|I recently had the
pleasure of sharing a podium with Judy Chicago when she returned to UCLA to accept the
Distinguished Alumni Award. Time has not dimmed her vision or damped her fire. As all
recipients are expected to do, she thanked the assembled dignitaries--not for helping her
but rather for so outraging her that she left UCLA determined to change things. The
pivotal moment came in her European History class. After studying the deeds of great men
for an entire term, she inquired of the professor when they were going to study the
contributions of women to European History. "We are not going to study them,"
the professor asserted, "because there are none." "The Dinner Party"
emerged as her response to that absurdity.
In the New Millennium, the tradition that Judy Chicago pioneered of recognizing and celebrating womens contributions continues in the vibrant new medium of the Web. Talan Memmott has suggested the term "Rich Lit" for the cornucopia of delights that this new "Dinner Party" offers. I hear in his evocative phrase recognition of the extraordinary richness of these selections as well as an echo of textual protocol such as "rich text format." But I also hear the screams of protests from my colleagues steeped in traditional print literature. "Do you mean to suggest," they cry, "that print literature is not rich?" The protest of the literati may be misguided, but it has enough nanograms of truth to prompt me to suggest a complementary term to Talans rich lit: open-work.
Open-work harkens to Roland Barthess call, way back in the 1960s, for texts that would function like networks rather than closed tomes. Recognizing that even print texts cannot be confined within their bound covers because of their intertextuality, Barthes argued for a shift from "work"--associated with the same male-centered world view that so enraged July Chicago--to "text." In the contemporary period, it seems to me, we can best honor the spirit of Barthess enterprise by shifting once again, this time from "text" to "open-work."
As a term, open-work calls attention to the fact that the craftwork of making has again become a recognized and important component of textual production. During the last several hundred years, the commodification of book production drove a wedge between authorial process and the hands-on labor of producing the book as a physical object. The complex history behind this separation has been documented by Mark Rose in Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright, among others. Suffice it to say here that a constellation of economic, political and class forces was successful in promulgating the idea that what the author produced was an immaterial concept separated from and untainted by the commercial networks that brought the actual book into being. The "work" was considered to be the abstract concept, not the physical object. The ideology of universalism that made "men" (that is, men of a certain ethnicity, nationality, and economic status) into a synonym for "people" also operated in book production to occlude the material basis for the text and to elevate the "author" into a man of genius who was dependent only on his internal creativity and inspiration to produce the work. What took place in corporate offices, design meetings, noisy rooms where the presses rolled, distribution and transportation networks that delivered books and bookshops that sold them, was considered irrelevant to the privileged site of the "work."
With the advent of the microcomputer, desktop publishing, and especially the Web, all this has changed dramatically. The intelligence, knowledge, and creativity it takes to write and/or implement software for artistic purposes can no longer be separated from the work, for the craftwork involved in making a piece materially affects every aspect of the open-work, from its appearance to its functionalities to its interfaces and its operation by the user. The open-work is open in the sense that it serves as a fluid space in which artistic intent commingles with technical expertise. At many levels and in many ways, the material basis for the production of the open-work interpenetrates the work as concept and cannot be separated from it.
Especially illuminating in this regard are open-works that foreground the importance of craftwork by "treating" traditional texts so their concepts become literalized or materialized in new ways, thus opening spaces within the traditional texts where the fluid and hybrid nature of the open-work can assert itself. In Natalie Bookchins "The Intruder," for example, a short fiction of that name by Jorge Luis Borges is made into a series of ten computer games, with Borgess text appearing in rollovers and voiceovers as rewards for "winning" the games. Borgess text, with the subtle irony typical of him, presents a misogynistic scenario in which two brothers first court, then share a woman between them. Finding that her presence leads them to quarrel, they cart her off to a whorehouse, only to discover that each brother secretly visits her there, so they haul her home again to save money. The understated climax arrives when one brother informs the other he has killed the woman, thus uniting the two brothers forever in guilt and silence, a bond cemented by the imperative to forget. In one of Bookchins games, the object is to bounce a female figure back and forth between two paddles, thus making the user complicit in the storys plot. Another darkly funny game presents the user with two buttock-like circles with a hole between them, from which fall objects associated with the woman, which the user tries to catch by moving a virtual bucket. Because the games compel the user to enter dynamically into the production of text, they serve to connect the user in surprisingly powerful ways to the narrative; I found myself more engaged with Bookchins deliberately kitschy games than with Borgess satirical tale, which is dark enough to make most readers feel emotionally distanced from its brutal plot.
An entirely different strategy informs Marta Werners "The Flight of A821: Dearchiving the proceedings of a Birdsong." Werners open-work is a stunning piece of literary criticism that suggests the unusual physical form of the Emily Dickinson poem labeled A821 (two torn envelope flaps fastened to a third piece of paper with a pin) implies it should be read as a hypertext. Werners open-work enacts this interpretation by animating the image of Dickinsons poem, visualizing it in various spatial orientations that make real to the reader how the poem operates in a literal sense. Moreover, there is a synergistic relation between Werners textual practices and her critical insight into Dickinsons text. Creating her open-work as a hypertext clearly contributed to her critical understanding of the poem, a conjunction underscored in her open-work by visually representing links as the straight pin Dickinson used to fasten her textual fragments together.
Still another creative opening of traditional texts occurs in Adrianne Wortzels playfully allusive open-work, "The Electronic Chronicles." Wortzel appropriates the fort-da game, first explicated by Freud and later made famous as a metaphor for the hiddenness of the deconstructive text, attributing it to the actions of a playful child who uses the dynamic to discover a hidden website. In another tour-de-force of appropriation through allusion, the narrator of the Chronicles suggests the Lacanian Real can be found in the non-space of the hypertext link, a strategy that the open-work itself performs in opening spaces within print texts to make them mutter thoughts that issue not so much from the inscribed marks as from the gaps between them.
Another aspect of the openness of the open-work is expressed in its fusion of text and image. With digital technology, the flat durable mark of print is transformed into a kinetic screen image. Even when screenic text is represented as a stable inscription, it is always image, just as image, underwritten by textual code at many levels, is also always text. The mark that functions simultaneously as word and image is enacted on the opening screens of Giselle Beiguelmans "The Book after the Book," as "text" and "image" transform visually into one another. Not since illuminated manuscripts has visual thinking and verbal literacy come into such close conjunction, challenging a generation of practitioners to think in both modes at once.
Particularly striking in this regard is Diana Slatterys "Glide: an interactive exploration of visual language." This open-work presents the user with a visually stunning and conceptually intriguing lexicon of marks that express fluidly both in their sinuous forms and the morphing program that makes one turn into. The narrative of the "Death Dancers" further unites image and text through a fascinating story of noviates who struggle to negotiate a labyrinth whose passages are shaped like the letters of Glide, thus conflating abstract inscription with material object. The text elaborates the wide variety of reading strategies that the different characters employ: some read with their eyes, other with their bodies, others through mathematical calculations, others through kinesthesia. The narrative enhances our appreciation of what reading is in an open-work environment, for it encompasses not just verbal decoding but also visual thinking, kinesthetic manipulation, and a cyborg fusion of medium and subjectivity.
Beyond opening the text to image, open-works can also shoot words through with motion and space. The technical virtuosity of Angie Engs "Empty Velocity" is used to interrogate the transitional space of the airport. While kinetic vectors whiz through image and text, we are presented with the floor plans of various airports. They are situated on solid ground but take their meanings from the non-space of the airplane, which like the non-space of the link represents a state of in-betweenness, a rapid transit between one place and another. In the gorgeous flickering luminosity of "Light and Water," the images of Christy Sheffield Sanford offer another way to open the text to motion and space. Zoe Beloff takes the game in yet another direction by engaging in what Richard Grusin and Jay Bolter have called reverse remediation, the replication of effects specific to one media in a newer one that threatens to displace its older cousin. In "Illusions, Philosophical Toy World," Beloff enacts this dynamic by celebrating in digital media the cinematic technologies that were displaced by film, rescuing from the dust-bin of history technologies that created moving images without relying on photographic exposure recorded on celluloid. She suggests that these images, re-animated by computer software, invite philosophical speculation. If so, then surely part of what we are encouraged to contemplate is the embeddedness of media in one another, the economic, technological and conceptual exchanges that Friedrich Kittler has called medial ecology.
More subtle than the operations of motion and space, but no less important, is the opening of text to the layered depths of code. We have only begun to construct a semiotics that takes into account the different functions signifiers perform when they cease to be flat marks and become instead layers of code correlated through correspondence rules. The encoding of text into binary code allows fragmentation and recombination to operate in ways unthinkable with alphabetic language. Acting like linguistic levers, the coding layers make possible textual mutation and transformation, allowing text to change its appearance completely at the touch of a button. Code also enacts a division between what Espen Aarseth has called textons and scriptons. Textons operate as textual elements in the coding process, for example, binary digits or perl commands, whereas scriptons are the semiotic markers that the user sees on screen. As a result, the signifier in a digital environment has a complex internal structure quite unlike the flat mark of print. Moreover, this complexity requires for its implementation constant encoding and decoding, for example when the browser reads new Web pages or retrieves from memory previously cached copies. To recognize the layered dynamic interactions between text and code, I have elsewhere proposed the term "flickering signifiers" for screenic text. Is it fanciful to suppose that Linda Carrolli and Josephine Wilson allude to this phenomenon when they begin "Water always writes in plural" with an image of a woman waiting on the road, like an empty signifier waiting to be filled with the readers suppositions? Or does she rather serve as an anthropomorphic agent who both inscribes and is inscribed by the empty screen waiting to be written upon once the encoding/decoding operations have performed their operations?
In similar fashion, I seem to hear in the noisy background of Judy Malloys "The Roar of Destiny emanated from the Refrigerator. I got up to get a beer" an allusion to the fragmentation of language into code and its reassembly again into alphabetic writing when, so to speak, the refrigerator door is closed and the text on the screen stabilizes. Even more unmistakable are the allusions to code in Stephanie Stricklands marvelously playful and poetic "Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot." The elusive Sand, also understood as the silicon of the computer, dances an erotic duet with the fleshy Harry, as solid in his carbon materiality as the durable ink of print culture, itself sometimes made from carbon black or soot. Similarly with the "mezangelled" language of MEZ in "Blood Puppets: A Premillennium Text." Operating upon the condensed phonetic language of email messages, MEZ further fragments and recombines words to produce a hybrid script that alludes to the on-going copulation of its genetically heterogeneous parents, alphabet writing and binary code.
In addition to hybridizing text, the open-work can also open new circuits between the body of the text and the bodies of author and user, reconfiguring anatomical as well as textual sites so that they become permeable membranes rather than closed and static entities. Of special interest to feminist Web authors, as to feminist writers in print, are possibilities for reconceiving the boundaries of the body and overcoming the mind/body split so deeply inscribed in the Western literary and philosophic traditions. In "my body: A Wunderkammer," Shelley Jackson continues the narrative strategies she began with Patchwork Girl, mapping the fragmented female body through a series of hyperlinks onto a fragmented hypertext narrative until body and text become metaphors for each other. Claire Dinsmore follows a similar strategy in "Pronunciation: fut or: A tool and its means," rendering the fetishized and fragmented female body as culturally scripted technology. Lori Weidenhammer literalizes the mind/body split in "Brain Dress B," where the brain is playfully rendered as existing outside the body, either hovering above the narrators head or externalized into the "Brain Dress," a convoluted garment that resembles in its deep tucks and folds the crevices of the cortex.
Finally, the open-work is open in the sense that it radiates out to a physically dispersed community, uniting together in collaborative projects women from different regions and countries, as well as bringing into existence an international Web community who can access and benefit from each others works. The international flavor of "Dinner Party," amply indicated on the menu, speaks to the global nature of this community. Deserving special mention are those works which created environments in which collaboration could take place. In spirit, inventiveness, and camaraderie, they are very much like the environment Judy Chicago created with her many collaborators in the first "Dinner Party." Carolyn Guyers "Mother Millennia" project, Sue Thomas and Teri Hoskins "Noon Quilt," and Leonie Winsons "Dark Lethe" deserve high praise for their vision, creativity, and commitment to the creation of community. If you have read this far (and even if you havent, since there are many paths to the same place and many places that open up along the same path), you have become part of the community that Carolyn Guertin and Marjorie Coverley Luesebrink have created through the open-work that both contains and releases the open-works discussed above. And the works are released, in this context, into the Women and Technology issue of Riding the Meridian which Jennifer Ley has deftly and beautifully put together. To them, and to all of you, I offer my thanks for making this grand celebration possible. "The Dinner Party" nourishes us and makes us hungry for more.