When Ed Falco invited me to be the guest editor for this issue of The New River, I jumped at the chance. I am always on the look-out for examples of electronic literature; it is a sideline of mine, and sometimes I find those examples in the most unexpected places.
When someone blogs about a recent event in their lives, or tweets a childhood memory or a bit of news they heard, these are not intended as electronic literature but sometimes, through the refinements of language and the embellishments of technology, they are close to it. When someone lifts a news event from CNN or FOX or NPR and deliberately edits its content to shape a better story on Facebook, we are getting closer to electronic literature. When some of these online utterances are outright fabrications, they are intended, like all literature, to delight and entertain us.
Whether it be Facebook, blogs, or Twitter, the sooner we accept that new technologies allow, and even force, multimedia as a standard mode of online communication, the sooner we will get used to the idea we are surrounded on all sides by electronic literature. Yes, it's not all stories and poems, and few people are calling it electronic literature, but there it is.
As I edited this issue, I looked for additional places (other than Facebook, blogs, or Twitter) where new electronic writers might be. As an academic, because it was most familiar to me, I set my sights on current or recent graduates from new media or electronic literature programs. What I learned is these programs are full of talented writers and artists who are happily exploring new and exciting ways to tell a story or express a poem. They are using generative poetry, user-generated story paths, RSS feeds, social networks, and spambots. They are creating Firefox add-ons, interactive videos, phone apps, and 3D immersive environments. They are experimenting with locative media, Wikipedia as source material, and Google image searches. And they are using a hundred other ways to share their genius with the rest of us.
In including the following six works, I followed a few criteria. Since The New River is web-based, it made sense to include only web-based work. I also wanted the works to be interactive. I received many excellent submissions--some truly outstanding in their originality and inventiveness--in video, still image, wearable art, animation, and documentation of installations/performances, but they did not seem the right fit.
What I finally decided on were a combination of what I call "concept" pieces (a broad term and insufficient to fully describe the complexity of the works) and some other pieces that adhere to more traditional narrative lines.
Jhave's "Disclaimer" and "Reboot The Universe Now: A Propositional Poem for World Peace" are two examples of what might be called concept pieces. "Disclaimer" takes the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) ratings and scrambles them, via a cyclic recombination of words and phrases, to create a poetic commentary on individual and corporate censorship. "Reboot," in Jhave's own words, is a piece about how "god is an inept programmer who inadvertently created a flawed universe full of unnecessary suffering [...] Personally, I am disillusioned by all political, social, psychological or spiritual efforts to improve reality; I honestly believe the best option is a universal reboot." This piece is one attempt at that.
Irad Lee's "Spamology" is an example of visual poetry that represents patterns of popular words within an archive of spam messages spanning approximately ten years. The piece, by recognizing patterns in these messages, suggests a discernable "voice" in the spam chaos: spam itself generates a language of repeated words and phrases that may reflect, as Lee tells us, "cultural and social trends, behaviors and variations."
Jennifer Smith's "Suits: A Narrative of About Twenty-Seven Hours, More or Less" is more narrative-based than the previous three works. It is the story of a character's response to her father's death, but the total of fourteen extracts that makes up the main plotline is broken into visual and audio snippets. The reader of the story inserts themselves, via clicks on a visual icon of a suit, into random stages of the narrative line. That randomness reflects an alternative to a more traditional, linear story line. As Smith tells us, "our self-narratives, as we experience them and as we remember them, are rarely so neatly packaged. Frequently, we come to know to the stories of self only through loosely-connected, non-temporally located vignettes [...] we construct our sense of self, like a patchwork, in bits and pieces that fragment our autobiography."
With Jaka Železnikar's "Fragments of Distances," we see a short digital story that utilizes Google map API which is visually synthesized with photographic images and text. It is, as he tells us, "a kind of a short story that explores transience of time and ways in which we form (and relate between) experiencing and remembering self [... it is] a detailed logical description of how we relate to our understanding of who we are and who we were, and how this might fit together." The piece is the story of an encounter, and laid out like a linear narrative, but it reads, in some ways, like a poem, although distinctions between poem and story are increasingly irrelevant in the world of multimedia literature.
Finally, with Jason Huff's "How Am I Not Myself?" we have a play on biography and the refraction of the self as replicated within a Wikipedia entry by workers from Amazon's Mechanical Turk. As Huff tells us, this piece "aggregates information about all the Jason Huffs on the Internet [and] acts as an open-source platform for identity remix." That is, as long as Wikipedia doesn't find out about it.
My hope is that you will get a sense of what some writers are seeing within the possibilities of electronic literature. I also encourage you to explore those nooks and crannies of the internet where you would never expect electronic literature to be. And for those of us who have been electronic writers for a decade or so, beware: the avant-garde which we fondly believed ourselves frontier scouts for is, in many ways, already the rear guard, and the trails we broke are fast disappearing into the past.
May 30, 2011