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.