On this episode of Off Center, Scott Rettberg is joined by artist and poet Jason Nelson to discuss the background behind Jason's weird and intriguing work, creativity in the digital age and the intersection between art and research. Behind every artist there is a story, and Jason's include disappearing masonic rings, Brazilian televangelists and city planning.
SR: Welcome to Off Center, the podcast of the Center for Digital Narrative. I'm Scott Rettberg, the director of the Center, and today I have with me digital artist, digital poet, writer, and researcher Jason Nelson. Welcome, Jason.
JN: Hi, Scott. Thanks for inviting me.
SR: It's a pleasure to have you here. And today I'm hoping that we can talk a little bit about your career as a digital poet and the work that you're going to be doing with the Center and with the extending digital narrative node. So let's start out with how you arrived at making these fascinating and strange hybrid forms of poetry and narrative.
JN: That's a long story.
SR: Farm boy in Kansas? No, in Oklahoma.
JN: Yeah, Oklahoma and Kansas. Spent all my summers in Kansas and grew up in Oklahoma. And in some ways I think that connects because I used to love spaces. Landscapes always had this kind of spatial view, and I think that comes from growing up on a farm, that mix of practical and spatial.
SR: Oh, that's really interesting. As I think about some of the poetry platform gamers that you've done, that might figure into it.
JN: I think you're right, actually, because it is sort of replicating this idea of trying to create a world, trying to create a space that people navigate through. And that was actually most of my childhood. God, I feel like we're in a therapy session right now.
SR: Don't tell me about your mother.
JN: That would be a bad idea.
SR: You're a city planner?
JN: Yeah, so I did a master's and a bachelor's in cultural geography at the University of Oklahoma. And after that, I worked as a regional and city planner for Oklahoma City, then the city of Norman. And I'd been doing a lot of mapping stuff using ArcInfo and a bit of GIS and mapping software or whatever. So I had an interest in technology. I was building my own computers. And at the same time, I was really interested in language poetry.
SR: Oh, yeah? That's interesting.
JN: So I had been really interested in language poetry, really interested in short fiction.
SR: Like Charles Bernstein?
JN: Yeah, exactly. Like Charles Bernstein. I took a creative writing class at the University of Oklahoma. The only creative writing class I took was with a woman named Elizabeth Robinson, who was at Burning Deck Press—I don't know if you recall them, up in the Northeast—she was one of their main authors, and she just happened to be there and exposed us, the few of us that took that class, to language poetry and different types of writing.
SR: So experimental writing.
JN: Yeah, very much experimental writing. And I was just sort of doing it, and I was submitting to journals and stuff, but I had no sense of anything digital.
SR: And this was in the late 1990s?
JN: Yeah, this would have been the late 90s because I went to Bowling Green. So after being a regional city planner for a while and getting disillusioned with city governments and paperwork and all that stuff, I ended up moving to Bowling Green to do an MFA in creative writing. And to be honest, the only reason why I chose Bowling Green is because I could meet the deadline. All the other deadlines had passed, and so I could meet the deadline there, I applied, and they gave me fellowship.
SR: And you could teach.
SR: And was it there that you sort of moved into the digital realm? Did they welcome that?
JN: No, they did not. In fact, the program itself was really conservative, and they didn't like the fact that I was doing experimental stuff. So as a reaction, I gravitated towards other areas. And there was a woman at the art school named Bonnie Mitchell who was one of the founders of SIGGRAPH, and she was teaching these weird digital art classes, teaching people Flash, HTML, that kind of stuff. And I just sat in on her classes, and she taught me all these things.
SR: Oh, that's great.
JN: And then I started combining that with my writing, and I have a funny story about that: the very first thing I made, I was excited to show in a class that I was taking at Bowling Green, and the teacher at the time said I could not show it. It was too dangerous.
SR: It was too dangerous. It was the end of books.
JN: Basically. She was just scared of it. And evidently she spent months, like, thinking about this and deliberating over whether or not I should be able to show it. By the time she said yes, I'd already published it someplace. In Cauldron & Net, I think it was.
SR: And this was right around the start of the ELO. I remember the first time I encountered your work was when we were curating an exhibition for the 2001, or 2002 State of the Arts conference in LA.
SR: And I looked at this and I was like, I've never seen anything like this. It's not quite like hypertext and it's not quite like digital poetry as we think of it. (https://iloveepoetry.org/?p=240) And the interface was really interesting. Can you talk a little bit about your sort of uniquely distinctive approach to how you create an interface for language?
JN: Yeah, I am fascinated with interfaces, and in some ways it goes back to the way I initially explored writing. So I was always interested in form as something you could examine in writing, and an interface seemed to be a logical extension of that. If you think of, like, poetry, you have boring forms like rhyming couplets or haikus or what have you. And also I've always been interested in machines and how machines can impact the way you experience the world. And I like that kind of interface between the human and this sort of digital realm, machine realm or robotic realm.
SR: That mediation between you, and not the page, but the user. Interaction is important to you too, right?
JN: Oh, yeah. I think all of, well, not all. Some of my projection works haven't been as much, but most of my work's interactive and I don't know why I've always felt like that's really important, because I wanted there to be a ladder between my work and the person experiencing it. And it felt like the ladder in some ways was that sort of interaction, that they had a sense of ownership of it. And again, going back to the idea of a world, I wanted them to be able to explore that world and to be able to layer content within it.
SR: And it keeps their attention in some way, at least, right?
JN: Yeah, well, if you force them to interact with it and you give them little rewards every time they do, then they have to go explore, and they find they want to keep exploring.
SR: In one way, I think there's kind of a tension between— because I've played some of your games that were maybe a little bit more difficult, and then one of the frustrations might be that I have a hard time paying attention to the words because I'm trying to not die.
JN: Actually, I've heard that critique a lot. It's a weird thing when you're making interactive work that is sort of complicated. You have to balance this idea of how much direction do you give somebody, how easy do you make it? Because you do want them to pay attention to narrative poetic elements, but at the same time you also want it to be a little bit challenging. And it's weird when you make, let's say, art games because everyone gets pissed off about it, right? The gamers are like,"this is way too easy, this is dumb." The art world is like, "what is this? I can't even interact with it." Some of the literary world doesn't even know how to get past the first level. Trying to occupy a space between all those things.
SR: But this is also kind of the forum where you made your name and a lot of your works have reached broader audiences than some of the more experimental hypertexts, say, or some visual poetry. So maybe talk about one specific example. What about Game, Game, Game and Again Game?
JN: That's a weird one. So that was the first game I made. I made it actually in a coffee shop in Broad Beach in the Gold Coast. I would sit at this coffee shop that was like a chain, basically, and didn't care how long I sat there. So I would sit there for hours. And I was just trying to figure this out, like, can I combine a game engine with some sort of interactive poetry? And at the time, I was having this weird anti-design sentiment where I was frustrated with clean design. A lot of digital art goes for a very specific look. So I thought, okay, I'm going to combine my poorly drawn art with strange poetry that's marked up and scratchy and kind of odd admittedly. And then I decided to turn this into basically a platformer game, a simple platformer game. And I think it was lucky in terms of timing because when I released this thing, I really had no sense that anybody would even care. And at the time there was a PhD student of, not even of mine, just a PhD student who was around, who was a big gamer, and he really loved it.
JN: And he suggested I send it to just a couple of games journalists. And so I did that. And from that it exploded, and it started just spreading and spreading and spreading.
SR: And you eventually had people railing against—was this the game or was it the following game where you had the Brazilian minister?
JN: Oh, yeah, that story. Oh gosh, it was a couple games that he talked about, but it was also Game, Game, Game, and Again, Game, because the second or third level has a cross on it because all the levels are based on belief systems. And that story goes that basically I started— one of the ways you interact with your audiences is you look at server stats. And so I could see one day that I had a massive spike from Brazil. And I thought, what is going on here? Like, why am I getting hundreds of thousands of hits? And it was hundreds of thousands of people coming in from Brazil. I also noticed a pretty significant spike in emails to me that were very sort of critical, hostile, negative death threats. Also a lot of emails in Portuguese. And so I thought, okay, this is kind of odd. So I knew somebody that lived in Sao Paulo and I asked them, can you look into it? They spent a week or so and then they sent me a video, and it was of a televangelist—one of the most popular televangelist preachers in Brazil—decided to do this giant sermon on the evils of video games.
JN: And so he talks about Diablo and talks about some other games, and all of a sudden he says, Game, Game Game and Again Game by Jason Nelson. And then there's a screenshot of my work on this video with this Brazilian televangelist attacking me as I am an example of, I guess, some sort of evil devil making games.
SR: Well, and it's an interesting game too, because there is this implied critique of theology or an investigation of the different ways that people come to terms with religion, with the afterlife.
JN: Yeah. Each of the levels is based on belief systems and examples, of course. One is faith, another one is the cycle of suffering. One is chemistry, and probably more like pharmaceuticals. Another one's real estate, another one's capitalism. So it's taking this broad view and looking at all these different types of dominant belief systems that kind of control people's lives. And each of the levels explores one of those, basically.
SR: Yeah. And that's sort of exploring larger metanarratives of culture in a way.
JN: A lot of people don't know this, and they're always surprised to hear this. I don't even know if you know this, but in that game, there's little videos in each levels. Those videos were shot by my grandfather. They're all of me as a child.
SR: Oh, wow.
JN: And so the very first level is me on my mother's lap coming out of the hospital while she's in a wheelchair. Then all the rest of the videos are me taken at different times. They're all just basically super eight films that my grandfather would have caught, that I recorded and put into the work.
SR: And was your grandfather the Freemason?
SR: Well, it's interesting. I think another— when I look at your games and there's often an interest in the kind of cryptic and strange.
JN: You mentioned the Freemasons. Yeah, quite a few of my works do look at either conspiracy theories, really strange ones, or looking at secret societies, looking at apocalyptic things, but they're all obviously completely surreal or magic realism sort of things. But some of that comes from my experiences around my granddad as a Freemason, because he was a grandmaster in Kansas and had a fair amount of sway and it was all very secret. One kind of odd story is that when he passed, I was supposed to get his Freemason ring, but someone came into the funeral home and took it.
SR: Yeah, I guess you got to go through some stuff to achieve that particular status.
JN: Yeah, he had a lot of interesting stories. I think it was just spending times on their farm, spending times with him and seeing him go off with a group of people and with his regalia and having these strange experiences and coming back and hearing little snippets.
SR: Great. So tell me a little bit more about how your work evolved from there, you still have a lot of game-based elements in your work. You're also working with very large scale projections.
JN: I've made quite a few games after that. In fact, the immediate game after that, is probably my favorite. It's called I Made This. You Play This. We are Enemies. And it was very much about my experience of having the first game go viral and being experienced by so many people in the world.
SR: And it won a Webby, too, we should mention.
JN: Oh, yeah. And then I won a Webby in, god, 2009, 2010, somewhere around there, which was also a really strange experience because I didn't end up going to the ceremony. And they send you this giant trophy in the mail, and it's, like, in a crate. You get this sort of big thing, and I'm opening it in a park in Australia with no one around, like, you've just won a Webby.
SR: Did that make it to Norway? Is it in your apartment?
JN: No, it's still in Australia. I'm going to bring it, though, next time we go back. The one fun thing about the Webby is after I won it, the Wall Street Journal did a short review of my work and called it as alienating as modern art can get. I like that. Yeah, it was really nice, actually, especially coming from The Wall Street Journal. I think that's a giant compliment.
SR: Well, yeah, a reaction of any kinds is a reaction. What about this— one of the things about you, is that you are a large man.
JN: Thank you.
SR: And you seem to, in your works, be interested in scale.
JN: Okay. Yeah.
SR: And I know you've done some projections on the side of buildings and things like that.
JN: Yeah. So I might go back a step and talk a little bit about this transition that I experienced probably five or six years ago that was kind of born by opportunity. So, I still have always made digital writing, digital narratives, digital poetry, but I've decided to try to expand a bit more into the art world. And they like interactive stuff, but sometimes they struggle with it. Galleries struggle with it. They don't know how to use it.
SR: They don't know how to turn it back on after they turn it off.
JN: They don't, which is crazy. But they're quite familiar, especially in Australia, with projection, and they're quite familiar with sort of augmenting spaces and landscapes and this kind of thing. And so I, along with my partner, Alinta Krauth, started exploring how to use projection as a way of changing physical spaces. And this became exciting. For one, it takes you away from this small screen, your laptop and your office, hunkered down and working. And also, it added another layer in the same way that in a game environment, if I'm making a platform game or a top-down game or whatever, you're making a world and projection does the same thing, but in the world, similar to the way AR could do that. Yeah.
SR: You break out of the screen and into the physical world.
JN: Yeah, I know.
SR: You also did some small projections where you're walking around with the backpack and you have the projector. Maybe say more about that.
JN: Yeah. Gosh, that is a weird experience. Alinta was showing a project at a thing called the Gertrude Street Projection Festival in Melbourne. This is a festival that gets, I mean, Melbourne festivals always get lots of people, but this probably gets 5-600,000 people coming to it over a week. So she did this projection work for them in one of the storefronts, and we were setting it up, but I was just helping. So I decided, as an experiment, to modify a backpack, put a pico projector into it and have it projecting things behind me as I walked around. And the response was insane. People would look at me and wonder where the projection was coming from. Large groups of children would follow me around because they were amazed at this thing that was following me.
JN: But the big aha moment for me while I was doing that, is that the response from people was amazing because they had no idea where it was coming from. There were other people there who also had little battery operated projectors, but they were holding it in their hands. So because you could see the projector, you knew where they were pointing it, because it was in their hands. It wasn't interesting, but because I hid mine and you have no idea where it was coming from, people thought it was kind of magical, like, what is this? How is this projection following this strange person? And I would pretend I had no idea where it was coming from.
SR: Well, and that comes back to this idea of breaking the frame or reframing narrative that I think you mentioned at the very start when you were fascinated with language poetry.
JN: Yeah, I think to some extent, and I'm not sure if this answers that, but to some extent, I kind of see our role. I mean, your work, my work, in a way, we're magicians. We're not necessarily going to be making ultra complicated things that win technical awards, but we're able to use technology in new, interesting and novel ways, and we're able to make it do things maybe it wasn't intended to do. And in some ways, you're trying to create these magical experiences that briefly transport someone away from whatever and add a layer onto the world that adds some sort of narrative meaning or poetic meaning.
SR: Well, and part of it too, I think, is that we're looking at these technologies that are made for other purposes, often even for corporate purposes. And we're looking at them as these strange tools, these new environments, and you sort of throw it against the wall until it can tell a story.
JN: Yeah, no, exactly. That's a good way of putting it, actually, because it is kind of what you have to do, and there's a lot of failure. One of the things I like doing with students or sometimes when I give public talks, is I'll pull up a folder that I have on a hard drive, and it's all the failed projects, and there's so many of them, dozens and dozens of projects that are half finished. They're just failed. And like you said, you try and you throw it against a wall and you fail. But that's okay, because the things you make can be pretty amazing if it works.
SR: So a couple of years back, you moved from Australia from a sort of farm environment, but also Brisbane, where there's forest fires all over the place, all these apocalyptic things happening. And you moved to Norway, and that coincides with us starting the Center, but also coincides with the explosion of activity in AI. And I know you and I both have been attracted to this as another storytelling environment, as one of these things that we can test the limits of and play around with. Maybe say a little bit about some of the experiments you've been doing?
JN: AI is a really strange one. When I first encountered it seems exciting, but one of the guiding principles I've been using in my head in terms of exploring it is that I want to use it to do what isn't possible. So the idea would be that a lot of people are using it to do things that are difficult for them to do, but possible. I want to use it to do things that are not only difficult for me to do, but also going to be almost impossible. And I think that's where the real possibilities come from. So, for example, I've been making these, what I'm clumsily calling Ultra Large Digital Narrative images.
SR: There's that large again.
JN: Yeah, that's true, I didn't think about that. You basically are using what's called outpainting, and I'm inserting my own image into the middle of it, and it's a very small little chunk of something with colors and shapes and something I've put together. And then I'm using AI to continuously extend that over what are large distances in terms of pixels. So they might be 20, 30,000 pixels. Oh, by the way, this is kind of a fun thing, I have figured out that 35,000 pixels is where it craps out.
SR: Oh, wow. It actually has a limit.
JN: Yeah, it actually has a limit. It shuts down once you get over 35,000 pixels. In terms of the outpainting space, it shuts down entirely.
SR: And this is a feature of DALL•E 2.
JN: Yeah, among others.
SR: The text to image generator from OpenAI.
JN: Yeah. And so I've just been looking at it. How do I expand it, and how do I get it to sort of tell the story in an image and admittedly, a very loose, abstract story over a large space and get all that to connect up visually and vaguely thematically? I'm not there yet at all.
SR: Yes, an image that tells a story, which is another interesting strand of electronic literature, I think of two things. One is I think of Donna Leishman's work, where there's whole extended narratives that never actually have any words in them. But then the other is sort of explaining to people what electronic literature is. And well, at first it tells a story, it uses text on the screen, and then it's well, it doesn't necessarily use text. Somehow it tells a story, or somehow it evokes a response. And I guess maybe there's this crossover zone, which your work's really in, between what people call digital art and what people call electronic literature. Maybe it's just more a matter of sensibility.
JN: Well, the joke used to be, for me at least, that I used to say what I call my work is depend on what the grant calls for. That's what I'll call it. But in a serious way, I've always thought of text as being interface coding, image, sound, interface, interactivity, animation, movements and words.
SR: So this is Roland Barthes.
JN: Yeah, exactly. So, it's that extension of this idea of text in all these kind of landscapes. I mean, I suppose someone could come back and they could say, well, where is the line? And I would say, well, there probably isn't one. And do we need to have one?
SR: Well, one of the attractive things, I think, about the art world compared to the very traditional literary world, the MLA and the AWP type of literary practice, is that the art world's kind of open to all this, right? They just look at it and they say, that's art. Oh, that's art with language, that's art with story. And they let you exhibit it. One of the alienating things about doing work on the Web is that you make it, you put it out there. Maybe you look at the logs and you see how many thousands of people have visited, or tens, but you don't have that sense of connection. And then you actually see people moving through an art museum and you get a different sense.
JN: No, I think you're right. I think that we do. Generally, the field and this is something we should figure out with the CDN generally, the field, I think, needs more connections with institutions, with venues, with publishers, with journals, whatever, so people can show their work and get these kind of audiences. I think it's really important, and it is exciting to see your work in a space like that.
SR: Well, let's talk a little bit more about the Center and also the Extending Digital Narrative project. We got some funding to do research specifically on emerging narrative environments like AI, XR, or conversational narratives. What are some ideas that you have of the kind of experiments that we should be making together over the next few years?
JN: Okay. One method I've been using is taking all the different things I've learned over the years and putting them on a piece of paper, like little boxes. I've learned this and this and this, and how can we combine them? And some of the stuff I've been hearing that you're discussing, some of the stuff that you've been exploring are conversational engines. And so I put that into a box, and then I thought, all right, I've also been working a lot with physical computing and thinking more about devices, physical artifacts, things that go out in the world. Like I've been doing with the projection, and then combining that with sculpture, combining that with a bit of tech. One of the things I would love for us to do is make a digital narrative conversation box that's solar powered or plugged into a gallery. So you walk in here's, this weird little looking device, and make it sculptural and interesting, and then a person starts speaking to it, and then it starts speaking back, and the story happens that way.
SR: It's called an Alexa.
JN: Exactly. This is the issue, isn't it, like what I was talking about with the tiny projectors, in the sense that it's just a projector. But it depends on how you present it.
SR: Maybe it should be a hairdryer.
JN: Yeah, maybe. But it depends on how you present it, and I think it depends on how you make it seem mysterious. For me, a lot of it's about the context and about the elements that are around it. So turning it into this strange sculpture, even though, as you say, just using existing technology. But I think it could be exciting.
SR: Well, we can also invent technologies. We can be part of that.
JN: No. Well, okay. So another idea, for example, and you and I have talked about this—
SR: The poetry robot?
JN: Oh, yes. I have a fascination with robots, and I would love it if we could build, and I've done this in a few little bad examples that are clumsy and don't run very well. But yeah, I would love it if we could figure out a way to combine, let's say, projection, robotics, digital poetry, digital narrative, and sound and have an autonomous robot that would wander through a space and just recharge itself and interact and do different things in that space. And it's possible. It's just a matter of getting it all the work, which is always the problem.
SR: Well, that'll certainly be an attractive feature of the Center for people coming. Or scary.
JN: They'll trip over it and fall, which is what my experience was with the last poetry robot, because they don't realize, oh, there's a robot walking around the space.
SR: Well, we'll see what the University Health and Safety people have to say about our robots.
SR: What about the sort of experimental value you think of your work and of the things we might do with the Center? How do people use this stuff later on, in addition to having this aesthetic experience in the moment?
JN: Yeah, that's a good question. I could see it in a couple of different ways. I mean, for one, I think with this Center, it would be great if we had started collecting these things. It's going back to what I was saying about having all this sort of half finished experience on a hard drive. Sadly, a lot of those are in a software platform that's now obsolete, but some of the other ones, I think all these things are kind of usable and can be extended to other people. If you think about the history of digital narrative, you can see that certain interfaces and platforms have extended the field in lots of interesting ways, even.
SR: When they've gone away. And not even the field, maybe our whole experience of technology.
JN: Yeah. I think if we can develop these things and then we can say, okay, we've developed an interface, could we then share that with other people, encourage them to make something with it and work with it? To have this open source perspective where we could even have a big repository of a bunch of our experiments, some of which might be good enough to show and exhibit and spread around. Others might be relatively small things, but other people might like those and want to experiment with them. And then it would be this kind of collection of experiments that hopefully can build the future literary interfaces and forms.
SR: Well, I'm not sure how much more time we have left, but one question I want to get in here, if I can, is I know teaching is very important to you. How do you see the work that you're doing and the work that we'll be doing with the Center sort of fitting into educating the next generation of digital narrative researchers?
JN: Yeah, this has been something, actually, we've been talking about a lot. I do think that it would be important that our teaching and the CDN are very intertwined. And I think about my previous experience in art schools, and some of the most impactful, powerful experiences for students are when they're actively working on projects that we're working on, or at least witnessing it, being a part of it, that kind of thing. So I could really see those two integrated.
SR: Yeah. And merging practice and theory, I think is real important. It's something that might be, if not unique, pretty distinctive about the environment that we're bringing here.
JN: I think you're right. Because it is true as a research Center, it is actually really unique in that regard, in the sense that we have both creative artistic research and the sort of more theory focused research. And the way we try to encourage people to combine those on either side, I think is really critical and exciting for students.
SR: Well, thanks a lot, Jason. It's been great talking with you, and it'll be great working with you and experimenting with you over the course of the next decade.
SR: It's the next decade. Isn't that amazing? Yeah. It'll be good working with you, Scott, for the next ten years—
SR: and then (whoosh)
JN: —you're out.
SR: Okay. I've been talking with digital poet and experimental writer Jason Nelson, and this has been an episode of Off Center. We'll be back next time with a new guest, and a new topic.
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This research is partially supported by the Research Council of Norway Centres of Excellence program, project number 332643, Center for Digital Narrative and project number 335129, Extending Digital Narrative.