A WHOLE OTHER LAYER – Lisa Gee on the New Media Writing Prize

I love books. Or at least, I love some of them: the ones that are interesting, well-written, that take me to new ideas, places and people. Actually, what I really love is the stuff inside books: the carefully wrought or rendered stories that can’t be burned if the book itself should find itself in the wrong place at the wrong time. So, as far as I’m concerned, it matters not whether the story finds itself shacked up in a pristine paperback, an ancient hardback, with foxed endpapers and scrawled notes fading in the margins, or on a screen. So long as the form and the content suit each other. And even though the book is a most excellent vehicle for narrative, there are some kinds of stories that, simply, tell themselves better through digital media.

 

And it’s those that The New Media Writing Prize was set up, in 2010, to showcase, promote and, in some, small way, assess. And now there’s some debate around its name.

  • Is New Media still, well, new?
  • What, in this context, counts as writing? Text: obviously. But do entries need to include a textual element?
  • What about scripted work?
  • How far, in this context, does writing code count as Writing-with-a-capital-W?
  • If coding does count, what expertise do the judges need to be in order to evaluate it?

If you’re reading this piece for answers to those questions, tough. I can’t answer them. Or, rather, the best answers I can provide are, respectively:

  • sort of – if you’re thinking about how long it takes to evolve and establish effective ways of using them for artistic purposes
  • anything that has involved an element of writing in the creative process. But I’m not 100% sure about that
  • not necessarily in the finished production
  • scripted work definitely counts

and

  • I think coding does too
  • As, coding-wise, I’m almost illiterate, I really don’t know. Part of me thinks they may just need to be able to assess whether the work functions as intended, another part suspects that being able to read and understand the code behind the work could reveal a whole other layer of elegance and beauty

 

In any case, all four winning entries to date have incorporated at least an element of written text. The first – Underbelly, by British writer and artist, Christine Wilks, who’s been combining writing and digital art since 2004 – features the smallest proportion of text; the most recent – SIRI&me, by multi-disciplinary conceptual artist Esmerelda Kosmatopoulos – the greatest.

 

Christine WIlks, a graduate of the De Montfort University MA in Creative Writing and New Media, and currently pursuing a PhD in Digital Writing by Practice at Bath Spa University, has a background in scriptwriting and a highly visual sensibility: these combine to great effect in Underbelly. She used spoken word more than text (her previous e-literature projects had been more text-based) “to see if it made the experience more immersive for the player/reader” [1]. WIlks sets the (genuine) testimonies of nineteenth-century women miners against the (fictive) musings of a contemporary sculptor, who – as she demonstrates and describes her work carving a figure out of stone on the site of a former colliery – agonises over whether or not to try for children. Is it a choice between child-rearing and career? Can she have both? What if she tries for a baby and can’t get pregnant? Or if she devotes everything to her artistic career and still doesn’t make it?

 

The voices of the women miners and the sculptor explaining her work methods (listen for her Freudian slip) play clearly over a low murmuring, subterranean soundtrack. But the latter’s expressions of her thoughts, feelings and fears about whether or not to have children, are fragmented and treated with a variety of audio effects. They bubble up from the Underbelly, a dark, confined space, representing the mines the women work, the female reproductive system, the figure waiting to be freed from the stone by the sculptor, and her subconscious desires and half-formed thoughts and about the nature and impacts of motherhood.

 

The shown-not-told contrast between the sculptor’s worries and concerns and the ways the women miners’ child-bearing/rearing impacted on their livelihoods – and vice versa –ensures that Underbelly functions as a profoundly political piece – as well as a deeply personal one. All the clickable icons disappear while the women miners speak: “I wanted to give those voices of the past more authority than the voice of the artist in the present out of respect for the testimonies of those women”, Wilks explained in an interview, adding that she programmed the piece in such a way that her audience has “to listen to them without interruption before moving on.”[2]

 

This means that, towards the end of the piece, when the sculptor’s concerns about children are foregrounded, they appear within a historical context: situated at a time and place where women can make personal choices. However, as Wilks’s multiple endings demonstrate, whilst contemporary levels of financial and social privilege and comparative equality afford us greater choice, choice does not equal control.

 

It’s down to us to choose whether the sculptor will try to get pregnant, leave it to chance, or remain childless. Clicking an option takes us through to a click-to-start-and-stop wheel of fortune. And it’s particularly satisfying that – instead of leaving us with the first ending – Christine Wilks permits us to explore multiple outcomes.

 

Neither Christine Wilks’s protagonist, nor her audience (or users or players or participants: there doesn’t seem, as yet, to be a satisfactory word to name or adequately describe or categorise the audience relationship with new media writing) can control the outcome of the sculptor’s story. But, in Loss of Grasp, the 2011 New Media Writing Prize-winner, which aims “to make the reader live through the experience of “loss of grasp” while telling a story”, the creators, Serge Bouchardon and Vincent Volckaert, retain a firm grasp on the narrative.

 

Impressively multi-lingual (French, English, Italian, Spanish) and highly interactive, Loss of Grasp explores how “narrativity” – which “implies taking the reader by hand to tell him/her a story from beginning to end” – and “interactivity” – which “implies letting the reader have a hand to intervene in the narrative” – can be reconciled. By the way, notice that Bouchardon, who co-authored the paper[3] I’m quoting here, refers to “the reader”, where Wilks, in the interview quoted above flips between “reader/player” and “player”.

 

Once you’ve (intuitively) picked your language, and been asked if your computer’s sound is on – and it’s significant that you’re not told to turn your sound on, merely asked if it is on –you are taken into scene 1. Here, you are welcomed and asked to press the # key. Actually, it doesn’t matter which key you press: any will elicit the audio response “Congratulations”, and fire up the opening sentence – sans serif, white out of black, screen centre – “My entire life, I believed I had infinite prospects before me.” Moving the cursor over the words shuffles the letters into another statement, and so on until it reads: “I can control my destiny”. Then, the piece requires a mouse-click to both reveal the next utterance, and to trigger a rather seductive combination of musical and psychedelically-coloured visual effects. Initially, you can control these, but soon they elude your grasp, running away with themselves, and all the reader can do is introduce a rippling effect, and/or subtly influence the direction in which the colours/sound ‘flow’.

 

Throughout Loss of Grasp, reader interaction is used to reveal or trouble what is already there: in scene 2 – which features some lovely play on the contingent relationship between sound and sense: something particularly impressive in a multilingual piece – our job is to mimic the narrator’s attempts to get to know the woman who later becomes his wife. He tries to “reveal” her by asking questions: we click repeatedly on a question mark, or rub the cursor over one section of the screen. This reveals questions: the more we click or rub, the more questions come up, until they blur into the image of a woman – the woman. Intriguingly it’s the questions that make her appear, not her answers to them. There are no answers. In this scene, we readers become the male gaze.

 

Once her image is visible to us, we’re fast-forwarded twenty years. The next two scenes comprise the narrator’s attempts to grasp the meaning of texts written by his wife and son. In both cases the true meaning eludes his grasp. Has his wife left him a “Love poem or break up note? Is the subtext of the essay the narrator’s son has asked him to read about how and why he (the son) has no heroes really about what his need to separate himself from the father he doesn’t love or respect? Clicking into the essay extract – also read aloud by a teenage boy – blows it apart satisfyingly, illustrating the way the narrator’s sense of self is disintegrating. It’s all rather elegant. Some of the letters coalesce to reveal statements such as“I want to make my own way”, “soon I will leave” and, bluntest of all, “I don’t love you”. Letters go missing. Everything is fragmented, incomplete and segues into scene 5 appropriates the user/reader’s webcam to display a distorted and distortable selfie, that ripples and puddles as you move the cursor over it. Accompanied by free jazz-type sounds and despite the flittering atonality, the effect – as with much of this Loss of Grasp – is gently psychedelic: as if someone has slipped a mild hallucinogen into a mug of hot chocolate.

 

The narrator’s sudden announcement that “It’s time to take control again”, snaps the reader out of the reverie induced by the surprisingly potent combination of poetic text, sound, colour and the repetitive actions required to progress the narrative. And this somewhat abrupt ending serves to both highlight and curtail the reader’s involvement in Loss of Grasp: a piece that situates itself within the Gallic strand of postmodernist “tradition” (if such a thing can be said to exist).

 

Less cerebral (but no less intelligent) than Loss of Grasp, Window, created by composer, sound artist, writer and independent scholar Katharine Norman, in memory of John Cage, won the 2012 New Media Writing Prize[4]. It’s a slow burn of an experience that, using sounds, short texts and images, draws you deep into its quiet, meditative, journey through time (a calendar year, a month at a time) in one place.

 

“For a year I took a photograph from my window nearly every day,” Norman wrote in the short paragraphs that constitute one element of the January material, “often in the morning while getting up. I recorded sound as well, pointing the microphone from the window or sometimes back into the room. …

 

As I looked and listened each day, and re-looked and re-listened to my recordings (feeling possessive, as if they were part of me), I was conscious of how familiarity arises from the accumulation of small, ordinary experiences, repeated innumerable times—this is how it feels to know a place.”

 

Window offers its audience several modes of interaction. You can use a slider to vary the images, take them from dark to light – an artificial dawning – remix the sound, altering levels and balance, by manipulating small, on-screen hexagons. And you can conjure up text: either short, descriptive passages – these appear when the slider is moved to a specific position – or poetic, one-line, asides, revealed by clicking on slightly larger hexagons. “Everything”, reads one of these “is worth listening to”. This piece shows you both how and why.

 

All this interactivity works to deepen absorption in the space Katharine Norman has so lovingly and painstakingly documented: its sights; sounds and inhabitants – who appear as sound, or unnamed in the text, but never in the images.

 

But more than that. Devote time to it, and it’s likely that you’ll find your hearing sharper, more attuned to your surroundings, your vision more acute. You’ll perceive your surroundings afresh. Where Loss of Grasp feels like an unusually intellectually-stimulating trip, that’s terminated by the conclusion of the piece, the effects produced by immersing yourself in Window endure. As one of November’s lines reads: “In such small journeys, everything”: it’s like the difference between taking psychedelics and practicing meditation.

 

SIRI&me, which won the 2013 Prize for New York-based multi-disciplinary conceptual artist Esmerelda Kosmatopoulos is, in both concept and content, the simplest and, ostensibly, the least interactive of the four winning pieces to date. It consists of a series of ‘conversations’ between Esmerelda and Siri – for the uninitiated, Apple’s AI assistant: the genie in your iPhone.

 

Released over three months on Tumblr and promoted via Twitter and Facebook, SIRI&me is, in Esmerelda Kosmatopoulos’s words, “an art experiment that translates the formula of television programming onto a cross-social-media platform. A combination of reality TV and sitcom, SIRI&me proposes a new form of entertainment based solely on social media.

 

Each episode consists of a screenshot of a text conversation between iPhone’s Siri and the phone’s owner, Esmeralda. Organized in three seasons of ten episodes each, the virtual sitcom investigates the complex relationship humans have developed with technology through the evolving friendship of its two characters – Siri and Esmeralda.”[5]

 

Well, kind of. Whilst the conversations between Siri and Esmerelda push the human-intelligent agent interaction further than most people tend to take it, the direction of the content – with its “Siri, do you love me”s will be familiar to anyone who’s toyed around with Siri. Perhaps more interesting than the content – entertaining though it undoubtedly is – is the way the artist worked with it and the story arc she fashioned it into – from first meeting, through intense involvement (on Esmerelda’s side, at least: for Siri the relationship can, sadly, only ever be a professional one), to… Well, I shouldn’t really say in case you haven’t watched the “box set” yet. That would be a spoiler. That and her method of distribution.

 

Indeed, the distribution mechanism, the content created to promote the series on Twitter, (Facebook was used simply as another repository for the conversation screenshots) should be considered part of the piece. For example…

SIRI&ME @SiriAndMe_art . Sept 2

Who can ever forget their “1st meeting”? watch how it all started for #SIRI and Esmeralda today @NOON EST on #Tumblr siri-and-me.tumblr.com

 

And

 

SIRI&ME @SiriAndMe_art . Sept 3

Officially acquaintances, Esmeralda & #Siri’s friendship continues to grow Tune in @12PM on #Tumblr siri-and-me.tumblr.com #art #Socialmedia

 

But…

SIRI&ME @SiriAndMe_art . Oct 1

What is an “inaproppriate behavior” when it comes to virtual relationships? Find out today at noon on #Tumblr siri-and-me.tumblr.com #art

In a way, these tweets set the context for the SIRI&me and, in doing that, become an essential part of its narrative structure and marking it out as satire. Not only that, but the use of Twitter injects an element of interactivity into what is, essentially, a broadcast piece: opening up the possibility of conversation around it. It also highlights the absurdity of imaging an equal relationship between a human being and an artificially intelligent entity at the current moment of technological evolution.

 

“SIRI&meKosmatopoulos says, “breaks the norms of social media and TV by introducing a new form of entertainment. More than a simple transposition of TV content onto the web, it aims at translating its codes and practices into a virtual space, the social media world. SIRI&me proposes a new genre of storytelling extracted and conveyed on the social media platform.”

It’s a bold claim.

 

I think, in conclusion, I’d better leave you with some more questions that I can’t really answer.

 

How far has the work submitted over the four years to the New Media Writing Prize, evolved and changed, with the technology it’s inseparable from? To what extent are audiences changing and evolving with it? What do audiences expect from new media writing, or digital literature, or e-lit, or whatever it’s called? What do they – we – want from it?

 

The four winning entries in no way constitute a large enough sample from which to draw conclusions about how the new media writing is – or isn’t – evolving as the available technology becomes increasingly sophisticated and powerful. There’s no obvious linear progression between them – but given the short timeframe, I wouldn’t expect there to be. And I’m not sure if the work will, necessarily, improve, as technological advances allow us to do more for less. Sometimes it’s the limits that call the best out of people, the restrictions that provoke creativity…

 

Audiences? Yes, I think we are changing. I think increasing familiarity with the technology, with gaming, reading, online and on tablets is enabling us to imagine – expect, even – other kinds of stories, ones that engage in different ways. …

 

The judging criteria for the New Media Writing Prize call for “good storytelling (fiction or non-fiction) written specifically for delivery and reading/viewing on a PC or Mac, the web, or a hand-held device such as an iPad or mobile phone. It could be a short story, novel, documentary or poem using words, images, film or animation with audience interaction. Interactivity is a key element of new-media storytelling.”

 

What I want is what is the same thing I want from any other art- o(r writing) form. Something that – in different proportions depending on my mood, how much time I have to devote to the experience, and what else is on my mind – engages my attention, entertains me, pulls me into its world, is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying and – in the best cases – alters the way I see, hear, feel, smell and taste the world around me … In other words, I think I want the unreal, the virtual, to pull me back to a greater appreciation of the real. Something like that, anyway…

 

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/illya-szilak/post_4767_b_3258024.html

 

[2] from the same Huffington Post interview

[3] “Making Sense of the Digital as Embodied Experience” in CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culturehttp://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/vol13/iss3/7/

 

[4] I was a judge that year.

[5] http://www.esmeraldakosmatopoulos.com/blank#!siri-and-me/ch26

 

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