Writing and Digital Media: a few questions from Jess Laccetti

Dr. Jess Laccetti, Lecturer at DMU, emailed a few questions in preparation for a publication/event featuring the DMU Creative Writing and New Media students (past and present). It was great getting my head around a few things I’ve been thinking about, but haven’t had time to put fingers to keyboard. These kinds of exchanges are good moments to take stock.

May 06, 2008

Jess: what are some main differences (pros and/or cons) of creating a work to be read/navigated online to one which is contained within physical borders and print? – this is very much a question to you as a *creator*

me: The book is an object ‘par excellence’. It’s an amazing medium in which the virtual has always resided; analogue stories have the capacity to expose us to previously unknown worlds and scenarios. While the book may have set perimeters, it is far from an exhausted medium. Its surface is rich, layered and as vast as the imagination. Just think of the likes of Borges or Coleridge whose writings illustrate that hypertext existed well before a digital era. Their work transports us to uncharted territories, illuminates new forms of articulation and exposes us to nonlinear modes of thinking. They test the limits of writing and language.

That said I love writing in digital environments. Gone are the days of publish and perish, now we can publish, learn and revise. Wow, what a revolution to be able to think out loud through writing. We can now dare to make mistakes and then re-write. Bloggers do this all of the time.

I also love the materiality of digital writing. To me, code, computational machines and screens are very physical. Unlike a blank page that can be empty and intimidating, there is something fascinating about sculpting narrative out of a set of technical restraints or through a set of filters. Whether it is php, CSS, javascript or html, writing is mediated, if not translated, and that means authors are forced to be writers and makers. I find the combination seductive. It is where writing meets dramaturgy.

why create a work of new media (seemingly simple but complex question!)

I’m not sure what the term new media means. Somehow it’s the word ‘new’ that’s confusing. Tim Berners-Lee started working on html in the eighties, so does that make something I write in html old or new? I’ve wondered if we should call it ‘evolving media’? But that buys into notions of progress, and I’m not certain all media is progressive. Maybe ‘digital media’ is more appropriate, although I’m not totally sure about that either. But at least the rubric of digital media helps me think around a variety of forms, and I can more easily question what they do. Or to borrow McLuhan idea, I can think about how media act upon us.

For example, I might produce a work for mobile phones because it is an intimate medium. A mobile is in your pocket or purse. As a writer you can play with that context, and on a technical level, you can exploit the limits of sms, mms and gps. Or if you think about streaming media, writers and performers can play with its inherent delays and the specificities of ‘liveness’. Whether it’s blogging, smsing, programming a chat-bot or streaming, each digital form has unique qualities which writers can push and tweak to meet their own narrative needs. Again coming back to the idea of the digital being material, it’s interesting to see what these various channels have to offer, how they shape our communication and mold the stories we want to tell.

how would you define a literate reader (someone who can easily navigate your NM creations)?

That is a very tough question to answer. Readers come with different levels of literacy. Some people are more sensually driven, moving their cursor from here to there for hotspots or links, while others look for legible text and clear-cut navigation. As a writer of or in digital environments, there is a balance to be struck between pushing the medium, testing interface conventions and being user/reader friendly.

what is (in your view of course) the greatest resistance of digital/electronic literature?

Personally, I haven’t really experienced a resistance to digital literature, but I think that’s because I come from a digital arts background. In spaces like Rhizome, netbehaviour or lists like Empyre, people are quite receptive to digital writing and the line between art and writing is blurred. However, I suppose people who have migrated from analogue writing or book culture may have a very different experience explaining their desire to go digital.

what makes a creative piece in new media “literary” or imbued with *artistic* quality?

The work says something both about and beyond the media in which it was generated. It resonates and reflects upon human experience.

what gives it that extra oomph? (as the Times Literary Supplement might have it)

‘Insight’ is what gives a work its extra oomph. I think of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. The film is a powerful example of piece which reflects upon the human condition as well as the act of filmmaking or seeing through the lens. Its artifice and message are seamlessly woven together.

is the term “literary” still useful (perhaps broadened) to you as a writer working in a digital context?

I move between using ‘literary’ and ‘textual’. Literature is the stuff of storytellers, and text is the material of concrete poets.

what is the role of *code* or coding (literally or metaphorically) in the creation of your work?

Although I wouldn’t pretend to have the expertise of a programmer, I’m fascinated by code. Narrative, events and behaviours are all scripted. Symbolic code is layered upon executable code, and I love popping between views as I’m writing. And as a reader, I always keep Firebug and Web-developer enabled, because I like seeing how things are made and peeping into other people’s logic.