November 11, 2008

Beyond the Screen, in Siegen

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 11:14 pm
Poster for Beyond the Screen

Next week I’ll be in Siegen, Germany for Beyond the Screen: Transformations of Literary Structures, Interfaces and Genres. Organizers Peter Gendolla and Jörgen Schäfer have put together a program in which I’m honored to participate, including my former Brown colleagues John Cayley and Roberto Simanowski as well as my current UC colleagues Rita Raley and N. Katherine Hayles.

The conference theme, as one might expect from the title, arises from examinations of works such as locative narratives, literary immersive environments, and what the organizers call “stagings” (using AR Facade as an example). I was invited, in part, because of my work on Screen (hopefully there’s no pun intended with the conference title).

I’m certainly interested in, and sympathetic toward, literary work that uses interfaces that move beyond the standard screen. But as I put together my presentation, I find myself wanting to use a chunk of my time to vent my frustration with tantalizing literary interfaces that do little to harness the combinatory possibilities they open. For example, at the Hybrid Ego show at this year’s Ars Electronica, I was excited to get my hands on Tablescape Plus. But while it was listed in the catalog with literary-sounding words (“users can develop new stories by changing the arrangement of the screens”) to me it was actually just an interface demonstration, with no fictional world beyond characters that could be made to bow to each other, sit next to each other, etc. Each combination resulted in an animation, but no state or history of the system could impact anything else. People with no histories and no futures aren’t characters. Events that happen in no consequential order aren’t stories.

Of course, by the time I’m saying such things I’m getting myself in trouble. How can I explain being not quite taken by genieBottles but completely charmed by Judy Malloy’s card catalog fictions? Is it just that I’ve actually played with the genieBottles and not Malloy’s catalogs? Or is it that largely unconstrained combinatorics are something that only a few talented writers can pull off (like Queneau) and since I have liked Malloy’s writing in forms with more technological shaping at work, I assume I’d like the catalogs as well? Or is it that randomness is also a form — and I know I’ve seen Malloy pull that form off?

In any case, whatever the route I end up taking, you can be pretty sure that I’m going to conclude that processes are a powerful authorial tool for literary work — and my hope is that we will increasingly use complex interfaces in concert with process repertoires and literary visions that stretch beyond randomness.

8 Responses to “Beyond the Screen, in Siegen”

  1. Brian Stefans Says:

    Oh, get yourself in trouble, Noah, I do! (jk).

    Anyway, I see your point and it’s not unlike what I was trying to say in my Privileging Language essay. I don’t think I burned a bridge with that one, but some of them have a few lanes blocked.

    One wonders if the twain — great interfaces and great texts — will ever meet more than occasionally, but that’s part of the fun of the game. I think. In the end, innovations in interface that truly stick, like the mouse, are and will be few. Most alternative interfaces are not so much “innovations” as, I don’t know, sui generis oddities that will probably never attract a first-class piece of writing to it. I have this problem with some of what Rober C’s been pushing with the Cave — much emphasis put on the interface, but no real theorizing of what might make a good text.

    I plan on prowling around Grand Text Auto more and more now that I’m in the academy. And leaving more substantial comments than this!

  2. Noah Wardrip-Fruin Says:

    Brian, thanks for dropping by!

    I’m not so much worried about saying things that other people will disagree with — but rather things that I, on reflection, disagree with :-)

    The problem with the underlying system for Tablescape, for example, isn’t that it’s simple. The problem is that it’s a big challenge to create a novel interface, connect it to an appropriate set of processes, and craft the text (and/or other media data) necessary to create a successful literary experience driven by all three elements.

    But I’m more tempted to vent toward the projects that (a) don’t pull it off and (b) use really simple underlying processes or data. Because then it seems like maybe they’re not really trying. I’m guessing, in many cases, I should be more charitable.

    In the end, I’m convinced that simple elements combined with a complex interface can work. After all, the underlying processes of Screen are pretty simple — especially compared with the surrounding infrastructure of the Cave interface. I think what’s making the Cave experimentation at Brown productive is the working with and pushing back against the things that seem baked into the interface (e.g., spatial navigation) and combining this with types of processes brought in from earlier work (e.g., Cayley’s transliteral morphing).

    However, to return to the idea of simple processes, I’m worried that some of the simplest have become cliches — which drag on the language and interfaces with which they’re combined. “Randomness” is probably example number one here. “Trails of association” is a close second. In AI-driven work, “everything is a plan” is the unquestioned king. In my own work, it’s possible that “things fall apart” is becoming my process cliche.

    Anyway, these are the things I’m mulling…

  3. Brian Stefans Says:

    I actually have a running thesis in my head, yet to be really tested, that the simpler the process, the more interesting the result.

    I’m not sure that the closer poetry writing programs have gotten to utilizing proper AI schemas that the poetry produced has gotten more interesting. This isn’t to say that randomly-generated poetry is always _more_ interesting — it usually smells like randomly generated poetry in the end, a little surrealist/dada with computers — but at least (perhaps because of this inherited cultural context) the stuff is amusing in an accessible way, and can form the basis for creating more interesting _cultural_ products even if the underlying system is quite boring to programmers.

    I’m afraid that projects that move more toward “science” often produce products that might be interested to a programmer, but seem more and more just like bad poetry. Of course, these latter projects are more interesting to people who are technicians or who have a technical bent, but I’m not sure if the culture at large is quite ready to receive.

    I think, basically, that the paradigm one is engaged in in terms of desired results will determine how interesting the work is to a world of readers, to “culture,” whereas the paradigm one is engaged to create the roots of the project — the technical side of things — well, I guess there’s no real way to judge the success of that other than the product produced (judged, as before, by the cultural paradigm).

    Cultural paradigm: trickle-down
    Technical paradigm: trickle-up

    So I’m a Reaganite.

    You’ve only really done one “things fall apart” work, right? And you’re in good company — Chinua Achebe!But after all I’m a bit of a cliche, too — “moving the letters around.”

  4. Brian Stefans Says:

    I should clarify that by “bad poetry” above, I mean writing that bears no critical perspective to the culture — that doesn’t stand apart, and stand critically, from the culture, or the culture of literature, in a way that I identify with really “good” poetry, even if “mainstream.” Poetry has something to “say” but it also identifies a space “outside” of language that, by definition, is critical in that Brechtian / Frankfurt School way that I’m too rushed to elaborate.

  5. Noah Wardrip-Fruin Says:

    I think it may be true that, to date, the best works of e-lit mostly use relatively simple processes.

    But I think the reason for this is that processes that are going to work well in a project have to be understood and crafted by the author, just like the text.

    Since we still have vanishingly few people with a deep engagement in both areas, most elit that uses text well also uses simple processes understood by the text’s author.

    That said, I actually think that deeper engagement with processes can make the writing task easier in some ways, opening more possible things you could write that would work in the piece.

    When you have to write a piece of text that can work almost anywhere — the terribly common “largely unconstrained randomness” approach to process — that’s really hard. When you start to create constraints, when you start to create a more structured set of processes that give shape to the work (taking it through movements or defining what connects with what or defining how the next piece of writing can be transformed based on what came before) I think your writing process is opened up. You’re not just writing something to go anywhere in the work, but to go into a more specified set of circumstances.

    I know it sounds odd, even in our post-Oulipian world, but to me that’s freeing. You don’t have to write every piece about a particular idea as though it might be the first time it’s introduced. There’s a lot more to say, in a piece that doesn’t take randomness as its subject, when I know the parts aren’t going to be shuffled completely randomly.

  6. Noah Wardrip-Fruin Says:

    Oh, and in terms of “things fall apart,” I was thinking of The Impermanence Agent and Screen. Things fall apart in very different ways, but both use processes as a way of getting at memory and its transformations/deformations. That said, I’ve certainly done other projects…

  7. Katja Kwastek Says:

    Looking forward to the Siegen conference I am happy to find your thoughts on it in advance.
    I would like to add on from my art historical perspective: though I totally agree that Tablescape Plus is mainly an interface demonstration, I don’t think it even wants to create a literary experience. The language it uses is a visual one, therefore I would describe as an attempt (!) to create some kind of interactive cinema or interactive digital theatre – working primarily with visual systems.
    Want I want to say is that if storytelling leaves the realm of the text (be it as book or on the screen) and goes visual, the visual symbolic systems do have to be taken into consideration in its analysis. Therefore I am quite astonished to read in the conference text that “Beyond the screen” will deal with the “co-operation of non-symbolic activities, symbolic language activities and algorithmic processes of computer systems.” Does that mean that there is no symbolics beyond language?

  8. Noah Wardrip-Fruin Says:

    Katja, thanks for dropping in. You’ll have to ask the conference organizers about what counts as a symbolic system for them, but maybe the non-symbolic activities mentioned are “real” activities in the everyday world — like the walking around activity that is part of experiencing a locative narrative?

    As for Tablescape Plus, you’re certainly correct. I tend to think about “fiction” in a broad sense — including language, visuals, sound, movement, etc. But then I tend to collapse fiction and literature, which probably is a little too loose. Maybe that’s why I also use “literary” rather than “literature” some of the time.

    That said, I don’t think Tablescape Plus wants to create much of a fiction, even on a purely visual and auditory level.

    Looking forward to seeing you in Siegen!

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