May 29, 2003

Digital Arts and Culture 2003

by Nick Montfort · , 12:36 am

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. May 19 – May 23.

DAC is my “home conference” and the only place I know of where art, literature, music, performance, and games for the computer come together with serious scholarly discussion of new media. I’ve presented work there since the second time they put it on, in Atlanta in 1999, and the conference has been host to an array of great discussions and ideas, as well as leading me rather immediately to collaborate with Noah and with William Gillespie. Thus, I was determined not to miss DAC this year, even if it meant traveling halfway around the world in a pet carrier. Fortunately, it wasn’t that bad.


I made it to Melbourne via Los Angeles, leaving for the domestic leg of the journey from Baltimore. It was there that I met up with Nancy Kaplan and with Stuart Moulthrop, creator of Pax, which played, or could be played with, at the playengines exhibition at DAC (and which is online). Stuart and I coauthored the DAC paper Face It, Tiger, You Just Hit the Jackpot: Reading and Playing Cadre’s Varicella. Stuart and Nancy are revving up their School of Information Arts and Technology, getting ready to add a new undergraduate degree. I also got to catch up briefly with Ingrid Ankerson and Megan Sapnar of Poems that Go. Those two will be moving soon to Madison, Wisconsin. I’m glad I got to see them again before they depart for the land of cheese.

In Los Angeles I found digital artist and culturalist Mary Flanagan waiting for the same Qantas flight. After we arrived and confronted the local ATM (always a moment of nervousness there) we took a sort of disco bus, with blue lighting, from the airport to downtown Melbourne. I decided to walk across town from the bus stop to my hotel. My room still wasn’t ready when I arrived, so I left my bag and got over to one of the numerous local Internet cafes. I also took a look at the Ned Kelly exhibition at the State Library, which was right by RMIT, and wondered at a strange space there inside the library, closed off and set up in an odd configuration with computers. I didn’t know then, but this was where the playengines exhibition would be held. After a while, I returned to find the room was ready and Noah, co-editor and roomie for this DAC, already arrived and checked in. After I cleaned up and changed clothes I think we wandered around downtown Melbourne in a daze and perhaps ate something. Perhaps it was at this point that we found what was to become our favorite arcade in Chinatown.


Setting an alarm was sort of silly, as Noah and I were both awake by 6:30 am. We got over to the conference, in the gamelike Storey Hall of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, City Campus, and got registered. We were about the first ones there. At least two of the conference organizers who I spoke with were nervous but there was not much reason to be, then or later in the conference — everything went very smoothly. As people filtered in we started looking around for those we knew from previous DACs or whose names we recognized. I caught up with Robert Kendall and Rob Swigart, who had invited me to be on a panel with them the next day, and I spotted several others.

Opening the conference was the Honorable Marsha Thomson, Minister for Information and Communication Technology. She mentioned Melbourne’s history in computer gaming, naming local company Melbourne House and The Hobbit, a famous early work of interactive fiction they published. Not a bad start — it’s a country where they remember their IF. Adrian Miles, the program chair who was continually working to help the conference go smoothly, also greeted us. Wireless internet access was set up by the time the conference started.

I’m going to be selective in picking presentations to mention and in mentioning things about them. The full papers are all online (I think? Or they should be soon), many other people have blogged or will write reports on DAC, this particular report is going to be long enough as it is, and I have my jet lag and lack of note-taking as a further excuse, should I need one.

From the first session of talks, everyone is sure to remember Lisbeth Klastrup’s discussion of her undertaking a frustrating “trouser quest” on EverQuest in an attempt to cover her avatar, who, by default, was scantily clad. There’s an obvious concern about the representation of female forms in EverQuest (and other computer games) that is raised here, but Lisbeth was making a particular point about how frustrating it is to try to mold your identity online, even when there are official ways of doing it. Her first arduous armor quest failed due to a bug in the game, and she had to redo it.

I believe the talk by Mikael Jakobsson and T.L. Taylor ended up being in this EverQuest-rich session as well. They discussed how different communities of users, with different characters, could come to the aid of others and make mobster-style deals. The essential point was that looking only at the avatars in a multiplayer game can never allow you to understand what is going on, since, for instance, people (or someone’s friends or family) may control several characters and log one of them on to get someone else out of a fix.

I chose the more gamey of the next split sessions and was treated to viewings and analyses of several PlayStation 2 commercials, a discussion of navigation in the game world, and a demo of software for generating components of a game environment — from crates to buildings. During the next session, Mary Flanagan talked about paper dolls and dollhouses as generating early “fan fiction” and player-created narratives. It was another good argument that we’ll suffer if we narrow our focus too tightly and consider only digital media, while expecting to understand all the cultural context of these media.

After lunch one of the talks, by Julian Holland Oliver, made a call for a (virtual) island for independent game developers. The definition of an independent game developer as “any company that distributes its games itself” was pretty apt, but sounded funny to many, since most of the independent game developers I know in the interactive fiction community (who I talk to all the time on our virtual island) are people rather than companies, and they just give their work away rather than trying to commercially distribute it. I was heartened to know that small companies are actively seeking a space in the hostile market, however. I really enjoyed going to the Selectparks website and ogling the more-open-than-GameBoy-Advance GamePark (no relation) that they had written up there. Perhaps I got too distracted by that — it’s one of the dangers of wireless access at the conference.

That evening we went to the wonderfully appointed Australian Center for the Moving Image for a reception, and talked about art and games and riddles and more.


I spoke in the first session after two other talks. Keith Armstrong discussed his subway installation piece. It flashed the thoughts of travellers (people could submit items for the elaborate sign) and stimulated at least a few who were waiting in the station to think about their relationship to others. Among other things, it was a good reminder that “interactivity” does not always require immediate responsiveness or access to a mouse. Dan Fleming led listeners down a primrose path as he described how hypertext might be anti-empire, but he problematized the idea rather than leading us on to victory in the garden. In my presentation of the paper that Stuart and I wrote, I tried to combine explication du texte with an analysis of the game-nature of Adam Cadre’s Varicella. I don’t know if the point holds very widely, but it was an attempt to show that for interactive fiction, at least, both “game” and “literary” aspects are not just present, but essential, and should both be understood.

Later in the day Noah gave his talk about instrumental texts, looking at a different concept of “play” (as in “play a musical instrument” rather than “play a game”) and pointing to works by John Cayley, as well as Stuart’s Pax, as examples of textual instruments. John’s piece Instrument was “shown” (played, really) at DAC 2001 at Brown, incidentally; it was the smash hit of the Night at the Cybertexts event. Unfortunately, going to the session where my embodied collaborator was speaking meant that I missed the absent William Gillespie’s paper “Drugs, Machines, and Friendships: Cybertext, Collaboration, and the Beatles,” which Rob Swigart was presenting; I also missed the paper about the ELO directory by Robert Kendall.

In the next session what stood out in my mind and created some buzz was Jane McGonigal’s discussion of The Beast, an immersive “this is not a game” online game (or not?) coordinated with the release of the film AI. The leakage of this game into “RL” was showcased: one team that pooled their wits to tackle the Beast began thinking they could solve the mystery of September 11 in the same way.

The action-packed final paper session of the day took us from the Dream Kitchen to Resident Evil to utopia. Jill Walker, using transparencies with drawings on them in a retro move, talked about the role of make-believe in play and discussed the difference between navigating a world and taking action in it. Some distinctions, like the difference between moving the mouse to strike a match and moving the mouse to walk around, might be better distinguished based on how mimetic they are, but there was much to think about here in the way of “player response.” Susana Tosca discussed the need to understand genre expectations to make sense of play and cut-scenes in Resident Evil – Code Veronica X. The difference between a terse, walkthrough-style set of commands to the player and a narration of someone fumbling about trying to solve the game also pointed out the difference between idealized and actual game experience. Finally, Ben Hourigan discussed a topic of interest to me (and particularly dear to the heart of my collaborator William Gillespie): utopia. Looking at role-playing games and how they realize (or virtualize) utopias, Ben ended with an exhortation (or at least a very strong suggestion) that we pirate games and destroy the capitalist game industry, looking to the example of Nethack and Adam Cadre’s Photopia to see what great sorts of works can come together without a marketplace. I mentioned this to Adam when I was logged into our interactive fiction island shortly afterwards, and he said it was the first time he was cited as a reason to overthrow an institution.

I’m told that the final panel, about new media editing, went well. I’m not sure, although I was on it, along with Robert Kendall and Rob Swigart. They did fine, as far as I could tell, and then I stood up and said something. By that point in the day I felt like I was on the other side of the monitor in House of the Dead 3.

The performances at this DAC happened this Tuesday night, in a bar. They went well, but I hope future DACs will also allow for some of the more elaborate staged pieces that we saw in Atlanta, Bergen, and Brown.


Wednesday was set aside as a day off — a wise move, as I wouldn’t have been able to endure another jet-lagged day of attending to presentations. We went to a wildlife sanctuary where I snuggled a wallaby and a wombat. Well … I got to pet them, at least. I also saw The Matrix Reloaded, with Noah and Espen. Not entirely bad, but I’ve been suggesting to non-Americans that, if at all possible, they see the film dubbed so as to minimize the effects of the robotic dialogue and delivery.


The last day of the RMIT-hosted part of the conference brought us from systems theory and interactive video through algebraic semiotics and a rallying speech from the rebel-turned-emperor of game studies. The day was rich in sights, sounds, and ideas, but I’ll focus on these three talks in the interest of communicating something meaningful about these selections rather than glossing over everything.

Hanne-Lovise Skartveit discussed how system dynamics models could underlie an interactive video system, supporting new types of learning systems. She gave the example of a video of two showering subjects (portrayed by one woman) who found that manipulating the controls greedily left them either both cold or both scalded. The very abstract systems-dynamics models meeting the very concrete visuals of video made for interesting challenges in composition.

Troy Innocent, whose well-implemented and alluring piece Artefact was in the exhibition, talked about the inspiration for the way that piece worked: algebraic semiotics. This is the representation of sign systems in such a way that morphisms can be defined between them. The idea struck me immediately as (a) completely unworkable as a real representation of most sign systems (b) endlessly intriguing despite that (c) not very deeply considered, from a mathematical standpoint, in the discussion that was presented. Regarding (a), naive systems to do machine translation between languages demonstrate the point quite well. There is no morphism between English and Russian — at least, there isn’t one that is much less complex than English or Russian is! Regarding (b), it could still be fun to think of very limited sign systems like “restroom signage” in this way. Regarding (c), the discussion seemed to only consider bijective morphisms (isomorphisms) between different systems — although I must admit I haven’t read the paper yet — and not the many other ways in which sign systems could be mapped to each other. And then there is the composition of morphisms and all of category theory that could be applied. Perhaps in my copious spare time I’ll take a further look.

Espen Aarseth, soon to be of the Center for Computer Games Research of Copenhagen, offered us “Ludology Reloaded” and raised a few important questions about how we are actually going to study games. Are we going to play them? Or just watch our children play them? And is it even enough to play them, since different players play in different ways? The typology he offered this time was one of play styles, noting that different researches might come to very different conclusions and make different discoveries depending upon how serious they were and what their goals were in play. He noted that it was not enough to consider “games as games” (a phrase that caught my attention, since Stuart and I used it in our paper) but that we should also establish methods and methodologies for studying them.

I chaired one of the sessions in the final time-slot, which included a performance by Jayne Fenton Keane (complete with frog-clicking interactivity for the audience) and an intriguing look at how online journalism and computer games are playing together, by RMIT’s own Sybil Nolan.


There was the playengines exhibition, an extraordinary show — but I’m not up for art criticism as well as panel blurbing at this point, so I’ll have to leave it at that. There was one final panel discussion in the library, with two representatives each from Europe, the USA, and Australia. Everyone from Australia guiltily admitted to having engaged in cultural studies, for reasons not so clear to us foreigners. The most interesting point of the discussion was when the suggestion came up that we might not have to know even the rudiments of computer science to understand things (at the Ph.D. level) about digital media. “Why should people have to know how to program?” one of the panelists asked. “Because we’re talking about computers!” I cried from the peanut gallery. I think the beginning of Mary Flanagan’s response was quite apt: “Excuse me, but — you’re just totally wrong.” Noah voiced his objections as well. While a bachelor’s degree in computer science shouldn’t be necessary, I think we can handle digital media about as well as apes passing around a coconut if we don’t know the essentials of computation. And I’m willing to do whatever I can to help the new media scholars of the future get this level of education.


I went to see Ecstasis, a beautiful and well-conceived virtual reality artwork for four interactors and spectators. Through a space of abstract shapes, the people up front learn about how they are influencing their movement through the world. My only qualm was that it seemed too beautiful and enjoyable just to sit around and not to bother figuring out how to move: no matter what you did, you were treated to a visually impressive ride and well-wrought music.


Flying Qantas from Melbourne to LAX and then flying cross-country on Southwest was like the beginning of Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star crossed with a late Cormac McCarthy novel. I’m still exhausted, despite being home for more than three days! But DAC was great. I hope it will exist in full-blown form in 2005, and in some incarnation, even if abbreviated, next year.

3 Responses to “Digital Arts and Culture 2003”

  1. noah Says:

    Wow. Great report, Nick.

    I’d say that I also think of DAC as my “home” conference. Its type of interdisciplinarity isn’t found anywhere else, and I value DAC particularly because people come with backgrounds in pretty much all the disciplines that are important to my work. Also, at DAC these groups meet on basically even footing, and it all combines to make possible conversations that don’t happen in other places. Maybe that’s why DAC has been the starting point for a number of my projects and collaborations as well.

    I agree that this DAC was very successful. The two main things I want from DAC are (a) presentations that get my mind going in new directions and (b) a good amount of time to have more informal discussions with people about our art/research areas. This DAC had both in spades. And I met some interesting folks from various parts of the globe who I’d never heard of before, and I imagine I’ll stay in touch with at least a couple of them.

    I also agree that, for future DACs, we should work on having more time for art performance. This was the most successful DAC yet in terms of having an art presence connected with the local community (ACMI, the State Library, the bar where the reading was held) but I’d have liked some presentations in the conference venue that were, say, readings of electronic writing (rather than talks about electronic writing projects) and I would also have liked some of the theatre-space kinds of performances we’ve had a previous DACs. But I say that with full knowledge that putting on something like the +playengines+ show was a huge undertaking, and it’s hard to imagine any DAC organizers finding more time for art-related activities than that required.

    Overall, I’m certainly glad to have made the trip.

  2. andrew Says:

    DAC really is a special conference. As I’m self-funded, it hasn’t been easy for me to go to non-US-located DAC’s, but I was able to present work at the two US-located-DAC’s — Atlanta in 1999 (where I first met Noah) and Brown in 2001 (actually I was living in Paris at that time and couldn’t make it to Brown, so Michael gave our talk solo). Atlanta was pretty memorable for me, between the striking performance art, Rob Coover’s keynote, and Michael Joyce’s comment lobbed in my direction of a “creeping positivism” in the progression from Petz to Babyz. (I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that means. :-)

    This year’s DAC sounded really exciting and varied and I’m sorry I missed it. Will definitely, definitely be sure to make it to the next one. Noah, Nick, the idea of a mini-gathering in 2004 in lieu of a full conference sounds good. I’ll bring chips.

  3. jill/txt Says:
    round about
    Grandtextauto’s a blog that keeps discussing stuff I’m interested in. Noah wrote a review of Marie-Laure Ryan’s Narrative as Virtual Reality (an excellent book) and its generated some discussion, including comments from Marie-Laure herself. Nick’s post…

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