Monday, June 15, 2015

DHSI Notes Part 3: Electronic Literature and the Problem of Platform Obsolescence

Let me begin by thanking the excellent teachers of the course on Electronic Literature I took at the DHSI last week, Dene Grigar and Davin Hickman. Dene and Davin, I learned a lot from you -- thank you so much for volunteering so much of your time and intellectual energy to help a "noobie" like me get grounded in your field.

I'll organize my thoughts into three sections below, roughly corresponding to the three parallel things that were happening in my head last week as I took this course: 1) the problem of Platform Obsolescence and closed platforms in general, 2) Whoa, some of this stuff is really cool!, and 3) many of the participants in this community are pretty invested in an experimental, postmodernist aesthetic -- not so much the social issues that I tend to gravitate towards in my own research and teaching.

Issue #1: Platform Obsolescence

One of the most thought-provoking elements of my experience in the Electronic Literature seminar at DHSI last week was the revelation that large amounts of material considered important to the genre is actually no longer playable on many devices. Projects completed as Java applets (popular a decade ago) are banned by modern browsers like Chrome, making them extremely difficult to access. Other projects are in Flash, which is still technially 'alive' -- but not accessible on mobile devices. It's highly possible -- likely even -- that since Flash is no longer being updated by Adobe, it will eventually also eventually fall into the category of a disallowed plugin.

Moreover, many of the influential works of "hypertext" literature from the late 1980s and 1990s are no longer readily accessible. Works such as Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl (1995 -- a queer, feminist Frankenstein adaptation) were published as Storyspace texts. Storyspace is, of course, out of business, and Eastgate systems, which owns the rights to the text, have refused to modernize its mode of distribution. The text cannot be purchased for digital-to-digital reading; rather, the only way we can access it is through purchasing a USB drive that is delivered via conventional mail -- for the rather absurd price of $24.95.

Let's spend a moment longer talking about platform obsolescence. In the past decade, the Electronic Literature organization has made two major collections, first in 2006, and then in 2011. A third collection is currently being compiled and is scheduled for release in 2016. The first collection can be found here:

The second here:

From these collections, quite a number of works are either difficult to access or already non-functional. Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern's Facade is, for instance, currently non-playable. Other texts, like Emily Short's Galatea, require the user to download and install proprietary software that many contemporary users might find discouraging.

These texts seem to be a minority; most texts are still accessible with a little patience. Still, the vast majority of the works in the two ELO collections should probably be seen as "endangered" since they were programmed in Flash -- a platform that has been slowly dying since about 2007.  So we may one day soon lose the ability to "play" Jason Nelson's intriguing anti-game, Game, Game, Game, and Again Game. The same for Juliet Davis' feminist work Pieces of Herself. And for Kerry Lawrynovicz's Girls' Day Out. And Sasha West's gorgeous kinetic poem, Zoology.

So one lesson from this is that platform matters. A large number of participants in the electronic literature movement have found the potential reach of their works stymied by technological changes and by their reliance on closed platform systems. With Google's new Swiffy tool, there is some scope to make Flash projects accessible on mobile devices and the next generation of web browsers, but it's not clear how effective that will be at preserving these works.

For the long run, it seems imperative that Elit practitioners going forward make an effort to find open platforms that are at least non-proprietary. So we aren't subject to the vagaries of negotiations between large corporations like Apple and Adobe -- neither of whom really care much about fringe artists using their technology.

Issue #2: Here are some things I really liked.

Just in terms of technical accomplishment, it's hard to beat Sasha West's Zoology, though I don't feel that the text of this kinetic poem is as compelling as the stunning visuals and sound (assembled by Ernesto Lavendera).

Another work of Elit that I thought was pretty magnificent is Christine Wilks' Underbelly (this one really requires sound: you can't find the text any other way). Wilks' project explores the early 19th century history of women working in British coal mines, using a mix of poetic speculative imagination and actors reading aloud scripts derived from testimony of actual women who worked in the mines in the 19th century.

A third project I think is wonderful is Jason Nelson's "Nothing You Have Done Deserves Such Praise." While Nelson's other anti-game project (mentioned above) has an abrasive, confrontational feel, this game is a commentary on the user's emotional investment in the simple sprite that moves across the screen. What makes the user of simple arcade games feel satisfied and happy? Often it's performing something tricky or difficult (a jump that has to be timed just so...).

Finally, I was really impressed by the work of J.R. Carpenter, particularly her two major Montreal-oriented works, Entre Ville and In Absentia. "In Absentia" uses parallel narratives and a Google Maps API interface to tell a story about gentrification in Montreal. As part of a class assignment, I wrote a blog post about the lovely urban poetry of Entre Ville here.

We did explore a couple of Ipad Elit projects that look really interesting. One is Jason Edward Lewis' P.O.E.M.M. Another is Erik Loyer's Upgrade Soul, which is a kind of mobile-oriented graphic novel. I haven't downloaded Upgrade Soul myself yet, but hope to spend some time with it soon. (As a side note: these apps., which are only playable via Apple's Itunes store, are exactly the kind of approach to Elit I cautioned against above: will they still work in five years on the version of IOS Apple will then be using?)

We also read some pretty interesting theoretical essays over the course of the week. One was Sandy Baldwin's "Ping Poetics." This essay begins with a look at the metaphorics of the Ping -- a basic command that can connect any two points in the internet -- and the Traceroute command that can be used to track the path of a Ping.  Later, Baldwin discusses the workings of other fundamental elements of internet architecture, including TCP. About TCP, he writes:

TCP is writing that implies a textual model of reading order and hierarchy, of packet segmentation as annotation, and packet length and format as closure of the book. The writing of TCP is a contractual relation. The segments and packets, addresses and check digits, are dedicated and written towards the other. TCP creates virtual circuits between nodes that are listening and ready for association. It is a philosophy of alterity, where “I write” means “I listen for the other, I wait for your reply.” 
"Ping Poetics" inspired me to develop my own project, using Jim Andrews' "Stir Fry" poetry concept in Javascript.  Jim Andrews was kind enough to come to the Thursday session of our class and talk about his project. He also stuck around for the afternoon part of the session while several of the students in the class made modified versions of his Stir Fry poem; this required us to go into his Javascript code and make some modifications in the file to reflect our own particular interests and ideas.

My project was called "Seven Layers"; it imagines a troubled internet romance and uses the architecture of the internet (there are seven layers) as a metaphor for the different levels of connectedness in the digital media / social networking era. You can see the Stir Fry version of the poem here: I also posted a linear version of the poem here. That said, I am still trying to decide how I feel about the stir fry version of the poem -- and Andrews' general embrace of cut-up aesthetics, non-linear narrative, and postmodern play. (More about that below.)

Issue #3: The Elit Aesthetic vs. Social Realism (Thematics of Race/Class/Gender/etc.)

As I mentioned immediately above, I am not sure how I feel about some of the more esoteric works in the Elit genre. Works like Jim Andrews' Enigma N do not, I must admit, do very much for me. I have a similar reaction to many of the "sound poems" of Joerg Piringer. These are often clever little text/sound/graphics experiments, but their lack of investment in narrative is something I find limiting.

Taking this class reminded me just how much I am -- despite my occasional noises about being a postmodernist - invested in works of literature that have some investment in social realism. That isn't to say that I will only engage works that are strictly linear and conventionally framed and plotted. But I do feel the strongest connection to literature that explicitly engages with social issues, whether they are instantly recognizable themes (race, class, gender), or complex social and multi-tiered phenomena like gentrification.

(That said, I did find Andrews' work "The Club", which uses his DBCinema visual synthesizer tool, quite haunting and beautiful. Of course, this is one of the few works by Andrews that is clearly representational -- and that seems to have a clear politics behind it. And I admire his willingness to develop advanced tools and then open them to other artists and writers to play with -- whether with the StirFry idea, or with DBCinema.)

In our in-class discussions we went back and forth about some of these issues a couple of times. A couple of students in the class noted their disappointment that the big Elit repositories and the developing search engines (The Cell, ELMCIP) do not have thematic organization. Thus, it is currently impossible to use these state of the art databases to find works authored by, say, black women, just as it is impossible to search by geographical information (i.e., works just by Elit authors in the Philadelphia area, or which thematize the city of Philadelphia in some way).

That isn't to say that no Elit writers are concerned about these issues. There has certainly been a long and sustained group of Elit writers who have been interested in issues of gender and sexuality (starting with Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl, and continuing through a very recent project like the Twine project Even Cowgirls Bleed). Another social justice oriented work of Elit might by Sharon Daniel and Erik Loyer's Public Secrets.

But what does strike one about the dominant aesthetic of Elit as it has developed is that it is 1) clearly deeply committed to avant-garde, postmodernist aesthetics, including non-linear narrative frameworks, linguistic cut-ups, and pastiche, 2) the practitioners and theorists of Elit have been most interested in formal and technological aspects of Elit work up to this point. The social "message" of particular works is seen as somewhat secondary in determining value to the question of a work's formal innovations and investment in experimentation.

Along those lines, the manifesto by Eugenio Tisselli, "Why I Have Stopped Creating E-Lit," is required reading. Another important work that strikes a critical chord is Florian Cramer's "Post-Digital Writing."

If it is possible for me in the coming months and years to write more about Elit and perhaps aim to publish something in one of the journals devoted to criticism and  theory related to Eliterature and Net Art, I will probably be interested in trying to talk about what I have been calling the "message" of particular works of Elit that I find powerful. (A starting point might for me well be a full-length essay on the works of J.R. Carpenter...)

1 comment:

Glen said...

Thanks for this. I can imagine some interesting creative constraints for electronic literature when using a minimalist design approach. One of the other DHSI2015 courses I wanted to take.