An article by Joshua Rivera was recently published in the Daily Beast, establishing an interesting parallel between my work and the slow-web movement.
At some point, I'm quoted as saying: «In general, most of my colleagues are not going in that direction ... And currently, most programmers have no design or cultural agenda...».
It's important for me to replace things into context: we were talking about the high-tech world (I'm spending 2/3 of my time working for startups, far away from poetic considerations...)
So when I say colleagues, it is intended as co-workers in high-tech land. I'm definitely not talking about my fellow poetic developers (term coined by one of them...)
I'm including the correspondence between Joshua and myself, which took place entirely via email. I guess it makes sense in term of transparency and furthermore, it provides a nice peek behind the scenes at chronotext.org.
Joshua Rivera | June 6, 2014
So to start, I suppose we could ask what inspired you to start your chronotext projects years ago? I'm also interested in what you describe as the potential locked inside text in the digital age. Since technology now allows us such direct manipulation of text, what do you think can be gained or learned from that?
Looking forward to your responses and further discussion!
Ariel Malka | June 7, 2014
1) The concept of chronotext emerged in 2001.
During the preceding years, I've made a living from animation, design (graphic / information / web), and programming (web / gaming...)
I'm an autodidact: one of the advantages is that no one tells you what you should learn, so you are free to follow your instincts and interests.
I turns out that I have always been interested in aesthetics, computing and culture at the same time...
A few key projects from the early 2000's:
The spiral shaped casino roulette commissioned by Miri Segal for her exhibit at the PS1
Asalah, a magazine devoted to the Palestinian culture edited by Gina Benevento for USAID
I also used to teach at this time and I was asked to build a curriculum on the topic of interactivity for a course at Camera Obscura School of Art, New Media section in Tel-Aviv. For the occasion, I spent a few months researching the subject. One of the papers which influenced me the most at this time: Information Interaction Design by Nathan Shedroff. It established a clear relation between epistemology (how do we know what we know) and interaction.
This in turn led me to envision some experiments, e.g. recording an act of writing and replaying it later on, etc. This is basically the genesis of chronotext...
During the first couple of years, I could not find the right platform to materialise the ideas I had in mind. Basically, I was limited by the metaphors offered by mainstream authoring tools.
And then I stumbled upon Processing, both a programming language, and a community. Back to 2003, it was the main fostering point for the hybrid generation (people equally interested in aesthetics and computing...) Today, the term in vogue would be creative coder...
Unlike mainstream authoring tools like Flash, Processing (developed at MIT's Aesthetics and Computation Group) offered a basic programming environment where you're in charge of drawing everything on your own. Somehow, it forces you to operate at a lower level, and sometimes even to reinvent the wheel. But this is one of the key points: giving back the power to designers and making it clear that by creating your own tools, you reclaim full control over the whole creation process.
In addition, Processing introduced a culture of iterative design: the idea is to create some simple prototypes (cf experiments) and eventually make them evolve, step by step.
Finally, and thanks to the previous work of its co-creator Ben Fry, Processing provided the programming constructs necessary for working with text (2d, 3d...)
During the first Processing years (2003-2004), I practiced the field of Computer Graphics, that is, learning to program graphics and animations from the lowest level and started to conduct my first text experiments:
- writing on a helix (3d spiral)
- writing on a cube
- writing on wire
Nowadays, these old experiments can't be run: they were made with Java, which is not working anymore inside browsers (note that some of them will be remastered at some point in the future...)
But it's important to understand the evolution from an "early experiment" to some mature work. Example given with He Liked Thick Word Soup:
2004: Early prototype of a text wire, manipulable via the mouse on a desktop computer. No meaningful text is used yet.
2009: Adaptation to mobile devices. It becomes clear that manipulating text using your fingers on a touch-screen contains some interesting emotional factor.
2014: Greatly enhancing the system and using it for reading Ulysses in the context of a game...
Another example: Textoy. But here, you can see only the experimental part: the final work(s) have not been created yet...
2) The potential locked inside text in the digital age is huge. A vast unvisited territory...
So as I've previously described, becoming an explorer in the field can be as simple as: a long, daily practice of design and programming coupled with intellectual curiosity...
But why reinventing the wheel at the first place, you may ask?
Let's make a brief and naive inventory of the "state of reading and writing" in the electronic world at the beginning of the 2000's:
People read or write documents (Word, PDF, etc), read or write emails, and mostly read or write through the browser (anything else...)
Today, reading or writing mostly rely on the "paragraph metaphor": an horizontally bounded succession of words forming lines, which are breaking at their end.
The electronic medium added some major improvements, like the infinitely-long scrolling viewport and the hyperlinks, but I would like to challenge these predefined and over-used constructs by exploring all the possible dimensions:
1 dimension: text on a curve
2 dimensions: text on a plan
3 dimensions: text in space
4 dimensions: text + time
Of course, the model is a bit nave. For instance, the following experiments feature "text on a curve" (i.e. 1 dimension), but they can also be considered a 3D:
- Babel Tower
- Sketchbook on the Book (to be soon remastered)
In both cases, a spiral is used to layout text and fill space. The reader's eye do not need anymore to move back and forth, because the line-breaks are gone!
A great example of what I mean by "huge potential"...
And when adding another dimension like time, the possibilities are even bigger: how about recording the act of writing?
This is what I've tried to do with the Text Time Curvature in 2004. I also plan to remaster this (no longer working) experiment and continue the exploration.
A you see, I have a very long of agenda of topics to explore further. A few promising ones: collective acts of writing, programmable text...
The only problem is that life is too short, and that I can only spend 1/3 of my time on chronotext (the other 2/3 I spend on making a decent living...)
I wish I could find a way to dedicate 100% of my time to art and research. But it demands a lot of mundane and political skills, which I currently don't have.
3) Regarding your question on "what do I think can be gained or learned from that?"
What I do the best is to explore and create, so I may let others (entrepreneurs, educators, scholars, etc.) respond.
I'm attaching a paper by a researcher from Eastern Michigan University on one of my works and the Future of the Book.
Besides, I'm an artist, with some affinity for Dada and Surrealism, so one should not expect the outcome of my work to be practical (at least at the 1st degree...)
And again, one of the purpose of art is to raise questions and inspire. I hope this will happen with chronotext, my body of work.
That's it I guess for a first batch. Hope it provides you some ammunitions!
Joshua Rivera | June 9, 2014
Thank you very much for your thorough response. I have one major follow up question:
Most technology aims to be efficient. In most cases, this has conditioned users towards doing things faster – the common complaint is that attention spans are shorter than ever. Your projects are slower, and more thoughtful – but still very much based on exploring things that are only possible thanks to current technology
Do you think there's potential for tech that makes users slow down? Do you see many of your colleagues moving in this direction?
Ariel Malka | June 9, 2014
Regarding efficiency: I will always be tempted to mock approaches like the one taken by Spritz, which reduce everything to the "number of words you read per minute".
I'm not only saying that as an artist with surrealist affinities, but also as an Information Designer:
The paper by Nathan Shedroff I previously mentioned is proposing the concept of "continuum of Understanding": Data -> Information -> Knowledge -> Wisdom
Quoting Shedroff: "the vast amount of things that bombard our senses everyday are not pieces of information but merely data".
In short, he explains that it's a whole process to transform Data (some may even call it Noise) into Knowledge. And this is a process which takes place inside everyone's mind. Therefore – and unlike what Spiritz claim – Understanding can't be turned into a commodity.
Shedroff coined the term Experience Design. As a designer, you can help your audience turn Data into Information or Knowledge by crafting an experience. In his paper, he provides a great illustration: the Vietnam War Memorial in DC.
My latest experiment can also be seen through a similar lens: I wanted to create a very intricate, obsessive and sensual reading experience and Ulysses seemed like the perfect text.
But I don't know if all this answers your question regarding "tech that makes users slow down"...
I obviously believe that slowing down, leaving room for mistakes, taking the time to explore, etc. is the way to go, but that's usually not the approach of the average business man or startup entrepreneur.
It's more the approach of an artist, an intellectual or a philosopher, which raises another question: is technology mostly in the hand of entrepreneurs nowadays?
As you already know: my research at chronotext.org is not commercially oriented. Each year, I spend about 4 month on chronotext and about 8 months making money working for startups. Israel is the 2nd Silicon valley and I'm an experienced programming expert, so it's usually easy to find a new project each year.
But... when I switch hat from "chronotext to high-tech", I leave all my theories at home and I concentrate on the programming work (usually solving pragmatic topics...) In other words, I'm not "creating interactive experiences" via the high-tech industry right now (saving most of my creative energy for chronotext...)
All this relates to the rant from my previous email: I don't make a living from my art & research, so I have to spend 2/3 of my time working on other stuff. Should I, instead, find a way to work full time on chronotext by finding a viable business model? Yes, probably. Ideally, I would prefer to provide some kind of "prototyping services", instead of producing market oriented products. Anyway, this is day-dreaming for now...
Regarding "slowing down": you also asked if some of my colleagues were "moving in the direction". The last startup I've been working for (before the current "chronotext break") is actually a good example (note that the work I did for them was purely on the technical side...)
In short, they believe the educational system is not taking the right approach regarding how we teach Maths to kids, and they try to change the rules.
But in general, most of my colleagues are not "going in that direction". Why? I think that you need a very deep technical and cultural mastery before proposing to change the rules of a given system.
And currently, most of the programmers have no design nor cultural agenda... On the other side, the usual artist / intellectual / philosopher have no programming skills, which, in today's world translates to: a limited capability to influence...
One last thought regarding Spiritz: I know they mention some scientific arguments, but if we talk science, I really prefer considering other directions, like this research on handwriting.
Now this is inspiring! I should definitely include hand-written text in some future chronotext experiment ;)
Ariel Malka | June 11, 2014
FYI, a new article was published about my work.
Interesting: the journalist in question previously wrote an early review of the Spritz app.
Joshua Rivera | June 11, 2014
Thanks for the heads up, Ariel! Your responses have been great. I'm working on the story now. I'll be sure to send you the link when it goes live.