A Conversation with Robert Kendall

on the Interactive Art Conference on Arts Wire
April 1997

Judy Malloy
Anna and I are pleased to welcome Hypertext poet Robert Kendall to the Interactive Art conference.

Kendall is the author of a book-length hypertext poem, A LIFE SET FOR TWO (Eastgate Systems, 1996), and his interactive poetry has appeared in The Little Magazine and Version Box, and is forthcoming in the Eastgate anthology of hypertext poetry.

"Like any poem struggling to get back to preverbal basics, my electronic poem A LIFE SET FOR TWO dwells in the realm of the figurative --- but not just through figures of speech," writes for a forthcoming article in Leonardo. "It taps the multiple layers of symbolic language underlying computer software, the electronic tropes behind the virtualities of interface and process that glow on the screen. The reader's interaction with the poem and its own predefined algorithms combine to create a malleable text that changes with each reading."

And in an introduction to a talk a at Xerox PARC, he notes that "This poem uses an unusual system of dynamic hypertext in an effort to make the interface more immediately and transparently responsive to the reader's needs, while enabling the poem to reflect the dynamic structure of thought processes and memory. The work also incorporates the interface elements into the central metaphors of the poem."

Here is the bio that Robert sent us.

Robert Kendall (http://www.wenet.net/~rkendall) is the author of a book-length hypertext poem, A Life Set for Two (Eastgate Systems, 1996), and his interactive poetry has appeared in The Little Magazine and Version Box, and is forthcoming in the Eastgate anthology of hypertext poetry. In the form of a multimedia installation with original music, his electronic poetry has been exhibited at sites in many cities, including the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, the Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, New Jersey, and the Small Press Book Fair in New York City. A videotape version of the work was shown at the Second Annual Poetry Video Festival in Chicago and on Manhattan Cable TV. Kendall curated an exhibit of digital and interactive artwork for the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia, which included his own work.

Kendall's printed poetry has appeared widely in magazines (including Contact II, River Styx, and Indiana Review), and several anthologies have included his work. A Wandering City (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1992), his first book of poems, won the CSU Poetry Center Prize. Kendall has read his poetry at numerous locations in many states and in Europe, as well as on Manhattan Cable TV and nationally syndicated public radio. In 1995 he received a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship for literature, and his electronic poetry has earned him a New Forms Regional Grant Program Award.

Kendall lectures frequently about interactive literature and electronic publishing, and he teaches hypertext poetry and fiction through the on-line DIAL program of the New School for Social Research in New York. He has also taught poetry in high schools through the Dodge Poets program in New Jersey.

Over 100 of his articles about computer technology and computers in the arts have appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine, PC Magazine, PC Computing, Computer Life, Electronic Musician, and many other national publications. Kendall was born and raised in Canada. He earned an MA degree from New York University, sojourned in New Jersey for ten years, and currently lives in Menlo Park, California, with his wife and two daughters.

Judy Malloy
Welcome Rob! And congradulations on the recent publication of A LIFE SET FOR TWO. What brought you from print poetry to computer mediated poetry?

Robert Kendall
Thanks, Judy. It's good to be here (wherever "here" may be in cyberspace). Looks like Arts Wire has a nice conferencing system.

I first started seriously trying to combine computers and poetry about 7 years ago, when I was dabbling with some of the earliest multimedia authoring systems that came out for the PC. These programs were intended mostly for creating business presentations, but I thought "Wouldn't it be great to apply some of these things to poetry." It seemed to me that they might provide a solution to a problem of sorts that I'd come up against: At the time I was giving a lot of live poetry readings, and there were a few poems that just didn't seem well suited for reading aloud, but I liked the poems and wanted a way of turning them into a performance and presenting them to an audience.

One of the poems had a number of blank underlines in it (for example, the title of the poem was It All Comes Down to _______). How do you read something like that to an audience? So I turned the poem into a kinetic work for the computer screen, a sort of written performance. The words were displayed a few at a time using different fonts, colors, graphical backgrounds, transition effects, a few interactive elements, and so on. Then like a madman I hauled my full-sized desktop computer to my next reading and set it up there so the audience could look at the poem after the reading. I was fully prepared for people to hate it and recognize me for the lunatic I was becoming, but to my astonishment they loved it. So I started doing more of this.

Since I was working extensively with MIDI at the time (I have a Master's degree in music), the next step was to compose a soundtrack for one of these kinetic visual poems, or SoftPoems as I called them. I've always loved combining poetry and music in various ways, so it was wonderful being able to work in this new hybrid form, creating what could be considered visual songs.

These early pieces had a few interactive elements to them, but the interaction wasn't really crucial. Around this time I became dimly aware of people like Rod Willmot and Michael Joyce who were working with hypertext. I quickly realized that interactivity was the most exciting element that the computer could bring to poetry. Here was the chance to do something really new. I also liked programming, so doing a poem that was part computer program, part text would give me a single outlet for two of my creative interests. It's very satisfying when seemingly unconnected strands in your life can come together in this way.

I managed to get a grant to help fund the creation of a large-scale interactive poem, so I was off and running. I starting working in Visual BASIC and three and a half years later, the final result was A Life Set for Two, which recently came out from Eastgate.

Judy Malloy
Thanks Rob. A couple of diverse questions come to mind -- probably too many questions -- so answer what you want when you want!

Your music background reminds me that when I first began to work in strategies for computer mediated literature, I spent a little time looking at what computer musicians and new musicians had done and was really impressed.

Not only were musicians were among the first to realize the potential of computers in the arts, but also musical structures have already explored some of the word ordering strategies that computers make possible. I got the idea for Wasting Time (where 3 characters seek/think simultaneously) from listening to a trio - now I can't remember the work but the other night I was watching Gilbert Sullivan's the Pirates of Penzance on TV and some of the duets were done in this way - simultaneous but very different words from characters in the same place at the same time. You speak of "visual songs", I am wondering if musical structures have influenced your work in other ways?

Do you generally do your own programing, as opposed to using tools like Storyspace? Do you have any thoughts about this? How does effect the work?

Jeff Gates was recently asking me what I thought were the best interactive art sites. Coincidentally I'd been flumoxed by the same (self-asked) question in preparing material for a SFAI course on the web. What were 10 years ago, "new" ideas of interactivity have been incorporated intro mainstream web page design - reader choice, pathing, incorporation of reader response - and it is harder to separate out new, experimental interactive works. I'm wondering if and how your ideas about interactivity have changed (?)

Robert Kendall
Some meaty questions!

Yes, musicians rushed eagerly into computer technology while those from other artistic disciplines stood on the sidelines and watched suspiciously. Technology has always been more integral to music in an obvious way than it has been to the other arts. New developments in musical style have often hinged upon technological improvements in instruments: Equal temperament (a new way of tuning keyboard instruments) made new types of exotic chromaticism possible, as did the addition of valves to brass instruments. The keyboard styles of Beethoven and Chopin simply wouldn't have been possible on older instruments. To play or compose for any instrument, you have to understand the technology behind that instrument, so musicians can't be afraid of the technology.

Being a musician probably made me more aware of the technology underlying my poetry. Writing is a highly sophisticated technology, but very few writers think of it that way. The idea of this technology changing on them gives many writers fits, whereas musicians must stay constantly on top of the technological changes that are periodically made to their instruments.

As for the influence of specific musical forms, I think the theme and variation form probably had a strong influence on A Life Set for Two, though this hadn't really occured to me until now.

I did all my own programming for A Life Set for Two, and it was an immense but rewarding task. When I was working on my earlier e-poems, I was using off-the-shelf environments that let you do a lot of basic things quickly and easily, but ultimately this became very limiting. Working with Visual BASIC, I could do just about anything I wanted. My artistic horizons were limited only by my imagination and my need to eat and sleep. I used Storyspace for the Eastgate anthology poem, mostly because I wanted to produce something that would be available for Mac as well as Windows, since everything else of mine is PC only. There were things I wanted to do with this poem that Storyspace just wouldn't allow, but I felt the tradeoff was worth it.

I think doing your own programming for this sort of work gives you an incalculable advantage, since you don't have to fit your ideas into the canned interface of an off-the-shelf hypertext system. People rarely think of it this way, but when you write computer-based literature, you're really writing in two languages at once--English (or whatever your spoken language happens to be) and programming code. Binary code is a means of communication as much as English--it just communicates different things. When you use Storyspace or plain-vanilla HTML, you're essentially incorporating someone else's predefined formulas into your writing, modifying them as best you can to suit your needs. When I wrote A Life, I could build the hypertext system and the interface around the poem as the poem evolved. The interface design itself became as much a direct means of expression as the text itself. The final artwork is a hybrid of software design and text, just as a song is a hybrid of music and text.

Now I should also say that it isn't always a drawback from an artistic standpoint to work within a restrictive software environment. For centuries poets have been writing fruitfully within the constraints of the sonnet, the villanelle, etc. Artists will often deliberately work in a restrictive medium because being able to push against its limitations gives the work a certain unique tension. A charcoal-on-paper drawing or a piece of music for solo violin isn't inherently inferior to oil on canvas or a symphonic work. It's just that the world would be a poorer place without all those oil paintings and symphonies as well.

There is also the practical consideration. Most writers just don't have the patience or the skills necessary to build things from the ground up in an industrial-strength programming language. If it weren't for Storyspace or HTML, they just wouldn't be working in hypertext at all. In fact, the current boom in hypertext poetry and fiction is largely attributable to Storyspace and HTML.

My ideas about interactivity are constantly evolving as I come to understand the interactive medium better. Some things you learn by watching what other writers are doing. Some things you just have to learn by trial and error. Other things you have to learn by watching how people interact with your work. One thing that's become more and more evident to me over the years is the need for my interactive writing to be dynamic. Hypertext systems are usually static--that is, they let you create your nodes and link them together, and the nodes and links are then fixed for perpetuity. The system I created for A Life, on the other hand, monitors the reader's progress at all times and constantly reconfigures the work to try to meet the reader's needs at any given moment. The system adds or removes links or modifies the text within nodes as appropriate. Another aim is to let the system respond to the reader on many different levels, not just on the level of "now you can follow this link or follow that link." I want to give the reader control over the large-scale organizational principles behind the work, which means implementing these principles as software functions and giving the reader access to them.

Judy Malloy
Well, I can't argue with any of that! It is very close to my way of thinking -- particularly in the area of doing your own programming although I like HTML because it is so very basic and can be used in so many different ways/accessed so easily by so many. I don't think HTML is at all like StorySpace which is a very complex, evolved, powerful tool that works very well for some writers but is different from my way of thinking.

>The final artwork is a hybrid of software design and text, just as a
>song is a hybrid of music and text.

That's an excellent way of putting it.

>The system adds or removes links or modifies the text within nodes as
>appropriate. Another aim is to let the system respond to the reader on
>many different levels, not just on the level of "now you can follow
>this link or follow that link."

This sounds like a fairly deep level of interactivity - one that would take some study of how readers "use" your work and you say:

>Other things you have to learn by watching how people interact with your
>work..

This is something we've talked about with other guests on Interactive and I recall that Nancy Paterson reacted negatively this question -- thinking of it more in terms of changing your work to suit viewers and finding it, the way a visual artist would, an alien idea. But, I have changed not the words but the interface in some instances when I've seen people "using" the work in an entirely different way than I imagined. Can you tell us a little more about how you do this, why you think it is important?

Robert Kendall
Yes, I think the Web is the wave of the future for interactive literature. I'm firmly convinced that in the near future most poetry and literary short fiction will be published on the Web either instead of or in addition to appearing in print. The economics of print publishing just doesn't make sense for these genres. There are too many production and distribution problems. Even though most people aren't yet hooked up to the Web, it's often easier to reach a broad readership on the Web than with a printed lit mag. Image what it will be like when Web access becomes ubiquitous.

If the Web becomes the main vehicle for disseminating linear poetry, it would be silly to continue to distribute interactive poetry on disk. HTML has a lot going for it, and if you're willing to get your hands dirty with JavaScript or Java, you have a lot of flexibility with what you can do. In a few years we'll be able to do more on the Web than we can now do on CD-ROM. I'm planning to put my current hypertext project on the Web when it's done.

The issue you raise about changing interface design in response to "usability testing" is an interesting one. I rarely change the text of my poems in response to criticism. Art isn't a democratic process in which your critics vote on how your poem or painting or piece of music should be and then you follow the mandate of the majority and revise accordingly. Art is a very personal form of expression. The only critic an artist is obliged to satisfy is the one in his or her own head. When you create a work, some people will get it and others won't, and that's life.

I think that adapting a software interface in response to how people are actually using it is an entirely different thing. This isn't a matter of changing what your work is expressing, it's a matter of fixing the mechanics of how your work functions in its physical environment. A sculptor may have to do some testing to figure out how to engineer a large sculpture. If he changes the design so that the piece won't collapse under its own weight, that's not sacrificing artistic integrity, it's being practical. Similarly, a composer will have to modify a piece if it turns out to be impossible to play on an instrument, or a playwright might modify stage directions if they are confusing to directors. If your average user can't figure out how to use your interface or if users are typically using it in an unexpected way that undermines the effectiveness of the work, then you've got a problem before people even get to the point of trying to interpret your piece.

Here's an example of the sort of change I'm talking about: A Life Set for Two can shift through different emotional moods, and there are different versions of text sections to correspond to these different moods. The interface includes an option that lets the reader change the poem's mood periodically. I had assumed that people would read several sections in one mood before they chose to shift "emotional gears." This is important to adequately establish and explore one mood before the poem shifts to another. Yet one reader sat down and immediately began changing the mood as often as she could, so she could compare the same passages of text in different moods. I realized that this would be a logical thing for a reader to do, even though it probably wouldn't generate a very satisfying reading. So I modified the interface so that it didn't display the mood control buttons until the reader had already read several nodes in the same mood. This guaranteed the effect I wanted but didn't sacrifice anything to get it.

Robert Kendall
Judy, I'd be interested to know what kind of interface changes you've made after watching people interact with your work.

Timothy Collins
Hi Robert, interesting conversation here. I like the clarity in your seperation of the ideals of individual expression from the materials/tools of production.

As a teacher though I find that its this same narcissistic autonomy that undermines the need to teach or critique the material and tools of interactive production. Especially in cases where the "tools" are apparently seemless elements of production. Comparing interactivity to the engineering of a sculpture which either does or does not stand is comparing the subjectective interpretation of interactivity with the objective reality of the sculptures defiance of gravity. (It would be more correct to compare interactivity to brushstrokes in painting).

I've wrestled with these notions, with a number of students here at CMU. Enamored of the tools and romance of art and technology the idea that interactivity needs testing is most often interpreted as an attack on their personal freedom to act as autonomous creative beings.

In light of this I would ask you if the autonomy of the arts isn't an irrelevant concept in a genre where interaction is the definitive element? I would argue that you can either have interaction (dialogue) or you can have personal expression (monologue). These are mutually exclusive concepts. To create a successful pedagogical approach to interactivity we need to subsume the modernist defense of creative autonomy and assume the artists ability to realize creative product in relation to, or with, rather than for their audience.

Robert Kendall
What is interactivity? What does it mean for art? How do we use it?

These are huge questions and everyone has to wrestle with them and come up with their own answers. After all, that's part of the fun! Let me try and clarify my own position, though, as both a writer and a teacher.

As interactive artists, what we're learning to do is work with a new medium: possibility. Although most people don't realize it, there is indeed a purely objective side to this medium. It's represented by a branch of statistics called probability. When we create a work in this new medium and wonder how people will interact with it, the main thing we want to get a handle on is What are all the different possible realizations one can coax out of this piece of hypermedia? If it's a hypertext, there is a certain finite number of different readings that one can generate from it by following different routes through the text. That number will be vastly large and there's no way the author can try out every reading to see if they all "work." Yet one can use the laws of probabilty to get some understanding of how readings are likely to take shape.

One simple example: You can calculate the probability of a reader encountering a particular node in a hypertext by looking at how many pathways are open to it from other points in the hypertext, how many other pathways could possibly steer readers away from that node before they get there, etc. If the work is on the Web, you can also use counters to collect data on how many people actually visit each node in a hypertext. It may turn out that some elements the author considers crucial to the work are so deeply buried that only one in 100 readers is ever likely to encounter them. If one of these buried nodes is the only "gateway" into a large portion of the hypertext, it may render a good percentage of the entire work practically inaccessible to most readers.

Sure this situation isn't entirely parallel with a sculpture collapsing under its own weight, but the end result can be pretty similar: The sculptor thinks he's created an image of a whole man, but people are actually going to see a man with one arm, because the other arm will fall off. The writer thinks he's created one thing, but the reader is actually going to experience something else--a truncated version. The biggest difference may be that the sculpture will probably be withdrawn from the public arena and fixed (re-designed), but the hypertext probably won't be. Why is this?

There can be many other ways in which it may turn out that most readers are experiencing a hypertext in a different way than the writer had imagined--ways that might shock the writer. The reader's objective experience of the work--that is, the words that actually pass through his eyes to his brain--is quite a different thing from his interpretation of the work.

On to your next question: Does interaction necessarily kill artistic autonomy? Hypertext writing is widely advertised as making the reader an equal collaborator in creating the work. How accurate is this notion really, though? The reader doesn't actually create any of the text (unless the work is a true collaborative writing project, which is something quite distinct from interactivity in my mind). The hypertext reader can merely rearrange or reconfigure pre-existing material.

In most hypertexts, the reader actually has relatively little direct control over perhaps the most important aspect of the work. Usually she has no conception of the large-scale structural possibilities and can merely choose links that look interesting on a purely local level. The final shape of the reading that the reader "constructs" is ultimately determined more by chance or the laws of probability than by the reader's personality or beliefs or insights. If you compare the different readings of one hypertext that are produced by several different readers, you'll be unlikely to see each of these readings as a unique artistic vision or expression on the part of the reader who created it. On the other hand, the text of all the readings will bear the strong personal imprint of the author.

I think it's a drawback of most hypertext systems that they give the reader so little real control over things. How can we give the reader real power? I think, ironically, the answer is for the writer to put more of his own autonomous personality into the work. If the hypertext is to let the reader deliberately and consciously shape the large-scale structure of the work, the software must have built into it some of the author's understanding of how everything fits together into the big picture. The author will have to build elements of his own creative process--digital surrogates for his own judgment--into the software so that the reader can tap into this and use it. When the software "understands" the significance of how the elements of the story or poem can interact with each other, only then will it be able to pass this understanding onto the reader so that it can inform the reader's decisions.

The author never disappears from the text. I feel that the more real control I turn over to the reader by opening up the inner workings of my own creative process, the more distinctively I put my personal imprint on work.

Judy Malloy
Thanks Rob for the excellent analysis of the hyperfiction tension between the writers' vision and the reader's shaping of the work. I think Jim Rosenberg has a word for this but right now I can't find his article and I can't remember the word.

It seems to work better to either totally throw out control as in a collaborative work (which I do consider a kind of interactivity) *or* to accept the author's vision as central to the work and use interactivity to enhance that. What seems not to work so well (although there are probably artists or writers who can make this work), is the idea of interactivity as embroidering on an authored work - ie here is my story, now I want to make this interactive so you can write something in this little blank. (ugh)

An example of how I changed the interface after observing how it was used: THE YELLOW BOWL was designed with the idea that readers would move in and out of two connected narratives, but one narrative was more linear, with more of a traditional storyline and I found that readers were simply staying on that track which totally destroyed the way it worked - the whole idea was the contrast between the narrator's thoughts and the story she was telling. The narrator was a recently divorced parent, so part of the work was about what parents tell children as opposed to what they are really thinking, it was also about how writers distort experience. So, I had to redesign the interface so that readers were pathed in and out of these parallel tracks rather than leaving the choice entirely up to them.

Some folks would say this made the work less interactive. From your point of view, tho, Rob, I was interacting with the reader, taking the reader into account and that too is a kind of interactivity. I hadn't really thought of it this way before.

My art institute class seemed to react pretty well to the idea of observing how others exprienced their work and possibly reshaping it based on that observation. (Tim, their pages are linked off of http://www.well.com/user/jmalloy/sfai.html - click on class pages)

Rob, two questions - (answer what you want to)

1. It would be great to hear about how you are teaching hyperfiction via online "distance education".

2. What are you working on now? Where is your work heading?

Robert Kendall
I think you're right, Judy, about maintaining the distinctions between interaction and true collaboration. I don't think there's really a natural continuum between interacting with a hypertext and actually sitting down and collaborating with another writer, though people sometimes claim that one inevitably leads to the other--that a truly interactive text should let one "fill in the blanks," as you say. I think that most readers simply don't *want* to write their own texts. They come to the work of a writer for something else. Open-invitation collaborations, such as those popping up all over the Web, are great, don't get me wrong. But I think there's a different motivation at work here.

The change you made to The Yellow Bowl doesn't sound to me like watering down the interaction, though as you say, some people would claim that. I think we have to accept that what the reader is really interacting with is our own understanding of the elements in the text. The more of our understanding we put into the hypertext, the more there is for the reader to interact with. Every time we add a link to a hypertext we're signalling the reader that we perceive a meaningful relationship between two nodes. We're passing our knowledge of this on to the reader. The more of these relationships we identify, the more options the reader has. If we don't pass on to the reader our knowledge of meaningful ways in which these small-scale relationships can accumulate into more meaningful large-scale structures, however, then we're actually limiting the reader's options. Forcing the reader to repeatedly select more or less randomly from a large assortment of links, which may or may not let her uncover meaningful large-scale shapes, is not true "empowerment." On the other hand, giving the reader a few choices that are always structurally significant at each point of interaction is giving her real power. Sometimes less is more.

In answer to your questions:

1) I really love teaching my online hypertext class. It's all done over the Web, and we actually use the same CAUCUS software system that we're using here for this dialogue. I've had students sign up from all over the US, and have had a couple from Canada and a couple from France. Eliminating geographical boundaries and work schedule restraints (all the interaction occurs asynchronously rather than in real time) really brings together an interesting mix of people. We've had endless amounts of stimulating discussion and some really good hypertext writing has come out of the class. Without real-time constraints, discussions can take on much more depth than they can in a classroom. I can also have online guests "appear" in the class from all over the country. The course is partly an introduction to hypertext literature, partly a workshop. Students create their own projects in Storyspace or HTML, then upload them for comment. Here's a link to more information about the class for anyone who's interested.

2) My current project is tentatively titled The Visitation of St. America (A Televisionary Hypertext) and conceived for the Web. It's still in it's early stages, and I'm not sure exactly how it will evolve, but it centers around the metaphor of channel surfing from inside the TV. The narrator wanders in and out of various cliche TV situations. I regard the stereotypes and stock characters of popular entertainment as the mythology of our culture. I think the murder-mystery detective, the cowboy with the black hat, the cowboy with the white hat, the James Bond type, etc., are in a way archetypes of a cultural collective unconscious, and that's why we find them so compelling. In the new hypertext, I'm attempting to explore some of this subterranean territory by diving into the maw of the one-eyed monster that sits in our living rooms. This has been a strong thematic concern of my poetry for at least ten years, but the TV-like nature of the Web provides the perfect medium for it.

I plan to use Javascript for the dynamic elements that I feel are essential in my hypertext. I originally conceived it as a fairly simple, small-scale project, but hypertexts seem to take on a life of their own and get bigger and bigger. It may end up ultimately involving a lot of complex programming in Java.

Judy Malloy
Thanks Rob! You've been a great guest.
A final question - Do you have any thoughts about the future of hyperfiction, hypertext poetry, electronic literature of all kinds?

Robert Kendall
Well, thank *you*, Judy. It's been great to be here!

It's really quite fascinating to think about the road ahead for electronic literature. Will the genre continue to evolve and attract new readers? Or is it merely a phenomenon that is so closely tied to historical circumstances--namely, Deconstructionist theory and Postmodernism--that it will fade away when the next upstart young ism comes along to rebel against the musty writing of the older generations (in other words, us)? I believe that the motivation behind interactive text extends well beyond its being merely an "actualization" of currently popular lit crit theory, which for many is its main selling point now. Whether the current wave of interest in hyperwriting subsides or continues to swell, I think other waves of activity will come ashore as well, prompting all sorts of electronic literary explorations from new ideological viewpoints--some of them perhaps diametrically opposed to the ones prevalent today.

I think a lot will depend upon how quickly literary publishing in general becomes successful and widespread on the Web. If major poets and fiction writers are publishing new (linear) work regularly on the Web, they'll be much more likely to try their hand at hypertext, if for no other reason than because it's there. Artistic creativity dislikes untapped possibilities.

As hypertext matures, I think we'll see two major trends: the software will become more sophisticated, making it much easier to read and navigate, and it will absorb more and more elements from other types of electronic writing. In America, electronic literature is pretty much equated with hypertext literature, but there are other interesting categories of work as well, such as kinetic visual texts and algorithmically generated texts. I spent some time in Geneva last year, where I met a lot of French writers working in the electronic medium. Interestingly, the situation in France and Switzerland seems to be the reverse of what it is here, in the sense that there is more interest in animated and algorithmic text than there is in hypertext. I think eventually these other types of electronic writing will gain more momentum on this side of the ocean.

I think somebody's also bound to successfully turn the wildly popular medium of the video game directly to the purposes of serious literature. A number of good writers made attempts at this in the mid 80s, but the efforts never really broke out of the molds of genre entertainment.

Perhaps the most intriguing question mark of all is artificial intelligence. Nobody knows whether computers will ever be able to really think . . . but if computer-simulated thought can humble the world's foremost chess grandmaster, it can certainly someday play a valuable role in electronic poetry and fiction. With artificial intelligence, the question "Does the writer disappear in electronic work" really starts to get interesting. One of the many articles on the recent overthrow of Kasparov correctly pointed out that it wasn't really Deep Blue who beat him--it was a team of IBM engineers and chess consultants. It was their knowledge of the problems of chess, supplemented by a lot of real-time number-crunching power, that Kasparov was competing against. Similarly, I think it will be a long time before one can really say that the computer wrote the poem or the story rather just realizing the ideas of the writer. I doubt a time will ever come when human creativity will be truly unmoored from humanity. But I could be wrong.

Anna Couey
Rob, in case you do make it back here - this conversation has been fascinating. I do take issue with the separation you make between interactivity and collaborative art making. Interactivity can take many forms, but, even in your definition of it, it implies a relationship with the reader or viewer. Central to my work, which I do define as interactive, is the idea of art as a conversation between artist-originator and artist-participants; that it's not a fixed expression written by a single person. I certainly agree that this is not a form of working that necessarily draws everyone in, and such work may not at this stage have an ultimate result that is as refined as an individually authored work. I struggle with those issues and others in doing this type of work. But meaning doesn't inherently lie solely in the voice of an individual artist, even though it can, powerfully.

But your perspective definitely challenges my assumptions, and I thank you.

Transcript of A conversation with ROBERT KENDALL, Item 105, Interactive Art Conference, Arts Wire.
Posted to the Web with participants' permission.


Conversations with Artists