FEATURED ARTIST: In this essay, Caitlin Fisher reflects on the ideas, processes, and approaches that have shaped and influenced her work in digital storytelling and electronic literature for over 25 years. She invokes theorists like Borges, Haraway, and Aristotle and critical concepts of hybridity, string theory, hypermedia, and spatial narratives to illuminate readers about the simultaneous timelines, continuity, and forking paths that run through the river of her work.
I direct an Immersive Storytelling Lab, and for most of my career have been deeply involved in electronic literatures and disciplinary boundary-crossing, making small worlds: haunted cabinets, first-personal confessionals, treasure boxes, book objects and large-scale cinematic palimpsests. It's an honour to have the opportunity to think about the trajectory of my work in relation to (un)continuity – to sit with the recurring themes and tools and inspiration that is foundational to my practice – and while I leave all sorts of easter eggs in my work for careful readers - a repetition of character names, reuse of the same 3d model walking across my worlds, the general pull of a fairly constant theoretical river, as you'll soon see - continuity (being less sexy than discontinuity, rupture and breaking?) is something that generally goes unremarked.
As my title suggests, I want to consider both linking structures and hybridity to find my way in to talking about the river that runs through my work. And while the title invokes, of course, Borges, and Haraway and hybridity and Aristotle and string theory, I want to put another figure in your minds to begin, too: hypermedia and spatial narratives as thought sculptures and philosophy machines. I'm going to talk about these as a continuity in some of my own work going back – forgive me – to my days as a graduate student.
A. Forking Paths: Borges of course ... simultaneity and infinite possibilities
I was a graduate student TAing women's studies when I began to appreciate the power of bringing image/sound/text and interface together in the context of the digital. Early hypermedia tools like cdroms had begun to circulate and, for me in that moment, came into collision with the politics of the syllabus, at that time contentious, problematic and mostly hated ... I was attracted to the radical epistemological potential of anywhere access – what if students could decide for themselves whether they wanted introduction to women's studies to begin with British suffragette or African priestess, early composer or the fur trade? 19th century or 5th? How might the collective identity of feminism be negotiated differently? How would the act of traversal change the reader?
I came of intellectual age in a time of Judith Butler's Gender Trouble and Denise Riley's "Am I that name: feminism and the category of women in history ... " and so had been interested in challenging the cohesion of identity alongside the development of an understanding that it, too, was narrative, In fact, in that 90s moment, I had very recently completed a feminist master's thesis that had begun being centrally about women but ended at a point where women had been so thoroughly dissolved theoretically that I had no more object of study. That happened a lot in the 90s.
It was no surprise that the 'and and and' of hypertext attracted me ... I fell hard for linking structures for reasons well beyond reader choice, seeing the radical epistemological challenge link - node constellations might pose to academic writing and thought itself – and the possibilities they might open up both theoretically and creatively. I loved the idea of a text with multiple points of entry and many pathways breaking the philosophical line, and knowledge domain visualizations giving us new ways to communicate argument as well as structure, both the politics and the poetry of sculpting with data. After that time, though not quite consciously, writing for the page would always be only my secondary work as my practice moved precisely to the interrogate the point of contact between text, image and sound but also, critically, interface, and, later, haptics and proprioception.
B. Building Feminist Theory
I began work on a born-digital hypertextual dissertation. Inspired by George Landow's famous formulation that hypertext concretized postmodern theory, I wondered how it might concretize feminist thought and perform gender. At that time, emerging hypertext theory had paidlittle attention either to women hypertext practitioners, or feminist theories – all Calvino and no Zora Neal Hurston. That early work, Building Feminist Theory: Hypertextual Heuristics, explored, in hypertext, continuities across digital writing technologies and feminist theories. Implicit in the title was the claim that the process of shaping hypertext was itself a form of feminist theory production and my goal was to use theory to make a new kind of text which sought a form resonant with monstrous bordercrossing narratives and knowledges it sought to build and explore.
Feminists have been long preoccupied with writing our way out of the cultural story that shapes the figure 'Woman' and have a particular investment in the creation of new genres and structures and breaking the mold of narrative form. Moreover, feminist theory has a long history of putting forward claims regarding what is at stake in adopting new ways of thinking, storytelling, writing the unspeakable, theorizing empty spaces and absences. As Sara Diamond notes, "the circular pathway, for example, has long been considered a feminist quest myth" and many of the features struggled against in feminist experimental practice - "inciting incidents, narrative peaks, troughs and closure" are, in hypertext, already absent.
The constellation of my ideas was held aloft by 17,000 links. And the linking structure - the ability of hypermedia technology to hold the all-at-onceness of theory as we build it – is the most theoretically interesting aspect of hypertext writing, changing both writer and reader. Here I align with Adorno: "As a constellation, theoretical thought circles the concept it would like to unseal, hoping that it will fly open like the lock of a well-guarded safe deposit box: in response, not to a single key or a single number, but to a combination of numbers" (Fisher, 2002; Adorno, 1973: 163).
C. Waves of Girls: There are multiple girls in this story. All at once.
From there it wasn't far to imagining the possibilities of using digital tools to create new kinds of narratives outside of my more scholarly work. I began to experiment with hypertext fictions and poetry, trying to understand new grammars and possibilities – working at the interface to explore the relationship between tools and content. My creative and academic work veered toward digital poetics.
Hypermedia practice resonated strongly with many early and experimental forms and dreams with which I was familiar and I read hypermedia against storyquilting and femmage and shoebox archives and Cornell, Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project and Trinh T. Minh-ha's post-colonial cinema as well as more mainstreamed practices.
And what I liked best, as a writer, was its simultaneity. Waves is, on one of its surfaces, a coming of age story. But writing in hypertext as opposed to writing in print enabled me to undermine the teleology of the developmental novel. Forking paths and the structure of the hypertext undermined causality in ways that were new to me. You couldn't say that the character becomes this kind of adult because of this moment here ... or that this incident directly leads to this reckless moment in adulthood. It was easier through these digital structures to perform the way in which contradictions and simultaneity rather than straight paths create our lives and subjectivities. This is achieved mostly through the architecture of links and nodes, but at different points the temporal collision is explicit in the work, particularly in two screens with looping audio where the reader has to untangle a cacophony of voices ... everything happens in a jumble wave of girls: identity as crashing contradictions and all-at-onceness.
There is a similar moment in my first augmented reality poem, Andromeda, built in the early 2000s, an augmented reality journey poem about stars, loss and women named Isabel (yes, multiples. Yes Andromeda, sacrificed to monsters). The moment began as a glitch. I'm pretty convinced I won an award for it largely owing to software failure. Computer-vision-based augmented reality functions by having a camera 'see' a pattern in the real world, overlaying it with digital artefacts. The problem with the first version of our software? We couldn't make the camera UNsee the markers, so the sounds became overlayed ... creating a cacophony. My poems generally err on the side of the lyric ... the digital poets aren't generally into that. The winning compromise? A lyric, personal poem that sounded much more experimental than originally intended. Recalling how I found the same moment of collision so theoretically rich in Waves, I never fixed it.
E. AR as Monstrous Technology
Augmented reality is a monstrous technology at its root. Hybrid - its creations at once digital and analogue, virtual and real, a laboratory for the creation of monstrous subjects. In the AR lab we've made handheld AR, immersive AR and mobile - cradling hybrids in our hands, inhabiting hybrid spaces and imagining the hybrid world of a narrative palimpsest covering the city. We turn ourselves into monsters for access, too: magic mirrors ... we look and no longer see ourselves as we thought we were, through the uncanny mediation of handheld looking glasses and head-mounted displays. We depart from the narrative line when we tell stories almost always, since augmented reality is profoundly spatial. It's the kind of technology that led to my planning for a large-scale parallel universe piece in the is-900 trackers, in which a viewer would be captured on video coming into the space and experience the narrative while seeing themselves engaging at different moments in time, before inevitable space/time continuum confrontations. If AR has a theology, it's string theory. And if a river(s) runs through my work, it's also that. We never managed to build that one, at least not in this timeline.
F. Shrink Machine (ELO 2017 narrative panel revisited)
But I still try, with the year 2000 as my guide. That was the year I experienced the Brown VR cave as a visiting writer and it was revelatory. The leap from screen to immersive SPACE concretized some of my dreams of sharing thought sculptures in hypertext. What if ideas could be communicated and inhabited that concretely? I looked at that virtual reality cave and thought 'home'. At that time, the great American novelist Robert Coover was running his pioneering writing classes in that cave, a million-dollar facility used in the service of well-funded projects – think models of blood flow to the heart. Coover approached the CAVE like a radio station, brokering deals for creative writing students to use it at unpopular, unbooked, times. That act was an amazing moment for people who love both words and technology. But my favourite project from that time wasn't story-driven - it was a cavepainting app created by a Master's student and it transported me inside a drawing program where I could choose a brush ... painting midair… walking inside the sculpture I created and – critical to much of my later work – shrinking it down ... minaturizing it ... then changing the scale again and walking inside of it. That experience was another one that changed the course of my creative life, including, oddly enough, my approach to fiction where scale is so often the first act of translation I make, my handheld stories becoming room-sized and back again as I think about the digital poetics of movement and body and the story. And now? My children play with Google tiltbrush on the HTC vive in their rooms ...
G. Always Tomorrow
I continue to try to make parallel universe pieces. In one piece, created with the late beautiful genius and maverick 1https://eliterature.org/2021/06/new-maverick-award-goes-to-talan-memmott/ “During the award ceremony ELO Vice President Caitlin Fisher offered an origin story for the award: The idea came up at the wake for Damon Loren Baker for an award recognizing, the artists and scholars, like Damon, “amazing people, as part of the ELO Community, who are not likely to win the other awards because they are on a crazy, brilliant, genius path all their own.” Meet you in a parallel world, Damon. Damon Loren Baker, the viewer/reader is positioned in the centre of what first seems to be an infinite visual galaxy but which actually consists of 40 small interactive spheres (and lots of cheating spheres that do nothing), suggestive of planets but textured with distorted images that resonate with the stories they hold within. The piece uses eye tracking pioneered by Baker to activate the spheres in any order, triggering audio and unfolding a timetwisting, gap-denying love story set in Berlin in a parallel Weimar Republic with a tomorrow already speaking itself on the protagonists' lips. We hoped the piece resonated with the contemporary moment, too, closing the gap between histories and futures; the objects of our desires and our longing. It's also a mediation on the power of poetry.
These are not simultaneous timelines, but truer forking paths ... not an infinite number of worlds, but lines of possibility just slightly out of synch, destabilizing. The first iteration did not involve stepping into the sphere worlds ... but the next one, I hope, will, with the effect that perhaps, having chosen a sphere, one might not need to leave it. While knowing, of course, that there were roads not taken. Future iterations will always be haunted by the roads Damon and I were unable to travel together and enlivened by memories of the ones we did. And some of you might have caught another intertext – is this the same Andromeda? The same Isabelle? Rivers ...
The theme of the collision of times and spaces and identities, and a celebration of the potency of hybrid, monstrous forms continues in 200 Castles. This piece is an interactive AR work, a spatialized series of small stories set in both the domestic spaces of a castle and in the spaces of memory. The viewer unlocks the story by using the iPad as a magic looking glass to look at a book of old illustrations - a pdf with the required images. When the iPad's camera 'sees' the photo, the augmented reality technology overlays a series of small digital scenes suggesting the co-existence of multiple decades and triggering subtly interlocking stories of longing, archiving, sex, regret and ruins. And there is a walking girl in that text, who walks from that work and into another ...
Mother/Home/Heaven is another piece full of ghosts, bringing the past into the present, and working at both the level of narrative and at the level of interface to bring the private into the public: the domestic and its hauntings, a theme utterly continuous with so many of my earlier works . Created with Tony Vieira, Mother/Home/Heaven was part of Land|Slide Possible Futures, large scale public art exhibition mounted "in response to a world in transition where the past, present and future collide." The experience used fractal and nonlinear narrative to bring the domestic objects found on the shelves of the corner store to life, leveraging a sampling of an archive of thousands of pages of amazing diaries while also using fictional, whispered secrets and ghosts to suggest what might haunt the neatly ordered shelves of a 19th century general store. We used the objects we found as a cypher through which to conjure messy everyday lives, playing with the tension between the calm and regularity of the public objects on the shelves and the curious, lonely, worried, violent, in love and sometimes desperate and forgotten hands we imagined might have touched them – another theme that runs through all of my work. And if you look closely you'll also see that same ghostly Walking Girl as she travels the river from Castle to the corner store.
J. Lesbian stories from before you were born
There are also a lot of lesbians here. Chez Moi: Lesbian Bar Stories from before you were born, is a locative work called commissioned for World Pride, also made with Tony Vieira. It tells a story of a long-ago bar scene, in the space where it happened:
There were few social spots for women when the Chez Moi opened in 1984 and it marks a cusp moment in Toronto's lesbian bar scene, as women moved from dark basements and women's community centre dances , to the above-ground Chez. But who can blame the fictional narrator of your walk along Hayden street in search of both company and an elusive lesbian imaginary, for missing those basements more than just a bit?
The piece positions the viewer variously as protagonist and voyeur and makes the viewer walk from Yonge Street to where the old Chez Moi used to be. In situ stories are typically understood to reinforce a sense of time and place and aura and create stable viewer identification within the piece. I think a lot about what it means to have AR narratives set in libraries or in historically important neighbourhoods that rely on a reader's understanding of librariness or place or politics. The location can carry so much of the weight of the narrative, making AR fiction more like film or immersive theatre than the book. This is part of the new elit toolkit ... a digital poetics that takes the meanings already associated with the street underneath your feet into account. Counternarratives are also possible: We thought about how and if the exhibition would be understood if it were mounted in a different location and how that would work, in part inspired by the experience of exhibiting Mother, Home Heaven in Norway, for example. But also Marshall McLuhan.
K. Large-scale AR Palimpsests: stories yet to be written
The first large scale mobile narratives AR projects we're imagining in the lab are dense literary dreamscapes to be revisited over many days, are made possible both by new technologies and new practices of experiencing stories through technologies. My dream is to make something with the density of a novel alongside the rich linkages and possibilities for rereading promised by hypertext – those crashing, teleology-denying girls - combined with the potent hybrid poetics of the interplay between real and fictional worlds and the bodies walking through them. Through a series of 2000 interconnected lexias or nodes, crossing dozens of city blocks and designed to be explored over time: ideally, and in contrast to currently available experiences, leisurely over many weeks rather than days. The story nodes are woven through and to each other in multiple ways and aligned and mis- aligned with real world referents and our experiments tell a complex, shifting, story along what you by now know to be my preferred themes of gendered and sexualized spaces where public and private collide, loss, Isabelles, a shrink machine responsive to the viewer's touch and eccentric mornings that pull into evenings in an out-of-the-ordinary place: your neighbourhood. The piece builds on what I learned from Castle. We're experimenting with multiple POVs and timelines in a way that resonates with what monstrous AR technology does so superbly.
The walking girl heads back in time as the river, too, runs backwards. She walks into Circle. Across an antique box that used to hold silverware and onto my great- grandmother's gold bracelet. Circle is an AR tabletop theatre piece that tells the story of four generations of women through a series of small, connected stories and offers a sustained and radical attempt to use new media as a 'machine for cognition' that thinks beyond traditional epistemologies. And it's theorist Monique Tschofen, reading that piece as interrelational philosophy machine 2Tschofen. "The Denkbild ('Thought-Image') in the Age of Digital Reproduction. Theory, Culture and Society, 2015., that enables me to come full circle with the introduction, identifying in this work the spirit of the Frankfurt school, and my continuing graduate debt to Adorno.3Adorno writes that "Thought-images are ... parabolic evocations of something that cannot be said in words. They do not want to stop conceptual thought so much as to shock through their enigmatic form and thereby get though moving, because thought in its traditional form seems rigid, conventional and outmoded. )Theodor W. Adorno,'Benjamin's Einbahnstrasse'). Specifically, she connects Circle to the experimental genre of philosophical writing known as the Denkbild ('thought image'), "a poetic or aestheticized fragment – a lyrical - philosophical miniature that took the form of 'condensed, epigrammatic writing in textual snapshots...usually without a developed plot or prescribed narrative agenda, yet charged with theoretical insight.'"
"At first glance, Circle does not look like philosophy" Tschofen writes. And then goes on to argue that it is: "Touch here becomes the palliative to the subject-object dichotomy, and the hinge upon which philosophy opens itself to the world."
And, really, if you're looking to identify the river I inhabit ... or the river I wish I inhabited, it's that one, staging a collision of philosophy and poetry and touch making a case for why art matters. Almost all of my work exists in this space or yearns for it. For me electronic literature and the changing technologies and situations of writing and thinking that enable it is an incubator, inviting new ways to test and position subjectivity as well as narrative, to play quite literally with interrelationship and to build and circulate poetic theory machines to share what we desire of the world. Electronic literature as philosophy machine as well as story machine. I set my works in the Andromeda galaxy and fill public streets with private secrets;
I write in community with ghost girls, conjuring Isabelles who are cyphers for everyone I love or will love; I place the real world in your hand and whisper sex and make you touch; I write in constellations, in collision with epistemology, against identity thinking and in conversation with the dead.