digital arts & culture 1998


Janez Strehovec:

Text as Virtual Reality
(Techno-Aesthetics and Web-Literatures)

About the author

Art is, at the end of the second half of the 20th century, articulated in works of art, would-be-works of art, virtual situations, web projects, concept events, cybernetic installations and environments. For such works and would- be-works the placement on the intersection of art, techno-science, smart technologies, new media, computer mediated communication, design as well as (trans)politics and religion (especially in a form of techno-religions) is distinctive. The authentic area of present art is electronic art, the development of which is essentially connected with the achievements of new media and new, metaphorically speaking, techno-sensitivity. New interactive media enriched the electronic art with new trends, among which the web art plays a special role. Here we think of art projects, which haven't only been put on the web as a new reproductive and distributive medium, but have productively used its creative potentials and media particularities.

One form of such art is indisputably techno- or cybernetic literature on web sites, which is becoming more and more characteristic and recognisable form of that artistic search. What we have in mind are projects which classify themselves as a kind of cyberpoetry, interactive drama, MUDs and new narrative, placed into the post-novel environments for story and concept worlds. For this kind of projects dual challange is characteristic; on one side they enrich the aesthetics of electronic art with new techniques and concepts (bringing to the user of such art new experience), but on the other they pervert, revolutionise and extend the code of literature-as-we-know it, because the occurrence of literature at the end of the second half of the century represents a problem. Today, it is by no means self-evident how and what about to write, as J. G. Ballard, the author of proto-cyberpunk novel Crash, expressed in this claim: "We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind....We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer's task is to invent the reality."

Cybernetic literature on web sites is undoubtedly expanding avant-garde and experimental forms of literature (visual and concrete poetry and experimental prose), but its inquiries are especially relevant for aesthetics (particularly of electronic art). Basic concepts like interactivity and total immersion get new encouragement from the web media. When mentioning web literature, we have to state the fact that it includes a new generation of literature, made in web medium. So we can place its projects between second order techno-literatures; as into the first generation obviously belongs the influential, for literary theory very challenging form of hyperfiction, written/computed by Michael Joyce and some more important successors of that tradition (Stuart Moulthrop, Shelley Jackson, Carolyn Guyer). In order not to mention second order techno-literatures only on abstract level, let us for information, mention some more characteristic works of web-literatures: Stuart Moulthrop's Hegirascope (version 2), Mark Amerika's Grammatron, Diane Reed Slatery's Alfaweb, Komninos Zervos homepage Cyberpoetry, Jacques Servin's Beast, Olia Lialina's Ann Karenin goes to Paradise, Juliet Martin's Can You See Me Through The Computer, Shelley Jackson's My Body, Anne Joelle's The Confessional, C.Can's & R.Allalouf's Keywords, K. Mork's & S. Stenslie's Solve et Coagula.

What is the general characteristic of those otherwise very individual projects? They are put on the web and they try to use more than only its reproductive and distributive capacities. Web-literature sometimes still uses now already classical hypertext medium, which had generated a kind of hyperfiction (already mentioned in the tradition of Michael Joyce), but its latest projects try to intensively use the particularities of web media and novelty of the software written for it.We are dealing with a new form of narrative, which is not based on the literature forms and procedures as we know them, but is introducing new techno-language of the techno-words-images-bodies, using the effects of new media aesthetics and inventing new forms. Here we have to mention some basic concepts of web-literature which are useful for the techno-aesthetics of electronic art.

Word-image-body is arranged with special effects, put into the "total-data-work of art" (Ger.Gestamtdatenwerk), which includes the interaction among media and daringly stimulates the perception. The reading is because of this supplemented with looking and touching (led and seduced with the techno- suspense and techno-surprise), with the effect of total immersion, with encountering the "impossible written objects", with users' steering of screens and in some projects also with listening, which means that this is a kind of activity distant from encountering the regular literary forms and closer to the new visual (as well as aural and tactile) forms of culture. We're diving into the worlds of traditional narrative no longer. Instead we're entering the multimedia designed series of techno-words-images-bodies arranged with regards to concept schemes. Our (non-linear) encounters with them produce a story in the sense of risky event.

We use the term "techno-word-image" as an extension of the term "techno-image", introduced by Vilem Flusser. We are referring to Flusser's claim that the reference of the techno-image is the concept, so in a way abstract form, which stimulates the so called techno-imagination. The importance of such understanding of web-literature is undoubtedly enormous. The stories in the techno-language (as a combination of new media arranged verbal and visual components) are in no way naive narratives which signify the states of things, but they intended the concept itself; the world of abstract components and the relations between them.

In a certain sense they are meta-stories intended for meta-reading. Because of that the reference in the concept leads their authors to abandon the differences between literary and non-literary codes. Web-literature of new generation is the eminent medium of concept narrative which abandons the literary forms, methods and procedures of traditional literature. Techno-word, simulated as the unit of 3-d computer graphics, is mediated word, inscribed into the field of computer generated visual and tactile cyberculture. The word is the object, with body, with substance, living a double life; on one hand preserving the indicating, referential function; on the other hand it is only the visual, tactile and verbal marker for "building houses from the words-images-bodies". It permits a new matrix of entry into the literary text.

The interactivity of the electronic literary projects is enabled with clicking on words or icons in the function of point and click interfaces. This is in accordance with already mentioned techno-suspense, which is connected with the expectations of what is going to open after the act of clicking and what kind of reality will the reader/ user enter. It is in the artistic function of such literary project on the web that the techno-suspense is also followed by techno-surprise. This means that the reader/user lands on a place far different from his/her expectations. We might say that the artistic value of such projects increases proportionally with increased frequencies of digression of new series of techno-words-images-bodies from the horizon of readers' expectations.

Cybernetic literature presumes the text as virtual reality; but it is not about encumbering kind of VR, conditioned with the use of data-glove and head mounted display (so called goggle-and-glove VR) but for unencumbering VR, based on the reader's/user's identification with the cursor. Being there, the imperative for the total immersion in the text environment, is now enabled by the reader's identification with cursor. The act of clicking anticipates the user's meeting with the clickual reality and continual linking from one part of a text to the others. The act of clicking and linking becomes paradigmatic for the sensitivity of those to whom the clickual reality means one of the first realities within their world as the pluriversum of given physical world and alternative artificial realities. On the basis of this Mark Amerika defined his cyber-cogito: "I link therefore I am" . The reading of such literary projects is principally non-trivial and cybernetic. We read according to schemes, which we try to find, returning to the beginning many times. We print individual page (if it's possible), do scripts and schemes about already chosen links, meaning that we're utmost active in composing/supplementing the "textscape". A text which requires non-trivial reading is ergodic according to Espen J. Aarseth's claims in his book Cybertext (1997). Such reading is also risky, because "the cybertext puts its would-be-reader at risk: the risk of rejection".

Text with certain rules and at the same time with alternatives for a reader, possibilities on which s/he'll bet or abandon on the way through a "textscape", directs to the reception similar to that in a game. Literary projects on the web are because of that feature close to the trends of today's ludic culture (i.e. the culture of games spread between the principles of agon and ilinx (according to the division introduced in the work of R. Caillois), and also close to the techno- sensitivity described as a feeling of today's trendy individual as homo aestheticus. S/he is often a high-level adrenaline junky, in need of an increasing amount of stimuli of different sources in shortest possible period of time - an overexcited (wo)man in the sense of Paul Virilio's concept of l'homme surexcite. Her/his basic tools are more and more the simulator, bungy jumping and devices, required for entering the cyber space. To find oneself on the uncertain axis between non-evident bellow and above, left and right seems to be a real sensation, which goes hand in hand with the people entering the world of smart technologies and trendy activities in theme parks today. An esthetic being is not stimulated only by such activities and attractions, but also by encountering different forms of electronic art. The higly uncertain and unusual experience and sensations are also offered by works of web-literatures, which require a reader who will curiously and even hazardously choose how to navigate through "textscape".The main thread is lost in the linear course of the text; that is on the referential level, as well as on the visual/tactile one. The authority of the sentences, pages, images, of the evident "now" and "later", of the beginning and the end is destroyed.

Web-literature isn't articulated on printed pages, but on the computer's windows, which have a very complex structure. Often the impossoble is demanded from the reader/user - to look at the same time at different texts and visual components which are distributed on the computer window as in a space with distinctively profound extension. With this kind of projects the change of temporal perspective is also important: the shift from perfective to imperfective, from "once upon a time" (distinctive of traditional narrative) to real time, in which the interactive environments are set. Real time is a technical one, and therefore a time-space, because it's imposible to imagine time without space in technical approach. Techno-words-images-bodies refer to spatial dimension of technical time due to their ability of powerful representation of spatial relations. Real time also corresponds with "real closeness" as spatial saturation of temporal point reached through the matrix of techno.

Navigation through words-images and words-bodies in "textscape" takes place in complex time. It seems that in the moment of linking (or turning the screens) "nows" start to load. These "nows" are torn out of temporal continuum and form a certain between, which is constituent for reading and techno-suspense in textscape. This is the between, which is characteristic of the apocalyptic moment. One waits for arrival of the unknown, one wants it. It seems that we are dealing with uncertain time following something no longer and preceding something not yet. This is time of expectation, the time nourishing the deepest dreams and mythic visions. Everything is left open, the link simulates a narrow door through which messianic word may enter. Such a between has therefore the function of Jabes' emptiness, of whiteness in traditional writing and of Maurice Blanchot's pause (Interruptions).

Let's also mention the creative approach of web-literatures to the main features of the media (webness) in the forms of self-reference, autopoesis and self-organisation, and in the possibilities of collaborative authorship. Such a project is then not only the scheme demanding reader's concretisation and supplementing, but the environment, which enables a more active approach.. The literary projects on web form the part of today's electronic art as the utmost hybrid area of distinctly concept projects in which the pair ground/world in Heidegger's essay "Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes" is replaced with the duo world/web, because we are dealing with the articulation in on-line world. Maybe only a longer temporal distance from the present will allow more critical regard of these works, which have abandoned the elite art institutions, democratised themselves (they could be treated as the issues of cyberpop), but on the level of production they demand enough creative approach and software expertise. After decades a new name may be found for the wide area of creativity, the starting-point of which are mostly art and smart technologies. This area extends from the artistic domain into the scope of post-artistic creative sensitivity and spirituality, and above all of the communication in the world, determined with techno as a principle. But at the moment its certain that there is among all regular institutions, exactly art the only one which can accept such forms of creative communication enabled within the matrix of technoculture.

Janez Strehovec is a private researcher at the project Theories of Cyberculture supported by Slovenian Ministry of Science and Technology. He holds an M.A. and Ph. D. in aesthetics and is also a lecturer at the Academy of Visual Arts - Department of Design (at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia). His most recent book written in Slovene is Technoculture - Culture of Techno (1998). One of his articles written in English is available on:





about Bergen

Please send us an email if you have any questions or comments.
Last update: 2
nd of November 1998.