Vanishing letters in text-based digital installations
First Monday

Vanishing letters in text-based digital installations by Janez Strehovec



Abstract
New media shaped textuality, narrative, codeworks and digital poetry are deployed in electronic literature as a practice situated in Internet and post-Internet arts. E-literature embedded in online venues has outgrown a hyperfiction phase and become conceptual. Instead of hyperlink-based storytelling, it has begun dealing with itself, becoming e-literature after the end of e-literature-as-we-know it, aligning with contemporary art, science, philosophy, economy and politics. Entering the “after the end” phase is of essential importance for a particular field. In its conceptual phase, e-literature addresses its fundamental principles, investigates the limitations of digital media, Internet, language, narrative, text, sign and code. Its projects are laboratories for playing with different hypotheses. However, the reflection on the technology that generates it and the experience stimulated by its projects significantly contribute to an understanding of e-literature. This paper is focused on the second experience as defined according to Benjamin’s concept of the second technology, a playful experience enabled through technology. Based on play, the second experience promotes exploration and blurring boundaries, which in the case of digital textuality means dealing with a vanishing text which is only conditionally legible and whose existence is limited to a particular time.

Contents

Introduction
The conceptual in arts, post-politics and networked economy
Conceptual phase of e-literature
Poetry generator: From postmodern anything goes to new media anything writes
Toward performative and playful concept of second technology
Burning poems, erasing signifiers
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

A view of current new media shaped textual projects illustrates the abandonment of hypertextual narrativity and the coming of the distinctly conceptual. If the first and very resounding phase of electronic literature was characterized by hypertext poetry and fiction — such as the projects by Michael Joyce, Stuart Moulthrop, Shelley Jackson and others — this phase has long been over and thereby also a particular understanding of e-literature. This is an argument based on notions of the end of art also relevant for our discussion on the end of e-literature in its mode of hyperfiction. The end of art addressed and conceptualized both in Hegel’s Lectures on aesthetics as well as a series of other texts published in twentieth century — by Benjamin and Danto (1997), for example — rests on Hegel’s notion — i.e., the end of a particular narrative on art and its interpretation which in a particular historical moment enabled the identification of a special practice as art.

This is about the end of recognition and understanding art in the sense of an exclusive form of representation (mimesis) in a sensory medium. In Hegel’s words:

“Art no longer affords that satisfaction of spiritual needs which earlier ages and nations sought in it, and found in it. ... Consequently the conditions of our present time are not favorable to art. ... In all these respects art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past.“ [1]

This notion doesn’t deny the possibility of further art development, but rather questions its position in the field of absolute spirit as the supreme domain in Hegel’s philosophy. In fact, rather than being founded in empirical analysis of art development and dissemination in Hegel’s time, the notion of end of art is an outcome of internal philosophical evolution in his philosophical system. However, the development of modern, contemporary, postmodern and new media art in twentieth century has re-actualized this notion also with regard to current movements in arts and literature.

Talking of the end of hyperfiction is true in the sense that projects formed with hypertext technology (e.g., Eastgate System’s tool Storyspace) and according to a text structured as a maze of hyperlinks, which open up to unexpected textual units may be propagated to an unthought-of extent, but they fail to represent a challenge to theory which is today addressing different questions concerning e-literature, digital humanities, digital textuality and digital literacy. Hypertext fiction (the pivotal piece in this movement is Joyce’s Afternoon a story) is no longer a topic with regard to current trends and requirements (Strehovec, 2014a). Today’s e-literary criticism presupposes a narrative different from that deployed in hyperfiction that is based on hyperlinks. Such a turn goes hand in hand with the today’s features of the Web itself, which is becoming less hypertextual, designed by a novel generation of software.

 

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The conceptual in arts, post-politics and networked economy

The understanding of art as a historical phenomenon — e.g., Belting’s (1994) notion on the era of art — enables exploring the new functions of contemporary art which often deploys digital media and is stored and disseminated on the Internet. Art has mutated, thus it has given up the nature of a completed and stable work of art and has lost its aesthetic feature; today, the aesthetic items and processes in the sense of the beautiful are much more common in fashion, sports, jet set, commercials, pop music, video games, and even politics than in most of contemporary art. The aesthetic in the sense of intensive sensual stimulation is much more common in theme parks, and their attractions (e.g., roller coaster rides, bungee jumping, water park adrenaline devices), than in art. The traditionally conceived art’s functions in terms of representation (mimesis, imitation) and aesthetic education have also been left aside. We are facing the turn towards the flow, the process, the non-material and the performative (e.g., in net.art and performance art). The concept of mimesis in terms of artistic representation of outer reality gives ways to poesis as the principle of construction, creativity, and forming. The contemporary art seems to be a self-feeding machine which needs to reinvent itself with each movement and new genre what challenges criticism to invent new theoretical devices referring to an artistic shift towards a self, inwards, towards self-reflection, the questioning and conceptualization of art, its intensification and self-referential essence.

We are also contemporaries of noticeable changes in new media art as a field which shares some basic features with the e-literature. Digital and net art have evolved into postdigital and in particular postinternet art (Kholeif, 2014) that abandon the hype of early new media and especially the Internet, including the ideology of cyberpunk, cyborg, techno-escapism, and posthuman. Today, if cultural content has the attribute Internet, this doesn’t say much. In fact, most today’s contents is self-evidently related to the Internet, and the Web is just one of a number of media used by contemporary artists active both in a white gallery cube as well as online. However we need to be aware of the Web as mind shifter; it shapes one’s cognitive abilities meaning that “after the Web, we would never write the same way again” (Goldsmith, 2015).

Art after the end of art is conceptual, which doesn’t refer to the conceptual art movement with Sol LeWitt and Joseph Kosuth among others, but in particular to different tendencies in contemporary and particularly new media art which explore its principles, intensifies itself, and address the repurposing of their functions. The conceptual is also essential characteristic of other relevant fields today — science, politics and economy. These fields attain the modality of the conceptual in the moment when they deploy autopoesis and become symbolic and self-referential; they stop expanding outwards, turning instead inwards. We encounter:

  • the production of experiences and events in art instead of production of artifacts,
  • the production of derivatives which presuppose the manipulation of value and money instead of evaluation of material production (e.g., in the conceptual economy of financial markets),
  • the aestheticization and performativity of conceptual science which rather than discovering nature produces principles for the models of alternative nature (virtual worlds, augmented realities).

Politics is also becoming conceptual not only in its post-politics orientation (Paolo Virno, Chantal Mouffe), but also modifications based on redirecting attention from clearly expressed political alternatives and state power.

Conceptualization of an individual field is reflected in its autonomization and intensification, its orientation to autopoesis and self-reference rather than extensiveness. An “after the end” field and its related conceptualization are deployed in self-reflection; nothing is considered self-evident from that moment on — everything could be different. Hence a phase that such a field must include in its development is the phase of l’art pour l’art (e.g., art for art’s sake, politics for politics’ sake, economics for economics’ sake). This is a phase of the fields’ liberation from a solely practical functioning. Only when they began to deal with themselves, did they attain a certain distance and freedom, become conceptual and ‘l’art pour l’art’ and similar to artlike art, a phrase coined by performer Allan Kaprow (1993).

In the second phase — the transition through autopoiesis — the field turns into the modality of aestheticizations. Not only politics (the views of Benjamin in the essay Work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction and Kracauer in The mass ornament), but also science, religion, technologies, economy, sport, fashion and the everyday are also aestheticized. For example, science is aestheticized through performativity and narrativity upon the realization that its solutions and outcomes expressed in the language of science don’t add to its bigger public recognition; it must engage in telling striking stories about its inventions. In technoscience, this role is played by the ideology of the techno-imaginary (Medosch, 2005) by employing advanced and persuasive forms of demonstration such as PowerPoint, which transforms an adept scientist during a demonstration into a genuine performer. This tool is less about the report than a means of demonstration in the form of performance (Stark and Paravel, 2008). In short, aestheticization refers to the use of striking procedures with the rich sensual effects to attract and stimulate the consumer.

A field that has undergone both phases now has the freedom to enter the “artlike mode” when openness and liberty are confronting the unpredictable, the risky and innovative. The conceptual networked economy (driven by high-frequency trading based on algorithms) is such an example, with conceptual marketing and conceptual markets, in particular financial markets involved in the manipulation of value, betting on money and including more and more derivatives (futures, options, swaps) whose movements have no reference whatsoever with real wealth. Early conceptual marketing was discussed by Naomi Klein in her No logo in the sense that rather than their products, large multinational corporations market their logos. Regarding multinationals such as Nike, Microsoft, Tommy Hilfiger and Intel, she argued that “producing goods was only an incidental part of their operations, and that thanks to recent victories in trade liberalization and labor law reforms, they were able to have their products made for them by contractors, many of them overseas. What these companies produced primarily were not things, they said, but images of their brands. Their real work lay not in manufacturing but in marketing”. [2] The present cognitive capitalism is shaped by semioticization and conceptualization; the products and services give way to signs, concepts and hidden manipulations.

 

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Conceptual phase of e-literature

Similar to new media and Internet arts, the new generation of post-hypertext e-literature is about processes, events, algorithms and performances. In fact, e-literature and digital arts are intertwined in text-based digital installations and text-based video game patches (hacks). Rather than contemplation and calm reading within the usual fashion (turning pages, decoding the meaning of sentences running from left to right, and from top to bottom), digital culture, new media art and e-literature demand bodily activity and direct participation in a complex experience. It is not contemplation (including viewing, listening and reading) independent of the observer, but experiencing-within-an-event, not the calm contemplation of qualities, but their making and reshaping. While the literature-as-we-know-it is about defamiliarization (an English translation of Russian ostranenie (остранение) or simply “making strange”), metaphysical qualities, lyrical subjectivity and special atmospheres, e-literature is about cyberlanguage, software, database, interfaces and algorithms.

The relevant works of post-hypertext e-literature — found in electronic literature collections (Electronic Literature Organization, 2011), Rhizome.org’s ArtBase (https://rhizome.org/art/artbase/), and Anthology of European Electronic Literature (https://anthology.elmcip.net) among others, presented in the form of performances and readings at many conferences, festivals and shows — call into question the entire field of e-literature, introduce new genres (after hypertext fiction), raise new issues on this practice and its perception. They aim to provide a stage or arrange a laboratory in order to play with creative and perceptual models, promote cultural contents and then suddenly stop, play multimedia components forward or backward, erase some afterwards or employ them as components or starting points for new entities. The investigation of art (in contemporary art the exhibition value gives way to research) and e-literature reveal the Kantian shift in the sense that these two fields abandon their traditional activities, turn inwards and begin exploring conditions that allow the creation of art and e-literature, as well as their media platforms. As an excellent example of an e-literary project that demonstrates the conceptual nature of this field, its autopoesis, self-reference and intensification in terms of intrinsic production of remixes can be mentioned Monfort’s Taroko gorge (2009). With more than 20 derivatives, this piece is also a kind of textual instrument which enables playing of other authors.

 

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Poetry generator: From postmodern anything goes to new media anything writes

Taroko gorge (http://nickm.com/taroko_gorge/) is a poetry generator, based on simple code that enables poetry output in a flow of words that relate to attractive permutation in nature. Every 1.2 seconds the program produces a new line of text composed of predetermined words set out by Python and prepared for the Web. A reader may be fascinated with references to wild nature, but may soon become aware that its code enables another, more fascinating flow of language itself, based on a daring linking of various words and smooth transitions between them. We are entering the realm of cyberlanguage (a neologism referring to the language of online communications), fascinated as possible in terms of the versatility of words (after the postmodern anything goes we are facing in e-literature anything says and anything writes). However this fascination goes hand in hand with the weakness of language in terms of its meaning. What is considered as a computer-generated poem is a matter of technology itself applied to create digital textuality with, conditionally speaking, e-literary effects.

When we are facing such e-literary pieces, we need to be aware that their literary features give way to hardware and software features. Concepts like literariness and defamiliarization (both taken from Russian Formalism), minus device (Jury Lotman), gaps and voids (Wolfgang Iser), and metaphysical qualities (Roman Ingarden) are replaced with code, mash-up, remix, mouseover, link, plug-in and point-and-click interface, among others. Unlike print with its author and stable literary works of art, a digital text is able to make a poem without the mediation of human agency, e.g., a posthuman one, formed according to algorithmic syntax. Digital text is technical text generated by apparatus. It resembles Vilem Flusser’s concept of technical image as a third order abstraction. It abstracts from writing, and writing abstract from traditional images with their reference in outer reality. It looks like such technical text demands a non-human, machinic reader, one autonomised from human sense.

Rather than producing works in a traditional sense related to an auratic (Benjamin’s concept from Das Kunstwerk 1935 essay) and “temple” artwork (Heidegger’s concept from Der Ursprung 1935 essay), self-reflecting (first and foremost new media based) art and e-literature create projects in the form of installations, algorithms, code works (programs, viruses, poetry generators), textual instruments, applications and performances. Nothing in e-literature is self-evident and this is the reason why this field fosters theory. E-literature criticism doesn’t have any fewer units than the practice of e-literature itself; we could speculate regarding its future development without a constant inflow of new e-literature projects. Let us mention the online Electronic Literature Knowledge Base (https://elmcip.net/knowledgebase), comprising 2,806 records of creative works and 3,120 records of critical writing (as of January 2017). It should also be noted that most e-literature works are only of interest to theoreticians, they are an inspiration to write a review and a way to delight in theory, whereas a hybrid reader-listener-viewer considers them mere projects void of any particular (aesthetic, literary) pleasure.

Such an interest of theory in this field is significant because e-literature and other movements dealing with the digital textuality with artistic and literary features raise fundamental questions about text, word, narrative, reading and literacy today. This practice seems to upset theory more than activities in other fields. E-literature obviously opens up new spatial and temporal dimensions of digital text, allows new experiences, stimulates perception and new modalities of reading which can be attributed to a very particular experience rendered possible by this practice. What is this experience and why do we refer to it?

Text-based digital installations as the key modality of e-literature require special technology (hardware and software). Thus let us first draw attention to that type of technology which allows for the free and playful experience of e-literature in its conceptual phase, the so-called second technology discussed by Walter Benjamin. The works of new media art and e-literature in its post-hypertext phase are auto-reflective and they establish a dry run for playing with different models of both art and technology. The technology applied in techno art (e.g., electronic, digital, postdigital and post-Internet art) and techno textuality to some degree ‘dissect’ art, compelling it to self-reflect and demonstrate its intrinsic surplus. It has to show that something “extra” in order to be considered different from the technology deployed in (usually commercial) applications in other fields. Rather than being hidden as in previous modes of art, new media art deploys technology that is shown within its projects. The perfectionist use of technology is otherwise the domain of global corporations, allowing them to invest heavily in engineering. On the other hand, art provokes technology into assuming new roles which deconstruct its primary functions. This puts technology in a role that demonstrates the possibility of different functioning, as well as revealing its dark sides, “das unheimliche” (the uncanny) of technology itself. In the field of net art the issue of glitch, noise and malfunctioning of high-tech was addressed by Jodi’s seminal project OSS.

 

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Toward performative and playful concept of second technology

The nature of technology applied — i.e., technology entering and revealed within art and e-literature — makes us consider broader issues raised within the context of the philosophy of technology. In order to understand the nature of contemporary technology, we shall refer to the role of technology as discussed in Walter Benjamin. Benjamin examined the issues of the loss of experience in the period of information media and perceptual shocks informed by modern urbanization, transport and work on an assembly line. In a series of essays, Benjamin explored the nature of modern technology and attributed it a similar role as his contemporary Heidegger. Heidegger, in the essay The question concerning technology (1950), made a distinction between the instrumental use of technology and the essence of technology (as to the revealing, episteme and alethea — i.e., the fundamental and fatal matters of human existence).

In his works published around the time of Heidegger’s essay, Benjamin also introduced a contrast between two concepts of technology. He addressed a first technology on the one hand, which is intended to — put simply — dominate nature; a paradigm illustrated by Heidegger with the functioning of a hydroelectric plant on the Rhine [3]. By contrast, the second technology anticipates reconciliation between the individual, nature and the cosmos, an actual “interplay” between these two correlates. Benjamin articulated his view of a second technology which is — as already argued in the case of cinema in his essay on artwork — therapeutic in the text To the planetarium, published in One-way street and other writings:

“In technology, a physis is being organized through which mankind's contact with the cosmos takes a new and different form from that which it had in nations and families. One need recall only the experience of velocities by virtue of which mankind is now preparing to embark on incalculable journeys into the interior of time, to encounter there rhythms from which the sick shall draw strength as they did earlier on high mountains or on the shores of southern seas. The ‘Lunaparks’ are a prefiguration of sanatoria.” [4]

Technology is not considered a means to control or dominate nature, rather takes a significantly less aggressive role of a mediator and play. In several texts, Benjamin sees the origin of the second technology in play, determines its role as an interplay between nature and humankind, and critically opposes the form of play of the second technology to the National Socialist principle of blood and soil (blut und boden). The second technology opens up playful and ecological possibilities of cohabitation and alternatives to the dominating model of technological industrialization and fascist aestheticization of technology. To understand technology, Benjamin refers to the experience of speed (the fascination with speed can already be observed in Italian futurism as well as some other art and literature experimenters from Burroughs to Ballard) by virtue of which mankind is preparing to embark on therapeutic journeys into the interior of time to encounter healing rhythms. The conclusion of these futurist hypotheses are the “Lunaparks” as a prefiguration of sanatoria by which Benjamin anticipated the reality of the experience society (the concept of “Erlebnisgesellschaft” introduced by Gerhard Schulze) from the late twentieth and early twenty-first century with the emergent trend of theme parks including a series of attractions headed by a roller coaster as the archetype of a vertigo game. Today, the ride (fast, accelerated, arranged in a compressed time) seems to have become a model for a striking arrangement of cultural content (Strehovec, 2014b).

Benjamin even attributed the field of contemporary, in particular technology-supported, art a therapeutic quality which brings him close to Heidegger’s views on the role of art in understanding the essence of technology in his aforementioned essay — i.e., art is the medium through which the essence of technology torn between threat and saving power is revealed in its enframing (gestell) mode. With Benjamin we mainly refer to film addressed in his Work of art:

“Film is the art form corresponding to the increased threat to life that faces people today. Humanity’s need to expose itself to shock effects represents an adaptation to the dangers threatening it. Film corresponds to profound changes in the apparatus of apperception — changes that are experienced on the scale of private existence by each passerby in the big-city traffic, and on a historical scale by every present-day citizen.” [5]

Illustrative of both its dark and bright sides in the sense of something essential to the individual, Benjamin’s differentiation between the first and the second technology points to the question whether such dichotomy can further be applied to the differentiation between the first experience and that which is fundamentally different and called the second experience by a technical term. In Benjamin’s essays on Baudelaire and in his writings on Parisian arcades, the first experience is a historical experience subject to atrophy and constantly threatened by transport, urbanism, new technologies, military structure and industrial labor, whereas the second would assume a connection with the second technology (a very broad field which also includes Benjamin’s concept of collective innervation) and therefore recognized as being on the rise with the emergence of new technologies and having a therapeutic function — similar to Benjamin’s Lunaparks and films. Similar to the second technology, we could argue that new media art and e-literature allow such experience to form and be played with. In a certain respect, it has the function of a laboratory.

Benjamin didn’t actually write about the second experience. It can only be discussed as an alternative view, following the analogy of those new media projects which evade abstractness and decontextualization. These projects in a sense were questioned by Benjamin in his essay The storyteller (1969) as well as in Lyotard’s (1991) The inhuman: Reflections on time. Promoted by the challenges of the second technology, the second experience should put to the fore play and playfulness, the individual’s non-confrontational relation with nature and the cosmos, her corporeality, rich perception as well as motor and proprioceptive arrangements. The body interface becomes essential for the new experience of objects, processes, time and space, motion and concepts. An interface (Johnson, 1997; Galloway, 2012) is a filter allowing us to see more sharply those things that otherwise escape our attention, as well as those that we normally — without interface — don’t even see. It brings them closer and allows us to see them in a different light, thereby pointing to their hidden and dark sides.

In addition, new media technologies render possible an individual’s remote presence, to “be there” through avatars and robots. With a user being placed in a non-natural, information environment formed by a series of artificial stimuli, they also allow immersion effects. Through interfaces we also encounter immaterial objects in a new way, such as the emergence of the digital tactile [6]. The proprioceptive and tactile sense of a performer are re-addressed through on-screen communication with the virtual images of dancers who might in real time be several thousand kilometers away and invite her to dance. It is an experience shaped through encounters with entities which are either virtual or hybrid, stimulating the user to engage in a choreography of movements in a manner different from that of a physically close dancer.

The immersion into a medium and the experience of immaterial content in a form of a game is also essential for this experience (Strehovec, 2014b). New media introduces us to augmented reality, combining intertwined physical and virtual realities. An individual’s fluid participation in different realities is a condition for their functioning in the present. Hence the second experience is an extension of a physical experience in an era of new media and technologies, attributable by Benjamin to the effects of technology and information. Consequently, the second experience is a positive mode of experience. It is not our intention to simplistically relate it to Benjamin’s experience of therapeutic technology, where technology is viewed as a medium that allows humankind to establish contact with the cosmos.

The second experience is also a modality of experience that opens up the works of conceptual e-literature, such as a project’s playfulness in the sense of Gadamer’s philosophical views. According to Gadamer, the essence of play is the “to-and-fro movement which is not tied to any goal which would bring it to an end; rather it renews itself in constant repetition” [7]. The emphasis is put on the “to-and-fro movement”, a repetitive movement, often articulated as a loop which is constantly renewing and thereby generating a particular intensity. This movement is akin to the activities of authors of e-literature, where projects attempt to redefine e-literature by inventing new modifications.

 

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Burning poems, erasing signifiers

In discussing the relations of the second experience and e-literature, the second experience promotes activities that e-literature and digital arts have in common. These include effects on perception augmented by technological devices and interfaces, experiencing the boundaries of new media technologies and their malfunctioning, among others. Similarly, the nature of the play in the sense of to-and-fro movement promotes playing with concepts and drafts as well as forms and genres generated in e-literature. A particular field relevant to e-literature is vanishing text. It is text that can only be read during a particular temporal interval, text erased and withheld from the reader, abandoning any pretensions of future existence. Vanishing text is one of the principal innovations of e-literature and is crucially connected with software and other new media. Vanishing and self-destroying text demonstrates the conceptual nature of e-literature as a field oriented to itself, to its “to-and-fro”.

In discussing vanishing text, let us first provide examples of authors who called into question the common use of language. For example, Stéphane Mallarmé, e e cummings, Paul Celan and Edmond Jab`s were important innovators in the realm of language by broadening its material presence with blanks, void, silence, intervals, interruptions, lower case replacing capitals and unstable margins. They called into question the entire field of poetry and destabilized meaning and links between things and words. One can say that they struggled with language; the outcome of this struggle was quite uncertain. Underneath, their writing raised an important question: why letters, words, lines, lyric and not just silence, void, whiteness and blanks? Sometimes it appears as nonverbal signifiers as in the case of blanks and isolated and crossed-out letters that are in their poetry allotted the same relevance as words. The hidden part of all literary words is in modern poetry deployed in a poetical textuality which brings silence and the desert of meaning to the fore. Blanks and intervals also convey meaning.

A very similar questioning of the very nature of language and textuality is being conducted in e-literature. E-authors break all languages down into their elements, including html as well as other programming and scripting characters. They try to move fluently between code and its displayed output. In fact, it sometimes appears as if e-writers place themselves in the space between code and displayed text. They make sense not just of a material (visual and temporal) appearance of the word, but also punctuation, brackets (in Mez’s poetry), crossed out letters, interruptions, blanks, erased words and voids. Some procedures in Mez’s poetry — the use of punctuation, brackets and interruptions as well as an innovative approach to typography — resemble the poetics of e e cummings (as in the poem “I will be”).

However, the use of software enables e-authors to approach anew the issue of the textual void, the unsayable, absence, erasure, vanishing — so we can see in vanishing text some of the most challenging features of e-literature. Here the use of software as well as the materiality of the screen and the use of navigating devices bring some advantage to the fore with regard to the print where some obstacles appear:

“In print literature, actual erasure is difficult to attain. Print writers can allude to a segment of text that might not be present, they can make a part of the text less readable (type size, strike-out, etc.) — or they can leave a space to indicate what has been omitted. Sometimes this faux-obscure text is part of deconstruction practice. Usually translated as ‘under erasure’, it involves the crossing out of a word within a text, but allowing it to remain legible and in place.” (Luesebrink, 2014)

By taking a look at concrete and visual poetry one can determine the very limitations in forming text by a typewriter, which remains bound to designing text in certain forms. By contrast, software enables more sophisticated designs, including animated text and poetry generators, which might accelerate the limits of illegibility.

As a predecessor of recent versions of vanishing text in e-literature we can mention Agrippa (1992), created by cyberpunk writer William Gibson, artist Dennis Ashbaugh, and publisher Kevin Begos Jr. The project consists of Gibson’s electronic poem, embedded in an artist’s book by Ashbaugh. The poem was stored on a floppy disk, programmed to encrypt itself after use. The book was prepared with photosensitive chemicals, causing a fading of words and images as pages were exposed to light. In recent, post-hypertext e-literature there have been several projects dealing with vanishing and self-destructing text, as well as text testing the limits of legibility.

There are many examples of new media art and e-literature projects associated with a procedure of destroying text. Along with Tisselli’s (2005) Degenerative — a Web site that is slowly modified over time [8], we should also mention Thomson and Craighead’s (1998) triggerhappy, in which the users are challenged to shoot a moving target consisting of sentences taken from Foucault [9]. triggerhappy forces platers to critically consider their activites as not directed to hostile objects, but to words, text. One explanation for this game is to force players to examine the institutions of authors, text and words, where they lose authority and autonomy. A more simple explanation of this project is that the point of shooting Foucault’s text before it becomes part of you.

With Agrippa, the possibility of temporary textual projects being brought into life for a very short temporal interval was initiated. Temporary text demonstrates an author’s struggle not just with the text but also with its communicative possibilities, raising the question whether text needs to be durable. In 2003, the author of this essay published an essay Verses for seven weeks on a project of writing poems for a very short temporal interval, seven weeks or less. After this period, the poems were burned. The essay provided documentation about this project in which rare cues informed the readers forever about the flames of vanishing poems. In this experimental event the issue of the communicative function of poetry was addressed: Does a poem exist solely under the conditions that it is presented for human consumption?

Verses for seven weeks was an experimental project based on print, deploying the materiality of paper, eventually burned. Quite different in terms of its technological basis and the (non)reading procedures is Stephanie Strickland, Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, and Paul Ryan’s visual and textual project Slippingglimpse, arranged in regenerate, scroll text and full text mode [10]. This ten-part regenerative project is based on algorithmically generated text, designed according to the movement of chaotic water patterns. It challenges notions of reading as a means of decoding by considering reading as a broader cognitive activity. In fact, reading by humans is enabled just in a scroll text mode where one window appears in which the stable text in a moving pattern suddenly appears. This piece demonstrates that reading is not self-evident. Very particular conditions must be fulfilled for text to enter a human readable mode. Sometimes text is just conditionally legible, requiring great efforts. Legibility goes hand in hand with illegibility, as demonstrated in digital poetry, where words and letters are organized according to temporal and spatial grammar. The programmer/reader of new media shaped text can often create text without being able to read it because the text is simply dedicated to machine executed scanning.

Slippingglimpse implies a new relation between the traces of wordings and the inscriptional space. In fact, there is not an outer space (neither page nor screen) in which the words-images-virtual bodies (term coined by the author of this essay) are inscribed in term of container, but only the relational space of moving words generated simultaneously in the course of the textual modulations. Moving textual units are in the virtual sea and that sea is on the move.

New media and smart technologies shape the writing space of Internet authors who are challenged to question the very condition of poetry in the realm of software. Ana Božičević and Sophia Le Fraga placed on the Internet some poems which originally appeared in print, from Božičević’s (2013) Rise in the fall, inviting readers to examine erased versions of these poems. Just reading of them is not enough, one needs to navigate their digital double by cursor scroll-overs and text-image overlays. Poems of the circle “not I’s The Fall” (2015) are read and perceived within their erased and visual counterparts in which some isolated words refer to a hidden print version. This poetry is fluent, jumping between several modes of poetic textuality.

What is behind this urge to erase textual signifiers, strike them out, stage the absence and the void, and make text unreadable? What is the philosophical point of such procedures that link e-authors with those modern poets who are engaged in a struggle with language, with an uncertain outcome? Some authors and critics attempt to explain these projects emotionally and mentally. I see in them an attempt to answer questions relating to the absence of meaning as well as the weakness and triviality of current language. Today, with so many words mediated and distributed by Google, there is a lack of words that stage their uncertainty on purpose, are crossed-out, erased, accelerated toward illegibility.

By exploring vanishing text, e-literature actually demonstrates its power because it questions its own field. Text exists in a temporary fashion and may vanish or transform into a conditionally legible entity. Destabilization is part of the modern world, in economics, politics and literature; we encounter speculations, experimentation and risks. The language of e-literature is subject to a great uncertainty. One example of this uncertainty is Simon Biggs’ The tower [11], generated as a mash-up of Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey. In this work, text doesn’t vanish, but rather appears in a completely unpredictable modality. For a user wearing a virtual reality (VR) head-mounted display, spoken words appear to float and join a spiraling history of previously spoken words. As an uttered word emerges, other words, predicted on the basis of statistical frequency within a textual corpus, spring up. We encounter spoken words as well as those suggested by algorithms. The number of spiral word structures constantly increases.

 

++++++++++

Conclusion

In this essay, e-literature was discussed in its conceptual phase, following its “after the end” modality. The transition to the conceptual phase opens up new possibilities to individual fields, allowing self-reflection and intensification. However, the downside of this process is a lack of interactions with the social reality, note that text-based digital installations are far behind recent artistic projects that are more engaged in social interactions and interventions, such as the Electronic Disturbance Theatre 2.0’s The transborder immigrant tool [12]. For example, the possibility of resisting the abstract nature of finance capitalism was in a persuasive way noted by Franco Berardi (2012):

“Poetry is language’s excess: poetry is what cannot be reduced to information in language, what is not exchangeable, what gives way to a new common ground of understanding, of shared meaning — the creation of a new world.”

It is not just the linguistic medium of poetry resisting the mainstream language of capitalism. No less anti-abstract is the language of body deployed in the contemporary feminist performances as an eminent post-aesthetic art, such as Ann Liv Young performances.

The conceptual phase is not the only option for an individual field. This is especially true for e-literature, an unstable field, which is currently trapped in a game between “after the end” and its complete disappearance. End of article

 

About the author

Associate prof. dr. Janez Strehovec is director of the Institute of New Media Art and Electronic Literature. Since 1988 he has been working as the principal investigator at national and European research projects on cyberarts, e-literature and the Internet culture. He is the author of eight monographs in the fields of cultural studies, e-literature criticism and art theory. His most recent book is Text as ride: Electronic literature and new media art published in 2016 by West Virginia University Press.
E-mail: Janez [dot] Strehovec [at] guest [dot] arnes [dot] si

 

Notes

1. Hegel, 1975, pp. 10, 11.

2. Klein, 2010, p. 4.

3. Heidegger, 1977, p. 334.

4. Benjamin, 1972, p. 147.

5. Benjamin, 2003, p. 281, note 42.

6. Strehovec, 2013, p. 153.

7. Gadamer, 1975, p. 99.

8. See http://www.motorhueso.net/degenerative/.

9. See http://www.ucl.ac.uk/slade/slide/thap.html.

10. http://www.stephaniestrickland.com/slippingglimpse.

11. http://littlepig.org.uk/tower/.

12. https://vimeo.com/6109723.

 

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Editorial history

Received 18 January 2016; revised 22 September 2016; accepted 16 November 2016.


Copyright © 2017, Janez Strehovec. All rights reserved.

Vanishing letters in text-based digital installations
by Janez Strehovec.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 2 - 6 February 2017
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6811/5892
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i12.6811





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