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