Hyperrhiz 14: Commentary

Impossible Interventions

Davin Heckman

Winona State University


At the 2015 Electronic Literature Organization Conference: The End(s) of Electronic Literature, organizers, Scott Rettberg (Conference Chair), Jill Walker Rettberg (Research Chair), and Roderick Coover (Arts Chair), extrapolated the conference theme in a number of directions. The "ends" were taken as an interrogation of electronic literature as a transitional term in a post-digital world, as an occasion to review the relationship that experimental literary forms take with an eye on their end-users, as an open invitation to the margins the emerging community of electronic literature practitioners, as an exploration of the boundaries between disciplines, and as a call to explore the goals of literary writers working in new media. Amid exhibitions on hybridity, children's e-lit, and global practice, "Interventions: Engaging the Body Politic" explored critical and subversive potential in electronic literature.

Hosted at the USF Verftet (formerly the United Sardine Factory) in Bergen, Norway, Interventions promised "works that engage with contemporary cultural discourse and political reality, challenging audiences to consider digital artifacts and practices that reflect and intervene in matters of the environment, social justice, and our relation to the habitus." The program explains:

Works presented in this exhibition include Inside the Distance by Sharon Daniel (US), The End: Death in Seven Colors by David Clark (CA), The Wandering: An Interactive Poetry Robot! by Jason Nelson (AU), Front by Donna Leishman (UK), Faceless Patrons by Andreas Zingerle (AT) and Linda Kronman (AT), Death of an Alchemist by Chris Rodley (AU) and Andrew Burrell (AU), Shy Nag: A Generated Code Opera by Chris Funkhouser (US), Sonny Rae Tempest (US), and Louis Wells (US), and The Exquisite Corpus: Issues in Electronic Literature by Talan Memmott (US).

As a member of the board of the Electronic Literature Organization and a researcher with specific interest in a model of digital poetics that subverts instrumental forms, I was asked to lead guests through the gallery, and so became familiar with the works. From this perspective, I found myself listening to the artists demonstrate many of the works identified, assessing their value as forms of critical engagement. (Unfortunately, Jason Nelson's Wandering did not make it to Norway; and Damon Baker's Oculus Rift translations of classic works for Cave environments was temporarily out of commission during the opening, though Baker himself was present to discuss the technical aspects of his work.)   

While the works all took on very different interpretations of the exhibition's theme, the curatorial vision facilitated a useful dialogue between pieces that worked through very different rhetorical and poetic strategies. Daniel's Inside the Distance, Clark's The End, and Memmott's Exquisite Corpus worked through the theme most directly, fitting under the umbrella of electronic "non-fiction," which extend the vocabulary of their closest narrative cousin, the documentary.

On its face, Exquisite Corpus scans as a documentary film — a series of beautiful shots of prominent figures in the field responding to various prompts, elegantly edited, with threads of "the real world" (ambient noises, daily life unfolding in the background, brief segments in color capturing impressions of "official" conference proceedings). And as a standalone object, one could consume the film in the way that one would read an anthology, extracting significant insights from each voice, teasing out contrasts, and gaining insights into a field of knowledge. The list of interviewees — "Mark Amerika, Simon Biggs, Serge Bouchardon, J. R. Carpenter, John Cayley, Cris Cheek, Maria Engberg, Jerome Fletcher, Maria Mencia, Nick Montfort, Jörg Piringer, Jill Walker Rettberg, Scott Rettberg, Alexandra Saemmer, Roberto Simanowski, Christine Wilks, Jaka Železnikar" — reads like a master syllabus of artists/theorists affiliated with Electronic Literature as a Model of Community in Practice (ELMCIP: http://elmcip.net). But there are tricks hidden within this documentary that, in spite of its linear presentation, benefit from situating it within the larger network.

For those who are engaged with the global practice of Electronic Literature communities, the impact of the ELMCIP project has been hard to ignore—the series of conferences, the various publications, the development of the Electronic Literature Knowledge Base, and the rippling effects that this activity has had on the continued growth of the field. This film should be understood as a single temporal strand that documents the development of knowledge that has flown through the project. But this particular strand is one that extends through many tapestries, providing an instance of navigation through content that rightfully should lead into deeper exploration of the many weavings that the project has produced.

More specifically germane to this review are the questions that Memmott explores in this text. Among these are: "is Google the end of of the world?"; "can there be a national e-literature?"; and "what is the place of digital poetics in global politics?"  Far from furnishing definitive answers, each question spills into a series of provocative meditations by some of the fields top practitioners. Yet, true to its title, Exquisite Corpus proceeds without any positions emerging as dominant (except, perhaps, the irony of the hidden filmmaker's concluding question: "is possible to conceal intent?"). This piece, though very clearly focused on capturing events that unfolded during the period of the ELMCIP Project, pursues a consistent interrogation of experimental writing against the larger field of communication practices, engaging in profound questions about writing in the age of globally networked digital communication.

Daniel's Inside the Distance dwells in the practical realm of crime and punishment, but with a nuanced utopianism at its heart. With a relatively straightforward interface, its stripped down aesthetic documents mediated encounters between victims and offenders. The focus of the piece, on "restorative justice," or approaches to crime that focus on providing victims the opportunity to engage with those who have harmed them with the intention of healing both parties and improving society, necessarily involves a great deal of vulnerability and risk. Daniel chooses to work with a minimal mise-en-scène, with the focus placed on the faces of the subjects as they meet across a table. The effect is to maintain a stark focus on the people involved, and as the title suggests, the expanse that holds them in tense engagement with each other. The interface allows readers to engage with layers of narrative, by subject position, event, and theme, an approach that is consistent with Daniel's larger body of work. While the vast majority of the visual space is darkness, the dual effect is to maintain the somber tone while carving out room for the intensity of the subjectivity driving the work. Like candles in a cave, at once Daniels highlights the flickering fragility of our humanity and the power of that fragile flame to dispel darkness. In this sense, Inside the Distance engages with the political in a powerful, if not immediately obvious, way. Here, I am reminded of Derrida's "enigma of the forgiveness of the unforgivable" (55), the conjuring of a relation beyond the political, the depth of being that justifies the recourse to politics.

David Clark's The End: Death in Seven Colors describes itself as "a paranoid meta-text organized around themes of concealment, secrecy, the unknown, and the shifting boundary between animal, man and computer in the post-human era."  Drawing on biographical segments on Turing, Freud, Duchamp, Benjamin, Lady Di, Jim Morrison, and Judy Garland, intermingled with fictional, fantastic, and surreal film clips, The End is a film without one. Created in Korsakow, a platform which allows artists to generate films by assembling a database of tagged content, which can then compile new iterations with each viewing, the film defies narrative closure, instead reveling in the power of signs to imply narrative continuities in the mind of the viewer. Clark's reliance on icons who themselves remain wrapped in ambiguities create ample opportunities for viewers to find their way through the text. Chris Rodley and Andrew Burrell's Death of an Alchemist is also a database generated work, and like The End, it traffics in paranoia and death. Based on the life and death of a 16th Century monk, alchemist, and cryptographer, Trithemius, the work draws upon a variety of streams to assemble a single, changing grid of content scraped from Trithemius's work, Google, Twitter, and other social media, stitched together in a sprawling text that reads as a collapse into hypertextual psychosis. The preoccupation with crypto and data-mining positions the piece as a critique of digital surveillance, suggesting, perhaps, that the truth itself might prove to be maddening. Together, these two works explore the instability of epistemic frameworks and stable narratives, while at the same time exposing our ability to fabricate cohesion, and perhaps rationalize the irrational.

Donna Leishman's Front personalizes the specter of digital surveillance through a dystopian revision of Apollo and Daphne rendered in social media simulation. To experience the work, users log into Front, a Facebook-esque social media platform, as Daphne. One must check off the work's compulsory "Terms of Service," which include permission to:

Allow advertising based on my gender, age, weight, height and other physical attributes
Allow advertising based on my state of mind
Allow advertising based things I say
Allow advertising based things I want to say but then don't
Allow advertising based things other people say to me
Use my likeness in third-party advertising
Allow access to my browser history to better target advertising
Use my likeness to promote groups I join
Protect my privacy by indiscriminately tracking everything I do

Over the course of play, the poetics of which carries the reader through the interaction, the user is pursued by a relentless (and harassing) suitor, and, like the mythical Daphne, escapes by becoming a tree. In Front, Leishman carves out a dystopian meditation on the dynamics of social media, the question of agency, and the power of social surveillance on identity.

Andreas Zingerle and Linda Kronman's Faceless Patrons enacts a simulation of the personal in an altogether different way. A series of frames with photographs mounted alongside fraudulent checks used to "purchase" them, Faceless Patrons uses an AR layer to explore the stories behind each image and the thwarted transaction. Zingerle and Kronman engineer reversals of "overpayment check scams." In such scams, the victim, often an artist, is paid with a forged check for an incorrect amount. The scammer then convinces the victim to cash the check and simply refund them the difference. The trick is that a loophole on check processing procedures can prevent a bank from discovering the nature of the false payment, and since the victim is on the hook as the signatory to the payment, they bear the responsibility for the costs. To challenge this exploitation of the interval created between digital communication networks and analogue networks of art and commerce, Zingerle and Kronman create Anna Masquer, a fictional photographer, as bait for would-be scammers. The goal, as Zingerle and Kronman explain, is to draw out the storytelling created by internet scammers and to craft another story, Masquer's, to interact in this narrative ecology (and to explore the ethics of scambaiting). All the while, documenting the twists and turns of the plot as the various events intervene. Adding ironic richness to the piece, Masquer's images, photographs of damaged tombstone portraits, reference the layers of occluded (and stolen) identity that are part and parcel of the fantasy world constructed to perpetrate the scam. The grand result is a novel approach to transmedia storytelling that inhabits a region where internet art, digital culture research, and activism converge.  

As a final bookend to this show, a live performance of Chris Funkhouser, Sonny Rae Tempest, and Louis Wells' Shy Nag: A Generated Code Opera, occupied the most ardently absurdist pole. An ecstasy of verbiage, "Shy Nag" was composed by

opening the image file of an UnderAcademy College course logo… as a Chinese character-encoded text file. The resultant text became English via Google Translate, and was subsequently processed and filtered through Word spell-check. Since the code is lengthy, over fifty pages, the output was large. (Funkhouser and Tempest)

The text was edited by the authors to create a script, which was read by a large cast of performers, in front of a projected field of changing colors (generated by extracting hexadecimal color codes from the original file). The audio accompaniment was generated by converting the large text file into a MIDI file, which Tempest arranged for piano, guitar, and double bass. The narrative arc of the opera, initiated by the decision to open the .jpg within a specific framework of machine reading, urged forward by the artists' edits to the generated text, extended through efforts of the performers, and consummated by the will of the viewer, could be summarized best as a psychedelic struggle against senselessness. The affordance of the live performance space and stadium seating, the framing of the work as a dramatic spectacle in which characters engage in dialogue, all serve as key anchor points for engagement with the work. While I found myself (and my co-conspirators in the audience) laughing at key moments of spectacle, I found more sober insights embedded in the work as well, not the least of which is the question of meaning in an age of data overload and the role that culture plays in situating us as agents in the world. Shy Nag, the least overtly political of the works, relied most heavily on the social as its greatest special effect.

Taken as an entire experience, Interventions provided an experience that managed to meet its stated expectations and expand my conception of the terrain. Linear and nonlinear, fiction and non-fiction, serious and playful, the range of experiences represented in the show gestured towards the potential fine arts, specifically literary arts, have to expand our understanding of politics beyond what's already understood. Connecting practical realities (like crime and theft) to conceptual realities (like the nature of meaning and limits of representation), such work reminds us that the political is at once more primordial and more radical than the tidy packages offered up by the branded, institutional entities that attempt to speak our desires in bumper stickers, buttons, and yard signs.


References

Clark, David. "The End: Death in Seven Colors." 2015. «http://theend7.net»

Daniel, Sharon. "Inside the Distance."  2015. «http://insidethedistance.net»

Derrida, Jacques. On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. Trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Funkhouser, Chris, and Sonny Rae Tempest. "Shy nag (a code opera): ACT II" Cordite Poetry Review. Chapbook. 1 Feb. 2016. «http://cordite.org.au/chapbooks-features/s-h-y-n-a-g-a-c-t-i-i/»

Funkhouser, Chris, Sonny Rae Tempest, and Louis Wells. "Shy Nag: A Generated Code Opera." Interventions. Multimedia Performance.

Interventions: Engaging the Body Politic. 7 Aug. 2015. Visningsrommet USF. Bergen, Norway. «http://usf.no/media/1892443/interventions-engaging-the-body-politic.pdf»

Leishman, Donna. "Front." New Media Scotland. 2014. «http://www.mediascot.org/alt-w/donnaleishman/front»

Memmott, Talan. "The Exquisite Corpus: Issues in Electronic Literature." ELMCIP. 2015. «http://elmcip.net/creative-work/exquisite-corpus»

Rodley, Chris, and Andrew Burrell. "Death of an Alchemist." 2015. «https://chrisrodley.com/2015/08/23/death-of-an-alchemist/»

Zingerle, Andreas, and Linda Kronman. "Faceless patrons." 2013. « http://kairus.org/portfolio/faceless-patrons-2013/»

Zingerle, Andreas, and Linda Kronman. "Faceless patrons — an augmented installation exploring 419- fictional narratives." Proceedings of International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling, Bahçeşehir University, Istanbul, Turkey. 2013. «http://www.andreaszingerle.com/publication-faceless-patrons-an-augmented-installation-exploring-419-ctional-narratives/»


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http://dx.doi.org/10.20415/hyp/014.c02