Electronic Literature Collection #2

-Reviewed by Strat Mastoris

Electronic Literature

I was given the link to Electronic Literature Collection volume 2 a few weeks before Christmas, and suddenly it was like having an oversized Advent Calendar on my computer screen. The homepage is bright red, with a grid of over sixty boxes, each one a small window opening onto a different experience. The Christmas feeling continued as I started examining boxes to see what goodies were inside – Do I open the presents in order, or start with the brightest wrapping? Sit and play with the one I’ve just opened or rush to open another?

The e-Literature collection is remarkably wide-ranging. There are contributions by authors from Asia, North Africa, North and South America as well as Europe, and the offerings extend from simple movement games that could be played on a mobile phone to complex multi-layered documentary narratives. There’s only space here to give a taste, but the collection seems to fall into three categories:


Words could always be arranged on the page to give another layer of meaning to the text (remember the mouse’s ‘tail’ from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ or the experiments of e e cummings), but the parameters of ‘concrete poetry’ have been massively extended by using the new possibilities offered by computer algorithms.

Basho’s Frogger and Jabber are two pieces by Neil Hennessy that build words up out of an alphabet soup using simple rules of vocabulary and ‘the Game of Life’. Letters move around the screen randomly, joining up to form increasingly long words as they bump into complementary vowels and consonants. Order and structure appear out of a random environment by pure chance, and it’s hard not to be reminded of Darwinian evolution as ‘ate’ becomes ‘rate’, then ‘crates’ and finally ‘desecrates’.

The Mandrake Vehicles, by Oni Buchanan, takes the opposite route, extracting letters to change meaning. A thirty-four line piece of writing has as the first line – ‘not knowing enough to shriek when (not knowing when) they’. Some letters are extracted, blooming balloon-like out of the text and disappearing, then some of the remaining letters detach themselves and trickle down to the foot of the page, forming a collection of perfectly usable words (which of course were contained in the original text). The remaining text contracts horizontally, every line undergoing the same process, giving a new first line of ‘towing no ghost, no wing, the’. The process is repeated a second time, leaving a final first line of ‘winnowing heart’. A page of text has become a short poem – which was latent in the original (the ‘art‘ in ‘heart‘ coming from the second line).


Hypertext links allow a text to be given multiple layers of access, to match the needs and interests of the reader. The linear narrative structure can be enhanced by explanatory passages or illustration, or indeed can be made completely non-linear, jumping from topic to topic as fresh information develops the reader’s understanding of the subject.

Voyage into the Unknown by Roderick Coover takes the linear route – literally, as it’s a history of the first navigation of the Colorado River, in small boats, in 1869. We move along a timeline of the journey, dotted with links that take us to diary and journal entries and geological and topographical details along the way. Near the end there are sections on how the trip was recorded in the newspapers of the time, and a fascinating juxtaposition of the engravings which appeared in those newspapers (vertiginous rock formations, dramatically lit) with actual photographs of the same terrain taken later (much flatter and less overpowering). And of course we had available the original written observations, too. We gained a remarkable insight into ‘travellers’ tales’ …

88 Constellations for Wittgenstein, by David Clark, is non-linear in several ways. The home page features a night sky atlas – north and south celestial hemispheres with stars and the main constellations: Orion, Ursa Major and Cassiopeia, for example, shown. Clicking on one takes the reader to some features of the life of Ludwig Wittgenstein – mathematician, philosopher, gardener; one of the most interesting men of the twentieth century. Moving randomly through the constellations I discovered (through audio narration, photographs and videos) his writing of the Tractatus logico-philosophicus, that his sister was friends with Sigmund Freud, that Alan Turing (the computer pioneer and codebreaker) had attended his Cambridge lectures, also links to Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’, the Vienna of ‘The Third Man’ and, much, much more. A mass of material that I have only begun to work through.

Audio and Visual

Not audio-visual, note. The collection shows ways of using both sounds and graphics in various ways to achieve differing effects.

Tailspin, by Christine Wilks, uses sounds to give us the story of a grandfather, stricken with tinnitus which cuts across communication with his children and grandchildren. As we move around the opening page we hear the children’s noise overlaid with the buzzing of his condition, and sense his frustration as he blocks all contact by refusing to use a hearing aid. On deeper levels of the programme we learn that he was an aircraft fitter in the War, and that his chronic deafness prevented him being a fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain, and thus probably saved his life. Deafness as a mixed blessing.

Wordscapes & Letterscapes, by Peter Cho, use computer graphics in ways that are both beautiful and technically elegant. ‘Letterscapes’ is a gem, to my mind the best piece in the collection. The opening page features a disc of all 26 alphabet letters, slowly rotating – almost like a telescope view of a galaxy. Click on any letter and it opens up to full screen, which is where the magic begins.  Each letter is given a different treatment – most seem to be hanging in space and the perspective alters as one moves the cursor over the image. ‘A’ is a simple uppercase letter suspended over a blue liquid. Move the cursor and the ‘A’ slowly turns, meeting its reflection as the letter touches the liquid and then is immersed. ‘J’ is again a yellow letter on blue, driven by the cursor but leaving an afterimage as it twists and turns. Move the mouse quickly enough and you can have your ‘J’ extended right across the screen -for a second or so.  ‘W’ is made of white triangles on an orange background. Move it and the letter breaks up and reforms, like a tessellated Escher engraving. (Confession – I spent hours playing with ‘Letterscapes’.)

This collection is published by the Electronic Literature Organisation, which exists to promote the ‘reading, writing, teaching and understanding of literature as it develops in a changing digital environment’. I’m excited by the possibilities of digital technology, as demonstrated by these few examples and the rest of the collection; but for many, I have serious doubts about calling them ‘literature’.

It seems to me that the first duty of literature, in whatever medium it is expressed, is for one person (the author) to tell another person (the audience) a story. We read a poem or a book, watch a play or a film, and are moved or enlightened by the author’s thoughts. We like the piece, or we hate it, based on the interaction of our experience with that of the author. That’s why our understanding of works of literature and art alter over the years – we change, and so therefore does our relationship with each work’s creator.

But then what to make of a piece like Poemas No Meio Do Caminho – (‘Poems In The Middle of The Road’) by Rui Torres? This piece from Brazil takes lines of poetry, floating in a beautifully rendered digital landscape, and allows the viewer to select one word at a time by clicking on it. The word changes (from a randomly generated selection of suitable alternates), and by means of some kind of relational algorithm other words in the poem change, to give other lines of poetry, whose subject matter is thus different. With sufficient lines of poetry, and every word impacting on every other available word, the possible resulting poems are numbered in the trillions.

It’s artfully done, and (I assume – the site is in Portuguese) that the new poems will have some kind of meaning, but in what sense are they written? We can project meaning onto them, but it’s not a meaning consciously intended by the author. What is meant to be our relationship vis-à-vis the computer algorithm?

But maybe that’s the point. A changing digital environment means that we are going to have to redefine a lot of relationships.