Rob Wittig and JT Johnson – a digital artist and writer – chat on the beginnings of Netprov, design of fictional worlds, and talent shows.
Image: DALL·E 2023-03-02 20.01.05 - "electronic literature can only exist up to a certain point, and then it dissolves itself as it becomes a discipline."
SUMMARY KEYWORDS: people, felt, art, writing, practice, understand, started, depth, invitation, character, fun, community, loved, kinds, critique, read, world, real, happening, mark
SPEAKERS: Rob Wittig, J †Johnson
How did you get involved in netprov?
I met you and Mark Marino through the Electronic Literature Organization community at conferences. And you all were really kind about the performance project I was doing with Claire Donato1See Donato, Claire and Rob Wittig. “Claire Donato Netprov Interview, Dec 2022”, Electronic Book Review, February 5, 2023, https://doi.org/10.7273/33vn-jm16. (all footnotes by Anna Nacher, unless stated otherwise) — Special America — and other work that each of us was doing individually. So we were allies within a community that I was fascinated by, but also had some mixed feelings about, because it was very much an academic community. I feel like I come at study and writing from an adjacent angle. But that community was interesting to me, because there were anarchic elements, like the things that you and Mark were doing. And others like John Cayley2See John Cayley’s author profile at the EBR: http://electronicbookreview.com/ebr-author/john-cayley/ and David Jhave Johnston3David Jhave Johnston is a digital poet, programmer and composer, currently a professor at the Center of Digital Narrative (University of Bergen). See the list of his contributions at the EBR: http://electronicbookreview.com/ebr-author/david-jhave-johnston/ and the record at the ELMCIP Knowledge Base https://elmcip.net/person/david-jhave-johnston and Maria Damon4Maria Damon teaches poetry and poetics at the University of Minnesota. See the list of her contributions at the EBR: http://electronicbookreview.com/ebr-author/maria-damon/ and a lot of people like that, Andrew Klobucar5Andrew Klobucar is a an Associate Professor and an e-lit practitioner at the New Jersey Institute of Technology https://www.andrewklobucar.com. Also: https://elmcip.net/person/andrew-klobucar See his article at the EBR: http://electronicbookreview.com/essay/against-information-reading-in-the-electronic-waste-land/ , Chris Funkhouser6Christopher Funkhouser is a digital poet and an Associate Professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. See his author profile at the EBR: http://electronicbookreview.com/ebr-author/chris-funkhouser/ , people who believed that the whole academic conference thing was a kind of performance… and failure in a way, right? So it seemed like a parody of an academic community. The thing that John and Jhave would always say was: electronic literature can only exist up to a certain point, and then it dissolves itself as it becomes a discipline. We're not trying to establish something that can be a kind of a rigid or eternal category. It's about tracking trends in the way that we think and write with technology and relate through technology, as it becomes more pervasive. The trick is — it already had become pervasive! You can channel your aesthetic through it, and you can think critically about it. But it’s not a proper field of study, a discipline, it's just life.
So as I talked with you and Mark and saw the netprovs you were doing, I felt like you really understood that. I don't think it's the only way to look at electronic literature, but some of you — Talan Memmott7Talan Memmott is a digital artist/writer and an Associate Professor at Winona State University where he established a Creative Digital Media program. See his author profile at the EBR: http://electronicbookreview.com/ebr-author/talan-memmott/ is another of this crew, right? — felt that you can’t just give a paper without using the technology, the presentation itself, as a way to practice new media. You can’t just comment on it, it doesn’t work, you have to be a scholar-practitioner. Not everybody agreed with that. But it made sense to me.
And another tenet I saw was that a presentation was not properly categorizable as E-Lit (with the caveats I’ve already given) until it started to fail, until it broke, until something went wrong, until something unexpected happened. If you made a device, and you said, ‘this device does literature, I'm gonna present it to you,’ and it worked perfectly — not interesting. Right? I loved that.
Seeing netprov, I said: okay, this is serious play. It's very goofy. It’s anarchic, it's not about getting things right. It's a way of thinking about these media we're living in and exploring them. And about giving our time, but also wasting our time in this kind of sublime way. It was also radically inclusive; anybody could do it. Anybody could be a player or a featured player, right?
It wasn’t: ‘well, I've been doing this for x long, and you don't really know what you're doing.’ It was more like: ‘ooh, here's a person who doesn't know what they're doing. Amazing! They must be better at it than all of us!’ I love that spirit. And I loved how you and Mark were open to whoever you were working most closely with on a new netprov. You did it with Claire and me, you just said — the next netprov is you two! You two just run it! That's how we did All Time High8More on All Time High: http://meanwhilenetprov.com/ath15/index.php/about/, right? You gave support to it, but you were also: ‘this is your show now.’ That was really cool.
The invitation to play netprov is always open. Whenever I, or anyone else, says, ‘Gosh, I don't know how much time I have to do netprov,’ you’re always like: ‘don’t worry, if you can show up and play sometimes, great!’ I always love that there was never any kind of pressure to be involved constantly.
It was also just a wonderful challenge to collaborate in real time with each other. The first I remember getting involved was with you and Mark inviting me to sit in on the NED Talks project. We were giving improvisatory TED-style talks. We’d have a small, random reference point at the beginning in a shared Google document. We’d take turns improvising talks. And behind the scenes the others would be dropping images or prompts into the Google doc — those were the lecture slides — dropping in things like throwing frisbees and wrenches into the situation and we had to incorporate them or not. We had to just keep talking. I thought it was wonderful, good for my art practice, fun to do with you all. It rhymed with ways of making that I already understood.
I want to ask you about your experience with All Time High, the netprov you and Claire Donato created. We loved that so much! And it’s still one of people’s favorites. What were some moments you remember?
One of my favorite parts was designing it. You gave us enough structure — we had examples of previous netprovs like SpeidiShow9More on SpeidiShow: http://meanwhilenetprov.com/index.php/project/speidishow/ Also: R. Wittig, M. Marino, The SpeidiShow Players, “SpeidiShow: a netprov.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 11, 2015. doi:10.20415/hyp/011.g08, the fake reality TV show — but we were able to do whatever we wanted. We had a sense of what it could be. It was at a time when netprov was really expanding beyond a single platform. We thought we should continue this Twitter thing — that's interesting. But it can also go multimodal and multi platform. We can work in Facebook, YouTube, Vine and use multiple phones, and stuff like that. It was going all over the place, and that was exciting.
The design of the fictional world was incredibly fun. We’d say: ‘We want to make this campus a labyrinth.’ Or we could say the high school prom has photo booths that are portals so players can jump from location to location and even from time to time.’ That was the “All Time” dimension. Our high school could contain any high school age person from any time in history ever. And everyone could be at least one character. A lot of people were multiple characters and we didn't even know who was who. There was a Sappho. There was a Teenage Morrissey (before we knew how racist he was). People were really in character. I was running five or six characters and I think maybe people know about two of them. We had Twitter bots running, robot cheerleaders.
We had weekly subplots, different events, like there was a prom — the big dance —, there was a talent show, there was a big game. And some of the characters took on bigger roles at particular events and stuff like that. Those events would run in real time on a particular night and there would be build up all around it. It was fantastic.
You and Mark were able to take our ambitious or capacious approach and build out a website where we could make the world as complex as we wanted. But you’d ask: what is the three minute version, a three minute initiation? That was really useful for my writing to have as much depth as you want, a robust outlet down the web page, and also think about summarizing it on half a page — what you can see on a phone. Part of it was media critique, but it was also: how do you make your art accessible, engaging, but also have it run as deep as you want? People who stop by for five minutes can have a blast. And then people could be there 24/7, if they wanted to, and it would support it, the depth would be there, it was wonderful.
There were also particular nights — I remember The Big Game just being a blast, high school football on a field repurposed by teen activists as nature preserve. And The Talent Show was marvelous. The Prom dance was utterly bonkers, like we literally set the place on fire (thanks in part to the Carrie White character). It had these tremendous energy swings. On certain days we’d all get on Twitter at the same time and there would be spikes in activity. So fast. So fun. A rumor would start that the vice principal was about to ascend into a giant reptilian state a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it was incredible. There was such intense energy on the nights when we were actually doing it live. You might have multiple characters doing different things at different places in the imaginary school. It was too fast in the best way!
Then for the next 24 or 48 hours you’d go back through the Twitter feed and read over all the other things that were happening that you couldn't possibly have tracked in real time during the event. It goes back to ideas that I had about electronic literature having some kind of technological container —interface — that has to be insufficient and it has to be broken. I think we overloaded the platforms in a really fun way that made it still operable. But it was too much to look at in real time!
You're really helping me see we that netprov demands us to let go of completism. We have to be OK with an incomplete art experience.
Everyone understood that principle intuitively in the ways that they were playing.
We also had like a Johnny Depp character (before we knew what we know now). The Twitter character was cycling through all of the different roles Depp had ever played from 21 Jump Street, the movie set in a high school, all the way through Pirates of the Caribbean and just kept showing up like in different forms as it went through. The character started out maybe as an undercover cop, because of 21 Jump Street and then it became a drug dealer. It was fucking incredible! There was a great existential entrepreneur called Søren Employ. I loved it.
The guy running the Johnny Depp characters turned out to be a guy named Michael Russo. He just dropped in and blew everybody away with that series of Depps. The avatar image would change from role to role. As you say, it was brilliant.
He totally got it.
How has participating in these netprov impacted your own creative and scholarly work?
It underscored things I was already doing and added depth. Art is a practice that is essentially collaborative. And I don't mean that in the way that art is sometimes presented now, where: ‘everything has to be participatory,’ and it turns into a drag, a Situationist’s nightmare playground, like a McDonald's playground. In my writing practice, and in my teaching practice, I’m thinking of things in terms of a triangle, where there's the reader, the writer, and the text. Meaning is produced by all of them in relation to one another.
Netprov is a great example of that. It helped me understand that when you're writing something, it's an invitation to others to get involved and care, to understand the stakes, and to contribute to its meaning potential. I appreciate that kind of open invitation netprov has. It’s saying: you can be just as big of a part of it if you have only five minutes, as if you’re going all in. That's the way we offer our art to the world. You want to give people access to the depths, but let them play right on the surface and trust that surface level is valuable as well. It helped me always aspire to have my art practice be as generous as possible; serious and seriously playful. It’s empathy and respect — always, always! The invitation isn't for other people to come hold your perspective. There has to be room for other people as they are.
Art is always an embodied practice, we do it with our whole self, we do it with our bodies, whatever energy we have, whatever we have to give at a particular moment. So people are invited to participate and engage with their bodies, their energy. And if all we're doing is saying: ‘my art practice, my writing practice comes from my body and my breath, and you get to enter into that as a reader,’ that's not actually a generous practice of critical empathy and radical inclusion, right? Only if you allow for the possibility that other people's bodies are going to process your work differently — which can either work for them or not — only if you take that seriously enough can you make an art practice that is generous, inviting, interactive, meaningful, have any kind of stakes, as far as I'm concerned. And that is a big thing that I learned in part from from netprov.
I really love that! I'm looking forward to reading this transcript because you're making some really great points. And before we move on from All Time High, I just have to say personally — and this is just even outside the interview — how much I've always adored those depth portions of that website and the invitation that you wrote, they're just amazing! I always see your architecture background coming through, combining with your language arts side.
You've touched on some of this, but Anna Nacher asks specifically about the community building potential of netprov, netprov as a tool to build bridges in a polarized society.
I think it’s literally trying to do those things. How do you invite everyone and anyone in? And how do you not get your feelings hurt if they don't take up the invitation? Or if they do something different from what you wanted? Beyond that, how do you get excited when people deviate from your expectations and use that invitation differently? There's a real delight in that! There's room for anybody to participate, however they feel about art, or social media, or digital materiality. It was neat to see people's students coming in, and people’s friends who weren't necessarily part of their art communities. In their participation with the netprov they became involved with your art practice, right? And that was like a really beautiful thing. And not in a sticky way, where it’s: ‘now you're in my art world with me.’ It’s more: ‘you got to visit, you're part of it. Now: if you're curious, and you want to learn more about this stuff, or you want to keep doing it, or you want to talk about other things, that is open. But also if this was just a good time and now you're going to move on, that's fine, too!’ I find that meaningful, moving, rewarding.
I started as somebody who wrote poetry and was serious about it from when I was five years old. But still, there’s a point where you say: ‘I see myself as a writer, I'm an artist, I want to have a public life as a writer.’ Your family and friends have been the people who've been with you all along, they kind of already know it. But they also remember you when you were only a jackass, not a jackass who was doing stuff in public. They may not always understand what you're doing. I mean, I come from a family where there aren't people who’ve written books, you know, haven’t tried to live a life as an artist.
So they do their best to understand. And part of the beauty is that, when I show my dad a poem or chapbook or something and he might say: ‘I like you, you're fine, but I don't know what the heck this is.’ So I ask myself: what do I do with that? I want my family to feel like it's potentially meaningful to them, right? It doesn't have to matter to them the way it matters to me. But there were so many years where I was like, ‘fuck it, I’m not writing for all of them! Right? My grandma is supportive. My mom is, etc. Like, I write for them.’
But over time I realized, no, I can't just give anybody up. I need at least to aspire to it. Again, I’m just using family as an example, right? I don’t need everyone to take the invitation, but I need to keep offering the invitation, and I need to keep changing what I'm doing to try to make it more inviting. Same thing with a teaching practice. If I accept that 20% or 10%, or 5% of my students just don't get it, don't like it, don’t care, don't get involved — that's not acceptable! You can't just teach the people who are predisposed to get it. You have to always be trying to reach everyone, while accepting that you can’t.
How have the platforms for netprovs changed over time, especially post-2016, post-truth? What’s the significance of fiction, including politically and socially controversial aspects. What's a hoax? What's fiction?
This speaks to my practice pretty hard because of Special America. Claire Donato and I doing Special America performances goes back to 2010, 2011. It was a different world. It was a critique of American exceptionalism and took a satirical, overt, ironic position on empty, jingoistic rhetoric. One of our slogans was: Say Special America! All of those strategies that we did felt funny and potentially poignant at the time. We were within the digital writing community and were critiquing the digital writing community as an exceptionalist space. It felt on point. It had momentum. We were able to keep doing it for a while because we were changing it each time, rolling out different campaigns. So it still felt fresh and useful.
But right around the time Trump came into office, we were already slowing down. We had our performance at Brown — that was the same year at Interrupt where [a conceptualist writer] read a horrible poem during one of the performance nights that was in really poor taste, and it was shitty art. It kind of blew up the whole conference. The whole conference was traumatized by this stupid ass performance. Then we performed the next night. All the tech went wrong, but we weren't in the frame of mind to appreciate that it was going right because it was going wrong. We were already getting closer to this world that we live in now. I think we understood that it didn't work anymore. Once Trump came into office, that kind of satirical critique was too close to reality. It had been weaponized in a really cynical way. It didn't work at all anymore. The fun in it was gone.
Netprov has the potential to adapt the way it works, like maintaining that connection to satire, but also recognizing we’re in the middle of these ontological puzzles: ‘what is real?’ The metanarrative gestures of it have a different weight, a different meaning in a world where people with a straight face can use the term ‘fake news’ to cynically describe real journalism. That shift was so bizarre! And we're still obviously in it. I think netprov has potential because it's so much about observing ourselves making communication gestures and understanding what we're doing. It’s a way of thinking about the relationship between playing around and fiction and art and artifice. I think it remains relevant. Critique is still possible within it. But it's a different kind of challenge.
We were talking before about building bridges. What happens if the bridge goes all the way over to wing nuts and conspiracy theorists? You’re playing with that by doing netprovs on Reddit. There's a reactionary sphere within Reddit, some of the most toxic parts of male online culture and teenagerdom. So I appreciated that you built that bridge over to that and trusted that other things are happening over there, too.
We've said the same things about the internet forever: that it was invented by the military and that it’s essentially a war machine. So every time artists use it, we're subverting it, for the purposes of caring about others. Not to promote fascism. And certainly when we oppose fascism through it, we're subverting it, we're hacking it, right? I know you all understand that intuitively, and also directly. So I think that potential is still there. But I also know what it feels like to be in an art practice that doesn't work anymore. That just feels feels gross. It's sort of too close to the thing that you're so disgusted by. It’s tough to live through it.
How has netprov evolved in the last decade?
My very first memories of being online were when I was in college. That was when the Internet became something more people were doing. You still had to dial in, type in a number, and then connect, right? It was going to chat rooms and stuff like that. I would look up David Bowie or whatever and download some images. I would wait and wait for the picture to come down the screen. There would be two websites with three articles each about him. And I would read all of those. But the main excitement was going to chat rooms and talking to people. I didn't even have internet access in my dorm room. I'd have to go to the computer lab and log on.
I started to make friends that would go to this particular chat room. Some people were just talking. But other people were doing this whole performance! I had one friend who was so good at it. She would write that she was playing the flute. And then she would just type out flute sounds! But she would also change her name, and log in again, bounce around and then you’d see some other name also playing the flute all of a sudden. You’d be: ‘either somebody's imitating her, or that's her over there now!’ People playing games, not creepy, just super fun. I started to see people's agility within those spaces and what it meant to choose a username that was basically like a malleable avatar.
I’d already grown up watching stand up comedy. Some of my earliest memories were watching Saturday Night Live and stuff like that, the improv comedy tradition. It was a thing I did with people in my family. We would stay up together and watch. Eventually in high school more interesting things came along. Saturday Night Live is still around today, but it's not as good as what we've already been doing in these electronic literature communities. So I saw right away that netprov was not only tied to improv itself, the history of theater improv, but it was tied to the ways that we are always improvising in networked media spaces. We are always performing the self!
Whenever there's a new interface, we get different tools for performing and modulating the self. Netprov is looking directly at that. It’s improv, right? Interacting online is acting that’s happening in the moment. You're simultaneously yourself, the self that you're presenting, and then a character that you might slip into. Then other characters might crowd the stage with you, within your body! That was so clear within what you all were doing. And it's continuing to be a part of a legacy because it’s becoming more important to critique the interface and critique the new platforms. It’s a way of being curious about the ways we perform a self, and the ways that self is infinitely malleable.
That is so cool! Thanks so much! I'm going to stop recording.