Brian Kim Stefans on WOWNESS and VACUITY

1) CHRIS: The computer is often seen as giving the artist more freedom in both the visual and conceptual sense.  Likewise, this is supposed to give the viewer more room for freedom of exploration.  In what way do you feel a sense of exploration may be gained/lost if looking at your piece on the computer as opposed to in an art gallery or at a multi-media installation?  Also, your piece ties in with elements of video games.  How might encountering it a video game convention change the reader’s exploration experience or sense of
what the piece emphases?

BRIAN: As I mentioned in my opening, I don’t think Kluge is very much “fun” as a video game. It doesn’t possess some of the basic features of a successful video game; for example, many successful video games have a few basic gameplay “rules” that lead to a seemingly infinite number of gameplay experiences. A game like Tetris has a few basic rules that are easy to grasp, but users can get into all sorts of situations that they have to dig themselves out of. Winning in Tetris is easily quantifiable: you survive (you can see you are surviving because the wall is kept low), and your point score goes up when you beat a level.

One can grasp the situation very quickly in a video game, whereas in Kluge, you only know if you are “losing” if you can’t read the text clearly. (Maybe Rainman would be able to evaluate how many words were “legible” against how many weren’t, but most of us aren’t Rainman.) Most people don’t care enough about “reading” a digital literature piece to want to continue playing —  that’s one of the problems with electronic literature, it often doesn’t seem to mean much more than the “wowness” of the interface. That’s why some electronic literature pieces are considered interesting even when the text is really dull, trivial or arbitrary; one (generously) expects the proper text for the piece will simply be written later.

I think Kluge would not be considered a success in a video game convention, either — it doesn’t really offer many great new opportunities for creating commercial games, which is what most video game developers are interested in. I suppose some ideas for dynamic word games, like a live-action Wheel of Fortune type thing, could come out of it, but who knows. The desire to read is not a strong enough MO for a video game, at least not reading as much as Kluge asks of you (which is a whole lot less than, say, a novel or even long poem, but tons for an electronic writing piece). Most reading in video games is still on the prince-wants-to-rescue-princess (and has to kill a lot of baddies to do so) level — the MO is often a conventional movie hero motivation, such as revenge.

Kluge has never been presented as an installation. Again, I think there is too much reading involved for it to be successful in a gallery space. However, I’m working on a dynamic, non-interactive component to Kluge that I hope to present in gallery spaces, a component that won’t involve more than reading a few words at a time, like in Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’ text movies, but still basing all the reading on the pre-written text. YHCH Industries seemed to find the level of reading that could be required of a gallery-goer in their Flash text movies, and thus have had some success in galleries (as much as they insist that they are web artists and want to remain so).

Camille Utterbeck’s “Word Rain” has also been successful in gallery/installation contexts, but the amount of reading required is really very low (as it is for other text installations such as “Legible City” and “Streams of Consciousness.”) In fact, while I like these pieces as feats of engineering, I don’t admire them for any reason having to do with text or writing. Kluge attempted to address some of the vacuity of text in these pieces, but as I mentioned, I don’t think it’s particularly successful on that level — nobody really wants to read that much when they are interacting with a piece of digital art. (That is, if the interface is innovative. It’s a slightly different story for hypertext and interactive fiction, which are still imagined as being something like books, something to cozy up with, with added features.)

2) BRENDAN: In going through the scratch-and-win-like story of KLUGE, I was lost searching for my millions buried beneath the gray lettering. I however found myself in a sorrowful loop, neither winning nor losing, until after several minutes I realized I had actually lost myself. I now not only had not only a sense of a new way of reading but a new way of gaming. Had you anticipated creating this new way of gaming on top of you new way of reading?  Do you feel this speaks to a greater evolving cyclical form of gaming?

BRIAN: I like that people get “lost” in Kluge — that’s kind of the point. I wanted the “mess” of losing to bring about a sort of word salad, in which different parts of the text are overwriting each other, thus creating a reading experience that is a bit more avant-garde in nature — like reading a poem by Marinetti or Charles Bernstein, or a twisted version of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake — but still somehow tied to the narrative of the paragraphs.

But for Kluge to make a transition to a video game, it would have to understand the unit of the letter more centrally, and less the sentence. More simply put, asking the player of Kluge to appreciate the way the sentences and words were getting perverted by bad gameplay was asking too much (though maybe not for Rainman). The eye can’t take in that amount of information, nor the brain process it.

What I really should do — and this is what I’m doing a present project with a video game programmer named Jeff Lee — is to make the clarity of the letter itself the object of gameplay. If there’s one thing the eye can do quickly, it can recognize when something is merely a scrawl and when something is a letter — some people do this better, and faster, than others, but we all do it, in much the same manner that we recognize faces. (I’ll send a screenshot along of a piece I’m working on now, Scriptor, which does just that.) Like with the aforementioned Wheel of Fortune, the word becomes almost legible, and better gameplay leads to an unfolding of more letters in the phrase. But the phrase itself is rather simple and able to be taken in with a quick scan. Kluge requires real “reading” and that takes time that is not available.

Scriptor

Scriptor 2

3) ADY: As I was playing around trying to find all the possible ways to access the piece, I was especially intrigued and excited to see how the function of using the number keys to direct the piece the number of lines to scrape away as instructed.  However, on my computer it was disappointing to find that this function did not have any effect on the piece.  Should this function work on a wide variety of viewing platforms? Or is this something you are still working on?

BRIAN: I think the problem here is simple, which is that the Flash player will not read any keyboard input until you click on the Flash piece itself. The ability to change the number of lines scraped is fully implemented, on all platforms. But you have to click on Kluge itself to have the program read keyboard input.

This has nothing to do with the programming — it’s the case with all Flash applications on the web (few of which require keyboard input). I think it’s a Web 2.0 thing put in place for security reasons, so Flash couldn’t plant a virus on your computer without you knowing it. It’s annoying for me, since others have complained that the controls don’t work on Kluge, but there’s nothing I can do about it. (My older Flash pieces, created when this safety feature hadn’t yet been implemented, are also suffering because of it. Hopefully people will soon learn intuitively to click on a Flash piece to access its interactivity.)

Go back and try again!

4) JAMIE: In your post you stated that Kluge was first intended to be a video game, but the back-story suggests your conception of it changed into a cross between a poem and visual art with some gaming features. However, this back-story does not come across in the work itself as the introduction
introduces Kluge as a game intended to be played by the reader. This confused me and left me wondering what I was intended to be doing or accomplishing. There seems to be a contradiction as to what Kluge represents itself to be and what you yourself expect Kluge to be.  Are you alright with this tension or would you consider re-evaluating your perception of Kluge or how Kluge presents itself?

BRIAN: That’s a good question. The initial concept was that Kluge was a literary piece that one interacted with as with a video game, with some sense of what “winning” and “losing” were. “Winning” meant clean text — you know it when you see it — and “losing” meant a word salad, which was incomprehensible. Being an experimental poet, I actually like reading things that, to others, are “word salads” (like Joyce and Bernstein). So, to someone like me, losing was actually winning. However, to be a successful game, both winning and
losing would have to mean the same thing to the creator and player, right?

Early on, regardless of its status as a game, I thought it was quite lovely to just scrape the letters away and watch them fall, and to hear the clicking of new letters arriving. It was like an interactive painting, like the algorithmic art you see on turux.org, one of my favorite sites. It was in playing with the interface that I decided to call it a “meditation,” and not a game, simply because it seemed peaceful to do so. So there’s yet another bit of genre confusion. I’ve often described videogames, like “Rez” for the PS2 or the less-interesting “Geometry Wars,” as a form of “task-based interactive art,” but, again, the MO for implementing the task (the survival of your character) has to be quite strong and obvious.

Problems arose with the gameplay even regardless of the planning and conception. For example, the piece runs too slow on many people’s computers. I had it running fine on my modest Dell laptop, but I found that a lot of folks found it quite tedious to wait for all of those letters to fall, and often the sound chimed in before any visual proof of the letter’s having been hit was provided. I’m working on addressing that issue — using Actionscript over fixed-frame animations, for example — but I’m also hoping that computers will simply catch up with the piece.

(As a side note, there was a really cool video component to the piece that I had to subtract. A huge ugly fish — representative of into the Dagon, “fish of hate” as I called it, a figure from the H.P. Lovecraft section — would periodically come out and knock down some of the letters. At another point, a boy on a tricycle — a wind-up plastic toy I had used for another video project — also entered and knocked down letters. These video components didn’t work on the web either, so the only place you can see this stuff in action is when I demo the piece in classrooms. I’d like to someday return these elements to Kluge. I’m attaching a screenshot of the fish.)

Fish of Hate

After I decided that the initial idea of the game — scraping letters, smart bombs, etc. — was either not working or simply not game-like enough, I started to make the sub-pieces which involved typing letters on the keyboard to get different algorithmic rewritings of the text. (None of you asked me about this feature, which I think is really great.) In this way, Kluge became more of a multi-faceted reading too for the 36 paragraphs I had written, a combination poetry generator and auto-critical device that offered new readings of the text. As I mentioned, there’s a video game in there as well — if you press “G” you get a version of the classic  “Breakout” — which I consider a form of reading the text as well, though only one or two words at a time. This, I might call a “para-game,” as it’s a game within a game. I particularly like the “New York School Sonnet,” which uses a rudimentary parser, partly because I think it offers a critical perspective on what a “New York School Sonnet” is. But perhaps that’s too esoteric for your average reader to appreciate. (You Ted Berrigan fans might find this amusing.)

I should mention, lastly, that though I think the initial video game component of Kluge is not successful, I like the text that I wrote for Kluge very much, and published it in my most recent book of poems (titled,
appropriately, “Kluge, A Meditation, and other works.”) The paragraph form I invented for the poem made for some great literary effects, especially in readings, where auditors were able to have their expectations raised about when certain things would happen in the paragraph (the repeated, gruesome Stein phrase, for example) and how it would arrive, and be able to evaluate these events aesthetically. It’s not an “avant-garde” poem in the way I might have practiced it before — where it just starts and you have no map or guide to where it might go — but more like a sestina in that the reader/auditor is given a few touchstones to help them arrange the dizzying array of facts and syntactical transformations. I think it’s pretty funny, also. If you’re interested in just reading the text, let me know, I can send it on.

Thanks!

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