Sep 092012

Are All Young Artists ‘Post-9/11′ Artists? : NPR.

There’s a certain point beyond which these handy labels become absolutely stultifying, as well as useless. This is one such case.

The works themselves are fascinating, though, which is why I include them here. Cat Mazza’s work Knit For Defense would almost be a new media work were it actually rendered using network resources or machines; instead, it’s more subtle than that, incorporating new media into the process of the work itself, but tying the technique to older, hand-stitched media. Part of me wants to dismiss this as more conceptual wankery, but the idea is intriguing.

Anna Von Mertens’ quilts, depictions of the night sky on fateful, violent dates in history, are provocative works, though without the conceptual backstory they fall flat. For me, this illustrates the danger of art that strays too far into conceptualism; the work begins to rely more on it’s documentation than on its own experience. Despite these misgivings, such glimpses into the artistic process fascinate me, and I have much respect for conceptualism.

 Posted by at 1:52 pm
Sep 072012

Manifesto | The Dark Mountain Project.

“This response we call Uncivilised art, and we are interested in one branch of it in particular: Uncivilised writing. Uncivilised writing is writing which attempts to stand outside the human bubble and see us as we are: highly evolved apes with an array of talents and abilities which we are unleashing without sufficient thought, control, compassion or intelligence. Apes who have constructed a sophisticated myth of their own importance with which to sustain their civilising project. Apes whose project has been to tame, to control, to subdue or to destroy — to civilise the forests, the deserts, the wild lands and the seas, to impose bonds on the minds of their own in order that they might feel nothing when they exploit or destroy their fellow creatures.

Against the civilising project, which has become the progenitor of ecocide, Uncivilised writing offers not a non-human perspective—we remain human and, even now, are not quite ashamed — but a perspective which sees us as one strand of a web rather than as the first palanquin in a glorious procession. It offers an unblinking look at the forces among which we find ourselves.

It sets out to paint a picture of homo sapiens which a being from another world or, better, a being from our own — a blue whale, an albatross, a mountain hare — might recognise as something approaching a truth. It sets out to tug our attention away from ourselves and turn it outwards; to uncentre our minds. It is writing, in short, which puts civilisation — and us — into perspective. Writing that comes not, as most writing still does, from the self-absorbed and self-congratulatory metropolitan centres of civilisation but from somewhere on its wilder fringes. Somewhere woody and weedy and largely avoided, from where insistent, uncomfortable truths about ourselves drift in; truths which we’re not keen on hearing. Writing which unflinchingly stares us down, however uncomfortable this may prove.”

 Posted by at 3:53 pm
Jul 182009

For the past year or so I’ve been working on a new media poem called Black River Ghosts.  While the work is nowhere near ready to be presented to the public, I’ve been using some of its functionality on the social networks, and in a few spots these test cases/previews have been actually garnering praise.

Anyone familiar with my work in networked literature knows I have an ongoing fascination with poetry generators–applications that write poems based on datasets and randomizing algorithms. The motivations behind this obsession are very simple, if problematic on the theory tip: a good poetry generator allows the “author” to relinquish control; other than providing a dataset and some compositional templates, the generative poet does not compose the generative poem. The poem is instead composed by a combination of the underlying code and the reader’s initializing of the application.

I have more than a thimbleful of thoughts as to why this is a worthwhile paradigm for new media poetry, and why I often feel new media poets who don’t at least dabble in the margins of this paradigm might be missing some of the point of a networked literature, but those will be saved for a future post. Instead, I’d like to introduce you to a PHP framework that I’ve been using to create the piece, and offer some thoughts on how working in this way requires a different conception of poem composition.

CakePHP is rapid application development framework for creating web apps with PHP, and, though I’m very much a n00b as far as its use goes, so far it seems the best choice for building complex applications quickly and with as little code as possible. CakePHP leverages the Model-View-Controller design pattern to modularize the various components of a software project. This means that the application is coceptualized as having 3 layers: a model, which represents a data source; a controller, which encompasses the logic involved in working with the data from the data source; and a view, which is comprised of all the presentational or visual display functionality. MVC applications separate these layers into seperate files, thus promoting reusability and easy refactoring.

The benefits of using MVC are obvious; you can very quickly set up the bones of your app, and very easily extend and revise it. CakePHP provides a framework for doing this by favoring “convention over configuration”; by applying conventions to file names, database table names, and other assets, CakePHP provides a structure that makes simply creating and writng methods for certain classes build a rich structure for your web application.

I started writing Black River Ghosts with CakePHP initially just to get my head around how to use the framework. I already had the beginnings of a dataset; a file of distinct lines of text i’d started for the project. It became obvious very quickly that I could better make use of CakePHP and the poetry if I broke the lines down into records keyed by grammar. I tagged the poetry with parts of speech: nouns, verbs, prepositions. And then I started adding to the dataset, building a table of lines of poetry that represented (very subjectively) parts of speech to me.

As I worked, I became aware of how composing poetry like this, directly into a database, with the thought that each line, each unit, would go toward composing a sentence, is a fundamentally different way of composing poems linearly, as the popular conception of poetry has taught us. The form imposes some limitations; if you’re relying on “states of consciousness,” you must rely on them in targeted bursts, and you must keep in mind that what you’re writing will be combined and recombined with all of the other elements in the set.

The resultant text, though, definitely has a rush to it. Because I’m working with phrases instead of bare words, the sentences flood with a certain lyricism I’m enjoying. As algorithmically-generated text, these early tests of my code are yielding results I like.

 Posted by at 2:11 pm
May 052009

Edward Picot brings up some interesting points in his latest essay Play on Meaning? Computer Games as Art up on both and the Hyperliterature Exchange.  I’m most struck by this passage:

The insistence on interactivity as an important element of hyperliterature – and on computerised role-playing games as a paradigm of interactive art – has always begged a number of questions, however. First of all, champions of “traditional” literature are inclined to argue that new media theorists are starting from an incorrect model of the relationship between author and reader. Readers do not receive text “passively” – they interpret it, and many modern(ist) texts, far from spoon-feeding their readers with predigested messages, are deliberately written in fragmented, ambiguous or enigmatic ways so as to oblige the audience to make interpretations. If this is granted, then the claim that interactive fiction is “liberating” its readers by re-defining their relationship with its authors begins to look simplistic.

I would certainly agree that anyone arguing that text is received passively is starting from an incorrect model–at least as far as more postmodern or post-avant texts go. But I have issues with the idea that this is one of the strong arguments toward an interactive literature.

In my mind, interactivity and generativity are tightly bound. A New Media artwork in which I can simply move sprites around is boring, even if these sprites do contribute somehow in “winning” something (and I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of “winning” an artwork). I’ve always been more interested in getting the reader/user to participate in the generation of the work itself.  This can happen beyond the interactivity of the piece–any New Media artwork that uses an external datastore is particpatory, if only in capturing the zeitgeist of a particular tag on a particular website. You may not be able to alter the datastore from the piece itself, but the datastore itself is changing constantly.

I have a much more materialistic view of the artwork. Yes, with a traditional book, interpretation will change the way the text is received. The text in the book, however, does not change; it will materially always be the same. A New Media Poem should subvert this–there’s no hope of closure with new media poetry, because the very material of a good new media poem is dynamic.

Picot recognizes this here when, in a discussion on the work of Rod Humble, he states, “To a child, the phrase “Let’s play!” means something different from ‘Let’s play a game!’ The second phrase means ‘Let’s play a game with predefined rules’, whereas the first means ‘Let’s have fun’, and may involve rules or may not.” One of the reason’s I’ve never really explored a game aesthetic seriously in my work is because of this very fact–the very concept of “game” requires the constraint of rules. Rules are stable, and with rules one is given a sense of closure. All games can either be won or lost–which implies that the idea of closure itself is inherent in the game form itself.

New Media theoretician Lev Manovich wrote a famous essay that I think is all-too-overlooked in discussions of New Media art and literature. Database as a Symbolic Form explores the marked differences between narrative art and a database art. Manovich discusses this very point that nags Picot:

…Computer games, for instance, are experienced by their players as narratives. In a game, the player is given a well-defined task – winning the match, being first in a race, reaching the last level, or reaching the highest score. It is this task which makes the player experience the game as a narrative. Everything which happens to her in a game, all the characters and objects she encounters either take her closer to achieving the goal or further away from it. Thus, in contrast to the CD-ROM and Web databases, which always appear arbitrary since the user knows that additional material could have been added without in any way modifying the logic of the database, in a game, from a user’s point of view, all the elements are motivated ( i.e., their presence is justified).
Often the narrative shell of a game (“you are the specially trained commando who has just landed on a Lunar base; your task is to make your way to the headquarters occupied by the mutant base personnel…”) masks a simple algorithm well-familiar to the player: kill all the enemies on the current level, while collecting all treasures it contains; go to the next level and so on until you reach the last level. Other games have different algorithms. Here is an algorithm of the legendary “Tetris”: when a new block appears, rotate it in such a way so it will complete the top layer of blocks on the bottom of the screen making this layer disappear. The similarity between the actions expected from the player and computer algorithms is too uncanny to be dismissed. 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.

Here is the crux of why I dislike New Media art that explores the game meme. It’s a narrative art, and much of it’s narrative technique, while not linear, smacks of the novel. In fact, I can see where one could write a New Media novel as a game–but poetry is not a novel, is not fiction, and doesn’t require narrative. The exploration of a poem resists closure and teleology at its core–no matter what form it’s in. The New Media Poem is a wild, aimless child.

 Posted by at 5:06 pm