FORM AND FORMAT

Perhaps it is entirely apropos that I find myself writing commentary for a "Dinner Party" of sorts. Having worked as a Chef for 12 years of my life I understand the process of engineering such an event. A familiarity with ingredients and contrasts in tastes, coordinating the multiple agents of flavor, look and texture, the sequencing of courses, the arrangement of (color)palettes and (tem)plates... Creating and consuming media rich literature requires some of these sensitivities. Both cooking and hypertext are very much about content and combination -- about expression, method and technique.

Two things that interest me most about hypertext, as an artist/writer and as a reader/user, are the latitude of expression hypertext allows -- the varied presentational and literary concepts, and the degree to which process remains exposed in this infant media/um. In the expanded field of hypermedia (RICH.LIT -- to introduce a new term) we find literary content delivered in any number of forms and formats (CD-ROM, the web, e-books, etc.), each with its own evolving conventions and effects upon distribution, perception and cultural expectation. I will focus on the web.

In the five years I have been working in the multimedia industry, I have watched the relatively vacant gray space of the web become a populous and diverse global destination. I've watched the technology lurch and evolve; changing so fast at times it makes your head spin. As well, I have witnessed an explosion of serious RICH.LIT on the web. In its free and global context, the web is by far the most accessible and widely used medium for hypertext distribution. Today there are countless literary publications on the web -- some are hypertextual, others are not-- and many individual writer/artist sites. Some of the finest and most varied web work is on the "Progressive Dinner Party" menu.

Rapid communications and technological advances velocitize society and put culture in motion toward continued evolutions in human communication. I say evolutions because this happens on multiple tracks, in various format and time frames, for different venues. I see narrative on the web moving toward singular and modal forms that range from straight text, text/image based presentation, to more immersive, conditional environments in which the reader/user plays an active role. I am glad for the variety, as I am uncertain that the desire of narrative is for the reader to become the protagonist of the text. At any rate, I don't think the web will be the venue for fully realized "holodeck" experiences.

It is difficult to apply any solid grammar to the narrative formations of hypertext because the media/um is so much about experimentation, potential, and individual "literary" expression. As the technology advances and new tools are introduced to the world, the pool of artists and readers continues to increase. As well, the appreciation of web based literature gains momentum as a general cultural change occurs. The consumption of hypermediated, interactive, and poly-vocal narrative presentation is naturalized, as society becomes more accustomed to the modes and methods of the web itself. RICH.LIT, with its creative and widely varied use of web technologies tests the limits of information and content presentation, standing in contrast to the web's current focus, e-commerce. From the margins of the medium, RICH.LIT contributes to the definition and identity of the World Wide Web.

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AUTHOR-FLUX and TEXTILITY

Beyond straight writing, the hypertext author is involved in the engineering of an application, writing a program. The creation of hypertext requires the author be multi-lingual -- understanding code, and scripting as well as the superficial language of the text. Some authors find programmers to do this, others get down to the nuts and bolts themselves. Still, the interactive concepts generally originate with the writer of the narrative, the author. So, the (meta-)author operates on multiple levels -- as writer, engineer, and digital artist. Protocol is evident in the visual, the aural, and any other media type; narrative is present from the surface on down, through the scripting and the code, as well as outward across the network. The author fluctuates, multi-tasks between these various responsibilities to the work.

At times the work is about this phenomenon, this flux between authorial positions, narrative strata, identities, and sign games -- about the technology itself. Tina LaPorta's Distance deals with the social aspects of communication technology in its confrontation with the fleshless-ness of net-based human contact. The narrative is presented aside renderings of small computer video windows. The sizes of the windows, surrounded by open space, as well as their dithered black and white appearance, and associations with the narrative have a claustrophobic effect. Isolation is amplified as the images serve to demonstrate and validate the narrative, proving its point by simulating the suspect environment.

As hidden, or transparent as the coding of a project may seem to the end-user, it is an integral form of content. The concepts behind a function that makes text rewrite itself, objects appear and animate, the code and scripting languages themselves are manifest as the mechanics of metaphor -- the transpiration, the code-base being the infrastructural architecture of the narrative.

Giselle Beiguelman's hypertext theory piece, The Book after the Book immediately presents the reader with the statement, " @ +he !n+e«$ec+!0n 0f \/\/0«&$ & $ymb0|$ \/\/e beg!n +0 «e&ef!ne 0u« b0unda«!e$". From this cryptic claim forward, the piece exposes infrastructural and contextual aspects of the media/um, as it categorizes various types of media use -- digitalia, migrations, books of sand -- culminating in links to external examples. The piece demonstrates the degree to which the media/um is "infra-ultra". We are taken from the inside workings of the code, through the work of the author, out to the World Wide Web and the work of others.

Another fine example of how hypermedia is in a formative and self-critical phase is Alicia Felberbaum's holes - linings - threads. The piece is very much about connections and crossings, the history and fabric of a communication. Images of various surfaces, windows open to the outside world, diagrams of warp and weft patterns are blocked together, placed side by side, changing (opened /closed) with the movement of the mouse. Clicking on these images reveals that of a mechanical switch -- from here we are launched elsewhere into the work.

Felberbaum exploits the "weave" model for communication and computing by drawing together a number of historical threads. The critique considers the persistence of binary oppositions throughout history (presence/absence, over/under, visible/hidden) recognizing that the virgule, distinction and difference becomes narrative. Alongside this observation, the author presents an interesting history on the introduction of automated switches to textile production -- a moment in time Felberbaum presents as significant to the history of computing, in its use of perforated cards as software. As the work states, "...the textures of woven cloth functioned as means of communication and information storage long before anything was written down." This comment effectively places the "web", communication (threads) as community (woven), as meta-historical text. Textile, texture, the weave, the web -- holes - linings - threads is a precise, if not aphoristic model of the whole.

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In RICH.LIT's expanded vision of text, in which text is more than text, writing colonizes visual art, cinema, theater, sound, etc as it moves toward something other (yet to be determined). Never before have images and environment played such a role in written communication. Words and letters are rendered more than alphabetic - as a solid or kinetic narrative presence. The hyperlinked word is evidence of this. Although a linked word may have meaning within in the superficial narrative context, by being also a link its operations are expanded to participate in the meta-grammar of the content application. The linked word's association with the code-base, its ability to re-locate the reader elsewhere -- to eject -- and to trigger processes within the application allow it to shift paradigmatically between authorial strata -- spanning process, navigation, and narration.

Images are used for the same sorts of processes -- not necessarily as illustration, but as performative agents of the text, actors of the narrative body. >From technical, cartographic or diagrammatic to more wet and metaphoric usage, images play a significant role in the construction of the RICH.LIT narrative environment.

Empty Velocity by Angie Eng demonstrates how a diagrammatic and iconic application of images to a narrative structure can produce a text rich experience with very few words. The story takes place in various airports. We progress through the narrative through encounters with these diagrams, as well as iconic representations of where the reader may be led. The icons and diagrams present navigational choices that in effect construct the user narrative. The piece also makes uses of VRML technology, as a sort of rendered conclusion, or terminal to content segments.

Where Eng develops space through the presentation of tangible architectural models and iconic schema, Christy Sheffield Sanford's Light-Water: a Mosaic of Meditations simulates depth through the layering of text and image. Images and words commingle and compete in an open, common space. The function of the eye is magnified, as the reader must not only read in a literary sense, but is asked to interpret the design, the contrasts, and interact with images and emergent metaphor. It is impressive just how much 'textility' images maintain in these works. For the most part, images are on equal ground with words -- there is little difference in the formal treatments of text and image. Images are intended to be metabolized as text, are meant as text -- are text. Vice versa.

It will be interesting to see how performative image use affects notions of literacy, reading and writing. If rather than writing a description of a tree, the author provides an image of the tree there is an obvious change in the consumption of this text. The reader no longer constructs the image internally by contrasting memories, and personal ideals, with the words of the author. The tree is provided visually and, from the traditional literary standpoint, a certain intimacy is lost. Other than literary, the text is co-generated, in a reactive sense, by and through the reader's mediation of imagery and environment. Though any solid authorial text may be lost in the shuffle, the reader is engaged in a creative or explorative, rather than consumptive enterprise. Each click, a temporary cuneiform cut -- a mark. This alteration in the traditional literary experience introduces poly-vocal indeterminacy into narration itself. A voluptuous frayed thread.

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THE SUPERFICIAL, INTERFACIAL, FACE TO FACE

As you can see, the sensorial arrays necessary for consuming and creating RICH.LIT are elaborate. Certain dexterity is required to navigate the spaceless space of cyberspace. The operations of the eye are expanded into the simultaneous understanding of multiple sign regimes... Attached at the fingertips, the user negotiates the political, participates in the formation of a textual environment.

Both the author and the reader participate in provocative extra-dimensional schema that give the appearance, an appearance which is felt rather than viewed, of an increased sphere of influence over the work. Our eyes, our fingers complete a circuit, a duel of loops (the virtual and the visceral), as authorial, technological and user economies (privileges and desires) interpenetrate, are made 'real' at the screen.

The author is actualized in the space of the reader through the re-presentation of the media/um's programmability. When the user accesses the content application, there is something of a re-invention, an historical re-enactment of the coding process as the work is rendered into something deliverable. The author is present in real-time for the user as 'ghost-docent' of the software, piloting the user through the determined choices of the program -- a closed authorial system (as randomness means variable, not infinity). The user enacts, interacts with the system, the application through points, clicks and other 'interfacial spasms', constructing a narrative experience that is, at least quasi-democratic.

It is a fact that the web, the network connects people in a very real sense, allowing them to correspond and exchange information. This in itself is an important facet of network narratology -- location is a 'doubled-elsewhere' (user terminal - server) and community happens separately, in common.

Being Human, Annie Abraham's exploration of net.identity, considers just what it means to be located elsewhere. The primary e-motive asset throughout the work is its use of color. From vibrant to soft pastels, blocks of color animate many of the screens, softening and flattening the environment to primary contrasts that are lush and seductive. Operating under a democratic content model, in one section Abraham invites the user to deposit wishes within its apparatus. Something like tossing coins in a fountain. The submitted wishes are archived and made accessible by category -- male, female, over 35, etc -- or by way of a survey, in which the various wishes are accessed by clicking on anonymous, pulsating pink dots. Desire, the user's wish is transmitted, translocated into the application -- the emotional is made remotional, only to be returned, e-moted and localized by another user.

Within the equivocation the network produces -- the confusion of 'infra' with 'ultra' -- the remote becomes the local becomes remote. This makes it difficult to objectify text as it is mostly in transit -- digits and pixels. I think the slipperiness of the media/um adds to its seductive force, producing what Baudrillard calls a superficial abyss -- a surface that in its radiance turns the actual toward the virtual. The harsh threshold and mannerist space of the screen is the mask/face with which we colli/ude. Moving from 'infra' to 'ultra', alternating between, one no longer READS A TEXT so much as HAS [t](S)ex[t] with/at the screen, the terminal-elsewhere... With text open to all forms of representation, the hyper of hypertext is movement, shifting ground, the becoming of one media as another. It is what is woven in-between -- the inter- and the extra-, the aspects of the media/um that make it flicker.

Enjoy the feast!
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T.Memmottę2000

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