Language and the Interface

© Ana Sabino, 2015.Curatorial statement
When considered as a simulating machine, the computer blurs the distinction among media or forms of representation. Sounds, images, films, animations and verbal language can now share the same inscriptional surface. Literary experience is impacted by this shift in media ecology. The concept of language itself can refer to spoken and written language, but also to other semiotic systems. Within the computer environment, the linguistic, visual, aural and kinetic forms are themselves made up of layered executable languages of computer codes. The computer can be described as a semiotic machine and processor of languages. It is through the conventions and structures of the graphical user interface that our interaction with digital objects is mediated. What is displayed on the screen is the result of multiple-order representations (or translations) that allow the inscription, processing, and presentation of data.

William S. Burroughs once wrote that “Language is a virus from outer space”. In electronic literature, the computer brings the concept of estrangement to a whole new level by rooting literary experience in an intersection between human and machine languages, and by using processing speed, data storage and programming to suggest further ways to validate or delay the production of meaning. The works presented here take creative, ludic, critical and experimental approaches to the interplay between language and interface. Choosing paths, touching words, generating new threads of meaning or jumping off a cliff are activities that the reader might be asked to perform.

The aim of the ‘Language and the Interface’ exhibit is twofold: on the one hand, to show different modes of processing and displaying language in networked programmable media; on the other hand, to call attention to the interface as both a constraining and enabling reading device. What happens when an understanding of literature as patterned verbal and written language is explored in conjunction with the metamedial affordances of the computer environment? What is the role of the interface in situating and constituting readers as subjects of digital literary works? How are the processing of language and the language of processing interfaced by the display?

This exhibit is part of the international conference “Digital Literary Studies” hosted by the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Coimbra, May 14-15, 2015. Please feel free to join us and give it a try.

Daniela Côrtes Maduro
Ana Marques da Silva
Diogo Marques

Structure of the exhibition
This exhibit is divided into four stations and a projection wall: 1. The throw of the dice; 2. Games of make-believe; 3. Exquisite collages; 4. Machinations and manipulations; 5. “The writing on the wall”. The following paragraphs contain a synopsis for each station. Exhibition website: http://languageandtheinterface.uc.pt

1. The throw of the dice
Generative literature, in its broad manifestations, presents itself as an experiment with the creative potential of language. The works presented in this selection aim to draw the reader’s attention to the materiality of language and explore the combinatorial and/or generative nature of the linguistic medium. Each one of these literary texts embodies a view of language as a creative and self-reflexive tool for human expression. They also adopt a critical perspective toward the cultural contexts of contemporary discourses, such as the web as a space for communication and expression, the relationship between natural and computer languages, the materialities of digital inscription, or the issues regarding the writer’s control over a dynamic and often collective and distributed textuality.

1.1 Random words
1.2 Mosaic of quotations

2. Games of make-believe
Language enables us to build worlds from scratch. By deciphering the alphabetic code and combining words (or by reconstructing what was once written), readers are able to picture absent places which they have never visited or seen before. Fully formed worlds can emerge during reading. When the generative properties of language are added to the computer’s abilities to retrieve, store and process information, additional opportunities to sparkle readers’ imagination arise. This station is dedicated to works which welcome readers as inhabitants of their fictional worlds. Most of them pose multiple challenges. In order to understand the text, readers need to learn how to operate the interface. They might have to adopt a strategic approach and pay attention to detail in the process.

2.1 Character impersonation
2.2 Ready, set, read

3. Exquisite collages
Multilinearity and randomness have been widely explored by electronic literature. Computer programs such as Storyspace (Eastgate Systems) and Syntext (Pedro Barbosa, José Torres and Abílio Cavalheiro) were created in order to build rhizomatic and open-ended literary texts. Following its migration to the web and the development of audio and image editing software, electronic literature was turned into an exquisite assemblage of different art forms. Most of the texts included in this station can be described as multimodal. Some of them are created by a team of designers, programmers and artists and they often bring together verbal language and other sign systems. Machine language turns the interface into a canvas where ideas, daydreams and memories can go astray. These works use a stream of consciousness technique that is reinforced by readers’ random movements across interconnected lexias, pictures, video and audio files. Their hybridity stems not only from what the reader can see on the screen, but also from the miscegenation between human and machine language.

3.1 Forking paths
3.2 Memorabilia

4. Machinations and Manipulations
The intensification of research around digital media devices that summon tactile/haptic functions, such as touch and gesture, along with efforts to attain tangibility in HCI (human-computer interaction), is giving way to a whole new rhetoric of bodies, surfaces and interfaces. Through its countercultural and metamedial poetics, an increasing number of digital literary texts explore these questions, often requesting the reader/player to use several exteroceptive and interoceptive sensory modalities in order to fully experience its contents. This station encompasses such crafty machinations and witty manipulations, presenting works that defy paradigms of hapticity, virtuality, presence, and immersion.

4.1 Machinations
4.2 Manipulations

5. “The Writing on the Wall”
“The writing on the wall”, or “the writing is on the wall”, is an idiom often used to describe an unfortunate event that, though fairly predictable, seems impossible to counteract. Omens were clear but nothing was done to avert the situation. If only they could interpret the message written on the wall… Taken from the Book of Daniel, this expression refers to the story of the premonitory statement “Mene mene tekel upharsin”. This inscription, written by a disembodied hand, foretold the downfall of Babylon but was regarded as meaningless. Notwithstanding, if close attention is paid, the writing on the wall can reveal underlying messages. This projection wall plays with an idea of spectres of meaning and frustrated expectations, featuring digital literary texts that, unlike the trend toward interactivity, require little or no physical interaction. Most of all, even though their message may be unclear, they require our attention and intervention.

Exhibition website: http://languageandtheinterface.uc.pt


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