Electronic Literature is a loaded and slippery category. It is rather dryly defined by the Electronic Literature Organization (what other art form needs a governing body?) as “works with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer.” Does this mean everything or nothing?
If there’s one person who knows the ins and outs of e-Lit as a category and an institution, it’s J. R. Carpenter. The Canadian artist, writer, performer – and myriad other titles – first logged onto the internet in November 1993, and has been deeply invested in making work both online and off ever since. This work floats across all mediums: zines, novels, hypertext fictions and performances, all referencing and circling back on each other.
In February 2013, writer Elvia Wilk took part in a writing residency at the Banff Center called In(ter)ventions: Literary Practice at the Edge, a yearly program where J. R. is a member of faculty. Banff is also an important place in the development of J. R.’s work; it was during a 1995 residency there that she made her first hypertext project. Recently Elvia and J. R. caught up with each other in London to re-hash many of the issues they talked about while together at Banff – dissecting various (misleading) terms in the e-Lit field, going over projects both new and old, discussing code as performance writing, and ending up on a chain of imaginary islands.
Elvia Wilk (EW): You’ve told me that you initially thought of your work as Net Art, only discovering the term Electronic Literature in 2005. Yet over the past decades, what you do has been primarily categorized as e-Lit by others. Why do you think that is?
J. R. Carpenter (JRC): It has to do with canonization; once you’re categorized, it’s hard to change the way your work is read. The Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) website has a definition of Electronic Literature that I don’t fully identify with. It doesn’t quite cover certain aspects of my work. Most Electronic Literature scholarship still orients itself in relation to literary tradition and the book; I do a lot of work in relation to the book, but I also do a lot in relation to landscape, visual art, collage, assemblage, performance, and so on.
Electronic literature critics tend to write about my work in terms of its relationship with print. For example, someone once wrote about the aesthetic of bookishness in my web-based project Entre Ville. The project has a drawing of a notebook on the front page – fair enough, print reference! – but that piece resulted from a new media art commission by the Conseil Des Arts de Montreal, it was launched at the Musée des Beaux Arts, and was presented entirely within a visual and new media art context. Sometimes writing about my work in terms of only literature excludes those reference points.
EW: The European research group Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice, or ELMCIP, recently spent three years building a database of web-based work: The ELMCIP Knowledge Base. This leads to a typical problem – in order to historicize and catalogue unknown work, it has to first be categorized, often in a way that limits its interpretation. Fair trade-off?
JRC: The great thing about the ELMCIP knowledge base is that you can enter your own work into it – no one will do it for you unless you’re already a famous man – but in doing so you wind up working within someone else’s system. It’s great that you can influence your own record, but you have to adhere to their categories. For example, the persistant division between creative works and critical writing is particularly vexing.
There are other branches of electronic literature with many of the same people involved, such as “e-poetry,” but even the distinction between poetry and prose seems arbitrary to me; these definitions exist mainly due to grant funding and academic categories.
Another category problem is that at the moment there’s a lot of confusion between experimental writing and digital publishing. Digital publishers are reinventing books as apps, retrograde style, as in recreating A Clockwork Orange or The Wasteland as an app. There’s a lot of gamification of literature going on since publishers need to make money selling things. In comparison, my work has more to do with zines and in-situ installation art than it has to do with slick products that somebody can sell.
EW: Is it really still feasible to make zines instead of apps?
EW: Yet you do participate in the “proprietary” Internet…you’re all over social media.
JRC: I use those mediums for the same reason that I started using the computer early on. If you’re not using them, then you don’t understand how they work, do you? The projects I make are technically very simple. I like small, downloadable sizes, usability on lots of browsers… I’ve resisted Flash from the very beginning. Why do we need new stuff all the time? Some old stuff works perfectly well. Products are always being made cheaper and more disposable. I like to buy the heaviest, wooden, lasting item. Sure, I listen to mp3s, but the older stuff is still there. The first web piece I made in 1995 is still online.
EW: Simplicity leads to longevity?
JRC: Yes, in the same way the simplicity of a zine or a flyer works. All these years I’ve been making zines and selling them for two dollars. A decade ago, there was an exhibit at MoMA of Russian avant-garde book works, many of which I would call zines. They still exist because there are so many of them. Zines are the cockroach of the artistic medium. Moreover, I’ve always recycled the zines in various different forms; I make paper versions of web-based pieces, and vice versa. Lately I tend to make performative versions of my work.
EW: You’re doing a PhD at University of the Arts London in Performance Writing. What’s that?
JRC: Another term that makes everyone crazy! Whereas English Literature departments are generally committed to the fixity of texts, Performance Writing looks at texts in their contexts: the contexts of both production and consumption. For instance, when you listen to this interview later, it will take place in an entirely different context. When you transcribe it, it will too. The text will continue to perform.
EW: Code writing is a performance in which the text performs itself very literally.
JRC: It’s a great methodology to apply to something like digital literature, because you’ve got so many different processes happening at once. N. Katherine Hayles talks about the digital text as being “event-ialized.” I contact a server, and that server contacts another server somewhere, which sends something back, and then the source code performs in the browser, which calls on various aspects of the CPU to make activity happen…so it’s not just one text, it’s a text that’s distributed through what Deleuze & Guattari would call a “machinic assemblage.” This is how I think of the computer-generated texts and code narratives in my work.
EW: I remember seeing various talks you’ve given, after which the idea of “computer-generated text” caused a lot of audience debate. People kept asking, “why would I read something a computer wrote?”
JRC: Yet another misleading term. Since way before computers existed, there has been a cultural anxiety around the idea that the creative act could somehow be taken away from humans. In my online works there are often combinatory texts made from strings of variables. But I’ve entered all the variables; the computer isn’t inventing the words. I think of these text fragments in terms of the Foucauldian archive; they are a collection of fragments that can always be reconstituted in different forms. The sentence is an engine and I can pull in lots of different kinds of variables. This contributes to the process of reading. We learn more about a text by seeing what it’s possibilities are. “I [love, hate, miss, want] you” –that’s a text that’s full of potential. “I love you” might also be, but its options are already closed down. There’s a durational aspect to a computer-generated text because it shifts over time, interrupting and engaging and challenging. This is a challenge to the printed word, which is supposed to be fixed and authoritative.
EW: Is it important to you that the source texts are familiar or identifiable to the reader?
JRC: I’m not sure. This type of fragmentation and re-use has been going on since Ovid ripped off Hesiod and Homer, if not longer. These are deeper cultural questions about how we know our own stories.
EW: Could you pick one of your works to talk about this through?
JRC: I have a piece called …and by islands I mean paragraphs that was launched at the 2013 ELO conference in Paris. It’s composed of computer-generated texts about islands. There are fourteen different islands, whose source material comes from texts like Robinson Crusoe, as well as various re-hashings of Crusoe, such as JM Coetzee’s novel Foe, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Crusoe in England,” and Darwin’s Voyages of the Beagle, because Bishop’s description of Crusoe’s island is taken from Darwin’s description of the Galapagos Islands…and there’s JG Ballard’s Concrete Island, which also references Crusoe, and some sentences from The Tempest, and I also went through a guidebook of Scottish island-hopping and took parts about roads and weather….
The title of the work comes from an essay in a 2010 issue of Cabinet magazine by Hernán Díaz called “A Topical Paradise” in which he likens paragraphs to islands. He explains how the word topographical comes from topos, which means place – but it also implies a common place, or a topic. That’s how the concept of the place and the story are inextricably linked. A topography is a kind of reading as well as a kind of mapping.
EW: The imagined island is an age-old fantasy; it’s always been relevant. But does it have a specific meaning for you today in the digital landscape?
JRC: That’s why Díaz says that the island is a perfect topic. There’s no such thing as an abandoned island; a truly isolated island can only happen in literature, because as soon as you set sight on an island, it’s known.
You could talk about the independent practitioner as an island – I feel like my main website that links to all of my projects is increasingly a web 1.1 island in a sea of proprietary peril. But more than just points of isolation, islands are points between things. The word “port,” as in USB or VGA port, comes from sea-port. Maps of ports are charts for how to get from one port to another, charts telling you where to land while en route. When islands come up as a meme again and again in a digital context, I think we are looking for connections between things. I don’t think everything is as new as people think.
EW: So we need to create islands, or places to stop off, between concepts we don’t yet understand?
JRC: Islands, especially in the Atlantic, have historically been created to fill unknown spaces between destinations. Columbus thought the Atlantic was full of islands that he could stop off at along the way. Many islands like this never existed, but they persist on maps because someone – amateur explorers, fishermen – saw something there. There are a lot of phantom islands today too. We think something’s new territory but we don’t understand how it’s connected to the past.
In the early maps, the coastline of Atlantic Canada was represented as just a series of islands. It wasn’t until 1529 that one of the Verazano brothers drew the first continuous coastline of North America. Until we have a real sense of something, islands seem to be the default mode of representation. Sometimes they turn out to actually be islands, and sometimes they turn out not to be. It’s just a complicated territory we haven’t charted yet. Of course, just because a place is uncharted doesn’t mean that it’s unknown.
Elvia Wilk is a writer and editor living in Berlin, exploring the interactions between art, architecture and technology. She contributes critical texts to publications like Frieze d/e, The Architectural Review, Flash Art, Art in America, ArtSlant, and Cluster Mag, and her poetry has been published on various international platforms. She is currently an editor at the online magazine uncube. www.elviapw.com
J. R. Carpenter is a Canadian artist, writer, researcher, performer and maker of maps, zines, books, poetry, short fiction, long fiction, non-fiction, and non-linear, intertextual, hypermedia, and computer-generated narratives. Her pioneering works of digital literature have been exhibited, published, performed, and presented in journals, galleries, museums, and festivals around the world. She is a winner of the CBC Quebec Writing Competition (2003 & 2005), the QWF Carte Blanche Quebec Award (2008), and the Expozine Alternative Press Award for Best English Book for her first novel, Words the Dog Knows (2008). She lives in South Devon, England. http://luckysoap.com