Writing, community, virtuality

Linda Carroli meets writing groups Electronic Writing Research Ensemble and trAce on the web

“If we never meet I hope I feel the lack…”
James Jones, Thin Red Line

Fingers poised on the keyboard. Ready. Set. Log in. These days I have to wear a wrist support when I work: this body is making a protest about speed and repetition. Internet Relay Chat and email are fast and random. Channelling through the limited bandwidth of online communication text prevails in email, IRC, MOO/MUD or Website, shifting the vernacular of the ‘written’ word if not its preponderance. Online communities are most obviously communication-based and driven, formed of meetings which emerge from these hectic flows.

In 1998, the Adelaide-based Electronic Writing Research Ensemble produced a project called Ensemble Logic, curated by Teri Hoskin. As an introduction to online writing communities, it presented an opportunity to venture into unknown writing terrains with a cohort of like-minded strangers. For 4 months, Ensemble Logic engaged theorists, artists and writers to consider an electronic poetics. They presented ‘lectures’ and met regularly to discuss, participate in and produce writing. All of these activities took place online. Throughout the project an email list was maintained for ongoing discussion, investigation and writing. Running through the telephone lines connecting the machines at which we worked and mused, a writing nexus developed.

There are faultlines and we cross them, making connections, affinities. In this context, the ‘virtual community’ is formed, as Sandy Stone claims, as “a community of belief.” (Michael Benedickt, Cyberspace: First Steps, 1992)

In Ircle, the command for entering a chatroom is ‘join.’ Meeting convened. Chat bounces between a half dozen or so writers: an extract from an Ensemble Logic Internet Relay Chat lecture/discussion:

Sue: do you think the web offers new opportunities…
Sue: for writers to experience fiction for real?
mez: makes for confused email pardners;-)
amerika: yes, definitely
amerika: without it I never meet any of you & that would be a much less interesting life!
tink: i agree…
ti: im wondering how some conceptual artists see this environment, clipper, got any ideas on this one?
mez: art m-ulating write m-ulating life m-ulating…..?
clipper: im thinking of 70s events and happenings
ti: yes, the connectivity is very important

Writing. Community. Virtuality. Each word catalyses and interacts. Virtuality, as some kind of ontological register, seems to renegotiate traditional and generational ideas about both writing and community. Simultaneously, I am sympathetic, nostalgic and agonistic. I use the term ‘community’ sceptically and charily.

Community is a term I distrust even though the values it evokes—participation, belonging, trust, civility, etc—appeal to me. How do you measure a value? Founded on assumptions about consensus, rationality and collectivity, community seems to be a calcified myth of rational society which privileges and edifies the normative and unitary. An unnecessary tension exists between the individual and community. Virtuality traces and splits difference along paths.

And writing? It confounds me. Operating as a communicative contingency, the virtual writing community forms (in and as) a networked environment, a cyberspace for writing with no horizon. For Donna Haraway, “this is a dream…of a powerful infidel heteroglossia (Simians, Cyborgs and Women, 1991).” Through and across this space we experiment with and negotiate connections, networks, collaborations, difference, language, writing, virtuality. These experiments are undertaken under the auspices of community for the purposes of writing: to boldly go where? McKenzie Wark argues in his recent book, Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace, “cyberspace contains within it many possible forms of community and culture that have yet to be actualised” (Pluto Press, 1999).

Writing communities, public forums or online writing resources are established as adjuncts to university programs: courses are conducted or resourced in part or whole online. These days, so many universities are offering online programs. An example is the Networked Writing Environment (http://www.ucet.ufl.edu/writing/nwe.html – link expired) at the University of Florida where Gregory Ulmer works and consults (http://www.elf.ufl.edu/~gulmer – link expired). Another example is the Hypermedia Research Centre (http://www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk), a loose collective of artists, writers, academics and designers developing hypermedia as an artform. Partly, such initiatives are the result of funding restraints, decentralisation, R&D, open learning and flexible delivery. They are also driven by the promise of pedagogical and cultural innovation and inquiry offered by online environments; the opportunity to adapt and divide the culture of higher education. Universities can be considered ready-made ‘communities’, so the shift online can seem supplementary, a means of extending a collaborative, learning and communicative environment via email list and IRC or MOO into virtuality, attracting new or different ‘markets’ or constituencies. As well, publics tend to form around various journals, e-zines, homepages and other cultural ventures. Seemingly, these nodes become organising, connecting or focal points for a multitude of networks.

While based at a university, trAce Online Writing Community (http://trace.ntu.ac.uk – link expired) is an independent writing environment and resource delivering a range of programs courtesy of lottery-generated funding (US$500,000) from the Arts Council of England. trAce operates out of 4 rooms in Nottingham Trent University in the UK. It sustains a global community in real and virtual space for writers and readers. trAce’s Director, Sue Thomas, has been writing inside the text-based world of LambdaMOO since 1995. MUDs and MOOS are designed to encourage the shared construction of an environment in which writers/players can interact with others and with objects. The environments are immersive, collaborative and polyvocal. People come and go.

At trAce, interactive technologies are used for multiple purposes. While there are MOO rooms, hosted by LinguaMOO, for engaged writing, there are also online lectures, meetings and tutorials, writers in residence, conferences and a discussion email list. trAce also publishes the online journal frAme and hosts webpages and projects including the Noon Quilt and the recently announced trAce/alt-x International Hypertext Award (see WriteSites). For the uninitiated a range of linked resources and instructions explaining MOO are a link away. trAcespAce at http://crash.tig.com.au/~garu/ts.htm – link expired) is a site dedicated to representing the experiences and interactions of trAce members. During Ensemble Logic, Thomas delivered ‘Imagining the Stone’, a MOO-based presentation and tour of 4 rooms:

.nathan. says, “one also has to be electrate too…”
dibbles says, “virtual disappeared faster…..almost faster than the eye can read”
teri says, “the transcience, the timeliness”
spawn says, “a girl (or two) could very easily get left behind in this conversation”
You [Sue] say, “this idea of electracy – can you explain it for posterity and the cap file?”
dibbles says, “there is no trace… pardon the pun”
smile dibbles
You smile at dibbles.
teri says, “[Greg] ulmer writes that electracy is to the digital what literacy is
to the book”
teri says, “that is, we must become literate in the peculiarities of this environment”
You say, “let’s move to the next room and hear your thoughts”
teri says, “and maybe learn to touch type:-)”
You say, “type on”

Emerging from these encounters are practices which are ‘grammatological’, which interrogate Writing, Community and Virtuality from within. It’s so tempting to put some kind of mathematical symbol between these words which adds, subtracts, multiplies, divides or equals. It’s tempting to turn them into an equation for a better life that strives towards an idealised ‘other-world’ rather than live, make, imagine and play with them as part of this multifaceted and networked world. Writing, Community and Virtuality are apprehended in lost and found ways in a lost and found world.

Linda Carroli is a Brisbane-based writer, visual artist and curator whose works and work-in-progress can be found at http://ensemble.va.com [link expired].

An m-pression of interacting online at trAce by Teri Hoskin. Source: trAcespAce. Reprinted with permission of the artist.

RealTime issue #31 June-July 1999 pg. 15

© Linda Carroli; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 1999