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.


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)


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.

Publishing my PhD thesis last page first – the acknowledgements page

Since defending my PhD thesis last month a number of kind, optimistic people have asked if it will be published. All of the creative and most of the critical practice-led research outcomes have already been published, performed, or presented in some way. The website containing links to all of the supporting materials referenced in the thesis is online here: http://writingcoastlines.net

Writing Coastlines
[ it’s hard to take an attractive photo of a PhD thesis]

The thesis itself is broad and overtly interdisciplinary in scope. I have some thinking to do about what kind of press to approach with this strange mix of theory and practice, print and digital, technology and literature, cartography and narrative. I’m certainly open to suggestions.

In the meantime, I would like to begin by publishing the last and possibly best page first. Here then is page 437 – the acknowledgements:

This research has been generously supported by a full studentship from Falmouth University and by the Research Network of the University of the Arts London. I am indebted to the patience, pragmatism, and great good sense of my Director of Studies Doctor Phil Stenton. Many thanks also to Falmouth University Research Student Officer Jemma Julian, and Postgraduate Research Student Foundation Programme Director Doctor John Hall.

Aspects of this research have been furthered by engagement with individuals and events associated with the following organisations:

Alberta College of Art and Design, Arnolfini, Dartington College of Art, The Banff Centre, Electronic Literature as a Model for Creativity in Practice, Electronic Literature Organization, E-Poetry, Inspace, Labex Arts H2H, Obx Labs, The Sharpham Trust, and Struts Gallery & Faucet Media Arts Centre.

The following archives and collections have been a delight to spend time in:

British Library – Maps, Manuscripts
Bodleian Library – Maps, Marconi Archive, Strachey Papers
Cambridge Library, Kings College – Turing Papers
The Telegraph Museum Archives

The following are but a few of the many friends and colleagues who have (often unwittingly) asked good questions, answered questions thoughtfully, led by example, lent logistical support, recommended readings, offered invaluable words of encouragement, or in other ways inspired me over the past four years:

Annie Abrahams, Celia Bannerman, Sandra Barry, Elisabeth Belliveau, Kathi Inman Berens, Sam Bleakly, Philippe Bootz, Laura Borràs, Barbara Bridger, Serge Boucherdon, Jason Camlot, Andy Campbell, cris cheek, Rod Coover, Sym Corrigan, Mark Daniels, Yra van Dijk, Linda Rae Dornan, Lori Emerson, Markku Eskelinen, Chris Funkhouser, Alison Gibb, Tom Harper, Carla Harryman, Mervyn Heard, Rozalie Hirs, Susan Hitch, Peter Jaeger, Mark Jeffery, Alice van der Klei, Edward Klein, Daniel Takeshi Krause, Jean-Jacques Lecercle, Kurtis Lesik, Donna Leishman, Jason Lewis, Mary Loveday-Edwards, Caden Lovelace, Judy Malloy, Netwurker Mez, Nick Montfort, Judd Morrissey, Stuart Moulthrop, Camilla Nelson, Jussi Parrika, Maggie Pitts, James Purdon, a.rawlings, Arnaud Regnauld, Scott Rettberg, Ariane Savoie, Alexandra Saemmer, Jörgen Schäfer, Jeanie Sinclair, Steven Ross Smith, Lisa Somma, Brian Stefans, Sian Stenton, Stephanie Strickland, Neil “X” Thompson, Steve Tomasula, Fred Wahrus, Christine Wilks, and Nanette Wylde.

Finally, this research would not have been possible without the love, patience, curiosity, enthusiasm, good humour, bad jokes, beach walks, and total commitment of my two best friends – my husband Jerome Fletcher and my step-daughter Aphra Kennedy Fletcher. Thank you both.

J. R. Carpenter (2014) Writing Coastlines: Locating Narrative Resonance in Transatlantic Communications Networks, University of the Arts London, http://writingcoastlines.net

Writing Coastlines: Locating Narrative Resonance in Transatlantic Communications Networks

Yesterday, 11:11-1 11/11/14, I successfully defended my PhD thesis. Pending the addition of two paragraphs and the correction of a few typos, I will be a Doctor as well as a Carpenter. In the meantime, here are a few fun facts.

I sent my application to Dartington College of Arts. I received a full studentship from University College Falmouth. My PhD will be awarded by University of the Arts London. It took three years and nine months to complete, from start to submission. My thesis weighed in at 83,400 words, plus thirty-two figures, four appendices, and twenty-four pages of bibliography for a grand total of 437 pages. All of the creative and many of the critical practice-led research outcomes to have emerged from this research have already been published, performed, or in other ways publicly presented. For an abstract and links to all of these research outcomes, please visit: http://writingcoastlines.net/

Remembering Daniel Dion

I am mourning the passing of my dear friend, collaborator, and mentor Daniel Dion. Daniel was a new media artist, and the co-founder and long-time co-director of Oboro Gallery and New Media Lab in Montreal. He died of cancer in Vancouver on Sunday 28 September 2014, surrounded by love.

Daniel has been an inspiration to me since the day we met – over eighteen years ago now. He gave me my first job out of art school. I was the website designer and computer technician at Oboro 1996-1997. We had one computer – a Quadra 650 – and I was in charge of it. Then Daniel bought another computer on his own credit card – a Power Mac 7100 – and TechnOboro, as we called the Oboro New Media Lab in those days, was born.

In those early days of what would become the rest of my life Daniel gave me confidence, and hope, and space, and time to work as an artist. For a number of years, Daniel, his long-time partner Su Schnee, their old friend Hank Bull, and I collaborated on a series of multi-site performances using video phones. One was between Montreal and Tokyo. Even more mind-boggling to me now than the video phones part, or even the Tokyo part, is how open such long-time friends and collaborators were to inviting a young person in.

One winter Su and Daniel invited me to the chalet of another friend of theirs in the Laurentians. On our way there, the car went into a ditch. But it was a small car, so we all got out and lifted it onto the road again. This now seems emblematic of the way Daniel approached problems great and small, but maybe I’m reading too much into things.

In 2005 I returned to Oboro as an artist-in-residence at the New Media Lab. One day I asked Daniel if he would go for a beer with me, outside the building. We made it to a bar a whole block and a half away. He laughed, said people didn’t often ask him to leave the building. Why didn’t we all ask him out for beer all the time? Because he and Su were always inviting us in.

In 2006 Daniel commissioned me to make a new work for the 50th anniversary of the Conseil des arts de Montreal. Why me? There were way bigger better known names to choose from. Someone gives you a chance like that you try to do your very best. The work I made – Entre Ville – has since been shown and taught widely. I don’t know if Daniel ever knew that, thanks to him, students around the world have caught glimpses of the secret life of Montreal’s back yards and alleyways.

Daniel saw potential where others saw none, he had patience where I for one would not have. He had great faith in people, put trust in people. He had vision. Never have I met a more gentle, less cynical soul. Yet never have I met a greater leader. He led with strength rather than power. He practiced and did not preach. Transparency. Honesty. Peace.

From 2006-2010 I served as president of the board of directors of Oboro. The whole time I felt I got more than I gave. I left the board when I left Montreal. For the past five years I have missed Daniel and the whole Oboro family keenly. Yes, family.

Earlier this month my partner and I spent two weeks in Montreal. We attended the first Oboro opening of the season. It was exquisite to be in the proximity of loved ones again. It turns out I can’t write anything more present tense than that at this moment in time except to say that my heart is with you all right now, around the big table.

Daniel Dion et Su Schnee

Daniel Dion et Su Schnee, Oboro, 2007.

For information on memorial services, visit the Oboro Website.