Lit 80, Fall 2013

Electronic literature critique: “Strings”

November 4th, 2013 | Posted by Sai Cheemalapati in Uncategorized

According to Katherine Hayles, an electronic literature piece is “a first-generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer” [1]. Due to the dynamic presentation forms provided by computers, electronic literature is able to provide more dimensions of interaction with viewers. In class we explored several different projects that presented text and audio and responded to user interaction. Electronic literature pieces intend to augment the user’s experience in a way that is not possible by traditional print literature. As a result, there exists much potential for the form as an artistic and meaningful medium. This paper explores Dan Waber’s “Strings” project and analyzes its merits as an electronic literature piece [2].

“Strings” is composed of several individual demonstrations of a simple idea. A string is shown in a small window that morphs into words and shapes. For example, the string could curl up on one side of the screen to form a “yes.” While more than one string may be present, none ever break or join. They may change shape freely.

The "yes" side of the "argument" piece.

The “yes” side of the “argument” piece.

Waber’s first piece, titled “argument,” shows a single string stretching the window oscillating from left to right. When the string reaches the left, the string forms a “yes”. When it reaches the right, the word “no” is formed. Interestingly, I think that this piece would be just as understandable sans the title. It is apparent from the motion of the string that there is stress in the exchange – the “yes” is pulled to the right until the string is flat while a “no” is formed on the right hand side, and then the “no” is pulled flat as a “yes” appears in the left hand side. In my head, when I first saw the piece my mind automatically applied a voice to the two words as they were dragged across the screen. A “yes” and “no” would sound in my head at each oscillation. The animation was able to easily reproduce the dynamics of an argument in my head. In text or image, the same situation would be very difficult to convey so simply and quickly. This several second animation with two words was able to convey the situation, tone, and apply some character to the words.

Another piece – “youandme” – shows the word “you” slowly moving across the screen while the word “me” buzzes around. The animation seems to give a personality to the words. In my mind, I imagined an old man walking across a room while his grandson/daughter runs about in excitement. The “you” has a slow and deliberate character to it, while the “me” appears to be playful and energetic.  I felt like a story was being told with the words. I was able to construct characters with unique traits and even produce a plausible scenario behind the interaction. The idea  – an old man walking as his grandson zips about – even put a smile on my face. It was pretty cool to see such a simple animation produce so much in me and even evoke some emotion.

Waber’s final piece, titled “poidog” shows a string morphing into the sentence “words are like strings that I pull out of my mouth” [2]. This piece reveals a little of Waber’s thoughts about the project. It’s an interesting premise, as his entire project is based around string morphing into words. When I imagine speaking and just pulling a morphing string out of my mouth, my mind attributes physical properties to the string. Gravity pulls the string down, and when changes are made at the beginning of the string, the end morphs slightly. It makes me think about how sentences are very interconnected structures and how altering a single word can change the whole structure’s meaning and presence.

I believe “Strings” is an attempt to show that a very simple structure – a “string” – can be embodied with both meaning and emotion. On paper or canvas it’s incredibly difficult to produce a story with just a few words that can convey a situation as well as Waber’s animations. His use of timing and stress in the string provides character and allows viewers to connect and project onto the words. With each piece, I understood very quickly what he was trying to show and I enjoyed watching the animations. As for where the piece fits in to the electronic literature scene, I believe it definitely makes its mark. I wonder however whether it would be as effective at scale. The format seems most effective at its current size – showing a small scenario. I think though that the idea can be expanded to a larger animation with more complex story and deliver an equally interesting experience.

To show that Waber’s piece fits into the contemporary literature scene, consider the following questions proposed by Hayles.

“Is electronic literature really literature at all?” [1] I argue that it is. Literature can be defined as “Imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value” [3]. What Waber produced is definitely creating writing. He transforms words using animations produced on a computer to reveal a story. I believe literature in the creative sense should tell some kind of story. Other electronic literature pieces fail in this regard. Take for example, “Sea and Spar Between” [4]. The piece shows stanzas of Dickinson’s poems and “Moby Dick” presented meaninglessly on the screen on an immense grid. I couldn’t pull any meaning from it or decipher any kind of story. Really it just seemed like a lot of text was thrown on the page to make a point I didn’t understand. “Strings” does not fail in this regard – it’s immediately obvious what can be drawn from the animations available.

“Is literary quality possible in digital media, or is electronic literature demonstrably inferior to the print canon?” [1] Literary quality is absolutely possible in digital media. In “Strings,” Waber is able to tell a small story with the use of only a few words. I believe it would take a few sentences at least to produce the same level of story as the piece “argument” for example. The electronic aspect of the piece was able to convey meaning that would be hard to bring across in text so easily. Well made electronic literature can certainly show where the print form can benefit from the flexibility provided by code.

For the above reasons, I believe “Strings” is an excellent example of electronic literature. Waber was able to use computer animations to bring a string to life in engaging and interesting scenarios. Neither the animation nor the words are overbearing, and the piece is able to effectively communicate what it’s trying to accomplish. I hope in the future that Waber expands his concept with different, longer scenarios. Perhaps he would be able to allow users to animate words or their choice on a string and allow any chosen word to morph into another. Overall there is certainly merit to the piece, and I can imagine a lot of ways it could expand in the future.







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