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Meatings: online writing and other communities

Bernard Cohen


Acts of Language production,  in the place of the page project Construction Phase 3 Acts of Language production, in the place of the page project Construction Phase 3
An Australian novelist reports on his UK residency to Incubation, an international conference on writing and the internet organised and hosted by trAce International Online Writing Community at Nottingham Trent University.

* * *

In this presentation I attempted to improvise a hypertext-like performance through a number of (also improvisatory) strategies. These were: 1. sitting among the audience facing forward and without making eye contact; 2. shifting restlessly from seat to seat (8 had been placed in an arc for an earlier panel) at the front of the auditorium; 3. reading to individual audience members and showing the place in the written text by following with my forefinger; 4. sitting on the knees of an audience member; 5. reading to individual audience members; 6. giving copies of my novels to audience members; 7. climbing over chairs stacked precariously at the rear of the auditorium; 8. crawling on hands and knees under the legs of rows of audience members, then springing into the air and shouting “Asparagus”; 9. teaching Israeli folkdancing (specifically, Havu Lanu Yayin Yayin—this involved the entire audience, and necessitated an interlude of about 4 minutes, after which I continued the talk somewhat out of breath); 10. wandering up and down the auditorium’s centre or side aisles; 11. striding along the centre aisle patting audience members on the shoulders in time with the words; 12. informing a baby how my own 2 year old had insisted I go straight to Teletubbies websites and how I’d often have to switch back and forth between my work-in-progress and these children’s sites if I wanted to get work done. These actions are indicated in parentheses where they occurred in the talk, as best as I can remember.

I was interviewed for the trAce Writer-in-Residency via videoconference (1). I sat in a room at the University of NSW and Sue Thomas and 2 other interviewers occupied a similar space at Nottingham Trent, although because of the camera framing, I could only see 2 of them at any time. During this interview, Thomas was quick to incorporate a definition of the word “flesh” widely circulating in this conference. Flesh is no longer a burden for our immortal souls to bear for a mere lifetime, but a guise which we may wear or discard at our discretion, alternating it with the virtual as a phase or layer or link in internet era identity.

I was flesh writer-in-residence at trAce from June to December 1999 (2). I shipped my meat to the UK by aeroplane, taking up space, eating aeroplane food from plastic aeroplane trays, leaving the plastic covers to become an international waste disposal problem, to become landfill in Singapore, Dubai and London where the plane touched down, sucked in fuel, emitted fumes and unloaded consumed and unconsumable international air traveller waste.

My friend McKenzie Wark (3), the writer and (I hope he’ll excuse me for saying this) polemicist for the postmodern, borrows the term “vector” to describe flows of information, especially in relation to the operation of international media. The term implies both direction and mass (4). Anyone taking an international flight can observe the contents of their aerodynamic cylinder, 300 or 400 brain-boxes loaded with prejudices and ambitions with regard to the proper modes for conducting trade, government, travel and conversation, preconceptions and hopes for aesthetics, relationships and money schemes, as the flight arcs over irrelevant places (10), totally aimed at destination.

(8) There has been a lot of reference at this conference to the rhizome as a model for internet story-telling. I don’t know if this theory holds water, but I’d like to suggest as an alternative, the sponge (3). The sponge is a collective of semi-autonomous cells, each of which has its own function yet contributes to the whole. It is possible to separate the cells by sieving. When brought near each other, they are then able to reconstitute the total organism.

I drove up the M1 from London to Nottingham, and I was in residence—or perhaps I should trace it back a little earlier—from the moment I saw the massive cement cooling towers of Nottingham’s coal-power generators (7). Does a narrative place begin with the sighting of its iconic representation, even if one has not yet discovered that the landmark is iconic?

The flesh residency could be mapped along the length of this room: (11) June, July, August, September, October, November, and December. But to do that, I would need to remodel it in the Caesarean manner: I came, I saw, I overcame a number of minor technical difficulties and showed various people and groups in the East Midlands ways in which they might find certain aspects of internet culture and/or content interesting, useful, engaging, engulfing whereas others preferred other modes of research or creative production.

In June, I was overwhelmed with junkmail (3).

Dear Sir:
Having had your name and e-mail address from the Internet, we avail ourselves of the opportunity to write to you and to see if we can extablid (sic) your name and E-mail address from the Internet, we avail ourselves of the opportunity to write to you and to see if we can extablish (sic) business relations with you. We are Haimen Sihai Plant Extracts Co., Ltd., Jiangsu, China, specialising in astraglus extracts. We shall be glad to send you quotation and samples on receipt of your specific inquiry.

We await for your early reply with keen interest.
With best regards,
Yours faithfully,
Shirley ffield Sanford.

I was a relative newby, had built only 1 small and simple website, but had a longstanding interest in non-linear narrative, recognised by reviews such as this one of my first novel Tourism: “The back cover blurb calls it a novel, but you might as well call it a gazebo or a stirrup pump” (6).

If you’d asked me in June I would have said (5): I find the internet, in its unrestricted, ungated, chaotic, non-hierarchised, improper, uncatalogued, misspelt, garbage-filled, shit-strewn, amateurly built, poorly argued, jargon-ridden, linguistically overloaded, fanatical, self-important, trivial, pornographic, commercial, hit-driven, disorganised, memory-swallowing, time-stealing, left-branching, paranoid, unfocused, meandering, self-promoting, meta-generic, error-message-prone, window-popping, security-promising, satisfaction-guaranteeing, new-age-philosophising, loss-making, anything-goes, direction-finding, repetitious, unreliable, unbelievable, incredible, sex-life-saving, breast-expanding, money-throwing, pharmaceutical-flogging, comparison-shopping, bad-poetry-propounding, more-is-more-aestheticising, history-revising, spin-doctoring, repetitious, unreliable, neurotically generous and sometimes beautiful incarnations to be a useful resource for the understanding of otherwise difficult-to-imitate institutional languages, and their appropriation in my writing for various media.

I spent a good proportion of my residency travelling around the East Midlands (10)—the counties of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Northamptonshire and Leicestershire, and the tiny breakaway enclave of Rutland—introducing internet possibilities to writing and other groups such as journalism students, recovering mental health patients, arts workers and librarians.

(9) One difference between online residency and flesh residency was that participants in the former were almost entirely self-selecting. They chose to participate in discussions on the webboard and for the most part chose to contribute to Christy Sheffield Sanford’s My Millennium (www.trace.ntu.ac.uk/writers/sanford/my_millennium/presents.html - expired) or Alan Sondheim’s loveandwar (www.trace.ntu.ac.uk/writers/sondheim - expired) or to my Speedfactory (www.trace.ntu.ac.uk/writers/cohen/speedfactory/speedfactory.htm> projects - expired) (10).

On that TV program-of-record, Sky News, it was reported the other night that although internet connection in Britain has doubled in the last Very Short Time (this story shows up on free-to-air every 6 weeks, every 3 weeks on Sky), some 15 million Britons have no intention of ever going on line and do not regard the internet as either relevant or necessary (5). I worked with many of these people.

While this produced some mutually frustrating interchanges, it also opened up surprising possibilities. One of the projects to which I had been most looking forward was the chance to work with retired and redundant coalminers. The East Midlands was a primordial site for the Industrial Era, the first resistance to it (by Luddites), and the major site of its end, hurried by the anti-union rabidity of the Thatcher government (3).

I was informed that a group of ex-miners wanted to write their history and stories online. Half way through the first session, a journalist rang to inquire how it was that an Australian novelist came to write a book about coalmining in Derbyshire (3). I was surprised by this project to say the least, but at this stage cannot entirely rule it out. The miners had been told I was conducting research for a book, and that it would be very useful for me if some would show up to assist with this (5). This meant that the most helpful miners, and some members of a writers’ group composed largely of ex-miners’ wives, chose to come along, but that none had any interest in the internet. So, in the manner of farce, I’d gone along to make their lives better and they’d shown up to improve mine.

We did manage to find material, 19th century coalmining poetry, coalmining and mining history discussion lists (3). More importantly, people brought out their archives, writing labours of love and 60 year-old catalogues of mining machinery. (Some of this is now online at www.trace.ntu.ac.uk/writers/cohen/front.htm - expired.)

Meantime in that refuge of calm, the internet, various people were teaching me more advanced skills. I’d been trying to make a MOO-based chatterbot say witty remarks, though it had come out more like Peter Handke’s theatre piece Insulting the Audience (3). Later, trAce member Pauline Masurel and I constructed duelling sestina bots (12). (They’re currently in the “trace” room at LinguaMOO www.lingua.utdallas.edu - [expired] and are named balagan and clamjamphrie.)

Christy generously suggested ways of improving my page-building skills, suggestions I abused to the degree that I became notorious for having built one of the ugliest pages in trAce (according to the Arts Council of England’s Dispatches newsletter). Alan invited me to contribute to loveandwar. Instead (using a very simple Markov Chaining program), I remixed an Act from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with extracts from The CIA World Factbook to produce what may be the ultimate in paranoid and bureaucratic Italian Romance (10).

In November, with Terri-ann White’s assistance, I ran a superfast version of the collaborative e-mail writing exercise Speedfactory, a project devised in its long form by Wark and John Kinsella (5). In its original form, 1 partner e-mailed 300 words to a second, who had 48 hours to e-mail back. These exchanges seemed to sustain about 15 or 20 “rounds”. In the trAce version, participants fired 50 words at each other 20 minutes apart. (The Kinsella/Wark/White/Cohen version will be published by Fremantle Arts Centre Press, hopefully within the next year.)

It’s 7 months since the end of the residency, but I’m still involved with trAce (3), working with poet Mahendra Solanki, journalist Kaylois Henry and UK-based New Perspectives Theatre Company on another of Thomas’s wild and hopefully achievable ideas, the HOME project, which, like me, is investigating various forms of dislocation.


Incubation, international conference on writing and the internet, trAce International Online Writing Community, Nottingham Trent University, UK, July 10-12.

RealTime issue #39 Oct-Nov 2000 pg.

© Bernard Cohen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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