Hyperrhiz 17

e-Lit Jazz

Sandy Baldwin
West Virginia University

Rui Torres
University Fernando Pessoa, Portugal

Citation: Baldwin, Sandy and Rui Torres. “e-Lit Jazz.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 17, 2017. doi:10.20415/hyp/017.g01

Artists’ Statement

Keith Richards: “Once we get behind our instruments there’s something bigger. The sum is greater than the parts. There’s just a feeling that we were meant to do this, we have to do this, and we’re just following the trail.”

Start from the case of Jazz and jazz improvisation. Think of the energy, think of the emergent form, think of the bodies in motion and communicating: eyes ablaze, fingers moving, breath through the instruments. What is like this in electronic writing? Can this provide a model for electronic writing? What if we look for the equivalent of Sun Ra or Billie Holiday in e-lit? There is much talk of embodiment in e-lit but this deceptive or at least fleeting, bodies seen in their traces, their haptic interfaces, their encodings; bodies as terminal points. Sure, e-lit authors read their work, typically still and stiff, incanting off the screen; and if they are dynamic and mobile, it seem to avoid the e in the lit, returning to older forms of performance poetry. Jazz improv is carried through bodies, through and in the instruments, bodies as producers and produced, not as terminals.

More generally, jazz is a life force. Its energy is palpable. How can we promote this in e-lit? Aristotle’s Poetics or the Indian Natyashastra (with its concept of “rasa,” that Alan Sondheim has invoked in relation to digital embodiment) think of the work as a bodily and communal artifact. Certainly concrete poetry attempted to describe something like this: the Noigandres pilot plan treats poetry as a feedback with a viewer or viewers. Certainly strands of e-lit such as the recent netprov explore improvisation and collaboration, but what if we start from this point?

Can the emergent features of this model account for “literariness” in electronic literature?

Do we need another account of literariness in electronic literature? Most accounts are based on the following:

  1. literary mechanisms (literariness as an aesthetic use of the machine);
  2. textual mechanisms (literariness as an aesthetic use of text);
  3. authorial mechanisms (literariness as an expression of the author’s style; machine used differently); and
  4. thematic mechanisms (literariness as an expression of certain themes in culture).

We find all this useful and productive but directed from paradigms rooted in the single authored textual artifact. Yet art, and certainly the art of the last century, belies this. From conceptual art to modern theater, multi-performer and multi-artist works provide another and perhaps more useful approach to electronic literature.

How does jazz improv differ?

  1. the instruments are significant but are clearly media for bodies, for breath, for movement;
  2. the text is minimal or at least functions as a script/score, its role as an artifact secondary to its role as a provocation and means;
  3. the authors are multiple and no one intention dominates, but they may take turns, and there may be exciting emergent authorial forms; and
  4. certainly there are a variety of thematics in improvisation, and it may model complex ways of exploring a theme and its variations.

It is true that we speak of performance from the perspective of the reader – the reader performs the text. However, far too often this approach is subordinated to the single authored textual artifact. The text is performed by the reader but it remains singular and authored. The reader confirms the text, or if we focus on reader response, then such response is based on the text as artifact. From this, three immediate areas, explored in this presentation:

  1. approaching all e-lit in this way
  2. re-organizing definitions and canons of e-lit in this way
  3. proposing alternative future directions for e-lit in this way

The following is an improvisation of e-lit theory. Firstly, what is theory today? We (whoever we is) are past the era where theory was something in itself. Today theory is absorbed into all we do. At the same time, the e part of e-lit, the flowing electrons, require any theory of e-lit to be improvised, on the fly, over the wires. In short, theory operates as a kind of “metadata,” annotations for performing data.

More specifically, “e-Lit Jazz” is about re-situating e-lit in terms of jazz but also riffing on e-lit, approaching e-lit as jazz. This theory performance takes multiple forms, as is the case for an improvisation.

Firstly, an essay we wrote. The core of the writing is seventeen paragraphs on e-lit. Even here, this writing is fragmented, nodes of writing composed of at least two voices, sometimes one, sometimes more. You can enter at and leave at any point.

Second, a performance that took place in Victoria, Canada. At that moment, we performed the work within the institutional space of the conference held by the Electronic Literature Organization, that is, within the space that defines “electronic literature.” In doing so, we recombined the terms for naming e-lit, we riffed on it. The order of the statements was randomized for reading and new terms were programmed and seeded into these texts. For the audience, the performance made a statement about e-lit as jazz, but in a form that was never to be repeated.

Finally, here, where you can read the latest performance of e-lit jazz. You can once again read the essay in its fragments, while at the same time a javascript grabs phrases and recombines the essay as you read it. This latest of the series of performances makes a statement for readers of Hyperrhiz but also keeps on playing e-lit jazz.