It only needs a name if you’re writing about it
24 may 2005
Computers and Composition (An International Journal): It only needs a name if you’re writing about it, Volume 22, Issue 3, 2005, Pages 397-401, ISSN: 8755-4615.
It is impossible to answer exactly what is digital writing. The general consensus among practitioners is that digital writing requires a computer to create and deliver it - digital tools are an integral part of its development. It follows that digital writing is untranslatable out of the digital format. From there it breaks into myriad forms that have spawned many inventive definitions, a veritable tsunami of jargon - “computer-mediated textual art” seems a close description.
In his book Other Voices, Essays on Modern Poetry, Octavio Paz wrote: “Another art is dawning.” He wrote of a tradition that “began with the Romantics, reached its zenith with the Symbolists, and attained a fascinating twilight with the avant-garde of the last century." I don't think he imagined digital writing being the new art, and I don't think we even know if it is a new art, or even a new way of writing. One thing is certain, the dissemination of creative writing and art on the web represents an entirely new publication model. And, in this essay, we look at digital writing that is made to be viewed or experienced online.
Before discussing the aesthetic and technical aspects of my six-year adventure into digital writing and online publishing, a small digression, because there is a very human and personal element that puts my involvement in proper context. Previous to my work in digital writing, my career included arts journalism, travel writing, and several years of writing a regular column of social commentary.
As a photographer, I produced two major projects (both documentary in nature and housed in archives collections), many photo-essays in newspapers, literary journals and magazines. I wrote one non-fiction book and exhibited visual art in a dozen or so galleries. I also made mixed media constructions fashioned from found objects, some of which found their way into the collection of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts.
I focused on my home place on the Canadian prairies and, until about 10 years ago, imagined my life would be spent doing pretty much the same. I examined and reflected upon the vast landscape and history of the Canadian West. This was only natural, because I came to aesthetic practices not through schooling, but from a love of writing and travel. I became a writer and artist because, after many years of itinerant work, I was essentially unemployable. I supported my practice through freelance writing, bartending, and casual work in libraries.
I was happy enough with the routine. But, after a year in Europe and Asia Minor (writing about and photographing tombs and sarcophagi), I returned home to find local writers, poets and artists still wrestling with the same things - chasing publications, exhibitions, and grants. It all suddenly seemed very depressing. So I packed our belongings and moved with my partner JoAnn to Vancouver Island. The move effectively severed connections to a lively arts community and progressive grants programme that for years had supported my visual art and writing practice.
There is a saying in Spanish - un poco desorbitado - which means, a little dis-orbited, out of one's orbit. So it was during my early days on Vancouver Island, fraught with a strange sense of isolation, that I approached the internet - and was sucked into cyberspace like a vacuum being filled. It wasn't long before I discovered the trAce Online Writing Centre - an online community, the brainchild of netizen, academic, and writer Sue Thomas, hosted by the Nottingham Trent University.
Without a doubt my interest in digital aesthetics was sparked by the ability to combine two areas of creative practice that most interested me, writing and visual art (as well as a lifelong interest in dabbling with music). I was surprised by the generosity of other writers and artists who worked with digital tools to deliver online content - people who shared ideas and code and imagery with very little concern for ownership or copyright. Collaborations were spontaneous and invigorating. Some lasted for years, like the Imaginary Post Office.
This generosity was probably a result of people who, like myself, were working in isolation. There was certain energy in those early years, a potent synthesis of aesthetic practices fostered by ease of communication, relatively inexpensive technology, and a sense that we were operating outside the mainstream.
It’s odd to think about how completely and suddenly I shucked traditional aesthetic pursuits and immersed myself in internet culture - more specifically, the web. Even the landscape that I had spent so long romancing almost vanished from memory, replaced by a landscape of ideas and networks. Although not a programmer, I have come to know my (fourth) computer as well as I know any person. Friends and colleagues are almost all now linked to it in a very real way. After 10 years, I am finally producing digital work that approaches the condition of art (though I hesitate, as always, to define that condition).
I will risk one obvious cliché: it’s been a steep learning curve. One computer or another has betrayed my trust, corrupted or discarded something in mid-process. My first computer vanished an entire website of animated texts and imagery. Still, most of it probably wasn't worth saving. I am reminded of one night, many years ago, when I consigned a file cabinet full of my writings and notes to a backyard bonfire. The fire smouldered under the weight of paper until someone on the block called the fire department. “It’s the smoke,” said the captain. “We just want you to keep the fire going.” “My sentiments," I replied. "Exactly."
I’ve come to terms with creating visuals that look different across a wild variety of monitor displays, data projectors, and printers. As facile as it often feels to push pixels around - and there are endless examples of gawd awful eye-candy on the web - tools like PhotoShop, that readily allow for the manipulation and remixing of imagery, empower visual artists to extend their practice through computer technology. The same case can be made for animation or sound or video editing software, and other digital tools. Not to mention the actual creation of tools as artworks - artful programming.
When creating visual work with a computer, unlike work done in a darkroom, the notions of failure or wasting time don’t carry as much weight. You can move with ease backward and forward through the digital process. The sense of what you create as a visual object is very different. The object is less precious, more fluid, remixable, and discardable. In short, working with digital tools is more like play. Editing images becomes more like editing words. Concrete poetry comes to mind.
It’s all part of a certain frame of mind one adopts when using computers to create and present aesthetic work. For myself, there is a certain freedom in not worrying so much about the exact look of a piece. Publication is not the end result, posting work online doesn’t mean that it’s finished – not like a book, or gallery exhibition. I return here to what the captain said, “keep the fire burning.”
There are things about my practice that haven't changed. I still work with found objects. But now it’s data instead of rusted sardine tins that I collect and refashion, and my approach to art is still more intuitive and physical than intellectual. I have to feel that something works on an aesthetic level, rather than think about it in conceptual terms. My personal adventure in online publishing has resulted in an Online Studio, a 1.32 GB mass of work generously hosted by trAce - mostly resembling a mutable sketchbook of media.
I write and make digital artworks for what Paz called the "immense minority", or maybe Stendhal's "happy few". I like to think that my work is accessible to my neighbours - people with little or no exposure to the creative arts. Although I have a great interest in theory and critical thinking, I am still that person who wandered in from the landscape. I make no excuses for that. In fact, I admit to being an end-user who hammers on a computer.
My three years of being Associate Editor for trAce, commissioning articles of media commentary, has been a useful education. I have learned that digital writing, whatever it's exact definition, should be considered in discussions of new media art. The area of digital art is growing at a breathless rate. The arsenal of tools include web cams, location and surveillance technologies, and other mobile devices. Not to mention advances in web technology like XML, RSS-distributed content, and database architectures. Fictional blogs are an intriguing direction for narrative. Also, collaborations between writers and artists and scientists and technologists. Old notions about media simply don't apply anymore. And old was yesterday.
One very real risk of immersion into the digital realm, mostly for people who take the leap from traditional art forms, can be a feeling of techno-exhaustion. It is not necessary to keep up with every development on the web, or advance in software, but many early web authors tried to do exactly that; which is likely what caused them to abandon digital writing. Unfinished works on the web are legion.
Much has changed since then - but that’s another story, having to do with commodification and cooption. I am reminded of Edward Gibbon’s oh so sardonic words about Rome: “A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators darkened the face of learning, and the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste”. To make sense of this, in context, replace the word learning with media. Or not.
There is also the danger of comparing digital writing to literature, which opens it up to criticism that is generally off the mark. In his book, Dust or Magic: Secrets of Successful Multimedia Design, Bob Hughes says: “Much (probably all) important art and writing has this “resists categorization” quality; yet older media seem to force it into categories. Put someone into a category and you discount them.” Another danger is the view that working in multimedia makes one expert or even competent in all of the component arts. This is wholly naïve.
Digital writing, like any creative practice, attracts advocates for one platform or another. There are those who cling to certain definitions of what constitutes digital art or writing. This precious thinking misses the point, of course, that it’s all about a synthesis of arts and technology. I venture that the process itself is an art. As Montaigne imagined, “the journey is everything."
Many long-time netizens feel strong connections with Duchamp and the Dadaists, so the proliferation of works that slice and dice web content should come as no surprise. The web also allows for voices long-silenced by mainstream media to publish their creative work and ideas. Collaborative and performative work is possible online, streamed from remote locations. There are true activists, and others simply taking the piss. No matter, if something isn't to your taste - trite, overstated, sentimental, or unfathomable - simply browse on. Find something that does engage your imagination. Remember, though, that finding a work unfathomable might mean you simply don’t have the necessary reading skills.
The short history of digital writing on the web can be tracked alongside the development of technology that made the interface increasingly more dynamic. Once limited to streaming small files over the web, digital writers can now create and present complex multimedia. Take for example Mark Amerika’s mid-Nineties’ Hypertextual Consciousness 1.0 (a companion theory guide to a work called Grammatron), where he says "I link therefore I am"; and compare this to his 2002 work FILMTEXT, where he uses Macromedia Flash to "to translate cinematic language into more multi-linear navigational forms associated with emergent new media genres such as net art, hypertext, and motion graphic pictures."
Some might say that using Amerika’s work as an example to map the progression of digital writing online is skewed, because his work is highly theoretical and openly explores digital tools and networks. But the same history can be traced when examining more recognizable forms of writing. For example Charlie Parker’s online comic Argon Zark!. Back in 1995 he embellished his work with small animated .gifs. By 2003 he was using Macromedia Flash. Interestingly, Parker refers to digital tools as toys.
To my mind, the most intriguing aspects of digital writing are: access to tools that have an overall democratising effect on art because they allow non-affiliated artists/writers to create complex multimedia; and the viral nature of the internet, which allows for delivery across an international network of viewers and peers. It really doesn’t matter if anyone thinks that digital writing is a mere blip on the radar, because every day new work is developed, created, and published online that challenges our notions of what is and is not writing or art. Something new is clearly taking shape. It only needs a name if you’re writing about it.
[ notablog ]