final project | synthetic dreams (demo)

For my final project, I chose to create my own work of electronic literature. The result was the demo of synthetic dreams, a work of hypertext fiction built with Twine which explores the ways we navigate thoughts and the ways we navigate data.

A second-person narrative, the player inhabits a character whose brain is part organic and part synthetic and therefore able to access “the network” directly from their mind. The network responds to requests for information first in logical ways and then in increasingly abstract ways if the user is not satisfied.

When the user’s needs are simple, like wanting to know the current temperature or the train schedule, the network can respond efficiently. When the user’s needs are more complex however, like when they are pondering the beauty of a sunset or a stranger’s bare arms and shoulders, the network begins to pull from its bank of literature, poetry, and user-generated content to find answers.

You can read my artist’s statement here.

Journal #10 – ENGL 335

mar 25/18 • a collage made of code

When we weren’t worried about mobile devices and responsive design, websites used to look more like collages. The cool ones, anyways. Webmasters weren’t afraid to layer elements, or put them in fixed positions on the page. I love this style not only because it more closely resembles the kind of cut-and-paste art style I’m so fond of when working with paper, but also because it allows for the comparison and juxtaposition of images and text in engaging ways.

J.R. Carpenter’s The Gathering Cloud is an example of just that, and she uses both the collage and early web aesthetic intentionally. After looking at the piece in both it’s web and print* form (hey, look, it’s a differential text!), I saw how much more affecting the comparisons could be in their digital form. For example, on Plate No. 1, the weight of a cumulus cloud is compared to the weight of one hundred elephants. Seeing the elephants appear and gradually take over the page is more effective than simply seeing them displayed next to the text that makes the comparison. The digital platform allows Carpenter to make a familiar print style dynamic.

The HTML/CSS used to construct the pages is simple–fixed positioning and custom tooltips for the text, gifs for the animated backgrounds, and hyperlinks to move from one page to the next. Carpenter says she likes to keep her work “as lo-fi as possible” and is influenced by early web aesthetics.

The Gathering Cloud draws our attention to the environmental impact of cloud computing by digging into the metaphor of the cloud; the clouds in the sky are not as immaterial as we might think, weighing as much as 100 elephants, and “the cloud” that stores our data is comprised of servers that need enormous amounts of energy. Carpenter is showing us the true form behind something we take for granted. You could say the same thing about the code used to build The Gathering Cloud–we take it for granted, but it’s an essential part of our web experience.

Here’s a quote from Carpenter about learning to write code:

“It’s unreasonable to expect everyone to learn to write code in the same way it’s unreasonable to expect everyone to write novels. But everyone should be able to read code on some basic level, or, at the very least, to be aware that the code is there, behind the screen, underwriting our daily thoughts and actions.”

*”print” here meaning, a static page in magazine I viewed as a PDF.

References:

J.R. Carpenter, The Gathering Cloud and Hack Circus 12 

Neon Speaks with JR Carpenter

 

Journal #9 – ENGL 335

mar 18/18 • page & screen

“In evaluating electronic poetries, therefore, we should not subordinate the second term to the first.”
– Majorie Perloff, “Screening the Page/Paging the Screen

One theme running through our study of electronic literature and digital humanities is the blurring and merging of various disciplines, mediums, and roles. There are works that combine many elements into a single piece, but there are also works that exist in multiple forms. As Perloff says, these differential texts may vary in tone, readability, or other qualities, but no single variation is necessarily definitive.

In the same way that David Mitchell’s The Right Sort didn’t feel like Twitter fiction simply because it was published on Twitter, works may exist in multiple forms through adaptation (commonly book-to-film), but usually the primary text remains the definitive version*. Early in the semester, we talked about the frustration that sometimes accompanies experiencing digital works because they come with an unfamiliar set of rules. We’ve also discussed how the close analysis our studies require may also require different reading methods. Differential texts live at the intersection of familiar and unfamiliar, or in this week’s case, the intersection of page and screen, and might be one way of introducing electronic literature to the broader public.

Between Page and Screen plays with space through augmented reality (AR). It was a new kind of reading experience and frustrating at times. Struggling to get the application to recognize the marker, or physically turning the book to get the text to appear on a readable plane–these moments are part of the experience (part of the challenge and fun!) but also left me wanting to take screenshots so that I could more closely examine the text. Soliloquy, too, had an engaging mechanic (hovering over text to make it appear) but made me wish I could see all the text at once.

Both these works feel so similar to traditional print texts that instinct takes over, and I want to see them on the page. But in this way, the medium challenges us to think about the way we are used to encountering poetry and experiment with a new kind of reading. For those skeptical about digital poetry, these works might be a good place to start.

*Exceptions: Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere comes to mind; originally a TV series, many people came to it later through the novel, and it also exists as a radio drama (my personal favourite) and stage play. Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy similarly exists as both a series of books and radio plays without one version emerging as the definitive text. Even Fight Club could fit this category – reading the book, it seems impossible that it could ever exist as a film, but when watching the film, it seems impossible for it to succeed as a novel.

References:

Amaranth Borsuk & Brad Bouse, Between Page and Screen (2012)

Kenneth Goldsmith, Soliloquy (2001)

Majorie Perloff, “Screening the Page/Paging the Screen” (2006)

Journal #8 – ENGL 335

mar 11/18 • zwitschermaschine

This week, I’m taking a look at Jennifer Egan’s Black Box.

How I read Black Box: I typed “from:nyerfiction since:2012-05-24 until:2012-06-04” into Twitter’s search bar and scrolled to the bottom to start at the beginning. I read the story on my iPhone.

What I liked about reading it this way:

  • I was reading on the same platform the story was intended for
  • I could see how people had interacted with individual tweets (replies, retweets, likes)
  • I could see what else was tweeted from @NYerFiction between installments

What I didn’t like:

  • the tweets were released according to a schedule, so the break would often occur in an unnatural place, and I might have to scroll back to a previous tweet and refresh my memory
  • @NYerFiction wouldn’t always introduce the story before it began, so the change from their typical tweets (mostly promoting stories on their website) to Egan’s fiction was sometimes jarring

In contrast to David Mitchell’s The Right Sort, which read like a short story arbitrarily divided into tweets, the tweets in Black Box act as the main character’s mental mission log and feel like an appropriate medium for the story. Some thoughts/tweets stand alone, and could be retweeted and understood without context. But knowing how the story was originally published (one tweet per minute for an hour each night, for ten nights) I would not have wanted to experience it that way. Some serial TV is meant to be binge-watched, being easier to follow when you can digest an entire season over a few days or weeks instead of months–I think Black Box functions in a similar way.

In the years since this story first appeared on Twitter, the platform has changed. The character limit has doubled from 140 to 280. Twitter supports “threads,” connected series of tweets which allow the user to read them in chronological order, rather than most recent first. Both of these changes open up new ways for people to use the platform. There were also several aspects of the platform that Egan didn’t take advantage of: immediacy (allowing story to unfold in real time rather than through scheduled tweets,) interactivity (readers’ ability to impact with the characters/story), or multi-media (using images, videos, hyperlinks, etc.). I don’t think these elements are necessarily right for her story; I don’t think Twitter is necessary for her story.

Resources:

Jennifer Egan, “Black Box

David Mitchell’s “The Right Sort

Sceptre Books [timeline]: The Right Sort (read the story on Twitter, but in chronological order, top to bottom)

more tangential thoughts on twitter fiction and serialization below:

Continue reading Journal #8 – ENGL 335

Twine Resources | long post

Hi folks! In case anyone is interesting in creating a piece of e-lit with Twine, I’ve gathered some resources to help you get to know the platform and the kind of work you can create with it.

Twine is a tool for telling interactive, non-linear stories – or any other kind of writing based around hyperlinks. Some people use it to create choose-your-own-adventure stories, while others use it to create interactive poetry, or other text-based projects.

The program looks kind of like a mind map. You write your text in passages and then use links to connect them. You can create something linear, if you want, where each passage links to the next – or you can creating branching paths, loop back to old passages, and experiment.

The first thing you should know: there are two versions of Twine. Twine 1 and Twine 2. For our purposes, I’m going to recommend you stick with Twine 1. I find it more user-friendly and intuitive, and there’s more support available if you get stuck.

Continue reading Twine Resources | long post

Journal #7 – ENGL 335

mar 04/18 • ghost in the cell (phone)

Short version: I loved Jelly Bone.

This was the first piece of e-lit for this course that I encountered on my phone. I swiped through the story one evening as I was curled up in my cozy saucer chair. It was an intimate reading experience; I felt like the work had entered my space, even as I was being drawn into Flo’s world. The text messages and Instagram posts, though part of a fictional narrative, were in their natural habitat on my phone.

The work doesn’t need to come with a set of instructions because the basic controls–swipe, scroll, tap–are familiar to smartphone users. And the story is split into “manageable chunks,” each episode taking less than 15 minutes to experience. This episodic format is a conscious choice by oolipo, and a constraint that serves the mobile experience. (If you’ve ever tried to read Moby Dick on an iPhone, you know that just being able to swipe through a novel does not necessarily equate to a satisfying mobile reading experience.)

I also think the story makes good use of sound effects. Even the small moments of sound in Jelly Bone–footsteps, a phone vibrating, the low murmuring of a crowdhelped me connect with the story. The sound helped suggest the story, as did the background images. They conveyed atmosphere, while the text conveyed information.

Occasionally, the experience didn’t play quite as intended–I’d be confused by a sound effect that played before I got read the relevant part of the text, or the pace of the story interrupted by a loading pagebut it was overall very satisfying. I have to attribute some of this to oolipo’s technology-first approach. The platform’s format shapes the content, rather than authors trying to adapt their content to a digital platform. Digital-born literature!

P.S.

Pullinger’s follow-up story, Breathe, is also meant to be viewed on a mobile device, and has some of it’s own unique functions. If you allow it to access your location, that information becomes part of the story (to eerie effect, let me tell you). Tilting your phone will sometimes reveal ghost messages. What I loved about that particular function was how your phone as a physical object becomes part of the storytelling. It reminded me of 360-degree videos; there is something so fun about physically turning to see more video.

All this made me consider the future of augmented reality in storytelling. How your location or the position of your device could change and enhance your experience. What other functions could we dream up for our digital stories?

Resources:

Kate Pullinger, Jelly Bone (Oolipo app), Breathe: A Ghost Story (read on mobile browser)

 James Pullin, “Story Making Machines,” International Literature Showcase

 

Journal #6 – ENGL 335

feb 25/18 • [digital humanities]

I want to briefly zoom in on one aspect of digital humanities related to “The Upright Script,” the Digital Humanities Manifesto, and “Pathfinders”: curation.

Amaranth Borsuk’s essay on data culture and poetry explores how artists also take on the role of curator when navigating data; poets can reuse, remix, and re-appropriate existing text/data to create new works. The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 recognizes the importance of curation as a scholarly practice in “a world of perpetual data overload” (9); it argues for hands-on engagement with material to support teaching and learning. Finally, Pathfinders puts this into practice, not only documenting early digital literature but also placing it into context; along with the work itself, they document the platform it was originally available on and interview the authors/artists.

The practice of curation is collaborative, it blurs the lines between the roles of scholar/artist/critic/etc., and is an essential part of navigating the world of digital art and literature. An archive, an encyclopedia, or even a search engine all help provide access to knowledge, but as the manifesto notes, curation must also take on “interpretive, meaning-making responsibilities” (9).

I like the approach that the Pathfinders Project takes to document early digital literature. It preserves and is focused on works that help us to understand born-digital writing. The project is a multimedia book presented through images, text, and video and divided into linked sections that can be explored in a linear or non-linear way.

How do we take on the role of curator as students and artists?

Resources:

“The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0” (CommentPress version)

Amaranth Borsuk, “The Upright Script: Words in Space and on the Page,” Journal of Electronic Publishing 14.2 (2011)

Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Literature

Journal #5 – ENGL 335

feb 18/18 • [jim andrews & aleph null 3.0]

I love working with found materials; for example, creating collages with magazine and newspaper clippings or editing videos made of public domain footage. Aleph Null 3.0 certainly has something in common with collage but, as it’s a piece of generative art, I have less control over how the image looks. Toggling the “mouse-controlled position” option brings back some of that control, which I liked. The cursor simulates the movement of a hand, and that interactive element helps me to engage and feel I’m creating a piece of art, rather than watching one be created. Dan Weber’s “Mark the Way” brush was my favourite probably because I loved how the brush mimicked the experience of rubbing. It was satisfying in the same way making the flowers grow in Donna Leishman’s Deviant was.

The link between Aleph Null and poetry/literature is tenuous to me, though some of the nibs that deal with text can create interesting results. Yet the question of images-as-poetry brings to mind a couple things. I’m reminded again of Marinetti’s idea of poetry as “an uninterrupted flow of new images,” which I brought up the last time we looked at generative literature–the programming juxtaposes images and/or text in unpredictable ways. But I’m also reminded of–wait for it–emojis. Do we consider emojis part of language? Do we think of them as tiny pictures, as symbols, as ideograms? There is a whole genre of “emoji literature” out there (not to mention a programming language), but different systems display emojis differently, and though they can transcend language, that’s not to say they are uniformly interpreted.

Playing with Aleph Null 3.0 makes me think about how it embodies characteristics we’ve seen in other works so far this semester–you can create work that is generative, unpredictable, interactive, combines different media forms (words-images-movement), and lives uniquely online. I think it’s a great example of an accessible tool for creating digital art.

Resources:

Aleph Null 3.0

Donna Leishman, Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw (2004)

F.T. Marinetti, “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature” (1912, PDF)

Emojicode, “an open-source, full-blown programming language consisting of emojis”

Some famous literature told in emojis (2015, SparkLife – SparkNotes blog)

Journal #4 – ENGL 335

feb 04/18 • [quests and game play]

When I was still in elementary school, I used to spend a lot of weekday afternoons in my grandmother’s basement, playing flash games on sites like newgrounds.com. So when it came time to play Donna Leishman’s Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw and Jason Nelson’s various digital oddities, I felt I was returning to somewhat familiar territory. Yet, as I played, I wondered how my experience would compare to the majority of people who encounter these works.

Deviant doesn’t give the player any instructions. I started methodically hovering my cursor over objects on screen, waiting for the arrow to change to a pointer and indicate I could click on something. The story is conveyed almost entirely through the visuals. If you’ve ever played a point-and-click puzzle game like The Visitoryou’ll notice the similarities, though Deviant‘s story requires more interpretation to understand.

Of Kevin Nelson’s work, I really enjoyed i made this. you play this. we are enemies. The disclaimer on the title page, “stop trying to ‘get it'” was a liberating message to put up front. It played like a typical platformer, though the rough, hand-drawn illustration style sometimes made it difficult to discern which pieces of a platform were solid, or which objects would harm you. That said, I really enjoy the art style. Nelson has taken familiar pages on the internet and scribbled all over them, annotating and doodling the way you could on a notebook (albeit with the ability to include animation and videos as well). The busyness of the style, and the unclear rules about which things are “good” and “bad” might be off-putting to some, but I also think they’re the things that encourage exploration. There is so much to look at and read, and sometimes the only way to learn how to get through the level is to do it the wrong way and learn from your mistakes.

My major questions after this week are whether digital literature involving gameplay is a) more accessible than other forms of digital literature and/or b) likely to become more accessible to the general public as the popularity of video games increases. And further, how do projects like the ones we looked at this week factor into the conversation about whether video games are “art”?

Resources:

Donna Leishman, Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw (2004)

Jason Nelson, Digital Oddities and Creatures:  “game, game, game and again game” (2008), “i made this. you play this. we are enemies (2010)

The Visitor (flash game)

Journal #3 – ENGL 335

jan 28/18 • [narrative perspective and interactive fiction]

First, an intro to parser-style interactive fiction.

Parser-style IF, in a nutshell, is the kind where you progress by entering text commands, as opposed to hypertext IF, where you progress by clicking links. I feel lukewarm about parser IF, but Emily Short’s Galatea (which I’d played previously) and Bronze (new to me!) are excellent.

Galatea is essentially limits the player’s interaction to one character in one room, so it’s the conversation that drives the story forward. Except…is it a story? Nothing really happens. At least, not action-wise. Instead, we learn about Galatea, about Pygmalion, about ourselves – if we ask the right questions. It takes a relatively short time to reach an ending, but the game has dozens of endings, and invites you to converse with Galatea again.

Bronze is more game-like. We progress by exploring the world (the castle) and solving puzzles. It takes hours to play through the story to an ending – though there are fewer endings, and the save function allows you to try again without starting from the beginning. What I love about Bronze is how detailed it is, and how revisiting the same rooms or objects after some progress can reveal more information.

This process of gradual uncovering is also present in Queerskins: A Novel. You aren’t told a linear story, you piece it together from the fragments you’re given (fragments from multiple voices). However, Queerskins does not have multiple endings, and you are unlikely to miss information. You choose which order to encounter the photos, diary entries, videos, and audio clips, but it’s still broken up into chapters with everything laid out before you. You can’t get stuck.

The thoughts and questions I’m left with: in the battle between curiosity and frustration, which wins out? Do you find that having to interact with the work to progress makes you more engaged, or do you find yourself frustrated when there is no clear path to the ending? In the absence of a fixed narrative structure, what counts as a “story”? Should an IF work tell a complete story (or at least create a fulfilling experience) in one (or in each) playthrough? Or do we accept that some IF works need to be experienced multiple times in order to feel like you’ve “read” them?

Resources

Emily Short, Galatea (2000-4), Bronze (2006)

Illya Szilak, Queerskins: A Novel (2013)

interesting, tangentially-related reading

Narrative vs. “database” storytelling: Lev Manovich, Database as a Symbolic Form, (Millennium Film Journal, 1999)

Early interactive fiction (parser-style): Colossal Cave Adventure, Zork

My favourite hypertext interactive fiction: Jedediah Berry, Fabricationist DeWit Remakes the World (2015; approx 25 min. Compare this style with something like Bronze to see how exploration/puzzle solving feels different in hypertext)

*if you are interested in interactive fiction, I have lots of thoughts/resources/recommendations I would love to talk about with you.