[The interview with John Cayley is finally up at the The Iowa Review Web. A thousand pardons for the klugie title to the piece, but the one the editors had originally given it was something like "Identities at the Level of Letters," a quote of John's from the interview which I liked but which sounded too much like the title of my Flash piece. John's one of the bridges between "print" poetics, coming from both a LangPo and an Asian culture perspective, and "digital" poetry, and he's very eloquent in his responses. The website also includes a free download of his work "riverIsland," which he presented in SUNY Buffalo in 2001 at the Electronic Poetry Festival. Following is the intro to the interview, the rest of which can be found at the link above.]
John Cayley's work goes against the grain of much recent "digital poetry" in that he has resisted the temptation to transfer his attention from Mac-centered freestanding applications to the internet. This has made him appear to be, accurately or not, the standard-bearer of an "old guard," those whose involvement with hypertext and programmable literatures started (as did Cayley's) in the late seventies, using machines with less RAM than your standard floppy disk.
Cayley has also maintained a distinct interest in Asian literatures, most particularly Chinese, even as his programming and multimedial techniques have grown more sophisticated. Though he is clearly concerned with the graphemic "atom" as a unit of meaning and with poststructural approaches to text, the range of metaphors and the particulars of the Chinese sensibility suggest to the viewer of Cayley's work that he does not consider technology the grand leveler of cultural practices that renders differences of geography, history, and language entirely moot. Cayley's particular ambivalence about using Western programming languages to recreate Chinese ideograms on the screen demonstrates an awareness of how the Roman alphabet and Boolean logic which knows no shades between 0 and 1, on and off—are involved in a sub-textual, perhaps colonialist, conspiracy.
The following interview barely scratches the surface of the range of Cayley's work, focusing on his most recent projects and on the distinctive cultural strands that influence his practice. Suffice it to say, Cayley has exploited the "programmaton"—the poetic object that is both literary language and the language of code—in diverse ways that include classic hypertext experiences, non-interactive poems created in real-time, and more elaborate poem-objects such as "riverIsland," which involves 360 degree QuickTime photography, audio, lyric poetry and randomly generated intertexts. Like much of Cayley's work—his digital art, his theory and polemics—"riverIsland" has proven to be a focal point for much discussion and debate among digital poetry aficionados, most recently at a conference on digital poetry held in 2002 at the University of Iowa.
Cayley won the Electronic Literature Organizations's first annual award in digital poetry in 2001. Most recently, he published a lengthy commentary in the Electronic Book Review called "The Code is not the Text (Unless it is the Text)". His website, which is somewhat out of date but where many of his papers and online projects can be found, is shadoof.net.
As Cayley's example proves, the parameters of the exploration into electronic literature are not determined by the functionality of new software or hardware as they enter the market but are guided by artistic vision—he's a true "kid of the book machine," in McCaffery and nichol's phrase—and by a sense of the possible that often pre-exists what a machine is actually capable of doing. The integrity of Cayley's vision is demonstrated not just by the coherent development of his work, but by his never over-reaching into technology for the sake of exploiting some trick, some use of sound, color or code that is meant simply to seduce. This confidence in pulling back, in stripping the "programmaton" to what is most necessary, has given his work a quietness that belies the wide-eyed futurism conspicuous in much "digital poetry," but also allows him to preserve some aspects of the elemental (stone, water, air) aesthetics of Asian art in a decidedly non-elemental medium.Posted by Brian Stefans at January 29, 2003 12:53 PM