 1990 hai compiuto un lavoro pioneristico con il primo Multi User Dungeon italiano «NeoNecronomicon». Secondo te esiste un rapporto tra narrativa e video games? Cosa ne pensi della “creazione letteraria” nei video games e gli “elementi ludici” nelle opere letterarie

Fabrizio Venerandi: La scrittura è gioco, lo è sempre stata. È curioso che uno dei primi documenti della letteratura italiana sia un indovinello, no? Il videogioco ha radici nelle storie e nei testi, non fosse altro per ragioni storiche: il testo consuma molta meno memoria delle immagini, a livello di byte.  Molti dei mondi grafici on-line sorretti da poderose GPU sono stati già teorizzati e sviluppati come mondi testuali, anzi, sotto alcuni aspetti la gestione di mondi virtuali interattivi gestiti da stringhe testuali è assai più intrigante e sostenibile dei corrispettivi grafici. Anche in Italia, realtà di simulazione come Little Italy o The Gate possono essere oggi esempi importanti di come ribaltare e ripensare i concetti legati a scrittore, lettore, autonomia della storia, fabula e intreccio. Forse sono esempi più importanti adesso che allora. Il romanzo interattivo o non lineare esplicita i giochi di interazione tra scrittore e lettore che sono già in nuce nella narrativa tradizionale. Pensa a un normale romanzo giallo: il disseminare di indizi la narrazione, non è forse un gioco? L’intreccio delle storie dell’Orlando, non è un invito al lettore a ricostruirne i labirinti, così come i piani temporali o l’apparato di note dell’Infinite Jest di Wallace?  La separazione di questi due mondi è proprio legata ai quei ghetti di cui parlavo sopra: esiste una letteratura alta, che non sa di giocare, e una talmente bassa da non volere diventare letteratura. Mi piace pensare che il digitale possa diventare un terreno comune di scambio tra gioco e narrazione. Forse nella tradizione orale questo elemento giocoso di invenzione e contaminazione era più evidente e non è un caso che il gioco di ruolo nasca proprio da una applicazione della narrazione vocale.

ELR: In che modo la letteratura elettronica si inserisce nella tradizione letteraria del libro a stampa? Si può parlare di letteratura sperimentale

Fabrizio Venerandi: Guarda, io penso che la letteratura elettronica non sia una novità, ma che sia la messa in pratica di cose che si potevano fare anche prima. È un iper-messa in pratica: si espandono idee che sulla carta ad un certo punto trovavano limiti strutturali che nel digitale sono molto più morbidi. E talvolta non ci sono proprio. Quando sento dire che la letteratura ipertestuale è solo una sperimentazione anni settanta, penso che anche parte notevole della letteratura stampata è stata una sperimentazione. Io ancora mi meraviglio dei mille trucchi che si sono inventati durante i secoli per avere i link sulla carta: vocaboli in ordine alfabetico, mappe, indici analitici, note a piè di pagina, di capitolo, note al margine, corollari, riferimenti incrociati, stanze, paragrafi, numeri di verso, parentesi, incisi… fino alle esplicitazioni popolari del novecento, come i librogame. Incredibile tutto questo desiderio di rendere vivo il testo, di farlo interloquire con altri elementi interni ed esterni al libro stesso. Altro che sperimentazioni! Il digitale è uno dei tanti punti di arricchimento di un percorso di narrare che è millenario.

ELR: I new media si caratterizzano per le costanti modificazioni. Come si può prevenire il rischio di perdere i dati di un’opera di e-literature?

Fabrizio Venerandi: Intanto dando alla letteratura elettronica la dignità artistica e culturale che ancora oggi non ha. La critica accademica si è tenuta distante dai lavori di interactive fiction pubblicati. Le recensioni arrivano dai lettori e spesso hanno al centro la forma tecnologica della narrazione e non la narrazione. Gli ebook non si recensiscono, anzi, ancora oggi perdura una visione libro-centrica, dove l’unica forma di sapere è quella del tomo stampato e dove l’unica forma di narrativa è il romanzo ottocentesco.  C’è quindi, prima di tutto, bisogno di un lavoro di critica di quello che sta succedendo oggi nel digitale. Non si può preservare correttamente quello che non si sa cosa sia. Per questo  sono importanti  progetti come quelli dell’Electronic Literature Collection, ma è necessaria anche una letteratura ad ampio respiro su queste forme di scrittura e lettura contemporanee. Poi serve una buona dose di progettualità anche da parte dei creatori, produttori e distributori di queste opere. L’utilizzo di formati aperti con specifiche pubbliche, aiuta sicuramente la longevità dei testi naturalmente digitali. Meno – forse – la creazione di oggetti software legati a questa o quella piattaforma hardware.

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