START HERE> An Interdisciplinary Introduction to Electronic Literature
Michelle Citron, Kurt Heintz, Niki Nolin, Scott Rettberg, Andrew Stern, Joseph Tabbi, and Rob Wittig
The hypertext solution . . . retains and puts back
together the great traditions of literature and scholarship, traditions
based on the fact
that dividing things up arbitrarily just generally doesn’t work.
Before reading what follows, I suggest that you turn
on your networked computer and prepare to visit some territories that
have not yet been
clearly demarcated. START HERE> is more cultural snapshot than cultural
study, more a map of places to explore than an explanation of what you’ll
find there. This is an article intended for practical use more than quiet
contemplation. START HERE> is a remediation of an event which itself
seemed strangely out of context: a guided tour to some innovative contemporary
experimental literature for the computer presented in the context of
a digital culture festival, Version>02, held April 18-20, 2002 at
the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. As I review START HERE> now,
seven months after its initial presentation, the project reminds me of
the many discussions and debates on electronic literature and electronic
textuality that a small group of writers, critics, and artists gathered
for on a bimonthly basis from 1999-2002 at Moti Mahal, an Indian restaurant
on Clark Street in Chicago. START HERE> presents many of the works
that served as fodder for those conversations in the form of a catalog
of Web sites and electronic narratives on CD-ROM. The works described
here are a representative sample of the many forms of expression loosely
grouped under the umbrella term “electronic literature.” We
present these works not as a canon, but as a set of experiments in electronic
literature. START HERE> is a representative sample that should generate
further questions rather than clear answers.
· What makes a given work particularly electronic?
The professions of the curators range from fiction
writer and non-profit executive to filmmaker and Associate Dean at
to design consultant and electronic publisher to Artificial Intelligence
programmer to editor and Associate Professor of English at the University
of Illinois-Chicago to multimedia applications and fine arts teacher
at Columbia College to performance poet and freelance Web designer. I
asked each curator to describe one project that he or she had produced
or participated in and three projects produced by others. Within each
set of works, you will find a particular interest set: Michelle Citron’s
selections reflect an interest in cinematic interactive narratives; Kurt
Heintz explores the network as a distribution system for performance
poetry; Niki Nolin focuses on visual poetics; my selections illustrate
different ways that writers are using the interface as metaphor; the
works that Andrew Stern describes are based on Artificial Intelligence;
Joseph Tabbi’s selections reflect his interest in the network as
a “literary re-mixing” environment; and Rob Wittig’s
selections reflect his interests in “network styles” and “experience
The four pieces presented here explore the meaning of storytelling in an interactive, digital environment. Borrowing from the more linear arts of film, video, and literature, their central concern is with the intimate, the personal, and the relational.
Michelle Citron, Queer Feast (1999-present)
Queer Feast is a five-course meal: a mosaic of contemporary lesbian life played out through its contradictions of class, race, desire, and the banalities of daily life. Each of the five pieces that will eventually make up the feast represent five evolving experiments in narrativity. Two of the courses, As American Apple Pie and Cocktails & Appetizers, characterize how we build stories from fragments overheard. Apple Pie tells its tale through twenty-two scenes randomly accessed by the viewer/player, from which a narrative of the characters’ family life can be constructed. Apple Pie is open-ended; a different story is constructed on each viewing. Played one time, Monica and Lucille live happily ever after; another time, their relationship does not survive; and in yet another play ambiguity prevails. Cocktails & Appetizers uses a different narrative strategy. You eavesdrop on a multitude of conversations during an art opening cocktail party. From these snippets of both relevant and inconsequential gossip, you construct, retroactively, a story of the main characters, their relationships, and their milieu. Cocktails is about falling into lust and love; Apple Pie is about what happens after the first kiss is over.
Arlene Stamp, Modern Mother (1998)
In Modern Mother storytelling is both the subject
of the piece, as well as its form of delivery. Stamp conducted audio
interviews with her mother
in 1995, literally asking, “Tell me a story about your life.” What
her mother tells is not a story but rather a series of stories, or fragments
of stories, that make up the narrative of her life. The tales, like all
family tales, reveal emotionally charged secrets: the dream to dance
on stage, the experience of molestation, an abortion gone awry. The user
can only access these stories by entering into a closet, the space where
secrets are hidden. And it is the user who decides how much to hear.
Do you want to know more about “D is for dream,” “H
is for Hell,” or “O is for oozing”? The choice is yours.
Stamp provides a cultural context to these very personal stories by juxtaposing
them against the popular music of her mother’s era: pop culture
representations of a romanticized life of love, intimacy, and family.
Marsha Kinder and The Labyrinth Project, Mysteries and Desire: Searching
the Worlds of John Rechy (2000)
Marsha Kinder’s Mysteries and Desire: Searching the Worlds of
John Rechy explores the life, work, and milieu of the writer John Rechy.
This is a world where the sexual folds back onto the spiritual, the psychological,
political, and cultural dance around each other, and the border between
fiction and memoir all but disappears. Drawing on film’s lush aesthetic
of deep focus, close-up, moving shots, and realist images, the work is
at once a memoir, an oral history, a work of fiction, a visual collage
of two cultures (Chicano and gay), and a representation of the inner
life of a writer.
Annette Barbier and Drew Browning, Home (2001-present)
Home explores the meaning of home, the secrets revealed there, and our
emotional relationship to both the place and the intimacies contained
therein. A house is for sale; it has been abandoned. Yet it reverberates
with the memories of those who lived there and whose most private moments
still inhabit the half empty spaces. The user overhears snippets of emotionally
charged family conversations, moves down dark corridors and enters into
surprising rooms. You eavesdrop, learn secrets, watch. From these fragments
the story of this specific home is pieced together, as well as the meaning
of home itself.
In the 1980s, I was caught up in the movement that
has since evolved into contemporary slam poetry. At that time, we Chicago
poets were working
for the recovery of spoken word. Parties to the slam revolution felt
that words in print and people of letters had put poetry to sleep. Poetry
wasn’t animated or, for that matter, engaging any more, or at least
that was the polemic that got us out to write and perform all over town
in those years. Today, the slam poetry revolution has since orbited the
planet in several directions at once. Poets today are prattling, and
poetry is, ostensibly, awake.
EPC is one of the Web’s true genesis points for on-line poetry.
EPC has been collecting and organizing poetry on-line since the mid-1990s.
EPC organizes as much as it can into links, and in some ways resembles
a huge “link farm” of poetry. Many EPC links feature audio.
The design and organization of the site is strictly functional. In this
sense, EPC follows the Internet portal model for a website.
Kurt Heintz (editor), Book of Voices (1999-present)
The BoV began its life as a documentation site for
videoconferenced poetry readings in the e-poets network. Poems were
excerpted from documentation
videos (either in video or audio form) and encoded for streaming. However,
as it became clear that the Web could handle more than mere documentation,
artists’ entries became more involved and entertaining, evolving
into full chapters that profiled artists in depth. With the “book” as
an open metaphor, the BoV website follows a library model. A recent site
overhaul encouraged deep linking and bookmarking.
Jayne Fenton Keane, Slamming the Sonnet (2001-present)
Taking the visual and aural potentials even further, Australian Jayne Fenton Keane officially launched Slamming the Sonnet early in 2002. Keane traveled extensively in the last three years and recorded the voices of writers she encountered. She also embarked on an ambitious correspondence with writers abroad, soliciting audio samples from selected performance poets. The result is a collection of much contemporary spoken word, bound together by a lively, Flash-driven graphical environment. The site has earned Keane much praise in Australia, and was featured in ELO’s recent State of the Arts Symposium Gallery. With its extensive animations and sound elements, StS occupies a spot somewhere between a book and a video game. Interactive features encourage viewers to play with verbal sounds as if the interface were a “busy box.” It’s all about literacy and inquiry as entertainment. StS follows an interactive TV model. The site’s elaborate design and custom Flash animations come only with much labor. Though it’s uncertain that StS will grow very much in the years ahead, we can at least enjoy it as a current benchmark for performance poetry on the Web.
When Scott Rettberg asked me to participate both
as a contributor and as a curator in the electronic literature portion
of the MCA Version>02
Digital Commons exhibition, I was thrilled to have an opportunity to
present work with a varied group of practitioners of the electronic literature
oeuvre and to present my personal sources of inspiration: interactive
or non-linear poetry sites. Turning to my bookmarks, I quickly pecked
through the favorites only to find most of them gone: disappeared into
the digital graveyard or published and no longer free. And while sites
like Poems that Go <http://www.poemsthatgo.com>, edited by Ingrid
Ankerson and Megan Sapnar, house, support, and nurture the poetic contributors
of electronic literature and the ELO supports artists/practitioners by
providing links to sites, the sad truth is that this medium is not free
and many sites are lost to unpaid domain names and hosting costs. I like
to think that the artists’ sites I had bookmarked, to find and
hold forever, had succumbed to the speed and rate of change inherent
in the medium and had just moved on. A romantic notion, but so is freedom
of information. Access to the sites was paramount and necessary to my
Niki Nolin and Maureen Seaton, Literal Drift (2002)
Spoken word poetry collaboratively created by Niki Nolin and Maureen Seaton, Literal Drift addresses the accumulation of sediment, the ebb and flow of life in time. Intimate whispers, mouse-overs attached to text and objects, offer viewers substitution and combinations as the sound randomly links and unlinks to the text.
Vicky Wong, Fearless Little Love Poems (2000)
Vicki Wong’s playful, erotic characters give voice to questions left unasked and (sometimes) unanswered. Straightforward navigation leads to intuitive vignettes, observations on the nature of relationships, strung like tiny pearls of wisdom, curiously penetrating. Black and white questions and answers meet graphic images and ideas.
Louise McKissick, iloveyou 2000 (2000)
3000 ladybugs in a teacup listen to whispered sweet nothings in Louise McKissick’s Quicktime poem, iloveyou. The intimate, playful, and erotic visual puns of iloveyou personalize the viewing experience in this meditation on computer viruses. Feel your mouth at the cup. The bugs crawling. Strain to understand the text. See the mouth move and hear her whisper. Enmeshed in a moment, one brief moment to play again and again.
Kim Collmer, Hub (2001)
Kim Collmer is a sculptor living in Chicago and Hub was created from documentation of a physical site. Material to immaterial, objects to images. Hub is an alternative journey, an exploration of fantasy. The color blue has been integral to Kim’s work, in fact hard to leave behind. To me it emits clarity of vision, optimism for the journey yet to come.
William Gillespie, Frank Marquardt, Scott Rettberg, and Dirk Stratton
(including substantial contributions from Kathryn Gilligan and Paul Kotheimer),
The Unknown (1998-2001)
The Unknown is a collaborative hypertext novel, a
writing game that developed in a mammoth parody of millennial culture.
It began as a joke
in the form of a game. Three friends, William Gillespie, Scott Rettberg,
and Dirk Stratton, gather for a weekend in Cincinnati. Fiction writers
Rettberg and Gillespie and poet Stratton discuss the sorry state of American
letters, in particular the fact that their own work, the stories and
poems they have spent years of their lives crafting, reaches an extremely
limited readership. Drunk on bourbon and hubris, the three hatch a plan
to overthrow the American publishing industry—a wretched landscape
populated with novels about lawyers and Newt Gingrich autobiographies—with
an entirely new publishing system of their own devising. They decide
to publish The Unknown: An Anthology, a collection of their own best
writing. Decision made, but not finding all of their best work immediately
available to them, the three writers decide instead to begin writing
a hypertext novel describing their own ridiculously successful, hedonistic,
and dangerous book tour.
Alan Sondheim, assorted works in e-mail, MOO, .jpg, programs, audio,
Rather than linking to one particular work or collection
of on-line texts, I chose here to provide a link to a Google query
for Alan Sondheim.
While Sondheim has produced many “works” and “collections,” such
as Philosophy and Psychology of the Internet <http://www.anu.edu.au/english/internet_txt/>,
a “meditation on the philosophy, psychology, political economy,
and psychoanalytics of Internet (computer) communication” that “focuses
on virtual subjectivity, sexuality, community, and all aspects of computer
interfacing,” and the Alt-X eBook/POD title .echo <http://www.altx.com/ebooks/download.cfm/echo.pdf>,
what most fascinates about his work is not any single “finished” manifestation,
but rather the way in which it is written and delivered to his audience.
I think that his work is best experienced in fragments that are absorbed
individually and that accrue over time. Insofar as I have an understanding
of Sondheim’s overall project (and I’m not necessarily sure
that I can claim that), I prefer to experience it in these daily fragments,
these aleatory chunks that are placed very definitively in time, rather
than the “wholes” that these fragments eventually produce.
I know that every day there will be some new Sondheim in my in-box, calmly
insisting that I pay attention to it, if only in some subconscious corner
of my brain.
Paul Chan, Alternumerics (2000-2002)
While much of the critical attention paid to electronic
literature tends to focus on either hypertext or on the application
of multimedia techniques
to traditional forms of fiction or poetry, I’m very interested
in works that use the computer in some smaller, focused way to accomplish
a kind of writing that simply would not be possible without it. While
I could name dozens of other works that are more fully realized as narratives
or poems, or that utilize multimedia to more stunning visual, auditory,
or cinematic effect, Paul Chan’s font work, Alternumerics, is probably
the most elegant idea for an electronic literature interface that I’ve
Exhale, by Spain’s Orit Kruglanski and Raquel Paricio, was not
shortlisted for the 2001 Electronic Awards, but I would like to make
note of it in this forum because, like Chan, Kruglanski and Paricio have
rethought one particular element of interface to great artistic effect.
Kruglanski writes interactive poems using Shockwave and also works that
are developed specifically as applications for the Palm Pilot. The project
was created based on Kruglanski’s past work in interactive poetry
and on Paricio’s interest in the relation between perception and
interaction. Exhale was designed specifically for the Macintosh and makes
use of a noise-canceling microphone. To read the poem in its entirety,
the reader must “Breathe life into it”; as the reader blows
gently into the microphone, the words float around and assemble with
the flow of the reader’s breath. It’s an ingenious idea for
an interface, and the content of the poem relates thematically to the
process of interacting with the poem.
Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, Façade (2002,
work in progress)
Façade is an artificial intelligence-based art/research experiment
in electronic narrative; a first-person, 3D animated interactive drama
performed in real-time. Using your own name and gender you play the character
of a longtime friend of Grace and Trip, an attractive and materially
successful couple in their early thirties. During an evening get-together
at their apartment that quickly turns ugly, in which you are free to
gesture and type any dialog you wish, you become entangled in the high-conflict
dissolution of Grace and Trip’s marriage. No one is safe as the
accusations fly, sides are taken, and irreversible decisions are forced
to be made. By the end of this intense one-act play you will have changed
the course of Grace and Trip’s lives, motivating you to re-play
the drama to find out how your interaction could make things turn out
differently the next time.
Kenneth Colby, PARRY (1971)
PARRY, created in 1971 by Colby at the Stanford Artificial
Intelligence Laboratory, was one of the early software programs known
which simulate conversations with people. It was an attempt to model
human paranoid belief systems and was based on several psychological
theories of paranoia. PARRY is said to have passed the “Turing
test,” named for the British mathematician Alan M. Turing, who
in 1950 suggested that if a computer could successfully impersonate a
human by carrying on a typed conversation with a person, it could be
called intelligent. In a multi-stage experiment, psychologists reliably
judged PARRY’s interactive output as being paranoid and were unable
to distinguish transcripts of a session with PARRY from that of a session
originating from a human patient. This was a notable advance in the simulation
of human behavior. PARRY, however, never achieved the level of publicity
of Joseph Weizenbaum’s ELIZA, which was arguably an inferior conversationalist.
Scott Reilly, Joseph Bates, Bryan Loyall, and Peter Weyrauch, The Playground
In the mid-1990s, several interactive character prototypes
were created by the Oz Project at Carnegie Mellon University, a group
science researchers developing technology to allow artists to create
simulated worlds that contain rich characters and that give a human interactor
the feeling of being an important part of an interesting story. The Playground
was an important demonstration of their ability to build interesting
text-based characters that engage in reasonably complex social behaviors.
These behaviors were intended to reflect the characters’ personalities,
emotional state, and relationships with one another. The Playground was
a simulation of three kids on a playground, one controlled by the player.
Although they can engage in a number of different behaviors, one of their
favorites is trading baseball cards.
Recognizing a dearth of meaningful interactive experiences
with virtual characters, a group of developers at PF.Magic in San Francisco
created the world’s first virtual pets, with the design goal to
create a richly interactive “illusion of life” on a personal
computer within the framework of a non-goal-oriented play environment.
Users control a hand-shaped cursor to “adopt” their virtual
3D animated Dogz and Catz as puppies and kittens, and play with, raise,
and nurture them in the same manner that one would with real pets, with
petting, toys, food, going places, behavior training, and so on. Babyz
later added more sophisticated facial expressions, baby-talk natural
language, and the beginnings of voice recognition. Both kids and adults
enjoyed the products: over two million units were sold worldwide, and
hundreds of fan websites were created that remain active to this day.
Thinking back on some of the conferences that took
place during the recent Great Migration from print to screen, I recall
the palpable excitement,
the feeling that an entire discipline and its writing practices were
being newly invented, and newly named even in the conference titles: “Spectatorship” (Maastricht,
Holland, November 1999), “Topologies for the Millennium” (Hanover,
Germany, January 2000), “The Future of the Page” (Saskatchewan,
Canada, June 2000), “Book/Ends” (Albany, New York, October
2000), the First Electronic Literature Organization Awards Ceremony (New
York City, April 2001). The scholars and literary critics who attended
these and similar events were quick to get with the discourse. It was
as if cyberspace had given us a vast textual playground where we could
finally enact the thought experiments of poststructuralist theory from
the preceding decades or realize the potentials imagined in the fiction—William
Gibson’s Neuromancer of 1985—that gave us the word “cyberspace.” Still,
there was a feeling, occasionally voiced in public, that the radical
changes we were talking about with such precision and passion had done
little to alter our own institutional practice: there we were, for the
most part following a panel or a lecture format, reading papers, fielding
questions from the audience, devising arguments, giving demos. Illustrations
were optional. Web shots and sound clips entirely at the presenter’s
Trace Redell, Litmixer (2001)
This is what critical writing could look like once scholars and critics begin making use of the performative possibilities within networked environments. With his software groovebox, Reddell applies the tools and strategies of the DJ to the performance of literary interpretation and critical speculation. Jacques Derrida’s essay, “Plato’s Pharmakon,” becomes in Reddell’s hands not so much a master text as a set of recording masters, less a source of supporting citations than a sampling source to be played off against related discourses on music, drugs, technology. And it’s all presented in the context of a “user’s manual,” a rhetorical framework that both participates in techno-culture and invites further activity on the part of the reader/listener/user.
Joseph Tabbi (editor), The Cybertext Debate (2001-2002)
Reddell’s piece happened to be published in the Web journal I edit, the electronic book review, at the very moment when several contributors were debating the question of whether we should retire the word “hypertext” and speak instead of “cybertexts.” The stimulus for the debate was a review by an American creative writing student of Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext (Johns Hopkins, 1997), which stimulated responses from a narratologist in Norway, who in turn provoked responses from a UCLA professor, two authors from Eastgate (the only commercial publisher of hypertext fiction and poetry), the director of the burgeoning Electronic Literature Organization (who had co-authored an award-winning web-based hypertext fiction), a new media critic at the University of Maryland concerned with the technological obsolescence (already!) of much electronic writing, a beginning professor who’d just completed a NEH seminar on electronic textuality, and a grad student who was dismayed to discover that the field he’d chosen for his dissertation was already being declared defunct.
Ewan Branda, Anne Burdick, and Joseph Tabbi, ebr 3.0 (2002)
Whatever we critics end up calling it—hypertext, cybertext, or
simply text (my preference)—my guess is that the decisive contributions
to the cyber-debates will be those Web installations, like Reddell’s,
that enact their premises by using Web resources to their fullest, so
as to keep the language alive and the conversation going.
Raymond Federman and Anne Burdick, Eating Books (1998)
If Moby has written the loudest song in the universe, Raymond Federman’s Eating Books has to be the most linear hypertext in the universe: an essay-narrative that can only be read by horizontal scrolling through a single long line of text that, as it moves past, disappears from view. There is no going back, no re-reading, no second chance (short of reloading the whole thing). I recommend this Web project, a now classic image/narrative collaboration with text by Federman and design by Anne Burdick, because it demonstrates that the link is not, and never was, the defining feature of “electronic literature,” as many commentators claimed in the early, heady days of hypertext. Neither was “non-linearity,” and neither was a free-play of competing voices and visions, none more distinct than any other (as many supposed who were hardly listening and only scanning, not watching). None of these features are peculiar to Web environments or the writing potentially produced there. Rather, what’s definitive about Federman’s and Burdick’s collaboration is that the authors willingly accept the constraints of the medium; they work within these constraints, play off them, and in so doing make the medium their own. The text requires attention to the present; to what’s passing before us now. It begins, it takes a certain amount of time, and it ends. It takes responsibility for what it consumes, and it doesn’t pretend (like those readers who are eager for the next link, anxious to branch out, to consume more) that meaning exists anywhere but in the text you are reading, at the time you are reading it, through connections and verbal/visual patterns that the work, and nothing else, generates out of itself from within the constraints of the Web environment.
Rob Wittig, Blue Company (2001, 2002)
In May 2002, TANK20 presented the second performance of Blue Company,
following the underground hit premiere performance of 2001.
Wittig’s experiment, though technically simple, is a perfect example of a distribution mechanism taking on the properties of literary innovation. A novel that reaches the reader via e-mail, on a daily basis, will be read differently, written differently, and evolve into a different animal. It could free the novel from its unhappy existence as the least performative (and therefore the most product-like) of art forms.
Shelley Jackson and Pamela Jackson, The Doll Games (2001)
What a fine writer Shelley Jackson is! In fact, she
is held by many to be the most important author of literary hypertext
in the ‘90s,
on the basis of her breathtakingly smart and well-crafted Patchwork Girl
by Mary/Shelley & Herself (Eastgate, 1995). Patchwork Girl is a resewing
of narrative seeds planted in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and
concerns a female monster linking her various body parts back to their
original owners and offering remixes/retellings of Mary’s story.
Patchwork Girl uses hyperlinks as both navigation and metaphor, drawing
parallels between sewing, writing, women’s lives, historiography,
and Web work that are truly profound and not just easy puns. A must read.
Mez, -][selec][text: co][deP][oetry] _ (2001)
The mysterious Mez is a netizen who, rumor has it, lives in Wollongong,
Australia, but whose presence is felt world wide via her e-mails to various
Web art and culture lists and her remixes of these e-mails (along with
additional text) into literary works in Web form.
Barry Smylie is one of the best of the handful of electronic literature
practitioners who is equally comfortable in words, images, and design.
His site is an anthology of work that is both pleasurable on its own
account and forms a rich collection of examples, clues, and techniques
that all budding Web workers should study.
In the beginning I wanted the Iliad to reflect the process of the media transformation and convinced Jeff to let me do it. Homer couldn’t show us his writing of it as a part of the show and the printmakers and their translators couldn’t show us their work (its techniques and development as performance) either. We can, we are, and we do expose the process and the new technologies as they come on-line and as we become familiar with the new techniques they present to us.
Michelle Citron is a Professor in the Department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University, Associate Dean of The Graduate School, and Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts. Kurt Heintz is a writer, performer, and new media artist, who founded the e-poets network and whose work has appeared in the anthology Rude Trip: The Hamburg-Chicago Literary Expedition (Edition 406, 2001). Niki Nolin works and teaches in the Academic Computing Department of Columbia College, Chicago. Scott Rettberg is Assistant Professor of New Media Studies in the Literature program at Richard Stockton College, as well as co-founder of the Electronic Literature Organization and co-author of The Unknown: A Hypertext Novel (1998-2001) and The Unknown: An Anthology (The Unknown Press, 2002). Andrew Stern is a designer and programmer for PF.Magic in San Francisco. Joseph Tabbi is the author of Cognitive Fictions (Minnesota, 2002) and co-editor of Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology (Cornell, 1997), as well as co-founder of the electronic book review and Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Rob Wittig is co-founder of the literary electronic bulletin board system IN.S.OMNIA and author of Invisible Rendezvous: Connection and Collaboration in the New Landscape of Electronic Writing (Wesleyan, 1994).
Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 2 (Fall 2002)