Michael Martin Shea with Matthew Burnside and Alejandro Miguel Justino Crawford

Matthew Burnside and Alejandro Miguel Justino Crawford
Matthew Burnside and Alejandro Miguel Justino Crawford

Best American Experimental Writing is an anthology series focused on dynamic literature from both emerging and established writers. The most recent edition, BAX 2015, was released in January of this year by Wesleyan University Press, and the digital edition includes work from Matthew Burnside and Alejandro Miguel Justino Crawford that falls far outside the lines of what normally constitutes “the literary.” They (virtually) sat down with BAX managing editor Michael Martin Shea to discuss praxis maneuvers, God Mode, emergent gameplay, and what it means to be real.

Michael Martin Shea: Hey y’all! I’m really excited for this conversation. Before we get started, though, since both of your works might seem a bit unusual to your average reader, I was wondering: could you each describe the logic of the piece—where it came from and what the creative process was like?

Matthew Burnside: With In Search Of, I wanted to mirror Wikipedia and the endless, labyrinthine ductwork of digital rabbit holes. I’m a big fan of getting lost on the internet and Wikipedia is a fantastic place to be a tourist. It’s a strange sort of reading experience—like you unlocked God Mode or have a skeleton key to the doors of time or something. You can scour or scan at will, read a thing’s entire (surface level) history or click a link to hyperjump to the next thing when bored. It’s all connected but there’s also a disconnect there; a lot of crucial nuance is missing, seemingly. I wanted to mimic that sense of overwhelming freedom, the burden of bearing all the puzzle pieces but without knowing the picture you’re trying to build toward ahead of time. You have to look really close, be a detective and decide for yourself what the picture is and what it means to you.

At the same time, I was ensorcelled by the story of this father trying to bond with his dead son through a video game, and by the story of this town called Brownleaf too, which is haunted by ripples of grief. The beating heart of the story is the primary family unit struggling with their loss – each in their own way—but the brain of the story is technology’s permeating tentacles and how they slip through and knot and slowly constrict to wrap everyone up in their warm folds. It’s both deeply comforting and crushing.

The process of writing it was a cocktail of creative, boundless abandon and frequent frustration tickled with tedium. I’ve found that creative writing for new media—while not inherently more difficult than writing in any other form—can be more labor-intensive on average. Since there’s the initial writing of the thing (committing the initial piece, be it a poem or story or whatever, to paper) as well as the process of adapting it into a digital component which presumes sound, visual, kinesthetic, or other multimodal considerations, it can quickly become pretty time consuming. Creating the network of narrative threads was a joy because I was basically throwing the conventional narrative blueprint out the window; adapting the thing from a solely text-based artifact to something that lives on the internet was a bit of a chore because I was having to learn how to build a website for the first time. It’s only fair that readers, too, would have to learn how to read it.

Alejandro Miguel Justino Crawford: Egress is a video game where you stand in the middle of a field reading signs. So in that respect, it’s no different than any other poem that has ever been written; it’s always a field of signs; it will always be a field of signs. But like, Egress is literally a field of signs. Isn’t that hilarious? I guess specifically, Egress was a sort of praxis maneuver, a sequence of experiments born out of stuff I was reading and thinking about at the time. Mostly it’s about forcing lots of alphanumeric code onto a virtual world in order to create a kind of reading machine predicated on the oscillations of looping chunks of the textual equivalent of signal and noise. So I guess there’s an ambient quality there too.

In that sense, Egress is also concerned with transmediation or media migration, or the pitfalls of trying to apply the logic of one media format to another. I find there to be a tension in the act of reading longer-form text inside a graphical video game. I say graphical here to draw a distinction between today’s level of graphics processing, and the video game lineage of like, ascii rendered MUDs or text-adventure role-playing games (the even dorkier younger cousins of choose your own adventure books, speaking of media migration). Personally I get impatient reading for long periods of time (more than like 20 seconds) inside a video game world, maybe because my brain is in continuous partial attention mode, idk. But that level of foot-tapping impatience is a tension that interests me—one worthy of exploration. Text is mostly ancillary in video games because games are about action and agency and not representational in form. But since we might as well find out what happens when you force large quantities of text onto a virtual landscape that is dominated by the artifice of its surface textures, I decided to write Egress. After all, that is the point of running a simulation, to see how it plays out. So then the question became what happens when most of that text is just noise? Where and how does meaning-making happen?

From a process standpoint—and this can be tracked in the appendix—I think the initial text was literally the description of whatever field recording I downloaded from freesound.org in order to create the diegetic audio. For whatever reason, I started google translating that description back and forth between languages, then back into English. Then I started isolating the words that mutated. Then those words became the rain (and maybe also the wheat) words. Then I placed all those textual google translate permutations onto discrete electronic road signs. A thought: there is little difference between the houndstooth bark of the tree in Egress and a google translate poem; both are wallpaper. Anyways, then for reasons that escape me now, I replaced the majority of the road sign text with pr0n tag-cloud metadata. And presto, Egress: a reading machine with an undesirable framerate.

MMS: The question of form is one that always hangs over experimental art, and conservative critics often make the (retrograde) argument that formal innovation is not only distracting but arbitrary, a marker of style over substance. Though I hate to give credence to this line of questioning, it might still prove an interesting line to follow—so I’ll bite: Alejandro, your work—the application—comes with a text file of what purports to be the text found in the game; likewise, Matthew, on your site, there is an index that lists (or claims to list) the ideal—or maybe most linear—order for your novel. So why didn’t each of you stop there: why not just the text file, why not a straight-forward novel?

MB: The project did start out as a fairly linear book, but it felt off. It felt wrong. The more fragmented, nonlinear form felt right, because it matched the emotional logic of the story: people struggling to connect and authentically experience one another in a world mired and tangled in a bouquet of wires and artifice. In the creative writing for new media course I taught at Iowa—and the one I’ll be teaching again soon at Wesleyan University—we spent a lot of time talking how to tell when a project is or isn’t right for the digital landscape. Not every piece is meant to live in new media land obviously, with its blinkhappy bells and whistles. My belief is that form should always mirror content such that the shape of something matches its thematic substance or emotional logic. When it doesn’t, that’s when it becomes gimmicky. That’s when it’s not in service of the story or poem but instead in service of the author’s ego.

I could still turn around and adapt the project back into a more traditional book one day. I just might. It would be a neat experiment and a completely different work altogether. When workshopping the project at Iowa, I was told by some people that it would make a great book. I always laughed at that. I also laughed whenever someone brought up the commercial constraints. “This is neat and all but, how are you going to sell it? What agent would ever take this?” And the truth is, how I might sell it never once manifested in my mind. I wasn’t writing it to sell it—I was writing it to write it. Simple as that. I think letting that kind of thing slip into your mind during creative conception is the great killer of art. Only after the thing is a thing should you even dare to consider how to get it into the hands of your readers, I think. (Of course, I say this as a very poor writer with nary a book contract to date, so make of that what you will.)

AMJC: I’m not sure why someone would argue against the merits of formal innovation—that seems like arguing against the merits of time passing by. The entire history of art and literature is just one formal innovation after another. Formal innovation happens when a work in a given media format leverages some quality of that medium in a particularly striking and new way, so as to get adopted as a kind of standard by other creators. Probably the greatest example of formal innovation is the development of editing strategies like montage in early cinema. It would be ridiculous to say that Potemkin’s editing is a marker of style over substance. I lol’d just typing that.

So why the .txt file? I don’t know. It’s just an appendix. Why do people make movies out of screenplays? Not that an appendix is a screenplay. But maybe I included it just to pit the game against the raw text. I mean, the work is kind of about the logic of one media format being imposed upon another, so I guess that’s probably why I included it. Maybe I shouldn’t have included it; a few of my friends have said this to me.

MMS: One of the things that’s striking about each of your works is how they involve a loss of authorial control, since the reader or viewer has to self-navigate, to an extent. What effect does losing this control have on you as a creator, and what possibilities do you think this opens up for the work?

MB: You’re always losing something when you finally decide upon a form and commit to it. What you lose in In Search Of is tension, momentum, and even urgency—all dangerous things for a story to be lacking, I admit. But what you gain is interactivity and a wicked sense of play. You lose your authorial grip on the ropes of pacing—the ability to let the plot go slack or to pull it taut at will—and you lose also the ability to point out what’s important, but you gain a collaborator by giving your reader the reins to navigate the story in their own way and decide what’s important to them.

There’s a concept called emergent gameplay I’m a big fan of. When you play a video game but in a way that the creator didn’t exactly intend—maybe you’re infatuated with the physics of a vehicle and you’ve made a minigame out of trying to blast it as high as possible with grenades, or perhaps you’re deriving more joy from playing through a violent first person shooter as a pacifist, trying not to hurt anyone and still make it to the end of the level—that’s emergent gameplay. You’re still enjoying the experience of the creator’s art, just not in a way they foresaw. With In Search Of, I was trying to achieve something like that. I wanted a depth and variety of ways to navigate the text. I was purposely inviting the phenomenon of emergent reading.

AMJC: Writing for game engines is not about giving up authorial control; I mean it is and it isn’t. For example, to go back to editing in cinema— notwithstanding cutscenes—video games displace the role of cinematography and editing almost altogether, handing over the keys to the player. So, in the same ways that early cinema moved away from what it initially inherited from vaudeville and stage entertainment—in favor of shooting and editing strategies more conducive to the medium of film—video games are still figuring out what lines of inheritance from cinema to keep and what to ditch. In video games, authorial control is manifested in the designed limits of a simulated space, in the way that the designer corrals the player into adhering to the rules of their particular simulation. And so it gets interesting as players learn how to exploit those spatial or or logical or mechanical limitations. That is truly when reading becomes writing.

Obviously, narrative provides a framework for a given simulation; it also establishes goals: go here, get there, find that, do this. And since all narrative games have an ending, they are still structurally linear. However, if you’ve ever heard two people talk about their individual experiences in a narrative game that both of them are playing (Fallout 4 for example), it is an entirely different conversation than people talking at a book club meeting, where everyone had the same experience, even if one reader’s own personal experiences give them a different take on something, or whatever.

We might be able to say that the more unique an individual user’s playthrough experience is from that of another user’s, the richer the game, arguably. But then there are games that shirk narrative altogether in favor of emergent gameplay based around a given set of mechanics. Minecraft is probably the greatest example of this and also a decent peek into the future (or present) of virtual social landscapes. But back to the point, the only control that Egress affords the player is the ability to frame the shot, to decide how many oscillating texts one can read at the same time. Though, I guess in a way that is a large degree of control over the reading of the text.

MMS: Alejandro, at the bottom of the text file which accompanies your application, we get the following lines:

Will I ever be able to say, “Today it writes,” just like, “Today it rains‚” “Today it is windy?” Only when it will come natural to me to use the verb “write‚” in the impersonal form will I be able to hope that through me is expressed something less limited than the personality of an individual.

You go on to say, though that even if we can use “to write” as a verb with no direct subject, we can never, it seems, apply the same logic to “to read”—we cannot say “it reads” because reading is a “necessarily individual act:”

If we assume that writing manages to go beyond the limitations of the author, it will continue to have a meaning only when it is read by a single person and passes through his mental circuits. Only the ability to be read by a given individual proves that what is written shares in the power of writing, a power based on something that goes beyond the individual.

I want to unpack this a little bit, since it opens into a lot of ideas: does writing itself need to be impersonal (however that’s defined) in order to reach beyond the limits of the self, and does this create a tension between a work’s production and its potentially very-personal reception?

AMJC: What you’re referencing is actually lifted from Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. It acts, in a sense, as the game’s principal epigram, a flicker of signal amidst a wash of noise. I think what Calvino’s getting at is kind of the reading equivalent of the age-old: if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it does it still make a sound? If writing happens and nobody reads it, did writing happen? *explosion sounds*

In other words, the act of reading a text is a fundamentally interpersonal endeavor. In poetry and other language arts that rely on the slippage of signifiers, the act of reading and writing become more blurred and interconnected. Writing can be enacted through reading, as it passes through the “mental circuits” of a reader. I think maybe Egress, to some degree, came out of a desire to try and answer Calvino’s question about whether or not “it reads” is possible. I want it to be possible. I think it is. But reaching beyond the limits of the self: good luck with that.

MB: I do think that in art, there needs to be some degree of accessibility, though it need not be impersonal. I’m not sure it even can be. (The greatest art, to my mind, is almost always intensely personal.) Art requires an audience, though—a reaching beyond the self, a contribution that extends itself toward community. Otherwise, you may as well spin stories before a mirror. Implicit in the contract between writer and reader is the idea of collaboration. The writer offers forth their creation which remains lifeless without an audience; a reader is needed to resurrect it, to energize and actualize it through imagination. So, it’s a bit of balancing act. The writing of the thing is a pouring out of the self, for the writer to explore and discover what they’re trying to say. The process of revision, then, is about pinpointing the fruits of that search and arranging them in such a way that the reader may reap and also have a fruitful harvest.

This is not to say anything needs to be watered down or dumbed down. Flannery O’Connor famously said that art is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it. But writing does involve a bit of conceptual scaffolding as to enable someone to enter it. That may amount to only five people in the world who will truly “get it,” but a primer is necessary nonetheless, even if it’s just a narrow slice of connective tissue or gleaned, peripheral context.

MMS: Later, in that same note, we read, “Computers have heightened our perception of literature as an exploration of the potentiality contained in signifiers. Considered as automaton, literature could be defined as a symbolic machine for describing and inventing the human through the processing of signifiers.” I’m reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s desiring-machines, of literature as an interruption in a system of endless flow—but maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Can literature be a machine? If so, what would this look like, and would a machinic view of literature subsume the so-called human element?

MB: Because most human beings think of literature as that which must be funneled through the subjective experience, I think most human beings would fail to embrace a machinic view of literature. Call it a failure of imagination, technophobia, or simply fear of the new. Human nature, to me, has always thrived as a series of glitches and anomalies. We’re terribly violent creatures because we’re compelled by fear and vulnerability; we have no choice but to forge meaning, truth, and beauty from chaos in order to survive and make sense of our world. We need a narrative. Computers on the other hand thrive on efficiency and the impersonal.

Ray Kurzweil writes in How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, that “A purpose is expressed as a series of goals. In the case of our biological brains, our goals are established by the pleasure and fear centers that we have inherited from the old brain. These primitive drives were initially set by biological evolution to foster the survival of species, but the neocortex has enabled us to sublimate them. Watson’s goal was to respond to Jeopardy! queries. Another simply stated goal could be to pass the Turing test. To do so, a digital brain would need a human narrative of its own fictional story so that it can pretend to be a biological human. It would also have to dumb itself down considerably, for any system that displayed the knowledge of, say, Watson would be quickly unmasked as nonbiological.”

In other words, I don’t know if literature can ever transcend the “so-called human element” without ceasing to be literature altogether

AMJC: That quote is lifted from Manuel Portela’s Scripting Reading Motions, which is great. I mean, literature is most certainly machinic because language is inherently machinic; every phoneme is like a little gear; every morpheme, a little cog. Speech is a language machine wherein utterances are encoded in the present moment by one person’s voice and then decoded in the present moment by another person’s brain. With the advent of recording technologies like writing, to encode became to inscribe, essentially to log for the purposes of future decoding by other tech-savvy (read: literate) humans. Fast-forward to the caveats of digital literacy. Video games, which are just files executed by a literal machine, presuppose a varied kind of literacy with respect to the act of reading; it is a form of literacy that is part-inherited, part-mechanical. Now that we live in a world of virtual interfaces, we have to be able to touch the virtual, in the service of reading it. The greatest example of this is probably the computer mouse. It’s safe to say that we’re all mouse-literate. But there’s also the game controller which, like the hand the turns a book’s page, is a reading device, and acts as a metaphor for the limitations of that technology; if you struggle with controlling a video game you are effectively illiterate, as you are struggling to perform the act of reading. Literature has never been more machinic, or more human.

MMS: Matt, right at the beginning of In Search Of, we get the following lines:

This is a work of fiction, which is to say these characters aren’t alive, which isn’t to say they aren’t real. If you’re reading It, chances are you’re real, which isn’t to say you’re alive.

What is the difference between being real and being alive?

MB: One of my primary concerns with technology and this newfangled omnidigitized world of ours is how we can be more connected to each other, with more viable and convenient avenues for communication now than in any other time in our rich history, and counter-intuitively feel more alone and unhappy than in any other time in our rich history. That’s a major theme in In Search Of: how technology—social media, cell phones, and videogames in particular—allow for this kind of radical disconnectedness in spite of all the opportunities it affords for connection. There’s a superficialness to it all—a glaring lack of nuance, of tenderness and touch. It allows us to easily escape each other just as much as it allows us to escape ourselves. An empty room can be scary because you’re all alone in there, but a loud crowded room full of faces with whom you can’t seem to get one authentic thought in edgewise because every one of them is shouting for attention can be utterly terrifying. We’re all so starved for (and deserving of) love and grace we can’t help but sink into a daze of blinkless screens, pining for “likes” and retweets and whatever trendy meme might make us feel less alone. It’s as if we’re in a cave yodeling all the livelong night just to hear the bouncing echoes of our own voice, because we need some constant shred of evidence we’re still alive. Of course, that’s all very dismal and cynical I know—technology is also fantastic. Maybe it’s because I’m 100% guilty of the kind of vulnerability I fear the Internet preys upon most?

All that is to say (and to answer your question maybe), I think many of us assume we’re probably alive but if we were ripped “off the grid” tomorrow, relegated to a life without these manic marvel machines we’d quickly find we’ve forgotten how to experience the world. I mean, experience the world in the way we did as children—with gooey eyes, hearts full of panic, and ecstatic appetites for whatever’s genuine. Reading about the phenomenon of rain on Wikipedia is all well and good, but you don’t really know the rain until you’re standing in your front yard soaked to a skin squishing mud between your toes, thunder gnawing through the night like a chorus of coughing chainsaws.

Alive, for me, is a state of being attuned to your own discomfort, grief, ecstasy, wonder to such a degree that you don’t require the secondhand comforts of something like Facebook, Twitter, Texting, or Instagram to constantly verify and re-confirm your existence.

It’s a state I’m not sure I’ll ever fully achieve, to be honest.

Real, on the other hand, is what is true even if it can’t be touched: a book that rings, a poem that rattles, an imaginary character dancing along the edge of a page so convincingly you’d swear they’ll fall off eventually but they never quite do—who could be your best friend, your doting lover, the father you never had, even you in another life or different suit of skin.

MMS: Peter Burger claims that the purpose of avant-garde art is to de-institutionalize art, to return art to the processes of life. Nonetheless, we hear a lot of talk about technology changing not only our daily lives but our neural pathways. Do you think literature that embraces new technologies is more in-touch with lived-reality, or do you see new media work as creating a new reader consciousness (or author-function) along the way?

MB: No doubt technology is altering our neurological pathways, forcing us to adapt to the reception and dissemination of information in ways we never imagined. It’s only natural that a new reader consciousness must emerge to allow us to manage all this overwhelming stimuli. I think it’s a slowburn generational evolution, but the way we process text is definitely transforming. It’s a fact that we suffer from shorter attention spans nowadays, but it’s also a fact that our capacity for multimodal processing has been greatly magnified (though as for the integrity of this capacity, who knows). But the “lived-reality” is also constantly mutating, so that every day technology is less alien, less strange to us. After all, the stick used to dig by the first cavemen was also technology. So, in answering your question, both are true I think: literature that embraces new technologies is (or at the very least is shifting to be) more in-touch with our lived-reality, but it’s also (re)creating a new reader consciousness all the time.

AMJC: Flusser says “what was once written until now can now be conveyed more effectively on tapes, records, films, videotapes, videodisks, or computer disks, and a great deal that could not be written until now can be noted down in these new codes. Information coded by these means is easier to produce, to transmit, to receive, and to store than written texts.” That may be true, but something else is definitely implied in the sheer quaintness of the media formats he cites. In other words, while it is certainly easier to produce and receive and transmit and store digital information, it is much harder (over generations of time) to keep digital media functionally “readable”. In other words, if you can actually play Egress 50 years from now I will eat my left shoe, or whatever passes for a shoe in 2066 (will we even need shoes then?) I’m gonna quote Flusser again: “There is a complex feedback loop between technology and the people who use it. A changing consciousness calls for a changing technology, and a changing technology changes consciousness.”

So to the question of whether or not digital literature written across the media formats of quotidian 21st century life (like browser-based works or a phone screen poem or a game) is somehow more “in-touch” than, presumably, a book? Maybe. It’s a tough question to answer. It depends on if one values simulation as a literary strategy above representation. The recent advent of actual simulation technologies like video games and VR will continue to rewrite how we come to think of literary production. And in my opinion, the future of literature is mostly one of boutique simulations, especially as more and more people learn how to write for these new kinds of formats. But literacy is not to be underestimated here, as it informs the richness of not only the work itself, but of critical engagement with the work. In the words of ELIZA creator Joseph Weizenbaum: “an oar is a tool for rowing, and it represents the skill of rowing in its whole complexity. No one who has not rowed can see an oar as truly an oar. The way someone who has never played [a violin] sees [it] is simply not the same as the way a violinist sees it.”

MMS: Speaking of VR, what possibilities—if any—do you see in this (or in other) emergent mediums?

MB: Roger Ebert famously said that videogames could never be art. Though VR isn’t necessarily synonymous with video games, they both utilize avatars (more often than not) and the former, as a sandbox environment, is incredibly intriguing and artful to me. I just finished reading Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, a book in which pretty much everything takes place in virtual reality, and there was a particular passage that stood out for me: “‘I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world. I didn’t know how to connect with the people there. I was afraid, for all of my life, right up until I knew it was ending. That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real. Do you understand?’ ‘Yes,’ I Said. ‘I think I do’ ‘Good’ he said, giving me a wink. ‘Don’t make the same mistake I did. Don’t hide in here forever.’”

The thing is, I think those who get lost in fantasy worlds like MMORPGs know all too well it’s just a fantasy world. They know it’s just a series of symbols and signs and it’s not the real thing, but it’s also a lot more palatable than reality. I suppose there are as many looming dangers as there are possibilities—of sinking too deep into the illusion, of escaping one’s obligations as a citizen of the world, but VR can also be a powerful tool for education, communication, and empathy, in addition to serving as a salve for loneliness, however temporary or superficial.

I proposed to my wife through an interactive game that I spent months crafting. I routinely make her games utilizing Minecraft’s creative mode. These games are never substitutions but rather augmentations for authentic bonding. They offer interesting textures and novel modes for exploration, mutual and self-discovery. VR holds the same potential for transforming interrelational and even societal dynamics, for better and for worse.

AMJC: Virtual reality is the logical conclusion of all language technologies. There is nothing after VR. We did it. We won. *explosion sounds*

Matthew Burnside’s work can be found online at www.matthewburnsideisawriter.tumblr.com. He currently teaches creative writing for new media at the University of Iowa.

Alejandro Miguel Justino Crawford is a writer and digital artist living in Brooklyn, NY.

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