Third Hand Plays: “Big Cradle” by Erik Loyer

August 11, 2011  |  By
Filed under: Projects/Series

"Chroma" by Erik Loyer

Erik Loyer combines the skills of a graphic designer, sound artist, and computer engineer in virtuoso, meditative works that negotiate fiction and science — the narrativized and the biological self — in eerie, seductive ways. “Chroma” initially impresses with its high production values, with its techno-rave aesthetic that harkens back to old-school vector graphics à la Tron. But “Chroma” is actually an involved science fiction that approaches questions of racial identity in an age of biogenetics. The story world, guided by three protagonists with the names Orion 17, Duck at the Door, and Grid Farmer Perry, is infused with the myth of the “mnemenos” and the search for purer states of interconnection. Rife with monologues, pseudo-scientific explanations of the physics of this new universe, poems, and diary entries, the piece includes enough text to comprise a short novel, perhaps in the afro-futurist vein of Delaney or Butler; add the video game elements, amazing sound score, voice acting, and kaleidoscopic abstractions, and you have a unique aesthetic experience.

Not fighting the good fight in _Rez_

Gameplay in “Chroma” is motivated by the desire for greater aesthetic pleasure rather than mere survival, a perfect example of task-oriented interactive art. In fact, Loyer’s digital projects, more than most artists associated with electronic literature, can be called “synaesthetic” — in the same category of video games such as Rez (or the ubiquitious Geometry Wars) in which sound, image, and interactivity are choreographed into a unified, harmonized experience. In synaesthetic video games, user interaction contributes to “winning” like in most video games, but the user’s actions also set off visual and audio events that fall in synch with the automated visual and audio events, forcing the player into collaboration with the computer. The most vulgar form of a synaesthetic game would be something like Guitar Hero, where the user contribution is made explicit and apes some iconic pop song; at their best, synaesthetic video games permit the user to participate in a visual experience as wild and balanced as a painting of Kandinsky, while playing through a score rhythmically intricate and layered as something by Aphex Twin — each time different, refreshing the user’s desire for the new and beautiful.

Loyer’s work is incredibly wide-ranging. He has collaborated on a number of impressive nonfictional projects, such as “Public Secrets,” a massive documentary project by Sharon Daniel that investigates women in the California penal system, which allows the user, in a clean but expressive graphical interface, to access hours of audio by the inmates, framed by Daniel’s theoretically nuanced writing. His “staging” of N. Katherine Hayles’s essay “Narrating Bits” is equally impressive, playing with associative rather than logical linking of texts. It is an impressive foray into new forms of digital readers that escape from the basic page-scroll (or now page-swipe) that is the norm on laptops, Kindles, and iPads. He has been one of the central figures behind the only peer-reviewed journal of interactive essays, called Vectors, for which he designed a unique (if again not entirely efficient) interface which he calls an “intellectual paint program.” On a smaller scale, “Ruben & Lullaby” is an iPhone hypertext fiction placing tactility at the fore, allowing the reader to control the narrative by manipulating the emotional responses of the characters by stroking the screen (calmness) or shaking the phone (tension). “Big Cradle,” his contribution to my series of commissions for the SFMOMA blog, is a quiet, poetic work that shows how fear, care, and curiosity cohabitate our thoughts during the increasingly exotic practice of voyage by sea.


Erik Loyer is a media artist who uses tactile and performative interfaces to tell stories with interactive media.

His work has been exhibited online and internationally at venues including Artport at the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Digital Gallery at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Prix Ars Electronica; Transmediale; and IndieCade. Loyer’s award-winning website “The Lair of the Marrow Monkey” was one of the first to be added to the permanent collection of a major art museum, and his serialized web narrative “Chroma” went on to win the Best Digital Creation award at the Montreal International Festival of New Cinema and New Media.

As creative director for the experimental digital humanities journal Vectors, Loyer has designed over a dozen interactive essays in collaboration with numerous scholars, including the Webby-honored documentary “Public Secrets,” and his commercial portfolio includes Clio and One Show Gold Award–winning work for Vodafone, as well as projects for BMW, Sony, and NASA.

He is the founder of interactive design studio Song New Creative, and develops story-driven interactive entertainment under the Opertoon label, including most recently a critically acclaimed iPhone application entitled “Ruben & Lullaby.” A recipient of a Rockefeller Film/Video/Multimedia Fellowship, Loyer has a B.A. in cinema/television production from the University of Southern California.

5 Comments

  1. Judy Malloy Says:

    Electronic literature is many things, including the interesting work that Brian Kim Stefans has
    brought to the forefront here. In general, art museums are inclined to focus on works with visual components; this, of course, is what they do. To a certain extent screen-based literature is inherently visual and works with strong visual arts components are important and welcome in the field.

    But I would like to note that the core of the field is computer-mediated works of literature and word works. Coupled with a growing interest in new writers whose focus is on creating new media literature, as well new explorations in literate code and the workings of code, the current resurgence of interest in new media writing includes a relook at classic works — such as the seminal hyperfiction published by Eastgate and works created in the early days on Art Com Electronic Network, (based here in the Bay area) such as Interactive fiction, generative poetry, and social media interventions.

    It is a pleasure to continue to write new media literature, and also it is a pleasure to focus on how works of electronic literature are created, as Authoring Software — http://www.narrabase.net — continues to do
    By which I mean that I’d like to thank SFMOMA and Brian Kim Stefans for hosting/writing this blog and at the same time to remind readers that there are many different approaches to new media writing,

  2. Brian Stefans Says:

    Thanks for you comment, Judy. Yes, I’m focusing a lot on the visual, but I am also focusing on interactivity — most of the pieces tweak the conventions of point-and-click — and context — taking the realm of the web as a public space which the works respond to — which I think has been under-emphasized. Most if not all of the artists I’m looking at actually create their own authoring software, so I’m not sure why you think I am departing so much from the “core” as you describe it.

    The problem for me is that I don’t see a lot of criticism on hypertext work that deals with the content of the texts itself. I collected a lot of material about some of those early Eastgate works and the writing — even when the work’s name appeared in title — seemed more interested in describing the properties of hypertext rather than what someone had done with it. I’d love to see an anthology of real literary criticism of the works at Eastgate, for example, which takes them seriously as art, gauging success and failure, rather than examples illustrating some property of text and technology. It would be useful also as a buyer’s guide, since there is a lot of work there, but given the fact that we can’t pass around old, expired disks of hypertext works (like you can used books), there isn’t a lot of that “folk” information, word of mouth, to go by or chance to browse.

    Nick Montfort wrote a really nice book on IF, Twisty Little Passages, which I highly recommend; the IF community seems to be quite lively. I probably won’t get to IF in my posts but your link is a good start. Thanks!

  3. Brian Stefans Says:

    I should also note that I focus as well on writing practices — how technology has changed the way someone writes even when not engaged with computers. It seems to me that computer platforms like Storyspace should have some effect on prose stylistics. If you know of any text that discusses the necessities and possibilities of hypertext prose — how one needs to write to make it work — let me know!

  4. Judy Malloy Says:

    It would be nice to have an anthology, that’s a good idea, Brian!
    There is quite a lot of literary criticism about Eastgate’s publications,
    and there is a substantial body of very good criticism on hypertext literature in general.

    To begin with writer/critic Robert Coover wrote series of articles in the New York Times and elsewhere which covered Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden, my own its name was Penelope, and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl among others. And critic and theorist Jaishree Odin has written extensively about hypertext literature, often with a focus on Eastgate authors:

    Jaishree K. Odin, Hypertext and the Female Imaginary, University of Minnesota Press, 2010
    http://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/hypertext-and-the-female-imaginary
    which covers the work of four Eastgate authors: Judy Malloy, Shelley Jackson, Stephanie Strickland, and M. D. Coverly,
    and
    Jaishree K. Odin, “The Edge of Difference: Negotiations Between the Hypertextual and the Postcolonial”,
    MFS Modern Fiction Studies – Volume 43, Number 3, Fall 1997, pp. 598-630
    includes its name was Penelope
    and
    Jaishree K. Odin, “Embodiment and Narrative Performance” ,
    in Women, Art & Technology, edited by Judy Malloy. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2003 pp 452-465
    focuses on Jackson’s Patchwork Girl.

    There are many more critics in the field. Will post a few more and further thoughts as soon as I finish the liner notes for the second Edition of its name was Penelope.

    It is a pleasure to review the critical writing about all kinds of new media literature, and
    most importantly to read the works themselves!

  5. Judy Malloy Says:

    There are many others, but here are two more critical articles:

    _Rita Raley, Reveal Codes: Hypertext and Performance [1]
    http://pmc.iath.virginia.edu/text-only/issue.901/12.1raley.txt
    _Owen, Megan Illusions of Democracy in Hypertext Fiction
    http://genre.dukejournals.org/content/41/3-4/177.full.pdf+html
    Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture: 41:177-200, 2008
    discusses authorial control; interesting from the point of view of how the new media writer shapes reader participation in the work and how that impacts the critical framework.

    First person accounts are also of particular interest. At this rather wonderful stage of
    exploration, a writer’s narrative of how a work was created is also important. Here are
    two from Authoring Software and one from Visible Language:

    _Fox Harrell, The GRIOT System, Authoring Software, 2010
    http://www.narrabase.net/elit_software.html#harrell
    _Adriene Jenik, MAUVE DESERT Authoring Software, 2011
    http://www.narrabase.net/adriene_jenik.html
    _Jim Rosenberg, The Interactive Diagram Sentence: Hypertext as a Medium of Thought
    http://www.well.com/user/jer/VL.html
    Visible Language 30.2, 1996

    And then there there are online interviews and discussions, writers and artists
    talking about their work. The first is relatively formal; the second is very informal.

    _Jennifer Ley, Lit [art] ure — Something Old, Something New a Round Table Discussion
    with Loss Pequeno Glazier; Judy Malloy, Johanna Drucker; and Mark Amerika
    http://www.heelstone.com/meridian/rtable4.html
    Riding the Meridian, v. 2, 2000.
    _A Conversation with Sara Roberts, on the Interactive Art Conference on Arts Wire
    June 1996 — http://www.well.com/~couey/interactive/sara.html

    So, yes there are excellent critical articles in the field and additionally there
    are new approaches to art criticism and understanding.

    Such as the SFMOMA Blog, of course!

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