Hyperliterature as a product? - papertiger #02

Originally published by trAce, Spring 2003

Currently, the best place to find hyperliterature is on the Web. The most obvious reason for this is that the Web has all the outlets. There are increasing numbers of online magazines and other sites devoted specifically to hyperliterature and the digital arts, such as Rhizomes, Beehive, Turbulence and Poems that Go; plus many literary e-zines, such as The Blue Moon Review, Drunken Boat, Overland Express and 3rd Bed, which publish new-media writing alongside the more traditional forms.

The disadvantage of publishing on the Web is that it's very hard to make any money out of it, unless a site manages to attract so many visitors that it can generate revenue from sponsorship or advertising, which so far as I know is unheard-of in the digital arts field. But on the other hand, the disadvantage of publishing in a more tangible format - say on CD - is that the outlets simply aren't there. Bookshops, by and large, won't stock literature on CD, and specialist hyperliterature stores don't exist.

Despite this lack of outlets, a certain amount of hyperliterature does appear on CD. One recent example is papertiger #02 from Australia, edited by Paul Hardacre and Brett Dionysus. Paul Hardacre outlines the case for CD publication in his editorial: "Ownable, holdable - combining a physical actuality with the cutting-edge new media features of Web - the CDROM format offers many of the most appealing elements of print and electronic publication to both readers and publishers. The reader can enjoy the same multimedia aspects offered by the Web without requiring Web access, and with the benefit of guaranteed, uninterrupted viewing of video, audio, and Flash animated works (a common problem with new media presented on the Web). For the publisher, the CDROM offers a significantly cheaper alternative to print (in terms of both production and distribution), and allows design and colour possibilities which are cost-prohibitive in print form."

As a publication, papertiger #02 is extremely well-organised and professional. There is a "house style" which is maintained throughout the whole publication. The tiger illustration which decorates the front of the jewel-case, for example, reappears on-screen once the CD begins to play, either in full or as a background silhouette. Headings are all in the same slightly-curving font: smaller text is all sans-serif. Every new piece of work is presented in the same format: an oblong about 400x500 pixels, defined by a thin black line on a white background. No individual author or artist is allowed to break out of this oblong and take control of the entire screen for his or her own purposes. The result is a sense of coherence, discipline and editorial control.

Much of the poetry is digital only by virtue of the fact that it appears on a CD rather than in a book. The entire "Text" section, as its title suggests, could be reproduced on paper without any difficulty. Having said this, however, a sense of experimentation prevails. Rhyming and scanning are almost nowhere to be found; prose-poems are common; one piece by Michael Farrell dodges back and forth between two different font-sizes; another, by Michael Eastbrook, seems to be an extract from an aunt's letter set alongside an old photograph; and there's a good concrete poem by David Fujino.

After "Text" comes the "Audio" section: poems being read aloud, mostly by their writers. Some of them are set to music, some not. In each case the audio file is accompanied by a printed version of the poem. For me the results are paradoxical. I would normally expect a poem designed for reading aloud to be simpler than its text-based equivalent, if only because a text can be read through again and again, whereas a heard poem needs to connect with its audience straight away. But since the written texts are made available here, this rule ceases to apply. Some of the audio poems in papertiger are actually extremely difficult to construe - here, for example, is an extract from "Watering an Uneasy Beast" by Brentley Frazer: "You have not before seen this manifest, attorney over this district of pigs, outcast with an immaculate manicure. Outside as we speak amass an army at the walls, we have done the repair work for over a decade now. Preceptor extrordinnaire (sic) my spoils in rucksacks strewn from hackled plastic logo sewn with hemoglobin..." Verse of this kind doesn't seem particularly well-suited to reading aloud; yet curiously, I find that the reading voice helps to urge me on through the density of the text.

All the same, the reading-aloud is a problem. None of the poets who give "straight" readings of their poems are accomplished enough as readers to really help the cause of their own texts. They adopt solemn, monotonous voices, as if being forced to read aloud in front of a School Assembly. After this, the poems with music come as a considerable relief. Several of these would be perfectly at home on an indie album. The best of them is a piece called "Transglobal Express" by Mike Ladd and Newaural Net, where the lines of a short poem are spoken not by the writer, but a number of different voices, apparently belonging to callers on an internet phone site who were persuaded to recite extracts. Their "objections and comments and questions" were also recorded and used, as Mike Ladd explains in his introduction to the piece: "In fact," he adds, "these moments seem more poetic to me than the poem. They were mixed together with various music sessions and recordings of trains to create this soundwork, an audio poem on the presence of absence in virtuality." It is about the sense of loneliness we get from the Internet because it affords us glimpses of other people's lives without really putting us in touch; and in this particular work the audio presentation serves not only to greatly enhance the meaning of the text, but to suggest depth and resonance, taking us on a confused and fragmentary but somehow three-dimensional journey into another world.

The next section of new poems is titled "Video". There are only two entries, and in the first of these - "H.O.D." by Paul McComas and Kurt Heintz - the resemblances between digital poetry and indie music become even more striking, because it's basically nothing but a rock video - words spoken rather than sung, admittedly, but accompanied by hard-driving drums, bass and guitar. The video images are largely of jiggly outdoor black-and-white footage which shows the young poet/lead singer striding around all the meanest-looking streets he can find, gesticulating, smoking cigarettes and generally looking moody in a big camel-hair coat or a black leather jacket. Do us a favour.

"Sunday Capone", by Jenny Powell-Chalmers, is more interesting: a grumpy-looking boy being taken on a picnic, but imagining himself to be a gangster like Al Capone. The video is in black-and-white again, with a scratchy guitar soundtrack. Alongside is a poem describing the boy's feelings: and this is where the piece falls down. You can't look at the video and read the poem at the same time. What's more, the poem is too long for the video: if you try to read it while the video is running, the video always finishes before you get to the end, leaving you with a bit of poem left over.

The last section is titled "Flash", and consists of four pieces of Flash poetry. None of them is non-linear, and none of them is interactive. The most interesting is "The Dream Life of Letters" by Brian Kim Stefans - a kind of fantasy on the letters of the alphabet, showing a list of words that start with each letter in turn, all animated in various ways. The whole sequence is played out within the confines of an orange square, and all the words are shown either in black or white, or a mixture of the two. Black or white lettering on an orange square works very effectively as a visual statement, as the Orange mobile phone company has discovered, so Stefans has this in his favour from the start. He doesn't use any sound-effects, so his letters and words float and dance around the screen in silence, which enhances the dreamlike atmosphere of the piece. He is constantly inventive, frequently witty and thought-provoking: numerous small white examples of the word "am" go floating down the page early on in the piece, for example, with only one black "am" amongst them, which seems to say something about individuality. "Conventional", "cunt" and "curse" follow one another in quick succession around a circling C - the prim is replaced by the obscenely vulgar, and the third word, "curse", both describes "cunt" as a swear-word, and acts as a colloquialism for menstruation. There is a lot of material about gender and sexuality here, as Stefans suggests in his introduction to the piece, but for me its fascination lies primarily in how it works as a piece of design. Words and letters drift and drip down the square, or bounce, or float upwards, or slide across from one side to the other, or fade in and out. They can be aligned to the right, to the left, to the top or bottom. They can be large or small. Sometimes they chase each other, sometimes they are transformed into each other, and sometimes a formation made by one word is broken by an onslaught from another. This isn't avant-garde art: "The Dreamlife of Letters" is not trying to be radically different from anything we have ever seen before. On the contrary, the austerity and simplicity of its layout suggest a form of classicism, a purifying and restatement of themes and formats that have already been attempted more than once. What we are being asked to admire here is not newness but mastery within a given medium: not invention but inventiveness.

Perhaps this observation could be reapplied to papertiger #02 as a whole. Certainly the collection comes across as a restrained one, if only because all the contributions are confined to a single format. Professionalism, rather than experimentation, seems to be the keyword. How much of this is due to the fact that papertiger is designed to be sold as a CD rather than viewed free-of-charge on the Web? Perhaps nothing at all, or not directly. Presumably the deciding factor has been Paul Hardacre's view of what kind of work he wants to publish and how he wants to present it: and he could just as easily have promulgated that view in a Web publication as on a CD. All the same, the fact that a CD must be sold to reach its audience, whereas a Web publication can be viewed free of charge, may well have played a part. An editor who wants members of the public to pay out good money for his publication is likely to take some pains to make that publication as saleable as possible, whereas an editor who is presenting work on a website, and doesn't expect to make any money out of it, may well have other priorities in mind.

It might be concluded from this that Web publications are bound to be more radical and interesting than their counterparts on CD - or to put it another way, that we are bound to limit, perhaps emasculate, new-media art if we try to turn it into a "product". But perhaps we should beware of this conclusion. Surely the field of new media art can find space for the classicism of a Brian Kim Stefans as well as the more radical experimentation which often dominates the on-line magazines; and it could be argued that the discipline of selling new media work to a wider, non-specialist public may have an invigorating effect on the form, stripping away some of the obscurity and muddled presentation which occasionally mar it at present. Until more outlets become available for work on CD, however, this consideration is going to remain an academic one.





Poems that Go

The Blue Moon Review

Drunken Boat

Overland Express

3rd Bed


©Edward Picot, 2002