Visionary Landscapes: Literature on the Edge of Time and Space
Washington State University Vancouver
Citation: Grigar, Dene. “Visionary Landscapes: Literature on the Edge of Time and Space.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures no. 6, 2009. doi:10.20415/hyp/006.i01
Abstract: Introduction to special issue “Visionary Landscapes: Literature on the Edge of Time and Space,” by issue editor Dene Grigar.
The collection of essays, artist papers, reviews, and literary works, found in this issue of Hyperrhiz, were generated from the Electronic Literature Organization's (ELO) 2008 conference held at Washington State University Vancouver, in Vancouver, Washington [livinginswwashington.net], from May 29 to June 2, and co-hosted by John Barber and me. The conference featured, along with the traditional scholarly sessions, three media art shows that ran simultaneously around the city. One hundred and twenty-one artists and scholars associated with digital-born literary work participated in the conference's concurrent sessions, shows, and performances.
The event marked an important moment not only in the history of the ELO (an organization that has been around for a decade now), but also in the development of the field, for it was apparent from looking at the numerous young participants and the innovative new forms of works (from Twitter novels to 3D literary experiments in multimedia labs) exhibited and discussed that electronic literature was not, as French writer Andrew Gallix claimed, dead, but very much alive — and, in fact, growing in popularity with a whole new generation of artists and scholars reared on and adept with video games, video iPods, and multimedia cell phones.
The concept of visionary landscapes was chosen as the conference theme because it describes the geographical area in which the conference was planned to take place: the Pacific Northwest. From craggy coastlines to foreboding volcanic peaks to lush and misty piney forests, the area possesses the mystique of strangeness and adventure. For this reason, it also aptly captured the essence of the field, evoking both the highly imaginative, fanciful, and, yes, even transcendent works of literary art that experiment with time-based digital media like video, digital music, and animation created for both 2- and 3D environments, as well as the kind of speculative thought and perceptive insights needed for making sense of that work.
It also gives expression to the intellectual and creative daring found in the work published in this special issue of Hyperrhiz. Divided into four parts, the issue samples the scholarly essays, artist papers, and literary works presented at the conference, as well as reviews by and of works produced by members of the Electronic Literature Organization.
Leading off is John Cayley's provocative essay, "Weapons Of The Deconstructive Masses: Whatever The Electronic In Electronic Literature May Or May Not Mean." The essay challenges the name of the field and the work derived from it, arguing that "[b]oth terms [electronic and digital writing] tend to substantiate literary production, to highlight the (finished) product (that always already has a past, a history), rather than (a continuing, emerging, developing) practice. To make the point that the term is a "dead metaphor" that no longer serves any useful purpose, he wryly reminds us that "we never had 'steam literature,' or 'electric literature,' or 'telephonic' or 'televisual literature' — at least not of any cultural moment or persistence — we have already had 'electronic literature' for a remarkably long time." Cayley's argument is sensible, and one that, as he points out, has long been debated among many of its adherents. What should interest non-elit literary practitioners and theorists is that his essay begins with the assumption that there is both a field and literary art form called electronic literature and they are well established enough to warrant us to refine their names to reflect a more contemporary approach to them. The essays that follow Cayley's provide a detailed look at the critical practices, production, and teaching of, as well as the methods of reading that can be applied to electronic literature — or whatever we end up calling this born-digital literary work.
Ted Nelson's influence upon theories of electronic literature can still be felt 25 years after the publication of his Literary Machines, particularly in the five essays that follow in this section. "Literature [as] an ongoing system of interconnecting documents" reverberates, for example, in Rob Kendall's "The E-ssence of Literature". Here Kendall analyzes a work of generative literature by examining its source code to tease out "the most important constant and variable properties of its constituent elements" that, then, serve as the basis of its "critical interpretation." D. Fox Harrell and Kenny Chow's essay, "Generative Visual Renku: Poetic Multimedia Semantics with the GRIOT System," discusses a system the two scholar-artists developed for generating visual, or what they call, "concrete polymorphic" poetry in which "a system and a user co-create a "text" consisting of a poetic composition of images." Next, Daniel Howe and A. Braxton Soderman, in "The Aesthetics of Generative Literature: Lessons from a Digital Writing Workshop," talk about their experience with teaching students at Brown University how to create generative literary works. The theory and practice they present should be helpful for those of us who currently teach or plan to teach electronic literature courses or workshops. Juan Gutierrez, Mark Marino, Pablo Gervás, and Laura Borràs' "Electronic Literature as an Information System" takes Nelson's argument a step further when they claim that the information system that comprises electronic literature will facilitate "a shift of emphasis from one-time artistic novelties to reusable systems." Finally, Hans Rustad offers strategies for reading hypertext fiction in "A Four-Sided Model for Reading Hypertext Fiction: Modes of reading Megan Heyward's Of day of night." As he argues "[hypertext literature] it is a specific kind of text game structure or "Appellstruktur" that requires careful examination to determine the "modes of reading and other aesthetic experiences" it "encourages." All five essays speak to the way that the material production of a work of electronic literature is inextricably linked to, what Cayley calls, its "aesthetic viability."
Those familiar with the highly imaginative and visually compelling work of Donna Leishman will find what she has to say about the influences, ideas, and practices underlying her interactive literary art telling. Evoking the use of images in literature from such sources as illuminated manuscripts and writers like William Blake and Alistar Gray, Leishman foregrounds her approach, which she calls "pictorial communication." Following the trajectory of her early work, "Red Riding Hood," to the more recent "Contemplating Flight," we see iconic and/or mythic figures reworked, repurchased, and reconceptualized in game-like narratives. All serve to illustrate her point that her work constitutes "semiotic hybridism" that combines "digital remixology (Amerika), poly-attentiveness (Raley), trans-literacy, and anti-text hegemony (Thomas)," an approach that "may herald a significant reconfiguration and/or a new direction for the field at large."
In keeping with the idea of staking out new territory for the field of electronic literature, Roderick Coover 's Taking a Scroll: Text, Image, and the Construction of Meaning in a Digital Panorama" details his experiments "with post-production software" that have led to the development of cinemascapes, or "interactive cinematic, panoramic environments." Pointing to such works as "The Harvest," "Something That Happened Only Once," and the series Unknown Territories, he tells us, "the borders between reading and viewing blur in an active process that reveals its construction and expository processes, leading viewers to engage with the director in the process of constructing meaning out of experience."
Two reviews follow the essays and artists papers. The first focuses on Sandy Baldwin's I Did the Weird Motor Drive, published by BlazeVOX in 2007; the second, the review of Michael Peters' vaast bin: n ephemerisi, published by Calamari Press in 2008.
The Gallery in this special issue features works by Alan Bigelow, Serge Bouchardon, Mark Marino, and Jim Bizzochi, all of whose art were exhibited at the media art shows associated with the conference: the first three at the Northbank Artists Gallery and the fourth at the Fireside Room at Clark College.
Bigelow's "When I Was President: A Portrait of Absolute Power," described in the Visionary Landscapes catalog as "a portrait of absolute power as depicted by a fictional President of the United States," and Because You Asked," a work that lets the user create the "artist's digital self-portrait in sound, text, and image," are both poignantly funny pieces that reveal Bigelow's satirical wit and dark humor. The first work begins with the nine letters that comprise the word "president." Selecting a letter results in a startling revelation about the president's radical and sometimes oddly rational actions. The "S," for example, tells us that the president "had his naked rear end put on the dollar bill . . . [and] the dollar traded higher on international markets than ever before;" while the "I " tells us that the "Internet was full, so [he] emptied it." The second piece allows the user to construct the portrait of the poet by selecting characteristics symbolized by objects. The wads of bills lets us know that he "is generous to a fault, but the fault is not [his];" the golf ball, reveals that "[his ideal sport is golf, but without the ball," a sentiment many who have produced numerous mulligans may possibly agree with.
Bouchardon's "The 12 Labors of the Internet User" is a game, a series of challenges that the artist parallels directly with the ancient myth of the 12 labors of Hercules. Like Hercules, one of the only two humans (according to myth) to ever achieve ascend to Mt. Olympus, we too can achieve "immortality" — if [we] "succeed" in the contests we are given. The challenge to find the belt of the Amazon Queen Hippolyta, for example, results in clues to a book at Amazon.com. We must reassemble the numbers falling from the sky into the ISBN number and locate the book. To reach our quest, we can ask for "divine help" or unheroically "give up." The quest of the Nemean Lion, the myth of perseverance whereby Hercules had to resort to a series of weapons to render the lion dead, has the user sussing out how to render her or his internet connection back to life. To surmount the challenge, the user patiently manipulates the various animated objects on the table and, thereby, learns that he or she must simply plug the power back into the machine. As Bouchardon tells us, "this work partakes of a mythology of everyday life. It does not consist in showing the tragedy of existence, but in transforming our daily activities into a myth. It is consequently a question of experiencing technology in an epic mode."
In Rockface II Jim Bizzochi reconceptualizes his earlier work, Rockface (I). Described as "ambient video art, the video begins as a image of a mountainside. Seconds pass before water begins cascading down the mountain in a freefall wall of water. The move from static image to dynamic animation simulates the magic one feels when confronted by the power of nature. As the author tells us, Rockface II is a "repudiation of standard cinematic conventions of time and space" and "completely abandons the cut, along with its reductionist illusion of instant and invisible transition." The work is emotionally satisfying in its artistry and intellectually compelling in its conceptualization of space and time.
It is the aim of this issue to open up the rich debates and the primary points of discussion begun at the conference to readers of Hyperrhiz, to excite others with the scholarship and art generating from the field, and to share the passion — and even infect others with the joy — those of us involved in electronic literature feel. To be involved in electronic literature is to have entered a landscape, a visionary landscape, a dynamic terrain filled with intellectual wonder. We invite others to join us in this strange and beautiful world.