January 2006


[More writing for my class blog that I thought to share with you...]

Keep in mind that very little is entirely “new” in “new media writing.” There are often examples from the analog world that explain certain principles of electronic writing even better than the electronic writing available.

Some of the following terminology might sound INCREDIBLY PRETENTIOUS. At least I think it does, but I also think these concepts are pretty handy to keep in mind when reading (and playing) the work assigned for this semester. They are not concepts you would be dealing with too often in other arts or literature classes.

Recombinant poetics is the aesthetics of treating words and letters like digital objects. “Collage poetics,” like what the Dada and Surrealist artists explored in their games, or “cut up” methods explored by William S. Burroughs, treated words like physical objects, and used chance to create new combinations that were startling to the reader and not governed by an “author.” Oulipo writing practices, in which formulas were used as constraints on the writing – a simple one being the non-use of the letter “e” in George Perec’s novel A Void – treated language as something mathematical, almost like numbers, though never to the degree of being illegible.

“Recombinant poetics” is something like both of these, but in the digital realm, hence opening the possibilities of 1) incredibly complex writing algorithms, and 2) access to a possibly infinite world of texts, either through the internet or one’s own files.

The above is closely related to something I call database aesthetics, which is a phrase that I accidentally stole from the critic and theorist Lev Manovich. Works predicated on a database aesthetics explore organizing texts in ways that haven’t arisen in literary history in the genres we are familiar with (lyric poetry, drama, epic poetry, and narrative fiction) but rather have arisen through our working with databases, sorting alphabetically, by length, by occurrence of certain elements, by keywords, etc. Works like Lyn Hejinian’s poem My Life, which, in the version she wrote when she was 37, had 37 chapters of 37 sentences each, is a version of this.

Text/image complex are those moments when the text and image of in a piece (or even the image of text itself) interact in a way that moves beyond illustration, and beyond what either element are doing on their own. A good, basic example of this is your standard New Yorker cartoon – neither the drawing or the caption are very funny on their own, but the caption makes you see something different in the drawing, or vice versa. Advertisements play on this principle quite often – the phrase “Think different.” attached to a picture of Mahatma Gandhi creates a little “a ha” moment in the brain, much like when reading a haiku.

There can also be a sound element, but since we won’t be dealing with sound in this class, it’s better to keep in mind the use of text/image in works. The image of a text comes into play in works such as the books of Kenneth Goldsmith, which are predicated on giving physical mass to collections of words, or in pieces such as “Cedars Estate,” where the words are design elements. The text/image complex usually has some element of paradox or contradiction to it; the text and image are working against each other as much as for.

I also occasionally use the phrase visual pun. By that, I mean any instance in which the visual image appears to be one thing, but then, after the application of a caption, or maybe with a “pullback,” as in a movie, the image is revealed to be something quite different than what you thought it was. William Poundstone’s New Media Emblems are examples of visual puns, as is Bembo’s Zoo or the New Yorker Cartoons. Another well-known example is that game where you think you are either looking at an old hag or a young woman, though this might be classed more as an optical illusion.

The interface of a piece is pretty easy to describe: it is the way the piece functions as something you operate. The dashboard of a car is an interface, and even a book – its cover, the binding, the size – is an interface. All websites have an interface, and some incredibly simple interfaces, like that for Google, or ugly interfaces, like that for craigslist, have been the most successful on the web. Many works of electronic writing have experimental interfaces that have to be learned and practiced a little before the piece is truly enjoyable. Others simply have terrible interfaces.

Generative art and generative text are pieces in which the visual or textual image are created live, in real-time, either with the influence of a user’s input – moving the mouse around the screen, typing keywords in, etc. – or simply create themselves on their own, in ways determined by an algorithm, usually with some random elements.

The visual pieces of “dextro.org” or beautiful examples of generative art that almost look like highly complex, abstract pencil sketches, while “News Reader” and “Regime Change” are pieces that generate new texts from internet new sources. In these pieces, the artistry is often contained entirely in the programming, though of course none of these pieces can be deemed successful unless the output of the work is pleasurable, perhaps a match for human, non-computer creativity. (There is also something called generative music, which is actually the oldest of the three.)

There are more themes that I’d like to add to this list as the semester continues, but for now, these are the ones that come to mind as important for starting our class.

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Here’s an essay that went online in my time between blogs. It began as a response to Chapter Six of First Person, “The Pixel/The Line,” which Noah Wardrip-Fruin invited me to contribute to electronic book review’s version of that text.

http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/firstperson/databased

First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game, edited by Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, was published in January 2004. Here is the blurb intro thingie from their website:

Electronic games have established a huge international market, significantly outselling non-digital games; people spend more money on The Sims than on “Monopoly” or even on “Magic: the Gathering.” Yet it is widely believed that the market for electronic literature — predicted by some to be the future of the written word — languishes. Even bestselling author Stephen King achieved disappointing results with his online publication of “Riding the Bullet” and “The Plant.”

Isn’t it possible, though, that many hugely successful computer games — those that depend on or at least utilize storytelling conventions of narrative, character, and theme — can be seen as examples of electronic literature? And isn’t it likely that the truly significant new forms of electronic literature will prove to be (like games) so deeply interactive and procedural that it would be impossible to present them as paper-like “e-books”? The editors of First Person have gathered a remarkably diverse group of new media theorists and practitioners to consider the relationship between “story” and “game,” as well as the new kinds of artistic creation (literary, performative, playful) that have become possible in the digital environment.

This landmark collection is organized as a series of discussions among creators and theorists; each section includes three presentations, with each presentation followed by two responses. Topics considered range from “Cyberdrama” to “Ludology” (the study of games), to “The Pixel/The Line” to “Beyond Chat.” The conversational structure inspired contributors to revise, update, and expand their presentations as they prepared them for the book, and the panel discussions have overflowed into a First Person web site (created in conjunction with the online journal Electronic Book Review).

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Shanna Compton of Soft Skull Press has put up a .pdf of the first and only book of poems by Joan Murray, selected for the Yale Younger Poets award by W.H. Auden back in the day. I have more to write about Murray’s poems, but for now, I think you should check it out.

http://www.shannacompton.com/half-empty.html

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I’m asked this question quite often, and have rarely been able to come up with a short answer. It’s many things, and quite often, a work of “electronic writing” is so unique that it’s a genre until itself.

If I were to come up with a fortune cookie answer to the question, I would say that it is any form of writing that takes advantage of the possibilities afforded by digital technology – such as the internet, or graphics programs such as Illustrator or Photoshop, or animation / audio / interactive programs such as Flash – in their creation and presentation.

But it is also those forms of writing that are informed by new ways of thinking brought on by the way digital technology has impacted our world, i.e. forms of writing that are organized according to the principles of the database, or that work primarily as texts distributed over the internet, or that – in the manner of “Dispositions,” which was written with the aid of a GPS device – relied on computer technology in the writing.

Now for the long answer… Electronic writing can be: 

  • Classic hypertext fiction, in which different pages of writing (often called “lexia”) are maneuvered by the reader by clicking on words or images. These can be “choose your own adventure” type narratives, or more poetic interactive texts in which there are no fictional elements at all. Many of the better ones of these, such as “Patchwork Girl” and “Afternoon,” are not available online, and have to be purchased from Eastgate Systems. Online texts include works by Talan Memmott, Geoff Ryman, Claire Dinsmore, Yael Kanarek and Stuart Moulthrop, along with freebies at the Eastgate reading room.
  • Animated poems, such as “The Dreamlife of Letters” or “Axolotl,” in which the viewer/reader is not asked to do anything but watch and listen while text performs before them. Think of this as the art of movie titles applied to creative ventures. “Bembo’s Zoo” is another classic example, and the Flash movies of “Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries” (and possibly “JibJab“) are distant cousins.
  • Conceptual blogs and websites, such as “The Dullest Blog in the World” or “Dagmar Chili Pitas,” which are sites that explore a particular type of writing to the nth degree, such that you really can’t categorize them under anything in particular. “Entropy8,” by Aurelia Harvey, is a classic in this genre.
  • Non-electronic conceptual writing, such as “The Tapeworm Foundry” or “Dispositions,” that explore some aspect of writing that relates to a “database aesthetic,” i.e. a collection of fragments that are organized in a mathematic or otherwise highly systematic (non-lyrical and non-narrative) way. Process or “uncreative” writing, such as Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Day” is another example of this.
  • Parody and “hactivist” websites, which are conceptual sites that attempt to comment on the conventions public communication on the web, such as “whitehouse.org,” my own “Vaneigem Series,” or “Blackness for Sale,” which was really just a page of Ebay. These sites usually engage in some form of artistic plagiarism, i.e. taking graphics and design elements from corporate sites.
  • Wordtoys, which are more sophisticated forms of classic hypertext, in which the user is invited to play with an experimental interface is such a way that new textual creations are manufactured in real-time, such as Camille Utterback’s installation “Text Rain” or the projects of Daniel Howe. Experimental interfaces such as on the “Eclipse” website or the “Visual Thesaurus” are a version of this.
  • Interactive Fiction and literary games, in which the user is the hero of a story, and must input commands to navigate the literary piece and solve it like a puzzle, in the manner of early text-playing or role-playing games. Nick Montfort has been the biggest advocate of this type of writing.
  • Cave Writing and installation texts, which takes place in the VRML environment of Brown’s Cave or in galleries, like “Text Rain” or “Legible City.” Some installations, such as Mark Domino’s “glås,” are not interactive.
  • Email and collaborative art, and other forms of writing that take advantage of the forms of communication peculiar to electronic media, such as “Implementation,” which is a fiction that requires the user to download stickers that they can paste up in the cities or towns they live in, or even writing that is primarily distributed via text messaging.
  • Computer generated texts, in which a computer program helped in the creation of the text, or in which a web spider culled live text from the internet to create the work, such as in Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s “Regime Change & Newsreader.” A version of this is website translators like “Pornolize.com,” which converts the text of any website into a (kitschy) porn language.
  • Documentary websites – such as ubu.com, a collection of concrete, audio and avant-garde video files, and rhizome.org, the premiere internet website – are often considered a form of art since they are often the expressions of very personal, non-commercial and often very obsessive artistic and political visions and often create distinct communities of users. William Poundstone’s electronic essay “New Digital Emblems” is a great example of a website that is both beautiful and informative.

There are a billion variations on the above, and in fact no piece is ever peculiar to one of these categories. A work called “They Rule,” which uses a database of CEOs of the major corporations of the world, is an interactive political cartoon that is almost entirely a textual experience, while “All Your Base Are Belong to Us” is just a crazy Flash movie made by any number of people spontaneously around the world.

Great electronic art can be created with little or no computer skills, which is kind of the drama of the entire venture. Some of the most effective forms of Electronic Writing are INCREDIBLY SIMPLE to create, such as “Blackness for Sale” and the “Vaneigem Series.” I have a soft spot for these types of projects, since they don’t require a team of computer scientists, and their impact is clean and immediate.

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I’ve gone a little blog wild lately. I’ve spent most of today creating a blog for the course I teach at Brown University, Electronic Writing II. It’s actually, in a very short time, become a much better resource than arras.net for links to electronic writing on the web, though perhaps not as tied to my taste (it’s a learning tool after all).

http://www.arras.net/brown_ewriting/

It’s a work in progress. Soon, you will be able to see my students work from last semester and the semester to come.

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Further adventures in the one-letter-at-a-time pieces, Flash setting of masterpieces of world literature as simple movies. Here is a setting of a wacky e.e. cummings’ poem, spaces, tabs and all.

http://www.arras.net/fscIII/new_work/cummings2_one_letter.html

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Here’s something interesting: a scan of the page proofs that cummings sent to his Brazilian translator, Augusto de Campos. I didn’t use this as a reference for my version. Here is a more mundane, HTML version of the poem, which I think suffers greatly by not being in courier font.

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Ok, tooting my own whistle time, but alas what is a blog for? Mark Mendoza wrote a really great review of my chapbook “The Window Ordered to be Made” for the Verse blog. He’s got a pretty lively, tricky prose style and gets at some great ideas.  I’m flattered and humbled. Here’s the first paragraph:

With a new book (What Does It Matter) appearing on Barque Press and a job at the joystick of UbuWeb, “The Kim Stefans sneak attack is [indeed] now in progress”. The Window Ordered To Be Made marks his most consistent and ‘accessible’ book to date. Though visually less varied than previous outings, there is a remarkable range of poetic modes covered in its beautiful binding, from the surprising masculine personism corrupted in ‘Oliphant And Castle’ to the communistic sentence-strokes of ‘Attitudes And Non-Attitudes In May’ à la Jeff Derksen. With hardworking titles such as ‘Prelude To The End Of This Book’, a well-tuned use of slashes and parentheses, and a wry lisp of lingo vispo invention and ambient ante-vellum throughout, the reader is made to feel the arbitrary restraints and loopy dupes surrounding a bit-stream that eschews the self-help service industry of main street poetics. For those who like their poetry on the wrong side of the fast conceptual art track, Stefans scores the poetic for its potential (anti)literariness, achieving a startling unidirectional détournment to added features in the absence of a known target. The result is refreshingly rhetorical at times (e.g., not afraid to superimpose hypotactic prolixity over an otherwise paratactic pick-n-mix), especially as arguments made in his other publications come to fresh forms and intractably matter.

http://versemag.blogspot.com/2005/11/new-review-of-brian-kim-stefans.html

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Here’s a piece which I’m not sure if I’ve ever blogged or linked to.  It’s a collaboration with the Australian artist geniwaite, for which I supplied texts and images and she did the programming, sound and image manipulation.  It’s probably about 4 years old now, but holds up pretty well.

http://www.idaspoetics.com.au/generative/generative.html

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Last semester I took a playwriting class with Paula Vogel, for which I wrote a few short pieces that utilized a sort of “verse” form based on character count. Each line had to have the same number of characters, including spaces, and no enjambment was allowed, which is to say, no line could carry over to the next. This second rule was not always faithfully observed, which is to say, though each line ended with a period, in one or two cases it could just as well ended with a comma. 

Below is a “song” from a play based on The Medea which I called “The Media.”  It starred Jack Nicholson as a sleazy fashion photographer and Kate Valk as his model, a woman in love with him but just as passionately resentful of his sleeping around.  In this bit, she contemplates cutting his johnson off to get back at him. 

If, for whatever reason, you are interested in reading this play, send me an email, I’ll send it on to you. 

Kate: Often I’m the last to know when it’s time to work or time to relax.
   I usually only act those things, it’s not something I ever control.
   Jack, he’s done so much for me, and made me more than I ever thought.
   He’s made of this homely trailer park girl a woman the press adore.
   Even fear, sometimes, I’m afraid, yes, when they think I’m in a mood.

   But, but this can’t go on, I know that this can’t, this can’t go on.
   I know what Jack is hiding – not hiding, for in fact he tells me all.
   That is his motive for honesty – to remind me that he’s free, I not.
   But this can’t, this just can’t go on, it’s not in my deepest core.
   I cannot play the other woman, I cannot be the star orbiting alone.

   When I am the face in one his photographs, I am white as an albino.
   I am delicate as a porcelain china doll, or languorous as an anaconda.
   But inside I am black, black, and hard as granite, and tightly wound.
   I can see the things that are happening to me, but I make no sound.
   Like him, in service to art, I retreat – inside – stare blindly out.

   But, but this can’t go on, I know that this can’t, this can’t go on.
   I know that he has a soul, but it is divided between – oh, is it two?
   There’s so much humiliating doubt not knowing where his passions lie.
   If his words to me are eruptions of love, or rehearsals to televise.
   Do I only live in his photographs – can I choose when to live or die?

Suddenly, her wistful mood disappears.

   That’s why I’ve devised this cutting tool, easy to conceal in my palm.
   One little slip of this wire saw, and his little pecker will be mine!
   I’m going to get that lively Johnson, boy-o, and feed it to the dogs!
   Jack won’t be able to jack any more – he’ll be talking like a dwarf!
   Next he comes to venerate me, I’ll reply with caresses – and cut it off!

   Oops!

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