I’m nostalgic for a moment I never lived through – when we were concerned enough with monopolies over access to information online that not only did we call the competition between Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator a “browser war,” but there were even competitions such as the Amsterdam-based “Browserday” to design new, innovative browsers.
Nowadays, while there are a few more choices for browsers and still many reasons to be concerned about how our experience of the Web is being framed for us, search engine algorithms are the new, more obvious information gatekeepers. In fact, the 21st century version of Internet Explorer’s monopoly is now so obvious that it’s nearly no longer noticeable, for when we search for data on the Web we are no longer “searching” – instead, we are “Googling.” And so, in line with what Siva Vaidhyanathan calls “The Googlization of Everything,” a new mode of writing is emerging that I call (in the postscript to my book Reading Writing Interfaces) “readingwriting”: the practice of writing through the network, which, as it tracks, indexes, and algorithmizes every click and every bit of text we enter into the network, constantly reads our writing and writes our reading. This strange blurring of, even feedback loop between, reading and writing, quite simply signals the end of literature as we’ve known it. It is the Googlization of literature. And readingwriters (such as Darren Wershler, Bill Kennedy, Tan Lin, and John Cayley/Daniel Howe) who experiment with/on Google are not simply pointing to its ubiquity; they are implicitly questioning how it works, how it generates the results it does, and so how it sells ourselves and our language back to us.
The impetus of this literary critique of Google is clearly aligned with that of early works of net art such as the “Web Stalker” from 1997 – an experimental web browser or piece of “speculative software” created by the art collective I/O/D (consisting of Simon Pope, Colin Green, and Matthew Fuller). “Web Stalker” essentially turns the web inside-out, presenting the viewer/navigator with the html code of a given page and all links leading to and from the page are presented to the viewer as a visualization. It is an artistic tool for drawing attention to the limits and possibilities of a particular reading/writing interface, the web browser. As co-creator Colin Green put it in a 1998 interview with Geert Lovink, “[b]rowsers made by the two best-known players frame most peoples’ experience of the web. This is a literal framing. Whatever happens within the window of Explorer, for instance, is the limit of possibility.” The foregoing is then followed up by Matthew Fuller’s clarification that “Web Stalker” “is not setting itself as a universal device, a proprietary switching system for the general intelligence, but a sensorium – a mode of sensing, knowing and doing on the web that makes its propensities – and as importantly, some at least of those ‘of the web’ that were hitherto hidden – clear.”
Since “Web Stalker” was created sixteen years ago, and runs only on Windows 95 and Mac Classic OS (which in turn usually requires an equally obsolete dialup connection), it’s fairly difficult to get it running and there are also very few high quality images available of it online. Thankfully, Matthew Fuller generously provided me with images which I’m making available here. If you have the technical know-how, you can still download “Web Stalker” here and get it to write a reading of the Web like you’ve never seen before…or at least, not seen since the late 90s.
It’s an honor indeed to announce that Judy Malloy, a true pioneer of hypertext and electronic literature broadly, has donated a set of floppies as well as documentation to the Media Archaeology Lab. To give you a sense of her contributions to the field, I’ve excerpted the following from her longer, more fascinating biography, on her website:
Her work as a pioneer on the Internet and in electronic literature began after cataloguing, designing and programming information systems in the late mid and late sixties, at the time when library information systems designers were among the first to utilize computers to access information, and futurists were envisioning their use in the humanities. She began creatively using narrative information in artists books in the late seventies and early eighties and then, with a vision of nonsequential literature, wrote and programmed Uncle Roger – one of the first (if not the first) works of hypertext literature — on Art Com Electronic Network in the Well. (1986-1988) In the following years, she created a series of innovative literary works that run on computer platforms and were published by Eastgate and on the Internet. In 1993, she was invited to Xerox PARC where she worked in CSL (Computer Science Laboratory) as the first artist in their artist-in-residence program. Judy Malloy created one of the first arts websites, Making Art Online, (1993-1994) originally commissioned in collaboration with the ANIMA site in Vancouver (CSIR/Western Front) and currently hosted on the website of the Walker Art Center. l0ve0ne, written and coded in 1994, was the first selection in the Eastgate Web Workshop. A complete collection of her papers and software is archived in the Judy Malloy Papers at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University.
Below is Malloy’s packing list of the works she has generously donated to the lab – I will soon test all the floppies and will add notes here as to their functionality. Enjoy and, as always, the MAL welcomes visiting researchers!
Disk labeled “molasses”
Malloy’s 1988 Hypercard Stack Molasses.
Judy Malloy, Molasses, Berkeley, CA, 1988. (for MacIntosh Computers HyperCard – produced at the Whole Earth Review under sponsorship of Apple Computers) – Exhibited in the traveling exhibition Art Com Software at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, NYC, NY, 1988 and other places.
Judy Malloy, its name was Penelope, 1990.
This is probably a PC disk and an interim version between the 1989 exhibition version and the more formally packaged 1991 version, which was distributed by Art Com software.
Judy Malloy, its name was Penelope. Eastgate Systems, 1993
This was Eastgate’s first version, published on disk for both Macs and PCs. The disk is signed and actually says 1992. This copy was my Mother’s copy which is why there is a label that says Barbara Powers in it. Note that the pages in these early editions stuck together
Judy Malloy, Wasting Time, Penelope, Uncle Roger
It looks as if all three of these works are on the disk. It was probably a disk I used to send around the works for exhibition consideration and is probably a PC disk. Wasting Time was published as follows: Judy Malloy, “Wasting Time”, A Narrative Data Structure”, After the Book (Perforations 3) Summer, 1992.
Judy Malloy and Cathy Marshall, Forward Anywhere Eastgate Systems, 1996.
This is a disk version. It was published in both Mac and PC versions, but this is probably a PC version. A second version was published with a CD
James Johnson, Second Thoughts, 1989.
Distributed by Art Com Software. He sent me a couple of copies, and I gave the other one to my archives at Duke.
Bad Information Base #1
This is the first work of computer-mediated text that I created. Note that it is not the Bad Information Base #2 which was created ion ACEN later in 1986. Bad Information Base #1 is documented in Judy Malloy, “OK Research/OK Genetic Engineering/Bad Information, Information Art Defines Technology”, Leonardo 21(4): 371 – 375, 1988 It is explained in the May 1986 documentation in the folder. Basically, I made the database and then sent out cards to the mail art network. When the cards were returned, I ran a search and then sent a printout to the requester. In addition to a documentation sheet, the folder includes a blank search card, an envelope label (it was pasted on to the envelopes) a second edition envelope, a blank letterhead sheet, and a copy of the accordion fold list of keywords that was sent along with the card. I don’t have a disk of this work available, but Duke has printouts and a notebook with copies of the completed search cards.
A documentation sheet for A Party in Woodside, 1987
This was probably included with the 1987 version of A Party in Woodside which was self published and distributed by Art Com
An instruction booklet that was included in the packaging to the Apple II version of Uncle Roger which contained all three files. This version was probably published (self published by Bad Information) in 1988 and was distributed by Art Com.
Its name was Penelope
Documentation for the exhibition version.
A flyer advertising the version for the self-published (Narrabase Press) version that was available from Art Com.
Unassembled packing for the Narrabase Press version. The 3 pieces inside the watercolor paper folder are a cover, a back cover page and instructions. These pieces were pasted onto folder watercolor paper and a pocket that I constructed inside the folded watercolor paper contained a disk. An unassembled disk cover is also included. The whole when assembled was enclosed in a heavy clear plastic sleeve.
This folder contains a few Xeroxes or printouts of screens from Molasses, one of which has instructions for reading the work.
A documentation sheet for Wasting Time.
At the invitation of MAL curator Mél Hogan, on Monday February 11th conceptual artist Joel Swanson gave a talk about the art project he’s working on in and for the lab on the history of computer keyboards and what symbolic or cultural meaning there might be in the presence or absence of certain keys. (In fact, Joel has already done some work with keyboards by way of his ultra-minimal, conceptual piece called “Spacebar” from 2012.) Here is the video of Joel’s artist talk in the lab:
I’m very keen to see what Joel comes up with as I am fascinated with some of the keyboards in the lab, including an original keyboard for the Apple Macintosh from 1984 which famously has no arrow keys so that users were forced to use the mouse.
As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, the lab also has Commodore 64 computers which for example, came with both a ‘Commodore’ key that gave the user access to an alternate character set as well as four programmable function keys that, with the shift button, could each be programmed for two different functions.
By contrast, Apple II computers came with two programmable function keys and Apple III, IIc and IIe computers came with open-Apple and closed-Apple keys that provided the user with shortcuts to applications such as cut-and-paste or copy.
I hope this is the first of many more artist residencies in the lab!
Download the pdf here.
This lovely oddity arrived in the mail yesterday – Bob Neill’s Book of Typewriter Art (with special computer program) from 1982. It’s so difficult to capture its lovely oddness is just a few sentences or images so I decided to scan the entirety of the book and make it available here (pdf). Inside you’ll find line-by-line instructions for creating charming portraits of everything from the British royal family to siamese cats and even Kojak.
I’ve long been interested in the way writers in the 1960s and 1970s were – once the typewriter had thoroughly become commonplace – finding ways to play with the limits and possibilities of this machine as a writing medium. I’ve also thought that we can look back on typestracts such as Steve McCaffery’s Carnival and see it as informed by a D.I.Y. and hacking sensibility. While this book of typewriter art is clearly invested in representationality and not particularly experimental, its content is entirely a D.I.Y. guide to creating typewriter art and is very much like computer magazines from the early 1980s such as Byte that would include BASIC programs. Here, instead of computer code, we’re given typewritten letters as code. And in fact, the book includes an appendix with a Microsoft BASIC program for creating a “Prince Charles Portrait”, programmed for the Commodore PET. And since the second appendix is a chart showing “sizes of paper required for each picture on different kinds of typewriter,” I can’t help thinking this book is a unique artifact in that it’s entirely framed by the appearance of the personal computer – a book on a soon-to-be-outdated technology framed by its impending replacement by a new technology.
The following is a short review I wrote of discourse.cpp (pdf available here) by O.S. le Si, ed. Aurélie Herbelot, published by the Berlin-based Peer Press in 2011. The review was just published in the December issue of Computational Linguistics.
discourse.cpp (Peer Press, 2011) is a short collection of computer-generated poetry edited by computational linguistics scholar Aurélie Herbelot, produced by a computer called O.S. le Si mainly used for natural language processing, and named after a program which tries to identify the meanings of words based on their context. In this case, Herbelot inputted 200,000 pages from Wikipedia for the program to then parse and output lists of items whose context is similar to words such as “gender,” “love,” “family,” and “illness;” for example, Herbelot explains that content in the opening piece titled “the creation” was “selected out of a list of 10,000 entries. Each entry was produced by automatically looking for taxonomic relationships in Wikipedia”; and, for the piece titled “gender,” she chose the “twenty-five best contexts for man and woman in original order. No further changes.” (47) The collection is, then, as we are told on the back-cover, “about things that people say about things. It was written by a computer.”
Poets – or, for the sake of those still attached to the notion of an author who intentionally delivers well-crafted, expressive writing, “so-called poets” – have been experimenting with producing writing with the aid of digital computer algorithms since Max Bense and Theo Lutz first experimented with computer-generated writing in 1959. The most well-known English-language example is the 1984 collection of poems The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed by the Artificial Intelligence program Racter (a collection which was, it was later discovered, heavily edited by Racter creators William Chamberlain and Thomas Etter). discourse.cpp is yet another experiment in testing the capabilities of the computer and computer-programmer to create not so much “good” poetry as revealing poetry – poetry that is not meant to be close-read (most often to discover underlying authorial intent) but rather read as a collection of a kind of linguistic evidence. In this case, the collection provides evidence of the computer program’s probings of trends in online human language usage which in turn, not surprisingly, provides evidence of certain prevailing cultural norms; for example, we can see quite clearly our culture’s continued attachment to heteronormative gender roles in “Gender”:
man love — — win title
— marry man — love woman
— give birth — claim be (18)
More, this linguistic evidence also draws attention to the ever-increasing intertwinement of human and digital computer and the resulting displacement of the human as sole reader-writer now that the computer is also a reader-writer alongside (and often in collaboration with) the human.
As Herbelot rightly points out in the “Editor’s Foreword,” to a large extent this experimentation with the computer as reader-writer also comes out of early twentieth century, avant-garde writing that similarly sought to undermine, if not displace, the individual intending author. Dadaist Tristan Tzara, for instance, infamously wrote “TO MAKE A DADAIST POEM” in 1920 in which he advocates writing poetry by cutting out words from a newspaper article, randomly choosing these words from a hat, and then appropriating these randomly chosen words to create a poem by “an infinitely original author of charming sensibility.” Tzara was, of course, being typically Dadaist in his tongue-in-cheek attitude; but he was also, I believe, serious in his belief that the combination of appropriation and chance-generated methods of producing text could produce original writing that simultaneously undermined the egotism of the author. However, insofar as discourse.cpp comes out of a lineage of experimental writing invested in chance-generated writing and, later, in exploiting computer technology as the latest means by which to produce such writing, it also comes out of a certain tradition of disingenuousness that comes along with this lineage. No matter how much Tzara and later authors of computer-generated writing sought to remove the human-as-author, there was and still is no getting around the fact that humans are in fact deeply involved in the creation process – whether as cutters-and-pasters, computer programmers, inputters, or editors. The collection, then, is a much more complex amalgam than even Herbelot seems willing to acknowledge as discourse.cpp is evidence of the evenly distributed reading and writing that took place between Herbelot and the computer/program itself.
I’ve been building a bibliography for awhile now of digital textuality/art apps for the iPhone and iPad. The list below is far from complete but hopefully useful to those of you teaching students how to read and/or write digital textuality/art. Some link directly to the download page while others link to pages with information on particular apps. Please let me know if you have any other works you think I should add to this list.
- Abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz by Jorg Piringer
- And-or.ch | Gameart & Mediaart from the Digital Subconscious: : Wardive : Hear the Hotspots – Generative and Locative Music – iphone
- App Smart – Poetry in the Age of Technology (NYTimes)
- AppMakr :: iPhone App Maker | Make Your Own iPhone App | Free iPhone App Maker
- Bjork’s Biophilia for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad
- Brion Gysin: Dream Machine for iPhone and iPod Touch on the iTunes App Store
- Careless Observations for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad on the iTunes App Store
- Comic Life – a Photo Comic Creation App for iPhone, iPod touch, iPad on iTunes App Store
- Composition No. 1 by Visual Editions Ltd. for iPad on iTunes App Store
- Digital Fiction iPad Project: The Good and Bad Stuff, article by Andy Campbell
- Eye Blog » The App of A Humument by Tom Phillips
- For all Seasons by Nanika for iPhone on iTunes app Store
- Gravity Clock for iPhone, iPod touch, iPad and Windows Phone 7 by Jörg Piringer
- Hadean Lands: Interactive Fiction for the iPhone by Andrew Plotkin
- Immobilité by Mark Amerika for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad on the iTunes App Store
- Know by Jason Edward Lewis
- Konsonant by Jorg Piringer for iPhone, iPod touch, iPad and Mac
- Migration by Jason Edward Lewis for iPad on the iTunes App Store
- MyFry by Stephen Fry for iPhone, iPod touch, iPad on the iTunes App Store
- Passage by Jason Rohrer iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad on the iTunes App Store
- PulsART by Megan Monroe for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad on the iTunes App Store
- Re-Writing Freud « Room 26 Cabinet of Curiosities by Simon and Christine Morris
- Ruben and Lullaby by Eric Loyer for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad on the iTunes App Store
- Shadows Never Sleep by Aya Karpinska
- Situationist App By Benrik
- Smooth Second Bastard by Jason Edward Lewis for iPhone and iPad on the iTunes App Store
- Speak by Jason Edward Lewis for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad on the iTunes App Store
- Spine Sonnet by Jody Zellen for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad on the iTunes App Store
- Strange Rain by Eric Loyer for iPad, iPhone & iPod Touch
- The Carrier: Graphic Novel and Comic Book by StopWatch Media for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad on the iTunes App Store
- The Use by Chris Mann for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad on the iTunes App Store
- Touchwords by Twitch.com for iPad on the iTunes App Store
- Upgrade Soul by Erik Loyer for iPad, iPad Mini, iPhone 4 on the iTunes App Store
- Vanitas by Tale of Tales for iPhone and iPad on the iTunes App Store
Below is the introduction that Derek Beaulieu and I wrote for Writing Surfaces: Selected Fiction of John Riddell that Wilfred Laurier University Press is generously publishing in April 2013. Please do pre-order a copy through your local independent bookstore. The collection is, I think, a perfect instance of literary experimentation with media archaeology.
Introduction: Media Studies and Writing Surfaces
Writing Surfaces: The Fiction of John Riddell brings an overview of the work of John Riddell to a 21st-century audience, an audience who will see this volume as a radical, literary manifestation of media archaeology. This book is also, in the words of the promotional material of Riddell’s 1977 Criss-cross: a Text Book of Modern Composition, a “long-over-due debut by one of our most striking new fictioneers.”
Since 1963 John Riddell’s work has appeared in such foundational literary journals as grOnk, Rampike, Open Letter and Descant as part of an on-going dialogue with Canadian literary radicality. Riddell was an early contributing editor to bpNichol’s Ganglia, a micro-press dedicated to the development of community-level publishing and the distribution of experimental poetries. This relationship continued to evolve with his co-founding of Phenomenon Press and Kontakte magazine with Richard Truhlar (1976) and his involvement with Underwhich Editions (founded in 1978): a “fusion of high production standards and top-quality literary innovation” which focused on “presenting, in diverse and appealing physical formats, new works by contemporary creators, focusing on formal invention and encompassing the expanded frontiers of literary endeavour.”
Writing Surfaces: The Fiction of John Riddell reflects Riddell’s participation in these Toronto-based, Marshall McLuhan-influenced, experimental poetry communities from the 1960s until roughly the mid- to late-1980s. These communities, and the work of contemporaries bpNichol, Paul Dutton, jwcurry, Richard Truhlar and Steve McCaffery, give context to Riddell’s literary practice and his focus on ”pataphysics, philosophically-investigative prose and process-driven visual fiction. While many of his colleagues were more renowned for their poetic and sound-based investigations, Riddell clearly shared both Nichol’s fondness for the doubleness of the visual-verbal pun and Steve McCaffery’s technical virtuosity and philosophical sophistication. In his magazine publications, small press ephemera, and trade publications, Riddell created a conversation between these two sets of poetics and extended it to the realm of fiction (exploring a truly hybrid form that is poetry as much as it is fiction). Riddell’s work as fiction works to explore the development and accretion of narrative in time-based sequence, a fiction of visuality and media. Writing Surfaces is the documentation of Riddell pushing his own writing to the very limit of what conceivably counts as writing through writing.
While it’s true that the title “writing surfaces” carries with it the doubling and reversibility of noun and verb, reminding us how the page is as much a flat canvas for visual expression as it is a container for thought, the first title we proposed for this collection was “Media Studies.” The latter, while admittedly too academic-sounding to describe writing as visually and conceptually alive as Riddell’s, could still describe Riddell’s entire oeuvre; the term not only refers to the study of everyday media (such as television, radio, the digital computer and so on) but it can—in fact should—encompass the study of textual media and the ways in which writing engages with how it is shaped and defined by mediating technologies. In other words, Riddell’s work is a kind of textbook for the study of media through writing, or, the writing of writing.
The best-known example of Riddell’s writing of writing is “Pope Leo, El ELoPE: A Tragedy in Four Letters,” initially published in April 1969 with mimeograph illustrations by bpNichol through Nichol’s small but influential Canadian magazine grOnk. It was published again, with more refined, hand-drawn, illustrations, once again by Nichol, in the Governor General’s Award winning anthology Cosmic Chef: An Evening of Concrete (1970, the version included here) and in a further iteration in Criss-Cross: A Text Book of Modern Composition with illustrations by Filipino-Canadian comic book artist Franc Reyes (who would later pencil and ink Tarzan, House of Mystery and Weird War for dc comics and was involved with 1970s underground Canadian comix publisher Andromeda). “Pope Leo” relates a stripped-down comic-strip tale of the tragic murder of Pope Leo; the narrative unfolds partly by way of frames within frames, windows within windows, telling a minimalist story in which the comic-strip frame is nothing but a simple hand-drawn square with the remarkable power to bring a story into being. The anagrammatic text is an exploration of the language possibilities inherent in letters ‘p,’ ‘o,’ ‘l,’ and ‘e’ (hence the sub-title, “a tragedy in four letters”)—sometimes using one of the letters twice, sometimes dropping one, always rearranging, always moving back and forth along the spectrum of sense/nonsense: “O POPE LEO! PEOPLE POLL PEOPLE! PEOPLE POLE PEOPLE! LO PEOPLE.”
With a/z does it (1988), Riddell’s writing of writing focuses even more on the investigation of the possibilities of story that lie well beyond the form of the sentence, paragraph, the narrative arc. Rather than playing with the visual story structure of the frame and the verbal structure of the anagram as means by which to create a narrative, with pieces like “placid/special” Riddell first creates grid-like structures of text with the mono-spaced typewriter font and then uses a photocopier to document the movement of the text in waves across the glass bed. The resultant text is the visual equivalent of his earlier fine-tuned probing of the line between sense and nonsense in “Pope Leo.” These typewriter/photocopier pieces record both signal and noise as columns of text waver in and out of legibility. Semantically, these mirage-like texts focus on the words ‘placid’ (the lines of text reminding us of the symmetrical reversibility of ‘p’ and ‘d’ which begin and end the word), ‘love’ (with just the slightest suggestion of ‘velo’ at the beginning and end of each wave), ‘first,’ ‘i met,’ ‘special,’ ‘evening’ and ‘light’ (appearing as a hazy sunset moving down the page), and conclude with ‘relax’ and ‘enjoy.’ The paratactical juxtaposition of the two pages in “placid/special” creates the barest suggestion of a narrative about lovers enjoying an evening together while at the same time each page is in itself an even more minimalist story told through experiments with the manipulation of writing media.
Riddell’s writing of writing that is simultaneously sense and nonsense, verbal and visual, self-contained and serial—that demands to be read at the same time as it ought to be viewed—nearly reaches its zenith in later work such as E clips E (1989). In particular, “surveys” is writing only in the most technical sense with its Jackson Pollock-like paint drippings and scattered individual letters, all counter-balanced by neat, hand-drawn frames.
Just as Riddell’s compositions challenge how writers and readers form meaning, the original publications of many of the selections in Writing Surfaces, and Riddell’s larger oeuvre, were also physically constructed in a way that would demand reader participation. Riddell’s original publications include small press leaflets (Pope Leo, El ELoPE: A Tragedy in Four Letters), business card-sized broadsides (“spring”), chapbooks (A Hole in the Head and Traces) and pamphlets (How to Grow Your Own Light Bulbs). His work also extends into books as non-books: posters which double as dart boards (1987’s d’Art Board), novels arranged as packages of cigarettes (1996’s Smokes: a novel mystery) and decks of cards to be shuffled, played and processually read (1981’s War (Words at Roar), Vol.1: s/word/s games and others). Inside books with otherwise traditional appearances Riddell insists that his readers reject passive reception of writing in favour of a more active role. While outside of the purview of Writing Surfaces, 1996’s How to Grow Your Own Light Bulbs includes texts that must be excised and re-assembled (“Peace Puzzle”); burnt with a match (“Burnout!”); and written by the reader (“Nightmare Hotel”). Copies of the second edition of Riddell’s chapbook TRACES (1991) include a piece of mirrored foil to read the otherwise illegible text.
Riddell’s compositions do not just question the traditional role of the author; they attempt to annihate it. With “a shredded text” (1989) Riddell fed an original poem into a shredder, which then read the text and excreted (as writing) the waste material of that consumption. The act of machinistic consumption creates a new poem—the original was simply the material for the creation and documentation of the final piece. With “a shredded text” Riddell acts as editor to restrict the amount of waste that enters the manuscript of the book. The machine-author becomes a reader and writer of excess and non-meaning-based texts while the human-author becomes the voice of restraint and reason attempting to limit the presentation of continuous waste-production as writing. If, as Barthes argues, “to read […] is a labour of language. To read is to find meanings,” then the consumption and expulsion of texts by machines such as photocopiers and shredders produces meanings where meanings are not expected by fracturing the text at the level of creation and consumption—an act which is simultaneously both readerly and writerly.
Riddell’s oeuvre is almost entirely out of print and unavailable except on the rare book market. Working within the purview of 1970s and 1980s Canadian small presses means that Riddell’s writing proves elusive to a generation of readers who have come of literary age after the demise of such once-vital publishers such as Aya Press (which was renamed The Mercury Press in 1990 and has also ceased publishing), Underwhich Editions, Ganglia, grOnk and the original Coach House Press. As obscure as his original books may be, Riddell’s work remains a captivating example of hypothetical prose; dreamt narratives that have sprouted from our abandoned machines. With no words and no semantic content, we are left to read only the process of writing made product—a textbook of compositional method using writing media from the pen/pencil, the sheet of paper, the typewriter, the shredder, photocopier, to even the paintbrush. The medium is the message.
This sixth series of grOnk magazine – at this time, edited by bNichol with Steve McCaffery, bill bissett, dave uu “with an assist from rah smith and david aylward” – is devoted to the work of McCaffery. All but two issues (2-3 was published in 1970) in the series are undated but I’m guessing they were all published in the early 1970s. Every issue was published as single sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper stapled twice.
Issue one (download the pdf here) features five abstract concrete poems by McCaffery using typewriter, dry transfer lettering (I believe), stamp, and copier machine.
Issue two-three (download the pdf here) features McCaffery’s “TRANSITIONS TO THE BEAST” which he calls “post-semiotic poems.” On the final page of the collection, McCaffery writes:
to the beast are for me transitional pieces moving towards a hand drawn set of visual conventions that have their roots both in semiotic poetry & in the comic strip. the semiotic or code poem (invented about 1964 by the brazilians pagnatari & pinto) uses a language of visual signs designed & constructed to suit the individual desires of the poet & the needs that he as linguistic designer assumes for the poem on that particular occasion of construction.
Issue four (download the pdf here) is titled, I believe “MELON LEMON” and continues McCaffery’s investigations into the visual, hand-drawn, typewritten poem that moves to the far edge of semantic meaning.
Issue five (download the pdf here) is “COLLBORATIONS” by both bpNichol and Steve McCaffery which does manage to appear as a perfect meshing of Nichol’s own comic-strip, hand-drawn aesthetic and McCaffery’s more abstract and geometrically precise concrete poems.
Finally, issue eight (download the pdf here) features McCaffery’s “MAPS: a different landscape” in which he experiments with the page as a space for linguistic-cartographic experimentation, taking a cleaner and more legible approach to the notion of cartography in poetry than he did with “Carnival.”
I had the great fortune of meeting Lionel Kearns in Vancouver last spring and discussing bpNichol’s 1984 Apple IIe poem “First Screening.” (If you don’t know Kearns, he is a longtime Vancouver-based poet who was a student of Earle Birney and also one of the four people to first rescue “First Screening.”) After explaining that I had managed, with the assistance of Jim Andrews, to obtain copies of “First Screening” for the Archeological Media Lab to run on the Apple IIe’s, Kearns immediately and generously offered to donate original working copies of the poems that bp was working on when he visited Kearns in the early 80s. I’m thrilled to report the floppies arrived last week, safe and sound, with this note from Kearns: “I am not sure of the actual date, but it was some time previous to the actual publication on disk of the collection of poems by Underwhich Editions.”
[February 2013: I've posted an extended version of my MLA 2013 paper here.]
Below is the description for the MLA ’13 special session panel that Paul Benzon, Mark Sample, Zach Whalen, and I will present on in January. We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to pursue together issues related to Media Archaeology.
Media studies is growing increasingly visible within the broader disciplines of literary and cultural studies, with several critical approaches bringing valuable shape and context to the field. Prominent among these approaches is a turn away from media studies’ longstanding fixation upon the new or the innovative as the most urgent and deserving site of study. Drawing on methodologies as diverse as book history, media archaeology, and videogame studies, this work on earlier media technologies has forged provocative connections between past and present contexts that hinge upon disjuncture and nonlinearity as often as upon continuity and teleology. At the same time, an increased attention to the material particulars of inscription, storage, circulation, and reception has developed the field beyond an early focus on narrative and representation.
New media scholars now look beyond screen-based media, to a broader range of technologies and sites of inquiry. This panel seeks to consider unseen, lost, or unwanted histories of writing/media. Each of the panelists focuses on a particular technology that is not only invisible to the broad history of media technology, but also relies upon loss and invisibility for its very functionality. In keeping with this dual valence, our emphasis on loss and invisibility is intended to raise questions aimed at our specific objects of analysis, but also at the deeper historical and disciplinary questions that these objects speak to: how does our understanding of media technology change when we draw attention to objects and processes that are designed to be invisible, out of view, concealed within the machine, or otherwise beyond the realm of unaided human perception? What happens when we examine the technological, social, and ideological assumptions bound up with that invisibility? How does privileging invisibility shed new light on materiality, authorship, interface, and other central critical questions within media studies?
The vexing relationship between invisibility and transparency is addressed head-on in Lori Emerson’s paper, “Apple Macintosh and the Ideology of the User-Friendly.” Emerson suggests that the “user-friendly” graphical user interface (GUI) that was introduced via the Apple Macintosh in 1984 was–and still is–driven by an ideology that celebrates an invisible interface instead of offering users transparent access to the framing mechanisms of the interface as well as the underlying flow of information. Emerson asserts this particular philosophy of the user-friendly was a response to earlier models of home computers which were less interested in providing ready-made tools through an invisible interface and more invested in educating users and providing them with the means for tool-building. Thus, the Apple Macintosh model of the GUI is clearly related to contemporary interfaces that utterly disguise the ways in which they delimit not only our access to information but also what and how we read/write.
A desire to renew critical attention on the most taken-for-granted aspect of computer writing and reading is at the heart of Zach Whalen’s paper, “OCR and the Vestigial Aesthetics of Machine Vision.” Whalen examines the origins of the technology that allows machines to read and process alphanumeric characters. While graceful typography is said to work best when it is not noticed–in other words, when hidden in plain sight–early OCR fonts had to become less hidden in order to make their text available for machine processing. Whalen focuses on the OCR-A font and the contributions of OCR engineer Jacob Rabinow, who argued on behalf of ugly machine-readable type that (although historically and technically contingent) its intrinsically artificial geometry could become its own aesthetic signifier.
The condensation and invisibility of textual information is taken up by Paul Benzon in his paper, “Lost in Plain Sight: Microdot Technology and the Compression of Reading.” Benzon uses the analog technology of the microdot, in which an image of a standard page of text is reduced to the size of a period, as a framework to consider questions of textual and visual materiality in new media. Benzon’s discussion focuses on the work of microdot inventor Emanuel Goldberg, who in the fifties worked alongside and in competition with the engineer Vannevar Bush, a seminal figure for new media studies. Benzon transforms the disregarded history of textual storage present in Goldberg’s work into a counter-narrative to the more hegemonic ideology of hypertext that has dominated new media studies.
Turning to an entirely invisible process that we can only know by its product, Mark Sample considers the meaning of machine-generated randomness in electronic literature and videogames in his paper, “An Account of Randomness in Literary Computing.” While new media critics have looked at randomness as a narrative or literary device, Sample explores the nature of randomness at the machine level, exposing the process itself by which random numbers are generated. Sample shows how early attempts at mechanical random number generation grew out of the Cold War, and then how later writers and game designers relied on software commands like RND (in BASIC), which seemingly simplified the generation of random numbers, but which in fact were rooted in–and constrained by–the particular hardware of the machine itself.
These four papers share a common impulse, which is to imagine alternate or supplementary media histories that intervene into existing scholarly discussions. By focusing on these forgotten and unseen dimensions, we seek to complicate and enrich the ways in which literary scholars understand the role of technologies of textual production within contemporary practices of reading and writing. With timed talks of 12 minutes each, the session sets aside a considerable amount of time for discussion. This panel will build on a growing conversation among MLA members interested in theoretically inflected yet materially specific work on media technologies, and it will also appeal to a broad cross-section of the MLA membership, including textual scholars, digital humanists, literary historians, electronic literature critics, and science and technology theorists.