Book Review: Digital Art and Meaning by Roberto Simanowski
Published 2011 by University of Minnesota Press
This is the second post of three. Chapters 1, 2, and 3 are covered.
Isn’t digital literature any writing created on a computer for electronic distribution?
The Electronic Literature Organization, founded in 1999, defines electronic literature as “works with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand alone or networked computer.” Simanowski delves into the deep question, “Is digital literature still literature when it is manipulated so that it lacks readability and meaning?”
Chapter 1 Digital Literature
Defining digital literature – “The word digital, in the term digital art, relates to the medium of its production and not the semiotics of its materials,” states Simanowski. He offers three reasons for the rarity of hermeneutic endeavors (science of interpretation) from Jan van Looy and Jan Baetens book Close Reading New Media: Analyzing Electronic Media (2003):1) The basic conviction that critical attention does not matter; 2) The idea that digital media is created on the margins of the media that remains basically still a number cruncher; and, 3) The thought that this media has not produced enough interesting work to warrant such a tackling of the works. For the purpose of his analysis, Simanowski brings three characteristics to the digital discussion: interactivity, intermediality, and performance.
Crossing genre boundaries – Simanowski references N. Katherine Hayles 2008 book Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary with the quote, “demarcation between digital art and electronic literature is shifty at best, often more a matter of the critical traditions from which the works are discussed than anything intrinsic to the works themselves,” Simanowski discusses the importance of words versus visual effects, including the meaning behind text movement, text emphasis, and hyperlink.
Playing with text – This section highlights a variety of methods used by creators. “The Mouse’s Tale” , printed as the shape of a tail in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an 1865 novel by Lewis Carroll, is an example of concrete poetry. Digital media text has the option to actually wiggle, shape change, disappear and reappear, or hyperlink you through the Looking Glass. (Example: Still Standing (2005) – Bruno Nadeau Screen (2004) – Noah Wardrip-Fruin )
Outsourcing authorship – This section feels quite sci-fi. The author discusses the automatic writers of the 1920 Dadaist and Surrealist along with transgenic poetry experiments that synthesize DNA. Be ready for terms like holopoetry and biopoetry, as the author raises questions of ownership and authorship. (Example: Genesis (1999) – Eduardo Kac ) Do you remember the movie War Games?
Chapter 2 Kinetic Concrete Poetry
Concrete Poetry in Print – Relationships between traditions of ancient and medieval times with contemporary forms brings referential foundations to newer works discussed in this section. The reader is exposed to methods used by monks and those used by William Blake in his Illuminated Books, of the 1800’s. Simanowski describes Blake’s books as a “fusion of the visual and literary into a form intended to cleanse the relationship of the senses to the imagination.” Further, the author gives examples of styles that accrue additional meanings by their presentation, such as labyrinth poems and figurative poems. (Example David Small – Illuminated Manuscript (2002) )
Concrete Poetry in Digital Media – Simanowski remarks on the two basic elements of Concrete Poetry, linguistic and graphic, and how digital media has added two additional expressions: time and interaction. The author explores multiple examples in this chapter. You will want to search the web to experience a few. Have you some examples to share?
Neo Baroque and Generation Flash – Simonawski states, “There is a danger that the sensual pleasure is not combined with the pleasure of reflection…The focus on form reminds us of the hypertrophy of artistic means and the atrophy of content in the baroque and mannerism, which are marked by exploiting effects, audience amazement, and emphasis on entertainment.” Generation Flash is one of the new media artists’ tools, and the author proclaims “the software artist overcomes the second hand art of the media artist and produces from scratch.” There is discussion on this form as the highest form of commercialism. The author drills down into the philosophical elements of time periods, which is a trip I found worth taking. (Example Scott Snibbe – Deep Walls )
Technical Effects and Deeper Meaning – Overall this section provides discussion on the shift of concrete poetry with its focus on direct meaning, to visual effects that stimulate the senses where the text may have no “readable” meaning. The meaning is strictly realized by the participant, who finds meaning through personal life experience stimulated by eye and mind working in concert during the interaction. The examples provided, include opportunities for additional levels of philosophical understanding resulting from the outcome of selections made by the interactor. Here are some examples from me: Two people witness a sunrise. One says “What a beautiful sunrise” and the other states, “What a beautiful start to the rest of my life.” One comment is static, and the other is expansive. If the capital letter “I” is created in 3-D and it spins horizontally, did the creator mean for you to interpret it any particular way? One might say it means “I’m confused”, and another might say “it’s in joyful dance.” What varying interpretations of the same visual can you share?
Chapter 3 Text Machines
Computer Generated Text – An author writes from one perspective and the reader understands from another. In digital media, both of these perspectives, are preceded by and subject to allowances created by the programmer. Text generating machines use code to remix programmed sentences and words, that result in nonsensical stories and sentence structures. Is computer generated text literature, or pure entertainment? ( Example: Makebelieve (2002) – Hugo Liu and Push Singh )
Meaning of Chance – In a 1982 essay, Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels state, “It isn’t poetry because it isn’t language,” and, converting language into “accidental likeness of language,” dissolves the authors original intent. Katherine Hayles, presenting at the 2007 Digital Literature Conference, asked, “What are we doing when we exercise our human ingenuity to come up with meaningful interpretations of poetic lines generated by a machine for which meaning has no meaning?” Simanowski provides alternative perspectives from scholars in the digital field to address the roles of the programmer and author, and, the reader and interactor. Is it literature or theater of absurd realities? (Example: Façade (2005) – Michael Mateus and Andrew Stern)
Understanding Nonsense – I think reading nonsense is nonsense, but somehow this author has made reading about the theory of reading nonsense sensible. He states, “Reading computer-generated text, we are normally aware of the fact that it is not exclusively concerned with literature but also concerned with engineering,” and “The text is the means to evaluate the program.” Great – it comforts me to know that most digital stuff I witnessed in art museums really was not meant to be “art”, as I know it. The author references several parables including the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Let me provide a “living” example that needs no programmer: Think of the babble of background noise endured while sitting in public spaces, such as restaurants. Often, a multitude of individual voices I have no control over, rise to seek dominance over each other in an attempt to communicate personal discussions to someone sitting 2’ away. This results in the integration of cross party sentences that create a distorted nonsensical pluralist story constructed by these unaware collaborators. And, at this point my friends, I reach for ear plugs. Please, share a “living” example of yours.
Readers and Writers – After Simanowski determines the author is not dead, he turns to the death of the reader and asserts that you cannot read nonsense. He claims that if text from a machine makes sense to you, then you are reading the machine code from the programmer, not language from a machine. He compares readers of digital media to “time travelers” in the world of text. I think they are in a world where the author (sometimes programmer) and the reader/author often collaborate on line, for better or for worse. These folks don’t have the luxury of “dating sites”, where they might have some knowledge of each other’s hopes and dreams. I suspect the voices in these publicly accessed literary projects take on transitioning forms, as participants fight for dominance and “the most recent (not the last) comment.” More than one person has told me they feel such projects (and other social media formats) encourage self-centrist pursuits under the guise of “inclusiveness” social awareness. What do you think?
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The final 3 chapters are coming August 12: Interactive Installations, Mapping Art, and Real-Time Web Sculpture
Always IN ART – msh