Friday, April 3, 2009
ΗΛΕΚΤΡΟΝΙΚΗ ΛΟΓΟΤΕΧΝΙΑ: ΜΙΑ ΕΙΣΑΓΩΓΗ ΚΑΙ ΜΙΑ ΠΡΟΣΚΛΗΣΗ
ELECTRONIC LITERATURE: AN INTRODUCTION AND AN INVITATION
Το κείμενο που ακολουθεί είναι η μεταγραφή της ομιλίας της Jessica Pressman που πραγματοποιήθηκε στο Εθνικό Μουσείο Σύγχρονης Τέχνης την Πέμπτη 19 Φεβρουαρίου 2009 στο πλαίσιο της έκθεσης Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries, Close Your Eyes
Βίντεο της ομιλίας μπορείτε να δείτε εδώ
The following text is a transcript of the lecture given by Jessica Pressman in the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, on Thursday 19th of February in the context of the exhibition Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries, Close Your Eyes
You can watch a video of the lecture here
"I would like to thank Anna Kafetsi for inviting me and Elisabeth for arranging my travel. It is an honor to visit this beautiful museum and extraordinary city, and it is a particular honor to be able to share my passion for arguably the newest form of art in the heart of Western culture’s past. It is an apt location because, as I will show, electronic literature emerges from a tradition of artistic experimentation that makes it new by returning to the past.
I am going to structure my talk today as follows: First, I will define electronic literature and show variations of it so you get a sense of this new literary field. Then, I will illustrate what is new and challenging about electronic literature based on common questions I’m often asked about the field. Finally, I will discuss YHCHI within this context to show why their art deserves to be showcased in important venues like this. I will then close by taking questions and guiding you towards learning more about electronic literature.
So, to begin, let me explain what I mean by “electronic literature.” Electronic literature is literature that is made on the computer and meant to be read on the computer. These are not e-books; they are digital in their conception and reception—“born digital.” Electronic literature can contain animation, sound, navigation and interactive elements that serve as narrative modes on par with text. As we will see, the term “electronic literature” does not describe a single genre but rather a wide variety of emergent literary modes.
We’ll begin today with perhaps the oldest form of digital literature: hypertext.
Hypertexts are networked narratives that contain a link and node structure and enable a non-linear reading experience. This is a screenshot from Deena Larsen’s Disappearing Rain (2000), and American writer.
As you can see each screen contains at least one blue hyperlink; this link connects to other screens. The reader navigates through the text by clicking on a hyperlink and opening another window (or lexia). In this way, the reader moves through the narrative, often encountering the same screen in different orders and rereading its text with a new knowledge of the overall story.
Hypertext has predecessors in print literature— experimental narratives like Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Borges’s short stories—but its digital format introduces new challenges and aesthetics to literary experience. In particular, hypertexts are known for producing a sense of disorientation and even frustration for the reader who navigates through a narrative network that can, at times, be felt to be open-ended and lacking closure. Indeed, some hypertexts actually have no definitive ending. On the other hand, these works also promote a sense of the reader’s role in constructing the plot.
Two of the most canonical and well-known works of electronic literature are hypertexts, and perhaps you’ve heard their titles or even read them: Michael Joyce’s afternoon (1987) and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995).
You will notice that I called these two works “canonical” even though they are each only little more than ten years old. The history of electronic literature is short but compact. There is a canon emerging in university syllabi and online collections. Important works of hypertexts are foundations of this canon not only because they came first in the genealogy but also because they, for the most part, contain lengthy, strongly developed, text-based narratives. As we will see, this changes with the introduction of Macromedia (now Adobe) Flash as an authorware. Indeed, hypertext is often referred to as the “first generation” of elit. Now we’ll move into the second generation—typified by “dynamic poetry.”
With the introduction of the Web as an image-based server (in 1993), new forms of electronic literature emerged. Dynamic or kinetic poetry explored the new possibilities of Flash to create animations. Whereas in hypertext, it is the reader who moves through the narrative, in these Flash-based, dynamic works, it is the text itself that moves.
I will show you an example of a short poem that exemplifies this genre and the period of the late 1990s in electronic literature. This is “While Chopping Red Peppers” by Ingrid Ankerson (and it dates from 2000).
As you saw, the poem is not located solely in its text but also in its images, design, and voice-over. It is a multimodal work that unfolds in a temporal timeline. It is also decisively cinematic. This blurring of boundaries between artistic genres, disciplines, and reading practices becomes a primary aspect of electronic literature and one of the challenges it poses to traditional expectations and study. [It is also, in my mind, one of the more exciting aspects of this kind of work].
Let me show you another genre of electronic literature that is quite distinct from both hypertext and kinetic poetry—called “Interactive Fiction.”
Interactive Fiction is, like hypertext, a primarily text-based genre. It requires textual input from the reader in order to continue moving through the narrative. IF are structured like games: they address the reader in the second-person fPOV—YOU—as critic Jeremy Douglass points out. And as game studies critic Nick Monfort argues, these works share a history with that ancient form of textual gameplay called riddles. Learning to read IF is a process of learning the rules of the game-text in order to successfully navigate the work and access new paragraphs of text within it. For example, this is Andrew Plotkin’s “Shade” (also from 2000).
When the work begins, the reader awakens in a dark apartment and must learn to maneuver around the space in order to locate clues about the narrative situation. Reading is an act of navigating the narrative space, and navigating means learning to respond the given prompts, to enter the correct directions that will move you forward in the narrative.
Works like “Shade” create a spatialized narrative world much like a gameworld and produce a sense not only of interaction but also of conversation between reader and computer. Particularly because of this latter point, IF is a very different kind of reading experience than that of print literature, electronic hypertext, or Flash-based kinetic poetry.
Instead, IF exposes the use of the database in electronic literature. Of course, the computer is a database machine—it arranges information for storage and access. This is why media critic Lev Manovich argues that the database is “the key form of cultural expression of the modern age.” More and more, works of digital literature are beginning to engage with the properties and potentials of Manovich’s claim—to think about how the database affects literary practices and make this manifest onscreen as an aesthetic practice.
Nowhere is this pursuit more evident than in the penultimate genre I want to showcase here today: database-driven, generative works.
Such works utilize the potentials of the database to produce individualized, generative, and interactive performances. They represent digital literature as a processural performance in which a single work can produce nearly infinite possibilities of order and aesthetic significance within each reading.
This generative work is by Geniwate (and Australian writer) and the lines of text change with each click of the mouse, accessing numerous recombinations of text files in real-time. The resulting aesthetic is a performance that reflexively depends upon the structure of the database and the actions of the reader in order to produce new poetic stanzas and meaning.
Finally, I’d like to briefly touch upon what I see as the cutting edge of electronic literature: where experimentation is happening and where it promises to go. I think there are 2 main centers of such innovation.
One fascinating trend in electronic literature is the use of Web 2.0 networking tools to build innovative narrative works-- tools like RSS feeds and applications like Twitter.
J. R Carpenter (from Canada) is emerging as a respected writer in this category with works like “In Absentia.” This work employs Google maps-- its satellite images and web functioning-- as the interface on which a fictional narrative appears about an actual location.
A very different literary project and aesthetic that also utilizes RSS feeds and Web 2.0 applications is apparent in “Twistori” by Amy Hoy and Thomas Fuchs.
“Twistori” collects text feeds from Twitter-based sites and streams them into four categories based on their use of the following keywords: love, hate, think, believe, feel, wish. The project is less about the creation of an autonomous literary work than about the potential of text feeds to represent a kind of collective consciousness in text and in real-time.
Such experiments engage with the newest modes of Web 2.0 technologies in order to push the boundaries of electronic literature. But the final category of cutting edge work I want to show pursues such innovation beyond the boundary of the computer screen itself.
An exciting trend in literary experimentation includes works which use omnipresent technologies such as cell phones and G.P.S. devices to explore the possibilities of locative narrative— stories that unfold in real places and in real time through mobile technologies. Most of these projects are still in development. Let’s consider one such project that is just in its nascent stages. “The Los Angeles Flood” draws upon the talents of Mark C. Marino, Jeremy Douglass, Lisa Ann Tao, Juan B. Gutiérrez, and others. The conceit of the narrative is that a massive flood has hit the city of Los Angeles and is spilling disaster across the urban landscape. The narrative contains voices telling their tales of terror and survival and is literally comprised of voices because the story is accessed through cell phones. Readers call in to a main number to access narrative lexias from their locations. You can think of this as a large-scale, geographically dependent hypertext; but here the reader’s actual body serves as her avatar for navigating a narrative space wherein virtual and real space mesh to become a purely narrative world.
With that quite lengthy introduction to electronic literature, I now want to shift gears to discuss some of the more critical aspects of this field—both in terms of logistics and theory—by addressing some of the most common questions about electronic literature that I often receive.
In my experience, there are 2 common topics of concern and excitement raised by electronic literature:
Will elit replace, or does it hope to replace, books?
What impact does elit have on traditional literary study and criticism?
The answer to the first question is simply, “NO.” As you can see, this kind of literature is distinctly different in aesthetic, affect, and experience than print literature. As such, each media attract different types of writers, readers, and each operate in different circles of production. In particular, I see electronic literature as part an emergent avant-garde, an identification which has always challenged and critiqued mainstream culture from its position on the margins.
The question of whether books will change in a digital culture deserves a different answer, entirely. We must remember that the book is a technology—one perfected over 500 years. Certainly people are reading differently these days; they are reading on different technologies and reading in different ways. So too is the content of what they’re reading changing. This is the evolution of our culture as it becomes increasingly digital. But a perfected technology—such as the codex-- is not easily eclipsed by an emergent one (such has been proven by the relationship between radio and film).
The second question to address is: What kinds of challenges electronic literature raises for the study of literature and our understanding of literature in general? Having seen a variety of genres of electronic literature today, I think you can probably anticipate some answers on your own.
How do you stop, pause, or slow down a Flash animation in order to perform a close reading of it? How do you discuss a hypertext narrative or a generative poem when each reader and each reading produces a different textual order and content. How, then, does such literature translate and transport itself into the classroom? How do you cite without page numbers? How you do discuss the semiotic meaning of such elements as sound, image, and navigation? And how do you categorize the genre and disciplinary affiliations of works that can be identified as literature, film, visual art, or performance? In short, there are many challenges… but these challenges are also productive reminders that we must reconsider what we take to be normative about literature and art—such as page numbers, close reading, and other book-based reading practices. We need to read and think about reading in new ways; and this type of art forces us to do so.
Finally, I want to consider the reason we are all here to discuss electronic literature today: YHCHI.
How does the work of YHCHI fit into the field of electronic literature as I have outlined it?
YHCHI are both pioneers of and contenders to whatever is now mainstream about electronic literature. Their Flash animations are of a particular genre, which we have seen here, kinetic poetry or dynamic literature. As I mentioned earlier, this genre emerged in the mid-to-late 1990s. Even at that time, YHCHI’s aesthetic of black capitalized text in Monaco font flashing against a white background to a jazzy soundtrack was considered retro. However, whereas other artists of kinetic poetry have since gone on to experiment with more intense interactivity and multimedia capabilities enabled by innovations in Flash and other softwares, YHCHI have remained steadfast in their dedication to a simple style.
YHCHI focus on delivering charged, layered narrative as choreographed performance. [I write about their aesthetic strategy in the catalog essay for the ongoing exhibit as well as in academic articles and my book in progress. So I won’t repeat myself here.] But I do want to show how YHCHI craft an artistic style that engages audiences on at least two levels: as simple and straightforward—even funny and easy—but also as deeply poignant, intertextually layered, and, often, political charged. The work rewards readers who stare hard, reread, and excavate the layered text.
To see this ourselves, let us briefly turn to one of the main works displayed in the current exhibition: “Close Your Eyes.” This work epitomizes YHCHI’s ability to produce narratives that straddle the local and the global at both the political and personal levels through powerfully drawn narrators. The writers craft distinct narratorial voices that draw us in, entertain, and surprise us with their lengthy streams of consciousness that stream as flashing text against a white screen.
“Close Your Eyes” takes its reader into the interior consciousness of an person trapped in a subway station and also trapped in a state of terror as he internalizes the war on terror. This piece is exemplary of YHCHI’s work in that it focuses on an individual as a means of exposing global tensions and offering a political critique.
In this piece, our narrator represents an individual citizen who has internalized the terror of suffering daily injustices that challenges his identity as a member of the society to which he legitimately belongs. The narrator fears being pulled out of lines to have his papers checked by authorities even though he has appropriate documentation. It is not only the personal indignity of the situation that is being interrogated here but the effects it has on the larger population and culture at large.
Consider the following text:
“I'D LIKE TØ THINK THIS SUDDEN/ JAM CAN HAPPEN TØ ANYØNE. / BUT IT CAN'T. / IT JUST DØESN'T./ IT WILL HAPPEN TØ ME,/ AND, IF YØUR HEART IS RACING/ BY JUST READING THESE LINES,/ IT MAY HAPPEN TØ YØU./ BUT IT WØN'T HAPPEN TØ THEM./ I'VE ALWAYS WANTED / TØ BE PART ØF ‘THEM’ --/ THE GØØD GUYS,/ THE ØNES WHØ NEVER GET/
PULLED ØUT ØF LINE.”
We see in this passage that the text critiques a situation wherein members of the same society—people who should all be “us”—are divided into “us-them” wherein it is not the actual outsider—the actual fearful “them” (i.e. terrorists or enemies) but rather neighbors who become threats. Those neighbors who are not pulled out of line become “the good guys” in ways that render everyone else “bad guys.” The effect of this divisive mentality is, of course, a threat to the core values and strengths of a society based on a sense of the communal “we” (i.e. a democracy).
The work makes this point not by allowing its reader access into the thoughts of a person who feared identification as the “other.” But more forcefully, it does so by putting YOU-- the reader-- on the other side of that dichotomy, opposing our fearful and sympathetic narrator. The work assumes that YOU, the reader, are one of the lucky people—the good guys, who don’t get pulled out of line:
“BUT REST EASY, – YØU'RE PRØBABLY AMØNG THE LUCKY ØNES. –AND WHØ ARE THE LUCKY ØNES? –THEY'RE THE ØNES WHØ ALWAYS GET WAVED /THRØUGH”
This is not only a critique of a political situation that divides its citizens; it is also a critique of YOU. YOU who are lucky enough to be waved through—you who merely “LOOK.. BRIEFLY” at the man being taken away and then forget him and the situation that divides him from you. The work thus not only about the particular, racially marginalized and exceptionally well-drawn narrator whom we come to know and care for; it is actually about US—you and me and the U.S. Our ability to turn away from injustice thereby supports an increasingly threatening status quo.
This contemporary political critique is built upon a layer of intertextual referencing that is not immediately apparent to most readers but one that deepens the significance of the work in multiple ways. “Close Your Eyes” references and adapts two famous poems by American modernists: Ezra Pound’s “In A Station in the Metro” (1919) and William Carlos Williams “The Great Figure” (1920)
Ezra Pound, “In A Station of the Metro” (1919)
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough
William Carlos Williams, “The Great Figure” (1920)
Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city
Both of these modernist works express the sublimity of the subway station: the inspiration of the speeding train (in Williams) and the beauty of the mass of faces (in Pound) as well as the fearful tension of these packed, technologically modern places. On the whole, however, the modernist poems (written by white, American men) view the subway as a poetic space of epiphany and inspiration.
YHCHI’s “Close Your Eyes” presents a decidedly different tone. The subterranean subway station contains none of the beauty and inspiration sensed by the modernists. The metaphysical sublime presented by Kant and Wordsworth-- wherein an overwhelming sense of enormity gives way to enlightenment and beauty— is expressed by Pound and Williams in the modernist poems but is replaced in YHCHII’s digital work with a real, tangible, and materialized fear.
The intertextual references to modernist poetry produce juxtapositions that illuminate how being in a station of the metro in different periods produce and represent distinctly different worldviews.
These intertextual references also show how YHCHI is part of genealogy of literary experimentation—especially one that evolves out of modernism. [And this connection to modernism is m particular interest in YHCHI’s work. In an article I published in the academic journal Modern Fiction Studies, I examine how YHCHI pursue these intertextual connections in their work Dakota (2002) and argue that they do so for the purpose of gaining cultural cache for their work and the emergent field of electronic literature.]
There is obviously much more to say about “Close Your Eyes” and YHCHI’s work in general, and this is why they are such important contemporary artists. But I will end my talk here, hoping that my catalog essay and other academic writings on YHCHI expand upon some of the points I raised.
I appreciate your attention and am eager to continue the discussion in the Q & A session. I also hope that you will continue to explore the exciting, emergent world of electronic literature; here are some places to begin.
Electronic Literature Journals and Collections:
The Iowa Review Web
Electronic Literature Collection, vol. I
ELC Vol. II is forthcoming
Thank you very much