Notes on the Atrocities
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Thursday, May 29, 2003  

The Internet and Storytelling

In the early 90s, hypertext fiction was all the rage. These were the kinds of stories in which there would be a panel of text with several words in hypertext. You clicked on them as was your fancy, and were hustled around non-linearly until you'd seen every panel. And generally, at the end, you went, "huh," never to return to hypertext. And surprise--it didn't take off.

There are reasons for this, obvious now that we're much more familiar with the online medium. We understand that linearity is desirable. Our brains work that way. In a narrative context, it is doubly important; without a forward thrust (be this based on plot or theme or character), you have interconnected fictive vignettes, not fiction.

(Blogs are hypertext productions, too. But they also depend on complete narratives--links take you to separate, complete narratives.)

Was the promise of a new kind of digital literature premature, then? Maybe not. Hypertext failed in part not because it was too new, but because it wasn't different enough. (In film schools, they'll tell you that when you cut back and forth between shots, they have to be really distinct. If the shots are too similar, you just confuse the audience.)

What I've seen in the digital mode is fiction so distinct from the standard definition that creators refer to it more often as art. There's a cool link at the Whitney Art Museum to an "Idea Line." It's an applet that shows art installations in a number of disciplines, arranged chronologically. You could spend a good many hours exploring this (and should). Among the disciplines is "Literature," though the distinctions aren't as obvious as the names would imply.

One I like in particular is by a friend I know in New York, Steve Cannon (there's apparently a porn star named Steve Cannon, but that's something else). Steve has created a couple of installations I'd like you to look at. The first is called Dispatched. Here's what Steve has to say about it:

An experience like reading three copies of the same book at once. Put your cursor over the text to stop it from scrolling. Click on the text to advance to the next one of the 47 sections.

It's a very long narrative--he's not kidding about the 47 sections. I encourage you to read it for at least five minutes, longer if you can manage it. It's literature as experience. It's possible to focus on one narrative and read it as you would any other (which has its own pleasures). But the intent of the installation, if I understand it, is to use the triptych to encourage the brain into a more free-flowing, dreamlike state. (The story itself helps with this.)

The second is even more abstract, and I'll let the artist speak for himself:

TEXT.URE synthesizes literary fiction, visual abstraction, and user interaction. It uses a transcendent interface to a non-linear narrative and by encouraging users to explore the visual space it mystifies and subverts the reading process. In the process of investigating the interface [see diagram 01], the user learns how to reveal their version of the story.

The work is inspired by the textural white on white paintings of Kasimir Malevich [see diagram 04]. In TEXT.URE, the relationship between the altitudes traversed by the path and the shape of the story is straightforward. But that simplicity is mitigated by the rugged and unpredictable terrain of the texture [see diagram 02]. Expect difficult browsing.

With the advent of technology we have the ability to develop an interactive system of rules by which a storyline may be produced. Each storyline is different from the next creating a unique experience for each user. We wanted to empower the user to build their own narrative using the words and phrases that the author assembled into a jagged grid with the authoring tool [see diagram 03]. The user doesn't know what each passage is until they trace over the texture. An association is quickly established between the physical motion of the user's drawn path and the words shown in the text display. The user is left to synchronize their actions and the words generated. If they trace over a peak they get a different string of text than they would if they explore a valley. In essence TEXT.URE is an exploration in nonlinear browsing. The user is NOT aware of what words come next but what we do provide them are the tools needed to infer in certain respects how the system opperates.

If narrative fiction is a two-dimensional process, then Texture and Dispatched seem to have three dimensions, as if the car we were driving shot out into space. In order to process the fiction, the brain has to let go of a familiar kind of cognition and embrace a new one. None of the material on Steve's website--nor the installations linked by the Whitney--are likely to be read by a wide audience. Literary fiction and poetry are waning in popularity, so it seems unlikely that the challenges of three-dimensional fiction are likely to be more appealing. But the experiments do suggest that the structure of narration may not be finite. According to the Whitney timeline, the earlies explorations were made less than a decade ago. In another decade, we'll have a better idea.

posted by Jeff | 1:44 PM |
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