March 26, 2006

E-FEST 1: The Literary and the Arts

by Nick Montfort · , 11:01 pm

I plan to have a few short notes about this year’s E-FEST at Brown, which was a great event. (Update: Note 2, “First I Saw the Surface;” Note 3, “Virtual, Textual Caves.”) You can see some evidence of this in the photos by Brian Kim Stefans and the photos by Scott. I won’t attempt to summarize all the good points made in the panels and all the provocative and compelling e-lit that was shown during two nights of performances, but I do want to recount and rhapsodize upon a few of the many interesting things said and done at this festival.

Brian Kim Stefans – whose short post “What is Electronic Writing?” is well worth checking out – made the case at the fest for electronic literary work in which the computational work serves the text and the literary purposes of the project. Brian is the second-year electronic writing fellow in the MFA program at Brown, and organized the conference. He made some of the points he has expanded upon in ebr essay, “Privileging Language: The Text in Electronic Writing” – an essay I highly recommend.

Interestingly, Aya Karpinska, who has some some extremely good work that impresses visually and poetically, and who will start next year as the MFA fellow in electronic writing at Brown, presented a view, on the same panel, that seemed quite different in many ways. She showed four cases in which words and the literary served to enhance the other arts – visual, musical, plastic, etc. – showing how texts, or references to textuality, can add new dimensions to other works.

Now, I mention this seeming opposition not to try to line up a Karpinska vs. Stefans deathmatch – really, such an agon is not going to happen unless one of them is a narratologist and one a ludologist – but because I think both of these perspectives are valuable. Literary art certainly can be worthwhile part of other artistic ecologies, but whatever the role of the literary in a creative work, electronic writing should not be just an interface project with filler text added in. Both Aya’s discussion (about how writing can work with the other arts) and Brian’s (that there should be some writing-centered projects as well as projects that involve writing) are important for the future of electronic literature and writing on the networked computer.

7 Responses to “E-FEST 1: The Literary and the Arts”

  1. BKS Says:

    I was so zoned out, being camera man and rather hungover, that I really didn’t follow Aya’s argument so much as look at the pictures, so I was unaware when talking that I was throwing up some opposition. Though I suspect some of my ideas have derived from things I’ve seen in work like Aya’s and Daniel’s, in which there is an incredible sophistication in terms of visual interface, and indeed a great sophistication in the way words are employed, but where I miss several elements of “poetry” or writing that I’ve come to appreciate over the years.

    But it’s simply hard to (for instance) tell a good joke in an electronic writing piece in which such basic elements such as pacing — you can’t “pace” your reading if you are spinning them around — are absent. The absence of writer-controlled time (or I would say poem-controlled time) means that your range of writerly effects is much diminished; for example, that surprising rhyme that occurs as an echo five lines later, even in unrhymed verse, can’t happen when all of the words can be seen atomized, at the same time — two words that rhyme will seem to call out to each other, in this case, and discard any of the subtlety that having them appear far apart in a conventional poem might involve. I’m not being terribly clear here.

    But could someone, for instance, write a social satire using the type of interface Daniel created with his word curtain? Possibly — I like the thought of that challenge. Young-Hae Chang, but not being “interactive,” retains that control of time and pacing, which is why they seem to be successful as “writers” as well as net artists. I’m just wondering how we can continue to be writers with such issues of interactivity and three-dimensionality coming in and subtracting so many of the control elements of reading from the text itself.

  2. scott Says:

    I think the key word here is challenge. The interface itself is a form of art that “proves the concept,” but the next step is to create a semantically meaningful experience. Something like Daniel and Aya’s cube-ring piece was beautiful almost entirely because of the way that the objects and texts moved on the screen. Although I thought they read it quite well, I was less convinced that the sequence of words resulting from the recombinations resulted in meaningful “lines” or whatever, semantic units. When texts are that granular, are restricted to single words or short phrases, it would be difficult for the recombinations to result in texts that do much more than create a kind of ambience or generalized theme. The problem of the atomized text is equally a challenge for simple hypertexts as it is in three-dimensional environments. Ideally, the interface itself is an intentioned aspect of the work, and serves to complement the meaning of the text itself. Mary Flangan’s piece [theHouse] in the upcoming 2006 Electronic Literature Collection is, I think, a good example of a piece that works well with granular texts in a 3D environment. The piece is about a relationship between two people coming apart in a confined space. While the interface itself scores high on the gee-whiz scale, the interaction with the cubes on the screen, and how the objects react visually to the reader’s struggle with the text, represents simply and meaningfully what is being represented in the text itself. The interface is a kind of objective correlative to the text.

    This is not to say that I disapprove of works of e-lit that merely set out to achieve a kind of syntactic effect, or to present a new interface for interacting with a text. That kind of exploration has great value. My own sense is that we can however become obsessed with newness at the expense of meaning. I also think we could take the idea that writers must be programmers too far, to a point where writers have become such avid programmers that they no longer remember what they were writing to begin with.

  3. nick Says:

    Brian, as you know, I agree with your call for electronic writing where the writing is more than incidental. But I don’t have the same concerns about electronic writers lacking the control that non-electronic writers had, and I don’t think that there’s any need to steer e-lit away from the interactive and the 3D in order to keep it literary and poetic.

    I wonder if the experience of working with programmers in the CAVE, although it has some very compelling outcomes, serves to enforce the separation between the writerly and the programmerly? In many traditions – interactive fiction, poetry generation, chatterbot creation – the same person usually does the writing and the programming, and I suspect the worries about writerly control are much less in these practices than when there are role-based collaborations. When I work on a project of mine as both a writer and programmer, it’s as uncommon for me to wonder “how can I remain a writer?” as it is for me to wonder “how can I remain a programmer?” I have to do both in order to realize the project. What I program does influence what I write, but the opposite is true as well.

    Whether I’m the sort of former writer that Scott worries about, an avid programmers who no longer remembers what he was writing to begin with, I nevertheless think the best way for writers to do computationally involved work is for them to learn to program. There plenty of are good projects to be done that don’t demand that writers become programmers, but if people do want to engage the potential of the computer to compute, to be interactive and to present 3D scenes, it is very important to grapple with this.

    It really gets under my skin when I hear accomplished writers, well-versed in electronic literature, tell me in resignation, “I’m not a programmer.” As Ted Nelson wrote, you can and must understand computers now! Mastering WorldBuilder and doing memory management in C and such is not a cinch; nor is it the essence of programming. Writing some programs to get a basic understanding of how flow control and data structures work is easy – tens of thousands did it for fun in the first home computer era – and can be a boon. And doing such is very unlikely to destroy you as a writer.

    Brian, do you think that the concerns you have about control might be more wrapped up with role-based collaborations (e.g., similar to a film writer worrying that the director is going to have more control over the project) than with the nature of computing and electronic literature?

  4. scott Says:

    Nick — I’d worry more about you being the type of writer who’s forgotten he’s a writer if I didn’t already know that you’re a cyborg, drunk on poetry, who’s simply forgotten his robot soul. In actuality, I acknowledge that I’m more the type of writer who must better understand computers now than you are the type of writer who has forgotten what he was writing.

    My concerns have more to do with what we value in electronic writing going forward and how we educate the e-writers of the future. It bothers me, for instance, that Brown University is the only MFA writing program that has even a single seat in a writing workshop environment for an electronic writer, and even they don’t manage to support that degree with a faculty line. It also bothers me that the best digital media programs in the country tend to treat the writing bit of new media writing as an afterthought. All that workshoppy sitting around tables wrestling with flaws and felicities of the stories themselves, or the incoherent metaphor, all that agonizing over the freaking line break, tossed out the window. You could end up with an “Everything you ever needed to learn about stories is already in Aristotle — go read the manual!” approach — and that would hurt electronic literature.

    The Brown approach, where a single electronic writer, often skilled in the programming or design side of electronic writing, is dropped into a wooden table workshop with a swarm of old school experimental writers who will interrogate the ewriter with demands of “WTF!?” may well be the best thing that could happen to a talented hybrid model. It appears that happens to one person a year. But I wish there were a few electronic writing programs, anywhere, structured around both procedural literacy and around literary arts. There are none available at this time.

    I do understand the desire for procedural literacy, but I also think that there is some value to the garage band approach to electronic writing. Using available software, a five year old with ambition and no knowledge of programming could patch together a technically proficient multimedia project. If that five year old was channelling William Faulkner or Jenny Holzer I might want to read it. While there are many factors to consider in evaluating a piece of electronic writing, I don’t think that there are any “musts” involved in writing one. Writers, like programmers, must simply have good ideas, and find ways to execute them. Of course, if we restrict our interest in electronic writing to the worship of technical innovation, if all that we value in a work is tantalizing gizmocity, if every work must be a “first” of some kind in order to merit our interest, then why bother to think of it as writing at all?

  5. mary Says:

    joining the fray: ultimately it’s what we get out of the experience of the text-world-interaction combination, isn’t it? and some things go to meanful places for readers/interactors, and some do not, for a variety of factors: the text itself, the presentation, the interface, etc. Work I appreciate cannot be just a nice design, or a nifty technology/technical exercise…it cannot merely rely on the novel…rather it somehow must inscribe things that cannot be easily seen, or said, even in text: an underneath… moments to be touched and witnessed…felt. Even if that means that the ‘meaning’ manifests within the behavior around the work as much as or more than the ‘work’ itself (such as the fab TextRain). I’m pleased the ELO selected [theHouse] and that the work was meaningful to the jurors and hopefully to a wide community in the written as well as the visual arts.

  6. nick Says:

    Well, several good points here …

    Scott’s certainly right to bring up the need for for faculty and student slots that support work in both procedural literacy and literary arts. Hear, hear.

    And, as Mary says, the lone perspective on digital work shouldn’t be from an electronic literature high horse. A piece can come together as a powerful experience involving language even if the writing process wasn’t primary in its making – there is plenty of evidence of that on the Web and elsewhere, and we saw plenty of pieces of this sort among the submissions to the Electronic Literature Collection.

    I suppose the best thing is to be able to appreciate the varieties of textual, verbal work that happens on the networked computer while also allowing room for the development of new media practices (for instance: hypertext fiction, interactive fiction, poetry generation, blog- and email- and sms-based novels) that are really rooted in writing, rather than starting from visual arts or interface design practices. And, actually, E-FEST 2006 did that pretty well with the group it brought together for presentations and discussions, and in the turns the conversation took. I hope the Electronic Literature Collection will be another step in that direction.

  7. BKS Says:

    I think I (and many others) get into problems when we use words like “writerly,” so I won’t. I really meant the control the text has on the way one can read it — in a convential poem, say the first 10 lines of Paradise Lost, the text is in control of the pacing, the enjambments, the timing of the exposure of certain words (sure, you could read it backwards or anyway you want, but why?). One might almost think of the meter, the syntax, the enjambments, as akin to programming — it is what is feeding us the words in some order, directing our reading.

    In something like Daniel’s and Aya’s flying boxes, this control is sacrificed. In any given screen, there could be 20 words visible, but just scoot the circle around and 10 words will have changed, either from the front or back (or come in flips). I didn’t see anything in their piece that suggested the boxes were an organizing principle in the words — i.e. it was a bit of hodge podge.

    My Flash demo, where I showed the lines of poetry written to the exact same letter count, with different themes based on the lines of poems, were a counter-example to this — a poem written specifically for its eventual electronic incarnation, a quatrain whose lines got swapped out. It was also an example of where even the most mundane programming puts a huge stress (and huge limit) on what language is able to do.

    But of course, I also write atomic poems all the time, things where you are supposed to just get one or a bunch of highly suggestive clusters of words, a la early Bruce Andrews or Louis Zukofsky. This is all still very satisfying as “poetry” or “literature” to me (though my poetry has gotten a hair more conservative than that). Loss Glazier might be the one who taken the poetics of this type of writing and translate it into electronic works. I think Daniel’s and Aya’s piece could have fallen into that category as well, but I didn’t really see it succeeding — but I’d have to look again. The audio was great on the piece.

    Their cube poem was much more successful in this regard — they had two poems written with certain formal propoerties, overlapped them and produced a third. That’s an interface determining the possibilities of language — creating an “assignment” for the language (if not the “writer”) like the Oulipean idea. I wonder what the proper “assignment” the spinning boxes piece is giving. It’s unclear.

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