by Kathi Inman Berens
Let things taste of what they are.
- Alice Waters
Cooks and coders get their hands dirty. Darra Goldstein says in an interview here in Alimentum that knowing "how [food] performs when exposed to heat or to cold, or what happens when you add baking soda to something... [should] inform scholarly writing. Instead, there's too often a cluelessness about the materiality of food."
Goldstein's assessment also describes how some of us understand the Digital Humanities, a field that uses digital tools to perform the humanities' traditional work of interpreting literature, philosophy and culture. We've found that such interpretive work becomes something new and unforeseen when the critic or artist gets her hands dirty: that is, works not just to understand the thing, but to get inside its guts, via code, software, networked collaboration, or something else.
Real-world constraints let you see stuff you might have missed if you hadn't tried (and failed, and failed, and tried) to make something with your own hands. Cooks know this. If you forget to add baking soda, your quick bread will be thick and lumpy. If you drop a semicolon at the end of a string of code, the computer will concatenate everything you've typed since the last semi-colon into one long line of unexecutable code. The iterative process of tinkering humbles you. It makes you smarter.
I wrote "Tournedo Gorge" the weekend after I returned from my first conference hanging out with artists who make electronic literature. Electronic literature ("e-lit") is stories and poems that rely on the processing power of a computer to render the story, and on human interaction to initiate it.
My poem "Tournedo Gorge," like other poetry generators, requires just one human touch: call it up in a browser, and it will run forever, composing a new line of poetry every 1.2 seconds. I set that interval to give a human reader time to read the line aloud. An algorithm generates the poem, and even if you let it run for a couple of days, it will not repeat. Unlike an e-book, "Tournedo Gorge" and almost all other works of e-lit can't be printed out, because the changing interplay between human and machine makes the story go. Dene Grigar, with whom I've curated now three shows of e-lit, built this awesome website that explains the history of e-lit and its many emergent forms.
I made "Tournedo Gorge" by copying M.I.T. Professor Nick Montfort's original source code for his landscape poem "Taroko Gorge," which brilliantly imagines landscape poetry as the product not of a Wordsworthian romantic genius, but an algorithm.
When I first read "Taroko Gorge," it seemed like random output; I didn't hear the intentional and musical language of poetry. That changed when I heard Prof. Montfort read it aloud. The Latin root "inspirare" means "to give breath." He inspired the output into poetry. Now when I read "Taroko" scrolling on my screen, I still hear the cadence of human breath and voice. I find it beautiful.
I would never have seen such intricacy if I'd restricted my engagement to the front end of the poem. "Tournedo Gorge" is in this sense a feminist gesture: one woman's collaboration with unseen artists in an act of DIY learning.
At my daughter's eleventh birthday party, a dozen girls whipped pancake batter, fried bacon, mixed fruit, fluffed eggs, set the table, juiced oranges. They poured concentric circles of white cake batter brightened with food dye to bake a Dr. Seuss cake. Watching them sometimes awkwardly or tentatively wield the tools, I thought: this is how it happens. One pancake, one line of code. A meal, a poem.
Kathi Inman Berens, a lecturer at the University of Southern California, curates electronic literature. With Dene Grigar, she is curating the first show of e-lit at the Library of Congress on April 3-5, 2013. She is a fellow at the Annenberg Innovation Lab, where she researches embodied and virtual interfaces. Visit her at her website.