From paper and ink to pixels and links
Helen Varley Jamieson, October 2000
Something is happening to text: letters, words and whole sentences are lifting off the page and flying through cyberspace. The security and permanence of the printed word has given way to text as an interactive and changeable medium. We copy and paste, publish and update our writing on the internet, travel by hyperlink and meet in chat rooms.
The digital age is changing the way we create, manipulate and interpret text. It's opening up new environments for interaction between creators, performers and audience - on the web, CD-ROM and via email. These creative tools are not without oppresive male cannon or traditions; however, here women are pioneers, coining new terms and making up the rules as we go.
I was asked to write an article about how the internet and new "virtual" worlds were influencing text in relation to theatre and women - a very broad starting point. As soon as I began to research and write, I found myself, in true hypertext style, racing along distractingly fascinating side-roads and realising that (despite my role as the Magdalena Project's Web Queen) I had only been aware of a tiny piece of the action.
So, rather than attempt to make any definitive statement about where all this text is flying off to and what it all means, I've chosen to swing a follow-spot across the digital stage and illuminate the work of a number of women. And you, also in true hypertext style, can follow the links that interest you, off this web page and across the screen, to wherever you may wander.
Hypertext and the Web
Artists have been playing with hypertext since the 1980s (and with its
non-digital precursors for much longer), telling non-linear narratives
and experimenting with reader interaction. Text has escaped from the left-to-write
march of words across the page and the turn of each page from the beginning
to the end of a book.
The web abounds with experiments in hypertext writing and lively discussions between writer-pioneers. There are e-zines, personal web sites, and digital libraries. Online writers' communities such as TrAce and Alt-X Online publish interviews, aricles and work, and hold conferences and competitions to stretch our preconceived notions of what writing is.
Riding the Meridian and Assemblage: the Women's Hypertext Gallery (established and maintained by Carolyn Guertin) are two of the first jumping-off points for your exploration. Also visit Susan Hawthorne and her CyberFeminism e-zine (and Spinifex) and Shelley Jackson, author of the acclaimed hypertext novel "Patchwork Girl".
New media is also expanding our notions of collaboration. The concept
of the solitary artist in the garret has never been very applicable to
theatre, where collaboration happens through workshopping, rehearsals,
improvisation and devised group work, but email and the internet are now
allowing intimate collaboration between writers and performers from different
sides of the globe. For example, the performers chosen to work in pairs
for the Br/leeding
Ground project communicated for several months via email, discussing
ideas and getting to know each other, before being thrown together for
an intense week of creation and performance.
Online Street Theatre
"Graphical chat rooms represent anticipatory spaces ripe for dramatic play. Everyone is simultaneously static (seated in front of their terminals) and in motion (on screen), silent, yet speaking, alone, yet crowded into a small space. Those of us challenged with breaking down the barriers between audience and actor find immediate interest in the arrangement of participants sharing the same arena, already masked and performing a version of themselves." Adriene Jenik, Digital Arts & Culture Conference, 1999.
In 1997, at the Third Annual Digital Storytelling Festival, Jenik and
Brenneis premiered "Waiting for Godot.com" in a public chat room; in this
performance, Godot actually turned up, in the form of chat room participant
Muscleman. In another public performance, they played AlGore and geeBush,
visiting several different rooms and asking the inhabitants to vote for
them. Prior to the performance, they gathered bits of the candidates'
speeches, and "regurgitated" them, using preprogrammed text. Interspersed
with the banal chat room conversations, the resulting script is bizarrely
Another project, "Santaman's Harvest", draws on the allegory, pantomime and politics of Morality Plays and the improvisation techniques of Augustus Boal. After rehearsing online in both private and public spaces, they compiled a script from the logs of these rehearsals.
The logs record what everyone says, thinks and does; performers either type their dialogue, cut and paste from a script, or use commands to trigger pre-programmed lines of dialogue (which enables them to effectively walk and talk at the same time). Dialogue appears in speech bubbles beside the speaker's avatar. As well as speaking, performers can paint and employ a variety of pre-made props and changes of costume.
Another activity is "dreaming": one participant tells a dream while the others perform roles, create props and paint the scene. Below, disguised as Catwoman, I'm telling my wind dream, while Lisa appears as Marilyn Munroe, Adriene (obscured) plays the kid and Nancy Reilly-McVittie makes a cyber-allusion.
The "audience" has an integral role in Desktop Theatre's performances. Chat room inhabitants find themselves unwitting participants (if they work out they're in the middle of a play), and their responses vary from full involvement, like Muscleman, to leaving.
Placing the Audience
"We give great attention to including the audience in what is happening.
Audiences online are used to participating, typing to announce their presence.
There isn't the false division of the seated-in-the-dark audience facing
Burk has found that audiences stay more connected with the performance
if their space is well-established. She says it's part of the MOO culture:
"I don't fancy just sitting at my computer watching typing flow across
my screen. I might as well read a book."
Wheatley wove two forms of interaction into her script - a role-play and a discussion - with differing levels of success. The role-play required the cast to encourage audience members to play parts from their stories, but the audience, once put into a role, found it impossible to put down. With the discussion, the cast asked the audience questions about their lives, and some moving moments developed. Audience participation meant that the 28 minute script was never performed in under an hour.
Says Burk, "The interrupting and improvising is very exciting ... how to control that or shape it, or what it means if you don't. There are so many things to explore." It's a scary challenge for the writer, to hand over your carefully crafted words to an active and vocal cyber audience. But text now has a life of its own, and is in cahoots with Muscleman and friends.
Text as Living Data
Text travels as electric pulses down cables; packets of data; zeroes
and ones; reassembled on your computer screen as an assemblage of pixels,
recreated by your brain as letters, words, sentences, concepts. No longer
passive, hypertext can influence and control the world around it.
"My desire was to use the play as a starting point to provoke questions concerning how we think about our mental space within the real world in relation to the virtual machines which we more and more substitute in its place." As Beloff attended rehearsals and explored Stein's text, she began to work with the text not so much as a story, but "as a set of logical operations or 'Application', within which I can 'input' my own 'data'."
The resulting CD-ROM "Where Where ThereThere Where" contains a series of panoramas representing the transition from 19th century industrial mechanics to 20th century computer architecture. Excerpts from Stein's script appear above the visuals, and each time a word of the text is rewritten, the panorama moves, "...thus giving the impression that the world is structured by the recombination of language ... suggesting that the visible world is now nothing but an interface and behind it lies the logical structure of programming, a text that controls."
Hyperlink On ...
Text has come alive and is running wild in our networks - interrupting, improvising, and even controlling. An exciting journey lies ahead for writers of all genres as we grapple with this evolution of text, and who knows down which tangent it will lead each of us. As we play and create with hypertext and new media, we're developing words and phrases to describe our adventures; and along the way, we're documenting, discussing and analysing.
My spotlight has quickly skimmed the surface (and the Western surface, at that), leaving lots of shadowy, half-lit places for you to delve into. So boot up and point your browser at some of the sites I've discussed, and these too:
© Helen Varley Jamieson 1999-2011