Star Wars, one letter at a time

This is the simplest piece of electronic literature that I have examined up to this point. I was drawn to it because there is a part of my soul that owes an eternal debt to Lucas and the world that he created. The movies are alright, and I loved them when I was a child, but the universe was where I lived. There are hundreds of book in the EU, and although Disney has chosen to disregard this rich world and destroy the Canon, it will always hold a special place in my heart. This being said, this text is almost entirely incomprehensible. On the entry page there is a authors description that states, “ A retelling of the classic story of one California boy’s mission to save the universe from boredom one letter at a time”. I thought I was in for a new take on the stories that I have loved my whole life, but this was only partly true.

So, on to the description of the text. This is one of those frustratingly simple texts that you occasionally encounter that makes you question how hard it really is to get something classified as art if you have a name behind it. My first thought was of Himself, and I hoped that the author was not sitting somewhere laughing at me for trying to say something about something that meant nothing. I said last week of Project for Tachitoscope that perhaps the words could move even faster than they were. Well, if you want something moving much faster than that, so fast that you can make neither heads nor tails of it, this is the text for you. The entirety of the work consists of single letters flashing on the screen, accompanied by the sounds of a typewriter chiming and sliding in the background. The letters compose the words to the screenplay of Star Wars. But it presents every single letter at the speed at which an accomplished typist can type when they have a deadline to meet, aka, much too fast to form into words and comprehend. In the very beginning, I could follow the lines, Star Wars, Episode V, A New Hope, By George Lucas, and perhaps the first sentence of the iconic blue, receding text that introduces the movie, but that was only because I knew them so well. After that, it was just a constant bombardment of letters, broken only by the typewriter sounds chiming, sliding back to the start of a new line, then bombardment again. I was honestly disappointed at first. I had desired to enter once again into the childhood stories that were so influential to me, but instead all I got was an incomprehensible jumble of letter flashing so quickly that I could not comprehend a single word. But, being the patient scholar that I am, I waited to see if there was anything that I could glean from the text, and a few minutes in, as my mind began to wander, I got something.

The text breaks the story Lucas told me into letters. 26 symbols. The constant bombardment allowed me to see the letters for what they were. Just shapes on a screen, or in Lucas’s case, on a page. Each one individually meant nothing, and as they were thrown in my face, it made me think of the man who chose those combinations of symbols. And those specific combinations were able to give me his thoughts. They allowed him to tell me his story. It made me think of the incredible power the 26 symbols I consume everyday really has. It focused my attention on the fact of that all words are symbolic representations of thoughts. I knew this prior to experiencing this work, I’ve had a liberal arts education my whole life, but it was a refreshing reminder to respect words and the letters that form them. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go read some Star Wars.

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“Tailspin” By Christine Wilks, A Digitally Poetic Memoir

Tailspin, by Christine Wilks, uses sounds to give us the story of a grandfather, stricken with tinnitus which cuts across communication with his children and grandchildren. As we move around the opening page we hear the children’s noise overlaid with the buzzing of his condition, and sense his frustration as he blocks all contact by refusing to use a hearing aid. On deeper levels of the program we learn that he was an aircraft fitter in the War, and that his chronic deafness prevented him being a fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain, and thus probably saved his life.

The narrative is a non-linear, poetic memoir, and as it unfolds, the algorithms that underride the graphic-novel-like visuals and carefully crafted soundscapes are as integral in the development of the story as is the text itself. Although this text is certainly more linearly told than many of the others we’ve examined this semester, it still calls to mind Katherine Hayles’ discussion of the ambiguous “stickiness” and “fractally complex” temporality that electronic literature formulates (Hayles 79). Indeed, Tailspin is less of a coherent stream of consciousness than it is a multilayered shifting of visual/auditory stimuli and text. As with the “V” in Stricklands “Vniverse”, the program and all of its various elements become something more than literature or code alone, as they relay deeper layers of meaning at the intersection of the digital and art.

Deeper levels of the program translate to deeper levels of character development. This electronic text is the first that has so acutely captured for me the way code and protocological sequences bring forth a potential for literature to be immersive in new ways, to capture the senses more fully, to open up literature to more aspects of the world. When you think of writing as a craft, the algorithms that inform digital texts are simply another tool for writers to manipulate according to their creative outline. But this tool is precisely executable and highly transformative. As a medium, the digital contains all other forms of technology, and thus opens up literature as mode of capturing human sentiment in ways that print texts can’t.

tailspin3Untitled

Tailspin forces the reader into the type of time and space constraints that we’ve observed with other texts. As your cursor moves across each of the winding swirls on the interface, the programs brings forth a piece of the narrative, including sounds, graphics and text. You must scroll across each of the swirls in order to have a blue “portal swirl” evolve in the middle of the interface, which you must scroll across in order to enact a new set of swirls.

Reading the text that forms while scrolling over each of the swirls is optional in advancing the story, because you could presumable cycle through all of them without any close attention.  While the text-bubbles are ephemeral, the sounds and graphics will play through their coded cycle no matter what. The faster you cycle through the swirls, which are similar to the not-hyperlinks found in Reagen library and other texts we’re discovered this semester, the more sounds you are bombarded with. The sounds beautifully capture the way the grandfathers tinnitus mediates the world around him, and the visuals form another interactive layer of meaning to the text that helps to personify the characters and actions. These elements combine to form a succinct short story about the tribulations of an aging man as he tries to cope with the regrets of his past and the self-hatred that has destroyed his family relationships.

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Still Standing: Motion-Sensitive Poetic Forms

still standing

Text: “five chapters of addiction for my personal commotion. bring my brain to a stop the inception of sedation is needed for the waves to break and the spin to reduce. letters to litteral [literal?] the motionless moment hides for my sight to seduce”

Camille Utterback’s Still Standing is an installation art piece in which a motion-sensitive projector displays words at the bottom of the screen. When someone interacts with the piece by walking across the screen, the text reacts to the movement as if it were being pushed away (see image below). still standing push If the person interacting with the piece stays still, however, the words slowly move upwards and mimic the person’s form. Once the person moves again, the text collapses back to the bottom of the screen. The Electronic Literature Collection’s blurb already has much to say about Still Standing, specifically that the piece shows that “reading requires cognitive rather than bodily engagement, that stillness is a necessary prerequisite.” I’ve been turning this statement over in my head because I feel that it goes against how Hayles wants us to conceive of interactive literature as very rooted in physical embodiment. With so many texts of electronic literature emphasizing a multisensory, active experience, isn’t equating stillness with cognitive behavior almost a step backwards? Is Still Standing a self-defeating project considering that part of its interaction requires you to move and watch as the words back away from you?

These questions are further complicated by the actual text that comes to absorb your form when standing still (see caption under first image). In “bring my brain to a stop the inception of sedation is needed for the waves to break and the spin to reduce,” it seems like the text is telling us to not just keep our bodies still, but our minds as well. The text is asking us for a sedation of cognitive and physical functioning so that the words themselves take shape and have power over us. The spin reduction part of that line seems more like a technical explanation of how the words spin in place before stopping, but the wave-breaking phrase could have a larger place in the project. If we have to stand still for waves to break, our still form works as the object that the waves break against. This again goes back to the idea of sedation or a paralysis of body and mind so that the words can show their full effect (so that, like waves, they can wash over us).

Staying still also has the cool experience of shaping the text to have a very particular form. The words morph into your silhouette when you’re motionless; they don’t rearrange themselves into very structured lines and stanzas like a traditional poem. Yet the way in which the words and letters rearrange themselves to fit someone’s figure reminds me quite strongly of poetry. Maybe Utterback intends to show poetry as organic and amorphous, though it’s still only a material object that requires us to be still to read it.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of the way that moving disrupts this poetic form and that the words react negatively to a person’s movement. It’s very much like we physically break the waves ourselves and the words move around like water. The video demonstration says that movement is part of the piece’s statement on a fast-paced culture in which we can only appreciate text when we slow down. That interpretation, while it may or may not be from the creator herself, seems to not take into account the whole project. A possibility I’ve considered is that, by letting ourselves have too much power over words or ignoring word choice, the words themselves begin to lose meaning and scramble themselves up into nonsense. I’m not sure how much I like that interpretation, considering that having the skill to use words effectively is quite valuable in our culture. I guess I have a certain agenda, however, in wanting to like this piece more than I do because I feel like its interactivity is way cooler than the ideas it is attempting to convey.

One last thing. I was drawn to this piece for two reasons: the first because it reminded me of another installation art piece that MoMA had two years ago called the Rain Room (its original debut was in London in 2012). In this exhibit, motion-sensitive sprinklers would imitate a continuous rainfall. Whenever the sprinklers would sense someone underneath them, however, they would stop “raining.” The viewers, then, could walk around in the Rain Room environment, watching rain all around them but not being rained on themselves. Part of my interpretation of Standing Still may be influenced by how the Rain Room gave viewers the experience of feeling powerful, almost godlike or aloof in this weird form of weather control. So my analysis is a little tainted in terms of seeing Standing Still as a power shift between ourselves and the words on the screen.

The line for the Rain Room was six hours. MoMA is only open for seven hours. I chose to just view it, not experience it.

The line for the Rain Room was six hours. MoMA is only open for seven hours. I chose to just view it, not experience it.

The second reason is because we’ve been talking about how multisensory and experiential many interactive literature texts are, so I’ve been struggling with how to incorporate touch and movement into these texts (specifically dance, considering that embodiment is an important concept, and because music and other audio elements are included in many texts). This project seems to stand as an obstacle towards those efforts, but I’ll keep searching.

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Lisa Jevbratt’s “1:1” and Network Inequality

The “every” (IP) interface.

I would not call Lisa Jevbratt‘s 1:1 electronic literature, but nonetheless cannot resist making it the topic of my post. The screenshot above represents one way of navigating the piece (which definitely constitutes an artwork).What led me to Jevbratt’s interface artwork initially was Stephanie Strickland’s “Quantum Poetics: Six Thoughts” and her description of 1:1‘s “every” interface, depicted above. Strickland names it as a “clickable image map linking to every top level website associated with an IP address,” where colors are “generated by using the second, third and fourth octet [of the IP] to specify RGB numbers” that differentiate the clickable squares. In other words each unique IP has its own color, like so:

The “random” interface, which generates a random web page akin to the yahoo and google functions, except of the colored database.

Three further interfaces allow different ways of navigating – “migration,” which looks like this (the colors represent the 1999 and 2001 databases, rather than IPs, in this case):

One section of the “migration” map.

Where clicking on a blob reveals a range of IPs within an octet’s pattern that you can click through individually:

And often reveal how time has evolved the web (more on this later), where the majority of IPs don’t respond or sometimes return a server error demonstrating your lack of privileges:

You get these a lot… but how, Protocol Gods, do I know what credentials you require?

This repetitive failure (remember the latest database was made in 2002, so the piece is dated) illustrates well the powerful aid of search engines and hyperlinks in the web. Experiencing this work feels like groping for something in an empty darkness – there’s no way to anchor oneself or follow a clear path – you are trying aimlessly to establish a line to another IP, to connect somehow, but often your requests go unanswered and you have to start over.

Perhaps a different interface type would make it easier? Lets try “hierarchical,” which might help as it organizes the IP octets into folders (255, each with 255 within them, and so on) so the web might be explored as if each website were a file on a hard drive:

Nope, still just stabbing madly in the dark.

Let’s turn then to my favorite interface, “excursion,” which starts with an 8-bit-esque box:

Website PacMan?

The interface help reads:

This interface is a visualization of the whole IP space and of the crawlers’ activity in the space. The image on the index page represents all the possible numbers of the first octet of the IP addresses (see the project description page and the hierarchical interface description for explanation of the IP address). The leftmost square on the top represents the number 0 and the bottom rightmost represents the number 255. A gray square indicates that no IP addresses that start with that number have been searched for. A black square indicates that addresses starting with that number have been searched for, but nothing has been found, and green means that at least one IP address starting on the number corresponding to the square has been found. To explore an IP address, starting with a certain number, click on the square corresponding to the number (the number is displayed in the status bar of the browser). The window that opens up has an image whose x and y coordinates represent the two next octets of the IP address. The moire´ like patterns in the visualizations are a direct result of the interlaced nature of the crawlers search activities. Rather than searching one IP locality in detail, the crawlers have been searching at spaced intervals. A click in this window opens up a window representing the last octet of the IP address. This interface provide a visualization of the web vis a vis IP space, an interface to the search itself, and a way for individual surfers to participate in this one of a kind, one to one exploration.

Clicking on a square reveals unique submaps, all Matrix-y and similar in appearance to Strickland’s Vniverse:

IP address stars!

Further each dot is clickable and accesses another octet value which opens a much smaller window with more colored boxes which ultimately lead you mostly to nothing or occasionally server errors or somehow if you eat leprechauns like I do and thus are extremely lucky end up here or some dial up cat blog from 1998 (I wish I ate enough leprechauns to achieve this feat).

Turning back to Strickland so we might say something about 1:1, consider that she identifies how “interface here has become not only the map but the environment… map as time tunnel, map-meaning dependent on date [emphasis mine]” (27). While 1:1 is a profoundly frustrating experience it works. While Galloway stresses in Protocol that many of the sites of net.art are the moments where protocol and control break down, protocol here is working perfectly – you are navigating to legitimate IPs – and it instead is the interface, the action of creating those lines, that is a primary focus of the work, and underscores the “hard-nosed technical view… [of the Internet’s] packet switching, in which chunks of data are fragmented and routed to destination addresses,” where the control system is unconcerned with any qualitative differentiation (The Exploit, 56). 1:1, which Strickland notes implies “that this map has the same size as its referent [the web],” engages the relationship between internet and reader in ways we aren’t accustomed to, presenting a (nearly) complete image of a multinational network through a precise protocol that contrasts the increasingly filtered and data mined stream of information (flowing in many directions) in the form of search engines and hyperlinks we are familiar with – and have learned to navigate “one of our most important public environments” by (Strickland, 27). We’ve grown accustomed to a third party (often an algorithm) deciding what information has meaning to us and presenting it in a clean interface.

Lisa Jevbratt’s work targets how meaning, that qualitative aspect ignored by many Internet protocols, is fundamentally contextual, temporal, and unequal. IP addresses may have existed in 2002 but time (and thus people and context), or access restrictions, have changed them.  I can’t help but think of language, also – how language loses meaning without context and is fundamentally only representational the way an IP address can’t know whether the website it leads to actually exists anymore.

I find 1:1 a strangely compelling way of exploring the fundamentally dynamic and unequal internet space in its own language and through both human and digital memory, and hope one day to find that cat blog. How do you guys see this piece?

Also if you are interested in the preservation of old tech things this site will forever be awesome as long as it exists.

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Nanette Wylde’s Storyland (Version 2)

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 9.40.01 PM

Nanette Wylde’s Storyland (Version 2) is a computer-generated combinatorial story published in 2004. With a click of a button, the viewer is shown a blank, black screen. Multicolored letters appear individually at the top of the screen in a title arc. If the sound is on, the viewer hears a short section of shortened subsection of Louis-Philippe Laurendeau’s Thunder and Blazes (1910). The music, like the text, is repurposed. The original composition, composed by Julius Fučík, was intended to be a military march. Laurendeau’s version is most commonly recognized as circus music. The combination of the flashing letters and the circus music creates joyful atmosphere, which is quickly eliminated by the appearance of the text. As seen above, the story generated by the computer consists of two sentences, followed by a line break, one sentence, followed by another a line break, two sentences, followed by another line break, two sentences, another line break, one sentence, a line break, and two concluding sentences. The stories, which are randomly generated, are rather sad in comparison to the atmosphere set up by the introduction.

Each story is short and contains elements of popular culture. Each story also looks like a seventh grader wrote it. The first, third, and fourth paragraphs introduce the characters. An event occurs in the second and fifth paragraphs. The last paragraph involves all of the characters. Elements of popular culture are used repetitively. No two readers will read the same stories. The piece uses these elements to mirror how our literature consists of information that has been used and reused to create new work. Every story is different, despite the fact that the plot was made up of stereotypes.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 9.41.07 PM

The program in itself is a basic form of digital writing. The story being told is simple. The combinatorial form has been done before. The thrill of the experience is in the performance of the piece. Storyland is a digital narrative that utilizes music to the reading experience. The stories are complete at the most basic of levels. Unlike some of the other electronic literature that we have read, the text in this piece is simple and complete. You can click New Story or stop right there. Starting a new story is starts with the music and the flashing letters every single time. The experience repeats itself again and again. It draws an interesting parallel to an actual circus performance. The outside package looks happy and fun. The actual content is morose. The stories don’t elicit the same emotions that the introduction does.

I was drawn to this piece because of its simplicity. What I found fascinating was how that simplicity could be as eyecatching as some of the more complex pieces that we have read in class. I didn’t have to click for every new line. The next paragraph would appear on the page. Unlike Stephanie Strickland’s Vniverse or Stuart Moulthrop’s Hegirascope, the words did not flash by before I finished reading. It was my choice to click New Story.

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Bodily Taboos

For this blog post, I chose Shelley Jackson’s My Body mostly because I wanted to see how similar or dissimilar it was from Patchwork Girl.  The page that begins the text is very similar to that of Patchwork Girl.  It shows a picture of a woman, assumed to be Jackson herself.

Jackson 2

The shape of the body does not show detail, but different parts of her body are framed, detailed with other body parts and skin texture.  Much like Patchwork Girl, the viewer is able to click on a framed body part and follow the link to a new page of text, the length of which varies from a few lines to more than an entire page.  Within the text are hyperlinks that take you to different body parts.  Even though there are several hyperlinks per page, it is possible to become stuck in a recursive loop of text you have read before, forcing you to relive several stories and experiences until you final click the hyperlink that takes you to a body part you haven’t read about yet.

Unlike Patchwork Girl, the text linked to different body parts presents as memoir, instead of a fictional story about where the Patchwork Girl’s various body parts come from.  However, like Patchwork Girl, some of the text attributed to the body parts is uncomfortable, highlighting a story about the specific body part that is deeply personal or contains taboo elements. Some of these more taboo elements present as events that seem too unnatural or crazy to even be real (See below for an example.).  Like Patchwork Girl, we are only able to see pieces of Jackson’s story in patches, forcing the reader to sew them together on their own, as they do not appear in order.

I think the point of this piece is to highlight the taboos of the body.  There are the sections of the text that are tame, highlighting the eyes and the ears and Jackson’s experiences with them, but there are also sections that can only be described as gross and weird.  In the section about her nose, Jackson talks about the way she dealt with a runny and stuffed-up nose as a child, admitting that she “was quiet and methodical about removing it and secreting it away.” Instead of using Kleenexes, she admits that she allowed the matter she removed from her nose to dry up, then used it to create sculptures she displayed on the top of her dresser.  Everyone has to deal with runny noses during their lifetime, but nobody talks about how they take care of the problem.  Jackson is open about what she did as a child in order to begin a dialogue about the functions of the body.  Even though everyone’s body works in the same way — save for a few differences between genders, like menstruation — it’s not common to discuss the more uncouth bodily functions, specifically those that deal with substances being exuded from the body.  Fittingly, the excerpts that deal with the expulsion of substances from — and the insertion of objects into — the body are some of the most uncomfortable to read.

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The Significance and Fluidity of Memory as Represented in “In the White Darkness”

Reiner Strasser and M. D. Coverley’s piece of interactive literature, “In the White Darkness” is a beautiful work representing the power of memory and its ties to identity. Once through the introduction, the beginning screen is visual, a lovely black and white close-up of trees and the quote which fades in and out, “Just a whisper, at least, of the persistence of this memory, this forgetfulness.” The coming and going of the quote is the first in a trend throughout the piece. Depending on which faintly visible white dots on the background the reader chooses to click, pictures usually depicting sunsets, beaches, and other typically relaxing scenes come and go with gentle, slicing transitions like a soothing screensaver.

Like many other works of electronic literature, the reader of “In the White Darkness” may pick his own pack to follow but receives some help from the creators. The white dots visible in the background always connect in different trails, some standing out more than others, forming a sort of guide or suggestion of where to go next on this trip down (someone’s) memory lane. Furthermore, multiple dots can be clicked before any start to fade which results in layer upon layer of picture and text.

All of the text seems to be relevant to the ties between memory and identity, though some are more subtle than others. The bold message:
We build our history thru the experience of our life
Do we lose our history when we lose our memory?
is even more significant when glowing against the background of a fading beach sunset. The words “SOUL” and “IDENTITY” fade in and out through the duration of this specific message. Phrases such as “deja vu” and the word “remember” in split sections so we only see, for example, “re” or “be” come and go with the right clicks.

“In the White Darkness” was created by Strasser and Coverley to recreate “the experience with patients fallen ill with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases, showing the fragility and fluidity of memory from a subjective point of view.” When keeping in mind these diseases, the coming, but mostly the going, of pictures, words, and accompanying sounds becomes much more meaningful. While a difference is, of course, that readers of this fiction can refresh their memories by clicking on dots to summon forgotten pictures, the steady dissipation of these pictures is still frustrating.

Neuroscience research at Northwestern University has shown that memories become distorted with each retrieval (think of the telephone game) as we begin to remember our most recently retrieved memories instead of the original. As a result of this, many of the most untainted memories are by patients with diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s who are unable to retrieve and distort them. I couldn’t help but think of this study as I was experiencing “In the White Darkness.” The beautiful images that came up every time I summoned them by clicking the white dots reminded me of the more honest memories of patients we are unfortunately unable to recreate them, the stories left untold, and the histories we will never know.

Works Cited

Strasser, Reiner, and M.D. Coverley. “Ii – in the White Darkness [16-03].” Electronic Literature Collection. Web. 6 April 2015.

Bridge, Donna J., and Ken A. Paller. “Neural correlates of reactivation and retrieval-induced distortion.” The Journal of Neuroscience 32.35 (2012): 12144-12151.

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