Label This One a Failure

It’s tough to write about the ideas that didn’t work out. Sometimes the negative results actually aren’t very interesting, and it’s better not to discuss them. In other cases, it’s impolite to point out other people’s roles – to blame them – and impossible to discuss the failure otherwise. But when a failure is not too big of a deal, possibly instructive to bring up, and as least as much my fault as anyone else’s, that rare opportunity to post about it presents itself.

In 2005, those of us blogging at Grand Text Auto had the idea of starting a “label.” We wanted something that would riff on our blog’s name and serve to showcase larger-scale projects that we did. The idea was that our creative projects would benefit from being associated with each other, just as our blog writing was more lively and had wider reach thanks to the shared context of Grand Text Auto.

After going through our usual best practices process of name development – perhaps, based on experiences like these, I’ll one day start a naming firm – we chose to call the label [auto mata]. With the square brackets and everything, if you want to really give a shout-out, although “Auto Mata” could work if that’s what fits your house style.

I offered to design the logotype. Now, I’m much less likely to start a career in graphic design, and certainly couldn’t drive that auto very far if I did, but I do like to indulge my dilettantish design interests when the opportunity presents itself. This is what I came up with:

Admittedly, it doesn’t exactly slap one in the face.

I don’t think my understated logo was the real problem with [auto mata], though. First Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern’s Façade (July 2005) and then my own Book and Volume (November 2005) were released “under” (perhaps “with” is a better preposition) this label. And that was it. No other “extraordinary e-lit, digital art, and computer games” appeared as [auto mata] releases, which was one big problem. A list of two things isn’t doing that much helpful association or offering people very much to browse. I think if we had kept adding a piece to the [auto mata] catalog every few months, we’d have accumulated a very interesting collection that people would be looking at. We might even encourage the crossing of boundaries between (the stereotypes of) literary work, visual art, and computer games that Grand Text Auto was all about. But we weren’t all regularly doing larger-scale projects that were downloadable. [auto mata] couldn’t really, in any straightforward way, “release” an immense, functional Atari VCS joystick.

Another problem, though, is that [auto mata] was just a list on a Web page. We didn’t build much buzz around [auto mata] itself, or work to promote the label per se as opposed to the two pieces that were released under it. Perhaps this work would have done itself to some extent as our list of publications grew and our offerings drew in people from different communities. But, unfortunately, the work wasn’t done.

Michael, Andrew, and I often mentioned [auto mata] in promoting our pieces. The site is still up. But now it’s 2011, and it’s worth noting that both Façade and Book and Volume have been published again in the fine context of the Electronic Literature Collection, volume 2. Although some “previous publication” information is included for each piece in the Collection, Michael, Andrew, and I all neglected to tell the editors that these two pieces are [auto mata] releases, so that information (provided within the pieces) doesn’t appear on the introduction pages where other bibliographic information is available.

Ah, well. I don’t regret the discussion that led to our developing [auto mata]; nor do I regret the not particularly onerous efforts that we took to get this label launched. In a different situation, such a label might have served not just to catalog work, but as an incentive or rallying point for the Grand Text Auto bloggers in creating work that could be proudly presented alongside other pieces. Perhaps a similar label could still do that for a different group of people.

7 Comments »

  1. Rock and Roll will never die. Let’s do an automata project on the train from Providence to Philadelphia on All Souls Day.

    Comment by Scott — 2011-02-17 @ 5:36 pm
  2. Why do you think more projects like [auto mata] haven’t sprung up elsewhere? Having just recently finished a collection of digital literature (http://afeeld.com/) and a little computer game (http://www.kongregate.com/games/RUSTLTD/robot-butler), I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the dearth of publishers for digital lit and art/indy games, and about how the “label” model of dissemination fits so much more aptly than that of print publication. With AFEELD, for example, everything’s already been published individually, but now it’s sitting up on a website–it IS a website–with nothing more to do. If it were a collection of traditional poetry, I’d be looking for a publisher; as it stands, I’m kind of just twiddling my thumbs. Though I could publish it as a CD or DVD, it seems unnecessary and wasteful, and I’m really not interested in making money or anything like that. Nevertheless, problems of dissemination and credentialing persist. ROBOT BUTLER, too, is freely available on a website that sees a lot of traffic, but it’s not clear that it’s going to reach its target audience there, as a kind of experimental art game. I think it’s a real shame that there aren’t more efforts like [auto mata] out there, that would allow authors to disseminate their larger works and collections in decentralized ways, while still helping with that dissemination, and providing a kind of curation and/or credentialing comparable to print publishers. Most digital literature magazines from the early part of the past decade have closed up shop; digital lit authors seem relegated to self-publishing, despite all the people publishing ABOUT digital literature; and many indy gamers release titles on their own websites, and rely upon donations to cover hosting fees. So I keep wondering: is anyone else doing stuff like [auto mata]? Where are the publishers of electronic literature?

    Comment by A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz — 2011-02-18 @ 1:28 am
  3. One thing that strikes me about [auto mata] as you’ve described it here is that it doesn’t appear to have a functional logic beyond “guilt by association.” By comparison, a record label actually plays an active role in making content available. While that might seem like a burden that record labels would shrug off if they could, the work they do on behalf of artists is part of what keeps a label relevant.

    It does seem to me that having some sort of “guilt by association” model of distribution and branding would be good for the IF community, but given how easy it is to simply upload a game to any number of archives and distribute it that way, I don’t think a digital-only label is going to have any sort of lasting hold. It will always have to answer the question, what does it bring to the table that the author wouldn’t have without it. If it were shipping games in a physical medium, that would at least be an argument in favor of having a label, but then you have to answer the related question, does anyone want to buy IF on a physical media? (The answer, presumably, is “sometimes,” but maybe not enough to keep a label solvent.)

    One way a label could conceivably justify its own existence is by provided services roughly analogous to those that a record label provides for bands. In-house artists could provide art work. In-house coders could actually write substantial portions of the code. The label could make available proprietary packages that round out the parser. All of which relieves the author of some of the pressures that attend solo game design, and could be used to give games released by the label a common, signature aesthetic.

    Of course, the next question would be, how would the label pay for all of that? And for that, I have no handy answer. But the [auto mata] concept does seem to me like a step in the right direction, one that looks for some model other than the mostly defunct Infocom packaged game-and-feelies model while hopefully pushing IF to audiences that the comp-driven model has yet to reach.

    Comment by MadArchitect — 2011-02-18 @ 6:50 pm
  4. Great comment, MadArchitect.

    Comment by A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz — 2011-02-18 @ 10:31 pm
  5. I agree with most of what MadArchitect said, so I’ll try not to repeat it. Also, having known Nick for quite some time, I wouldn’t call anything he’s ever done a failure.

    That said, my opinion is that [auto mata] could have worked better if it had been conceived not as a revolution but as an evolution, and by this I mean that it could have been used to publish IF, digital art, regular books, ebooks, records or even t-shirts and other merchandise. Using this approach, you can bring together many kinds of authors under the same roof: poets, novelists, IF authors, musicians, visual artists, etc., and take advantage of the synergies among them. It would also have gotten the label a broader market (had that been the intention).

    Comment by josemanuel — 2011-02-19 @ 7:56 am
  6. Thanks for all of these replies.

    A. J., first off, I took at close look at AFEELD and enjoyed it – particularly in how it straddles the line between visual poetry and a visual poetry creation kit. M!nesweeper is a nice addition to the category where we can find Jim Andrews’ Arteroids.

    Your case parallels our in one important way, at least: You’re doing “crossover” work that has elements of and appeal to those people who are stereotypically called gamers, while it also connects to literary traditions and has literary goals. I think a label (or other intervention) could be particularly useful in a situation like this, when existing categories and portals don’t reflect the new pieces being produced. Going beyond the standard categories was part of the point of [auto mata].

    MadArchitect, indeed, [auto mata] didn’t have anything as grandiose as a “funcitonal logic” – but then, Grand Text Auto didn’t, either, and it did pretty well. There were group blogs in which authors had to submit a certain number of articles per week or be dropped from the list; on commercial sites, of course, things were more highly structured and stories could be assigned so that certain topics or subsites would be sure to have material. We just decided to write together, on one blog rather than six, and the conversation, comments, related posts, and even panel discussions and exhibitions developed out of that without much planning. So, perhaps “guilt by association” is enough in the case of a blog, but not enough in the case of a label or other entity that mainly undertakes publication rather than collaborative writing or the co-creation of work.

    It’s an interesting thought to have the support of “studio cats” who, instead of being on hand for recording sessions, could code, provide artwork, and so on. I suppose I’ve never felt held back in my own work by a lack of such participants. My own practice is an alternative to the industrial model rather than an attempt to create a miniature version of that model, with coding and art parceled out to employees. (At least, it’s an alternative to today’s industrial model. In terms of how I work, I feel quite a bit of affinity with Infocom author/programmers and Atari’s programmer/designers who worked on the VCS.) And I think everyone in Grand Text Auto, even those who used fabrication expertise to build their joysticks or voice actors for the interactive drama – was pretty much on this side. But perhaps there are some services, such as those typically provided by publicists and agents, that people like us would be interested in passing along to a (somehow funded) label.

    josemanuel, I think you’re right that our focus was too narrow – we had only two titles, after all. In part, I think we didn’t want to try to replace the publishers, galleries, etc. that were already working well. We also didn’t have in mind that the label would increase sales as opposed to increasing downloads and access to free work. Setting up a storefront, a merchant account, credit card processing, accounting, and so on would have been a different can of worms. Perhaps it’s one that should be opened, though. Or perhaps small-scale works should have been given a place alongside the large-scale ones we featured. In any case, there should have been a large enough amount of material for guilt by association to do its thing.

    Comment by Nick Montfort — 2011-02-19 @ 1:51 pm
  7. Thanks for the read, Nick. I’m glad you enjoyed it! And I appreciate what you’re saying about the desire, through a label like [auto mata] and through your own practice, to hold fast to an alternative model of production and distribution. As you suggest, the money has to come from somewhere, and I’m not interested in selling work like AFEELD, nor in replicating an industrial model. I’d prefer to participate in and encourage decentralized, local, and overlapping communities that share and aggregate work like mine (or NOT like mine!). I think this kind of community is often flexible enough to adapt to its members’ needs, and perhaps fulfill some of the production needs that MadArchitect has listed above.

    Nevertheless, I keeping wondering: where are those communities? How do we find and access them?

    Certainly we can create our own: small, localized ones, like artists’ collectives, reading groups, and group blogs. We can find bulletin/posting boards online. We can tap into larger communities like Reddit. We can find new ways, and experiment. I see [auto mata] as a good example of an experiment in dissemination via aggregation, as an alternative means of credentialing work, and as something that could have played a role in much larger conversations–instead of impinging upon such conversations, as older modes of production and distribution often can.

    It’s a good idea. So why aren’t more people doing it? Where are the journals, the presses, the labels? I sympathize with what MadArchitect was suggesting–that such efforts haven’t done enough to attract artists–but at the same time, it’s clear that [auto mata] was, at least initially, intended as a means of self-publication, and so was not separate from the published artists in the way MadArchitect suggests. So maybe we’re comparing apples and oranges there?

    And maybe it suggests that we should be looking for something somewhere in the middle, between self-publication and traditional models of publication?

    Comment by A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz — 2011-02-21 @ 2:44 pm

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