active/onBlur: an interview with Talan Memmott
conducted by Mark Amerika


  
Mark
Amerika
This year we had trouble labeling our competition. We settled on the term New Media Writing which is kind of like one of those generic boxes of cereal you buy in the grocery store, you know, the white box with black lettering that says "Wheat Flakes" or the cans of beer that simply say "Beer." Being the neologistic wordsmith that you are, could you help us out here - i.e., what do you call the kind of writing you do and does it apply to others too?
 
Talan
Memmott
Nomolectic electrature? Appliterature?

Oh, there are so many terms out there... I think the title "New Media Writing" is acceptable precisely because it is so generic. If you go with any of the many terms for this stuff - hypertext, cybertext, hypermedia, web.art, net.art, etc. - you open yourself up to varying, sometimes highly specific interpretations of the term. I mean one man's web.art is another man's hypertext. New Media, as "white box" as it is, at least does not suffer from this. Where some of the more specific terms leave out or inflate certain aspects of the media/um, the generic "New Media" does not.
It is very difficult to put a tag on a media/um that is more than one.

For my own work, I have used rich.lit, though I don't stick to this and I don't make any claim that the term is appropriate across the board. Really, all the terms generically indicate a creative cultural practice through applied technology.
 
MA: What got you interested in experimenting with writing on the web?
 
TM: A number of things...
First, I work in the web-development industry so I am always online or writing code. You learn a lot about information architecture and interface design when you develop corporate websites. So, working with Percepticon developed the skill set. At times, I must admit - I am a code-aholic. But, I see the code-aholism as part of my overall writing practice.

There are a couple of levels to what I am doing. There is the theory/fiction work like "Lexia to Perplexia," the more hypertext fiction work (which is still at least quasi-theory) like "Lolli's Apartment," and some regular old experimental fiction. The straight fiction work is not so much interested in the web beyond distribution, whereas the other types of work exploit technological aspects in their formation - from the narrative to the structural.

I started experimenting with creative applications in 1996. I immediately saw potential in the web at that time and was making little pieces to build my skill set and explore narrative structures. The narrative experiments are actually an extension of earlier interests in writing. As to the web, what I first recognized and wanted to explore was the complication of FACE and SPACE that the browser window presents. I was intrigued not so much by technological bells and whistles as by the window as a space for text and image. There was a lot of carryover from my earlier experiences making installation art, as I viewed the space as something like an empty gallery. So, in terms of writing this presents the complication that you are not writing on a surface, but writing in a space.

I think what interested me most was how the web brought together a number of practices for me, and that it was a pretty wide-open venue for further experiments in narrative construction.
 
MA: Your work, like so much of the best new work emerging on the net, puts into play a renegotiation of the image/text relationship. Do you see yourself coming from a more visual or literary background - or are these distinctions meant to fall by the wayside?
 
TM: My definition of text includes images. I have said before that I kind of stick to the ol' post-structuralist adage - the world is text. I came to writing through visual art but I always used writing in my visual art. I've been a painter, performer, created installation and video, written and directed plays - there was always writing. Writing is a constant, as any medium forms a kind of writing. In many regards I am a media nomad.

When I think of the term hypertext I take an open view. Hyper, of course, means "to excess"; in regards to text, I read it as something like: every medium leaves a mark, every cultural practice produces a form of writing. It is a question of application - in relation to the written word, hypermedia techniques allow for extended functionality that increases the narrative value of an image, lifting it from its previous illustrative state. The alphabetic can be made animate, ideo-, or diagrammatic as well. The interface itself can appear as ideogram with huge narrative potential.

As far as distinctions between the literary and the visual - they can remain, can be ignored, they can fade. As a writer/artist they are borders to be played at, walls to graffiti, climb, or tumble.
 
MA: Does the distributed network of web artists whose work is readily available to you influence your own practice? It seems to me that all serious web artists are, first of all, serious web surfers, no?
 
TM: I would doubt anyone is creating work that is not influenced by the work of others. There is a lot of great work out there from all over the world. Great publications, organizations, lists ... trAce is evidence of how writing on the web is a global phenomenon. What is most amazing to me is the diversity of work and I think this is one of the reasons it is so difficult to give the media/um a name. Every writer/artist deals with the technology differently, creating not so much a personal style but an individuated form. So, even within specific genres of creative web-based works you have many voices.

I think it is not only natural to be influenced by the work of others, but also that we are all (any/every "user") influenced by the vicissitudes of technology, the environment and general economy of the network. I think "Lexia to Perpexia" is evidence of my own attachment...
 
MA: How does one get from Lexia to Perplexia? Or, to put it another way, why this work and why now?
 
TM: On the surface the title is a statement concerning a move from "hypertext" to "hypermedia" - the complicating of literary models. But the arguments of the piece are more complex and diverse than that - to some extent it is a piece about ontological complications that occur by way of attachment to the Internet.

When I began work on "Lexia to Perplexia" in November of 1999 DHTML was starting to appear on the web. The ability to overlap text, image, any object on the page alters the concept of the document on the web, and with some additional JavaScript, the sheet - the imagine sheet that is the screen - is puncturated rather than punctuated. I saw a lot of potential here in complicating the literary page/screen argument. Part of the perplexion of "Lexia to Perplexia" is in the stratification of the content, that the narrative experience of the piece is distributed between the text and image, and extended to the User/Reader in the form of an "application" that is operated rather than consumed. In that regard, it is interesting to note that much of the content is in reference to the process of attachment to the application - a tangential description of the action of the user.

With a document that is acted upon, unfolded, revealed, opened rather than read, full of holes to elsewhere, hiding secret inScriptions, filled with links like mines and traps and triggers - we are no longer talking page or screen, but appliance. Navigating the Lexia of "Lexia to Perplexia" is kind of like getting a new device and trying to figure out how the heck it works ... Perhaps the "Lexia to Perplexia" User Manual is the content of the work itself - encrypted, only partially translated like some of the instructions from IKEA, only inter-hyperactive. There is a confusion of ontological, literary, and technical application - perplexia.
 
MA: At one point in "Lexia," the writing goes:

"I, User, exit this for that -
sorted, compartmentalized,
archived.
RE:organized - stacked, a body with
organs elsewhere.
The de:parted body rests, no longer
active/ onBlur;
0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0
(the flat line string thread woven
into linen wrapped 'round)
The User is laid flat and dried into
bands of jerky -
isolated, while A.exe indexes and
pre.pares the packets."

...wherein you once again take the language of code and turn it into degenerative prose. The User almost sounds like a drug addict except here she is maybe a code-addict? Or: to put it another way, Do Androids Dream of Arbitrarily Corrupted Sim.Stem Folders?
 
TM: Yes, that text is from the section titled "Ka Space: encryption >book< of the dead." There is a fundamental pun here ... Osiris of Egyptian mythology is more accurately named Ausere. In a simple, frivolous manipulation of the name you come up with "A User." On top of this we have an attempt at constructing something akin to the "Body Without Organs" of Delueze and Guattari misread through an attachment to the Egyptian funerary text, which is the theme of the section. A.exe is simply Anubis. The "Body" that is constructed here, as stated in the cited text, is not exactly like Delueze and Guattari's - it is "a body with organs elsewhere," in reference to attachment to the Internet apparatus and the distribution of "being" across it - as data, as pixels, as energy...

I suppose this text could be read in the context you propose at both the Deluezean level and as applied to User attachment to the Internet. If we replace desire with addiction, the term "packets" is variable. The "Body Without Organs" as written by Delueze and Guattari in "The Body Without Organs," makes direct reference to drug addiction, as the section of "A Thousand Plateaus" is primarily dedicated to Antonin Artuad.
 
MA: This year's trAce/Alt-X judge, Shelley Jackson, says of your award-winning work "the reader's first pleasure will probably be a visual one. This is a gorgeous piece. But the visuals though beautiful are not only decorative but syntactical. Some of Memmott's most elegant arguments are made visually, through the logic of layout and the grammar of the link." That's actually a wonderful way of putting it - and I'm now wondering if you would elaborate a little bit on your digital rhetoric, that is, the way you use the screenal interface to create visual metaphors that syntactically make your critifictional case?
 
TM: I am not surprised Shelley Jackson recognizes these attributes as her own work is super-smart and an inspiration. But I am always happy when some of the formal intent gets through.

As far as a digital rhetoric goes - I am not sure I can elaborate too much. I could get into all the little theoretical tidbits but it would clog up the server or I'd bore everyone off this page. But I think the recognition that images and interaction are used in a syntactical sense is significant. As I mentioned earlier, the interest in the window as a narrative space, neither screen nor page, is what drew me into making work.

In "Lexia to Perplexia" there is an apparent integration between the interface concepts and the subjects of the content that forms something that is truly an application. I have tried to extract just the text from "Lexia to Perplexia," and it suffers from the lack of diagrammatic and dynamic attributes of the "content application" as "mise en scene." The hypermedia work succeeds, I think, because of the way its formation was integrated with the writing process. Much of the functionality arises out of early notes and was developed alongside the writing, so early on there was a sort of branching - this sort of diversification develops into the environment of the final application.
 
MA: I know part of your background is as a musician in a punk rock band and part of it is in obsessing over contemporary theory. This reminds me of the work of another writer, the late Kathy Acker, although in Acker's work the punk influences are more apparent, that is, she appropriates the punk attitude and remixes it into her narrative architecture so that it's right in your face - whereas with your work the theory seems to take prominence, and I'm wondering where is the punk in your work?
 
TM: My punk days were early on. I played in punk bands from '79 to '82 - I was a teenage punk. I did recently try to relive those days by forming a band called YOINK but that was short-lived. But, I've played in bands all my life - Short Order Cooks, Sloppy Kafka, Peabody, Jack the Ant ... Anyway...

I studied with Kathy Acker in the early nineties. She convinced me to take my writing seriously. I don't see the punk coming out in my writing in the same way as it does in her work. And, you are correct in recognizing that theory is in the foreground of my work. There is, I think, in my work a similar pirate intent. The heavy neologistic play and abstraction of context, plus the infusion of theory leads to a nearly unreadable text that is quasi-academic, yet outside the academy. Of course, the unreadability extends in all directions, and is further complicated through hypermedia ... The text is subversive by subverting itself. There is perhaps something punk in that. Maybe web-smart rather than street-smart? I think it is a little more jazz than punk for me.

My obsession with theory started in art school. Like I said, I come to writing through fine art. Thinking about it now, one of the first things that made me move from visual art toward writing was in fact Kathy Acker's essay in Art After Modernism. That text made me start to consider the theory/fiction hybrid in visual terms as it was made up of textual descriptions of paintings. But, I got hooked on Derrida, Delueze and Guattari, all that stuff at a time when I was primarily painting and doing installation work. I think of my own work as informed by these authors but not in any real rigorous sense. I call my work theory/fiction, or in the case of LUX - ficto-critical art history, because the practice is generally creative rather than exclusively critical.
 
MA: I keep waiting for more sonic fictions to scream across the network. What role do you think sound will play in net art development and, for that matter, how will net artists of the narrative persuasion bring their work into live performance spaces?
 
TM: Sound is starting to catch on, though not so much in a hypermediated sense. I see/hear a lot of audio readings, but there is not too much in regards to sound in a narrative sense. I know the visual poet Jim Andrews has been working on something called VisMu, in which the User interacts with objects to play and manipulate, different scat riffs. I think this work offers an interesting audio narrative experience for the User.

As far as performance space, we can think of it in terms of cinema, theater, and installation ... or, lecture. I think "Lexia to Perplexia" could only have been performed as a lecture at Incubation. The content was ripe for chalkboard talk ... Some possibilities for theater could be plays performed simultaneously in various locations, which share characters from remote casts; or, plays in which the dialogue is submitted from users attached to an application that has nothing to do with play - the dialogue could be read from monitors set up like teleprompters. Just some thoughts, but I have been thinking about theater lately.
 
MA: One of the many rich terms that come up in "Lexia" is bi.narrative. What is bi.narrative? A yes/no undecidability that challenges the interactive Other? A story that goes both ways?
 
TM: Basically the term is used to indicate the dual conductivity between local and remote agencies.

In the appendix to "Lexia to Perplexia" ("Delimited Meshings," from the forthcoming Cauldron and Net) I make the claim that the success of the Internet mythos is based on the rejection (dis-play) of the projection (exe.tension). I refer to that snippet here because I think it represents something of what I mean by bi.narrative. I think I have used the term in "Lexia" to represent a degree of reciprocity in the conductivity between agents. A certain, intertimate consensus ... It refers as well to the hidden narrative, the odyssey of our encoded [Secret(ed)] agents through the Internet apparatus - allowing a sort of formal protagonist for the projective/rejective (there and back) mythos that defines, and is a seductive force of the Internet. I diagram this in some of my other pieces by doubling the Lacanian interpenetrating triangle diagram from the seminars - placing the gaze on both sides. In "Lexia" I think I insinuate this by the heavy horizontal of the interface - plus, there are a few direct diagrammatic references to the Lacanian diagram.
 
MA: In your web-rich textuality, you tend to blur the distinction between hypermediation and hypermeditation. The reader is asked to be patient, to resist the click-happy mentality that we now associate with web-surfing. One can't help but wonder if this isn't part of some political strategy - but then again, maybe it's pure formal play? An investigation into the potentialities of a new cyberpoetics?
 
TM: I think in "Lexia" there is a conscious attempt to represent the "click" or any cursor action as a complication of the text. There is quite a bit of writing in "Lexia to Perplexia," but it is often prematurely obfuscated by User interaction. This is a fundamental formal aspect of the piece. I agree with the term hypermeditation - there are only 10 pages in the work, yet each page is excessively layered. So, one dwells on a page - unfolds and unpacks the screen, opens and occupies a space - rather than being relocated by the click=link association. There is potential here for poetics and narrative, as well as critical applications.
 
MA: How is coding your web-critifiction similar to constructing an artificial intelligence? At one point in "Lexia" you say "<HEAD>{FACE}<BODY>,<BODY>FACE</BODY>" and attribute the encrypted data to a certain "Sign.mud Fraud" - it's as if language in web.space has become totally liquefied, burnt-out, and overprocessed. The binary remix of DJ Metastrophe from his latest release "Cig.Monde Fried"?
 
TM: What you see there, the {FACE},FACE is the result of some thick premediation of an appropriated fragment from Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents. The placement of the face as between the head and body, and between the body and the end of the body is first a sort of lateral Cartesian pun. As well, faciality is intentionally mis-, or displaced - alternative zeroes, terminals of subjectivity - variables. Which falls in line with the parsed signature of Sign.mud.Fraud...

The encoding is multi-layered. There is the code-base of the application, which certainly participates in the narrative construction of the work through interactive functionality. The code-base also bubbles through to the surface, to the superficial narrative - the readable text - by what you have called "overprocessing." A source like this may be parsed, which is a sort of subjective encoding, edited, and re-written 10, 15 times before completion.

The notion of the text being "remixed" in not that far off from the actual process, as the appropriated text is reduced to something akin to a "sample" ... Hmm, and my own definition of my own term Metastrophe - a doubling of a doubling that produces a single coupling in dual local spaces - produces a sort of noise in the text that could be mistaken for "scratching." Of course we're all "hard-disc" jockeys...
 
MA: Is "readability" an issue to you?
 
TM: I think readability for me is mostly based upon how I feel about the hypermedia object's relationship to my intent. By all means there are cryptic elements in my theory/fiction work, but I think there is a level of coherency in the language construction - by this I mean the neology may be baroque but it is not completely frivolous. So much of the content occurs through interaction - text is revealed, objects are manipulated - that it seems to be more a question of inferability than readability - tracing the outlines through insi(g)nuation and simulation.
 
MA: Besides being a net.artist, you also edit BeeHive, a major online hypermedia publication, which is a part of the Percepticon group, a successful web strategy and design company out of San Francisco. How do all of these roles, artist/editor/entrepreneur, play off of each other? Does it all melt into one pseudo-utopian writing practice, or must one make clear time-management decisions by constantly re-prioritizing projects to get all the work done?
 
TM: There are times where it can be somewhat utopian. Most of the time it is a constant juggling of time committments. BeeHive is quite a bit of work. Many design hours, the editorial, the curatorial, production, promotion ... I love it. I am honored to be publishing the work. Luckily, BeeHive is part of Percepticon or I am not sure it could be produced. The company is heavily committed to the idea of quality content on the web and I think BeeHive has done well for the sort of publication it is. Lately I have been able to delegate the poetry curating/editing to Ted Warnell, who joined the BeeHive crew at the beginning of volume three. Not only did this free up some time for myself, but I think it added a new flavor to the poetry content in BeeHive.

Percepticon is always busy. It's a glorious rat-race. Then there's my own work ... Since BeeHive publishes regularly and I can't very well negotiate deadlines with corporate clients based upon my writing deadlines, my own work is where the most rescheduling occurs. I work on a lot of stuff simultaneously. Right now, I am working on three or four things but they all have variable end dates. Its kind of like a horse race where each horse has a different finish line and the competition is not to see who finishes first, but to finish in the proper sequence.

The good thing is, if you don't know San Francisco, there is a thing here called "Peets" - aged Sumatra! Coltrane, a cup of Peets, and I'm ready to write.
 
MA: How does one run (away from) an Exe.tension?
 
TM: I suppose this is where I am asked to define the method that produced the term. Simply, the use of "exe" as a prefix rather than a file extension makes the term readable in a literary sense. This does not mean it is defined by its homophonic similar - extension. The "exe" prefix differs from "ex" (out) by its reference to an executable, an application. Tension as an executable. When applied to extermination, producing exe.termination, the context shifts from an end to a continuation, toward something I call in "Lexia to Perplexia," "terminal hopscotch."
 

ebr presents talan memmott's trAce/Alt-X award-winning fiction


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