I explore media in transition. My research encompasses film, video, print, digital arts, and the web. I'm interested in what artists and writers are doing and in what critics and scholars are saying.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Transliteracies 2005, UCSB

On June 17 and 18 at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), I attended the Transliteracies 2005 conference (Conversation Roundtables on Online Reading), where theorists and practitioners from the humanities, arts, social sciences, computer science, and industry discussed “the fate of reading in the ‘new media’ age.” With MIT4: The Work of Stories still on my mind (conference held at MIT May 6–8, discussed earlier), I continued my survey of media in transition. Whereas MIT4 featured hundreds of papers that were presented at different locations throughout the MIT campus -- usually several papers delivered at the same time -- Transliteracies involved a smaller, more intimate context for sharing ideas and showcasing work in one space. And unlike MIT4, which covered storytelling across a range of traditional and emergent media, this gathering focused on the many guises of new media.

In addition to featuring three keynote speakers, Adrian Johns (“Reading, Discovering, and Knowing”), Anne Balsamo (“Designing Culture: A Work of the Technological Imagination”), and Walter Bender (“The Rule of Many: New Media and Emergent Intelligence”), the two-day event involved three roundtable “conversations”: the first, moderated by Alan Liu, addressed “Reading, Past and Present”; the second, moderated by Rita Raley, considered “Reading and Media”; and the third, moderated by Bruce Bimber, reflected on “Reading as a Social Practice.” A panel devoted to “The Art of Online Reading” introduced the work of digital artists. The schedule that is posted online provides an overview of Transliteracies 2005; I offer responses to selected presentations and follow up on a sampling of leads that speakers introduced.

The conference was organized by Alan Liu, director of the interdisciplinary Transliteracies Project and Professor of English at UCSB. Liu is also principal investigator of Transcriptions: Literature and the Culture of Information, a curricular development and research initiative funded by NEH, and “weaver” of Voice of the Shuttle: Web Site for Humanities Research, a comprehensive, multidisciplinary database of Web links that he has maintained since 1994. His latest book, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (University of Chicago Press, 2004), considers the fate of the humanities and arts in the information age, an inquiry that takes into account literature, literary study, and “the literary.” (Part IV, “Humanities and Arts in the Age of Knowledge Work” is particularly relevant to issues the conference addressed.)

Walter Bender, Executive Director of the MIT Media Lab and a keynote speaker, brought to the fore some of the tensions concerning new media theory and practice that divided conference participants into camps based on technological proficiencies: In response to a question that someone asked after his talk, Bender argued that new media literacy entailed understanding source codes and knowing programming languages, a position that seemed to unsettle some people and reassure others.

Laptop bloggers in the audience (and Kevin Almeroth, on the panel) who participated in an online “backchanneling” experiment during Roundtable 3, “Reading as a Social Practice,” commented on this issue as an aspect of the “digital divide”:


“on the topic of “digital divide”....i think its not always defined as a gap between those who have access to the media/technologies and those who don’t….i think its soon becoming a divide between those who can WRITE/AUTHOR/COMMUNICATE using new technoloogies and those who cannot (for what ever purpose: including lack of access to technology, but also lack of media literacy, lack of social literacy, etc.)” (transcript, #80)


“Re: digital divide – yes! It is a cultural divide between a culture based on multiple literacies and a mono-literate, visual (i.e., minimally text-literate) culture.” (transcript, #88)


“A divide based on culture, age as well as many other traditional aspects (e.g. industrialization).

“And unlike the belief that some of these divides can instantly be overcome with money, culture and age cannot.” (transcript, #94)

As one of the “non-laptop bloggers” in the audience (see L5martinez, transcript, #41), and as someone straddling the cultural divide -- stronger on theory than on practice, committed to reading and writing texts both in print and in digital formats, and enthusiastic about the creative/intellectual/educational/communicative possibilities new media support, I was especially concerned with how participants engaged with “multiple literacies” in relation to the humanities and the arts. During my two days at the conference, I had a chance to preview many novel approaches.

The panel on “The Art of Online Reading,” which showcased work by digital artists, demonstrated how central coding has become both to the production and reception of Net art, an elusive genre with divergent strands. Christiane Paul, Adjunct Curator of New Media Arts, Whitney Museum of American Art; Faculty, MFA Computer Arts Department, School of Visual Arts; Director of Intelligent Agent; and author of the book Digital Art (Thames and Hudson, 2003), highlighted key texts. She touched on themes covered in Digital Art as well as in her curated exhibitions, such as Data Dynamics (2001), the Net art selection for the 2002 Whitney Biennial, and CODeDOC (2002), created for Artport, the Whitney’s online portal to Internet art, for which she is responsible. Paul curated CODeDOC II for Ars Electronica 2003; the theme for that year’s festival was “CODE: The Language of Our Time.” (A video archive of the CODE Symposium that was Webcast in conjunction with the festival is available online.) The introduction to the first CODeDOC explains Paul’s approach:

CODeDOC takes a reverse look at 'software art' projects by focusing on and comparing the 'back end' of the code that drives the artwork's 'front end'--the result of the code, be it visuals or a more abstract communication process. A dozen artists coded a specific assignment in a language of their choice and were asked to exchange the code with each other for comments. . . . The languages in which the code is written are Java, C, Visual Basic, Lingo and Perl. Obviously, this is only a selection of scripting and programming languages. HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), the scripting language on which the World Wide Web is based, and Flash Script were excluded mostly for pragmatic reasons (the inclusion of these languages probably would have doubled the number of artists, making the project unwieldy).”

At the Transliteracies conference, Paul also discussed digital art from other perspectives, including narrative, gaming, and GPS technologies. One Internet project that stood out for me was World of Awe, created by new media artist Yael Kanarek. A selection in the Whitney Biennial 2002 Net Art Exhibition, this multi-media narrative “revolves around the story of a traveler in search of a lost treasure. The project engages the ancient genre of the traveler's tale to explore the connections between storytelling, memory, travel and technology. . . . To expand the story, World of Awe spins a network of projects and collaborations online, in galleries and in performance spaces” (WOA site).

Equally compelling, but in a different way, were the experiments by students from Brown University's "Cave Writing" workshop, an advanced electronic writing course initiated in 2002 by novelist and hypertext champion Robert Coover. Designed to investigate "the literary potential of immersive virtual reality," the interdisciplinary, collaborative works that students produced were designed for viewing on the walls of Brown's VR Cave, "an eight-foot cube, wherein the floor and three walls are projected with high-resolution stereo graphics to create a virtual envirnoment, viewed through special 'shutter-lens' glasses" (cavwWEB02). No longer bound to the page or the screen, text appeared to take on life of its own.

Also on “The Art of Online Reading” panel at Transliteracies was George Legrady, Professor, Media Arts and Technology Program and Art Dept., UCSB. A world renowned digital artist, Legrady has described his current research interests as addressing “data collection, data processing methodologies and data visualization presented simultaneously in interactive installations and the internet.” He designs projects that integrate “self-organizing systems and algorithmically generated visualizations.” His presentation at the conference focused on Making Visible the Invisible: What the Community is Reading (2005), a commission by the Seattle Public Library created to “visually map on a daily basis and over time the circulation of non-fiction books, revealing the collective reading interests of the library’s patrons” (SPL). According to Legrady’s own Web site, “The project focuses on data flow and the library as a data exchange center where the circulation of books can be made visible and expressed statistically. . . . Visualizing the statistical information about what titles, topics are circulating in and out provides a real-time living picture of the community in which the library is situated” (George Legrady Studio). Generated by custom-designed statistical and algorithmic software, the visualizations are presented on six plasma screens behind the librarians’ main information desks in the Mixing Chamber. Architect Rem Koolhass designed the library; VRSeattle offers a virtual tour.

George Legrady Studio documents Legrady’s major projects, dating back to 1973. Work that dealt with personal archives captured my attention, such as Pockets Full of Memories, I and II (2001 and 2003-2005, respectively); Slippery Traces: The Postcard Trail (1996); and An Anecdoted Archive from the Cold War (1993). In an interview with Sven Spieker for Art Margins (Oct. 2001), Legrady elaborated on his views regarding interactivity, narrative, archives, information, data, and memory. In his contribution as a laptop blogger during Roundtable 3, he offered his definitions of “reading,” using the terms “decoding,” “retrieving/comprehending,” “acquiring data,” “symbolic decoding,” and “interpretation” (see transcript, #96).

Another member of “The Art of Online Reading” panel included Robert Nideffer, Associate Professor of Studio Art & Information and Computer Science, UC Irvine, and founding director of the Game Culture and Technology Lab, who discussed his project, “a pervasive, multi-modal heterogeneous networking project” that involves “very cool integration of the Net, location-aware cellphones, and a Torque client running on the Game Grid.” On that same panel, UCSB grad students Anne Pascual and Marcus Hauer of Schoenerwissen demoed their project “txtkit,” “an Open Source visual text mining tool for exploring large amounts of multilingual texts.”

Warren Sack, a software designer, digital artist, media theorist, and Assistant Professor of Film and Digital Media, UC Santa Cruz, and a participant in Roundtable 2 at Transliteracies (“Reading and Media”), demoed his project “Agonistics: A Language Game,” which was selected as the April 2005 gate page for the Whitney Artport. Described as “an interface that can be used to visualize the dynamics of online discussions,” this “game” produced a visualization of the online blogging experiment conducted during Roundtable 3.

Keynoter Anne Balsamo, Director of the Institute of Multimedia Literacy at the University of Southern California (USC) and Professor in the USC Interactive Media Division and Gender Studies Program, also has worked as a Principal Scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) where she and her team managed and designed the touring museum exhibit “XFR: Experiments in the Future of Reading.” She discussed this project as well as her forthcoming book, Designing Culture: A Work of the Technological Imagination (from which she appropriated the title of her talk), and some of her other activities, including the consortium HASTAC: Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, to which she and Tara McPherson, another Transliteracies participant from USC, belong.

In an open session that took place during lunch on Friday, McPherson, Chair of Critical Studies in USC’s School of Cinema-Television, had a chance to introduce Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular, a peer-reviewed, online journal that she recently launched. Featuring submissions as well as commissioned multimedia texts on which scholars and Web designers have collaborated, Vectors explores what happens when written text is treated “as an instance of code” (Editorial Statement).

UCLA Professor of English and Design/Media Arts, N. Katherine Hayles, who, along with McPherson and others, participated in Roundtable 2, contributed a commissioned piece to the inaugural edition of Vectors. Written by Hayles and designed by Eric Loyer and the Stamen team, “Narrating Bits” experimented with multimedia criticism by using multimedia resources to develop an alternative interpretation of the narrative/database opposition that Lev Manovich proposed in his influential book The Language of New Media. The term Hayles introduced, “possibility space,” informed the interactive design of “Narrating Bits” and supported her effort “to open new possibilities for understanding the changing roles of narrative in a digital age, when the age-old ability of narrative to shape and express human subjectivity is coming into intimate contact with the capacity of intelligent machines to store, process, and generate massive amounts of data” (Screen 44). She concluded, “I cannot imagine a human world without narrative, but I can imagine narratives transformed and enriched by their interactions with possibility space in the complex ecologies of contemporary media and culture” (Screen 45). “Narrating Bits” complements Hayles’s printed texts, including How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (University of Chicago Press, 1999) and Writing Machines (Mediawork Pamphlet Series, MIT Press, 2002).

Hayles serves on the Literary Advisory Board of the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO), for which she is also the faculty director at UCLA, where the organization is based. Several members of ELO who were not on panels attended Transliteracies, including Marjorie Luesebrink, the organization’s former president and a widely published writer of electronic hypermedia fiction, and Thomas Swiss, current president of ELO, Professor of English and Rhetoric of Inquiry at the University of Iowa, and editor of The Iowa Review Web. Their presence gave me hope that there will be a place for creative writing in the "new media" age.

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  • At 3:35 PM , Blogger Luís Silva said...


    just letting you know I started a blog called source code dedicated to debating issues connected to digital art, hactivism, tactical media, resistance, critical theory...

    now featuring:

    "an artist in the chat room", a text discussing Art_room, an online performance by Susana Mendes Silva

    "confess yourself", a text discussing Confess, a web project by Stewart Smith

    "travel to Java Island", a text discussing JAVA Island, a web project by Miguel Leal

    and many others

    feel free to leave your opinion

    Best wishes

    Luís Silva


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