Audio in E Lit: Jason Nelson

In the past readers would rely on a combination of linguistic skill and imagination to discover meaning in written works. With the development of computer software and access to electronic literature, readers today arguably rely less on their abilities to read, because electronic literature allows for a variety of sensory experiences that go beyond the written word.

One of the exceptional differences between electronic poetry or artwork with the previous generation’s printed form is the addition of audio. Jason Nelson has a number of fascinating poems/interactive artworks that include prominent and bizarre audio effects, some of which are vocal readings, but I will be focusing mainly on the ambient sounds. This element of electronic literature interests me the most because it is a new medium for authors and artists to inform their audience outside of the traditional music and theatre genres that are defined by sound.

As Murray Stiller explores in his work Sound in Cinema, what sound is can be very different from what sounds does (55). Sound contributes to an audience’s experience of a work, with varying aesthetic and functional properties. In cinema, the ambient sound of leaves blowing in the wind, or students mingling in hallways is not an inherent feature of the film’s visual recording. Instead, these elements are deliberately chosen, edited and added in by artists to create an “illusion of presence” (like in the former examples), or inform the audience in ways the visual could not do alone.

The Require. Field is an interactive Fiction/ Poetry Artwork by Jason Nelson that deliberately fractures texts from daily bureaucratic forms, applications, and policy documents. “Build[ing] from and then poetically destroy[ing]” the inhumanly complex field of bureaucratic systems, Nelson Invites the reader into the work, by building different interactive elements into each page. To begin, The Required. Field‘s front page has included (what could be interpreted as) mild construction sounds to the busy canvas-like screen. This choice by Nelson is arresting, since it is not commonplace for a webpage to produce audio without the choice of the participant. Without an on, off or volume control (outside of your computer’s hardwear), Nelson’s visual poetic experience is tied directly to his audio, creating an audiovisual.

Front page audio:

A screenshot of my front page.

In this case, I would argue that Nelson’s audio functions as an element of equal significance as the visual or textual pieces. Stiller refers to a similar term in cinema coined by Alain Badiou called Gesamtkunstwerk, or the ‘total work of art’ which applies the ‘totalizing’ position of elements necessary to produce a film, rather than framing or highlighting certain crafts (73).

The echoing tone of a steel ball dropping in an empty room can infer a number of properties about space, time and character without giving any visual signals to an audience. For example, the rate in which the sound of the ball falls to the ground can suggest how heavy the object is, whether it is moving at a real-world time or if it was thrown out of anger rather than falling from a table. The pitch of the echoing sound can suggest whether the room has high ceilings or has carpeted floors. The combination of sound and visual is a rich opportunity to produce layers of emotional and contextual information that is restricted when separated.

The construction sounds that Nelson has included on the front page runs in receding pitches, on a continuous loop. It is difficult to tell when the single recording ends, but I believe it is around 23 seconds long. Combined with the sub-title “a digital poem hovering over the continual forest of bureaucratic forms” the audio could be referring to the continuous (and growing) construction of ‘urban forests’ that society navigates today in urban environments. The audio also lacks any human voice or instrument, it is clanky and harsh. These types of noises are associated with disturbance or chaos; an atmosphere that is not inviting when any reading or concentration could be necessary (like important or confusing bureaucratic documents).

I also see that the recording could be referring to the saying “drilling for answers”, which is usually stated when there is an interaction between people of opposing positions of power. One “drills” for answers when there are barriers or undisclosed information between individuals. Running with this inference, the fact that Nelson has called the bureaucratic forms a “continual forest” could also be pointing to the commonplace term “a mountain of paperwork”. The juxtaposition of the natural symbols and bureaucratic elements is a reoccurring theme in Nelson’s work. Opposites that work to call upon the tensions they present in real life.  The continuous redevelopment of bureaucratic systems (political parties, local governance, social procedures) and the endless updating of personal information (like address, age, marital status etc.) that is necessary to retain a position in the social systems that we all participate in can start to feel like a reoccurring tree when you’re lost in a forest. The fact that Nelson has left the drilling noises playing on a loop also exaggerates this dramatic subconscious disorientation.

It is important to note that this work is “interactive”. No page will look the same, but the content (or the written text) of the work will continue reproducing in different forms. As your cursor moves about the screen, fragmented texts begin a bread-crumb-trail in fluxing sizes and positions accounting for your movements. Just as silly as it is to use breadcrumbs as a reliable trail, once you have spent a few moments moving your mouse around the page, it is difficult to find where you had started.

The first page on the site is “DNA/Bonds”, which throws listeners out of the construction site atmosphere into the ambient washing machine loop.

DNA/Bonds audio:

Three-dimensional poem-strands flood the background (and charge at the foreground) rotating and zooming with the cursor and keyboard. There are three fragmented social-ability-based questionnaires included on the left-hand side that are titled “something” and interchange between blinking red and statements like “an agenda”, “in response” “invitation to structure” and “obey the data”.

I believe that the washing machine can be interpreted as the ‘washing’ of individuality. By addressing the objective and standardized statements used in tests like these, which are proposed to be inherent or natural truths of ‘good’ relationships (the DNA or building-blocks), Nelson projects his fear of removing or washing out the differences amongst the way people bond with one another.

The tumbling washing machine is also a cyclical process, which is predictable and can easily go unnoticed, like white noise. I think this is meant to demonstrate Nelson’s worry that tests like these are meant to adjust interactions so that they become calculable and controllable, like a gentle permanent-press relationship that can be initiated stably at warm/cold.

My screen for DNA/Bonds

The second (and my favourite) page on The Required. Field is “Apart/Down” which plays a short clip of a classic wind-up toy on loop.

Apart/Down audio:

The page projects a cut-up medical injury form, that floats and drags with user’s cursor pressure. The wind-up toy noise playing immediately reminded me of the wind-up doll that is the pinnacle moment in the film Hugo (2011). The boy-like machine was meant to be the most complex doll ever created because of the complicated system of springs and gears. The wind-up toy was originally designed to create the illusion of a real-life being, like a hopping rabbit or in Hugo’s case a drawing boy.

Philosophically speaking, Science today measures understanding by the knowledge individual parts, but this does not guarantee the understanding of a system in its working entirety. Nelson is trying to suggest the illusions that are created about the understanding we have of our bodies, and the medical forms and systems we rely on to inform us about them. Medical examinations typically isolated body parts to produce a diagnosis. The form displayed on the webpage is cut up arbitrarity, referring to the medical system’s departure from holistic thinking. Nelson doesn’t want us to think of our bodies as engineered wind-up dolls that are composed of gears that can be oiled up, manipulate or replaced, but as whole entities.

(a fun video from the BBC on “The Writer” Automaton that inspired the Hugo doll)

My Apart/Down Screen.



To ignore the significance of the audio elements included in Nelson’s work would be missing a significant element of his piece. His interactive Fiction is composed of deliberate audio clips that correspond with their accompanied visual and textual properties. The chaotic sounds contribute to a rich experience as a user on the site and add an extra layer to the communication betweeen Nelson and his readers.


Works Cited

Nelson, Jason. “The Required. Field.” Jason Nelson’s Digital Oddities and Creatures, edited by Jason Nelson, Jason Nelson, 2014, Accessed 12 Feb. 2018.

Stiller, Murray. Sound in Cinema. 1 ed., Atropos Press, 2016.


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