by Dene Grigar
Tear Down the Wall: Hypertext and Participatory
Narratives, held in conjunction with the ACM Hypertext
2019 at Hof, Germany, borrows the theme from the
conference—tear down the wall—that celebrates
the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The
conference has also been envisioned by Conference Chair
Claus Atzenbeck to "reunify different hypertext research
directions and communities" ("About"). Born digital
literature—what has been come to be called electronic
literature, or e-lit—is one of these directions and
communities he seeks to bring back into the fold.
This goal to reunite e-lit and ACM Hypertext is not unwarranted. The relationship between the two goes back to the first ACM Hypertext conference held in 1987 at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Among the 39 papers about hypertext storage systems, structure, retrieval systems, databases, and information management presented at that conference was one by Jay David Bolter and Michael Joyce, entitled "Hypertext and Creative Writing." This paper, which introduced the Storyspace authoring system for creating interactive fiction, is considered an important one for the e-lit community because it references Joyce's "first effort" (Bolter and Joyce) to produce a hypertext novel with Storyspace—a work of born digital literature now considered seminal to the field, afternoon: a story. Though other hypertext authoring systems already existed or were in production (e.g. Hypercard, Intermedia, Hypergate, and Narrabase), the conference was a watershed moment that brought hypertextual literature to the forefront. Three years later Bolter wrote in his ground-breaking book Writing Space (1991) that writing was indeed different from print and that computer technology would "offer us a new kind of book and new ways to write and read" (Bolter 2).
Technological developments arising since the conference—the web browser, broadband, mobile media, the cloud that impacted the evolution of 3D, Virtual Reality, AI, to name a few forms—continued to make good on Bolter's prediction. Writing and reading have indeed changed: Anyone browsing online news or teleporting in a VR game uses hyperlinks to access text and scripted experiences, respectively. Thirty-two years after Bolter and Joyce's presentation at Hypertext '87, hypertext is alive and well, though in a form more ubiquitous and transparent than what anyone may have imagined at that time.
Many of the literary artists in this exhibition are among those who, from the beginning, experimented with hypertext in its various forms. Judy Malloy published what is believed to be the first work of commercial born digital literature. That work, Uncle Roger, was re-presented in five different versions since its original publication on The WELL in 1986-87. The work shown in this exhibition, "The Yellow Bowl II," was originally presented in 1992 and written in BASIC. This new version, a "transmediation" of that work produced in web coding languages, is an example of generative fiction that uses hypertext as a linking strategy for presenting "intersecting narratives that explore how writers distort life experience into fiction" (Malloy).
Another hypertext pioneer featured in this exhibition is artist, theorist, chief scientist, and publisher Mark Bernstein. His early work, "The Election of 1912," was created with Erin Sweeny in 1988 and produced with the hypertext authoring system Hypergate that Bernstein programmed before licensing Storyspace from Bolter, Joyce, and John B. Smith, for his company Eastgate Systems, Inc. Those Trojan Girls, a hypertext novel that utilizes Storyspace 3.0, re-visions Euripides' drama Those Trojan Women for a 21st Century audience. It was recently highlighted as a Traversal live streamed from Hof University in February 2019.
The third pioneer of hypertext fiction featured in this exhibition is John McDaid, author of the hypertext novel, Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse, created with Hypercard II and published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. in 1993. The work featured in this exhibition, We Knew The Glass Man, continues with the 'themes and characters' of Funhouse but differs from this early masterpiece that utilized bitmap images and the metaphor of a house for structuring the narrative. Glass Man, instead, draws upon the tradition of the text-based, interactive fiction. It was produced with Twine and published in Cream City Review.
The ubiquity of hyperlinks and the act of clicking in web-based environments that came about due to the introduction of the web browser was ripe for critique in the mid to late 1990s. With Grammatron's announcement, "I link therefore I am," artist Mark Amerika gave voice to the rising anxiety of the changes—not just to writing but to humanity itself——brought about by computers and in particular the web. One of the first major works of net art, Grammatron was featured in the prestigious 2000 Whitney Biennial of American Art.
Australian artist Mez Breeze has long experimented with various forms of net art. In 1993 she began to create Mezangelle, a poetic form that mixes programming languages with standard English that resulted in a genre of born-digital literature known as codework. The two works presented in this exhibition, A Place Called Ormalcy and V[R]ignettes: A Microstories Series, represent her recent explorations into “Spatial Computing Storytelling and Virtual Reality Literature.” They also signal her interest in how these technologies can be harnessed for making "social commentary at a time when it is sorely needed" (Breeze).
fred:-), produced by a team of developers led by French artist and theorist Serge Bouchardon, is a sensor-based, interactive work for smart phones. Utilizing the phone's touchscreen, camera, accelerometer, gyroscope, and microphone, the work responds to the user as a friend, and so causes us to "reflect on the relationship we have with this device" (Bouchardon). The hypertextual structure of the work was produced with Twine and then programmed in Swift for the Apple OS and Java for Android.
The final work in this exhibition, Training to Be King When You Blown It Once Already, is a hypertext novel reminiscent of the satirical e-lit produced by Jason Nelson and in the game, Kingdom of Loathing. Presented as a downloadable PDF by J-B-W-E-L-L—a ghost writer for Software Neurology—the work combines text with hand-drawn images, dividing the content into four major sections (10 reports, 7 rants, 6 Catos, and additional information such as Epilogue, Merchandise, Notes and Donate). As the author states, "it tells the story of the prince's brutal training, the professor's unwilling descent to the role of bloody usurper, and the dangerous, hypnotic power of Software Neurology" (J-B-W-E-L-L). Hyperlinks take readers through the work and beyond to the web, defying conventional web-based forms and critiquing neo-liberalism enabled by computer technologies.
I would like to thank Claus for inviting me to curate this exhibition and for Mark support of this show. I also appreciate the assistance I received from Hof University's Anna Habbel, Jurgen Ott, Paul Volkmar Steinke, and Jonas Bolz. Also appreciated is the grant provided to the exhibition from ACM SIGWEB and for the Electronic Literature Organization's support of my activities as its president from 2013-2019. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the work undertaken by the Undergraduate Researchers in my lab, the Electronic Literature Lab (ELL) at Washington State University Vancouver. Holly Slocum and Kathleen Zoller both created the archival website for this event. Others—Mariah Gwin, Andrew Nevue, and Moneca Roath—have been available for assistance and critique of my work. A special thank you to ELL's Associate Director Nicholas Schiller for his leadership and help.
Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991.
Bolter, Jay David and Michael Joyce. "Hypertext and Creative Writing." Hypertext '87 Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Hypertext. NY, NY: ACM. 41-50.
Moulthrop, Stuart and Dene Grigar. Traversals: The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017.