Third Hand Plays: An Introduction to Electronic Literature

July 5, 2011  |  By
Filed under: Projects/Series

I’ve been working for the past several years to find a way to discuss what has come to be known as “electronic literature” — it’s a creaky phrase that doesn’t survive parsing, hence the wavering between this term, “new media writing,” “digital literature,” etc. — in a way that is neither naively celebratory, presuming that computers will change writing the way DNA testing has changed crime television, nor overly technical, branching off into deep theoretical territory that seems, long before hindsight, to have nothing to do with literature or digital technology, not to mention graphic design, information architecture, film/photography, and video games, all of which at times seem to be relevant discourses.

The problem is that the artist/writers who can be said to be “electronic writers” are coming at it from different angles. Some have emerged from what is often called the “art world,” even though the most salient example of this, the artist group Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, turned to Flash (their preferred programming environment) and the internet merely as a way to get their writing out. YHCHI first started posting their works to the web in the early ’00s, when the 56k modem was the norm, and the speediness with which their lightly animated texts zinged over the web — in contrast to the often image-heavy work of other net artists — along with the humor of their work (“Cunnilingus in North Korea” is the title of one of their more notorious pieces), the caffeinated jazz soundtracks they used, and the general good writing of their work soon brought them gallery and museum commissions.

"Cunnilingus in North Korea," Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries

Other artists have come at it from the more familiar (at least in the community) angle emerging out of the flurry of interest in hypertext as a next step in the evolution of written language — the book is dead, long live the link. Ironically, more theory about hypertext was produced in the days before the web, when one had to work one’s way back to the one computer in the computer science department reserved for creative efforts, as Shelley Jackson did at Brown University when she was writing her now canonical Patchwork Girl (which is now, unfortunately, largely illegible due to the inability of Eastgate Systems, her publisher, to keep up with OS upgrades), than now, when hypertext is a way of life.

(In case I’ve lost you: “hypertext” is basically the practice of linking two bits of text — they used to be called “lexia,” though that term seems largely academic now — with a “hyperlink,” whether it be a clickable word or an image. In the days before “Web 2.0,” this was a simple practice — pages coded in HTML sat on some server, each page had a set of links embedded within it, you clicked on one of those links, and a new page of HTML would come up to replace the old one. This all seemed like magic after centuries of book culture, and seemed even more magical prior to the web, when the only place you could go to witness this procedure was the aforementioned reserved computer in the CS department. Here is an original copy of the first web page ever.

I generally understand Web 2.0 as the replacement of static HTML pages with a series of mathematical procedures, or algorithms, that construct brand-new pages on the fly after you click a link. Back in the day, an individual “hand-coded” an HTML page, put it on a web server, and the page sat there, appearing every so often on some computer screen somewhere once a link to it was clicked. But today, for instance, you click on “Scott Walker” in the musical preferences of your Facebook page and a little program is activated which searches out, and then collates, all of the names of the people in the Facebook database who like Scott Walker and creates a brand-new, never-before-seen, never-before-imaged (since who, after all, likes Scott Walker?) web page, untouched by human hands.)

But beyond working with basic text animation and variations on hypertext, other artists have approached electronic writing as a way to experiment with light versions of artificial intelligence (creating programs that themselves write “original” works of literature), as experimental graphic design and typography (finding a tradition in one of the great typographical experiments of the 20th century, Stephen Mallarme’s exquisite poem “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard”), as a way to tweak the conventions of video games (which, in their more elaborate guises, such as “Red Dead Redemption,” can themselves be seen as works of literature), or as ways to play with the conventions of the web itself — “fake” websites, such as the notorious early works of the Yes Men, or significant one-off, “Blackness for Sale.”

SFMOMA has asked me to write a weekly column about some of these works and ideas; I’ve, quite apparently, accepted the offer. I don’t have a strict plan — I’d like to reserve the right to offer brilliant commentary on the next politician to bring their career to a Twitterific halt, but generally, I will be writing about a series of concepts I’ve been developing called the “simples” of digital literature. Each of these simples describes some element of the deep structure of the text/algorithm interaction inherent in all digital textuality — those places where the mathematical underpinnings of text as it appears on the screen (since there is always something at work keeping the text you are reading now visible) and how artists exploit them to create unique effects.

The usefulness of these simples is that I can use one or two of them to describe relatively simple works of digital literature — the word-movies of YHCHI I link to above — or use a bunch of them to describe something more technologically complex, such as the magisterial work by David Clark called “88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (to be played with the left hand),” which has moments of text animation like in YHCHI along with other features that require a different simple to describe. Perhaps the literary equivalent for a simple could be found in the various tools we have developed to describe poetry: meter, rhyme, stanza form, assonance, alliteration, etc. No one of these could adequately describe all poems, but taken together they can get us pretty close to describing objectively, say, some of the startling effects of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnets (and might get us a little closer to the “meaning”).

88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (to be played by left hand), by David Clark

I have also been asked to curate a short series of new digital literature works. To this end, I have commissioned digital artist/writers Jason Nelson, David Clark, Erik Loyer, Alan Bigelow, Jhave, Alison Clifford, Christine Wilks, Benjamin Moreno Ortiz, and joerg piringer to create new pieces for the SFMOMA blog. This group of artists — from Australia, Canada, England, Mexico, Austria and the United States — is among the best of the digital writers out there, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy visiting/playing their works in the weeks to come.

13 Comments

  1. Mark Bernstein Says:

    The article is factually incorrect. Shelley Jackson’s _Patchwork Girl_ is hardly “functionally illegible”. The current edition is easily read on any current Macintosh computer, and on any 32-bit Windows computer running XP, ME, Vista, or Windows 7.

    An edition for iPad is expected in 2011, and an edition for 64-bit Windows will follow shortly.

    I regret that neither Prof. Stefans not SFMOMA made any effort to contact us in preparing this article.

  2. Brian Stefans Says:

    All I can say is that I taught Patchwork Girl and afternoon, a story two years ago in my Introduction to Electronic Literature class, and a good half of my students could not run it, which really stunk because they cost $25 each. I guess you could say that they didn’t have the right computers — either they were too new or too old, I didn’t poll them — but it does make it hard to order the CDs with any confidence if you are not sure your version will be on the CD — the website presently states “Macintosh and Windows (hybrid CD)” as the only OS requirements. My phrase was “largely illegible,” not “functionally illegible.”

  3. mark Bernstein Says:

    I can’t answer for “half” the students in a class you taught two years ago. If any students had difficulties with their disks, they were free to contact us, or (for that matter) to request a refund.

    Again, Patchwork Girl runs today on any Macintosh you can buy.

    Further, the situation as it might have existed two years ago might not be (and in fact is not) the situation today. A responsible writer would, I think, check.

  4. Mark Bernstein Says:

    Incidentally, while at one point in the past Brown *did* have a pioneering single-user hypertext system called FRESS (and, before that, the even more pioneering HES), by 1985-1986 they had elaborate multi-user computer labs for INTERMEDIA which have always been used for creative nonfiction and fiction. When INTERMEDIA collapsed in the 1990s, those labs shifted to Storyspace.

    By the time Jackson (and her colleague Mary-Kim Arnold, who wrote the wonderful “Lust”) were working in Storyspace — the early to mid 1990s — many students work on their personal Macintosh computers, and Storyspace was installed in several Mac labs at the university. So things were not quite as bleak as the portrait you paint here, though of course access today is much easier.

  5. P.J. Emery Says:

    As another owner of Eastgate hypertext titles, I feel I need to mention my own experience. I have had no success installing either Patchwork Girl or afternoon, a story to my computers at home or at work, both of which are running Win 7 SP1 32-bit. When I troubleshoot compatibility, Microsoft returns the error “Incompatible Application.” (!)

    It would be silly of me to request a refund on CDs I’ve had for over seven years and worked just fine on earlier versions of Windows, but I’d also hate to think that I (or any other PC-native user) would either have to set aside the capital outlay to purchase a Mac system, or scramble to find a lab-based Mac, in order to run one of these discs. However, if Eastgate has an upcoming version of these in the pipeline that will fully address these issues, I’m looking forward to seeing it!

  6. Brian Stefans Says:

    It seems the solution would be to separate the content of the works from the reader, and make the reader a free download and the content the purchased item, like with Flash, Kindle, etc, so that with each successive change in OS the content file could remain the same, the reader (or player) upgraded accordingly.

  7. Mark bernstein Says:

    Yes, new windows versions are coming, as are iPad editions.

    Brian: the reader architecture you’re proposing has been in use, in one form or another, for about 20 years. I believe I wrote it up in the Storyspace 1 paper, which must be a decade old, but I believe we picked up the idea from Peter Brown’s GUIDE (1987). Marc Cantor’s Director used the approach we favored in early Storyspace, wrapping the reader and the work together; this can be a big win when supporting inexperienced users. Story space 2 has long used a separate reader (win) or reader bundle (mac os x).

    Of course, lots of 7-year-old software benefits from an update.

  8. Joanna Says:

    This is going to be an exciting column! It’s telling that the first comments involve (in) combatibility issues, the persistence of hardware, the pace of updates, etc. I’m sorry Mark Bernstein couldn’t find a more friendly tone to communicate the improvements he believes have been made for user experience (I certainly am not encouraged to interact with him around what seems like a wonderful piece). One of the issues I hope you’ll be talking about in your columns in the future is exactly that: the rapid pace of change, and the fact that many, many people out there are using a wide variety of devices to go online. For example, I don’t have an iPad (yet): what am I missing? My University has chosen to make PC the default for its smart classroom laptops connections, so Mac users (the majority of my students) have to make sure to bring a cable with them to connect (and many students don’t or won’t). Trivial, in some ways, but not if you are trying to create a group experience involving interactivity.

    Writers, artists and designers have to choose which platforms to privilege; there are issues of archiving, usability, dead sites, etc. that are going to exist in tension with the amazing creativity and new possibilities of communication between “makers”and their publics. How does this fragment one’s ability to have an overview of practices? Does this matter?

    I’m really looking forward to your posts!

  9. Pooster Says:

    Do you ever have calls for submissions of Electronic Literature (Interactive Narrative) for Third Hand Plays?

  10. Brian Stefans Says:

    No, this is a temporary series that will end on September 1st.

  11. Keith Obadike Says:

    Dear Brian,

    Thanks for your writing on this subject. For the sake of clarity, Blackness for Sale is not a fake website. This piece is an art action that actually took place on eBay. It was part of a series of works created between 2001-2003, including The Interaction of Coloreds (for the Whitney’s Artport) and The Pink of Stealth (for Electronic Arts Intermix & NY African Film Festival), that we called Black.Net.Art Actions. The Blackness for Sale webpage that you link to in your essay is a clone of the original auction page that we put up to document the piece after the original had been censored by eBay.

    Best,
    Keith Obadike

  12. Brian Stefans Says:

    Hi Keith, thanks for the clarification. I know that your work was on eBay and got taken down. My sentence was a bit confusing; I wasn’t using your work as an example as a “fake website,” for that I was using the Yes Men. But I didn’t realize it was part of a trilogy of projects. I write a bit more about your piece in one of the later posts, Comedy of Simulation, in this series and describe its context a little better, though still quite briefly… cheers.

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