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Return to Riding the Meridian

 

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by  Stephanie Strickland

What kind of reading experience can you create from words, sounds, music, color, drawing, photographs, movies, animations, randomizers, text generators, and several different kinds of links? This anthology of Web-specific work from the past five years gives us 40 different answers, 40 pulsing compositions that require active participation, working input on the reader’s part. For me, they begin to aggregate, to be transiently gathered, into seven sorts of work.

 1. The Journal or Journey

 A familiar and yet challenging model is that of a journey through constructed space, often conveyed by something close to journal entries, time-based writing. To journey in the dimensionless, or infinitely dimensional, non-space of cyberspace means first of all to create a geography, then a map, and finally the trip or trip record, work the dispossessed do.

One of the most subtle of these journeys, Suture, was created by Jeremy Tai Abbett for the sake of the orphaned Vietnamese boy raised in racist America that he was. After spending time abroad in Germany, and also Sweden, he does finally journey to his homeland and come to re-understand it/himself. Using a large variety of technical means, he succeeds in enabling us to differentiate the rhythms and physical feel of daily life today in a Western city, Hamburg, as contrasted with the towns of Vietnam. At the same time this technology itself is interrogated—just one example, the "Polaroid" frames that bounce across the front-facing children whose stillness draws us. This journey, under the aegis of a flashing, beckoning star that doesn’t link, takes time and patience. Its soft questioning of home/touring/imperialism—for example, by means of the Dalat message maker page which allows the reader to send a personalized postcard "from Vietnam"—goes on against a background of music and voices as each step releases further possible steps into view.

Another journey occurs in Randy Adams’ Ctrl Esc, this time a day trip, an escape from the computer monitor. Forms of dispossession and suturing lie behind it as well: a concern for a degrading coastal environment, a reminder of mixed ancestry, a quietly posed question about how effectively a cord or a coastline can tether a person. In many ways Ctrl Esc seems to "answer" Rob Kendall’s Framework, a poem with haunting refrains. Framework is a silent tone poem in gray, an anti-journey: gray mood, gray dusk, gray fixed location, gray monitor screen, framed within and below a darkened window.

A different and comic journey is traced in The Unknown, an "on the road" tale of a purported book-tour full of picaresque episodes featuring its authors, Rettberg, Stratton, and Gillespie. A final journey is Barry Smylie’s and Alan Sondheim’s Sailing. This visually intense and inventive elegiac work succeeds, in the way Abbett’s does, in almost physically locating us, this time in a re-experienced childhood memory of going sailing, yoking the virtual and the real, the visual and the verbal, in some reflective third place unlike any other in this collection.

 2. Hypertext Tales

Exercises in inclination and combinatorics which rely primarily on text to do their work focus our attention quite differently from works in which sound and/or visuals do a great deal of the telling. Falco’s Self-Portrait of Child with Father is a deftly told story with black and white illustrations, digitally manipulated photos that situate the story well, but the art of this story consists in the way it is broken into its pieces and the satisfying way the bar of limited link choices allows us to move. Michael Joyce’s Reach shows us another kind of maturity, a writing style itself so saturated with hypertextual consciousness that linking ceases to be a navigational option and becomes a principle of word choice. This is signaled by the redundancy of linking in the piece, everything links, the directional signs, the panel of words, and every word in the text—it doesn’t matter. A fluid circulation is built into the musing voice of a mind, of a feeling, that we trust. But why? Partly because it affirms the truth of convention and dailiness, partly because it will not let go of its question, how is reach linked to touch.

It is interesting to compare these works with an engaging work from an earlier "era," Christian Crumlish’s No Bird but an Invisible Thing, in which we are given 42 entrances to a story that repeat as the links throughout it. We are also offered an unlinked text and a printed chapbook, signs of the closeness of this work to the print world. Jeff Parker’s comic story, A Long Wild Smile, gives us double voices in differently colored frames, those of two men competing for a woman. The jilted fiancÚ is more interested in taping his lover’s infidelity than in contesting it, as he is a specialist "in communication." Graphical screens of magnetic poetry boards are fun to play with and allow the reader to construct a kind of instant textual response to the loaded terms offered, creating a sentence that will become incorporated into the story.

 3. Game Narratives

Another sort of work conjoins game elements with narrative. Gavin Inglis’ Same Day Test is the only one of these works that has us take the protagonist’s role. We become the person offered the results of an AIDS test, and we undergo the consequences of our binary tree of decisions as we choose at each point to know or not, to do or not. The site also includes a list of AIDS resources. Geoff Ryman’s Two Five Three represents another sort of game, a work composed to an arbitrary set of constraints. Seven cars on the London Underground hold 252 passengers, plus one driver, making 253 characters. Each of them is described in three categories—outward appearance, "inside information," and what s/he is doing or thinking—in a total of 253 words. The bright clear graphics resemble nothing so much as a gameboard, and the characters are a static (seated) cross-section of a highly diverse urban population ready to be moved from seat to seat, car to car. But such movement does not take place or affect the story, though interconnections exist and, eventually, terminal violence. Ryman’s tone is wry, as he very self-consciously plays with narrative conventions in this extremely accessible work.

 4. Visual Performances

Lars Wikstrom’s A lost manuscript is the work of a man who grew up in the bookbinding shop of his father and grandfather. He continues to work with paper and leather and with the visual and structural elements of books. In the first part of this work, A small book on circular geometry, an old book is seen as an object, a body almost past speaking but retaining some few distilled graphical elements that seem to promise many decodings. In The Figures these elements have broken free and perform their metamorphoses in a new space. A quite different visual performance occurs with the acrobatic graffiti, the rhythmic splashes of color that spasm and shout across footnoted stable narrative text in Tom Bell’s Animate. Peter Howard’s Rainbow Factory makes enjoyable use of cartoon methods and sound effects, as well as parodies of print communication, to tell its darkly comic story about production. In Dan Waber’s witty Strings, the cartoonist’s animated line gets "drawn into" speech, visually suggesting the dramatic course of an argument, a flirtation, a relationship. City of Bits by Thom Swiss and Skye Giordano is an extremely well integrated work. Its photographic elements, billboards, signage, and cityscape, are collaged in a Mondrian-like arrangement sensitively adapted to the rhythms of the urban strolling poem text.

Joe Keenan’s Moment explores how interface elements and chance-modulation affect reading in an extremely rich suite of forms and opportunities for interaction that refer only distantly to some world or meaning that might be equivalently manipulated, while in Brian Lennon’s A.U.F.S.C.R.H.R.E.I.B.E.S.Y.T.E.M.E.G.R.E.E.N.G.H.O.S.T.E.C.H.O the visual elements are at the service of recall, evoking elements of code and its look several display-generations past. Here the play of dispersed green phrases on absorbent black, circling their themes of green/sun/skin/value/truth, fall in disciplined printouts beneath the three black full sentences echoing against an electric green above them.

Tim McLaughlin’s 25 Ways to Close a Photograph explicitly addresses the way image and text interact to modify each other’s meaning. Each clicked square on a dark, barely readable photograph, scored into squares, reveals a story element, from which we attribute personality to the obscured figure. Contrastingly, completely distinct readable faces of men and of women, in what appear to be graduation photographs from the early 20th century, faces we would all interpret according to our experience, when clicked, are modified immediately in our mind by the surprising textual gloss each receives.

Two of the most sensuous visual performances come from Reiner Strasser, his Water~Water~Water in association with Christy Sheffield Sanford, and Breathe, which he made with David Knoebel. Breathe has a spare geometric look, its shifting small colored squares and elongated rectangles displaced centrifugally around a moment of springtime meeting so intimate that one person’s hat shadows the other’s eyes. The color kinetics put in play with brief phrases and the sound of one spoken word convey a breath of fresh air. By contrast, Water~Water~Water sheets the screen, evoking a recirculation made intensely present by luscious graphics, pouring graphics, a sense of panorama so vivid you feel you could trail your hand in the water and have it disappear into the screen. Interestingly, these overwhelming graphics, these many windows, do not overwhelm the text voices of the two collaborators who provide, not simply phrases, but whole statements and narratives to complete this meditation on water.

Loss Glazier’s Command: change folder plays with words as commands, as instructions, and as evocations in an environment of images, suggesting the political dimensions of these categories. In a sort of visual game of "duck, duck, goose" the word Napalm occurs, probing "a hole in the (flesh of) narration." Words here become "birdz" of a kind, morphing on the page by means of the strategies of experimental print poetry as well as coded algorithms. Here the visual and verbal are very closely linked. By contrast, an almost cinematic strategy is used in Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey’s Leviticus. Seeming to confront mythical themes of abomination and apocalypse, this piece begins by using toy lambs for target practice, proceeds through a recipe for baked heart, and ends with a seeming advertisement for an online greeting card company. Deliberately confrontational and assaulting, full of not quite heard voices, this work seems to demand decipherment in a world based on canonical texts but where text is withheld and production values are paramount.

 5. Digital Embodiments of Critical Thought

Some of the most serious and ambitious of these Web-specific works are motivated by a poetics that connects every aspect of society and culture and knowledge to digital literary expression. In this group belongs Mark Amerika’s legendary pokerface Grammatron, both smilingly parodic and persuasively earnest in its investigations of hypertextual consciousness and network culture.

Eugene Thacker’s . ./ftp_formless_anatomy is a research project structured as a database which collates a great amount of information, in particular appropriating and repurposing images from the the Visible Human Project, a government-funded program to produce a "digital-anatomical body," which was to be, in the words of the scientists, "a renewable cadaver, a standardized patient." As Thacker understands, this very project perhaps undermines itself, as it brings into question the way the body has been understood within the systematized knowledge of the West. Thacker goes on to consider "monstrous" or "formless" anatomies, other ways to know the body within technoscience, which the mere existence of wireframe renderings already suggests.

Piotr Szyhalski’s Ding an sich, the Kantian thing-in-itself, is an effort by Szyhalski to establish some sense of a reality/universality behind the appearances of art, an old question made pressing by the extreme variability of the appearances and experiences possible in online interactive art. How is it still possible for author and audience to hold "a" conversation? Szyhalski isolates 12 core elements, what he calls canons, ideas such as "breath exchange" or "signals" or "idealized movement," and then provides interactive images of these analytic ideas via Shockwave files. This mostly black-and-white work is compelling in its representation of concepts and experience in terms of a distilled interactive engagement.

Unreadability as productive, perplexia as an important outcome of lexia, is only one of Memmott’s themes in his monumental text/code/image assemblage From Lexia to Perplexia. Memmott has applied to his source texts a long chain of merge/mix/repurpose/rewrite processes, modeling the fate of texts in a digital environment, and crafted from these a beautiful and meditative composition, an anthology of processes, events, triggers, an "exe.stream" homage to process and flux. This work will provide extra delight to those who can appreciate the robustness and innovation of its code.

Finally Joel Weishaus’ Inside the Skull House constructs parallels between brain and behavior through an associative investigation of the hippocampus. Guided equally by Paleolithic cave images and neuroanatomical brain scan slices, Weishaus uses varying font size within his sentences to signal location at the brain or behavior level. This particular interweaving is, of course, possible in print, and links are used here to shuttle the reader between text, paratext, and anatomical imaging.

 6. Artifactual Worlds

Some authors create a world, or several worlds, a kind of archaeological dig full of competing evidence, graphic landscapes, and voices highly suspect or random or faint. The reader must actively assemble information, as in games, but is not assigned a role; must actively decipher, as in mysteries, but is not rhetorically guided to a correct conclusion. Does the evidence converge on only one pattern? Has a critical element been lost? Must several alternatives be simultaneously accepted? John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse, not Web-specific but available from Eastgate Systems, is a source work for this kind of construction. This strategy is stunningly demonstrated here by Stuart Moulthrop’s Reagan Library and Bill Bly’s We Descend. Moulthrop’s work contains an unpeopled rotating landscape that can be clicked, and four bands of text, associated with four characters and four colors. The text in these is randomized in part and some of the links are random, some not. This work remembers where you have been and by the fourth reading of each page the text appears to stabilize, but the experience of the work is not that of stable form. It is rather a quest through and by means of noise in both textual and visual realms, a game-like inquiry into the interplay of static and pattern, amnesia and recall.

Bly’s work, by contrast, is almost entirely textual because the archive it presents, the world it offers, is exclusively textual, purporting to attest to an ancient civilization complete with barbarians. This theme—of texts discovered, deciphered, commented on, their conditions of survival, and the credibility we can extend to each—is reminiscent of Milorad Pavic’s great print novel, Dictionary of the Khazars.

I would argue that Ted Warnell’s Book of Job belongs in the artifactual world grouping, on another level. Here the world consists of fragments we may think we know well, verses from the Book of Job, but they arrive randomly, forcing us to a puzzle of construal similar to Job’s own. We are forced to create, or reject, a spiritual meaning from semi-comprehensible bits. We, like Job, do not know what’s coming next, nor do we have any choice.

World creation by other means is also the achievement of David Blair’s Waxweb and Bobby Arellano’s Sunshine 69. Waxweb is a feature-length hypervideo about a beekeeper who designs flight simulators. A one-time 85-minute movie relocated to the Web, which at one point sustained collaborative authorship with the public, Waxweb is now, in its final version, some 35,000 pages. These interrogate each shot of the film, show silent movies around each shot, and show the movie itself. Where Waxweb tells visually, Sunshine 69 tells textually. An exuberant interface allows us to journey back in time to examine several months in 1969 leading up to the Altamont rock concert—we can approach by calendar day, by several different characters’ points of view, or by clicking a map, and all to soundtracks of our choosing. A final example of world creation appears in Rob Wittig’s The Fall of the Site of Marsha, this time a new kind of world that has entered public life, the world of a personal website. Here the actual feel of a certain kind of online culture is captured, as well as the dangers to which it is exposed. The artifacts here are the set of states of the site itself and the communications that appear on it.

 7. Rescaled or Refocused Perceptions

Some of my favorite works take up the task, or have the effect, of rescaling perception. In Barrier Frames Jim Rosenberg works with the words of a standard vocabulary but overlays them in a dense blur of micro-information which must be teased apart by moving the mouse. Words don’t change their appearance reversibly, as happens in Eduardo Kac’s holopoetry, but their juxtapositions do. There are no origins, ends, or poles: all is inbetween. We are refocused on the granularity of language and made aware that emotional power resides perhaps elsewhere than we imagined.

Ubutronic Audio Faucet and Brain Wave Seducer by Miekal And and Allegra Fi Wakest, is, as its title suggests, heavily sonic. Turning it "on" gives us a view of white panels, a white keyboard?, separated by red dots and a voice-filled sound track carries us forward, capturing a good portion of attention at the same time that clicking calls up patterns in the panels and link lists atop them. Clicking leads only to surface shifts which become unaccountably absorbing. Not wanting all the frames to look alike, appreciating the reappearance of certain words in new locations, monitoring the disintegration of pattern, the colorshifts, the deformation of outline, I feel I’m being guided toward a new kind of processing. Is this seduction or play?

Impermanence Agent, by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and collaborators, is not a site to be visited or clicked through. Once enabled, it takes over a browser, permitting elements of a reader’s browsing to invade and extinguish its own story of loss, told in a small window at the upper right of the screen, all the while infiltrating the main window. The work reflects on the misplaced trust we have in software "agents," and on misguided dreams of permanence. The "now" of our reading is both threatened and fertilized. Experiencing this piece with our peripheral attention, we feel our own content mirrored back in such a way that it cumulates and overwhelms another’s story; a click made in a second can, through the mechanism of selection, become amplified and feed back on a longer scale, destabilizing "now" and "here."

Though clearly John Cayley’s work could belong in the Critical Thought section and his website as a whole conjures an entire world of poetry, many of his poems are not Web-specific, and his contribution to this anthology is a hypertextual essay, Transliteration, which argues for a performative form of translation and illustrates this with respect to Chinese poems. His goal is translations that can be programmed, so as to move a source table of letters to a target table of letters through intermediate transitional steps that can be animated in performance. Homophonic and mesostic translations can be programmed in this way, and their effect is to refocus or rescale our attention away from what we conventionally mean by translation and the ours/theirs misunderstanding such convention conceals.

Two of these pieces have, for me, the character of emblem—they have the effect of a brief striking poem that one wishes to return to, not for what it says, but for the way it reorients you in the world. One of these pieces is Duc Thuan’s Pi, which is unreadable until you use the magnifier he provides. Already a metaphor for all digital literature potentiated by numerical code, this piece asks us specifically to inspect another level by moving the magnifying square. When we do, we see the fullness of the unending decimal expansion of pi, and what we hear is music generated algorithmically from these same numbers. We are meant to understand that what our senses and our entrained grooves of thought keep apart in fact belongs together, can appear as a number, an invisibility, a song.

Bill Marsh’s 6 String Aria is the other extremely brief piece that has this emblem effect. Here 6 "strings," 6 visual ribbons perform a brief choreographed dance: two tent to form conical shapes, two serve as crossbars to make A’s of the cones, one folds into an R shape, one becomes the letter I. Is this an "air," an "area," an "aria"? Is this a solo performance? Am I alone? These are the questions posed so glancingly by this work. The ribbons, transiently alphabetic, always signal their propensity to take any shape at all. In an intensely red environment, is the blue dot a shadow, the dot that firmly makes a simple ribbon into an "i"? The music fades to firm closure, the dance ends, but a tangled emblem remains, to be set into motion with a reload command. And to read the piece you will need to reload, to look and look again to make out those three or four phrases on the fly, but of course they have already entered your perception, which has been refocused and re-scaled.

Is it too much to hope that these "style exercises," these probes by skilled and dedicated artists will help us draw the connections and form the perceptions needed to flow, to participate in and comprehend an increasingly complex patterning that enfolds us—from nano-techniques to cosmic extent through genetic alteration and the new world (dis)orders? I think they already have.

October, 2000

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