On Friday, Jim Barrett and I (Jan Van Looy) gave an introduction to Electronic Literature to teacher trainees at HUMlab. First, I spoke about the history of the hypertext idea, how ‘books’ can be seen as a writing technology, just like wall paintings, clay tablets, scrolls and… the computer. Since WWII the idea of a new type of text has become more and more prevalent, first in academic circles, then with professionals, and since the advent of the World Wide Web in just about every living room. You can find my presentation here: When Fiction Meets Interaction: Hypertext, Hyperfiction and the Meaning of Meaning. Perhaps, while I am at it, I could also shamelessly make promotion for a book I have edited with Jan Baetens on the subject. You can find more information and its introduction in full text here: Close Reading New Media
Then Jim gave a splendid introduction to electronic literature paying a lot of attention to pre-electronic examples of non-linear narrative and to Michael Joyce’s Afternoon. You can find more of Jim’s presentation on his blog.
I finished the introduction by discussing a few medium-specific techniques used in Geoff Ryman’s 253, in my opinion still one of the most honest – and amusing of course – attempts at creating a new kind of interactive story. I particularly discussed how he uses a sort of dramatic irony to depict scenes from different angles. As a reader, you follow a path through the heads of 253 passengers in a London subway train. You listen to their thoughts and ideas, for example on other passengers, to whom you can then jump and whose ideas about the former you can then read. Make sure you visit car number 3 where a theatrical performance is taking place. A highly recommendable experience!
Then two groups of students were seated at the workstations where they had to prepare an assignment. Our idea was to introduce them to several, preferably contemporary, works, while at the same time making sure that it would be more than a random clicking exercise. As a starting point we used the excellent and freely available e-literature collection, published by the Electronic Literature Organization. We also gave the students an assignment which would make them look more closely at the techniques used in the text, particularly where interactivity is used to steer or enhance the story level.
It was wonderful to see the enthusiasm with which everyone engaged in the exploration of the material. The equipment in HUMlab is excellent and with the speakers on, there was almost electricity in the air with continuous music, laughter and talk in the background. At the end of the day, we had a closing group discussion on the collection. I sincerely hope that there will be more seminars like this one, sooner rather than later.