The Gathering Cloud

The Gathering Cloud is a new hybrid print and web-based work by J. R. Carpenter commissioned by NEoN Digital Arts Festival, which takes place in Dundee, UK, 9-13 November 2016.

This work aims to address the environmental impact of so-called ‘cloud’ computing through the oblique strategy of calling attention to the materiality of the clouds in the sky. Both are commonly perceived to be infinite resources, at once vast and immaterial; both, decidedly, are not.

Fragments from Luke Howard’s classic “Essay on the Modifications of Clouds” (1803) as well as more recent online articles and books on media and the environment are pared down into hyptertextual hendecasyllabic verses. These are situated within surreal animated gif collages composed of images materially appropriated from publicly accessible cloud storage services.

The Gathering Cloud
The Gathering Cloud – a new hybrid print and web-based work by J. R. Carpenter

The cognitive dissonance between the cultural fantasy of cloud storage and the hard facts of its environmental impact is bridged, in part, through the constant evocation of animals: A cumulus cloud weighs one hundred elephants. A USB fish swims through a cloud of cables. Four million cute cat pics are shared each day. A small print iteration of “The Gathering Cloud” shared through gift, trade, mail art, and small press economies further confuses boundaries between physical and digital, scarcity and waste.

The Gathering Cloud
The print iteration of The Gathering Cloud

The Gathering Cloud was commissioned by NEoN Digital Arts Festival, Dundee, UK, 9-13 November 2016. Many thanks to the curators Sarah Cook and Donna Holford-Lovell. Portions of this text were first performed at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution during the South West Poetry Tour, 1-8 August 2016. Thanks and curses to Annabel Banks for sugesting the hendecasyllabic constraint. Thanks to Kay Lovelace, Rachel McCarthy, Michael Saunby, and the fine folks at the Informatics Lab at the Met Office for tips, tricks, and discussions on code and the weather. And thanks to Jerome Fletcher for everything else.

Further reading: NEoN speaks with JR Carpenter

View the work online here: The Gathering Cloud

And the Dot Award for New Media Writing goes to… A Picture of Wind

Last Wednesday 20 January 2016 I attended the New Media Writing Prize Awards Ceremony at Bornemouth University where it was announced that I’ve won the inaugural Dot Award. This new annual prize sponsored by if:book UK, a charitable company exploring the future of the book and digital possibilities for literature. As well as funding the New Media Writing Prize, if:book set up the Dot Award in memory of writer and designer Dorothy Meade. The Dot Award aims to support writers using the web in imaginative and collaborative ways. The prize is awarded not for a finished project but rather for an idea, a proposal for project which, in the judges’ opinion, shows promise. The prize itself comprises £500, technical and creative support, and promotion of the completed work.

I am delighted to have won this inaugural Dot Award on the basis of a proposal to create a new web-based (tablet compatible) piece called This is A Picture of Wind. This work will expand upon a short text written for a print anthology due out in Canada later this year. This text was written in response to the storms which battered South West England in early 2014, resulting in catastrophic flooding in Somerset and the destruction of the seawall and rail line at Dawlish in Devon. Following the news in the months after these storms, I was struck by the paradox presented by attempts to evoke through the materiality of language a force such as wind which we can only see indirectly through its affect. I began to explore weather, and wind in particular, in all its written forms. I have been collecting language pertaining to wind from current news items as well from as older almanacs, private weather diaries, and past forecasts held at the Met Office Library and Archive in Exeter. I have also been studying classical ideas of weather. For example, in his epic poem De rerum natura, the Roman poet Lucretious writes: “The wind burst open the cloud, and out falls that fiery whirlwind which is what we in our traditional language term a thunderbolt.”

Detail from a weather diary held in the Met Office Archives
Detail from a weather diary from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, 1874, held in the Met Office Archives in Exeter, Devon.

This award will help me develop a simple yet stable web interface to combine these diverse archival and classical materials with my own quotidian narrative of the storm events of early 2014, live weather data and maps, and text scraped from Twitter. I do not know yet exactly what form the final work will take, only that it will attempt to address climate change by picturing through language and data the absences left by wind.

Notes Very Necessary – new work published in The New River

Notes Very Necessary is a web-based multi-media collage essay co-created by UK-based playwright, director, and dramaturg Barbara Bridger and artist, writer, and researcher J. R. Carpenter.

This new work aims to addresses the inter-related issues of cultural imperialism and climate change by appropriating and remixing images, text, and data generated by centuries imperialist, colonialist, capitalist, and scientific exploration and exploitation in the Arctic. The title is borrowed from an essay called “Instructions and notes very necessary and needful to be observed in the purposed voyage for discovery of a passage eastwards” published in Hakluyt’s Voyages and Discoveries in 1580. This essay, co-authored by the Englishmen Arthur Pet and Charles Jackman, offered detailed instructions on how to conquer new territories by taking copious notes. The proposed voyage eastward, toward the discovery of a Northeast passage to China, hangs In 2015 Barbara Bridger and J. R. Carpenter attempted to follow these instructions by making, finding, and faking notes, images, data, and diagrams online and reconfiguring them into a new narrative. The result is a long, horizontally scrolling, highly variable visual and textual collage essay charting the shifting melting North.

Notes Very Necessary || J. R. Carpenter & Barbara Bridger
Screenshot of Notes Very Necessary || J. R. Carpenter & Barbara Bridger

Notes Very Necessary was commissioned for conjunctions : experiments in collaboration, a collection of interdisciplinary essays co-edited by Jill Talbot and Eric LeMay, published in The New River: A Journal of Digital Writing & Art in December 2015.

“In the spirit of the essay to test new forms and practices, this collection brings together work created through collaboration. We asked writers to collaborate with other artists or artisans in the co-creation of an essay that, in some way, pushed the genre beyond words.” Jill Talbot and Eric LeMay

On Sea Birds, Castaways, and Phantom Islands off the Coast of Newfoundland

As a Visiting Fellow at the Eccles Centre for North American Studies at the British Library in London over the past few months I’ve been chasing fleeting references to phantom islands in cartographic and literary depictions of the New World during the sixteenth century. Since the first voyages to the cod-fishing grounds off Newfoundland, there have been reports of an Island of Demons in the region, reputedly inhabited by a curious mixture of wild animals, mythological creatures, evil spirits, and demons. These might sound like tall tales, but in 1542 a young French noblewoman was cast ashore on an island off Newfoundland bearing many of these characteristics, and lived to tell the tale.

In August I gave a talk about this research at the Summer Scholars Seminar Series at the British Library. An expanded version of that talk has been published on the British Library’s American Collection blog: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/americas/2015/10/sea-birds-castaways-and-phantom-islands-off-newfoundland.html

Writing on the Cusp of Becoming Something Else

As an artist and author of both print and digital literature I have made extensive use of archival materials over the past twenty years, incorporating ‘found’ images from old text books and ‘borrowing’ source code from dusty corners of the Web. I will aim to frame these acts of appropriation as contributions to a larger cultural project during Friction and Fiction: IP, Copyright and Digital Futures, a one day symposium taking place at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London 26 September 2015.

The Songs of Maldoror (1869)
Lautréamont, The Songs of Maldoror (1869)

In 1870 Le Compte de Lautréamont famously wrote: “Plagiarism is necessary. It is implied in the idea of progress. It clasps the author’s sentence tight, uses his expressions, eliminates a false idea, replaces it with the right idea.” In The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, McKenzie Wark observes that Lautréamont “corrects, not back to a lost purity or some ideal form, but toward to a new possibility” (2011 34). In this spirit, let’s use Lautréamont’s expression, but eliminate the false idea of an assumed male author:

“Plagiarism is necessary. It is implied in the idea of progress. It clasps the author’s sentence tight, uses her expressions, eliminates a false idea, replaces it with the right idea.” J. R. Carpenter

In the 1920s Lautréamont was re-discovered by the Surrealists, who hailed him as a patron saint. In the early 1950s news broke that some of the most poetic passages of Lautréamont’s most well-known work, The Songs of Maldoror (1869), had been plagiarised from text books. I’d love to say this is where I got the idea from, but I’d been plagiarising text books long before I’d ever heard of Lautréamont.

Hannah Hoch, Bourgeois Wedding Couple (1919)
Hannah Hoch, Bourgeois Wedding Couple (1919)

The Letterist International credited Lautréamont with the discovery of a method they termed détournement. To détourne is to detour, to lead astray, to appropriate — not a literary form, as in a style, a poetics, or a genre, but rather a material form, as in a sentence, a book, a film, a canvas. In this material approach the Letterists lagged decades behind the Dadaist, Constructivist, and Surrealist collage and photomontage artists of the 1920s.

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (1934)
Joseph Cornell, Untitled (1934)

I went to art school. I came to writing through the material practices of photographing, photocopying, cutting with scissors, and pasting with glue. Hannah Hoch was my hero. Her lover Raoul Hausmann was pretty great too. I was mesmerised by the strange relations between image and text in the collage novels of Max Ernst (1891–1976), as was another of my art school icons, Joseph Cornell. At the recent exhibition of Cornell‘s work at the Royal Academy in London I was delighted to discover that Cornell had appropriated a black and white image of a girl balancing a stack of suitcases on her head from the front page of my website.

J. R. Carpenter, Luckysoap.com
J. R. Carpenter, Luckysoap.com

One of my earliest web-based works, Mythologies of Landforms and Little Girls was first published in a literary journal in 1995, but I remained unsatisfied with the fixed order of the story. In 1996 I made a non-linear HTML version in which readers could move through the story their own way. Most of the images and subtexts come from a civil engineering handbook. The deadpan technical descriptions of dikes, groins and mattress work add perverse sexual overtones to the otherwise chaste first-person narrative. Between the diagrammatic images and the enigmatic texts, a meta-narrative emerges wherein the absurd and the inarticulate, desire and loss may finally co-exist.

Environmental Geologic Guide to Cape Cod National Seashore (1979)
Environmental Geologic Guide to Cape Cod National Seashore (1979)

I built The Cape in 2005, but some of the sentences had been kicking around in my brain since the early 1990s. I couldn’t quite figure out what to do with them until came across a used copy of an Environmental Geologic Guide to Cape Cod National Seashore published by the University of Massachusetts in 1979, around the time of my one and only trip to Cape Cod to visit a grandmother I barely remember. I used photographs, charts, graphs and maps from the Geologic Guide as stand-ins for non-existent family photos — a surrogate family album. I used DHTML timelines produce a silent, jumpy, staggering effect reminiscent of the Super-8 home movies in which I’d always longed to star. The Cape has since been published in the Electronic Literature Collection Volume One, under a Creative Commons licence, and as a zine, in which images from the Geologic Guide mingle with diagrams appropriated from children’s text books.

Zine iterations of web-based works by J. R. Carpenter
Zine iterations of web-based works by J. R. Carpenter

In more recent works, I have turned my acquisitive attention toward the appropriation of literary texts.

In …and by islands I mean paragraphs (2013), small paragraphs generated by JavaScript draw upon variable strings containing fragments of literary texts harvested from a vast corpus of essays, plays, poems, novels, and travel writing on the topic of islands, including a number of works which have already borrowed from each other. My aim is not to claim these fragments of literary works as my own, but rather, to make their inner workings more overt. For example, whilst the title of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Crusoe in England” (1971) makes clear reference to Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe (1719), nowhere within the poem does Bishop acknowledge that the textual topography of her Crusoe’s island borrows heavily from Charles Darwin’s descriptions of the Galapagos Islands in The Voyage of the Beagle (1838), a book which Bishop admired. And why should she?

J. R. Carpenter, ...and by islands I mean paragraphs (2013)
J. R. Carpenter, …and by islands I mean paragraphs (2013)

McKenzie Wark argues: “For past works to become resources for the present requires… their appropriation as a collective inheritance, not as private property” (2011: 37). In …and by islands I mean paragraphs I have clasped the authors’ sentences tight. I have used expressions from both Bishop and Darwin. I have eliminated the false idea that either text is fixed, advocating instead for the bright idea that literature is our and we should use it however we want.

Incorporation of appropriation, variation, and transformation into the process of composition results in writing that is always on the cusp of becoming something else.

AUTO_MATIC_BIO_GRAPHIC

I will present a workshop tomorrow at In the Regions of Utopia, the second symposium of the Imaginaries of the Future network, taking place in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK, 28-30 June 2015.

This workshop facilitates an interrogation of place-based identity by calling into question the persistent notion that ‘home’ is necessarily a place. Further, this workshop challenges the inward-facing tendencies of autobiography by employing a computer program to create a collectively authored quasi-autobiographical narrative which is at once dynamic, inclusive, variable, and provisional.

This workshop begins with an exercise prompted by a quotation from Anne-Marie MacDonald’s novel As the Crow Flies (2003), in which the author suggests we may come from events rather than places:

If you move around all your life, you can’t find where you come from on a map. All those places where you lived are just that: places. You don’t come from any of them; you come from a series of events. And those are mapped in memory. Contingent, precarious events, without the counterpane of place to muffle the knowledge of how unlikely we are. Almost not born at every turn. Without a place, events slow-tumbling through time become your roots. Stories shading into one another. You come from a plane crash. From a war that brought your parents together.

With this example in mind, participants are invited to complete the sentence: “I come from…” with statements pertaining to events rather than places. “I come from a plane crash.” “I come from a war that brought my parents together.”

Participants are then invited to complete additional stock autobiographical sentences in ways which challenge the primacy of place. For example, the sentence: “I was born…” may describe a time rather than a place. “I was born on the night shift.”

Each question is asked several times, allowing participants’ responses to riff off each other.

The responses are entered into a computer program as they are given. This program randomly selects one response to each statement and outputs a story. Individual participants’ responses are thereby shuffled into a collectively authored quasi-autobiographical narrative which may be endlessly refreshed. The notion of autobiographical veracity further undermined by leaving key gender signifiers such as Mother/Father to computational chance.

Participants will be invited to speak these narratives aloud in various ways (separately, as a group, in a round). As we consider what sort of stories emerge from this generative, variable, collective, event-driven mode of autobiographical authorship, we will propose new questions by altering the source code. How does our story shift if the statement “I wish…” is changed to “I need…”? How does our conception of regionality or locality shift if we think in terms of coming from shared events rather than places? As we experience events unfolding in real time online, how might we come from a plane crash in Manhattan, or a protest in Hong Kong, or the Occupy movement?

The source code of the AUTO_MATIC_BIO_GRAPHIC program is based on a 1k story generator created by Nick Montfort in 2008. Examples of stories generated by a previous iteration of the AUTO_MATIC_BIO_GRAPHIC program were included in my print book GENERATION[S], published by Traumawien in 2010. Feel free to download the source code and replace the variables with your own life events.

Walks from City Bus Routes – new work published in The New River

Walks from City Bus Routes is a web-based computer-generated guide ‘book’ which perpetually proposes plausible yet practically impossible walking routes through the city of Edinburgh and its environs using JavaScript developed by Caden Lovelace and images and text culled from a City of Edinburgh Transport Map published by the Edinburgh Geographical Institute in the 1940s and a pamphlet called Walks from City Bus Routes published by Edinburgh City Transport in the late 1950s.

Walks from City Bus Routes || J. R. Carpenter

Walks from City Bus Routes has been published in the Spring 2015 issue of The New River – a long-standing online journal of digital writing & art founded by Edward Falco with help from Len Hatfield in 1996. The New River posts new issues twice a year in December and May, and is currently hosted by Virginia Tech’s Center for Digital Discourse and Culture. This Spring 2015 issue is edited by Arian Katsimbras & Emily Dhatt and contains work by Alan Bigelow, J. R. Carpenter, Chris Joseph, J.P. Sipilä, Aaron Oldenburg, Jody Zellen.

Readers keen on web-based bookish-drifting-wander-walking may also be interested in Wanderkammer: A Walk Through texts, a web-based collection of hyperlinked quotations from great writing on walking. Wanderkammer first appeared Walk poems: A series of reviews of walking projects edited by Louis Bury Corey Frost published on Jacket2 in 2011.

A Handmade Web

I’m headed to Bath Thursday 26 March 2015 to participate in a one-day symposium on Slow Media hosted by the Media Futures Research Centre at Bath Spa University’s Corsham Court campus. I will be speaking about a A Handmade Web. The term ‘handmade’ usually refers to objects made by hand or by using simple tools rather than machines. The result may be homely — as in a child’s clay ashtray — or exquisite — as in a pair of bespoke brogues. I will evoke the term ‘handmade web’ throughout this presentation to refer to web pages coded by hand rather than by software; web pages made and maintained by individuals rather than by businesses or corporations; web pages which are provisional, temporary, or one-of-a-kind; web pages which challenge conventions of reading, writing, design, ownership, privacy, security, or identity.

I’ve made a hyperlinked version of my presentation available online here: http://luckysoap.com/statements/handmadeweb.html

Fishes & Flying Things || J. R. Carpenter, 1995

The above image is from Fishes & Flying Things, my first web-based project, Fishes & Flying Things, made entirely by hand in 19995.

For more information on Slow Media, see: The Origin of Slow Media: Early Diffusion of a Cultural Innovation through Popular and Press Discourse, 2002-2010, by Jennifer Rauch (2011).

Slow Media, Thursday 26th March 2015, Bath Spa University, UK

Slow Media Symposium Draft Programme (PDF)

#slowmediabathspa

Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow in North American Studies at the British Library

I’ve been awarded a postdoctoral fellowship from the Eccles Centre for North American Studies at the British Library. Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowships are intended to help support scholars wishing to visit London to use the British Library’s collections relating to North America and are basically a rare book and old map lover’s dream come true.

the region of Atlantic Canada where I was born
the region of Atlantic Canada where I was born, in Champlain’s map of 1607

I am applied for an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship in order to undertake further research into the writing (and erasing) of Atlantic Canadian coastlines toward the publication of a monograph tentatively titled ‘Writing Coastlines: On the Composition of Atlantic Canada’.

By ‘Writing Coastlines’ I refer both to cartographic and textual writing about coastlines, and to the writing and erasing of physical coastlines through erosion and accretion, wave actions and storm events. Rather than presenting a historiographical narrative in which the coastlines of the ‘New World’ emerge through a linear progression of discoveries, I aim to frame the writing of these coastlines as an ongoing compositional process. To demonstrate this argument, I intend to draw upon a wide variety cartographic, archival, and literary materials held at the British Library, with an emphases on foundation documents of Canadian history produced in England and France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

This research will build upon portions of my recently completed PhD thesis, Writing Coastlines: Locating Narrative Resonance in Transatlantic Communications Networks. During this research I made extensive use of the Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Maps collections at the British Library. This Visiting Fellowship will allow me to spend more time with the documents I have already consulted and, critically, will allow me to identify and study secondary sources including lesser-known maps, sea charts, ship’s logs, cosmographies, diaries, letters, arguments, treatises, and discourses for discovery. Through a comparative cartographic and textual analysis of these material texts I aim to show how the coastlines of Atlantic Canada have been written and re-written, drawn and re-drawn, formed and transformed, altered and erased by successive generations of fishers, sailors, explorers, settlers, soldiers, captains, navigators, cartographers, politicians, journalists, and literary authors. These coastlines have been composed through centuries of dead-reckoning, careful surveying, and sounding, as well as less than perfect navigation and charting techniques; through willful misrepresentation of dangers and distances; through the transposition of European place and family names onto places which already had names, whether assigned by earlier explorers or by native peoples; through subsequent mishearings, misspellings, translations, and adaptations of these names over the course of centuries of habitation; and though literary re-imaginings of first encounters with the natives, animals, and climatic conditions of these coasts.

During the Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship I will begin work on a new chapter, ‘Arguments to Prove a Passage,’ focused on distortions of Atlantic Canadian coastlines perpetrated in material texts written to elicit support for voyages Northwestward, traces of these voyages written in place names (Davis Inlet, etc), and arguments made to prove a Northeast Passage.

Performing Notes on the Voyage of Owl and Girl at the British Library

I’ll be performing my web-based computer-generated narrative Notes on the Voyage of Owl and Girl at the British Library Thursday 5 February 6-8:30 PM, as part of Trapped in the Ice, Frozen in Time, an evening of performances and talks hosted by the British Library’s Interactive Fiction Writer-in-Residence Rob Sherman.

The event will feature Rob Sherman exploring themes arising from his research into the Franklin expedition of 1845-6, Nancy Campbell (artist and writer, whose latest book ITOQQIPPOQ is included in the exhibition Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage on now at the British Library), and novelist Kate Pullinger.

The event is free, but booking is required. For more information: Trapped in the Ice, Frozen in Time

Notes on the Voyage of Owl and Girl is a work of fiction. Any resemblances to actual events, locals, persons or texts are entirely intentional. These notes conflate and confabulate characters, facts, and forms of narrative accounts of sea voyages into the unknown North undertaken over the past 2340 years or so. The ever-shifting computer-generated portion of this narrative is composed from fragments of stories of fanciful, fluid, and quite possibly fictional floating places described or imagined in such diverse works as Tacitus, Agricola (97-98), Hakluyt, Voyages and Discoveries (1589–1600), and Eugene Field, Wynken, Blynken and Nod (1889). The characters of Owl and Girl are borrowed from Edward Leer’s Victorian nonsense poem, The Owl and the Pussy Cat (1871). In my version, a girl most serious, most adventurous, most determined and her lazy friend the owl set out, set sail, sail away toward a strange sea in a boat, craft, raft of pea-, bottle-, lima-bean- or similar shade of green. The cartographic collage they voyage through is a confusion of islands and soundings from Scotia Bay and the South Orkney Islands (1967), and my own photographs from Nova Scotia (2008-2011). Of the horizontally scrolling texts which annotate this mythical, implausible, impossible voyage toward seas unknown, the northern lights, the fountain of youth, the text in grey which begins “7 May: departed from Dartmouth” is an erasure poem based on The second voyage attempted by Mr John Davis with others, for the discovery of the Northwest Passage (1586). The Morse Code quotes a line from a Peter Høeg novel. All the other notes are composed by me. By me, of course, I mean the girl.