Charting the Shifting Seas of Electronic Literature’s Past and Present
In the field of electronic literature, ten years is a very long time. It is generally noted that electronic literature has already, in its twenty-or-so-odd year tenure, seen the passing of two generations. During the past decade, Drunken Boat nurtured the nascent field by embracing and supporting its evolution—providing an exhibition space for diverse genres of experimental work. While other online journals dedicated to showcasing digital literature stalled production, Drunken Boat remained an anchor in the turbulent seas of new media literary arts. On its tenth anniversary of production, Drunken Boat stands aloft,
offering us an opportunity to assess the winds of the past and present and begin to identify those pushing us into the future. Where are we now? What can we expect in the next ten years of digital literature?
To begin navigating these questions, we will first look back. Delving into Drunken Boat’s archives of Web Art yields the immediate question: What is web art? What unites the diverse collection of pieces contained in the folios? Certainly these artworks are all born digital, but their aesthetics, formats, and artistic traditions range in scope and substance in such diffuse ways that
they warrant the question: Are there characteristics that bind these works and render them part of an evolving tradition? Over the last decade, web art and, in particular, electronic literature has emerged as a veritable field with identifiable aesthetic trends and tropes, central canonical works, and primary creative and critical players. This essay and its accompanying folio presents a purview of the field by selecting works that showcase different aspects of electronic literature and its evolution. The first half of the essay and folio adopt a retrospective glance, gleaning content from Drunken Boat’s archives that collectively present some of the main changes from the last ten years and expose certain enduring enterprises. From this foundation, the second half of the essay focuses on five contemporary trends, again via indicative works, as a means of testing the waters that are defining the emergent landscape of electronic literature.
Charting a Course: Five Works from Drunken Boat’s Archives
The second issue of Drunken Boat (2001) archived online contains a work that creates a parallel between the computer screen and real space in ways that illuminate the actions involved in navigating through both and reading the interfaces involved in such movement. Jody Zellen’s “Visual Chaos” presents the screen as a layered grid and then layers this interface with scenes from modern cities, the physical grids of urban streets and buildings punctuated by pedestrians."1 Zellen creates a layered semiotics of vision wherein the cityscape and the computer screen both become places to see and read. She does so by layering the space of the computer screen with pop-up windows of different sizes, shapes, and colors. Zellen is an innovator in the creative use of pop-ups; she uses them to build a layered effect onscreen and to frame the reading practice.2 In “Visual Chaos” pop-ups both produce visual chaos and stem it. The pop-ups contain photographs of cityscapes and the shadowy outlines of people moving through them; some move around the screen, drawing the reader’s vision with them. Most of the images are heavily pixilated and over-exposed, spliced into boldly colored geometric grids that both illuminate the technical and artistic aspects of their construction and also deconstructs their content. There is a modernist impulse in Zellen’s
work: a focus on medium (the city’s physical architecture and
information architecture of the Internet) as well as a fascination with
the simultaneous beauty and terror of modern spaces and times. There
is also the sense that the piece invites and produces a perspective akin
to a contemporary flâneur who explores cyberspace as he does urban boulevards, and this
trope endures in electronic literature. But Zellen’s innovative use of pop-ups to populate the screen uniquely exposes the framing devices through which we see content onscreen. In her hands the little windows that enable web browsing and reading online become formative aesthetic tools for teaching her viewer to see anew.
The same issue of Drunken Boat contains a very different kind of work by another force in the web art world. Thom Swiss—venerable poet, new media critic, former president of the Electronic Literature Organization, and former editor of The Iowa Review Web—partners with designer Skye Giordano to create the short animated poem “Genius.” Swiss and Giodano’s “Genius” exemplifies the genre of second generation of Flash poetry that was the mainstay of electronic literature in and around the mid-late 1990s
and into the early years of the new century. Such work was showcased in the literary journal Poems That Go (edited by Megan Sapnar and Ingrid Ankerson 2000-2004). This particular work exemplifies the genre by delivering a short blast of multimodal energy while registering a sharp
cultural critique of the news media. The poem begins with an image frozen from the camera of a news feed, children throwing stones in a war torn area, and then comments on the mediated nature of the film. The newsreel proceeds with “a quick cut back” to the soldiers who are the targets of the projectiles because, the voiceover tells us, “it was, after all, their scene.” The force of these words is delivered in the strong male voice that reads the poem above the electronic music that sets the pulse
of the work. Like Zellen’s piece, this is a poem about visual chaos. The chaos here is not located in the energy of an urban landscape but in the imagery of war and violence that is framed by television screens projecting this visual chaos into living rooms where mothers read magazines and children nap. The short poem hits home at the end when the voice concludes, “You don’t have to be a genius/ to read his face or guess/ this wreckage will fuck him up.” The mother changes the channel and the screen flickers with white noise before resting on the test pattern grid-shot of rainbow colors. This final act of remediation turns the computer screen into a television screen and reminds us of the dangerous power these screens exert on our children and us. Since this poem is not interactive, the reader sits back and watches the screen as the poem produces this commentary. The layers of pop-up windows
in Zellen's piece are here replaced with layers of critique that pivot around a central question raised by electronic literature: What is the difference between reading and viewing onscreen? This question, and its invitation to discuss critical reading versus passive viewing
as well as the distinctions between highbrow art and lowbrow play, continues to underlay
more contemporary creative and critical examinations of web art.
Jumping ahead in the archives, David Jhave Johnston’s “Sooth” (DB 7) displays a different style of kinetic poetry than Swiss and Giodano’s “Genius” but remains rooted in that genre. “Sooth” demonstrates how high-definition ambient video and sound can push a poem to become a ravishingly sensual performance. “Sooth” contains a stark black background in the midst of which is a video screen that displays high quality and insightfully shot ambient videos of diverse scenes: a woman’s body covered in sheets, a sheet of ice cracking, undulations of gray water. Clicking on the video launches poetic fragments to appear onscreen accompanied by ambient sounds that both complicate and heighten the sensory experience expected from the image. The work is notable for displaying the convergence of video art
and electronic literature, a trend that continues to inspire works created both for the computer screen and performance spaces. So too does Johnston’s “Sooth” expose the power of sound to be a vital characteristic of electronic literature’s multimodal currency. Early electronic literature, hypertexts in particular, used sound sparingly if at all; second generation Flash works (like “Genius”) used sound as soundtrack to propel narrative. In contrast, “Sooth” shows sound to be a vital semiotic force, one that produces, enhances, and complicates the meaning of the text it accompanies. For example, the section titled “weeds” contains a video that wanders over the sheet-covered body of a woman as she lies in bed in extreme close-up. The slumberous tone and voyeuristic sensibility of the video are disturbed by the soundtrack: a collection of electronically mixed sounds which are not immediately decipherable but resemble the loud static of white noise coupled with recorded voicemail messages and waves hitting the shore. The aural effect adds another layer to the love poem, prompting the reader to read between the juxtapositions of image, text, and sound. The work exposes how electronic literature can not only engage multiple senses but also ignite them as poetic tools.
The next issue of Drunken Boat (8) contains a work that could be considered the opposite of Johnston’s multimodal love poems to
the human and natural world. Andres Manniste’s “Cacophonie” retreats from sensorial immersion to focus on the technical languages that comprise and enable digital literature. Although “Cacophonie” is not technically a piece of codework, it evokes contemporary discourse about that literary genre and the theoretical implications codework presents regarding the relationship between human and machine code.3 As its name suggests, “Cacophonie” displays multiple semiotic registers layered in a kind of palimpsest. A family photograph is rendered in ASCII script and then run through a code check so that the bodies of father, mother, and child appear in the form of pixels and text. This image is then sprinkled with intertextual references (including Wittgenstein and T.S. Eliot) that invite decoding at the level of critical interpretation. The layering of code and words also supports a narrative text of layered fears—nuclear war, sidewinders, religion—supplemented by layers of sound files, primarily voices and bombs. As the reader clicks through the screens, these layers blur and merge; the colors deepen in density as the relationship between code and text, image and words, philosophy and programming becomes intertwined. The work has visible ties to the genre of ASCII art, which has obvious connections to pre-computer poetic experiments such as concrete poetry, and
it pursues this interest in combining multiple codes of computer and human communication to illustrate the tension between harmony and cacophony at the level of semiotics. “Cacophonie” also illustrates electronic literature to be a hybrid of past and present movements in art, literature, and computing—an interdisciplinary movement that exposes as it explores intersections between fields and technical forms.
The final selection from the archive takes a decisively different approach to illuminating the connections between electronic literature and other, previous artistic approaches: the
two featured works return to the print origins of poetry by pursuing an aesthetic of remediation. J.R. Carpenter’s “How I Loved the Broken Things of Rome” (DB 8) and Travis Alber’s “Thirty Days of Rain” (DB 9) adapt Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s media theory into a literary technique that shows how print media is refashioned through new media in works of electronic literature that recapture the sensual and sentimental
effects of print elegiac poetry.4 Both works are about memory and loss, and they share a poetic tone of nostalgia. For Carpenter, the poem recalls the beauty of trip to Rome; for Alber, the poem appears as a series of haikus, one for each day of the month of grieving, that records the pains of an impending move away from her beloved San Francisco. Both works saturate sentimental situations by remediating a particular formal aesthetic and print-based format of depicting nostalgia—the scrapbook. Carpenter contains her poem within a scrollable vertical register at the center of the screen and surrounds it with collected images (photographs seemingly cut-and-pasted into an artful arrangement around the text); Alber also uses images that seem to be extracted from their surroundings, but the aesthetic is more obviously computer-created than Carpenter’s stylized collage. These
works present the digital poem as a kind of personal archive which archives, through the artistic technique of remediation, print-based methods of recording memories. They also represent a trend in contemporary electronic literature. In tandem with the continuing surge towards innovation and interactivity, a counter trend can be seen emerging: a tendency to reevaluate and remediate the appearance and aptitudes of paper
and print-based literary practices. Carpenter’s oeuvre is the exemplary case for this aesthetic—“Entre Ville” (2006) sets as its background the remediated page of a lined notebook—but other recent works share a similar pursuit.5 These last works selected from the archive display the incorporation and aestheticization of print-based methods of literary production into digital literature, but the point they make extends to all of the works examined in this section: the archive illustrates how electronic literature maintains ties to print
literature and often relies upon this foundation even as it pursues new levels of innovation and experimentation through digital media.
Unchartered Waters: Five New Works (or Categories of Works)
The works contained in the following section each represent a
significant trend in contemporary electronic literature and provide insight into the field’s future. Interestingly, many of the works showcased here seem to defy the confines of a web-based journal like Drunken Boat. As digital technologies become less bound to the screen, more locative and networked, so too does experimental electronic literature. Digital literature and its venues for presentation, particularly the ever-important literary journal, are intertwined in their development and dependency.
Thus, as electronic literature becomes more diffuse and distributed, literary journals will also have to chart new paths across those as-yet-unforeseen tributaries.
Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries (YHCHI) has achieved the kind of popular and critical success few web artists and writers of electronic literature have yet to know. Their work attracts popular and academic audiences while bridging the art worlds located online and in museum spaces; indeed, they have exhibited their work worldwide, including solo shows as the Whitney,
Museum of American Art and the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens.6 YHCHI made a name for themselves with a simple aesthetic that flashes black text against a white screen set to a pulsing soundtrack. Refusing to experiment with the options for extensive multimedia interactivity offered by the Flash software in which they compose, YHCHI instead focus on delivering charged, layered narrative in a choreographed performance. They are thus part of the genre of kinetic poetry that includes Swiss and Giodiano’s “Genius.” YHCHI’s steadfast retention of their simple style has recently become the subject of critique—claims that they have not evolved with the times. YHCHI’s work has, in fact, evolved but in ways that, like their texts, require careful reading to ascertain. YHCHI’s works may seem simple and straightforward upon first viewing, but they unveil layers of meaning and intertextuality upon further reading
and through attentive close reading. What has changed in recent years is subtle but provocative: YHCHI have started creating their own music—a fact that identifies YHCHI as truly multi-media artists. YHCHI’s Flash-ing works are also growing increasingly longer (consider that Dakota
 runs 6 minutes whereas
more recent pieces are around twenty minutes long). The animations are also
getting slower, requiring prolonged, focused attention to a more
legible narrative. The topics of their narrative have also
shifted, particularly the subject of their political critique,
to the experience of living in a state of terror during a war on terror in which individual citizens internalize terror. As the Internet and electronic literature grow increasingly interactive, and as electronic literature pursues new modes of experimentation with innovations in technological applications, YHCHI continue to show how simple design and sophisticated content provoke and challenge in meaningful ways.
Rather than serve as an anomaly amongst the selection of contemporary works representing the current moment and visible future of digital literature, YHCHI’s retention of associations to digital literature’s past is a viable thorough line for considering how new works approach, adapt, and reach beyond their immediate predecessors. One way in which electronic literature is transforming with the times is through the use of Web 2.0 social networking tools and cross-platform applications for the creation of narrative works; and one work that represents the continuation of older models of electronic literature into this new,
networked era is Mark C. Marino’s “Marginalia in the Library of Babel.”
Specifically, “Marginalia” displays the evolution of hypertext
into the current generation of Web 2.0 electronic literature.
This text-based narrative spreads across webpages created by
others, injecting the mediations of an insomniac narrator
through annotations in remediated post-it notes via the
web-application called Diigo. Inspired by Borges’ short story
about an infinite library, “The Library of Babel,” the narrator
roams the Internet realizing the parallels between the two
spaces; the reader follows the textual traces left by this
increasingly distressed narrator in the form of marginalia. The reader combs through the annotations left on webpages the narrator
has visited, deciphering his notes and piecing together his personal story and chronology of writing through the time-stamps left on the post-it notes. The work
thus promotes a meta-awareness that reading is always partly an act of reading over the shoulder of
a previous reader and that electronic literature, with all its novelty, still relies on the humanistic, and perhaps even voyeuristic, interests that prompt readers of fiction to follow their narrators and the narratives they leave behind. Moreover, Marino’s piece encourages readers of electronic literature to recall the pleasures of hypertext. At a time when hypertext seems to have been rejected as a literary genre in favor of short, Flash-based works, “Marginalia” reminds us of the narrative pleasure located in hyperlinks and text-based lexias.
It reveals the return of a refashioned literary form. In this way, Marino’s work shares an aesthetic agenda with Carpenter's and Alber’s remediations
by adopting remediation as an artistic technique.
A different trend in Web 2.0 electronic literature uses the new networking tools to consider the categorical construction and creative process of literature. Increasingly, more works are using RSS feeds and applications like Twitter to build narrative works. Consider Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph’s networked novel Flight Paths.7 This ongoing project is constructed upon a narrative about lives that intersect, and its authors have opened the creative process to others, allowing readers to submit multimedia aspects to the story. Pullinger calls this a “net-native participatory media fiction project,”8 and it is identifiable as a literary aspect of what Henry Jenkins calls “convergence culture.”9
The interface of the work is a patchwork quilt of images, text,
and videos presented in discrete windows that fill the screen
and encourage the reader to seek out intersections between the
narrative threads and the identities of the writers submitting
them. The story begins with a man falling from the sky and
landing on the hood of a woman’s car while she grocery-shops. The man is a stowaway fleeing from Pakistan, and when he interrupts the diurnal life of
this English woman, the story spins out from this particular localized moment to spread across continents, voices, genres, and media forms. Flight Path explores the potential of networked collaboration in networked media in ways that illuminate new paths for others to follow. Towards a different effect, J. R Carpenter’s “Tributaries & Text-Fed Streams” and “In Absentia” also employ innovations in Internet applications and activities as inspiration for new literature.10 “Tributaries” uses the metaphor of streams—streaming text online, streaming water in the North Vancouver, and streaming consciousness—as a symbolic juncture through which to display the act of writing as part creation, part collection, part commentary, and part distribution. The resulting “textual tributary,” as the author calls it, explores “the formal and functional properties of RSS, using blogging, tagging and other Web 2.0 tools… to play with, expose, expand upon, and subvert formal structures of writing, literature, and literary criticism.”11 Carpenter’s “In Absentia” also pursues the formal structures of Web 2.0 writing, but instead of RSS feeds it uses Google maps as the backdrop on which narrative appears in pop-ups over actual locations provided by satellite images. This mash-up aesthetic is an evident continuation of Manniste’s layering in “Cacophonie” and builds upon Zellen’s composite of the relationship between real, urban spaces and Internet spaces in “Visual Chaos” (DB 1);
Carpenter's work shows how innovations in Internet technologies affect our relation to both cyber and real spaces. Another literary project that utilizes RSS feeds and Web 2.0 applications is “Twistori” by Amy Hoy and Thomas Fuchs.12 “Twistori” collects text feeds from Twitter-based sites and streams them into four categories based on their use of the keywords “love,” “hate,” “think,” “believe,” “feel,” and “wish.” The project is less about the creation of an autonomous literary work than about the potential of text feeds to represent a kind of collective consciousness in text and in real-time. The program generates a distinctly poetic affect and an interesting “social experiment,” to use the words of its creators. Engaging with the newest modes of Web 2.0 technologies, these recent literary experiments continue to push the boundaries of electronic literature and of literature in general by challenging
our definitions of a literary “work” and an “author”
as well as the activity of reading. Electronic literature has always complicated the theoretical scaffolding of such categories, but these Web 2.0 works make these challenges explicit, formal facets of the narratives themselves.
Another trend that pursues older ambitions of electronic literature in new ways is encapsulated in works that explore three-dimensional space as a venue for literary experimentation. While YHCHI, Marino, and the web-based writers mentioned above embrace the confines of the screen as a space for presenting narrative, other digital writers are experimenting with ways to break free of these flat dimensions. In a recent issue of The Iowa Review Web titled “Writing.3D”, guest editor Rita Raley begins her introduction by asking, “How do we read texts that do not simply simulate dimension but in fact materialize and operate on the z-axis?”13 The question, and the collection Raley organizes around it, identifies an important strain of electronic literature: works that exploit the spatial dimensions of computers and of cyberspace, often by bypassing both altogether. Daniel Howe and Aya Karpinska, graduates of Brown University’s MFA program in Electronic Writing, apply what they learned creating pieces for Brown’s virtual reality space, the CAVE, into real space installation projects
and onto the Internet. “Open Ended” (2004) is one such work (also included in Raley’s issue) that displays the movement of a three-dimensional object—in this case, a cube—as the surface for literary text and interaction with it.14 Even a cursory engagement with the work exposes the vast potential of such experiments. The drive toward
depicting depth through the computer screen is also evident in Jason Nelson’s work, particularly “Between Treacherous Objects” (2007),15 which invites the reader to dive into the screen and navigate between layers of image-text that form a narrative. Such work challenges writers and readers of electronic literature to recognize navigation as a central aspect of reading and of semiotic significance.16 Nelson also invites readers to “modify/recreate/destroy/play the layering” of the piece’s interface, a design he calls “Within Spaces.”17 The potential for experimentation and exploration of new narrative spaces and aesthetics is, pardon the pun, immeasurably deep. Yet, for the most part such efforts at three-dimensionality and virtual reality remain confined of the configurations of a particular computer system (the CAVE, an individual user’s screen, or a site-specific installation). The final two categories of work showcased in this folio stretch beyond the final frontier of the individual user’s machine and into the networked spaces of daily life.
The final section of this folio is dedicated to works that use
omnipresent technologies such as cell phones and G.P.S. devices
to explore the possibilities of locative narrative—stories that
unfold in real places and in real time through mobile
technologies. Most of these projects are still in development,
but they deserve inclusion here as part of electronic
literature’s visible future. Jeremy Hight’s
“34 North by 118 West” (2002) might be considered the first of this genre.18 The work uses G.P.S. technologies connected to a laptop to present narrative to ambulatory readers who uncover stories situated in Los Angeles’ industrial era. These narratives are inextricable from the real spaces in which the events happened, prompting Hight to describe the resulting reading process as “narrative archaeology”; the aesthetic and theoretical implications of this term and the reading practice it denotes are nothing short of fascinating.19 Hight is also participating in another locative experiment also situated in Los Angeles, “The L.A. Flood Project,” currently under the direction of Mark C. Marino but also including Jeremy Douglass, Lisa Ann Tao, Juan B. Gutiérrez, and others.20 The conceit of the narrative is that a massive flood has hit the city of Los Angeles and is spilling disaster across the urban landscape. The narrative contains the voices—literally, since the story is accessed through cell phones—of numerous characters spread across the city as well as listener/participants who create their own tales and add them to this narrative urban sprawl. Readers call in to access narrative lexias in aural files from their locations as they navigate real space with cell phone in hand. The reader’s body serves as her avatar for navigating a hypertextual narrative space wherein virtual and real space mesh to become a purely narrative world. Locative narrative projects are in the works worldwide. One of the most large-scale and promising is Laura Borràs Castanyer and Juan B. Gutiérrez’s Global Poetic System.
The navigatory narrative system is built for the city of
Barcelona and debuted in that city at the E-Poetry
conference in May, 2009.21 The project utilizes Google maps to
locate the reader and narrative hot spots within the urban space and proceeds with expansive ambition for acting as literary project, information system, tourism tour, and learning opportunity. It is not hard to see how such projects are groundbreaking—both literally and figuratively—for locative narrative rewards readers who pound actual pavement while also navigating their mobile networks to discover a textual world of storytelling.
A Final Breath
Drunken Boat’s tenth anniversary edition is an achievement that awards us all—readers, creators, teachers, and scholars—with an opportunity to peer out from the vantage point of a decade at sea on the shifting waters of electronic literature and to appreciate our past and assess our current location. One thing is certain: the field is growing and evolving, finding new streams to explore while also pursuing familiar locations to greater depths. It is my hope that the essay and accompanying collection expose these simultaneous movements by showing continuity and rupture across formal and thematic trends. In addition to the aspects discussed explicitly, these works make evident that electronic literature is becoming more collaborative and international (consider the authors listed in the Web 2.0 and locative works), more bi-lingual (as in Carpenter’s “In Absentia” and Castanyer and Juan B. Gutiérrez’s “Global Poetics System”). More writers are exploring the possibilities of free open source software as opposed to proprietary Flash (consider Marino’s “Marginalia,” Hoy and Fuchs’ “Twistori,” or Pullinger and Joseph’s Flight Paths). Yet, amongst this turning tide remains the promise of persistent rhythms.
The ebb and flow of prominent genres, themes, tropes, and formal techniques remain vital and visible even as they, like the classical figures at the end of Ezra Pound’s second canto, mutate into sea-monsters. With its allusion to Arthur Rimbaud’s poem, Drunken Boat proclaims awareness that our artistic past informs our present and inspires our future. Electronic literature is, and has always been, a literary art that sails on the edge of the charted map defining what literature is and where it can go. As Drunken Boat celebrates a decade of activity, we look back, around, and forward, putting all hands on deck and bracing for another decade of exploration as we head towards the bright horizon.