Rebooting Electronic Literature: Documenting Pre-Web Born Digital Media

Traversal of Rob Kendall's "A Life Set for Two"

This live stream Traversal of Rob Kendall's A Life Set for Two took place on Friday, March 30, 2018 at in the Electronic Literature Lab. It was performed by John Barber, faculty in the Creative Media & Digital Culture program at Washington State University Vancouver. The Traversal documentation includes three video clips of the performance itself along with introductory comments and the question and answer session with the audience that followed the performance. For the performance we used a Compaq PC running Windows 98 and a copy of the work from Grigar's collection. Barber rehearsed during the weeks leading up to the event. Handling the technical setup on YouTube was Greg Philbrook, the Creative Media & Digital Culture program's technical and instructional assistant. All four of the four research assistants––Vanessa Rhodes, Mariah Gwin, Veronica Whitney and Katie Bowen––oversaw the social media engagement and photographed the event.

Traversal of Robert Kendall's A Life Set for Two, Introduction
This video captures the approximately 30 minute long pre-show that took place in the Electronic Literature Lab prior to Dr. John Barber’s live stream Traversal of Rob Kendall’s work, A Life Set for Two. People can be seen filing in and interacting with one another. The sound playing in the background is a sound art piece produced by Dr. John Barber. The video ends by playing the official trailer for the Pathfinders project.

Traversal of Robert Kendall's A Life Set for Two, Part 1
This video clip starts off with Dene Grigar giving introductory comments prior to the live stream Traversal of Kendall’s A Life Set for Two. Grigar thanks the several members of the online audience – including Kendall himself – and those present within the room. Grigar describes the Pathfinders methodology, the Traversal process, and the upcoming book, Rebooting Electronic Literature. She also thanks John Barber who teaches in the program and introduces him as the Traversal performer. She then thanks and introduces the workers in the Electronic Literature Lab. She closes by encouraging the audience to get involved with the Traversal on social media by using the hashtag #ELitPathfinders. Barber begins his Traversal by describing and displaying the physical copy of A Life Set for Two. Barber thanks Grigar for the introduction and then explains that the work is loaded onto a compact PC computer to display the work. He points out that the first thing his attention is drawn to upon launching A Life Set for Two is the text at the title portion of the page is constantly changing. He connects the changing words to the literary experience the audience can expect throughout the work. Barber explores the introductory page before proceeding into the work. He describes the visual display on the screen and compares it to that of a tablecloth, then begins to read the prologue. Barber makes a note about the changing of the text between the words “overacting” and “overarching.” He calls it an interesting feature of visual basics and believes that Kendall uses it in the work so that he can use multiple words that have multiple meanings. This clip ends with Barber, again, noting the changing text on the second screen and stating that it is a feature of the work and will likely be seen throughout the work.

Traversal of Robert Kendall's A Life Set for Two, Part 2
In this video clip, Barber checks the options and goes through to explain additional features of the program. He continues reading and is taken to a page with five boxes. The instructions in the middle of the screen explain that he must click on a box, lift it, and look underneath. When Barber clicks on the boxes, messages appear on the screen. He clicks on each box moving right to left and down through all the boxes. Once he clicks the last box, he makes a note to explain that the screen switched automatically and that he didn’t click on anything to progress further. Barber also states that he has returned to the display that could be a tablecloth at a café. After clicking a word, the text box fades and the screen is filled with a title “Welcome to Café Passé Fine Food for Thought.” Barber continues to read and then two mentions appear on the screen. He explains the menus and ways to filter them by Aftertaste. He selects the sub-heading “Fruit’s Fall” under the "What Fed Her" menu then continues to read. After reading through the page, only one menu reappears and that is the What Fed Me menu. He selects sub-heading “Fall’s Fruit” and reads through once again. It returns to the "What Fed Her" menu and Barber states that he will click through from top to bottom but notes that the reader can go through in any order. Both menus become available but there is only one choice left on the menu on the right titled "Yesterday’s Specials." Barber selects the sub-heading underneath the right menu labeled “The Meat of Our Bodies” and is faced with four options from there, selecting “Hands” from the options. He takes note of the background image and describes it as a ghosted outline around images of a fork and knife on a black background on either side of the text. This clip ends with Barber finishing the reading of the “Yesterday’s Specials: Our Bodies (Hands)” section.

Traversal of Robert Kendall's A Life Set for Two, Part 3
In this video clip, Barber continues on the "What Fed Me" menu by selecting the sub-heading, “Manna from the Stars.” The background is still black with the ghosted utensils on either side of the screen. Two menus appear again, this time with "Yesterday’s Specials" on the left and "What Fed Her" on the right. Under the "Yesterday’s Specials" menu, Barber points out how “The Meat of Our Bodies” sub-heading is grayed out, signifying that it is not available, and a new choice titled “Love’s Deserts” has appeared on the menu. He clicks that option and a box appears with the title of “Love’s Desert Tray, Help Yourself.” While there are five smaller boxes here, there is only one option titled “Love.” Barber reads through the text that appears and once again one menu appears except this time it is the "What Fed Her" menu and all of the options appear as available once more. He selects the sub-heading of “Naughty Treats” and reads through until both menus appear again and Barber points out that for the first time a new option at the top of the screen appears that allows the reader to add “seasoning”.  Barber discusses how the work is a poem about a struggling relationship where neither individual is being honest toward the other. He continues to read and then he selects the option to call for the check that appears under the "Yesterday’s Specials" menu. Barber makes inferences as he reads through the section after about how there seems to be a heavy price he will pay. He is presented with two final options, one labeled “The End,” signifying an ending of the piece, and “The Beginning” assuming the reader could start over and go through again. Barber selects “The End” and is taken back to the title page. He then gives finishing words and thanks everyone. This video concludes with the end of the Traversal.

Traversal of Robert Kendall's A Life Set for TwoQ&A, Part 1
The question and answer session was facilitated by Dr. Dene Grigar, who opened the floor to questions. The first question was asked by off by a student in the lab. She asked: “I was wondering how long it took him to make the piece?” Grigar answered that she had not asked Kendall this question directly, but by piecing together clues from the publication dates of the early fragments of the work that were published it appears that it took about a year to create. Grigar went on to show what a typical Eastgate Systems Quarterly Review of Hypertext serial publication looks like, showcasing the packaging, inserts, and promotional materials. The conversation moved on to a comment about the use of color in the work and how the color palate dimmed from bright colors at the opening of the piece to dimmer colors as the relationship faded. Another student present in the lab commented on the changing size of the typeface, allowing the words in the poem to change in context and emphasis. This was contrasted to the fixed nature of print based texts. A different participant in the lab compared these contrasting affordances to Raymond Queneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems. Grigar brought the conversation back to A Life Set For Two by commenting on how Kendall’s use of the hypertext medium used the impermanence and mutability of electronic text to mirror how human memory works and how that differs from the static permanence of printed texts.
Next, Dr. John Barber was asked to comment on his experience reading the piece in the traversal. Barber compared experiencing the work to liminal dreaming. He went on to comment on the connection between memory and regret and how the act of remembering gives us occasion to revisit points in our histories where we wished we had done things differently. Barber drew attention to the narrative in Kendall’s work where the two lovers, with their relationship soured, attempt through small cruelties to goad the other into breaking the relationship. Barber explained how the language, text, and images in Kendall’s work function to carry the reader through this arc. Barber also reminds us that despite the darker tone of the narrative about a failing relationship, Kendall has leavened the work with humor, making A Life Set For Two a very human work of art. The video closed with a discussion of different kinds of love and human interactions with each other.

Traversal of Robert Kendall's A Life Set for TwoQ&A, Part 2
Next, Grigar asks Barber about how reading A Life Set For Two differs from the standard hypertext conventions of clicking on static links. Barber notes that Kendall’s links are static and move forward through the text only. Unlike other works of hypertext, the reader cannot loop back to nodes in the text and choose other options. He questions that, given these changes, whether this work can rightly be considered standard hypertext, or whether it is a variation on hypertext. Barber continues on to draw attention to the restaurant menu metaphor for the software menu and he notes how this succeeds in immersing him as a reader into the narrative and places him in the context of person in a restaurant. Next, Grigar draws attention to the chronological context of the work. A Life Set For Two was published in 1996, 22 years before this traversal. This date coincides with the birth of the web browser, which first appeared in public in 1995. Grigar highlights a parallel between the mature form of the novel and the immature, or nascent, form of e-lit at that time. Similarly to how our understanding of web browsers today is different from how they were experienced as a novel medium in 1996. Our language had not yet gelled into a set terminology to describe things. Another audience member comments that experiencing early experimental work like this gives us opportunity to set outside expectations made rigid or calcified by our genre expectations. Grigar connects this comment to her experience at a conference in Dubai of electronic literature scholars and their struggles with language and labels. When terms in a field are not fixed, tools such as search engines or controlled vocabularies struggle to find works in that field.
The next question from the lab audience asks Barber about his experience as a reader. Given the nature of the work as a historical curiosity, are their aspects of the work where the limitations of the technology of the time provide a structure that allow greater artistic ability than we, with all our technological freedoms, enjoy today? Rephrased, if the work were to be re-released today, updated for current technology standards, is there something that would be lost? Barber responded by referring to Balinese and Indonesian shadow puppets. These puppets use very low-tech affordances to tell stories. He posited that sound is the medium that allows the low-tech storytelling method is able to carry emotional richness and texture to the audience. Thus, when migrating work to new technological platforms, sound is an area to focus on to retain the human emotion of the original work.

Traversal of Robert Kendall's A Life Set for TwoQ&A, Part 3
Continuing the conversation above, Grigar expresses frustration with our fascination with the tools used to create elit works and the priority we tend to give these tools over the works that are created with them. She notes that the works themselves carry the record of human experience and too heavy a focus on the technological tools used to record that experience can distract us from this. Other participants in the lab pick up on this thread by discussing nostalgia for outmoded technology such as LP records, pointing to nuance that is enjoyed using the original (inferior) technology. Flash animation is brought up as a confirming example: contemporary tools can do more things, but do not always succeed at recreating what made the original works stand out. Other tools such as StretchText, which offered advantages with hypertext but did not gain mass adoption, were also mentioned.
Grigar paraphrases Katherine Hayles at a recent electronic literature conference to say that the language of “affordances and constraints” should be abandoned in favor of “partnerships with computers.” Barber comments on the primacy of the story over the technology or medium.  From the in-lab audience, another comments about the difference in time it takes to make a change to text on contemporary versus legacy authoring tools. It is posited that the greater amount of time spent making an intention realized in legacy tools may lead to greater focus. Grigar turns to the online conversation to bring the author of A Life Set for Two, Robert Kendall, and fellow elit author Judy Malloy into the conversation.
Kendall comments, with humor, that he had to call the work hypertext because otherwise it would not have been published in the Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext. Grigar raises the historical point that hypertext and similar works of elit had few publication outlets at the time. Kendall adds that the hypertext label was a key for works of electronic literature to be taken seriously. Judy Malloy joins the conversation with her comment that in her first reading of A Life Set for Two she considered it hypertext because the mood changes put the reader on a different path through the work. Grigar closes the question and answer session with a request that participants who enjoyed Kendall’s A Life Set for Two seek out his later works that are available online.

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