In this issue of HypertextNow: an interview with writer and designer Rob Wittig, whose The Fall of the Site of Marsha was featured at
last April's TP21CL (Technology Platforms for 21st Century Literature) conference at Brown University. Wittig is the director
of TANK20, a Chicago-based literary studio, and is the "concept-and-word person" at THIRST Design. His work includes Invisible Rendezvous; Connection and
Collaboration in the New Landscape of Electronic Writing (1992), a book that came out of Wittig's experiences with the performance group Invisible Seattle, whose participants coordinated the production of a massive collaborative novel using a "literary computer," Scheherazade II.
Eastgate editor Diane Greco talks with Tank20's Rob Wittig.
Scrolling with Rob Wittig
Diane Greco: Could you say a little about what you're doing with design and electronic literature right now?
Rob Wittig: These days I'm on the border of
Literature and Design . . . and that border is, of course, electronic .
. . given that for the first time in the West since illuminated
manuscripts, writers and designers use the same tool: this machine we're
each looking at right now.
I work with THIRST Design as a concept and word person; I direct a literary
studio called TANK20 ; I teach literature and design from time to time (long distance via chat at Virginia Tech, in person at IIT's Institute of Design in Chicago).
I feel very strongly that literature has been liberated from its
monotonous grey typographic prison . . . but doesn't yet know what to do
with its freedom. This applies equally to works read on screen and
works read on paper.
DG: I found THIRST extremely seductive, in the sense that the site encourages the reader to slow down, to linger over phrases and images. This was a totally new experience on the web for me, where an immediate response always seems to be required. I'm thinking particularly of the hard returns that break the text into lines and stanzas, and the way the design unites text and image one "stanza" at a time. This seems to me an interesting proposition for interactivity. Would you comment?
RW: In many ways the "poetic" line breaks (as Thirst's Patric King called them yesterday when showing me some of the new formatting he's done for my essays on the Thirst site, per our conversations) are a tribute to one of my formative web influences, the magnificent Justin Hall who was the first person whose site really kept my attention as a reader. I don't know exactly what he's up to lately, but he was a word-of-mouth sensation 4-5 years ago. Justin simply used lots of returns and lots of white space and wrote with smarts, energy, and honesty. His writing jumped and sang in contrast to the walls of full-line-length blunk then passing as on-line lit. Justin taught me a basic lesson: white space is the web writer's friend. Since that period I have been utterly unafraid of asking a reader to scroll . . . in contrast to the conventional Good Web Advice to cram everything onto a single, unscrolling page.
I observed myself writing e-mail
for my own purposes
to model my literary writing on my own spontaneous e-mail and chatroom style
which uses Returns
It's a timing thing
the eye tracking on an
back and fro on the surface
It's both faster
if you know what I mean
DG: What about this idea of "vernacular"? Having recently revisited Venturi, I was thrilled to see this section on THIRST. It does seem that discussions of web design must somehow accommodate, or reflect, the fact that thousands of people are designing their own pages and sites, in effect creating "web design vernaculars" to suit their needs and situations. But how to distinguish between a design vernacular and no design at all?
RW: The closest parallel I see on this topic is the fashion industry.
A personal anecdote
When I lived in Paris in 1978-79
I wore nothing but the contents of a single backpack
packed in Northern California
and reflecting the student garb of that era
"Camping Gear" essentially
I was constantly self-conscious
felt grubby and immediately recognizable as Clueless American
nylon jacket covered with flaps and buttons
I wanted to put a bag over my head
WHEN I returned to Paris on a Fulbright
I SWORE not to let that humiliation happen again
bought a simple vocabulary of Normal Adult City Business Dude clothes
when I arrived
Parisian men were wearing
MANNERIST "Camping Gear"
beautiful clean hiking boots
exquisitely styled nylon jackets
covered with flaps and buttons
I felt grubby and immediately recognizable as a Clueless American
Let that be a lesson to me
That's how vernacular becomes Style
If I'd worn my old '70s Camping Gear it STILL wouldn't have been right
because the key is the MANNERIST restyling by trained eyes of designs
NOTICED in the vernaculuar world
the key is the insider's wink of the designer to the audience
So what interests me nowadays is NOTICING beautiful things done by people
who want to communicate at all costs
and GRAFTING those things onto a sophisticated literature/design tradition
It's the Shakespeare move
Shakey took an essentially folk form, the secular courtyard play, and asked
himself (along with his college-educated buddies)
"What happens if we try to make these vernacular things as POWERFUL as
classical drama? How deep can they get?"
I'm looking at the intense confessional diary web sites, and the fanzine
sites, and chat rooms, and secret e-mail joke clubs
"What happens if we try to make these pop things as POWERFUL as Renaissance
DG: I'm still on this Venturi kick, and wondering what you think about grafting, not Shakespeare but say, Venturi's argument that Las Vegas, as a design phenomenon, could not be understood without the automobile, onto something about these web design vernaculars, such as they are (or might be). On the information superhighway, what technology (or technologies) do you see playing the role of automobile?
RW: After years now of hearing
and (for a time) using
the TRAVEL metaphor for web use.
I'm tired of it.
We don't, in fact GO anywhere.
We sit and receive copies of data strings
sent to us by computers
copies copies copies
I'm fond of saying that the copy machine is STILL the most important
literary technology of our century.
The copy machine is the fundamental MIND BLOWER that broke the back of the 200 year old author/publisher/bookstore system
'cept that it's kinda hazy legality-wise
(we stare at the floor and mumble)
so people haven't wanted to talk about it too much
Ahhh . . . where would American literature BE in the late 20th century
without the unconscious patronage of American Business in the form of
billions of photocopies
who hasn't seen the surreptitious author after hours in the copy room?
So I guess, for the moment, I'm in the oppositionist position of asserting
cars are cars
copies are copies
Diane Greco is acquisitions editor at Eastgate, and is the author of Cyborg: Engineering the Body Electric and "Simple Harmonic Motion Or, Josephine Baker in the Time Capsule," forthcoming in April at the
Iowa Review Web.