Rob Wittig and Scott Rettberg discuss the pioneer times in digital writing and electronic literature, a time long ago, in a Galaxy far away, when the audience at literary events did not have a clue about hypertext and links.
Mon, Jan 23, 2023 10:45AM • 24:34
writing, people, platforms, game, thinking, element, unknown, form, hypertext, william, point, link, participating, constraints, write, asks, polarized society, scenes, playful, book
Scott Rettberg, Rob Wittig
Otter? [pause] Otter! Ot … sorry, Scott. We’re using Otter.ai to transcribe these interviews and the ai Otter is getting tangled in a ball of yarn. Otter, pay attention! [clears throat]. So, Scott, how did you first get involved with Netprov?
My first experience was when you were in Bergen and you were working on Grace, Wit & Charm as part of your master's thesis. And of course, arguably, The Unknown was a netprovish kind of performance.
Absolutely! I always consider The Unknown a netprov.
So that would be the start, there. I participated a little bit in Grace, Wit & Charm.1More on Grace, Wit & Charm: http://meanwhilenetprov.com/index.php/project/498/ See also: https://directory.eliterature.org/individual-work/3720 I remember roleplaying as client in Twitter and asking questions of some of the people who were roleplaying the character enhancement agents. In a rehearsal, I think, and maybe one of the live shows. It was a ton of fun!
I’m glad you mentioned The Unknown. I’d love to hear a little about how that got rolling and what the experience was like.
Sure. The Unknown started when William and Dirk2Dirk Stratton and William Gillespie. For more information on The Unknown: https://directory.eliterature.org/individual-work/508 and I got together for a weekend in Cincinnati. We decided to do a book of experimental writing together. We had been playing a lot of writing games together. We had most of the texts, but we didn't have them with us. So we were like: what do we do this weekend? I had been working for a web company called the Mining Company, which became about.com. I’d just written a story about hypertext, which was a new thing to me at that point. I asked: why don't we try doing one of these hypertexts about the book tour we're gonna go on after we publish this book?
We started with a single page, taking turns writing. And we were really enjoying it. Then we sort of decided that we should make fun of each other, and play this kind of “dozens” thing, a back-and-forth insult game. We started writing about each other's characters on the book tour. Then that kind of took over. We started writing about books, first our book, then others, then we started imagining all these characters we might meet on this book tour, including a lot of famous people. [laughs]
We started linking to new nodes as we went. We did that in various states of consciousness — writing the whole weekend — then we went our separate ways. But it was so much fun that we kept doing it, you know, writing scenes individually, and sending them to each other and adding links. At first, I was adding a lot of the links, then we started all taking turns editing each other's scenes. Then it became a cycle of doing that remotely and then getting together every once in a while and writing scenes together. We’d bring a laptop to different places as we were writing it and integrate different people as guest authors. Did you ever write a scene?
I sat in with you in a couple of bars, passing a machine around, yeah!
Then at a certain point, we submitted it for the trAce/altX international hypertext competition, judged by Robert Coover. It won that. And then we actually started doing a tour going to these different conferences and events. I think that the first one was in a friend of Williams’ back yard at a labor day party, and hypertext was so new at that point that we were just holding a laptop and reading off of it. We had a call bell on the table. Because people couldn't see the screen, we rang the bell every time there was a link, allowing people to shout out to follow that link. At first some people didn't even believe that there were links. They didn't know what links were. This was 1998, ’99.
We kept doing readings like that. And we decided to wear suits like the Beatles. As we went around to conferences, we would bring other people into it. And it just became a sprawling, massive text, and took on the qualities of parody, I’d say, writing in the style of other writers, but also including lot of current events of the time, ranging from corporate takeovers of independent bookstores, to politics, to the Y2K bug that was supposed to shut down all the computers on New Year’s Eve 2000.
Then we started thinking about the work as a sort of ecosystem of literature. We started bringing our own literary criticism into it. We asked somebody to write a feminist critique of The Unknown — a lot of people thought that was fake! But Cynthia Nitz Ris3Cynthia Ris, a professor educator, an Interim Head of Department of English at the University of Cinncinatti. was a real feminist scholar. We’d do documentation of the different events and readings and create little documentaries inside of it, little parody documentaries and real ones. A friend of ours, Katie Gilligan,4Katie Gilligan is now a psychiatrist affiliated with Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. was an artist who was doing a durational project, we put her work in. Novelist Raymond Federman5Raymond Federman, 1928-2009, a French-American avant-garde novelist, poet and literary scholar focusing on Samuel Beckett. was pissed off when we did a reading in San Diego that he was in it, and demanded that we somehow bring him into The Unknown. So we included an art project of his in there, so it became this whole intertextual world and game at the same time.
That's a great description. I want to go back to the writing games that you said paved the way for The Unknown.
We were doing all sorts of different writing games, Oulipo types of exercises. I think we had a collection of Diane Arbus photographs and we started writing little stories about those. We did these little exquisite corpse sorts of things where we had a bunch of note cards that we wrote on, constraining ourselves to that amount of text. There were a lot of playful ways of writing with rules and limits. William was an expert on constrained writing; at that time he was really into it. I'd say that drove it.
Once we got into The Unknown, we started to think about hypertext as embedding its own constraints — using the link, thinking about link as a poetic structure that wasn’t simply about going from one text to another in a story, but could be a joke. For example at one point, every mention of beer in the text, of which there were many, would link to another scene that had beer in it. Sometimes chains of links were little poems. We were thinking of different ways we could use them. Then we were thinking about web navigation itself as a constraint. If you're not writing a linear story, what are other different ways of navigating a text, and bringing in the navigation bar, and other types of lists, like the index of famous people. I would say constraints informed that whole process.
And the insult game part of it was a way of motivating each other — not being at the level of real insults — but parodying and exaggerating each other's character traits. You know, the William character is extremely mean and withdrawn. And Dirk’s character is a cult leader. And they turned me into a drug addict, a heroin addict. [laughs]. But that was all just a way of writing each other's characters into these boxes, and seeing how we could write the characters out of them. As a method it was kind of [laughs] you know, in poor taste. But also a game that was fun.
[laughs] It’s a language arts game! You’re motivated to reply, to write!
So how would you say participating in Netprov has impacted your own creative and scholarly practice?
For me, netprov has oftentimes kept me in the writing game when I've been busy with other things. It's usually been almost a kind of stress relief, a return to that spirit of writing together that was part of The Unknown. It’s the idea of text play. I always love sort of disrupting your netprovs … [laughs]
… taking them in some different direction than they were going previously. I love writing late at night and enjoying the interplay between the various characters. Writing with people I don't know, writing with people I do know, trying to instigate other people in interesting ways that maybe point them in some other direction. It’s the element of play and also maybe a bit of teaching. I've done a couple of netprovs where our classes have been involved. But there's also a sort of collective teaching, playful writing, mentoring, that occurs, I think, even for all of us old people. [laughs]
What would you say about the community building potential of Netprov? And/or Netprov, as a tool to build bridges in a polarized society?
Clearly it builds community. I think of Monstrous Weather. When we got together in Portugal and sat around and read scenes from it. There were a few other people watching, but, for me, it wasn't really for the audience. We were reading for each other, amusing each other and I felt that bond with the other people who had been participating in it. And of course for you and me and Mark and a few other people, it’s been a way to stay in touch, and maintain that sense of community.
Now, I like your idea of using Netprov to heal, but I'm not sure I totally buy that in terms of our [chuckles] polarized society now. I think most of the projects have been like safety valves. But I dont think there are a lot of Trump voters in most of your Netprovs. Most of them are doing their own netprovs in social media. [laughs]
Although I suppose the kind of battles you get into on Facebook, which can be polarizing… they're also a type of play that can, depending on which way it goes, create anxiety or alleviate anxiety. There actually might be an element to it that's kind of healing. I think of my college roommate, who’s a Republican. The interesting thing is he — and actually another guy who’s a completely over the top Trump person — we were interacting like that, attacking each other because of their insane views, and it sort of renewed those relationships. Other than politics, we're friendly with each other! That has given me an opportunity to sort of see where they're coming from — that warped, broken, mindspace. [laughs] But also you encounter other people as people rather than completely abstract forces of ill.
So it’d be interesting to see netprovs that integrated those elements of a polarized society. It would probably just blow up and become a nightmare. But it'd be interesting to see if it could have a positive effect.
Thinking of the healing possibilities, I would look toward the ways creative play can be a release from stressful aspects of life, from trauma, from loss. Certainly we've all encountered that, individually, over the years that we've been writing netprovs. The actual loss of people we knew and things like that. Netprov has a healing element to it.
Nice. What are your feelings about Netprov and the post-Trump, post-truth internet world?
Anna Nacher, Søren Pold and I were thinking a lot about that when we were doing the COVID electronic literature project during these last two or three years, where digital platforms became such a dominant part of everyday life. It is very interesting.
The ways netprovs have used platforms reminds me of the early days of The Unknown: ‘The web? What is this thing? This clearly isn't like writing on paper, and it's not like writing in a book. And — how do we break it?’ How do we take platforms that are intended for other purposes… Most of the platforms you folks have been using — Twitter, Facebook, Google Docs, Instagram — every one that comes along, their purposes are not for the type of play that happens in a netprov.
So there is this element of: ‘Well, what do you know? Wow, this is a new creative writing environment!’ And others aren’t necessarily thinking of it that way. They don't even realize they’re doing creative writing when they’re constructing exaggerated, essentially fictional, identities on these new platforms. So the question becomes: how do we make this work, consciously, as an environment for fiction and performance?
A lot of the most interesting netprovs I've participated in are, simultaneously, parodies of the new platforms they're in. One of the most interesting aspects of a lot of contemporary electronic literature is that, while it's fun and playful, it also forms a critique of what has happened to society, communication, and language as a result of our engagement with — and living in and maybe even having some of our identities and thought processes shaped by — the platforms that we occupy, and that occupy us.
Great! What changes have you seen in netprov — not just ours, but broadly as a practice that lots of people do — in the last decade?
In terms of the evolution of the field of electronic literature: you, Mark [Marino], and I, and many many other people, have now taught electronic literature classes, and most of them include some kind of netprov or collective, locative writing project, some networked way of writing together.
I would also go back to platforms. For all that's good and bad about social networks, they really are a dynamic form of social — and antisocial [laughs] — but social writing. The idea of writing in a discursive environment is consistent with things that have been going on in culture. I'm not really of the "generational" camp in electronic literature — I think we've seen forms like netprov from the beginning — but if you look at Instapoetry or the shift towards other kinds of performative writing in social media, as well as that critical element, it’s consistent with a lot of things people have been doing in the field. It’s what's happened as a result of this technological shift that's no longer novel, but part of the air that we breathe.