Workshop i-literature

December 12th, 2012 § 2 comments

From 8th till 10th October I invited five artists for a workshop around i-literature in Constant Variable: Catherine Lenoble, Olivier Heinry, Stéphanie Vilayphiou and Nicolas Malevé.

All of us are hybrid artists with a special interest in literature. We knew bits and pieces of each others’ work, but I was curious to see what common grounds we would find in our approaches towards electronic literature, the experiences, the likes and the dislikes. It was great to be able to go into depth throughout the presentations of our work.

Five different aspects of interesting i-literature experiences came out of this encounter: intertextuality, distributed works, the challenge of accessibility and licenses, collaborative processes, working with algorithms and parameters. Of course, sometimes a work contains more than one aspect at the same time. Below you find the list, with for each aspect concrete examples of the works that were presented.
As a result of this workshop we set up the mailinglist Algolit in order to continue to share and discuss thoughts about i-literature. If you’re interested to join, please
At the end of 2013 we plan to make a publication based on the content of this mailinglist.

This workshop was possible thanks to the support of the Vlaamse Gemeenschapscommissie.

You find more reports on this workshop:
– by Olivier Heinry:
– by Catherine Lenoble:


Five interesting aspects of i-literature

1. Intertextuality

1/ Hypertext is the most popular contemporary form of intertextuality. It was also the form the first i-literature works came up with, like f.ex. the American author Shelley Jackson who adapted Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein in Patchwork Girl (1995)

2/ The fact that works can produce (or be produced with) a lot of side-documents, due to the existence of forums, research, written documents and comments of all sorts. This pushes towards new forms of presenting the narratives.

→ Stéphanie looked into the innovating lay-out choices Mark Z. Danielewski made for his debut novel The House of Leaves, a cult book that is hard to find these days. The book inspired her for the design of She surfs up, a collection of stories based on on and offline gaming. They chose to organise interplays between typefaces and the content.

→ Stéphanie and Nicolas collaborated for the online publication of VJ12, the festival of Constant about grey literature. Grey literature is all literature that has no responsible author, like manpages, terms of service, legal acts, machine logs…
Steph and Nicolas looked for ways to integrate the grey literature of the festival in the publication and came up with algorithmic and graphical solutions like:
– tagging every invoice and receipt of the festival with parameters as time/destination/language… See
– presenting all writing produced for the festival (invoices, correspondance…) in a timeline:

→ Catherine works on a novel about her favourite author Anna Kavan, in which she will be commenting the author’s work in a fictional way. For this she looks for connections to existing on and offline communities celebrating this author.

2. Distributed works

A lot of experiments lead to distributed works, ‘translations’ of virtual universes to a ‘physical space’ and vice versa.

→ Olivier looked into the physicality of a wiki during the workshop SeWiki and came to interesting performative results.

→ Catherine and An published each a novel as a printed book with an online version.
Petitbain is a printed book in which Catherine explores the topic of ubiquity, she rearranged the texts online using manually selected keywords. The project was continued afterwards as the acoustic installation Thalweg.
Tot Later portrays the life of a young artist in Brussels. For all places and people who do not read Dutch or novels but inspired the author, AN created also a digital narration throughout existing webpages.

→ Catherine presented GISS GISS 2050, a science fiction writing project in Dakar, for which they used 15 deaddrops in the city collecting pictures, texts, sounds. The narratives were also published as a beautiful map.

→ Catherine presented the online magazine Ce qui Secret, that focusses on bridging the virtual and the physical, publishing every two years also a print publication.

→ An presented her work as a public fiction writer in the library of Ixelles. By using Open Office templates and easy booklet printing she would ask children and adults for memories and wishes and turn them on the spot into short fictions: Openbaar schrijver and Boektegoed.

3. The challenge of accessibility and licenses

When talking about i-literature, digital tools and the net, it is hard not to talk about re-using existing material, and thus, about the accessibility of it in terms of licenses and place where you cannot only consult material but also use it.

→ Stephanie showed us Blind Carbon Copy, her inspiring ‘Experimental Design Hacks to Circumvent Intellectual Property’ using Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. This makes so much sense, if you know that the story is about the non-accessibility of literary works in a future world. Steph used different filters to see to what extent it is legal to re-publish the the text. For example:
– she used nltk and WordNet to replace each word of a sentence by a more current synonym. Interesting to know is that she determined the nature of the word manually (verb, adjective…).
– she published the novel as three books, following the law of ‘fair use’ that allows you to use a third of a work.
– she used a filter that translates the text into leet or l33t alphabet, replacing letters of the regular latin alphabet by resembling ASCII characters. The text remains — somehow — readable, but its essence, its bits are completely different.
– very funny is the version in which she translated the English text to Dutch using Google Books and retranslated it to English.
For all filters see

→ An presented her collaboration with Femke Snelting for Public Domain Day. Each year on the 1st of January due to the expiration of copyright protection terms on works produced by authors who died 70 years earlier, thousands of works enter the public domain – that is, their content is no longer owned or controlled by anyone, but it rather becomes a common treasure, available for anyone to freely use for any purpose.
On 1-1-13 Constant will publish a generative novel based on the works of authors that came into the public domain in 2012, like Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Tagore… Using Pytthon Femke and An write a script that contains several keywords, it will select fragments of literary texts by these authors and rearrange them in a novel.

→ Nicolas presented the remixes Donatella Portoghese made manually of the texts written by the guests of VJ12. The merging of the texts lead to new insights and perspectives on the content. The merging was only possible because the authors of the texts agreed to publish their contribution under a Free Arts License.

4. Collaborative processes

A lot of digital tools facilitate collaborative work. Their existence invites people to use them for artistic means. Collective work also needs some kind of collective organisation, rules to play along. It makes them fascinating in terms of processes. The most famous examples of collaborative writing tools are etherpad, hotglue and wikis. Etherpad allows you to replay the writing process, although the replay could also integrate time to enhance the sensation.

→ The Pinguin wikinovel One Million Pinguins was a collective writing experiment inviting anyone to contribute to a collective fiction story during a month. One man was moderator, editor and guide. On the very last moment the entire wiki was spammed with the word ‘banana’

→ An presented her work with Mikey Weinkove. They wrote a science fiction story together using a wiki, then decided to open it up to others inviting them to write a diary being one of the characters of the plot. The process never came to a final result login: mee // pass: merkova

→ An presented Colapsekode a research process in which authors of very different disciplines used the motion tracking software objscrs as a collective mediation platform. Parameters turned out to impose the best collective constraints and rules. A horizontally organised interdisciplinary team turned out to be the best method to make sure any narrative is non-linear and fragmented.

→ Olivier proposed Git as a collaborative writing tool. It is used for developers to share code and other documents. Alike wikis Git allows you to structurally diverge and merge again, to keep track of the history of the project and to not be dependant on an internet connection in order to work (this is very important when working on the African continent).

→ collaborative drawing tools were mentioned: Whiteboard, Open Canvas, Painter, Krita

5. Algorithms & parameters

We all agreed that the challenge of creating i-literature is dealing with algorithms and parameters, manually or by using machines. Using manual parameters like Gertrude Stein (parameters of colour, sound…) or the poets of Oulipo allow for games and explorations that can lead to unexpected places. Using robots (in forms of scripts) allow to ask questions to one or more texts or documents and to get back proofs of artificial intelligence.
The robots count and tell, ‘and they do not always agree’, dixit Nicolas. Computer vision allows to analyse texts and images and to look differently to them.
Two main questions were formulated regarding the use of algorithm for artistic practises:
1/ At what moment do we intervene in the digital process? Blind Carbon Copy (Thesaurus filter) and Petit Bain (keywording) are proofs of successful manual choices in digital processes.
2/ How can we affectively use effective algorithms? How do we intervene in the use of parameters to make sure there is a shift towards a ‘meaning’, an artistic, political or emotional modulation, a level that goes beyond interesting statistics?

→ Nicolas presented the use of the concordance and collocation in the VJ12-publication, this allows a synthetic reading through indexation of the different texts

-> Nicolas presented his experiments with the digital archive of the Finish artist Erkki Kurenniemi who obsessively documented his life aiming for the material to become a life-template for a human being in a far future.
As Nicolas and Michael Murtaugh did not want to separate public from private spheres in these non-organised data, they looked into ways to go beyond the retina and explore different ways to ‘see a picture’.
They looked into the metadata that describes the documents (time, place, weight, amount of pixels etc), of which Nicolas wrote a beautiful concrete poem. They analysed the images using colour intensity, contour and line filters, they played around with parameters used for face recognition (symmetry, proportions, colour) and confronted the images with a database of images that are manually recognized by humans. These practises open up the material towards human interpretation and a world of exterior images.
The algorithms they used also have a name, it could be interesting to go and look at the biographies of these persons, f.ex. Mr Fourier, Mr Gauss, Mr Hugue.
→ Catherine presented the biography project Monsieur M, a project based on a diary of a man who annotated his daily routes to work in 1969

→ On the 3rd day of the workshop we did experiments with some basic functions of in order to look differently at the two novels, PetitBain and Tot Later.

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