Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Loose Transcript of my Keynote at ELO 2008

The Electronic Literature Organization's 2008 conference was also a festival, a happening, a live networking scene, but most of all was an intense gathering of writers, artists, theorists, scholars, and appreciators of the emerging genres being featured in the exhibitions, performances, and other (mostly paper) presentations.

See my last post for more background on the event.

Meanwhile, here is a loose transcript of my keynote:
You know, I've been thinking about this keynote for a few weeks now.

It's been on my mind. Mostly because once I looked closely at the schedule and realized that I would be the only thing standing between you and your next trip to the desert bar, I had to come up with something out of the ordinary.

So for the past few weeks I've been throwing myself into the preparations. From my sabbatical base in Kailua on the Windward side of Oahu, every night for the past three weeks, I would head over to one of the outrageous all-you-can-eat seafood buffets at one of the primo hotels in Honolulu and eat all of the heavy food I could possibly consume, and then I would go find a podium in an adjacent room and stand behind it and just start talking.

So in this way, you can say I came prepared for tonight's event.

Actually, to tell you the truth, some of those lines I just spoke were basically some sampled remixes gleaned from the Appendix to Stephen Colbert's "I Am America (And So Can You)".

I say I remixed some lines from Colbert because it sounds better than I plagiarized them. For some reason, plagiarism is a definite no-no but remixing and mashing up "found" source material is totally cool. In fact, I'm teaching a seminar this fall called "Remix Culture" and the waiting list is now twice as long as the actual class. I think that says something.

Interestingly enough, I don't think I could have called the remix course "Intermediate Plagiarism." For some reason, that would have raised more than a few eyebrows.

But is not plagiarism written into the book of life?

In Jonatham Safran Foer's excellent novel, Everything Is Illuminated, there is a book within the book called The Book of Antecedents where, in the section entitled Plagiarism, he writes:
God loves the Plagiarist. And so it written, "God created humankind in His image, in the image of God He created them." God is the original plagiarizer. With a lack of reasonable sources from which to filch – man created in the image of what? the animals? – the creation of man was an act of reflexive plagiarizing; God looted the mirror. When we plagiarize, we are likewise creating in the image and participating in the completion of Creation. Am I my brother's source material?
Actually, that's a good question.

In thinking through some of the source material I would sample from for tonight, as well as how I would remix it, I first had to think about the delivery, because in the literary world, we creative writers are known to give readings as part of a spoken word performance, but in the digital art world circuit, we tend to give artist presentations that focus primarily on a selection of works from our collected portfolio, oftentimes showcasing new works of art that the audience may not be familiar with.

So instead of starting the literary "reading" with a line like

"The day that I was to be slaughtered was a very busy day"

the digital artist might instead start off by saying

"Here is the latest artwork that we created inside the ALTX lab and that recently received an honorable mention at this year's Ars Electronica and investigates the confluence of OpenGL, machinema, generative art, and the online porn industry," which is then immediately followed by hitting the play button on a video demo showcasing a first-person shooter gone wild in a world of suspended disbelief.

Neither of these approaches seemed right for tonight's dinner, but there are a few things I have been writing about in my recent book META/DATA: A Digital Poetics and my new work-in-progress REMIXOLOGY: ON BECOMING A POSTPRODUCTION MEDIUM, that dance around this idea of the visionary, and since our conference theme is Visionary Landscapes, I thought I would follow a few digressions in that direction, particularly in the context of electronic literature and other forms of new media art that seem to occasionally infiltrate the porous borders of that fast-growing genre we are all so attached to these days.


Visionary Landscapes:
A beautiful concept
if you think about it.

Sounds like a place we need to be
if per chance we are not already there.

For me it brings to mind
a slowly changing
digital landscape painting
where off in the distance
the pixels conspire to postproduce
another excellent series of
contagious media moments
where (as Alfred North Whitehead once wrote)
"Creativity is the principle of novelty."

Visionary Landscapes:
a shared space of mental power
where via an interrelational and distributed aesthetics
we imagine what lies ahead of us
as a fusion of multiple horizons

but also wondering what role each of us plays
since [as intermedia artist Dick Higgins
says in his book Horizons]

"for such a fusion of horizons to occur, the reader or listener must have some consciousness of sher own horizons in order to have something to blend with..."

It's this "blending with"
that brings us together tonight.

The Innovators of An Emergent Field of Action
while retrofitting our combined practices
into this always-on-the-morph
unpredictable visionary landscape

are always questioning if what we are seeing
in this fusion of horizons
is the processual reality we think it to be
or if it may itself be an illusion

a kind of collectively-generated mirage

one we are all too familiar with
yet take the bait anyway
since we are in fact
The Innovators.

Visionary Landscapes:
a collectively-generated open composition
where the performative integrity
of the group work being built
by an empowered artificial intelliegentsia
structures into being
heretofore unimagined architectonic forms
that connect all the infinitely dense and hot dots
it takes to make a scene happen

and in this case an electronic literary scene.

A visionary landscape
it ends up
is something we make up
or invent on our own
so that we can begin to imagine
what it would be like
if only

If only …

a visionary landscape
could suddenly morph into
a fusion of horizons

where what is envisioned
comes naturally

where our pursuit of the direct presentation of the thing
unconsciously projects what Whitehead refers to as
"the novel production of togetherness"...

The novel production of togetherness...

Is it any any wonder that this phrase comes
from his opus appropriately entitled
Process and Reality

The novel production of togetherness...

Does this have anything to do with being visionary?

What does it take to be visionary?

It reminds me of something
I heard George Carlin recently say

He said
"I'm a visionary. I'm ahead of my time.
The only problem is I'm only
about one and half hours ahead."

Now if that doesn't encapsulate
what it means to be part of
a digital avant-garde
I don't know what does.

Interestingly enough, Jean Cocteau
(who in some ways embodies the avant-garde)
also weighs in on this "being ahead of
one's time" / he once wrote:

"When a work appears to be ahead of its time,
it is only the time that is behind the work."

Now that's something I can relate to.

Given what's at stake for literature
in these times of technocapitalist intrusion
into all aspects of our lives
while we The Innovators
self-consciously charge language
to the utmost possible degree

can we say that electronic literature is ahead of its time
or is it too behind the work, the work
that readies itself for visionary manifestation?

Sometimes I think the idea of electronic literature
is WAY behind where I'm going with my work
but then on reflection realize that that's mostly because
I oftentimes refuse to contextualize
what I'm doing as electronic literature

but then I look at what is being contextualized
as electronic literature and rethink the possibilities.

Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself here

(but then again,
maybe it's only here
that's somehow behind me

wouldn't that be nice?)

Actually, this "getting ahead of ourselves" happens a lot.

Our imagination always gets the better of us.

Or at least in an ideal world
our imagination will always gets the better of us.

Ron Sukenick one said:

"Use your imagination, or someone else will use it for you."

That's a great line.

No matter what new media framework
may be hot at any given moment
in the history of contemporary art and literature
there is always this sense of succumbing
to the imagination even as the work itself
becomes seduced by the available technologies
of the moment

the moment our unconscious projections --
our intuitively generated creative impulses
continually arrive in.

You might say that for the literary artist today
"imagination imagining itself imagine" (to quote William Gass)
requires an applied aesthetics full of
visionary tactics as well as
(let's call it) antagonistic frottage
with the technological moment.

There's some kind of ambivalent force
that I find myself trying to paint here.

From one perspective, I can imagine
what it's like to work with new media technologies –

to trace a trajectory of unconscious projections
with whatever new media technology is available while I'm creating –

but then from another perspective, I can imagine
what it's like to work against these new media technologies,
to – as Vilem Flusser has written in relation to the camera

to "outwit the camera's rigidity,"
to "smuggle human intentions into its program,"
to "force the camera to create the unpredictable,
the improbable, the informative," and
to "show contempt for the camera"
by turning away from it as a thing and focusing instead,
on information. For Flusser, and this comes from his
Toward A Philosophy of Photography

"The task of the philosophy of photography
is to question photographers about freedom,
to probe their practice in pursuit of freedom."

And this in part means developing
"the strategy of playing against the camera."

Let me remix that and simply insert
the term electronic literature
so that we're on the same page (as it were):

"The task of the philosophy of electronic literature
is to question electronic literary artists about freedom,
to probe their practice in pursuit of freedom."

And, Flusser says, this in part means developing
"the strategy of playing against the camera"
which when remixed for my own ongoing riff
would signal a need to develop a focused
"strategy of playing against the media apparatus
that potentially compromises ones relationship
with an emergent electronic literature."

Is this strategy of playing against the apparatus
while simultaneously playing with the apparatus
indicative of self-contradictory behavior
or is it part of a larger visionary agenda that buys into
this notion of being ahead of one's time?

In the old days we used to call this style of literature
that plays-against-the-media-apparatus

a term generated from a Lester Bowie jazz album
signaling the artist's willingness to play with
but subvert from within.

Is this still possible in the electronic literary scene
especially given its rapid move toward
academic institutionalization?

Or does the move toward the academic institutionalization
of electronic literature potentially enable a below the radar
hactivist gesture that unassumingly aligns itself
with a desire to subvert from within?

Within what?

Within the institution?

Within the disciplines?

Within ourselves?

Another jazz great, Ornette Coleman,
was recently asked about how his "playing against" music
has led to him being so perpetually ahead of his time -

How does one even learn to do something like that?
(he was asked by The Guardian)

His response was matter of fact:

"I didn't know you had to learn to play,"
he said: "I thought you had to play to play,
and I still think that."

Perhaps playing to play
while staying ahead of ones time
requires a recalibration of ones inner time
catching the flow of their unconscious poetic rhythm
so that their intersubjective jam sessions
with the fluid personas within and without
take place in what I call asynchronous realtime.

By asynchronous realtime I am referring to
what at times feels like a timeless time,

a simultaneous and continuous fusion of horizons
that embeds itself in an ongoing formal investigation of
complex event processing where the visionary artist,
always gyrating at pivotal locations throughout the narrative,
becomes a multitude of flux identities
nomadically circulating within the networked space of flows.

Operating in the tense-field I'm calling asynchronous realtime
reminds me of what the writer Henri Michaux experienced
admittedly while under the influence of mescaline
when he described his own poetic apparatus running
"at full speed, in all directions, into the memory,
into the future, into the data of the present,
to grasp the unexpected, the luminous, stupefying, connections."

If that doesn’t express what it feels like to become
a visionary on the cusp of an always morphing inner time,
then I'm not sure what does.

(Perhaps it also speaks volumes about
the mega-potential of mescaline
but that's for another time)

This full speed ahead poetic apparatus
embodied in the persona of whosoever
finds themselves ahead of their time
is a fantastic role-playing opportunity
for anyone who has the will-to-aestheticize
in the first place.

We have all seen the roles come and go
while speaking of Nintendo...

Call me Hypertext
Call me Net Art
Call me Codework
Call me Game Studies
Call me Digitally Expanded or Interactive or Live Cinema
Call me Video Blogging
Call me Locative Art
Call me Postproduction or Participatory or Digital Performance Art

If you ever find yourself
triggering an unconscious readiness potential
that puts you on the edge of your compositional force-field
while you write out your visionary agenda
while you "play to play"
and act out your will-to-aestheticize
whether as an electronic writer, a net artist,
a digital performance artist, an experimental
scholar / theorist, or all or NONE of the above
because you're TRANSdisciplinary
(thank you very much)

then you just may be simultaneously applying
for the job of visionary accomplice

(accomplice to what I'll leave to your imagination)


It brings up this question that's been nagging at me all week:

Who is this persona that projects the visionary?

Italo Calvino, in his collection The Uses of Literature,
imagines this fluid persona as a writer (of all things)
"insofar as he enters into a role the way an actor does
and identifies himself with that projection of himself
at the moment of writing."

Perhaps this is what it means to be visionary
that is
to enter the role of the visionary the way an actress does
and to project the visionary at the moment of writing.

Is this still possible?

Of course it is.

One need only look at the visionary work
that's already been created by so many people in this room.

thanks to the wonder of technology
you'll be happy to know
means that our moment is still now.

It's as if being ahead of your time
while applying all visionary filters to
your artistic literary/theoretical outputs
is part of a larger interrelational and distributed aesthetic
perpetually postproduced by the
artificial intelligentsia whose
creative class struggle informs
our field's continual emergence.

Are We ahead of our time?

Are We really the drivers
of a renewed, visionary literature?

I ask that question because
for as long as I can remember
many of us who have integrated emerging
new media technologies into our art practice

our writing practice

our performance practice

our theory practice

our interdisciplinary lifestyle practice

have signaled a belief that "being ahead of our time"
is more than just merely being experimental

that it is also tied to a desire to become innovative

that is: to embody innovation itself

to "make it new"
"make news that stays news" ...

To stay aesthetically fit.

To make it new.

Is that a stylistic tendency
that we have somehow inherited?

Is that inheritance somehow
akin to kin relationships?

Am I my sister's source material?

Maybe the art of collaborative literary remixing is at root
all about stylistic inheritance and the variable speedism
of a community-wide brain mutation that happens once
every 10 generations and we
The Innovators
have to do everything in our power
to save literature from extinction.

Of course the bug of "being innovative"
whether it's an inherited trait or mutant meme
that still manages to survive in the world
due to unleashed competition in the culture
thus requiring a certain kind of aesthetic fitness
on behalf of those of us who play to play

is not just a matter of
bringing in the new
but of re-newing what has already been

as if the history of art and literature were
an unlimited renewable energy source
primed for aesthetic refinement
so that we can power our collective desire
to turn the engine on and go the distance.

That's what the avant-garde anti-tradition tradition is --

It's a renewable tradition

and in literature it's been referred to as
The Rival Tradition in Literature.

Let me remix another gem from Calvino
since he too (like Flusser)
is great source material for my musings.

In The Uses of Literature, Calvino writes:
"The preliminary condition of any work of literature is that the person who is writing it has to invent that first character, who is the author of the work."
And now my remix:
"The preliminary condition for any work of electronic literature is that the community of writers has to first invent that literature."
A little twist, yes?

But as Miles Davis once said
and this may be true for a personified electronic literature as well

"Sometimes it takes a long time to be able to play like yourself."

It may take a long time for electronic literature
to be able to play like itself

to become electronic literature

or as one net artist recently put it:

Electronic literature per se.

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