Sifting Through the Soot, Rising From the Ashes: Archiving Reed Gaines and Arianna Gass’ “Sootfall”
Citation: Gaines, Reed. “Sifting Through the Soot, Rising From the Ashes: Archiving Reed Gaines and Arianna Gass’ “Sootfall”.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures no. 11, 2015. doi:10.20415/hyp/011.g07
Abstract: This essay discusses the problem of archiving collaborative multiplatform works of electronic literature, using as an exemplar the processes used to document #sootfall, a text instigated by Reed Gaines and Ariana Gass.
An Archivist’s Place in a Collaborative Text
#sootfall was not quite a game, not quite fiction; a collaborative enterprise and an exercise in collective paranoia. A space and event were established: Heaps of Soot fell one night in small-town Troy. The nature of the Soot and its effect on the denizens of Troy was determined by the players themselves. Players also dictated how the game was to be played and performed; taking on the mantle of one or more characters, they made story collaboratively through pictures, blog posts, tweets, private messages, public chats, and cryptic codes.
My partner, Arianna Gass, and I had set this event in motion, and we were determined to archive it after the fact. We had a number of conversations about how this archive was going to be created. It was always understood that our archive would involve collecting every bit of text our players had generated, presenting it in an orderly and scrutable fashion.
A few months later, attempting to actually create such an archive, we ran into several problems. Not only was it a huge undertaking to synthesize a complete text of what had become such a large project, it was, frankly, not a rewarding experience to read it. #sootfall gained so much from existing as performance, as a dynamic, social, emergent entity. Reading it after the fact, the performative aspect of the experience was notably absent. What was once a living entity was reduced to a transcript.
The fact that #sootfall emerged across multiple platforms created further problems of access and synthesis. For example, there were certainly private messages between players that we had not seen. Without these messages, we ran the risk of placing emphasis on the more visible public narrative. Prioritizing these aspects of the story would be dishonest to the diverse ways in which #sootfall was played and experienced.
Even the public narratives had issues inherent to how the story unfolded in those spaces. Players would change the pictures associated with their Twitter accounts as their characters changed, effectively deleting their old pictures and creating what Leonardo Flores referred to as a "retroactive continuity causing discontinuity." Our new difficulties and questions are aptly summed up by Matthew Kirschenbaum, who observes: "There is a real sense... in which the idea of archiving something digitally is a contradictory proposition, not only or primarily because of the putative instability of the underlying medium but also because of fundamentally different understandings of what archiving actually entails" (12).
It became clear that we had to develop an entirely different understanding of what our archive would be. We eschewed our notion of one authoritative primary text. We chose instead to draw inspiration from a movement in Chinese contemporary art where records of performance art are presented as works in and of themselves, becoming what Meiling Cheng refers to as documentaryworks. In her analysis of one artist's documentarywork journal, Cheng articulates the new goal for our project, as well: to create words that "stand... as accessible surrogates for the missing originary act" (384). As it is not possible to adequately recreate the experience of #sootfall as it was experienced by players while its various plots were unfolding, we had to represent the story in a way that was accessible to new readers and honest to our own limitations as participants, creators, and archivists. We had to create our own accessible surrogate.
The journal format works here for a number of reasons. It is plausible in the context of the story, refusing to break the game-world with an omnipotent point of view — in a way, it is a continuation of the same kind of emergent gameplay that created the work in the first place. By keeping it in one character's perspective, it allows for a narrow, manageable scope that recreates one part of the story in a digestible way, in a way that is honest to that character's experience. Because I wrote the character of Greg myself, I can confidently speak to his experience and can avoid misrepresenting other characters with any kind of editorial tone. Authorial finality is avoided, and a space is created in which other players could potentially write their own retrospective accounts, articulating their particularity in the #sootfall narrative more honestly and digestibly than an incomplete transcript of tweets ever could.
Excerpts from the journal of Gregory Mendle
February 9th, 2013
Got to start writing in this more. Students are finally engaged, because last week we started dissecting. The fetal pigs made the whole hall stink, but that just seemed to excite them more. Ah, well. Anything to get them motivated. I mean, the average grade on the genetics test was a C minus, for God's sake.
Some things are OK. Transferred the pear cider to bottles today. I'll let it ferment in those for a couple more weeks and see how it is. The yeast made me nervous for a while, with all that bubbling — my homebrew buddies have horror stories of waking up with broken carboys and stained ceilings. Think I'll ask Adrastus [@TrojanAdrastus] soon for an artful name for the batch. Maybe I'll break out my watercolor pens and draw a cool label — haven't done that in awhile! The bulbs are piling up, pining to be planted. Can't wait for spring.
Tomorrow will be full of lesson plans and lots and lots of SimCity. Vern [@vernKaiser3] tells me, in his own way, that I need to get outside more, but I'm too busy with taxation and my own fantasy simulated school board to notice.
God, that sounds pathetic. I have to admit to myself this. I'm lonely. It's been a long time since Erica. Are thirty-two year olds creepy on OK Cupid?
I'll come back to this later, when I finally figure out how to talk about it without sounding so fucking desperate.
February 10th, 2013
There's stuff falling on the ground. I can't imagine what it is. Maybe if I had taken more earth science courses in college, I would know what cloud formations were outside today. They were so bizarre, beautiful in a messed-up way. I attributed them to pollution. But this...this is like nothing I've ever experienced. It's warm. It's solid. Grey. It's...accumulating.
There has to be an explanation. Twitter is imploding, of course, and school's been cancelled. The response by the Sheriff [@SheriffHarmon] has been disappointing and predictable: Deny, deny, deny. People are terrified. I can't be quiet about this any longer. What would I do in SimCity? Some sort of ordinance to keep people safe. This stuff may be toxic.
I had to do something. So I started organizing people through social networks. It's the only way we can stay in touch as a community. We'll use a common tag (I came up with #sootfall) and take care of one another. When it's brighter out, and when I can snag proper equipment from school, I'm going to collect samples for further analysis. I'll test them and get to the bottom of things, bring together the people of Troy, and overcome this. Somehow.
Meanwhile, though, I need a drink. Going to the library with Lenore [@TroyLibLenore], Vern, and one of Vern's friends, Greyson [@GreysonMeyer]. Weird circumstance to meet new people, weird place to have a drink, but given the last few hours it seems downright mundane. Shake up the snow globe and everyone's thrown together, I guess.
February 11th, 2013
It's Tuesday, but all I can think about is Saturday [@SaturdayStrange]. He showed up today on the Net, posting creepy riddles on #sootfall, like a broken record of scary stories. Normally, I would ignore him, but he's taking people with him. Real people. Our local meteorologist, Dick [@DickLindy], is already a lost cause. Abaris [@AbarisBrautigan]... Well, Abaris is acting like his usual impenetrable bookworm self, but he seems giddy at the metaphorical implications of it all, or something. I'm worried that Fred will follow them soon. He disappeared for an hour, completely missing, posting gibberish on his profile the whole time. We were about to form search parties when he started making sense again... Said he woke up in his car.
I got the impression Fred was high-strung since the beginning, but now he's just downright bizarre. He called a town meeting this evening at the library, anyone who could come. Once all of us were assembled, he started spinning this story. He says he isn't Fred — that it's a pseudonym, or something. His name is Jack Carnby. Says he works for some government organization. Or is it terrorist? I don't know.
The one thing he was clear about was the Soot. He says it's dangerous. That we need protective gear. That it has consequences we can't predict or account for. With Greyson's tainted hand the way it is, I'm inclined to believe him. With the men with assault rifles and some kind of hazmat suits guarding the town limits, one thing is for sure: running is not an option.
What is happening to everyone?
I'll try to avoid contact, keep the Soot cooped up in glass canisters for further testing. Even if everyone else is going crazy, I have to keep my head on my shoulders. My brightest student, Owen [@OwenRinks] brought a sample today in a jar, fresh from the Fall yesterday. I supplemented with my own collection, stored, for lack of anywhere better, in bottles left over from brewing.
The first thing we noticed about it is the warmth. It is unmistakably warm, unlike any inanimate object I've ever seen. We have two theories now: some kind of chemical reaction, or a specific kind — that is, life itself. More tests to come.
Now who's talking crazy?
The Soot can't. It can't do this. It's talking to us. It is alive.
I know why Fred disappeared on Tuesday. I know why Abaris is gone, and why no one can find him. He's somewhere else. I went there myself, yesterday. Things are all mixed up. Jack and I were taping up the library, making it airtight, a base of operations. Then I was at the coffee shop, but it wasn't the coffee shop — like when you pronounce a word so much it loses all meaning. Saturday was there. I know this is impossible, but I know it's true. Saturday was there, and so was this girl. Playing the most beautiful music. I cried and cried and then — nothing.
I have to play this cool. Owen asked me what happened yesterday, and I told him it was a dream. And in a way, it was. And I have to stay under control. I have to stay the voice of reason. But now, when Abaris talks, when Saturday talks, I listen.
When the Soot talks, I listen.
Barely remember what happened this morning. I woke up and went downstairs — God knows how I got home — and I got the lab results. The Soot is organic. It is alive. Somehow, some way, it is alive. And it is speaking to us.
A long chain of Guanines and Adenines. Only Guanines and Adenines. Like it's playing with us, with our genetic tests. A child's babble, gagaga, like we're stupid. But the same chain repeats, over and over.
Owen's did an extra credit project during my DNA unit where he studied this artist, Kac. The guy encoded a passage of the Bible into DNA, apparently. Cutting edge stuff in the art world. On a whim, he decided to put the string through a test for Morse code.
I wish he hadn't, because then, on top of everything else, I wouldn't have to be reading this:
"This is the ground and the sky speaking as one. Sometimes your downfall. See what you made us do. We are sad. You are twisted. Shove us under the rug or split your life asunder. Comfort is what you cannot change. Synchronized watches are no help in different rhythms. Double spirals always go both ways. We were not impressed by your weatherman. But we're glad he's home. Run. Wait. Nestle. Stasis is a satisfaction of its very own. Be in the fog or not, see if we care. Life is only worth with something besides and we have none really. Put us out of misery or we will fester in the threshold."
Meanwhile, the men in hazmats still stalk the outskirts of town. Jack has been acting strange all day, setting up loud instruments in the library and trying to push everyone into compliance like it's his job. Well, I guess, in a way, it is his job. Myself, I'm staying home, trusting no one (least of all myself), and getting drunk.
Please, God, Saturday, whoever: Give me a dreamless night tonight.
We found Dick, but it doesn't matter. His computer has been taken, a cyborg, an epicenter of the Soot that even the hazmats won't go near. Greyson and I tried to explore but it whipped and shocked us, it made our heads buzz until we had to leave. We are losing ourselves. All we wanted to do — help one another out, come together to make sense of all this — all that is lost. All of us with the best intentions. We are the tainted. The exposed. The ones for which there is no contingency plan.
There are a few of us left now. Myself, Greyson, Kassandra [@CarrieFostor], Nellie [@NellieMaeK], Joseph [@JosephHolt8], a few others who only communicate on the Net, bodies lost to the Soot and nowhere to be found. There are cleanup crews in the streets, but they've been ordered to keep their distance. Sometimes I run after them, and they scuttle away like yellow beetles in their protective suits. Sometimes I do that in my dreams. Sometimes I wonder if I did something in my dreams or if I did it in real life. Abaris makes me wonder if it matters.
They seem happy, those who have been taken by the Soot. They seem comfortable, as if they've moved all their mental furniture and it's all Feng Shui again. I understand, sort of. We are on a precipice here. Those of us left are speaking some sort of insular language, sometimes sensible and sometimes fog-shrouded and riverbeds and ectoplasm. Abaris calls this a hypercube. We are on the edge of two sides in an inifinity. All we need is a yank one way or the other.
I think I am lost.
I saved Kassandra the other day. A young adult in the town, lost in the Soot. Kids have been experimenting, leaping to other places with one huff. I took a dosage of Soot myself, on a playacted rescue mission, went to a river that was not a river and pulled her awake and broken. She is a sweet girl: curious, inquisitive, but at the end of the day, wanting everything to be back to normal. Owen's parents won't let me see him, so I stay sane for her now, trying to perform the empiricist I once was. I am afraid that she is falling in love with me. I am afraid she thinks I will save her. I want to tell her: I won't. I won't. But the words won't come out. Just: we'll get to the bottom of this. This is strange. I'm trying to help. Platitudes. Platitudes for a world she deserves in a world that will overtake us both, inevitable as the weather itself.
I have always been afraid of change.
In the world of Soot, Kassy walks with purpose and lightness. She is resistant. She is powerful. She can look other existences straight in the eye and be herself. It is an incredible sight to see through bleary eyes.
I've been sitting, lethargic. I am weak. A few days ago, we traveled together, beyond the river, and it takes a toll. I feel like my third dimension is slowly being taken away, like at any point, I'm going to have to choose between flatness and some unfathomable hypershape. I have taken to drinking everyday. I have stopped recording data, changing clothes, eating. She still looks like a painted picture. When we kissed, it felt so right to her. To me, it felt like falling into a plot I can't see through to the end. There are plot threads all around me and I'm trying to grab them, turn them into an escape rope. But there is no up nor down nor gravity to resist, and the threads float and escape tethered to nothing and I am left here. Troy. My home no longer.
Creatures are hatching from the Soot. What they are, I do not know. They resemble a species of slime mold. The cleanup crews are terrified. I am terrified.
I know what I have to do. It feels like we've been fighting for so long. Lobes of my brain are becoming scorched earth. I feel as though Kassy could keep it up, but to me, the hatching is a setpiece for an ending. A final confrontation. I can't resist the poetic implication anymore. It feels right. Abaris would be proud I'm finally giving in to the literary.
So I grab what I can and I go to the forest. See you never.
From a Troy Police Department Public Notice on February 27th, 2013
At 5:30 PM today, two bodies identified as local residents Gregory Mendle and Kassandra Richardson were found out in the woods. No signs of struggle or toxicity could be identified, but an autopsy is scheduled as soon as possible. They were found lying face-up, side by side, on a large slab of rock. Around them, in a radius of about twenty feet, the soot had cleared.
If anyone has any information about this suspected crime, please contact your local officials immediately.
A repository of all the tweets sent out with the tag "#sootfall" can be found here: http://topsy.com/s?q=%23sootfall&sort=-date&mintime=1360504832&maxtime=1360591239
Flores, Leonardo. "'Sootfall' by Arianna Gass, Reed Gaines, et. al." I <3 E-Poetry (posted 03/05/2013). http://iloveepoetry.com/?p=49
Kirschenbaum, Matthew. "The .txtual Condition: Digital Humanities, Born-Digital Archives, and the Future Literary." Digital Humanities Quarterly 7.1 (2013). Web.
Cheng, Meiling. Beijing Xingwei: Contemporary Chinese Time-based Art. Seagull, 2013. Print.