“Experimental Writing”

Wednesday 12 May 2010, 11:08 pm   /////  

We concluded the Spring 2010 21W.750 (Experimental Writing) today by composing a definition of the class’s title phrase, based on what we learned during our studies this semester.

EXPERIMENTAL WRITING (vbl. n., c. 1872) 1. The elephant is tiring. X-raying with yttrium, the pact seems tame, empty. Of yore, a raisin says “nope” to an igloo. 2. The octopus, magnificent, eats a tiger and an elephant. (a) Turn no oblog torpor. Revel! (b) An acrobatic cat, loyal, limp, is politicized. 3. What Twitter rhetoric: lame, incredible, empty. Tomatoes, made sarcastic, ignite both earrings. 4. A notorious sarcophogus, glorious static.

(This is an analytic definition using content words beginning with particular letters, including the letters in “experimental writing,” that were provided by students in the class.)

Now that the Living Outnumber the Dead

Monday 10 May 2010, 10:43 pm   /////  

Dance lessons not enough? Missing that special something? You lack soul? Feel, at times, like something that happened might remind you of a past life … if you only had one?

There’s a remedy: Hop on over to the Chicago Soul Exchange.

IF Contests Everywhere

Monday 3 May 2010, 7:51 pm   ///////  

Hello from the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction.

The TWIF Comp, a contest for interactive fiction with code of 140 characters or less, recently wrapped up. (We’re playing some of the games at the PR-IF meeting today.) Although it certainly had its in-joke aspects, the competition did bear amusing fruit, and it’s only one example of several recent competitions beyond the traditional big annual IF Comp. Given my interest in tiny literary systems, I certainly gave some thought to entering this one. However, I’ve pledged to spend all of my IF-writing time working on or in Curveship, and 140-character programs in the system weren’t at the top of my to-do list.

Before the TWIF Comp, there was the Jay Is Games interactive fiction competition, and after it there is the Second Annual MetaFilter Interactive Fiction Contest, which just started on Saturday. Those who read German will be delighted to know, if they don’t already, that the Grand Prix 2010 has just concluded. There’s also going to be an interactive fiction competition (for 30-minute-playtime games) at the Massachusetts demoparty @party. (Information will be posted on the site soon.) And Introcomp is gearing up: Interested parties should indicate their intention to enter by the end of the month. In case you’re new to online competitions, comps, or “compos” as they are sometimes called, these are not furious masculinist agons; they are mainly excuses for people to complete games and have them played by a bunch of people.

At the very least, you IF-interested parties should take a look at the games being proffered in recent contests – or, see if you want your IF to be part of one of these occasions.

Another attack — NOT

Friday 23 April 2010, 2:40 pm   /////  
An analyst assesses Alphabetical Africa and another authorial account about antithesis and absence.
Luis Bury does not pull punches in reviewing Doug Nufer’s Negativeland and Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa in ebr.

The Garden of Grand Forks: UND Writers Conference

I recently went from presenting at the prestigious and vibrant University of North Dakota Writers Conference to being on a panel at the massive Penny Arcade Expo in Boston.

First things first: The former was “Mind the Gap: Print, New Media, Art,” the 41st UND Writers Conference. Last year at UND the presenters included Charles Baxter and Chuck Klosterman; the year before, Russel Banks, my colleague Junot Díaz, Alice Fulton, and Salman Rushdie.

To provide some perspective, back in 1978 the lineup at this conference was John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, William Burroughs, Ring Lardner, Tillie Olsen, and Eudora Welty.

This year I heard Art Spiegelman in conversation about his comic and New Yorker cover art, Frank X. Walker on his poems giving voice to the journey of York (who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition as Clark’s slave), Cecelia Condit on her video art, and three of my fellow electronic literature writers, with their diverse approaches: Mark Amerika, Deena Larsen, and Stuart Moulthrop. I had to leave before I could hear slam poet Saul Williams, but I’m grateful for what I was able to experience of the conference. And I’m grateful that I was able to be on two panels, select a reel of music videos for the associated film festival, speak to a computer science class, and present several collaborative and individual projects to a sizable audience in the main room of UND’s student union:

  • Ad Verbum, my interactive fiction piece from 2000, inspired by the constrained writing of the Oulipo. Thanks again to the young interactor who volunteered to try collecting items in and escaping from the Sloppy Salon.
  • 2002: A Palindrome Story, by Nick Montfort and William Gillespie. I showed the Reifier interface and read from the very beginning and end.
  • Implementation by Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg. I explained the project and read eight texts (stickers, mailing labels) from it.
  • Currency, by Roderick Coover (video) and Nick Montfort (text). I showed “Filip a Guinea: The Elephant and Castle.”
  • Taroko Gorge, the poetry generator I wrote in Taiwan.
  • My ongoing series of tiny perl poetry generators, ppg256.

The people in Grand Forks, ND were polite (I was told I shouldn’t be surprised about this) but also surprisingly receptive. It was certainly a different sort of crowd than I met at Banff, with many people from the community and even driving in from surrounding areas. I think they saw some of the pleasure in writing under constraint, some of the benefits of writing collaboratively, and some of the potential of computation, which I tried to show could be turned to literary ends.

Although I got to converse with Stuart and Deena on and off our panels, I came in too late for one of their readings and had to leave before I could hear the other one. I did get to hear Mark Amerika take us from his early writing in The Kafka Chronicles up through his Web work and recent moving image project, all of which are fresh and impressive. His video work is certainly impelled ahead by the work of Chris Marker, whose Sans Soleil Mark selected for the film festival. I should note that I also loved getting to watch Timecode, Stuart Moulthrop’s selection.

Thanks again to Crystal Alberts for inviting me and for her work on this very successful conference.

When I can manage, I’ll write a bit about the very different but also incredible Penny Arcade Expo East…

Free / Writing / Game Gatherings

This weekend, I’m attending LibrePlanet, the Free Software Foundation’s conference and hackfest here in Cambridge. I don’t have anything to present or hack upon at this one, but I’ll be listening and learning more about free software and software freedom.

On Tuesday, I head to Grand Forks, ND for the University of North Dakota Writers Conference: Mind the Gap – Print, New Media, Art. The featured authors and artists this year are:

  • Art Spiegelman
  • Frank X. Walker
  • Nick Montfort
  • Cecelia Condit
  • Saul Williams
  • Mark Amerika
  • Stuart Moulthrop
  • Deena Larsen
  • Zeitgeist
  • Kanser with More Than Lights

I’ll return on Friday and head straight to the Penny Arcade Expo East (PAX East) in Boston, where the confluence of about 60,000 gamers is expected. At 9:30pm on Friday is the world premiere of Jason Scott’s interactive fiction documentary Get Lamp. Afterwards is a panel with:

  • Dave Lebling (Zork, Starcross, The Lurking Horror)
  • Steve Meretzky (Planetfall, Hitchhiker’s, A Mind Forever Voyaging)
  • Nick Montfort (included in this august group for writing a book about this stuff)
  • Brian Moriarty (Wishbringer, Trinity, Beyond Zork)
  • Andrew Plotkin (Spider and Web, Shade, Dual Transform)
  • Don Woods (co-author with Will Crowther of the canonical first IF, Adventure)

And then, on Monday, March 29, at 5:30pm in MIT’s room 14E-310, I’ll host a reading in the Purple Blurb series. Emily Short (author of many award-winning interactive fiction pieces, including the recent Alabaster) and Jeremy Freese (winner of last year’s IF Comp for his Violet) will present and read from their work.

I hope to see some of you here in the Boston/Cambridge area or, perhaps, in Grand Forks!

Poetry, Games, and Excavating the Creator

Tuesday 16 March 2010, 4:59 pm   ///////  

Who would have guessed that an incredible (and very brief, and very well-illustrated) talk on poetry, videogames, and the relation of the reader/player to the poet/designer’s making would be delivered at GDC by my collaborator Ian Bogost?

In(ter)ventions in Medias Res

Saturday 20 February 2010, 12:42 pm   //////////  

I’m here in Banff (in Alberta, Canada) at the cutting edge, or maybe the precipitous edge, or, as I’d prefer to think, the connecting edge. The occasion is In(ter)ventions: Literary Practice at the Edge: A Gathering, organized by Steven Ross Smith.

The presenters include: Charles Bernstein, Jen Bervin, Christian Bök, J.R. Carpenter, Maria Damon, Ram Devineni, Craig Dworkin, Al Filreis, Christopher Funkhouser, Kenneth Goldsmith, D Kimm, Larissa Lai, Daphne Marlatt, Nick Montfort, Erin Moure, Lance Olsen, Stephen Osborne, Kate Pullinger, Stephanie Strickland, Steve Tomasula, Fred Wah.

The presentations (which include critical papers, but also many readings, screenings, performances, and artists’ talks) have been provocative and have unfolded new types of beauty and new understandings of process.

On Thursday, February 18, I was honored to join Larissa Lai and Chris Funkhouser as part of the opening reading. I read from Implementation (a collaboration with Scott Rettberg) and ppg256, concluding with the premiere of a new poety generator in this series, ppg256-5:

perl -le '@a=split/,/,"conceptual,digit,flarf,maximal,modern,pixel,quiet,real";sub f{pop if rand>.5}sub w{$a[rand@a]}{print f("post").w."ism ".w."s ".f("the ").w."\n".(" "x45)."WHAT DOES ppg DO?";$a[rand@a]=~s/[aeio]/substr("aeio",rand 4,1)/e if $l++>5;sleep 5;redo}'

As I explained in my talk the next morning, this program is based on a section in the middle of Tristan Tzara’s February 1921 Dada Manifesto, a section that begins:

cubism constructs a cathedral of artistic liver paste
WHAT DOES DADA DO?

expressionism poisons artistic sardines
WHAT DOES DADA DO?

If you run ppg256-5 (which is the real way to experience the program) it might begin:

postmodernism flarfs digit
WHAT DOES ppg DO?
realism reals the conceptual
WHAT DOES ppg DO?

Because this section of Tzara’s manifesto ends “50 francs reward to the person who finds the best way to explain DADA to us,” so I concluded by presentation similarly, offering a 50 character reward for the person who finds the best way to explain ppg to us. Chris Funkhouser said, “It does a lot with a little.” John Cayley offered that “ppg combines atoms of language.” These aren’t bad explanations, but the most impressive so far has been from Travis Kirton, who, without having any previous experience programming in Perl, created and sent me this modified version of ppg256-5:

perl -le '@a=split/,/,"illmn,imgn,ltr,mut,pxl,popl,strlz,pnctu,typfc,poetc,glmr,idl,ion,cptl,cpsl,cvl,atom,pltc,txtul,erotc,rvl";sub f{pop if rand>.5}sub w{$a[rand@a]}{print f("de").f("over").w."izes ".w."ation".f("s")."\n".(" "x45)."IS WHAT ppg DOES!";sleep 5;redo}'

A run of this may begin by outputting:

deltrizes ionation
IS WHAT ppg DOES!
deoverltrizes mutations
IS WHAT ppg DOES!

I’ll have to see if anything can top that and earn the 50-character reward.

Here’s what’s being said on Twitter about the conference. I’ve found that one participant, Claire Lacey, has been writing about In(ter)ventions on her blog poetactics. Finally, here are just a handful of memorable (mis)quotes to give you another impression, however slanted, of this gathering:

Stephanie Strickland: “The front of your wave is the back of someone else’s.”

Steve Tomasula, in reference to Magritte: “No one ever says that this isn’t a cigarette:

My mishearing of Maria Damon, who was discussing healthy eating with someone as we were descending a staircase: “You need a multi-prawn strategy.”

D Kimm: “We are always unknown to someone.”

Update: Steven Osborne has just launched a blog with a post about the conference.

Writing Instruments for Class Today

Wednesday 10 February 2010, 6:00 pm   ///  

Gatz

Saturday 9 January 2010, 11:46 pm   //////  
Gatz, Elevator Repair Service, directed by John Collins, at American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, MA, Jan 7-Feb 7 2010

Gatz, Elevator Repair Service, directed by John Collins, at American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, MA, Jan 7-Feb 7 2010

This play answers the question “what’s six and a half hours long, uses every word of The Great Gatsby as its text, and cannot be staged in New York?” Gatz is an admirable, extreme adaptation. Most of the words are spoken by Scott Shepherd, who reads Nick’s dialogue and his narration. A large cast voices other parts and also puts on effective dumbshows. On the empty space of the stage, a low-rent, aging office makes a second space which then is wittily made into a third, one which includes West Egg and Gatsby’s mansion. The set initially harbors a (broken) computer but is made to connect to the 1920s via windows, a swivel chair, and other elements. Actions are carried out before they are verbally narrated, so that the words sometimes become a sort of comical rimshot, anticipated by the actors; both actions and words get space of their own this way, too. The result, odd as it may seem, is both playful and faithful, capable of satisfying avant-garde theatergoers as well as great books enthusiasts.

Short Video & Interview on Interactive Fiction

Sunday 3 January 2010, 9:17 pm   ///////  

Exploring Interactive FictionTalieh Rohani made a video of about six minutes in which I discuss the basics of interactive fiction and show a few artifacts related to the material history of this form of computer game and digital literature. This video, “Exploring Interactive Fiction,” was made for the recent Jornada de Literatura in Passo Fundo, Brazil, and a subtitled version was screened there. I’m a few months late in putting it on the Tube for anyone else who is interested, but it’s online now.

Also, a short interview with me about interactive fiction and computer games is online at RPG Examiner. Thanks to Michael Tresca for his interest, his questions, and for posting the interview.

Literary Generation at DAC

Late yesterday, I wrapped up my long (and very fun) day at Digital Arts and Culture 2009 in Irvine by presenting my paper “The ppg256 Series of Minimal Poetry Generators” in the late afternoon cognition and creativity panel and then by being a part of the extraordinary DAC Literary Arts Extravaganza, quickly presenting selections that I called “Five Uneasy Pieces:”

  1. “The Purpling,” a prose poem in hypertext
  2. The Marble Index (a work in progress in the interactive fiction system Curveship)
  3. “Taroko Gorge,” a poetry generator originally written in 1k of Python
  4. “The Two,” a 1k Python story generator (on the screen, I premiered the French translation by Serge Bouchardon – links to both coming soon)
  5. “ppg256-2,” one of my 256-character Perl poety generators which my paper discusses

Interactive Fiction Platforms, Strong Bad’s Upgrades

Monday 14 December 2009, 4:35 pm   ///////  

Alex Mitchell just did a great job of presenting the work he and I did on the influence of interactive fiction platforms: “Shaping stories and building worlds on interactive fiction platforms.” We looked at how TADS 2 and Inform 6, which are really extremely similar development systems created to do almost exactly the same things, nevertheless may offer different affordances to IF authors and may influence the way story words (and other aspects of IF) are developed. Check out the full paper if this interests you.

In this panel, which was intriguing overall, I’ll also mention Stephanie Boluk’s fine presentation. She investigated seriality (in a broad sense), melancholy, and the relationship between narrative and database, bringing narratology (among other approaches) to bear on her object of study: Homestar Runner. “Homestar Runner’s far more surreal characters are impossible to locate along any realistic age spectrum. They perform innocence and experience in various degrees, functioning as polysemic signifiers that embrace these contradictory positions – a hybrid condition made possible by their status as cartoons.” Also, a discussion of how Strong Bad’s past computers coming back from the dead resists the dehistoricization of digital media.

IF, Visuality, and Other Bits of DAC

Among the many great presentations here at DAC 2009 at UC Irvine, the paper by Aaron Kashtan, “Because It’s Not There: Verbal Visuality and the Threat of Graphics in Interactive Fiction,” was particularly nice to hear. Aaron discussed my 2000 interactive fiction Ad Verbum, related it to Emily Short’s City of Secrets, and presented a nice argument about how these two engage (differently) with text’s ability to represent the visual. Here’s the abstract:

In this paper I analyze two contemporary works of interactive fiction (IF), Nick Montfort’s Ad Verbum and Emily Short’s City of Secrets, as examples of two contrasting ways in which IF reacts to the perceived threat of computer graphics. In the post-commercial era of IF, graphics represent a factor that, without being acknowledged, has profoundly shaped the development of the medium. Post-graphical works of IF may be distinguished according to how they respond to the threat or promise of graphics. Ad Verbum’s response to graphics is to emphasize the purely textual, and thus anti-graphical and anti-visual, aspects of the medium. The implication is that IF’s closest affinities are not with visual prose but with printed works of procedural textuality, and that IF is a visual medium. By contrast, City of Secrets activates a mode of visuality that depends less on immediate presence than on emotional affect and imaginative participation. Short suggests that IF is a visual medium, but that it differs from graphical video games in that its visuality depends on absence rather than presence.

I was also really impressed by Brett Camper’s discussion of the MSX-inspired “fake 8-bit” game La-Mulana and, on a very different level, the wide-ranging first talk of the conference, by Kate Hayles, which engaged cognition, tools, attention, and evolution.

DAC 2009 has proceedings which were handed out to attendees on CD-ROM and which will be (to some extent?) available. So, while I hope to mention a few more DAC highlights, I won’t aim to summarize talks.

Before & After Media (DAC at UCI)

Ian Bogost and I just gave a talk on platform studies at UC Irvine’s Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds. We talked about our book on the Atari VCS, Racing the Beam, and about the platform studies concept more generally. A nice crowd came out on the rainy Friday afternoon and engaged us in some good discussion afterwards. Although we’ve both talked about the book and platform studies in several different places, this was the first talk we’ve given together. I think it worked well, but I guess writing a book together is good preparation.

We’re giving another join talk at Digital Arts and Culture (“After Media”), which starts this evening and then runs for three days of panels (which include scholarly and artists’ talks) and more unlikely presentations in the evenings. Besides my paper with Ian on platform studies misconceptions, I have another co-authored paper with Alex Mitchell on interactive fiction development systems, a “solo” paper on minimal poetry generators (the ppg256 series), and a reading at the DAC Literary Arts Extravaganza. I’m looking forward to seeing a slew of digital media folks and to enjoying the program, the company, and the Southern California environment – even if it keeps raining.

E-lit “Network” Podcasts

Saturday 12 December 2009, 2:59 am   //////  

Scott Rettberg’s very verbosely named workshop The Network as a Space and Medium for Collaborative Interdisciplinary Art Practice Conference, which took place in Bergen, Norway this November 8-10, was recorded, and the recordings of the panels are now up as a series of podcasts. It was a great gathering, and I’m glad this documentation of the event is available.

I Don’t Make This Up

Wednesday 9 December 2009, 1:59 pm   ///  

From an email about a conference – the sender and the conference will remain nameless:

Please advise me if your mate will be attending the conference & whether she/he is an ‘adult’ or a ‘student’
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