“Computers and the Arts”, Dick Higgins (1968)

from “Computers for the Arts,” by Dick Higgins

About a year ago, I was working on the third chapter of Reading Writing Interfaces – “Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics” – during which I discovered, among other things, the mutual influence of concrete poetry and Marshall McLuhan. One figure I promised myself I needed to research further once I’d finished my book was Dick Higgins – self-proclaimed ‘intermedia poet’ and publisher of Something Else Press. Higgins, I found, was one of the most obviously influenced by McLuhan, no doubt in large part because Higgins published McLuhan’s Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations the same year as his press published the first major anthology of concrete poetry, Emmett Williams’ An Anthology of Concrete Poetry. Invested as he was in poetry that situates itself between two or more inseparable media, Higgins’ notion of intermedia is obviously saturated with McLuhan’s notions of the new electric age and the global village; as he wrote in his “Statement on Intermedia” in 1966, the year before publishing the two volumes by McLuhan and Emmett:

Could it be that the central problem of the next ten years or so, for all artists in all possible forms, is going to be less the still further discovery of new media and intermedia, but of the new discovery of ways to use what we care about both appropriately and explicitly?

Higgins also published his own pamphlet, “Computers for the Arts,” in 1970 (written in 1968, pdf available here) which I’ve just now had a chance to track down and scan. What interests me most about this little pamphlet is how it anticipates so much of the digital art/writing and network art/writing to come in the next forty+ years–experiments in using computers against themselves, or against what Higgins describes in 1970 as their economic uses in science and business. “However,” he writes, “their uses are sufficiently versatile to justify looking into a number of the special techniques for the solution of creative problems.” In “Computers for the Arts,” he goes on to explore how FORTRAN in particular can be used to generate poems, scenarios, what he calls “propositions” that can work through these creative problems in, for example, “1.64 minutes, as opposed to the 16 hours needed to make the original typewritten version.” But the larger point is about understanding tools as processes, just as Alan Kay, Ted Nelson and others advocated for throughout the 1970s and 1980s:

When the artist is able to eliminate his irrational attitudes (if any) about the mythology of computers, and becomes willing not simply to dump his fantasies in the lap of some startled engineer, but to supply the engineer with:

  1. the rudiments of his program in such a language as FORTRAN or one of the other very common ones;
  2. a diagram of the logic of his program, such as I just used to illustrate…
  3. a page or so of how he would like the printout to look

then he will be in a position to use the speed and accuracy of computers. There will be few of the present disappointments, which are due usually more often to the artist’s naivete than to the engineer’s lack of information or good will. The onus is on the artist, not his tools, to do good work.

Here, then, is a pdf of “Computers for the Arts.” Enjoy!

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radio interview on media archaeology

 On Tuesday October 1st, I was fortunate enough to have the chance to talk about Reading Writing Interfaces (coming out from University of Minnesota Press in June 2014) as well as my work with the Media Archaeology Lab live on the radio with Marcus Smith on BYU Radio. This was my first experience with what I’d call an ‘old school radio interview,’ where the host has a wonderfully, low, smooth voice and doesn’t engage in conversation so much as peppers the interviewee with questions. If you’re interested, you can listen in below.

call for work: performance|film|sound|writing responding to John Riddell

Thanks to Counterpath – an incredibly productive and innovative literary publisher and arts venue in Denver – we are looking for work in writing, performance, film, and sound that directly responds to or reads Writing Surfaces: The Selected Fiction of John Riddell, co-edited by Derek Beaulieu and myself. Our introduction to the collection, “Media Studies and Writing Surfaces,” is posted here. The Call for Work is below – please submit and/or pass this on to relevant friends, colleagues, and students.

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Counterpath is seeking work in writing, performance, film, and sound that directly responds to or reads Writing Surfaces: The Selected Fiction of John Riddell (2012, Wilfred Laurier University Press).

John Riddell’s work embraces game play, unreadability and illegibility, procedural work, non-representational narrative, photocopy degeneration, collage, handwritten texts, and gestural work. His self-aware and meta-textual short fiction challenges the limits of machine-based composition and his reception as a media-based poet.

Riddell is best known for “H” and “Pope Leo, El ELoPE,” a pair of graphic fictions written in collaboration with, or dedicated to, bpNichol, but his work moves well beyond comic strips into a series of radical fictions. In Writing Surfaces, derek beaulieu and Lori Emerson present “Pope Leo, El ELoPE” and many other works in a collection that showcases Riddell’s remarkable mix of largely typewriter-based concrete poetry mixed with fiction and drawings.

Riddell’s oeuvre fell out of popular attention, but it has recently garnered interest among poets and critics engaged in media studies (especially studies of the typewriter) and experimental writing. As media studies increasingly turns to “media archaeology” and the reading and study of antiquated, analogue-based modes of composition (typified by the photocopier and the fax machine as well as the typewriter), Riddell is a perfect candidate for renewed appreciation and study by new generations of readers, authors, and scholars.

Counterpath will host an evening of approximately 5 performances of 10-15 minutes each on December 14, 2013, at 7p.m. Please send a proposal of not more than 250 words to Counterpath program coordinator Oren Silverman (os@counterpathpress.org) by October 31, 2013. Counterpath is a literary publisher and arts venue in Denver, Colorado. For more information please visit counterpathpress.org.

from Apple Basic to Hypercard, or, Translating Translating bpNichol

[reblogged from the Media Archaeology Lab]

As a result of a number of recent researcher visits to the MAL, the question we’ve been mulling over lately is whether, or how, works of digital literature can be said to have “manuscript versions.” Here is the background to this question: on 7 June 2012, I blogged about the 5.25″ floppies of bpNichol’s “First Screening” that had been donated to the lab by Canadian poet Lionel Kearns.

Happily, just a few weeks ago, the lab hosted a visiting researcher from Dalhousie University, Katherine Wooler, who is an English MA student and a graduate fellow with the Editing Modernism in Canada project; Wooler is working on a thesis in which she explores the differences in these versions of “First Screening.” I knew that the Javascript and Quicktime versions online were of course utterly different from the Apple Basic versions I had been looking at via an Apple II emulator. What I didn’t realize, until Wooler worked methodically in the lab for several days, is not only that the floppies donated by Kearns are earlier and incomplete versions of the Apple Basic published version that came out in 1984, but also that the lab’s Hypercard version, on 3.5″ floppy published by Red Deer Press in 1992, is even more starkly different. Wooler has written some tremendously illuminating paragraphs in her thesis, explaining the differences between these versions and trying out the term “beta-phase” instead of “manuscript” as a way of naming the earlier, incomplete, and unpublished versions of “First Screening”:

The Media Archaeology Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder has two 5 ¼-inch floppies with incomplete versions of First Screening on them (along with the requisite Apple IIe for viewing them). These beta-phase versions of First Screening not only differ from each other and from the published version (which is available online as an emulation of the software running on an Apple IIe) in content, but also in metadata. The two disks contain different selections from the eventual First Screening line up and this variation in primary text content affects the underlying layers of text that are intrinsically tied to the properties of the software. For example, typing the CAT command for catalogue of disk contents brings up a list of programs on each disk and the amount of space occupied by each. While one disk indicates that the poems claim 013 sectors of space on the floppy, the other—which has more of the final selection of poems—requires 045 sectors of space for the First Screening program. Additionally, by entering the command GOSUB 500 on the latter disk brings the user to the dedication at the end of the poems, while executing the same command on the disk with less poems calls up the piece “Tidal Pool.” The message that greets readers when the disk is first booted up and prompts them to type the RUN command claims its own 002 sectors of space and appears as a program titled “Hello” when the CAT or LIST commands are executed. The metadata also confirms that these two floppies are not complete versions. A quick consult with the Apple IIe manual reveals that the lack of asterisk beside the list of programs recalled with the CAT command means that these programs are unlocked and open for edits from any user.

In 1992-93, J. B. Hohm attempted to replicate First Screening in Hypercard format using HyperTalk programming language and he published the finished translation on 3 ½-inch floppy disks. A greater range of machines could read this version of First Screening, yet, at the same time, a couple of statistics about one possible computer that could be used for viewing the work indicate the accelerated rate of media evolution that accompanied the increase in available options for personal computers: I popped Hohm’s re-creation of First Screening into a Macintosh Powerbook 160, which was released in 1992 and discontinued in 1994. Loading this translation of First Screening highlights how it is impossible for anyone working with Nichol’s concrete poetry to avoid the material nature of his work. In the section titled “Fonts and Bolding” in the introduction/menu section of the disk, Hohm makes special note of typography in the section titled, an element that is of paramount importance in most of Nichol’s print concrete as well. Options in the menu allow users the choice between viewing First Screening in bolded or un-bolded text, and users can also choose between three fonts: Chicago, Geneva, or Monaco. Hohm implies that users may have an even greater font selection depending on the model of computer they are using. He writes, “At the very minimum, your Macintosh should support Geneva, Chicago, and Monaco fonts.”

When First Screening was translated from Applesoft Basic to HyperTalk programming language it was published on a different size of floppy disk, it became viewable on a whole new range of personal computers, and the underlying layers of text behind the viewing text transformed. The programs on the disk that execute the poems are measured in new units, and the commands that call up metadata have changed. In fact, the viewer’s ability to communicate directly with the program through simple command lines is impeded by the presence of a user menu that requires the viewer to communicate with the program by selecting options with the cursor instead. The cursor function builds up the layers of text (in this case HyperTalk coding language) between the viewing text and the initial text that was input by the author. Now the placement of the cursor in the table of contents initiates a command sequence instead of the user perusing the location of individual poems with the LIST command and manually entering a GOSUB command to jump ahead to a specific poem in the sequence. Nichol was aware of the subtleties of these layers of text and how they were dependent upon their medium. A text file (provided by Jim Andrews and co.) of Nichol’s original First Screening created with Applesoft Basic reveals that Nichol imbedded a bonus poem in the programming language. Using the REM command as a prefix he created a poem about the biblical flood that includes word play such as “REM ark.” In the Basic language REM indicates a line of text in the code that will not be executed as part of the program and is only visible when the code is being read in its raw form. Like the HTML of today’s use of the forward slash and the asterisk, REM preceded lines within code that were essentially references for the programmer. In Nichol’s hidden poem, “ark” is the primary text, but “REM” couples with it to form a larger word that is a hybrid of command and content. Since REM is not a command in HyperTalk, Hohm must include this poem as a bonus feature that is purely content, thereby losing the play-on words and an integral part of the poem’s identity.

Below are photographs Wooler took of the Hypercard version of “First Screening” housed in the Media Archaeology Lab as well as the lab’s still functioning Macintosh Powerbook 160 from 1992.

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from “Web Stalker” to the Googlization of Literature

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.

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Judy Malloy donations to the MAL’s early e-literature collection

malloyDonations

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!

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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.

Documentation  Folders

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.

Uncle Roger
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.

Molasses
This folder contains a few Xeroxes or printouts of screens from Molasses, one of which has instructions for reading the work.

Wasting Time
A documentation sheet for Wasting Time.

Artist Residency at the Media Archaeology Lab

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.

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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.

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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.

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I hope this is the first of many more artist residencies in the lab!