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NINTH LETTER, University of Illinois - 12-2004

Featured across 16 pages of the Winter 2004 issue of the Ninth Letter print magazine, is recent work from three web sites: Oculart, Anonymes, and Flying Puppet. Why, you might ask, publish network art on the pages of a literary magazine? Because there's an important connection between literary traditions and a lot of experimental work currently being published on the web.

These three sites are all inventive and push the envelope in exciting ways, yet each also reaches back towards conventions and vocabularies from the past. Some of the connections to literature are obvious, oculart and anonyms, for instance, contain hefty text components. And there's a lot of borrowed language – the authors make references to chapters, stories, and readers. But there's also a deeper connection here in terms of the organizational structure of these pieces, with all of them being anchored in some kind of page-based literacy.

This should come as no surprise; new media have always started by borrowing from previous languages and literacies, before evolving into something distinctly different. Photography adopted the conventions and vocabulary of painting for much of the 19th Century, then established itself as fundamentally different in the 20th Century. Video appropriated many of the conventions of cinema. Computer art in the late 20th Century borrowed from all of these.

Oculart, Anonymes, and Flying Puppet are the latest node on this evolutionary ladder. All three are consistently exploratory and speculative, which is why, perhaps, they also rely on older familiar forms – it gives the audience something comfortable hold on to. But they are also a bit tentative; there is no equivalent to a complete novel or a fully realized painting. It?s a little too early in the evolutionary cycle to expect work this sustained. But these three sites are clearly on the path to this kind of maturity.

For an analysis and discussion of each individual site, get a copy of the Winter 2004 issue of Ninth Letter magazine.

something borrowed, something gained

with a new language, it is important not to use the old words
The Poetics of Reverie, Gaston Bachelard

Maybe so. But the reality is this: the evolution of communication media is an additive process. New media don't replace older media, but extend them. And invariably, the words used to describe the latest node on the evolutionary ladder are borrowed from what came before. So in the mid-nineteenth century, photography was described as the pencil of nature and painting with light. But by the early light twentieth century photography was separating itself from drawing and painting, developing a distinct vocabulary that relied less and less on references to its pictorial ancestry.

New electronic media are in the midst of a similar evolution. The three web sites featured here- Oculart, Anonymes, and Flying Puppet-all represent attempts by contemporary artists to understand and exploit the creative potential of the global network. And all three offer speculations on how narratives can be constructed in a storytelling space that is ethereal, time-based, inherently hybrid, and infinitely deep.

Like others who have worked during pivotal eras of technological change, these artists fall back- successfully- on vocabularies and conventions familiar to both the authors and the audience. And this is why they have ended up on the pages of a literary magazine: each, in a different way, borrows from literary tradition. They all utilize text. They make subtle reference to elements of literary culture: readers, stories, books, chapters. But they also play with the tradition of linear reading, and they seek to embellish the reading experience with new elements: images, audio, video, performance, and interaction.

What puts many people off about new media is that it has yet to achieve, except for the extremely young, the kind of transparency that we enjoy with older literary forms. We don't look at books so much as we look through them. We see the content, but not them. We see the content, but not necessarily the form or the means. Comfort renders structure invisible.

In contrast, the experience of reading new media still feels highly machine-mediated. But the fact is that books are machines too; literary machines whose mechanisms and protocols are so comfortable and familiar that we typically fail to notice the technology, the machine underneath.

What began as a souped-up calculator and typewriter- the computer- has evolved into a new species of literary machine. One of the most powerful catalysts for this transformation has been the rise of the global network; computers connected to one another. This changes everything. It means that the screen is no longer just a temporary site of production, but also the space where one encounters the voices of others. The network makes computers less isolated, it introduces the concept of community. The screen is the final destination, the performance space. A new medium has been born, and we are its audience.

It was inevitable that some artists would migrate to this medium. In fact, there is considerable historical precedent for this type of art practice. After all, modern cinema, arguably the most important cultural form of the previous century, has its roots in nineteenth century engineering labs. Moving machine-produced images were developed by scientists, exclusively within the context of scientific research. They were seen as an extension of empirical observation, not as an agent of storytelling. Very few grasped the larger cultural significance of what they were dealing with.

How was the moving photographic image transformed from science to cinema? Who was behind this evolution? Artists. It was artists who migrated the technology of moving images from the engineering laboratory to the art studio. Artists saw the possibility for a new narrative language. They tinkered with the tools and used them in ways that their inventors never intended. They pushed the envelope. They tried to break things.

But cinema, like its predecessor the book, has now taken on a transparency that renders the underlying technology invisible. The cinematic screen has become an invisible window that we simply fall through. We don't imagine ourselves looking through a camera lens, we don't see the lights sitting just outside the frame, we don't hear the projector humming behind us. Instead, we sit in the dark and weep for our heroes.

Twenty-first-century media have yet to achieve that level of transparency, but are clearly on the same trajectory. We are witnessing the early phases of that journey, and the three sites featured here represent some of the most exciting and inventive work to date. Authors are stretching established vocabularies to the breaking point, using the old words in new ways, and inventing new terms when necessary.

What is required of us, the audience, is that we bring a degree of innocence to these new artistic forms. Our prior habits of engaging established art forms -writing, painting, theatre, music- don't fit cleanly with these new media. The old words don't entirely work, but are the raw material for reconstruction. And if we can be patient, we will start to hear and understand a new language. The apparatus continues to recede into the background. The window is becoming increasingly invisible. We are moving towards a territory entirely new and yet deeply familiar: simply a new space where someone wants to tell us a story.



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