My Curatorial Statement: Mobile & Geolocative E-Lit at MLA 12

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This is the revised statement I edited after the Exhibit.

Mobile and Geolocative E-Lit: Private and Public Liteatures

Curatorial Statement for
MLA 2012 Electronic Literature Exhibit

by Kathi Inman Berens

“The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it.” –Baudrillard

Thirty years ago, when Baudrillard declared the map a “precession of simulacra” (1), he glimpsed the way media would proliferate as local and mobile, a superabundance of “information devour[ing] its own content” (80). Locative and mobile e-lit stand as tiny bulwarks of meaning, or meanings, among the several billion stories, images, songs, and links we drop monthly onto networks of SMS and microblogs. Mobile and locative e-lit earn the capacity to mean by being alive to the arbitrariness of their parameters. The defamiliarization, the cognitive dissonance, of encountering L.A. Flood outside on a cloudless SoCal day is one example of how locative literature might disclose strategic arbitrariness to its readers.

The human holding her mobile device stands at a ninety-degree angle to the surface of the earth, her GPS receiver deriving location so long there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites. She is, in Edward Casey’s word, “implaced”: a body rooted in a particular spot calculated through geometry and represented in metadata. Except that the geometry interpolates several conflicting reference datums, which renders the metadata unreliable: “Different reference datums can produce large variation in ‘exact’ location,” note the authors of the Wikipedia entry on Latitude. “The Eiffel Tower is computed at geodetic latitude of 48° 51′ 29″ N, or 48.8583° N and longitude of 2° 17′ 40″ E or 2.2944°E. The same coordinates on the datum ED50 define a point on the ground which is 140 m distant from Tower.” Change the reference datum, and even exact geospatial coordinates produce different results. This is both a fact and a metaphor of locative storytelling.

In this, the first exhibit of electronic literature at the Modern Languages Association’s annual Convention, the exhibit hall was another of e-lit’s multivalent interfaces: a meeting point between the physical and the virtual, though mobile computing permits those spaces to be no longer discrete from each other. Room WSCC 609 was the exhibit’s physical location, but the social interactivity between the exhibit’s physical and virtual visitors–some of whom were scattered a few hundred feet from the exhibit floor– created excitement for e-lit at MLA. “The idea of the interface cannot be reduced to its medium or content,” notes Jason Farman in Mobile Interface Theory. “It is both and neither…a set of relations that serve as the nexus of the embodied production of social space” (62). “In all serious[ness],” tweeted Ben Robertson from the exhibit floor, “I feel like I’m watching something important, which I almost never get from panels or regular poetry readings[.] #MLA12 #elit[.]”

Part of the exhibit’s “something important” has to do with encountering e-lit away from the distractions of our own computers: the beeps and pop-ups that might yank us out of deep reading or play. But the other “something important” is serendipitous meeting between people. Bahktin’s word for this was “eventness”: the contingencies bubbling up from the babble (our audience might prefer “chatter”) of polyvocality. Serendipity is awfully hard to find via directed search: we prize results customized to our specifications in deciseconds. We lament the closure of bookstores, our “third spaces,” each aisle a micro-community of ideas and the people drawn to them, but we are unable or unwilling to pay for the bookstore’s true value as a social nexus. So long as bookstores remain, in our cultural imagination, purveyors of commodities and not experiences they will lose to online distribution and with them will die the eventness that made bookstores so remarkable. An exhibit of electronic literature might fulfill a similar sort of social function, providing “eventness” to people that exceeds mere questions of access: almost all of the e-lit featured in our exhibit is perpetually and freely accessible via the Web.

503 visitors stopped by the MLA exhibit in WSCC 609; but just as some people came in via Twitter, our embodied visitors wafted from the exhibit into nine Toronto neighborhoods (among many others) featured in [murmur], and the environs of South Central Los Angeles in L.A. Flood, and post-Katrina New Orleans in the desktop-viewable “Blue Velvet,” and the geocached mysteries hidden on the University of Maryland College Park campus in Blue Light Project and Glitch — both exceptional student projects created by Jason Farman’s undergraduates. The “space” of the exhibit in WSCC 609 thus became fungible: reified through use.

My initial reason for yoking mobile and locative e-lit in one category was logistical: such works can be accessed on mobile devices and were designed for mobility, either as a means of engagement, a theme, or both. Many of our desktop works could only be engaged on desktop. In practice this meant I advised visitors to access mobile e-lit via iPhone and locative works via iPad because locative works benefit from display on a bigger screen.

But upon consideration, the yoking is fortuitous, because it helps us to see the differences between mobile and geolocative e-lit. The most important of these distinctions is how the reader accesses the story because access influences interactivity. “The medium is the message,” observes Ian Bogost, “but the message is the message too. Instead of ignoring it, we ought to explore the relationships between the general properties of a medium and the particular situations in which it is used” (“Media Microecology,” the introduction to How To Do Things With Videogames, 5). Locative works imply public consumption; mobile implies private. To locate a story on a map is a rhetorical appeal to public discourse, shared meanings, and ever-changeful, PHP-fueled dynamism. Dropped pins designate parameters that constitute fictive and non-fictive communities. Mobile e-lit, by contrast, lives in the privacy of the tiny screen that’s never far from your body: a proprioceptive extension of your body into the virtual world and vice versa. When mobile e-lit changes, it’s because the creator tweaks it: fixes bugs, or (more rarely) adds a new element. This is very different from the perpetually evolving locative works. (One thinks of the afterlife of Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg’s “Implementation”: all those orphaned stickers.)

The physical intimacy of the mobile phone means that mobile e-lit can insinuate itself into one’s “offline” life. Standing in line at the grocery store last summer, a push notification from The Carrier, a graphic novel included in this exhibit, nudged me in my pocket. The Carrier remediates serial distribution: the reader waits between installments released to coincide with events transpiring in the novel. When I saw it was a notification from The Carrier, I rolled my shopping cart out of line and leaned against a mini-fridge while I read the latest installment. I haven’t experienced a locative work interrupting my day like that.

Even the Twitterfiction that launches a 6-day installment of L.A. Flood — timed to simulate the course of a catastrophic flood — permits desultory engagement. L.A. Flood didn’t push its way into my daily life, but the rupture it occasioned was no less dramatic. Driving from the Burbank Airport to Hollywood last October, my mind wandering, I crossed the Tujunga Pass over the L.A. River. Earlier that day, I’d been nodding in and out of the L.A. Flood Twitterstream. As I crossed Tujunga, I observed the familiar blue sign with a white pelican denoting the L.A. River. Instantly I peered out the window, panicked, expecting the flood to swallow my car. It was over in two seconds, this reverie, but it has stayed with me, the sharpness of the fear. Falling into such aporia has always been one hallmark of good fiction. But locative fiction anchors the aporia to site specificity, and mobility permits us to encounter its strange doubleness in situ.

One short video–on display in our exhibit–is almost all that remains of the first locative media experience, Jeremy Hight’s 34 West, 118 North, a walk through a patch Los Angeles where “sonic ghosts of another era” relay the story of the railroad industry in downtown L.A. Hight, considered by many to be the pioneer of locative storytelling, created a consciousness that is characteristic of locative media experienced in situ: the disjunction between the space and time, the awareness of one’s own immediate physical surroundings as evitable and contingent.

In Kate Armstrong’s Ping, participants receive directions culled from a telephone tree about where to go next: “the effects of the environment on the perception, behaviour and mood of individuals” is under study here. Four other projects not included in this exhibit continue in the vein of Armstrong’s pioneering work in the psychogeographical: Blast Theory’s Rider Spoke, Paul Notzold’s Speak to God and Bluebrain’s two first-ever location-aware albums Listen to the Light (Oct. 2011; set in Central Park) and The National Mall (April 2011). In each case, in situ experience is elemental to the art. In Teri Raub’s Core Sample, featured in this exhibit, a GPS-based interactive sound walk puts the soundscapes of Boston’s Institute for Contemporary Art in dialog with the landscape of Spectacle Island and asks “what is recorded versus what is suppressed and denied?”

Where locative works wander beneath your touch, guiding you to treasures both fictive and (in the case of geocached “Blue Light Project,” literal), mobile works are instantly summoned. Jason Farman speculates that touch interface seems “invisible” because our muscle memory bypasses consciousness of how we access the story: we notice interface only when it doesn’t work. But touch is more than a navigational gesture; it becomes a vernacular–a touch vernacular, I argue–when tactile navigation becomes expressive: not just a means of accessing the story but interactively constituting it.

Erik Loyer’s Strange Rain on the Apple iOS yields an experience that demonstrates the narrative complexity that can arise when touch is treated as a narrative element capable of nuance, mood and layering much the way we think of sound. Both Strange Rain and the previous year’s Ruben and Lullaby are featured in the mobile works exhibit. Synesthetic, narratively rich because multi-sensory and choreographed both to frame text and stand alone, Strange Rain is the best example I’ve found yet of the multimodal sense/text recursive loop that augments narrative possibility beyond the familiar dyad of sight/sound. Unlike Loyer’s gorgeous but less compelling Ruben and Lullaby, which eschews text for drawn, interactive facial expressions to propel the arguing lovers’ narrative, Strange Rain is as much a puzzle as it is a sensory experience. Loyer calls his works “stories you can play,” and indeed, the tension between the narrative and ludic elements pull the reader/gamer in opposite directions. Games urge us to move quickly, to “level up.” Narrative enjoins us to slow down and feel. Strange Rain approximates synesthesia when the reader/gamer oscillates quickly between those two modes of interaction. It’s a splendid disorientation.

Jörg Piringer’s abcedfghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz is a canny app that features crisp sound recordings of each letter. Activated by touch, these letter-sounds bounce, fly, drop and putter around the screen in any combination a gamer can create through touch. Endlessly imaginative, this game has no narrative element; but the play is so inspired it causes us to hear–for the first time in how long?–the sonic building blocks of language. Piringer’s defamiliarization creates a surprising range of euphony and cacophony. He is a member of Vienna’s legendary Vegetable Orchestra.

Silent and stark in black-and-white silhouettes, Aya Karpinska’s Shadows Never Sleep withholds the sonic and tactile gratifications of works by Piringer and Loyer. Karpinska’s play with children’s nursery rhymes and bedtime stories casts the scary “shadows” as text itself, to which the reader has to “zoom” with her fingers in order to gain access. These beautiful text panes are the creatures under your bed. In P.o.E.M.M.’s “What They Speak,” the reader glides her finger atop the mobile screen and lines of poetry spring up and trail behind, sometimes right side up and sometimes backwards. The app features poems by luminaries David Jhave Johnston, Jim Andrews, J. R. Carpenter, Aya Karpinska, and platform co-creator Jason Lewis.

“Pursue error & failure, exploit autocorrect, disturb the placid surface of interface that deceives us into believing in unshakable humanness,” exhorts co-curator Lori Emerson, guest-tweeting on Mark Amerika’s @remixthebook. Amerika, an e-lit author since the early days of hypertext, shot the first feature-length film on a mobile phone: Immobilité is on view in our mobile exhibit. From Amerika’s ’90s hypertext, to his current film, to the next generation of mobile and locative fictions authored by undergraduate e-lit artists featured in this exhibit: the history of innovation writes and rewrites itself on a palimpsest you can swipe.

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