“Not words and pictures but poems as visual objects (read: subjects).” Poetry Plastique, a 2001 exhibition curated by Jay Sanders and Charles Bernstein. Amazing work by amazing people. Call it tactile textuality. (Check out Susan Bee, Richard Tuttle, and Bernsten’s “with strings” as a starting point.) Complete catalog available as a monster PDF.
Channel surfing late last night I stumbled across Turner Classic Movies’ Ray Harryhausen festival. Ray Harry-who? I didn’t know at first either, but imagine my delight to find that his was the guiding hand behind so many of the films that captivated me as a kid. Ray Harryhausen pioneered the techiniques of stop-motion animation, whereby a model figure is painstakingly repositioned—by hand—through its full range of motion, each and every frame. For a complex scene, Harryhausen might average only thirteen frames of animation a day. Since films run at 24 frames per second, that means two full days of work for a second of screen time.
Dinosaurs, space monsters, giant crabs and octopi, mythological creatures, and his signature animated skeletons: Harryhausen did them all. From early classics like It Came from Beneath the Sea and Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers through Mighty Joe Young, the Sinbad trilogy, Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonaughts, and his final film Clash of the Titans, Harryhausen was the individual responsible for some of the most compelling moving images of my childhood. Part of what attracts me to his creations, then and now, is their self-evident artifice: the jerky stop-motion, the too-bright colors, the way they stand out in relief against their blue-screened background shots. I can’t help but think of the contrast to the Matrix Reloaded, which I finally saw this past week. The CGI is, of course, spectacular, and I’m not about to say that things were better in the good old days. But there’s something about the work ethic: on the one hand, the teams of animators and the vast rendering farms that produced the digital processing in something like 95% of the Matrix’s frames, and on the other hand Harryhausen, literally single-handedly putting a seven-headed hydra or a band of scimitar-wielding animated skeletons through their paces—frame by frame, second by second.
I don’t know how future generations will look back on the current crop of CGI, but I do know two things: that if I could afford the time, I’d be watching the complete Sinbad trilogy on TCM tonight (alas, no TiVo); and that Trog, the gentled troglodyte from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, could kick Shrek’s big green butt.
Update (via Slashdot): Shoulda seen this one coming.
A little project I put together this evening. Click the map for the interactive version.
Yeah, everybody’s talking about it. I’m posting the link mainly for my own reference, but if you haven’t seen it yet, well . . . you really should.
(I tried my hand in this same genre not too long ago.)
For the past couple of weeks I’ve been pretty intensively engaged with my book, doing research and writing related to one particular electronic text that promulgated rapidly across the Internet in the early 1990s. I hope to post some of this material here soon, with the blessings of my publisher.
What I want to say a few words about today, however, is what it means to do research—more specifically, textual critical literary research—online, for a born-digital artifact. Not once in this two week bout of work did I find it necessary to make a trip to my campus’s brick and mortar library, nor did I run a single search on the MLA Bibliography—despite the fact that I was dealing with what was unequivocally a literary work. My research instead consisted in dozens if not hundreds of Google queries, nested and sometimes painstakingly refined; scouring the Google Groups USENET Archive; and retrieving public digests from listservs that were active during this period. The network was my archive, and it is remarkable the extent to which electronic objects turn out to be self-documenting: date- and time-stamps enabled me to establish the kind of precision chronologies of which historians of print can usually only dream. Meanwhile, my research notes consist not of index cards or legal pads, but rather folders on my laptop, filled with downloaded files and page grabs.
In the end, however, it was still necessary to reach out and contact certain key individuals, all of whom were still online, and sometimes at the same email address they had a decade ago. Some of these people were helpful, some were disappointingly silent. I was liberally dosed with the leetspeak that is the orthographic signature of those who spent time online in the eighties. And at one point one of my correspondents (who has been far more generous than he needed to be to some guy he doesn’t know writing a book) placed the archives of a critical BBS online for me—but with a catch. The clock was ticking, I was told, and the archives would remain up for just an hour or five (!); after that he’d pull them offline again. You can imagine what it would have felt like to have been out of the house and missed that message, but fortunately I wasn’t and it was pretty thrilling while it lasted: call it real-time research.
All of this is apropos to the fundamental issues I’m exploring in the book, namely the material make-up of digital media and what it means to imagine a historical or archival existance for an electronic object. It’s often said that the network has no memory, that everything online transpires in an ever-expanding state of the perpetual now. But that’s not really true. The bits are mostly all there somewhere, on a server, on a disk, on tape. Preservation is ultimately a social rather than a technological enterprise, and what we need to do is create a critical culture in which more people recognize the importance of saving a networked heritage and born-digital artifacts. The Wayback Machine is a step in this direction of course, but just as important are the heroic efforts of individuals like Jason Scott, who has preserved a great deal of the eighties BBS culture on his massive Textfiles site. The recently published New Media Reader also addresses this desideratum by including a CD-ROM with working copies (and documentation and source code) of games, early programs, and electronic literature. How is the blogosphere being indexed and archived?
Again, stay-tuned for some excerpts from the actual material I’ve been writing up, and in the meantime I’d appreciate hearing from others who are seriously engaged in researching the roots of digital culture on the network.
Mondo Nuovo—Ispezione Multispettrale Digitale: “not a scanner but rather an optoelectronic multispectral telecamera.” Check out the images on display in the Results area.
Update (via Humanist): See also this set of transformations.
First, I should be able to do blockquoting. I’m gonna repeat to get a critical mass. I’m gonna repeat to get a critical mass. I’m gonna repeat to get a critical mass. I’m gonna repeat to get a critical mass. I’m gonna repeat to get a critical mass.
It’s also supposed to do stuff like convert underscores to italics. And asterisks to boldface.
Acronyms get formatted, which is good, ‘cause I use a lot of TLA (Three Letter Acronyms).
I can do ™ and © and all that other IP stuff. (That’ll keep the lawyers happy.)
Ellipses . . . good . . . I use lots of those—and real en-dashes and em-dashes—-and quotes! No more ugly “straight” quotes, just curvacious (sp?) curly quotes.
Hmm. Let’s see what happens here . . .
Update: A few more experiments — checking to see how spaces around the en-dash get handled…and badly formed ellipses.. .
Updated update: So it’s not correcting the ellipses (too bad), it’s preserving the spaces around the en-dash (bad too), and there also seems to be a problem with the em-dash (above). Hmm. Hmm. A bit disappointing. Maybe I need to tinker with some of the configs.
Willard McCarty, long-time editor of the venerable Humanist list, suggests, tongue only passingly in cheek, that anti-spam software such as SpamAssassin could eventually lead to more sophisticated tools for text analysis in the humanities. After sharing the post-mortem of a typical piece of spam snagged by the software's filters he goes on to say:
I wonder if in the push to get messages by such tests as the above and the countermeasures devised against them we don't learn something useful about language. Look on the bright side? Develop a better sense of irony? Warfare has always driven technological progress; apparently the online porn industry is responsible in part for ever better bandwidth. Could spamming yield breakthroughs in text-analysis?
See everybody soon.
Analytical bibliography meets CSI: The American Society of Questioned Document Examiners.
Full text of Beyond Productivity: Information Technology, Innovation, and Creativity, a report prepared for the National Academy of Sciences, 2003. Among those on the authoring committee: William J. Mitchell, Kate Hayles, John Maeda, Phoebe Sengers, Barbara Stafford.
Regulars here, such as there are, will have noticed that the look of my blog has changed a bit. Like many, I started with a default MT stylesheet ("Stormy"). But after encountering one too many blogs that looked just like my own--call it the doppelgänger effect--I've begun to chip away at the stylesheet, for now more chromatically than structurally.
Lev Manovich makes the interesting argument that because digital objects always operate within a finite (however vast) set of parameters, that a truly radical gesture of originality is to simply retain the default settings. Strictly speaking, though, he's talking about applications-based interfaces, and not stylesheets. Indeed, with the rise of CSS, skins, etc. there is now a more pronounced division than ever between "form" and "content"--something that first-wave interface revisionists like Brenda Laurel argued strenuously against. So, I'm wondering: are there genuine aesthetic possibilities that get lost in the neo-fundamentalist separation of styles and data, or is the old organic ideal just a kind of tired Romanticism?
Update 6/10: Here's a relevant passage from Laurel's Computes as Theatre (1991):
Usually we think about interactive computing in terms of two things: an application and an interface. In the reigning view, these two things are conceptually distinct: An application provides specific functionality for specific goals, and an interface represents that functionality to people. The interface is the thing that we communicate with -- the thing we 'talk' to -- the thing that mediates between us and the inner workings of the machine. The interface is typically designed last, after the application is thoroughly conceived and perhaps even implemented; it is attached to a preexisting bundle of 'functionality' to serve as its contact surface.
Laurel's own theories of HCI, as presented in the book, are aimed against this then-prevailing view--but the interface as "contact surface," an add-on to a "pre-existing bundle of functionality" is precisely the relationship between data and styles that's been reinstated by CSS, is it not?
To some extent I'm playing devil's advocate here, since I cut my teeth on SGML, the spiritual ancsetor of the current XHTML/CSS paradigm. But I would like some help in thinking this through. Note too that the separation of data and styles goes against the grain of the old humanistic saw about the mutually informing and inextricable nature of the relationship between form and content (got to go back to A. C. Bradley for that one).
There comes a point in Matthew Barney's Cremaster 4 (1994)--right about when the tap-dancing satyr character is completing his peristaltic journey down the long, plasticine birth canal past the polyps, while the two motorcycle teams (yellow and blue, with sidecars) that are circling the Isle of Man in opposite directions from one another are racing toward a head-on as the camera cuts quicker and quicker between them, while the gelatinous grubs that have gradually emerged from the cyclist's bodysuits have advanced or retreated to their furthest positions, and the Laughton sheep stands placidly in the center of the roadway right smack in the middle of the two oncoming motorcycles (which is also the precise spot at which the tap-dancing satyr is about to surface)--there comes a point when you say to yourself, I've just got to see how this comes out.
WordHerders, by the way, is the name of a new blogging collective initiated by Jason. Most of the participants have some sort of UMd connection. (Thanks, Jason, for setting us all up.) I'm keeping my blog on its present server for now, but I'm honored to be known as a 'herder.
nostalgia history, much of it before my time.
I've been culling through old usenet groups, listserv archives, and personal email spools for my research, and there's a lot of nostalgia to the process. I first started spending time online in 1994, and yes, there was a Web then, but it was still a novelty: I spent at least as much time hanging out on what Alan Sondheim has called the darknet, the twilight world of command line clients and text-only protocols (telnet, shell, usenet, irc, moo/mud, finger, gopher, ftp). I miss it. I miss its texts (like the FutureCulture "Bubble Manifesto" or Sondheim's running Internet Text (here's a taste)); I miss its people (people like Tom Ellis, Greg Ritter, and Andy Hawks who I've now lost track of but who once seemed like the center of the online community); I miss the talk (the rants and flames and faqs and wit and the long, earnest explorations that arrived by the hour from places like Cybermind and Future of Philosophy); and I miss the interface, the command line itself. Yes, of course I can still login to a server with a shell account, but in truth I rarely do, unless I have some program to run or some task to accomplish. Though I'm not much more than an advanced beginner with unix (I can write simple shell scripts, I can pipe, I can grep, I can adjust my profile, but that's about where it ends) I nonetheless found the darknet command line calm and comforting. Not threatening at all. I suppose it had something to do with the rhythms of the interaction, for while I knew the machine was capable of unleashing unthinkable power, I also knew it would sit dormant forever, waiting for my fingers to hit the keys. There was a kind of deep, deep patience in that prompt and cursor, those courier incantations whose art I've now lost. And that deep patience--that sense of time, of scale, of sustainable rhythm--also seems lost now, bulldozed under by the broadband blast of streaming screaming everything.
Does anyone reading this still remember Michael Current?
Just back from a late afternoon walk up Georgia Avenue. Georgia Avenue is one of DC and suburban Maryland's main arteries. While out of towners may know Massachusetts Avenue ("Embassy Row") or Connecticut or Wisconsin Avenues (which run down to the fashionable enclaves in Northwest DC and Georgetown), Georgia Avenue is for the locals. The stretch where it crosses the DC line into Silver Spring, Maryland is a rich mix of old and new: bodegas, lunch-counters, and carry-outs; ethnic restaurants (Tex-Mex, Salvadoran, Chinese, Thai, Indian, Ehtiopian); pawn shops; a corsette store (really); the new location for Pyramid Atlantic; an armed forces recruiting center; laundromats and seamstresses. All of this flows north to where Georgia Avenue interstects with US Route 29, and the triangle thus formed is the epicenter of Silver Spring's revitalization, capped off by the AFI and the new headquarters building for the Discovery Channel.
I'm endlessly fascinated by this neighborhood, and seem to discover new things on every walk. There is, for example, the "Mayor's Promenade," a brick arcade dedicated to the memory of Norman Lane, the homeless unofficial "mayor" of Silver Spring--his bronze bust sits on a pedastal at the head of the alleyway. Also tucked away on a sidestreet is Silver Spring Books (used books, that is).
Today some instinct took hold of me and sent me there the moment I set foot on the Avenue, and sure enough, just inside the door, I caught sight of Right as Rain and Hell to Pay, the first two books from local writer George Pelecanos's most recent trilogy. Pelecanos, who is a University of Maryland graduate, writes hard-boiled prose about DC and its environs, books set in those proverbial (but real) places the tourists never see. The books' pages are peppered with real street names, real businesses, all sorts of local references. Just across Georgia Avenue is the Korean lunch counter mentioned on the first page of his first book, A Firing Offense. I've been steadily consuming Pelecanos since moving here two years ago, and so I immediately snatched up these two volumes from the latest trilolgy to kickstart my summer reading. Pelecanos doesn't sit on the shelves for long around here, so I felt pretty fortunate in my find.
But wait. It gets better. The woman who rang me up at the register took a look at what I had in hand and said, "Do you know that we're in there?" What do you mean, I asked. "This store. Silver Spring Books. One of the characters in the trilogy works here."
So how's that for serendipity? We chatted for a few more minutes; she told me that when she went to a signing she recognized Pelecanos from his own visits to the store. This isn't the kind of place that gives out cute customized bookmarks, so I left with a plain Silver Spring Books business card stuck in the pages as a souvenir. Well.