Net hopes

Kirsten Krauth, RealTime’s new hyperfiction editorial team

Kirsten Krauth interviews RealTime’s new hyperfiction editorial team Teri Hoskin, Terri-ann White, Linda Carroli and Dean Kiley about defining, creating and reading hypertext.

KK When did your interest in hypertext begin?

TH If hypertext is related specifically to writing practices online, about 1996 with the Tableau project for ewre (electronic writing research ensemble). My art practise has always been text based…there has always been an interest in experimental writing that seeks to ‘worry’ given notions of how we make meaning. So this ‘hypertext’ is a word that snuck up on me. The work of some of the poststructuralists, like Derrida and Kristeva on language, Barthes on Death Of the Author, Cixous’ ‘ecriture feminine’, have signalled for some time the possibilities of deconstructive/generative writing practices. Digital environments present possible spaces for this to play out.

TW I came to hypertext with my work in an entirely opportunistic way when I was invited to apply for an ANAT (Australian Network Arts Technology) residency. That encounter helped me to move along a whole range of concerns about form in a writing project I had been immersed in for 3 years…it liberated me off the A4 white page and into extensions: ways to look at and consider my set of interests and characters and stories in the ‘family saga’ I was writing. I learnt about my original project and why I was doing it by embarking into this concertina-shaped space of hypertext.

LC Hypertext contains everything that I have done before—broadcasting, writing, conversation, visual art, video, curating, graphic design—and poses a new question or possibility in terms of my practice/s and its multi/hyper/inter/media. In 1997, an essay I wrote about online collaboration was published in leonardo and the IMA recommended me to ANAT for the *water residency. That experience consolidated my thinking and my practice, gave me the space and time and reason to interrogate in a research/writing oriented way and to do it with a writer as special as Josephine Wilson.

DK I suppose (he says, settling into the couch, trying to appear relaxed), like most such problems, it began with my Mother. She could only ever conceptualise university work as a series of breathlessly-researched high-school essays strung together on a word processor. Then there was my honours supervisor, who had roughly the equivalent view of How A Real Thesis Should Work. My thesis looked at the construction of Elizabeth Jolley and I wanted some way of analysing (& doing diagrams of) but also demonstrating (& doing working-models of) the range of media and discourses around a given writer, and lo! My early nerdy interest in HyperCard (in the baby versions bundled with early Macs) redirected me to the later versions, at once a filing/referencing system, a slide-show with special effects, a graphics program in which to stage animations of various theoretical models, a commentary toolbox for footnotes and footnotes on footnotes, a concordance for correlating quotes from Jolley and her critics/reviewers, a studio for my voice-over soundtrack, and a searchable textual database.

My supervisor delighted in playing with the end result, but thought of it as some kind of quirky bloated screen-saver, with no relevance to the thesis. It was, in fact, intrinsic to my analysis of literary criticism as a cybernetic and hypertextual process. I had to re-do and re-submit the whole bloody thesis but I had also realised the possibilities of the medium, and—more importantly—that you didn’t have to be an overtrained tech-head to allow critical understanding to be generated from a conversation with an interface (rather than the memorisation of a manual).

KK There have been many attempts to define and categorise hypertext. Mark Bernstein in “Patterns of Hypertext” says the problem is not that hypertext lacks structure but that we lack the words to describe/criticise hypertext. Do you see such definitions as crucial? What are the differences between hypertext/hyperfiction/hypermedia?

TH I have some problems with this word hypertext. It tends to collapse all forms of writing into one—as long as there are links, something is hypertext…it doesn’t acknowledge a continuum, that there has been multi-layered, fragmentary writing that resists closure, that works across mediums for quite some time. The digital environment presents fabulous opportunities to develop these forms of writing. But often ‘hypertext’ means the writer will just pop in a few links to perk up a fairly standard unchallenging narrative. To consider and acknowledge differences between writing practices on the net is crucial, perhaps then we can get rid of the ‘hyper’.

TW While I am excited by what is possible in new paradigms like the activity on the web, I always want to broaden the discussion beyond the medium. That gives me more patience for the less satisfactory attention to the text-bit, to the writing, by many hypertext writers whose work is currently available.

LC The problem with Western culture is that it demands and expects and imposes structure where none exists or is needed. Yes, our [critical] languages for chaos and complexity are ineffectual, worrisome and anxious, although we are also developing tools and modes of thinking which do accommodate that: deconstruction, feminism, postcolonialism. This fragmentation is telling us that we don’t necessarily need definitions (the meta-) and that there are myriad ways of looking at, experiencing or knowing. Personally, I don’t see such definitions as crucial or necessary, but as a critical writer they are useful and have value in terms of discourse.

DK The emphasis on definition encourages the schizoid split between the 2 main, equally-dangerous inflations of rhetorical bombast: cyberhype and cyberdebunking, which could be summarised by the catchphrases ‘The book is dead’ and ‘You can’t take a laptop to the beach’, both of which are wrong…What often gets lost in this emphasis on the product (‘what is a hypertext?’ ‘how do you know a piece of hypermedia when you see it?’) is the crux: not product but process—hypertextual ways of reading and writing, designing and experiencing. I’d agree with Bernstein about the lack of good close, focused analysis and criticism, but not because we haven’t generated a full set of Lego jargon terms, or decided on the ‘proper’ academic idiom, but because academics are generally too busy processing hypertexts through ‘legitimating’ disciplines, neologising cute new buzzwords, and constructing unsustainable, mass-produced-plastic comparisons and contrasts.

KK Carolyn Guertin comments on the ability of hypertext to privilege multiple voices. How does hyperfiction invite collaboration?

LC Working together is always going to be about having a relationship and all the things that entails. Josephine [Wilson] and I enter into our work with a real commitment to process, in the spirit of friendship and with a great respect for each other’s work, input and ideas. Everything is always open to negotiation; some of that touchy-feely stuff has to come into play because a computer can’t make a collaboration possible in an emotive sense, in a personality sense. We rely on IRC and email to talk; the computer mediates that. It requires a great deal of work. You have to compensate for what the computer can’t do—for example I don’t know if Josephine is sobbing or scowling. After a year of working together we have begun to develop a shared language; it does contain cues. I suspect it’s a mode of communication that would not work if we were face to face.

Working across distance is an interesting thing—we live in 2 time zones, 2 climates, 2 households. In a practical sense we resolve conceptual and structural issues and then set ourselves tasks and give each other enough scope to pursue tangents and be experimental and then we swap notes. It’s always hard opening your work up to scrutiny, but I believe that collaboration produces something that would not have been produced otherwise. Neither of us is so conceited that we believe in myths of creative/individual genius. Hyperfiction/text does accommodate multiple voices…voices can switch in really subtle ways…layering and texturing a work to create interest.

KK What programs do you use when constructing hypertext? StorySpace, software that allows writers to create a visual map of a story’s links and pathways, is being used by many university writing classes. Do you think such programs restrict creativity? Make output homogenous? How does technology limit/extend the writer’s imagination?

TH I use a text editor, Photoshop and Illustrator and a couple of great programmer’s references. I prefer to work this way because it gives me more control over how a page will perform/look. Writing html is meditative and as a writing practice rather odd. There are 2 results: the immediate text before your eyes and the delayed text, the objects the code builds. Like any technique one can become ‘stuck’ in a certain way of working. I guess it’s up to the writer/artist to work out a way to shift sideways, to keep the work challenging.

TW I’m a dag who has no experience of programs beyond PageMill. I’m reliably informed that I’m at the same level as early high school students.

LC We use wysiwyg software with html editors to construct pages and then plot the links and flows in our heads or on scraps of paper. We have considered storyboarding and think that would be a really useful way to construct hypertexts; my way of storyboarding is scraps of paper blu-tacked to the wall with scrawling notes. All computer technology has limitations in the sense that there are things it can’t do. Writers have to make decisions about how they use a computer for hypertext: what audiences they will cut out when they load up on special effects…I prefer a more democratic response which privileges accessibility, entails faster download, minimal plugins, text-based—it’s kinder to the reader on a chuggy little machine.

DK If it’s stand-alone hypertext I would normally work in StorySpace and if necessary export the results to html format so I can make a website. If intended for online consumption, I use a digital camera, scanner, PhotoShop, PhotoDraw and Paint Shop Pro for the imagery, CoolEdit for the sounds, WWW Gif Animator and Animagic for the simpler animations, Director for sophisticated animations and interactive components, Netscape Composer for draft web documents, and then Notepad to edit and add html code.

On the basis of 3 years of using Netscape and StorySpace in teaching, [these programs] certainly don’t result in homogenous output. Quite the reverse. StorySpace extends the writer’s imagination to the extent that a whole range of possibilities for representing, modelling and simulating reading and performance experiences are opened up; it can be an immediate aid to brainstorming, plotting, structuring, scene construction, and developing multiple voices; it encourages play, experimentation and risky writing; and—even if the final result is still a story-on-the-page—it stimulates writers into editing and re-editing and redrafting rather than placing trust in a quickly-fiddled-with second draft. It almost demands a design ethic that is more visual and focused; and enables a more intense mixture of formats, modes and genres.

KK There appears to be more critical theory on hypertext than actual examples of hyperfiction. Competitions held by Salt Hill Journal and trAce online are encouraging new works. Are Australian writers in general slow to catch on to these opening possibilities for innovative writing?

TH Australian artists/writers lead in this area. In digital environments we have to consider writing as a coalescence of image, sound, word and design. As a filterer for the trAce alt-x hypertext competition I found the entries from Australia to be on the whole the most sophisticated conceptually and technologically, the most willing to experiment with design, to move across registers/genres/discourses.

TW I don’t think it’s just a matter of Australian writers being slow. Most of the good work is in critical theory. Much of the hyperfiction is not invested well enough in the writing yet…people are dazzled by what they can make and the writing lags behind. My list of good, interesting work from Australia would be fairly small and covered already by you: Josephine Wilson, Teri Hoskin.

LC Online writing (hyperfiction and hypertext) as a defined practice (and there’s that problem of definition) is kind of marginalised and nebulous even though there is heaps of locally produced web-based artwork (eg Di Ball www.thehub.com.au/dibbles and Tracey Benson www.thehub.com.au/~traceyb – link expired) and a really positive exchange between artwork and writing. Positive things happen through events like MAAP and volt: they start to generate interest and focus and curators like Beth Jackson (who initiated and worked on wonderful projects like shoreline http://www.maap.org.au/shoreline – link expired). There’s a lot of energy and interest which is kind of diffused, sporadic and hidden; other Queensland content includes cyberpoet komninos and sound artists low key and nude (who did a beautiful sound and spoken word piece with alt x). The web and hypermedia/hypertext introduces so many possibilities that people are kind of in a bind about what to do with it: is it a tool, a medium, a genre? Is it writing, visual culture, screen culture? What all that means to me is ‘experiment’; let the work make the definitions, not the critics.

DK The short answer (to are Oz writers slow to catch on) would be: how would we ever know? The number of venues for onscreen narratives (in any format) to be published/displayed is: very small, for “official” venues with some literary legitimation; or quite small, and dispersed and hard to find, for zine-y venues. It’s mostly the latter where really-engaging-experimental hyperfiction happens, where the dimensions and capabilities of the medium are exploited rather than merely demonstrated. Writers have been slow to take up the new possibilities, but editors have been appalling, and often either conservatively repetitive or plain luddite and reactive. Some of the best hypertextual narratives being produced in Oz at the moment are in print zines and occasionally as anarchic pockets of university student magazines, and in the student galleries of Creative writing/Multimedia courses at universities…work which remains plaintively dispersed and un-findable, never further developed for, or even submitted for, publication.

KK Finally, do you enjoy reading hyperfiction? What are your favourite hypertext works?

TW I enjoy reading hyperfiction just as I enjoy reading other fiction and poetry: the writing has to engage me and will if it has a clarity…uses language in an exciting way…has an integrity to its project of making something. There are more writers following traditional modes (on paper) producing more exciting writing than I’ve found on the web. But that can change.

LC I am a regular visitor to mark amerika’s AltX and Gregory Ulmer’s site, and I really enjoy some of the works on ‘mystory’, trAce and the ewre (a really important Australian-based initiative…the work that’s been done is really defining in terms of an approach, an ethic and an interpretation; a starting point).

DK The pieces I’ve responded to most passionately are one-off works appearing in web journals, that disappear within 6 months: ones that refract every design element through the narrative, without resorting to an often-clumsy single central literal metaphor. Philip Salom and his partner Meredith Kidby have managed some terrific, compact hypertexts based around narrative poetry (http://www.netspace. com.au/~psalom/mmm.html) and Meredith has produced eclectically enjoyable material available on CD ROM [There’s also] Wishing by Gregory Ulmer and Linda Marie Walker for the startling electrical quality of the writing; and, finally, of course, mark amerika’s Grammatron opus, for its verbal exuberance, self-conscious eccentricities, sheer scope, and good ol’ yankee audacity at presuming itself the first and biggest and best.

Current projects: Teri Hoskin’s meme_shift, a consideration of how Western and Japanese cultures construct each other as Other, will be published on the trAce site; Terri-ann White is completing a novel; Linda Carroli is collaborating with Josephine Wilson on a new work cipher (work in progress http://ensemble.va.com.au/cipher) addressing the performativity of writing online; Dean Kiley is the editor of eXtra, a web journal associated with Overland.

RealTime issue #30 April-May 1999 pg. 15-

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 1999