BAWRT 2004

Week 4 – Writing in Code

Outside my window—

No, I’m sick of saying that.

Extrafenestrally, the sounds of buzzing are as muted as the traffic now. The wasps, yellow as wallpaper, black as a critic’s heart, are still doing something, but they’re doing it lackadaisically, as if they have no hope that whatever passes for a stimulus package in the insect world will ever appear, or help them keep their paper mill afloat if it did.

But they mightn’t need paper for much longer, since there’s a new form of literature in town—electronic literature, or (since we’re short on time and have a 280 character limit in our spoken language, too), ‘e-lit’.

E-lit isn’t just the reproduction of the printed word in graphic format for the web or a computer, like a text file or, God forbid, a PDF. Nor is it reproducing written material into a document that can be read by a screenreader or ebook reader. That would be something more like a webpage, or like this post, which, as you’ll disocer as we trundle on, has no literary merit or function at all.

E-lit uses the capacity of electronic devices and remediations to produce a form of literature that can use different types of narrative. In conventional printed literature, for the most part, the narrative is linear. As you read through the text, the plot or action follows one line; beginning, middle, end, with action rising, peaking, and falling off in the ol’ Freytag Pyramid. There have been exceptions to this, and the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ style of narrative shows one way to get around the linear model, by allowing the reader to choose where they will go next. But the mechanism is a little mechanical and can take the reader out of the story as they have to leave the created world of the text for a moment to take some action the author hasn’t in order to move the story along. But the reader then has to flip pages to get to the part of the text that corresponds to their choice, and are thus removed even more from the immersive experience.


So, some kinds of e-lit replace the page-flipping with a hyperlink. This genre of the mode is called ‘hypertext’ and is exemplified by ‘Hypertext Gardens: Delightful Vistas’ by Mark Bernstein. Hop over and click a while. I’ll be here when you get back.

While Hypertext Gardens has a multilinear narrative, you can eventually cover all the narrative’s lines and they go to a pre-determined outcome. The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot by Stephanie Strickland is linear, but the narrative runs in circles, with hyperlinks taking you back to previous screens, and showing you text that you have seen before, but can now interpret or react to differently because of what you’ve seen before. Each piece of text and screen (taken as a unit (which we’ll call a ‘page’) now act as a motif for the entire piece. It’s the hypertext equivalent of that scourge of modern life, infinite scrolling.

Non-linear narratives like the Ballad play merry Hell with the aforementioned Freytag Pyramid. You can write a plot within the text that goes through rising action, climasx, falling action, denouement etc, but if a link can go back to a page where the reader has already been, what happens to the rising action? In a nultilinear narrative, each line can follow the Pyramid, or even the Fichtean Curve, but if the narrative can circle back on itself every page has got to cover multiple points on either graph.

The hypertext form of narrative lends itself to extremely convoluted plots. A whodunnit, for example, in which the reader is hyperlinked around to various pages and never finds out whodunnit. replacing the aforementioned Pyramid and Curve with something that could be drawn by a Spirograph or the footprint trail of a tiny, stinging insect I’ve crapped on about ad nauseam.

One type of hypertext narrative I haven’t seen, but which would be possible, would be something similar to an old system operator’s gag from the 1980’s. Each time a user wanted to change directories to find a particular file, the system would move all the files to a newly-created, random directory. The user would then have to guess where the files were, move to that directory, when the system would move the files again, creating new directories until a DISK FULL error came up and you’d be up before the head of IT the next morning explaining what the fuck you’d done. But what about a hyperlink that sent you to a random part of the whole text? You could go round in circles, or more accurately random lines on a page, until you got bored, fell over, found the meaning of life or were up before the head of IT beng asked why you hadn’t done anything to fix the DISK FULL error.

Complexity for the Hell of It

The hypertext narrative lends itself to complexity. To take this blog, for example, it could be redone as a hypertext narrative but wouldn’t be very complex, since so far there are only six posts—the first of which was put in automatically by WordPress—leading to 720 (ie, 6 factorial) permutations of narrative, though God only knows what the poor unsuspecting victim of such a thing would make out of it. By the end of this class, with 15 posts up, there’d be 1,307,674,368,000 permutations—ie, possible narratives, without reading a post twice. Let’s see Stephen King top that!

Computed Complexity

But that’s merely convolution of story, and rather cheaply achieved at that. For convolution of actual text, you could do worse than Belinda Barnet’s In the Garden of Forking Paths: Contingency, Interactivity and Play in Hypertext. Wrap your thinking gear around this:

Working from across the territory we have covered, we might say that electronic interaction ‘liberates’ us from neither the Line nor the flesh: at its most experimental, it is nothing less than reading embodied.

Barnet, B. Journal of Media Culture, Vol 1 Isu=sue 5, December 1998,


Anyway, that got me thinking about another form of electronic literature, computer generated literature. Something like that quote above had a human agency behind it, perhaps an agency of evil. But a computer cannot be evil, yet it can produce text capable of analysis, particularly if the text masquerades as poetry and there’s someone there to level their entire critical arsenal at it. I began a search for these ‘travesty generators’ as they’re called.

After two hours, I had found Travesty Generators, a website owned and operated by someone who generates poetry by computer and then takes credit for it as if it’s creative, and who is then lauded by the high-falutin’ critics she’s quoted on the home page. Apparently these things are now called ‘parody generators’, which allowed me to change my serch parameters a bit. I found the Postmodernist Generator, but that doen’t allow for input from the user. But the AI based text generator does, so let’s throw the above quote at it.

Working from across the territory we have covered, we might say that electronic interaction ‘liberates’ us from neither the Line nor the flesh: at its most experimental, it is nothing less than reading embodied.  And such is the aim of the text below, which attempts to analyse a seemingly minimal ‘sentence’ (developed in conversation with John Wilson in 2009):

{Note of comment: in both titles I have borrowed heavily from Byron Hall’s ‘Athenian Love’, chapter 4, ‘Sentence

King, A. Text created by software at Formatted by WordPress

One is as obscure as the other. I’m not calling Barnet’s article obfusatory just because I can’t understand it. I’m calling a spade a spade.

Fun, Fun, Fun!

These hypertext narratives would be fun to write. They would be fun to publish, but one place I won’t be publishing mine is on, or using, bloody WordPress. I haven’t got enough control even over this simple blog, and the complexities of linking with WordPress riding roughshod over whatever I want to do would soon see me up before the head of IT explaining why I went totally postal on WordPress’s arse and that it took forty-five paper wasps to bring me down.

(Unintentional but) Shameless Plug

Due to advancements in software, though, I could be spared that horror. Storyspace is software from Eastgate Systems Inc, which Maek Bernstein used in creating Hupertext Gardens. Unfortunately, it’s only available for the Mac, and I don’t have the wherewithal to get a Mac in order to use it, so I will have to wait for it to come out for the PC or hunt around for something similar that will run on a computer, or take a brute force approach and do a website with a hypertextual narrative. I’d say ‘Stay tuned’ but I fear it will take too long to ask that of you, so ‘Check back occasionally’ would be more polite. In the meantime, this pile of crap does have hypertext links to each chapter.

And so, we say a fond farewell to the world of hupertext narrative as kind of e-lit, and wait for the coronavirus to render all vertebrate life extinct, or something. What about that, my chitiny chums? One of a myriad possible narratives, you say? Perhaps. Evolution is nonlinear, but intelligent design isn’t. I’m quitting this post while I’m ahead.

BAWRT 2004

Week 3 – Fluxus and Multimodality

Outside the window, there’s a hive of activity.  There are flashes of black and yellow, the sound of buzzing, the interweaving aerobatics of the paper wasps are complex as they maintain a personal airspace around the hive.  I’m not going to get close enough to observe this, but I’ll take it as read that each individual wasp has taken a rest from making paper out of the fence and is gesturing with legs, antennae and mandibles to tell other wasps about stuff – you know, whatever the vespal equivalent of office gossip is.

The hive, analysed or viewed as a work of art, uses the technique of multimodality.  In art, or at least that part of the art that communicates, there are five modes of communication: visual, aural, gestural, spatial and linguistic.  Visual refers to shapes and colours that you can actually see, aural refers to sounds and music that you can actually hear, gestural means gestures such as body language and interpretive dance, spatial refers to the placement of objects within the artwork itself and linguistic refers to language, either written or spoken.

There is some overlap between the modes.  For example, the spoken word is both linguistic and aural, since it uses language but you have to hear it to make use of it.  Writing uses language and is thus in the linguistic mode, but the format of the text is visual, because if I change the font I can change the effect of the words, and spatial because words are ordered in paragraphs, and you can have inserted quotes in separate text boxes.

Even if there is some overlap, art or writing in the digital age can be intentionally multimodal.  Have a look at this famous article by Lee Martin.    There are three modes in operation here: linguistic, because the article has to make some sense (even if its analogies and metaphors are just insane); visual, because there’s a picture of a wasp up there and the letters are in a nice serif font as determined by your browser settings first, then the webpage; and spatial, because of the way the story is laid out on the page.  You can add another mode to that, aural, if you’re using a screenreader of some type.

Not all modes are equal however.  Or, to put it another way, all modes are equal but some are more equal than others.  For example, up there I used the word ‘hive‘ to describe where the paper wasps were doing there art.  If I had put a picture up there of their ‘place of business’ you might have used the word ‘hive’, too, to describe it.  In fact, and more precisely, it’s not a hive, it’s a colony.  The linguistic mode is more precise and, since language functions to communicate ideas, it leaves less room for interpretation on the part of the viewer or reader, and thus less room for inaccuracies.  Of course, the linguistic mode is not as emotive as, say, the aural mode, where music and sound effects can convey an emotion.

Many of our activities can be multimodal, too.  Some friends and I visited the Mail Exchange on Friday the 13th and there constructed a group artistic project with all five modes in operation.  We talked, made gestures, seated ourselves around a table that was in a specific position in the pub.  The Fluxus movement in art suggested that we humans make art all the time, and this was our little coterie’s contribution to art.  You could see it as a reaction to the digitalisation and virtualisation of art, and since it was at a specific time (or date) and place, it also satisfies Walter Benjamin’s ideas on authenticity.  It has an aura that was not only irreproducible, but was as effective as ten schooners could make it.

As yet multimodality is limited to the five modes listed above, but there is a potential for even more modes to be create in the future.  The first one would touch on the other of the five traditional senses, which we could call the olfactory mode.  One example of this occurs in Gentleman Jol and th Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold.  The Cetagandans use very sophisticated forms of art and perfumes are a part of that.

Aral was getting more and more impatient with this ghem ass, and as I was trying to decode the most recent, he finally said, ‘Just give me the damned thing,’ twitched it out of my hands, and took it into the lav. Where he proceeded to amend it with, er, his own personal scent mark.”

I have no way to reproduce the olfactory mode of the wasp colony, so you’re spared the whiff of geraniums – for now.

 A more topical possible mode is viral, but I don’t know how it would be expressed. 

Improvements in virtual reality may add other modes of expression, such as forcing gestural responses by direct control peoples’ movements.

Fiscal, wherein the movement of money is not just in trade for the art, but is part of the art itself.

Meteorological; if I write ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ and it actually is.

Vespal.  But you’ll have to ask the wasps about that.

BAWRT 2004

Week 2 – Databaase is the New Black

Outside my window today the ol’ Polistes humilis are moving around slowly, not doing much, not chewing wood into paper, not building nests, seemingly living a carefree but passing slow vespid life. But how can that be? Only a week ago I Morteined them back to the Stone Age—now they appear to be enjoying a mid-Roman period of refinement without industry. Also, without conflict. If they are progressing this fast, how long before they invent the printing press? They already have the paper.

They appear sluggish and lackadaisical, though. Really sluggish. Minutes go by with barely the wriggle of an antenna. They move, but are they alive? Have I, spurred on by one crazy article from last year and the easy availability of insect spray, unwittingly created a wasp zombie apocalypse?

Well, if I have, it’s small and local. That gives me (and you) time to focus on database as a symbol for changes in fiction during the inter-millennial transition we’ve all been going through during the last twenty-five years.

And so we come, by what might at first seem like a towering irrelevancy, to the work of Lev Manovich. In “Database as a Symbolic Form” (Manovich, 1998) he proposes that the method of representing the real world in fictional form is no longer narrative, but the database. He explaind ‘database’ thusly: from the point of view of user’s experience a large proportion of them are databases in a more basic sense. They appear as a collections of items on which the user can perform various operations: view, navigate, search. The user experience of such computerized collections is therefore quite distinct from reading a narrative or watching a film or navigating an architectural site (p 2). He goes on to point out that the Internet, or at least the World Wide Web (as opposed to email, chat, Skype and so on) is a collection of separate parts with no intrinsic narrative structure. The narrative, if there is one, is imposed on the page by the page’s user.

Manovich calls the method the users use to turn the database into a narrative the algorithm. In computer games, for example, an algorithm is coded into the game for the user to use, but it still takes motivation from the user, in the form of playing the game, to make the algorithm act on the database. But unlike a narrative, the writer or compiler of the database can’t control what the users’ experience will be once they use the algorithm, or it wouldn’t be a game.

While computer games do not follow database logic, they appear to be ruled by another logic — that of an algorithm. They demand that a player executes an algorithm in order to win (p 5)

The important thing, therefore, is thet the writer of the page, or of any database, doesn’t control how the database can form a narrative.

Therefore, I think, if the author of the database cannot control how the user, or reader, derives a narrative from it, they’re under no obligation to make a narrative themselves. They can’t be obliged to control something which is intrinsically out of their control.

…the general principle of new media: the projection of the ontology of a computer onto culture itself. …computer programming encapsulates the world according to its own logic (p 5).

Unfortunately, he doesn’t give any examples of this actually happening.

The possibilities for self-expressionindulgence were staggering.

Somehow, for some reason he presumably considers to be adequately explored, Manovich contrives to introduce Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books as a film that eschews narrative in favour of a database:

Many of [Greenaway’s] films progress forward by recounting a list of items, a catalog which does not have any inherent order (for example, different books in Prospero’s Books) (p 20).

My ex and I sat through all 372 hours of this prurient dolly shot one night at a friend’s house, while they dropped in from time to time to address the phsycailtiy of the various nudes that ‘played’ each of the books of the enterprising magician (who, it must be noted, resembles the Professor from “Gilligan’s Island” in that he has great magical powers but can’t get himself and his daughter off the island) from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Greenaway may very well embody the databasic zeitgeist but the movie was boring even on two bottles of merlot. That second bottle is the ritical sieve. If the movie still has no story or narrative after I’ve fuelled the synapses and silenced the critic, then it never will have while I’m conscious.

it follows that if database is the new symbol for culture in the third millennium, no creator is under any obligation to do anything for the ‘user’. Never one to fulfil an obligation I can shy away from, I have still taken this whole concept on board, because I’ve found a twenty-first century instance of database trumping narrative: the listicle.

13 Things They Didn’t Tell You About COVID19

  • It’s strawberry-flavoured
  • It was first reported in 1347, but was knocked off the charts by the bubonic plague the following year
  • Corona beer is not made from coronavirus
  • Neither is Guinness
  • COVID19 can’t be vaccinated against — yet — because vaccines don’t work — yet
  • There is NO point six!
  • I’m not saying it, because of copyright
  • It is not some form of Gypsy curse. (We’renot allowed to say what kind of curse it is.)
  • COVID19 is made from Viagara
  • It can’t survice below whatever the temperature is where you are right now. Thus, it is helped out by Climate Change
  • It is not — well, might not be — a prehistoric virus released by the metling polar ice caps
  • It spreas toother countries alphabetically. Afghanistan is covering this up. Zimbabwe isn’t worried
  • The average life expectancy of an infected person is less than the time it takes to type this sen—

Now, even while I was making that up, I had some narratives going through my brain. In the simplest example the line about Guinness comes after the line about Corona. It follows on logically from one sentence to the other, because ‘neither’ supports the thought in the previous sentence. It’s not a particularly brilliant joke—items six and seven are probably better—but it relies on the order of those items.

This is a mistake on my part. I wasn’t going to provide any narrative, and I had at first thought to write the items then sort them alphabetically just in case two or more itemsmight follow on narratively, but then I couldn’t resist the Corona-Guinness comparison and then I inserted items six and seven because some of you might get the reference. The human mind craves narrative, and I kind of feel I ought to give you some if you’re human and you’ve read this far.

Manovich, L. (1998). Database as a Symbolic Form. Retrieved from

BAWRT 2004

Week 1 – Everyone’s Blog is Better Than Mine

The paper wasps outside my window aren’t doing anything, because I Morteined them back to the Stone Age.¹ But is that art?

Well, it isn’t digital art, because it used Allethrin and Resmethrin instead of computer bits. In another sense, though, it is art, because it has occurred at a time and in a place. The school of art that appreciates this is called Fluxus. The notion is that everyone is creating art just by their actions. How far can we go with this?

It is my wont and habit to walk home from the supermarket along the north side of Sussex St. I do this for the reasonable reason that the footpath is more even on that side, and thus there is less chance of me tumbling painfully and expensively over some unexpected change in the path height. Suppose I decide to walk along the south side footpath one day? Is that art? The Fluxus school would say that it was.

So might Walter Benjamin. My australic stroll along Sussex St takes place at a time and in a place and is irreproducible, in that the exact time won’t come again. I can get arbitrarily close to the same walk, because Sussex St and south are both longeval constructs—they’ll outlive me, anyway—but can’t reproduce the walk. I might do this in the future as a form of art, but certainly the first time I did it, it was just for variety, with no intention of creating art.

If the Fluxus idea were true, every action would constitute art. How would we distinguish art from anything else? We’d be inundated with the stuff. I would separate art from the humdrum by the intent to create art. What about a pretty flower or a nice sunset? These can be delightful things, but there’s no intent behind them, so they wouldn’t be art in the sense that I mean it. I doubt even the Fluxus school would say they were.

Consider these two responses to Auschwitz (which may appear below. WordPress has a mind of its own, and we cross that mind at peril of our immortal souls):

Both are reproducible, or you wouldn’t be seeing them here, but are they art?

Production of Art

So much for the reproduction of art. What out the production of art? The advent and availability of tehnology to make artistic intentions into reality has seen an explosion in the production of artistic work, particularly if we consider writing and music as forms of art.² The ease of production has meant an increase in the amount of art out there, but there has also been an increase in population, so there are more people around to see the art, even if they have to visit it at its only place of exhibition.

Has the availability of the means of production increased the quality of art? Some would say yes, and others no. All discussion of quality should be made in the context of Sturgeon’s Law:

90% of everything is crap³

It doesn’t matter how much art is produced. It’s possible to say that, as soon as the first ten artworks were produced back in the prehistoric past, nine of them would’ve been crap. What has happened is that more people can make art, and thus the possibility of finding the ten percent that isn’t crap has increased. Further, the digital world at the moment, and maybe for the moment, allows more people to access these works of art. In particular, the advent of self-publishing has meant that successful books can be published without the imprimatur of a publisher. There may be no filter absolutely stopping any garbage from being produced and put out there for public consumption, but since the publishers are driven by what marketing ‘experts’ say they can sell, the publishers don’t even act as definers of quality. They are now gateways that stop stuff getting to the reading populace—and there are more of them around than ever before.


Some new art forms are transformations of existing forms into new media, with consequent changes of form. For example, at the 1999 Primetime Emmy Awrards, David Hyde Pierce and Jenna Elfman listed some of the nominees in the medium of interpretive dance. (If we lived in a true information age, I’d have a link here.) But, if we limit ourselves to sight and sound, there are still numerous possibilities for telling a narrative in forms other than the written word, and narrow-casting it to interested people over the Internet.


Benjamin wrote Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The ease of making art and remediating art could therefore be seen as an outgrowth of Fascism, and may in the future prove to be the precursor of it. Much could be made of the new political climate but, since I’ve almost bored you as much as I’ve vored myself so far, I won’t delve into that hoary old chunk of clickbait. Yet Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. as Benjamin further wrote.

So, maybe those wasps suffered for my art.

1. it is my avowed intent to shoehorn a referene to paper wasps into every one of these posts. if you think of it as a form of remediation, it should be less painful.

2. if you’ve read this far, you may be wondering about the former.

3. This is a paraphrase of the original quote from Venture Science Fiction no. 49, September 1957: I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.

A 10 year old girl from Hungary – AUSCHWITZ.ORG
Breanna Mitchell sparked outrage with this smiling selfie at Auschwitz – TWITTER


A Warning to the Curious

I don’t know what I’m doing here.

That’s a general observation about life. But why bore you with that? Let us be more specific. I don’t know hat I’m doing settting up a WordPress site under my main site.

but that’s what the teaching team for the Bachelor of Arts degree at Fedration University wants me to do for the subject, so here we are. Over the next few months you’ll be seeing a weekly post from me – oh, and let’s not worry about why there’s a weird user name up there. WordPress made that up. I was just following ze orders – until I found out how to fix it.

so, yes, a weekly post responding to various issues raised about Digital Art. What is Digital Art? That’s what I’m going to try to learn and opine about. Come along for the ride!

You know you have to…


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