In Search of a New(er) Digital Literature

Given its ongoing (and often surprising) metamorphoses on the web, it is dangerous to lay claim to a universal identity for digital literature, where exceptions to the rule often signal the coming of new forms, new iterations. But as a result of recent technologies, and digital literature’s explosive re-invention of itself on the web, some aesthetic patterns may be emerging on the contemporary scene that offer hope for a form still struggling for its public identity.

Of course, not all digital literature is found on the web—interactive multimedia installations, CD/DVD-based works, and live performances with multimedia components, to name a few, are important and fascinating parts of the digital literature scene. The offline component to this exhibition, for example, shows that web-based art can have a life outside the virtual world, something many galleries and museums are finally recognizing as digital literature makes its way into art centers and exhibition venues worldwide.

But for the most part, the works in this exhibition, and many like them, find their life, and major readership, on the web. The web is not just a quick and expedient way to find an audience for digital literature, a way to self-publish at minimal cost, and a path to self-promotion; it also offers worldwide access to a multimedia platform for which these works can be created, and provides a place for them to thrive. As the public has growing access to cable, wireless, and DSL, and browsers become more adept at handling different media, the web becomes an increasingly friendly place for digital literature, and for an audience weaned—through their daily cyber-lives—on multimedia, connectivity, and interactivity.

Even a cursory scan of digital literature websites presents a vast diversity of viewpoints and strategies. Some belong to professional artists who, for their love of the avant-garde, and with no expectation of monetary reward, follow their dream of a new art form; some belong to online journals, festivals, and exhibition spaces that offer venues where digital writers can show their work; and some belong to organizations that archive digital works, offer opportunities for artists in the field, and publish events and news to help raise public awareness…. And then there are your next-door neighbors’ children who, using text, audio, and photos, are blogging about their fantasies and daydreams to whoever will listen. They may deny it, but they are telling digital stories, and they grew up reading them, too.

The web not only provides a convenient portal for digital literature, but it also serves as a source of inspiration and material for writers. Digital stories, dramas, and poems—as multimedia events—present logistical challenges for their creators. For example, to shoot all the photography for a Flash clip that contains a total of fifty or more images, and for those images to be photographs of celestial bodies or exotic species of animals; or to need a music clip without having access to an orchestra or a band… In these, and other instances, the web is an indispensable source. It offers royalty-free images, music clips, or even shareware (software available online, often for free) to help writers complete a task that, if they had to create all the components from scratch, might take them months, or even years. This is a democratization of not only information, but of artistic opportunity. Virtually anyone, with a bit of ingenuity, can create digital literature and share it on the web. It might not all be great literature, and it might not be seen by many people, but the web has empowered it.

In addition to being on the web, some other distinguishing features of contemporary digital literature are represented by this exhibition. First of all, each of the works uses text in significant ways and in dynamic juxtaposition with visuals, whether those visuals be photos, animations, text as image, waveforms, drawings, or video. This is not new—virtually all of the works in this exhibition find their antecedents in early digital literature, where this juxtaposition often appears—but now the play between text and images is more complex, more synthesized, and more diverse in terms of media.

Also, most (but not all) of these pieces can be considered, by traditional literary definitions, as fiction or poetry, not simply by how the text is presented on the screen (in poetry or prose form), but also by the persistence of plot, character, figurative language, verbal imagery, textual rhythm, or other formal attributes. In this respect, these contemporary works share a common bond with earlier works in that there is a heritage in literary vision, a timeless art concerned with narrative (whether linear or non-linear, text or image-based) and poetic line. Writers seem to speak to their audiences in what are essentially archetypal, even conventional, ways, no matter what medium they are writing in.

Additionally, all the works in this exhibition use audio as part of a multimedia presentation, something often overlooked in earlier examples of digital literature. The audio is not merely there as an adornment: it reinforces action, setting, character, mood, and visual play. Without it, the works do not fully achieve their intended effect.

Next, all of these works are interactive: they require the user to navigate through the piece, triggering certain events like the introduction of new plot developments, related visuals, sounds, or text morphs. Again, we see this in earlier works, but restricted mostly to links within a hypertext environment. In the contemporary digital world, anything can be “hot.”

All of these components—text, visuals, sound, literary vision, interactivity, and (yes) accessibility—add value to the works. They are synthesized (with levels of sophistication enabled by newer technologies) so as to streamline the user experience and enhance the work’s aesthetic efficiency. The final work is a cohesive whole, and entirely dependent on all the forms used in its creation. As in all good creative work, in any medium, there are no useless parts.

A Note on Interactivity:

These works, like many works of digital literature, demand a certain level of user engagement. They WANT to be played with as cooperative literatures, and as a result, the user becomes not just the reader of these works but, in part, the author. The choices the user makes—which buttons they click, where their mouse strays, what links they follow—all result in different narrative geographies, and different ways of reading the same work. The flexibility in navigation that is a trademark of most digital literature requires our patience as we proceed through the works, but our patience is more often than not rewarded.

Because this exhibition is not only for online presentation, but also for offline display in a gallery, I have omitted those works that allow for user input into online databases. These types of works are an important part of the digital literary scene, and anyone interested in such works, or examples of other digital literatures, can search the sites listed below. I have also, contrary to the globalism which defines the web, used only works in English. My apologies to the many extremely talented artists and writers working in other languages.

With Thanks To…

Many thanks to Barry Jones, Associate Professor of Art at Austin Peay State University, who invited me to curate this exhibition, and also to Terminal, its online home. Also, many thanks to the Department of Art/Center for the Creative Arts at Austin Peay State University.

December 16, 2008

Alan Bigelow

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