Thursday, September 27, 2007

"This Will Install a Story. Do you Want to Continue?"

Welcome to When Fiction Meets Interaction, a day of exploring electronic literature in HUMlab.

"This Will Install a Story. Do you Want to Continue?", so begins the installation of Michael Joyce's 1987 hypertext work of fiction, Afternoon, a story. The use of the term 'Install' ("To connect or set in position and prepare for use") preempts many of the key concepts in electronic literature that remain relevant even 20 years after the first version of Afternoon, a story was published. The works of electronic literature (eLit) we will look at today are read and responded to using a monitor screen. Behind what is on the screen are at least two layers of computer programming or code. The human readable code of an authoring program such as Macromedia Flash and the machine readable binary code that all digital media rely upon. The setting up of the story ready for use is not something one associates with books outside the the use of a book to perform an act, such as a marriage or oath of office when a bible is installed for the ceremony. Electronic literature is installed, used and performed as the reader/user/player interacts with the codes of the text to produce a story. The Electronic Literature Organisation is a useful source for information and a definition of eLit:

What is Electronic Literature?
The term refers to works with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer. Within the broad category of electronic literature are several forms and threads of practice, some of which are:

* Hypertext fiction and poetry, on and off the Web
* Kinetic poetry presented in Flash and using other platforms
* Computer art installations which ask viewers to read them or otherwise have literary aspects
* Conversational characters, also known as chatterbots
* Interactive fiction
* Novels that take the form of emails, SMS messages, or blogs
* Poems and stories that are generated by computers, either interactively or based on parameters given at the beginning
* Collaborative writing projects that allow readers to contribute to the text of a work
* Literary performances online that develop new ways of writing

There is more to eLit than the short list given here. For example how would we classify 34 North 118 West(2004) - a location aware interactive game that can be played when you visit "real world" Los Angeles. GPS tracks your location as you walk around in Los Angeles, and what your story will be like depends on how you move around in the city.

Although they may vary considerably in form and content we can use Joyce's Afternoon as a prophetic starting point for a short tour of the history of eLit and what he says of the text has resonance in many previous and subsequent works:

"Pursuit of texture", to quote Joyce, could be a summary for the whole of eLit I think, to have the curves and crevices as our journey through a text is to interact with it. If it is a game the goal is to tell the story, a story, which ever story emerges at that time. The means of telling a story electronically did not emerge over night, as Jan has pointed out in his introduction today dealing with computer development in the 1940's; this thing has a pedigree and here is just a few of the many antecedents:

The Ancient Stories where everyone interacted.

The Bard
"It were miserable for a person not to come and obtain
All the sciences of the world, collected together in my breast,
For I know what has been, what in future will occur." - Taliesin (c.534 – c.599)

The bard learnt the stories from a teacher and then retold them from memory, adding their own elements to the telling. Improvisation is the seed of interaction for where there is uncertainty there is invention.

Pilgrimage: Reading a text (the bible, the koran, the vedas, the sutras) and then acting out their contents in a journey to a sacred place has many similarities to the quest and epic narratives of certain genres of eLit. Pilgrims have been dressing in special clothes and performing rituals based in texts for a very long time. A good example is The Book of the Wanderings of Felix Fabri (Circa 1480-1483 A.D.).

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in a Dream by Francesco Colonna (1499)
The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili relates the story of the dream of Poliphilo 'in which it is shown that all human things are but a dream, and many other things worthy of knowledge and memory.' The tongue twisting 'Hypnerotomachia' poetically translates as the 'strife of love in a dream'. This magical book reads like a work of interactive fiction as the hero in the "labyrinthine plot, moves through many strange places encountering dragons, wolves, and maidens, against an ever changing backdrop of mysterious ruins, monuments, orchards, gardens and fountains." Richly illustrated with artistic use of typeface and layout the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili borders upon the interactive with its intricate plot and engaging design.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759-1769)
Trying to explain Tristram Shandy is not easy. Best just include a single image from the text:

Tristram Shandy is real in the sense that one must face the same moments Tristram faces as he attempts to tell his story. We wait while he waits and we all wait together.


In the 19th century technology and language, although always a couple, really started to flaunt it. The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson recorded The Charge of the Light Brigade and The Charge of the Heavy Brigade in 1890.
"Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change"
Locksley Hall, Alfred Tennyson.

In Paris in 1925 some artistic friends developed a game they called cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse):

The technique was invented by Surrealists in 1925, and is similar to an old parlour game called Consequences in which players write in turn on a sheet of paper, fold it to conceal part of the writing, and then pass it to the next player for a further contribution.

Later the game was adapted to drawing and collage, producing a result similar to children's books in which the pages were cut into thirds, the top third pages showing the head of a person or animal, the middle third the torso, and the bottom third the legs, with children having the ability to "mix and match" by turning pages. It has also been played by mailing a drawing or collage — in progressive stages of completion — to the players, and this variation is known as "exquisite corpse by airmail", or "mail art," depending on whether the game travels by airmail or not.

The name is derived from a phrase that resulted when Surrealists first played the game, "Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau." ("The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.")

"El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan" ("The Garden of Forking Paths") by Jorge Luis Borges (1941)
"The form of the Garden is that of a detective story. At the centre of the narration is a book written by Chinese philosopher Ts’ui Pen. The book itself comments on the notion of time. Stephen Albert, the Sinologist friend of the narrator Yu Tsun, explains to him that Ts’ui Pen’s two goals, construct a labyrinth and write a book, merge into the published book based on his ‘chaotic manuscripts’. The book’s title is the ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ as well. The book is the labyrinth, the Garden. The construction of the maze is explained by Albert: In all fictions, each time a man meets diverse alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the work of the virtually impossible-to-disentangle Ts'ui Pen, the character chooses simultaneously all of them. He creates, thereby, ‘several futures,’ several times, which themselves proliferate and fork" The Garden of Forking Paths

Concrete Poetry
Concrete poetry, pattern poetry or shape poetry is poetry in which the typographical arrangement of words is as important in conveying the intended effect as the conventional elements of the poem, such as meaning of words, rhythm, rhyme and so on. It is sometimes referred to as visual poetry, a term that has evolved to have distinct meaning of its own.
Early examples of typographically-based poetry include poems by George Herbert (1593-1633) and parts of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. More recent poets sometimes cited as influences by concrete poets include Guillaume Apollinaire, E. E. Cummings, for his various typographical innovations, and Ezra Pound, for his use of Chinese ideograms, as well as various dadaists.See the online text by Mary Ellen Solt, Concrete Poetry: A World View (1968, Indiana University Press).

The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets
The Language poets (or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, after the magazine that bears that name) are an avant garde group or tendency in United States poetry that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s; its central figures are all actively writing, teaching, and performing their work today. In developing their poetics, members of the Language school took as their starting point the emphasis on method evident in the modernist tradition, particularly as represented by Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky. Language poetry is also an example of poetic postmodernism. Its immediate postmodern precursors were the New American poets, a rubric which includes the New York School, the Black Mountain School, the Beat poets, and the San Francisco Renaissance.

Eliza (1966)
ELIZA is a computer program by Joseph Weizenbaum, designed in 1966, which parodied a Rogerian therapist, largely by rephrasing many of the patient's statements as questions and posing them to the patient. Thus, for example, the response to "My head hurts" might be "Why do you say your head hurts?" The response to "My mother hates me" might be "Who else in your family hates you?" ELIZA was named after Eliza Doolittle, a working-class character in George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, who is taught to speak with an upper class accent.

We are now at a point were we can talk about electronic literature. In 1970 computer programmers Theodor H. Nelson, Nicolas Negroponte and Les Levine exhibited electronic works in Software: Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art. The Software exhibition was pivotal in the development of the creative use of computers as “neither a celebration of technology nor a condemnation, but an investigation, through implementation of new shapes for the processes brought into the culture via computation.” (Theodore H. Nelson “[Introduction] From Software – Information Technology: It’s New Meaning for Art” 1970, The New Media Reader, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort Eds. p248)

In Afternoon, a story the narrator, Peter, begins by addressing the reader, "I want to say I may have seen my son die this morning." The quest for closure on such a powerful concept as the death of a child drives the story through multiple labyrinths comprised of 539 interconnected lexias.

[The text under study, Balzac's short story "Sarrasine,"] will be cut up into a series of brief, contiguous fragments, which we shall call lexias, since they are units of reading. This cutting up will be arbitrary in the extreme . . . . The lexia will include sometimes a few words, sometimes several sentences; it will be a matter of convenience: it will suffice that the lexia be the best possible space in which we can observe meanings . . ." Roland Barthes S/Z (1970) p13.

"Closure is, as in any fiction, a suspect quality although here it is made manifest. When the story no longer progresses, or when it cycles, or when you tire of the paths, the experience of reading it ends. -- from "Work in Progress", a lexia in Afternoon. (Overcoming Closure)

Maybe we should read some of Afternoon, a story.

If you want to spend more time pondering the ways of early commercial hypertext fiction this is a good power point on Hypertext.

Further Hypertexts of the First Generation:
Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden and Reagan Library, Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl and Deena Larsen's Marble Springs, and more from Eastgate.

Newer Hypertext that have moved into more visual and three dimensional forms:

Cybertexts (some of these links are old as I compiled this list in 2003)..

Some newer stuff;

the works of Jason Nelson
Last Meal Requested
Red Riding Hood
Slipping Glimpse
Inanimate Alice

And I would just like to leave you with the kinetic brilliance and overstated simplicity of Y0UNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES........THANK YOU.

No comments: