July 17, 2004
I’m just about over the jet lag from a brief jaunt to Nottingham, England for the 2004 trAce Incubation Symposium. While the conference didn’t offer any earthshaking new paradigms, it did prove that Electronic Literature is alive and well in the UK, that Ted Nelson is hyperkinetic as well as hypertextual, and that Alan Sondheim still writes more in a week than most of us do all year long. Incubation was a refreshing and energizing gathering of electronic and print writers, performance artists, and teachers who are using the network in a variety of ways. The food was also quite good and the bar kept late hours for thirsty writers.
After a fairly extensive Implementation of some of London’s finer monuments and a brief visit with some old friends in Chesterfield, Jill Walker and I arrived at Nottingham/Trent University for the second half of Tim Wright‘s presentation on his current trAce project In Search of Oldton. Oldton is the town where Wright was raised. It has disappeared from the map and there are no traces of it. Simultaneously, when Wright was 6 years old, his father committed suicide. The search for Oldton then is a compelling premise, as Wright tries to both recreate the town of his origin and in some sense to recreate a memory of his father. He has called upon the readers of the project to contribute found materials with which he is building the project, which has three sections: My Oldton, Our Oldton, and Your Oldton. During his talk, Wright explained this premise and the structural metaphor he’s arrived at, combining a map of this real/fictional place with a deck of cards.
Wright’s an interesting character, half of the creative team that created the email and webcam interactive drama Online Caroline and other projects. I enjoyed talking with Wright at the bar later that evening. He’s a born storyteller and crack-up, and he’s also one of the few writers of electronic fiction who are comfortable with and able to work in the commercial sphere to get their projects funded. Wright had some hilarious stories of pitching ISPs and other ecommerce companies to get backing for his creative work. Its admirable that even after the dot com bust, he’s able to make a living making interesting online reading experiences.
After lunch, hypertext pioneer (he came up with the idea) Ted Nelson took the stage. Nelson’s talk was by turns inspired and disappointing. After paying homage to fellow visionary Douglas Englebart, Nelson reiterated his vision of Xanadu. Much of Nelson’s talk centered on the importance of copyright to the life of the mind and of the culture at large. He expressed both a belief that copyright is vital for content creators, writers and artists, and his frustrations with copyright, in that the current system doesn’t enable people to productively borrow from and remix one another’s work in the hypertextual way that Nelson would envision.
Nelson was at his best when he was rightly taking issue with the way that the majority of software producers have envisioned the ways that we interact with content. Back in the early 60s, when he was conceiving the idea of hypertext, Nelson explained, “It never occurred to me that the techies writing the software would try to use the computer to simulate paper — actually not even paper, but paper under glass.” Nelson explained that he would like to “defang” the word “technology,” which connotes fixity, that in fact the software world is a kind of vast Rorshach text, in which the product is less a tool than a manifestation of its creator’s personality. Nelson pointed out that the vast majority of the software created to date is based on hierarchical structures, files and directories and that, in fact, that is not the only way that it could be. He then explained how he would like to see data accessible in multiple dimensions, that software could be organized like the mind of a user, rather than forcing the user to structure his or her mind into files and directories. “I’d like to be able to zoom through thousands of documents hanging from the ceiling like flypaper,” Nelson said “in a variety of ways, in multiple dimensions.” In a recent post, Jill pointed out that some recently developed software, such as iPhoto, is already moving this direction. Nonetheless, Nelson is correct that too often, software developers put too little thought into the psychology of the user, and too much thought into their own world-view.
A momentary aside — my favorite Nelson quote of the talk: “Sometimes people ask me what I do. As far as I’m concerned, my field is Electronic Literature.” Right on, Ted. Nelson said this in the course of explaining the concept of Deep Lit — the idea of “a literature” which hypertext is largely based on — but regardless I think the ELO should get that quote somewhere on the homepage.
The part of Nelson’s talk that I found frustrating was his discussion of copyright. I guess I can’t blame him for clinging to the Xanadu notion of copyright (essentially that all the content in the world would be linked through a central server and that we would all be able to use any content for a fee), what Nelson calls “transcopyright,” but Ted, darn it, the Web happened. The initial growth of the Internet was largely fueled by a brazen indifference to copyright law, and frankly, it worked pretty well. Even though the Web as it is is dumber than Xanadu would have been, it’s probably better than Xanadu for all its stupidity. Nelson is correct that the Disneys of the world have clamped back down on their copyrights. If I wanted to integrate a clip from Fantasia into my next hypertext novel, Walt’s lawyers would be knocking on my door before you could say “Jiminy Cricket” but so what? Ultimately, I have no desire to remix Disney, and I don’t think their lawyers would let me even if transcopyright came to pass. And I certainly don’t think that the Web would have been adopted so widely and so quickly if a meter was running every time someone loaded a Web page in their browser.
One of the strangest moments of Nelson’s talk was when he wished Lawrence Lessig well in his attempts to change copyright, but essentially dismissed those attempts as unrealistic. “I’m not saying it (copyright law) is right or wrong,” Nelson said, “I’m saying it is the nature of the universe.” WHAT?!!! I myself find nothing natural about current copyright law (in terms of the history of the universe, even of the history of intellectual thought, copyright is a recent phenomena), and find every reason to believe that Lessig is more likely to succeed in changing copyright law than Nelson is to get every major content provider on the face of the earth to agree to a regime change based on micropayments. When asked by a member of the audience what his strategy would be to affect such a global change, Nelson replied “Give me the children.” Perhaps . . . or maybe the children would be better off if they threw their content into the Creative Commons. I have no doubt that I’ll never be able to remix Disney’s The Lion King into a work of my own. And I don’t care. I do care about being able to share my work, and remix my work, with the kids down the street, who actually want to share. I found myself wishing that Nelson would give up his self-proclaimed “monist” position, and join forces with Lessig. Forget Disney — let’s have a Xanadu of the Creative Commons.
If I don’t agree with Nelson about transcopyright and left his talk a little disturbed, during the rest of the conference, I found him to be an amazing energetic and generous presence. Unlike many famous historical figures who are occassionally dropped into conference programs, Nelson didn’t just do his bit and then disappear. He could be found at many of the other conference sessions, and even in front of the Playstation set up with iToy. If he felt compelled to defend the grand Xanadu vision that will likely never come to pass, it turns out he’s biting off smaller chunks of his vision. Nelson spent much of the rest of the conference demoing the Zig-Zag system he’s currently developing with programmers, a multidimensional relational database with a zooming interface. One of the great pleasures of the conference was watching over Deena Larsen’s shoulder in the back of room while avant garde multimedia performance artist Lawrence Upton was groaning out sound poetry and simulating masturbation while on video screens inkblots sat alongside a video of someone fondling organs (after the Indian food at dinner, it made me want to hurl) as Ted Nelson was demoing Zig-Zag. Members of the audience kept looking back and shushing Nelson and Deena. Nelson was like a kid sharing his candy, getting chided by English parents, who were politely watching the fondling of a heart and lungs and simulated masturbation. It was too absurd and at one point I had to restrain myself from bursting out in laughter.
The next day Jill and I also had the pleasure of sort of writing hypertext with Nelson in Deena Larsen’s hypertext workshop, where we wrote a hypertext about a skier and a raccoon using bits of twigs, rubber band, straws, sticky tape and the like on poster board. At one point while making a physical link with a rubber band, I turned to Nelson and said “Stretchtext.” He asked if I’d read his essay on that, and let me know that he’s put much of his original early writing on hypertext online. One of the things I really liked about Nelson was that he seemed genuinely surprised that I read his work. I didn’t bother telling him that I teach his work at least once, and often twice, a semester.
After Nelson and tea, Alan Sondheim gave a reading/performance of his work. I’m a big admirer of Sondheim’s work. Sondheim works in a variety of media, ranging from prolific daily emails to computer generated texts to video work to live performance collaborations with ballet dancers to motion capture. Sondheim has produced an insane amount of work since the debut of the World Wide Web. If one were to produce a printed volume of Sondheim’s work, it would run thousands of pages long. “I write myself into existence and I write myself out of existence,” Sondheim said, and I can’t really think of a better way to explain what he does, he’s sort of the ultimate Web existentialist, an Internet consciousness. I wish an editor followed Sondheim around, winnowing his work down to the brilliant bits which inevitably occur amidst a flood of data. The world finds its way into Sondheim’s work. While he was showing recent video work involving motion capture and contorted bodies, Sondheim gave a fairly lucid explanation of how his work became linked to the torture of prisoners in Iraq, how the images of war in the most recent conflict had become sexualized in a way that was both desensitized and disgusting. My favorite Sondheim quote of the conference: “You’ll have to forgive this — well actually, you don’t HAVE to forgive it, I can’t do anything about it either way, so . . .” and well my second favorite Sondheim quote: “It makes no sense. It’s not intended to.” He concluded his presentation, “What excites me is doing the stuff — I’m not gonna frame it.” Well said.
The performances that first night were eclectic, from the aforementioned nausea-inducing if theatrical Upton to JodiAnn Stevenson’s Bowl of Milk. I enjoyed the interactive participation part of Stevenson’s performance — audience members were enlisted to contribute po-mo mad-libs to her multimedia lit/crit performance. Joerg Piringer’s VJ thingie “spambot” didn’t do a lot for me, but I think I would have appreciated it more if I’d taken something before the show and was surrounded by a sweaty mass of ravekid bodies pulsating around the dancefloor. I always get a little irritated by art that uses letters on the screen that never really form words. It’s probably from grading all those freshman papers, maybe I’m getting old.
The next day, I sort of woke up groggily after not really sleeping (jetlag’s a beast, the dorm mattresses are thin, and the pints with Tim Wright probably didn’t help) and just caught the tail end of a presentation I think would have really interested me — Jeremey Hight presented “34 North 118 West: Mining the Urban Landscape“, an urban archeology project using tablet PCs, audio, and GPS to create a spatial hypertextual narrative based on oral history. It sounded like just the type of location-based narrative project I’d like to play around with soon. Christina Mcphee presented some of the interesting audio and video work she does over at Naxsmash and Dene Grigar and John Barber then gave a cool presentation on using Internet Radio to enhance the classroom experience.
The rest of the morning was occupied with Gavin Stewart’s greatly titled “Would you let Mikhail Bakhtin smoke your text? : Dialogism and the Participative Rhetoric of Computer-mediated textual art,” which showed some promise, both as scholarship that actually uses new media and because Bakhtin is an interesting theorist to introduce into the new media discourse, followed by Simon Mills hauntingly beautiful video work and his participatory The War Room / The War Ruin collaboration with Sondheim, followed by Randy Adams’ presentation of various new media works from his trAce Studio. While I was in that room, in the room next door, Rob Kendall was demonstrating a new generative work, “Soothcircuit.” After lunch, we took in Deena Larsen’s inspired “Brainstorming into Connections” workshop. It was fun sort of writing with Nelson. Noah Wardrip-Fruin would have been on cloud nine. Nelson kept pulling various instruments out of his pockets — an exacto razor, gazillions of different colored markers, and was clearly having a great time watching a roomful of people get hypertextual. Xanadu or no, linking is alive and well.
Then, a nap. A great dinner — never let them tell you the English can’t cook (though do avoid Chinese takeout in SoHo and for the love of god don’t eat the pasties at St. Pancras Station). A couple of glasses of Chilean red and the evening performances. First Cris Bevir, Jane Draycott and babel, and digital audio artist Simon Keep read from a collaborative project “Online/Offline” — a kind of chain-mail project in which 3 writers who didn’t know each other sent pictures and texts back and forth. The writing on this project was good, and it has potential, though at present it seemed mostly like a cool bellelettrist experiment. They’re still working on it, and hopefully they’ll form more connective tissue between fragments before they’re finished. Next came performance artist Mac Dunlop, who had a fascinating stage presence, improvising (I think) some kind of Finnegan’s Wake meets child abuse monologue in front of a video of himself blindfolded as words streamed over his image. He then (I loved this gesture) said, “You can do the rest without me” and left the room for the rest of his video performance, which consisted of several shorts. He does some cool stuff, check it out. Finally, I need to thank Jill Walker and Dene Grigar for helping me to read from Kind of Blue. The reading was a success, I think. You should really read that thing if you haven’t already. I think it’s aging well, like one of those cheeses you pay extra for because of the veiny blue mold.
Followed thereafter a good evening conversing with Brit e-lit writers Alistair Gentry, Gavin Inglis, Gavin Stewart, and Tom Abba. Well, the next morning I had to friggin leave early so I could get back to Jersey in time for Thursday’s class and a viewing of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, so I unfortunately had the miss the debut of a work that I really wanted to see, Kate Pullinger‘s “The Breathing Wall,” a work that uses a breathing-based interface. Ah well. Two taxis, four trains, one plane, and one bus ride, and twenty hours later I was back in Jersey. No rest for the wicked. I guess I missed a torrential rainstorm that dumped 4.5 inches of water on Brigantine in 3 hours — several of my plants are dead, drowned, and the bugs are now beyond unbearable. Oh to be in England again, where the temperatures are moderate and the rain is misty and polite. Thanks to all at trAce for putting on a great conference.
Thanks to Jill Waker for the use of the pics.