A note from the editors
Seventeen years. Though not yet old enough to buy a cigarette, The New River's abiding presence in electronic literature has made clear a connection to the journal's namesake: both have witnessed a great deal of change. Stepping into our role as editors, Mike, Amy, and I didn't realize how drastically the field of new media is evolving until we traced its beginnings in the 1980s all the way up to works-in-progress, at one point reading theoretical speculations on the genre's future, which were...interesting (read: mind-melting). The vast disparity we noticed in the realm of hypertext alone–compare Michael Joyce's Afternoon, a story to Juan Bernardo Gutiérrez's Literatronica–embodies today's digital whiplash, where constant innovation is expected, even demanded, so much so that we aren't rightly able to say electronic literature evolves in a punctuated equilibrium, as seismic shifts seem to occur on the hour.
The truth is, we are more literate on a screen these days than on a page; it's no wonder more and more artists are turning toward the screen to flex that literacy.
As our increasingly paperless society goes digital, so do our professions, our hobbies, our histories, and, with them, our lives. Something once so passive as watching television can now take on complex multimodal dimensions. And who keeps scrapbooks anymore when one RSS feed can link Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, all of which function simultaneously? I sometimes feel my own thoughts scrolling like a newsfeed. N. Katherine Hayles has identified this phenomenon as "interface subjectivity," where the collaborative language between computer coding and human lives demonstrates the ways in which people and machines are drawing ever closer to synthesis.
Are we becoming machines, or are the machines becoming us?
Every day, a new mode of digital artistry is born from this collaboration. Our joy as editors is to witness artists not shying from developments, but embracing them, thus bridging the gaps between once-distant (or in many cases, nonexistent) mediums.
However, this rampant variation has presented the editors its challenges–what even constitutes digital literature anymore? We needed a simple definition to drive our aesthetic vision for this issue, and settling on one involved much protest, beer, Radiohead's Kid A, and chicken tenders. To get there, we distilled everything we'd noticed into a running list that grew shorter and shorter the more pieces we looked at, crossing off "requirements" whenever we encountered a piece that formed a workaround or simply did without them. Ultimately, we identified a baseline that gave us enough wiggle room to consider a diverse range of work while still retaining electronic literature's duende. Are you ready for it?
The New River's 27th issue is comprised of work made for–and only accessible through–an electronic screen. Simple as that. If we came across a piece that could be printed without sacrificing its effect, or a video that didn't allow for a viewer's interaction, we passed. It may not be the most stimulating or impregnable standard, but we think it effectively captures a medium whose sprawl makes it nearly impossible to pin down (as it should be). So go ahead and do yourself a favor: Look into your screen and interact with the pieces we've selected here for you. See what you can find.
If Hayles is right, maybe the screen will be looking back.
The narrator of Alan Bigelow's Cody in Love may well be the most human-seeming machine (or machine-like human) viewers will meet in their lifetimes, warrantied or not. In a piece that's made for the screen (as well as about the literal and figurative ones we live behind every day), form meets content as the viewer must make a choice: Take Cody's intimate confidences at face value, or peek behind the already threadbare curtain that casts shadows over the (pre-code) lovesick musings of a man-machine's inner life.
The point of Robert Kendall's digital art-game Clues is disarmingly questionable from the get-go, as the author himself concedes in the rules, "We'll leave aside for now whether ... winning or losing represents the superior outcome." Clues is at once a meta-text on meaning and understanding and a charmingly befuddling postmodern internet game in which anyone who dares to participate must navigate a hypertext mystery-world with complete and total un/intentionality.
Aaron Oldenberg gives new meaning to the phrase "bird's eye view" in Towa Towa, his visually-striking work of digital art steeped in Guyanese and Trinidadian culture. In addition to the whimsical fun of the challenge viewers take on as the presiding judges of bird debates, what strikes us about Towa Towa is its heavy emphasis on viewer involvement. Instead of voyeur, the viewer's role is of active participant, allowing for a more complete–if only digital–form of cultural immersion.
In Jilly Dreadful's hypertext work The Spectral Dollhouse, the death scenes are staged; the blood is (presumably) fake; and the owner of the house is, or was, a doll; and yet it looked like we'd seen ghosts after ouiji-ing our way through this work, which in the author's words, investigates "the literary oppression that women face in regards to the procreation of their stories and bodies" as well as the question of whether (and/or how) photography is representational of reality. In a way, though, we had seen ghosts, as Dreadful admits, "fiction haunts nonfiction," resulting in a piece that balances sure-footedly on the line where truth and artifice abut one another, with Dreadful taking handfuls of each to make one replete with the other.
Navigate the chaos and destruction of modern life with your touchpad in Jody Zellen's Lines of Life, a collage of photography and digital sketches representing a global sampling of society's ills in which the myriad elements of disharmony conspire to caricaturize themselves.
From Samantha Gorman's artist statement for The Book of Kells: "Deconstruction is a weaving of historical study, literary theory, travel narrative, meditative prose, mystical contemplation, and academic inquiry. All elements are united by research and reflection on The Book of Kells, an illuminated Latin version of the Bible circa 800 AD, and the techniques that produced it. The prose of Deconstruction is informed by my travel and close survey of The Book of Kells at Trinity College Dublin. Additionally, Deconstruction touches upon the evolution of how writing is disseminated from manuscript culture to Gutenberg and the Internet, as well as how these media are implicated in the increasing liberation of the reader, both in terms of social access and the reading practice itself ... Reflecting on the original manuscript's hypertextual melding of text and image, the icons of The Book prompt the texts of Deconstruction: lexias emerge from and are symbolized by designs on the manuscript's folios. Overall, the work is a study on the original manuscript within the scriptorium of electronic media and methods."