Joel Clapp

I like movies that are hard to watch, books that are easy to read, and art that scares me. I'm interested in The Three Big A's: Art, Animation, and Video editing. Likes: post-modernism, pretentious art, bad movies, cartoons, and comic books. Dislikes: having to focus for more than 5 minute at a time and people that say that "Video editing" doesn't start with the letter "A."

E-Lit Final Project: The Monolyth

I took some inspiration from kinetic poetry like Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries in the teaser video for The Monolyth project.

 

To conclude the semester in my electronic iterature course, I decided to attempt to create my own piece of E-lit. My project began when I read Mark Amerika’s Grammatron as part of a class assignment and immediately began designing my project, first as a personal project and later as my class project.

The title screen of my project, created through a process known as data-bending in which an image file is opened and edited in programs that it was never intended to be opened in, such as Audacity or a text editor. The results can be surprising and were compiled into an animated GIF in Photoshop.

 

The writing and non-linear structure of the story struck me as something completely unique from what I’ve experienced before. While other non-linear narratives, especially the classic “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that I read in my youth typically depicted a branching narrative in which choices and exploration of a fictional space led to multiple outcomes, Grammatron navigated through conceptual spaces, linking pieces of prose together like a wiki site and left the user to piece together the narrative from the fragments. The fractured narrative and the juxtaposition of occultism and technology reminded me of a malfunctioning mind. As someone who has dealt with mental illness most of their life, I was inspired to tell a similar narrative by focusing on the theme of mental illness through the analogy of broken machinery. This project became as much a personal experiment in the methods of multimedia and electronic literature, as it was a way to finally express a side of myself that I couldn’t through old media alone.

Over the course of the project, I experimented with Twine to create a rhizomatic structure to the lexia/passages of the project that would allow the user to follow intuited tangents in the narration to explore the conceptual space of the story. Multi-media, hypermediacy, and remediation were all aspects I wanted to incorporate. I used glitch aesthetics and data bending to create the visuals of the project, both of which are derived from network writing. I took several of the images and imported them as raw data into programs such as Audacity, which allowed me to indirectly manipulate the data of the images for surprising effects. The audio-loop that drones in the background was the result of original music filtered through layers of analogue and digital translation: a distorted electric guitar played through an amplifier, picked up by a cellphone microphone, compressed, sent over the internet, decompressed, and finally digitally altered through a sound editor.

I modified the poster art for the David Lynch movie Eraserhead to create the glitched portrait of the mysterious character, Dr. A. F. Crowley in my narrative, as well as to pay homage to one of my favorite directors.

Furthermore, throughout the narrative, I explored network writing by trying to structuring the branching passages/lexia to draw parallels between the tangents of intrusive thoughts and the interconnectedness of the World Wide Web: as the protagonist’s mind begins to dissolve into the Monolyth computer, his thoughts connect to files and documents within the network in the same way as his uncontrollable thoughts.

Combinatory elements take place behind the scenes of the project as new passages/lexia are opened at random by Twine’s “either” macro, representing both the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of intrusive thoughts but also the anomalies and glitches that arise from complicated machinery in a network.

With digital technology, we’ve had to reconsider what art and literature can entail. We create art and literature and we create technology, but our creations also change us and how we experience the world. With new technology comes new potential for creation, not replacing but along side the old media, and we’re only beginning to scratch the potential granted us by digital technology. My goal with this project was to pay homage to the bright and growing field of electronic literature and the way it can speak to each of us.

An old painting I made, brought to life with glitch aesthetics and photo-manipulation. The twisted caricature is used to depict one of the “howling wolves” that pursue the protagonist within the Monolyth.
Another painting of mine used in the project, turned into an animated GIF. The “howling wolves” in the story are the fractured minds of previous victims that still remain in the Monolyth.
I started with an old photo of myself and animated a distortion to create a portrait for the character Staeb that appears in Monolyth.

 

The current version of Monolyth is hosted at the following address:

https://twineproject.neocities.org/

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“Prying” into Narrative Space

Pry tells its story through a mixture of medias. Described in the Apple Store as “…a book to watch and film to touch…”,  video and accompanying audio, stand-alone audio clips, as well as text make up the bulk of the user’s experience. The prologue plays as a short video, establishing the protagonist and the narrative space as well as the tone for the rest of the piece. A young man packs for a trip with little explanation given. The prelude is short, but in the way the protagonist lays out all of his objects so meticulously, to shove them all into his bag when his ride arrives, the Tarzan novel mixed in with bare essential objects, the hesitant moment that leads them to stop and collect a lock of hair from the family dog… few words are spoken, but these little details shows the depth of the character and the world that they reside in. It also prepares the reader for a narrative that won’t just be handed to them, but must be sorted out from the small details left unsaid.

The first chapter jumps to another point in time and throws the user into a scenario resembling sleep paralysis as text appears on a black backdrop, providing narration and prompting the user to use the multi-touch feature of the iPad or iPhone’s touchscreen interface. By dragging a thumb and a finger away from each other with a “prying” gesture, the user forces the protagonist’s eyes open, staring at the water stain on their bedroom ceiling as shadows pass by. Releasing their digits from the touch screen causes the eyelids to close once again, and the text narration reflects on the world in the narrative space. Likewise, the user is prompted to use thumb and finger in an opposite “pinching” motion to invert the narrative: rather than taking in the external surroundings of the protagonist, the user gets a visual glimpse into the protagonist’s mind. Again, releasing the gesture causes the scene to return to the narrative text.

The world seen through the eyes of the protagonist

By fluidly switching between these three narratives modes, the internal, external, and the text, with simple gestures the chapter advances in cryptic chunks that the user has to piece together. By giving the user control of which of these three channels are activated, when, and for how long, the user becomes more engaged, and the three narrative streams align in a combinatory fashion. With that control, the experience of the user can vary, as in multi-linear narratives, with some media objects theoretically being missed, which encourages multiple go-throughs.

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Edge of Reality: Locative Narratives

Reality is what we agree on. My shirt is blue because light waves bounces off of it at around 650 THz, and we agree that that color is blue. My perception of this color may not be the same as your perception of the color, because we have no way of knowing if our brains color code these light ranges differently, and anything I point to that’s approximately the same frequency will look like the same color to you. With that considered, if we can’t even be sure about colors, what can we be sure of? Well, while we may have our minor differences in how we perceive our individual subjective realities, we put anyone who deviates too far from the norm in a nice safe space where they can’t disagree with us anymore. Until now, I suppose.

Virtual Reality, GPS, portable computers (or phones as you may call them), and Augmented Reality together have the ability to change our perceived realities. The notion of Virtual Reality and being able to roam in “cyber space” like some separate world is no stranger to popular fiction, and arguably isn’t far off from modern tech. What with products like Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR, developers are already playing with creating entirely new virtual 3-dimensional spaces to explore and interact with.

Is this one of those “Oculi Rifts”?

Games like Pokemon Go however overlap these virtual spaces with real ones. With the use of a camera, you can even see the cute little guys appear in your living room. For now, these digital sprites float around unanchored to the backdrop of reality, but don’t expect that to be the case for ever, and while Google Glasses were a flop, smart watches have shown that wearable smart tech isn’t going anywhere. These days, everyone carries a personal computer in their pocket, linked up to a global network, and it seems like you can’t get away from digital assistants like Siri or Alexa. The “digital world” isn’t something that’s separate from the “real world,” they’re overlapping and beginning to bleed together, so who knows what could possibly come about in the future as these and other technologies continue to evolve?

Truly ahead of its time. Who needs a smart watch?

Also I lied, my shirt is gray. Blue just sounded like a better example color.

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Predictive Poetics: Flarf Experiment

 

What knows you better than your own phone? You type your words into it for hours an hours. It listens, and it learns.

Here’s a poem constructed from mostly predictive text generation on my Galaxy phone, using mostly text from messages between me and my girlfriend. I provided the first word or so of a sentence and let the suggested text fill in the rest. I formatted the text where they made the most sense, arranged them in a roughly poetic structure, and edited slightly for grammar.

—————————————————————————

The Same Thing

I was working in Spanish,
And you took the moon.
Never went back
To the same time,
I just wanted to let you know
That the same thing
Would have been
A big part of the reason.

Nowhere is the same
As a result of their consensus
With the same thing.
Whatever you want to talk about,
But it provided
A good starting point.
I’m sorry I was going to be in the area,
Or did you want to go?

Where do we go in a while,
To be the one?
What time is flying,
In a bit of a cough?
Not even if
You want to be able
To tell me
When you get back.

However we talk to them,
I just need a ride.
From here…
To fall asleep,
But it provided
A good plan.
The same thing
Would be good.

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Everything Dies…

Everything dies… even webpages.

When you think about it, they’re in a state of constant life support, existing only because we continue to maintain them. The landscape of the digital world is ephemeral, in flux. Yet in the back of our mind we take it for granted that a website will still be there, still give us the same experience it did before, the same experience it will give everyone else.

The normally passive act of viewing a webpage is undermined in this piece. A webpage, normally static aside from the periodic update or patches made, is like an artifact in a museum, locked in a glass case, only able to be touch by the chosen few deemed worthy to handle it. As a viewer of a website, you’re on a guided tour. You never see behind the scenes, you only see what they want you to see, and it stays an unchanging message, the same one-size-fits all message that every other viewer receives.

All that changes in degenerative. The owner of the website has given up control of curating their own set and left it to the whims of its programming (if programming can be said to be possessed of whims at at all, the notion seems rather anthropomorphic). Each view of the page leaves its mark, causing the text to degrade.

As the initial text says, “seeing is not an innocent action,” and “this page will not be the same after you visit it,” the creator calls us to be accountable for our actions, even if the action is only viewing. It is a reminder that our actions always have consequences and that we can never be non-participatory viewers, because the internet changes because of our actions… it’s just normally more subtle about it.

Here, the author refers to the programmed degeneration as a disease, but isn’t it reminiscent of the same entropy that causes everything to unravel? After all, the process of oxidization, the very breath we take, leads to our own degeneration. Web pages may not have to deal with erosion or free radicals, but entropy eventually erodes everything. Just look at GeoCities. Once again, degenerative is just less subtle, because it wants to make you aware, while everything else tries to hide it.

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More Tools in the Toolbox

As technology progresses, the toolbox of content creators gains ever more tools. As we saw in Grammatron, Hypertext fiction could be integrated with multimedia, sound and video, to enhance and create unique experiences. Distancing itself from the roots of Hypertext fiction, video games as a form of interactive e-literature can offer yet more tools to be utilized; through the mechanics of the game and the way the game interfaces with the interactor, the game experience add another layer of nuance.

In Game, Game, Game and Again Game, the interactor engages would could be considered, at least in a mechanical aspect, a typical platforming game such as the classic Mario Bros. games. However, while the interactor is probably used to the shiny graphics of professional games, they instead find themselves confronted with intentionally raw and handmade graphics. The interactor moves through levels, named after different world views such as “capitalism” or “fundamentalism,” gathering objects and navigating to the door at the end of the level. Whenever an object is collected, a piece of text or an image appears on the growingly cluttered and chaotic screen.

A screenshot from Game, Game. Game and Again Game, showing the many media objects that can be discovered in a typical level.

Rather than clicking on links to progress the text as one did in Hypertext, it is instead by navigating the game environment that the experience is pushed forward. Once all objects in a level are collected, an icon appears that allows the interactor to start a video while the finish the level. Sometimes, arrows appear as one interacts with the game, guiding them towards the end of the level. The levels themselves probably won’t be a challenge for anyone who’s played other games in the fashion, and any difficulties arise more frustration in the interactor than feelings of genuine challenge. Between the old home videos, showing sincere moments of humanity, and the snarky cries of “Come on and meet your maker!” at the sometimes frequent incidences of player death, and the scattered bits of text and level titles that hint a larger philosophical design, the interactor is merely left to wonder, what is the point of the experience? Is it a metaphor for life, the struggle for meaning, to understand truth? Is it a game? An interactive art piece? Is there a difference? At the end, when answers would normally be given in a game, the interactor is left with a bizarre, rambling video that begins “In the beginning, there were five potatoes…” but no answers are found.

To contrast, Howling Dogs is a Twine experience that borrows heavily from Hypertext and Choose-Your-Own-Adventures. The game paints a bleak story of a person living a tedious life, surviving on the bare minimum and spending all their time in digital simulations. Dark, atmospheric, poetic, the interactor has a chance to explore a logical space, unlike the abstract thought-space of Game… and of which Grammatron wove in and out. The narrative branches and allows the interactor to experience a story, character, and places rather than concepts, but the experience is almost entirely done through text, fading in and out on the screen as the player clicks through.

A screenshot from Howling Dogs that shows the choices available to the interactor as the explore the virtual space of the story.

The focus on the words ensures that the interactor doesn’t loose valuable information in the chaotic mash of multimedia, putting complete emphasis on the prose of the creator.

In the end, we have two very different examples of e-literature. Game… explores a synthesis of ideas and mediums to find what emerges in interactive gameplay. Howling Dog tightens its usage of media down to text and links to focus the interactor’s experience on the presentation of a cohesive story. Both are examples of different tools content creators can use.

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What is Grammatron?

I spent hours last night, lost in the surreal world that is Mark Amerika’s Grammatron. Not knowing how to approach this unique piece, I did the only thing I could think of and dived right in. I looked at the “about” page, clicked begin, then  clicked the first link I was prompted with, marked ‘high bandwidth version,’ because heck, compared to the internet of ’97, I should hope my rig will hold up. A new window pops up, blaring surreal synth music and artificially altered vocals, I’m redirected to a web page with bright, clashing colors, distorted cyber-punk images, and text that appears just a little faster than I can comfortably read them. The assault of strangely retro-future-cyberspeak and neologisms, along with trying to process the unusualy pictures and understand the voice playing in the background, created an uncomfortable disorientation as my brain struggled to keep up with all the information being presented. Then just when I became accustomed to it, it stopped…

The rest of my experience with Grammatron what, in comparison to the previous multi-media onslaught, could be called a more traditional HyperText experience. Text appeared on the page in front of me, only periodically punctuated with images and audio. The blue hyperlinks in the text prompted me to continue the narrative, but as I struggled to understand the meaning of the words in front of me, I found myself clicking links randomly, hoping to progress the story in some way and hopefully find clarity.

The text seemed to circle in on itself, never quite the same, becoming more legible as time went on. Looking back, I’m unsure how much of the actual text changed and how much of it was merely my perception with my growing understanding of the strange world of Grammatron. My previous experiences with kabbalah and cyberpunk tropes helped me little at first as I attempted to reconcile the metaphysical and digital aspects of the story, as well as the overtly sexual aspects of the narrative. But sure enough, it started to make a strange sort of sense.

The next day, I’m looking back and trying to remember my experience going through Grammatron. The details of the narrative still seems largely unclear to me, as well as the finer aspects of the world-building. What I’m left with is more an impression, an impression of being lost in a sensory whirlwind, a struggling for clarity that seemed to mirror the bizarre protagonist.

HyperText fiction has a unique ability to allow us to tap into and interact with the experience of a story. In Grammatron, the viewer is thrown into the stream-of-consciousness of Golam’s inner thoughts. The use of multi-media, both audio and video, are made of excellent use to help reinforce this. Although chaotic, the experience is certainly carefully constructed, and I know I’m hitting just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

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The Death of Print?

It can be easy to say that books and print are an outdated technology, a still living artifact of the past that we will soon leave behind. The possibilities afforded us in the digital age certainly seem to leave old print media in the dust., at least at first glance.

Digital media is so much easier to store, allowing you to carry an entire library in your pocket, and still have room for your movies, music, and video games. Physical storage itself is hardly even an issue anymore as cloud computing allows us to store our files online and stream our videos from subscription services. In fact, less and less it seems like ownership and possession of a thing is what our culture values, opting instead for a steady I.V. drip of access to cyberspace where we aren’t land owners, we’re tenants.

Beyond storage, consider the way that digital media can be so seamlessly and naturally integrated into pieces of hypermedia. One moment you’re reading a piece of prose, the next a video plays, sounds run in the background, and interactive elements can be dropped in. The potential of electronic media is astounding compared to old print media. Even the branching narrative structure available in a basic HyperText project provides so many more tools for the creator to utilize.

Why then, decades later, are books still a thing? We’re starting to see textbooks in the classroom replaced with netbooks and tablets, brick and mortar bookstores are endangered, newspaper and magazine services struggle in a post-print era, but books are still going strong. There are several things that print does have going for it that digital media does not.

For one, print is self-contained. If you have a piece of print media, you don’t need any other device to use it. You don’t need to worry about backwards compatibility, if a file format is still supported, if you have batteries, if a part breaks and replacements are no longer being made. This gives books a staying power that digital media struggles with; technology almost seems to be moving too fast to take a lasting hold. Until more universal standards and the certainty of future compatibility is assured, people will still have a reluctance in giving up completely on print.

Another important thing for many people is the physical experience of the book. While digital media can provide countless opportunities for creators, some things still can’t be fully replicated in digital media. I consider a book sitting on my shelf, S. by by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams (pictured above). In much the same way that e-literature can incorporate other forms of media, this book contains numerous other objects tucked between the pages, from vintage photographs to post cards and more. The amazing thing about this creative piece is that it is actually more than just the book. The book itself, titled The Ship of Theseus, is written by a fictional character called V.M. Straka. The story of S. unfolds not just in the prose of the book, but in the notes written in the margins and the objects tucked inside the book. Much like a  non-linear HyperText project, it falls on the reader to unravel the connections between the notes, objects, and the text of the book itself. Made to look like a released library book, even including a “Property of…” stamp and Dewey decimal sticker on the spine, everything about the project lends itself to feeling like an object that the reader could have found at an old book sale. The texture of the cover, the faux-faded pages of the book make an experience that can’t quite be replicated digitally.

While books like S. are certainly an unusual case, it isn’t hard to find a book lover who enjoys the experience of reading and owning a physical artifact, just like people who collect vinyl or go to community theater. Media goes beyond the content of simply the words, but the entire experience. As Marshall McLuhan said, the media is the message. Does HyperText and digital media offer new opportunities for unique and exciting experiences? Yes. Should they be explored and value as much as any other technology? Of course. Will they replace print completely? Maybe someday, but not anytime soon.

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HyperText in the Post-Postmodern World

The focus of this weeks reading was on the ever present media of HyperText. It permeates our lives and enables usages that people in previous decades could have only dreamed. Of course it would have an effect on literature.

Postmodernism arose in the mid 1900’s and lasted, arguably, until approximately the end of the 20th century, which roughly correlates with the onset of the digital age and the ascendancy of the World Wide Web. In the book Electronic Literacy, by Scott Rettberg, we find that the pioneers of early HyperText literature were deeply rooted in the scholarly analysis of major players in the postmodern literature, such as Thomas Pynchon. Viewing the themes that carried over into their work, notably a willingness to play and subvert established precepts in literature, such as the role of the author, the narrative structure, and the base assumptions inherent to the form of media itself, it is easy to say that those early works of electronic literature were children of postmodern literature.

In particular we can look at Robert Coover’s The Babysitter, an example of postermodern literature that paves the way for later HyperText literature. In The Babysitter, Coover weaves an acid trip of a tale toys with perception, chronology, the reliability of the narrator, and the very expectations we have from a story. Each paragraph long chunk of text is isolated from the rest, visually, by a unique marker, taking the shape of an asterisk amidst a set of quotation marks, that cues the reader in that there is a greater degree of separation than a typical line break that we’d see in other works. Each paragraph seems to be a piece of the story, but stolen from some alternate timeline, jumping from one location to another, one character’s perspective to another, sometimes blending seamlessly between the inner thoughts and realities of a character and other times completely contradicting the events of other paragraphs. The result is a possibility storm, rapid fire imagery of causation stemming from the most minute of decisions. The ludicrous scene of a middle-age woman being shoved back into her butter lubricated-girdle is juxtaposed ironically but poignantly with scenes of rape as clothing is forcibly added in the former and removed in the latter, only to contrasted again with the seemingly innocent act of the babysitter changing the clothes of her wards. The other thus not only connects the story fragments chronologically, but ties them together thematically. This “stream of consciousness” flow between different scenes results in a poetic feel, the sharp transitions allowing for sharp effect, where the story doesn’t always feel literal, but still fraught with meaning.

Of course, all this is done with words on paper. The order of the fragments is stationary, and the reader, even as their brain is racing to piece together the story, is ultimately left in a passive role to be fed what the author gives them and find what meaning they can. What would the story have been like if Coover had made is creation in HyperText? The jumping between different timelines and simultaneous events at multiple locations could lend itself well to the medium, but would the effect be the same? Is the disorientation, the lack of control in the reader essential to the story? What extra level could be attained by adding multi-media, imagery, sound to add to the immersion of the experience? I think these were the sort of questions that drove HyperText authors to carry the same playfulness, the willingness to play with their tools and their medium into the digital age. Postermodernism gave us the permission leave behind traditional norms of literature, to challenge its limitations and create something new, and we’re still just seeing the beginning.

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Introduction

I’m 28 years old, returning to school to study digital media.
I’ve been a radio DJ for nearly 5 years and like to dabble with audio and video editing. I like to make weird videos and weird art. I’m trying my hand now making weird games.

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