STS 2007, Part IV - New Digital Text Work and the Future of Reading

On Saturday March 17th I attended two afternoon panels, Text Work in the Digital Age, Part 2 and the Pedagogy and Textual Studies Round Table. In Text Work in the Digital Age, Part 2, Alice Gambrell, Sandy Baldwin, and Rita Raley all gave presentations that focused somewhat on the future of textual works. I was struck by the fact that most of these forward-looking textual projects were artistic in nature.

Alice Gambrell gave a fascinating presentation on the textuality of workplace media and its subversive uses by artists. A prominent example was David Byrne's PowerPoint piece (2001-3). But she also referred to a collaborative project she had done a couple of years ago, the Stolen Time Archive, which shows that an archive is an argument that achieves certain effects. In that way, the role of the archivist is to use the archive as a tool for passing information along to others who will use it in unanticipated -- and subversive -- ways.

Sandy Baldwin had an interesting take on spam, noting that much of it tends toward the literary -- an eliteness (i.e. 1337, or leet / "elite") and a uniqueness that achieves its own erasure as spam. He was referring, as best I can remember, to the kinds of "nonsense" stories and poems that enter our inboxes randomly (or seemingly so) and the pleasure he derives from them. I was pleased to hear someone talking about this experience of textuality at such an important conference because some spam appeals to my sensibility as well as that of others. I think that particular experience of textuality -- the randomness with which it goes to the reader (as opposed to vice versa), the mystery of its apparently automatic origin -- in large part defines our time. One of the most beautiful haiku (sort of) that I've ever read came from a spammer who apparently put something through babelfish several times before disseminating it to probably thousands of individuals:

modern animal
walk appreciate key hoping article
myself black

Rita Raley brought to our attention several new media art projects that seek to improve online reading, develop new reading interfaces, experiment with translation (by machine), and can help us flesh out more fully the history of reading. Her assessment of the projects addressed the following elements.

  • Textual visualization
  • Codex / digital hybrids
  • Alternative interfaces and screens (i.e. cell phones for reading novels)
  • Immersive text environments (i.e. room installations, 3D simulations, the CAVE at Brown University, the allosphere for textual composition)
  • 3D textual environments (projected)

I don't seem to have notes on all the artists she discussed, so I'll do my best to recount the more interesting ones.

William Gillespie's Word Museum is a 3D environment and interface for creating word objects and sculptures. It's about the transition between legibility and illegibility, looking at text as a sculptural object and reading it -- or processing it -- from all sides and angles. -- a site (reminds me of that subversively expresses the hidden structures of a text. In commandeering the physical behavior of the browser, the site calls attention to the binaries of code/surface, source/interface, and depth/surface. The reader is made aware that code is a deep structure that substantiates a surface. Rita also remarked that works which include code with human language in the same space isolate the screen as a surface.

Ted Warnell's code poem Lascaux.Symbol.ic similarly lays bare the conditions of textual production. The background horse from Lascaux (circa 15,000 BCE) calls our attention to the "writing on the wall" and the communicative, expressive, semiotic systems that reside in art. The hand evokes tactility, the interface, and presence/absence. It also looks mounted, meaning the cave wall is not the mounting of the painting/poem, as traditionally, but the background of the picture -- thereby destabilizing the notions of foreground/background (reminds me of Cubism).

She also discussed several pieces by John Cayley, a London-based poet, translator, and book dealer who also works at Royal Holloway College, University of London, and has directed research at Brown University and UC San Diego.

  • "Overboard" - an animated display of a stable text dissembled by algorithms over time. The effect of this contemporary writing experiment is to create a continually moving "language painting" in which the base text occasionally comes into full legibility. Since aspects like word shape are largely preserved as the text changes, the word becomes a lens, a visual threshold.
  • "Translation" - a selection of passages from Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past -- both the original French and the English translation by Moncrieff and Kilmartin -- that rotate in 3D movements. This piece, like many others described above, is about the rising and sinking of the surface, though here it is viewed through the lens of Proust and memory. It's basically a narrated video in non-Euclidean geometry and a virtual 3D space.
  • "Imposition" - was a collaborative, networked, textual/multimedia performance. The room featured a main screen with a primary movie. Twelve laptops were distributed to visitors, who were invited to to interact with text. The ensemble then moves to multiple screens to become a networked performance. The driving question of the project is to see how text competes with other types of media in a multimedia ecology.

The overarching theme of these experimental projects is legibility. They approach text as something to be contemplated rather than read. In that way, they're more about processing text in non-traditional, unfamiliar ways.

This was a particularly stimulating panel that precipitated a lively Q&A session. The three presentations had in common a forward-looking attitude that implied -- if it didn't directly address -- the future of reading and textual production. They all focused on issues pertinent to the projects and discussion that happen at the Institute for the Future of the Book, so I suggested that anyone who didn't already know about it should check it out.

In the next post I will review the Pedagogy round table that also proved highly stimulating.