E-literature Case Study

This paper was initially written for a postgraduate assignment.  As this is a working version, please note that it should not be cited yet unless the author is contacted first.  To do so, please email yen(at)yenooi.com.

Any feedback or comments would be greatly appreciated.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

***

A CASE STUDY OF THE DANCING RHINOCERI OF BANGLADESH BY MILLIE NISS 

Millie Niss was known, first and foremost as a net artist.  Her works tend to have interactive characteristics in them, with thought-provoking writing and the Dancing Rhinoceri of Bangladesh is exactly that; an interactive poem with a strong message.

A poem written for an interactive platform can be labelled many things, including ergodic literature[1], electronic literature[2], interactive fiction[3] and hypertext[4] to name but a few terms.  ‘Writing, exterior to the mind requires equipment culturally constructed[5]’ to communicate it, and so in this case, the interactive platform is the equipment relevant to the cyberculture of the early twenty-first century.  Interactivity is to cyberculture as typography is to traditional writing[6].  Initially, it may seem to be a simple task, to read this poem that is laid out completely in one-screen that appears to have a fixed amount of words (seventy), but as we begin the journey of reading this interactive poem, we realise the potential it holds and the complexity of the work.  It ‘requires that we understand electronic literature not only as an artistic practice (though it is that, of course), but also as a site for negotiations between diverse constituencies and different kinds of expertise[7]’.

This case study will be an exploration of how the Dancing Rhinoceri of Bangladesh can be understood and read in its various potentials, from the surface, looking at the interface and reader experience, to the text, as a reading exercise and finally to the core, exploring the source of its creation through technology.

The Surface

The Dancing Rhinoceri of Bangladesh welcomes readers with a looped instrumental soundtrack and the first highlighted sentence of ‘this is the title of the poem’ (see figure 1).  The soundtrack, though Asian sounding, has more of an Oriental influence to it, than Bangladesh, but it is still effective.  With a strong rhythm and a clear tune played by a stringed instrument, the music sets a light mood for the reader.  Catchy and short, the never-ending loop of music hooks the reader in.

As one explores the poem by moving the mouse around the page, it becomes obvious that mouse-movements over certain words triggers changes in the highlighted words.  Certain words also trigger verbal sentences or oral commentary[8].

The speed in which a reader explores the poem through mouse movements will create different experiences.  Slow movements will allow readers to read and take in the various highlighted sentences, in ‘an apparently random order[9]’ whilst fast movements will create a sort of chaos where more than one oral commentary may be triggered at the same time, creating audio overlaps whilst the pink highlighted words will seem to randomly light up the page.

The simplicity of the colour scheme works very well to complement the poem itself.  With just the colours pink and grey, it creates a pleasant atmosphere for the reader, whilst being serenaded by the non-intrusive exotic music.  Since the triggers require only the movement of the mouse and do not require any clicking, the reader experience can be a simple one.  There are also no pause periods required for page loadings during reading where there would usually be in hypertext.  As Millie Niss tells us,

‘My goal was to make a textually-based work that uses techniques other than ordinary hypertext.  So instead of clicking to get to a new part of the poem, all the text is presented on the screen at once… The content is revealed by mousing over a word which highlights words scattered across the field which combine to form a sentence.[10]

This calm and pleasant atmosphere the poem creates for the reader in its visual and audio stimulations creates a juxtaposition to the message and meaning the poem itself brings.  We will explore this in the next section.

Before moving on though, it is important that we acknowledge that this poem may be appreciated in the genre of concrete poetry as well, due to it’s visual nature where ‘the object is to present each poem as a different shape[11]’.  The shape in this case, is a square, with seventy words listed within it.  ‘It is… a matter of pictorial typography which produces ‘visual poetry’’ and ‘it may be on the page, or on glass, stone, wood and other materials[12]’.  If the interactive element of the poem is to be removed, leaving only seventy words on the page, it would still stand to communicate the same message albeit in a slightly different manner.  It would also serve to ‘bombard the user with all the data at once[13]’, rather than presenting the arrangement of lines of poem to the reader.  The interactivity takes in elements of generative art ‘whereby an algorithm is used either to generate texts according to a randomised scheme or to scramble and rearrange pre-existing texts[14]’.  In this case it would be latter, a rearrangement of pre-existing texts.

The Text

In a detailed reading of the Dancing Rhinoceri of Bangladesh, it becomes apparent that every word listed on the page represents a sentence that appears highlighted or is an oral commentary.  See Appendix A for a transcription of the entire poem.

In its basic literary form, it is a surrealist poem.  Millie Niss tells us this directly in the lines ‘the surrealist did this without all this technology’ and ‘to understand is not the point’[15], describing it as ‘a combinatorial excursion into the textual possibilities of rhinoceri and other matters[16]’.  Surrealist artists loved the iconic rhinoceros and used it as a muse in writing and in art.  Salvador Dali was obsessed with the rhinoceros’ horn as he thought that it was ‘divine geometry because it grew in a logarithmic spiral[17]’.  Eugene Ionesco, a surrealist playwright famously wrote Rhinoceros, a play about a French city, where the people slowly turn into rhinoceros, until only the protagonist is left as the only human[18].  A more subtle but bizarre use of the rhinoceros is perhaps by Roald Dahl in his book James and the Giant Peach, where James’ parents were eaten by ‘an enormous angry rhinoceros which had escaped from the London Zoo[19]’.  Not only is the context surreal, it is also contradictory as the rhinoceros in its true nature is an herbivore.

The surrealists attempted to express in art and literature the workings of the unconscious mind and to synthesis these workings with the conscious mind.  The surrealist allows his work to develop non-logically (rather than illogically) so that the results represent the operations of the unconscious.[20]

The non-logical development of the Dancing Rhinoceri of Bangladesh can probably be seen in the lack of structure, which itself is non-conforming towards poetry.  The apparent random nature of the highlighted selection of words coupled with the uncontrollable force that is the reader and mouse movements create the synthesis of the unconscious and conscious mind, mimicking the way our eyes and brains would pick words out of a paragraph when we read or glance at writing to gauge the meaning of the text quickly, creating a ‘charming piece of stream of consciousness[21]’.  In fact, it is what Lev Manovich says is ‘the very principle of new media… [it] objectifies the process of human thinking which involves connecting ideas, images, [and] memories[22]’.

The poem, as in any piece of art, carries a message or meaning.  Where much of electronic poetry ‘can focus too much on the look of the poem and not the meaning[23]’, Millie Niss ‘tried to evoke a mood and some plot elements so that the poem had some core context and was not merely a random assortment of sentences[24]’.  This can be seen from the direct hints that Millie Niss leaves us in the following lines:

  • they won’t like this in Bangladesh
  • it sounds like newspaper headlines
  • you shouldn’t glorify bombers

From these, we know that the poem is about bombers in Bangladesh that have recently (in reference to when the poem was published) been reported in the news.  This aggressive and violent topic juxtaposes the visual and audio display as mentioned earlier.

Tracing these points back to the historical, cultural and political references, we can see that in 2001, the Islamist organisation, Jamaat-Ul-Mujahideen became noticed widely in Bangladesh due to bombs and documents being discovered[25].  Also, 11 September 2001 saw international fear and paranoia of terrorism, especially in America when the World Trade Centre in New York was attacked.  Millie Niss then published the Dancing Rhinoceri of Bangladesh in 2002[26].

The poem gives us some indirect hints as well in the following lines:

  • are the rhinoceri from the zoo
  • is this a modern plague of frogs
  • isn’t the rhinoceros an herbivore
  • tyrannical rhinoceri disturb peace activists
  • book this abstract suspect socialist poem

These suggest that the rhinoceri represent bombers, questioning if the bombers portray animalistic behaviour, questioning the actions of killing when assuming that the basic nature of humans are good and kind (in the herbivore reference).  The plague of frogs suggests a biblical reference of a tyrannical power, creating further unease in the poem by placing Christianity and Islam together.

From here, we can see that irregardless of how the poem is read and what order a reader may move the mouse in, the core meaning of the poem remains the same.  This is the case, even if as mentioned in the earlier section, the poem is read without the interactivity and just as a concrete poem; the words laid out will suggest and bring across the meaning intended.

Although the poem may seem surreal and random at first, we know now that meaning was fully intended and in the next section, we will see how technology is used to create exactly what Millie Niss wanted the poem to do.

The Core

Technical terminology for writing in media has been discussed heavily in the last twenty years or so, amassing various names and genres that may mean the same thing, or may be slightly or even drastically different.  Some of these terms were listed in the introduction of this paper and when explored, creates a problematic area of definitions.  This can be seen from Espen J. Aarseth’s introduction in Cybertext, Perspectives on Ergodic Literature where he spends a considerable time defining the differences in terminology and areas of subjectivity.  The key area that I would like to highlight from it is the focus on what the literature is being read from[27].  As Jessica Helfand puts in bluntly, ‘the rectangle of the computer monitor frames everything we see on screen.[28]

In the context of the Dancing Rhinoceri of Bangladesh, the term electronic literature is probably the most appropriate.  It is exactly what it says, literature that is presented and thus read from an electronic platform.  And in most electronic literature, it is ‘texts that can only be read in a virtual environment[29]’.  The characteristics of new media as described by Lev Manovich[30] and Martin Lister et al.[31] will be used below to help describe what the term electronic means for the Dancing Rhinoceri of Bangladesh.

The Dancing Rhinoceri of Bangladesh was created with Macromedia Flash, which is now known as Adobe Flash.  It is a multimedia platform software that is used to add animation, video and interactivity to web pages.  Though Millie Niss started computer programming since the age of eight, she says that her becoming a net artist was accidental and due to the fact that she had bought ‘a copy of Macromedia Flash in 1999 without knowing exactly what it was[32]’ which she then ‘realised almost immediately that the software’s multimedia capabilities allowed (her) to create an immersive experience… instead of a flat description[33]’.

In order to manipulate this software to be able to create the Dancing Rhinoceri of Bangladesh, Millie Niss would have needed to have the complete layout planned, including how the words were to be arranged on the screen, what effect each mouse movement would have and all the design characteristics.  What seemed random to the reader would have been organised at creation.  This was misrepresented in a review of the poem where it was said that ‘it is not a poem that was written first then put into an electronic setting[34]’.  Due to the detailed programming required in Flash, it would not be technically possible for Millie Niss not to know what sentences or poetry lines she was going to use from the start.  The triggers and layout may have perhaps been developed or manipulated during the programming phase but the poetry lines would have had to have been written or decided together with the seventy words.

As we know, there are seventy words distributed across the screen.  When each sentence is highlighted, it is clear that the arrangement of the words were carefully placed, to allow a somewhat equal spread across the screen.  This allows the reader to read the sentences from top to bottom (left to right) comfortably and that the sentences are never too bunched up in a corner.  This represents digital and digitisation where each word can be seen as a discrete unit where all digital things are made of discrete units that are put together to create it.

Although mouse actions clearly create movements within the poem, this is a new media trick, where every movement is actually accompanied by a still image and the idea of change is one that is simulated in our mind or thought process.  Every still image is fixed and programmed by Millie Niss, accompanied with clear instructions as to what (movement) triggers each image.  ‘With the help of a mouse,… a computer can be transformed into an intelligent being capable of engaging us in dialogue.[35]’ The sound track, which itself is a loop that is continuously repeated, helps create the illusion of seamless movement.  ‘The computer can seamlessly generate both text and sound because both are ultimately represented in binary code[36]’ which is digital.  This phenomena can be compared to what is known as modularity or fixity and flux, which describes all digital things to be in a fixed state at all times.  It is the manipulation of the user, through programmed instructions in each case that affects a change, represented by modularity or flux, but at every point of modulation or flux, they are still fix states.

The mouse movements also represent automation where triggers automatically bring up images that have been pre-programmed.  This is similar to hypertextuality, but where hypertext would require the reader to actually click on each trigger point, the automated triggers make this more interactive.  Although in this case, the highlighted texts are not randomly generated and are purposely programmed, it still references both cognitive modes of human thinking and machine execution, in which Stephanie Strickland emphasises on in ‘Writing the Virtual: Eleven Dimensions of E-Poetry’ in what she calls recombinant flux.  Millie Niss, together with Martha Deed later wrote Oulipoems in which randomisation is fully adapted[37].

Like hypertext, interactivity in the poem creates non-sequential writing and creates variability for the reader.  Every reading experience, by different or similar people will be different.  The order in which the sentences are read or heard will differ.  Further, depending on what hardware and software the reader uses to access this poem, the reading experiences are heavily affected.  For example, a reader who do not have speakers on or attached to the computer may miss the soundtrack and oral commentary.  Some computers may not have Adobe Flash player installed, so readers may need to do the installation themselves before reading, in which case, some readers may not even bother, either due to tediousness or computer illiteracy issues.

This is the computer layer that is the master of the poem.  The cultural layer can be seen as the context and message of the poem itself, but without the computer layer, it cannot be accessed, as ‘Alexander Galloway in Protocol puts the case succinctly: “Code is the only language that is executable”.  Unlike a print book, electronic text literally cannot be accessed without running the code[38].

This is a crucial issue for electronic literature when compared to traditional print literature.  The lifespan and view-ability of electronic literature is completely dependent on accessibility and promotion.  When Millis Niss wrote and published the Dancing Rhinoceri of Bangladesh, Macromedia Flash was the latest technology for interactive web applications.  Most web platforms supported it.  However, today, although Adobe boasts that the Adobe Flash Platform can ‘provide everything you need to create and deliver compelling applications, content, and video to the widest possible audience across screens and devices[39]’, it is not actually as accessible as it says due to recent developments on mobile platforms, costs and licensing factors.  It was only earlier in November 2011 that the company announced that they will not be continuing with Mobile Flash developments, which allows their closest competitor, HTML5 to overtake them in the lead.  This is also driven by the fact that Adobe Flash requires a private paid license whereas HTML5 is a shareware, with open networks of developers.  This news also raised the question of lifespan for Adobe Flash for computers, suggesting that it won’t be long before Adobe Flash would be obsolete[40].

What happens to the Dancing Rhinoceri of Bangladesh when Adobe Flash becomes defunct?  Whilst we ponder on that question, the accessibility of it is slowly reducing and less people will not only not know about the poem, but even if they did, may not be able to access it.

“The problem exists for both software and hardware.  Commercial programs can become obsolete or migrate to new versions incompatible with older ones, and new operating systems (or altogether new machines) can appear on which older works will not play.  With a foreshortened canon limited to a few years and without the opportunity to build the kinds of traditions associated with print literature, electronic literature risks being doomed to the realm of ephemera, severely hampered in its development and the influence it can wield.[41]

***

The Dancing Rhinoceri of Bangladesh is more than just a poem.  As with all electronic literature, it requires more than just literacy to access, understand and appreciate.  It is a piece of art, which carries in itself, cultural, historical, political and technological implications and meanings.  Though it is a literary genre that is starting to gain recognition in the mainstream, the future of electronic literature depends on the future of technology and how old technology is archived and preserved, for in its core, it is ultimately a form of new media and net art.



[1] Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore, USA: John Hopkins University Press, 1997)
[2] Electronic Literature Organisation, http://eliterature.org/ Accessed 30/12/11
[3] N. Katherine Hayles, Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary (Indiana, USA: University of Notre Dame, 2008) p.8
[4] Various
[5] Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, Design Writing Research, Writing on Graphic Design (London: Phaidon Press, 2006) p.5
[6] ibid.
[7] Hayles, Electronic Literature p.38
[8] Millie Niss, Why I Write for the Web, http://www.secretsaunasirens.com/2009/10/spork-was-born-in-arctic-as-all-good.html Accessed 30/11/11
[9] Niss, Why I Write
[10] ibid.
[11] The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 1999 ed. p.171
[12] ibid.
[13] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (USA: Massachusettes Institute of Technology, 2001) p.77
[14] Hayles, Electronic Literature p.18
[15] see Appendix A
[16] Lynda Rutledge Stephenson, Literature in Cyberspace http://lowres.uno.edu/classes/cyberlit/papers/roadtrip/roadwaye-essay.pdf Accessed 30/11/11
[17] Biography of Salvador Dali, http://www.biographyonline.net/artists/salvador-dali.html Accessed 30/12/11
[18] Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco, http://www.rhinoionesco.cjb.net/ Accessed 31/12/11
[19] Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach, (London: Puffin Books, 2001) p.7
[20] The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms p.882
[21] Appendix B, Response 4 from Ksenia Scherbino
[22] Lev Manovich, On Totalitarian Interactivity, http://manovich.net/TEXT/totalitarian.html Accessed 28/11/11
[23] Lauren Ramstad, Electronic Poetry as Literature, 2009 http://www.uweb.ucsb.edu/~laurenramstad/Untitled-3.html Accessed 30/11/11
[24] Niss, Why I Write
[25] Jamaat-Ul-Mujahideen http://globaljihad.net/view_page.asp?id=993 Accessed 30/11/11
[26] Sporkworld http://www.sporkworld.org/webpub.html Accessed 30/11/11
[27] Aarseth, Cybertext p.1-23
[28] Helen Armstrong (ed.) Graphic Design Theory, Readings from the field (NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009) p.121
[29] Ramstad, Electronic Poetry as Literature
[30] Manovich, The Language of New Media
[31] Martin Lister et al. New Media: A Critical Introduction, Second Edition (UK: Routledge, 2009)
[32] Niss, Why I Write
[33] ibid.
[34] Review, Rhinoceri and Faith http://april-litresponse.blogspot.com/2010/02/rhinoceri-and-faith.html Accessed 30/11/11
[35] Manovich, The Language of New Media p.94
[36] Hayles, Electronic Literature p.145
[37] Millie Niss and Martha Deed, Oulipoems http://collection.eliterature.org/1/works/niss__oulipoems.html Accessed 01/01/12
[38] Hayles, Electronic Literature p.35
[39] Adobe Flash Platform, http://www.adobe.com/flashplatform/ Accessed 31/12/11
[40] Charles Arthur, Adobe killed mobile Flash, giving Steve Jobs the last laugh, The Guardian Technology, 9 November 2011 http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/nov/09/adobe-flash-mobile-dead Accessed 31/12/11
[41] Hayles, Electronic Literature p.40

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books and Journals
Helen Armstrong (ed.) Graphic Design Theory, Readings from the field (NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009)
Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore, USA: John Hopkins University Press, 1997)
Haskell M. Block, ‘Surrealism and Modern Poetry: Outline of an Approach’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol.18 No.2 (Dec 1959): 174-182
Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach, (London: Puffin Books, 2001)
Rachel Greene, Internet Art (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2004)
N. Katherine Hayles, Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary (Indiana, USA: University of Notre Dame, 2008)
Martin Lister et al. New Media: A Critical Introduction, Second Edition (UK: Routledge, 2009)
Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, Design Writing Research, Writing on Graphic Design (London: Phaidon Press, 2006)
Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (USA: Massachusettes Institute of Technology, 2001)
Hamlet on the Holodeck, The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (NY: The Free Press, A Division of Simon & Schuster Inc., 1997)
Christiane Paul ed. New Media in the White Cube and Beyond – Curatorial Models for Digital Art (US: University of California Press, 2008)

Reference Materials
The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 1999 ed.

Web Articles
Charles Arthur, Adobe killed mobile Flash, giving Steve Jobs the last laugh, The Guardian Technology, 9 November 2011 http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/nov/09/adobe-flash-mobile-dead Accessed 31/12/11
Lev Manovich, On Totalitarian Interactivity, http://manovich.net/TEXT/totalitarian.html Accessed 28/11/11
Millie Niss, Why I Write for the Webhttp://www.secretsaunasirens.com/2009/10/spork-was-born-in-arctic-as-all-good.html Accessed 30/11/11
R. D. Pohl, Millie Niss (1973-2009), Buffalo News ArtsBeat, 7 December 2009 http://blogs.buffalonews.com/artsbeat/2009/12/millie-niss-19732009.html Accessed 30/11/11
Lauren Ramstad, Electronic Poetry as Literature, 2009 http://www.uweb.ucsb.edu/~laurenramstad/Untitled-3.html Accessed 30/11/11
Scott Rettberg, Dada Redux: Elements of Dadaist Practice in Contemporary Electronic Literature http://eleven.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-071-dada-redux-elements-of-dadaist-practice-in-contemporary-electronic-literature/ Accessed 30/11/11
Lynda Rutledge Stephenson, Literature in Cyberspace http://lowres.uno.edu/classes/cyberlit/papers/roadtrip/roadwaye-essay.pdf Accessed 30/11/11
Biography of Salvador Dali, http://www.biographyonline.net/artists/salvador-dali.html Accessed 30/12/11
Jamaat-Ul-Mujahideen http://globaljihad.net/view_page.asp?id=993 Accessed 30/11/11
Review of Rhinoceri and Faith http://april-litresponse.blogspot.com/2010/02/rhinoceri-and-faith.html Accessed 30/11/11

Web sites
Adobe Flash Platform, http://www.adobe.com/flashplatform/ Accessed 31/12/11
Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1 http://collection.eliterature.org/1/ Accessed 01/01/12
Electronic Literature Organisation, http://eliterature.org/ Accessed 30/12/11
Netpoetics.com, http://netpoetic.com/ Accessed 30/11/11
Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco, http://www.rhinoionesco.cjb.net/ Accessed 31/12/11
Sporkworld by Millie Niss and Martha Deed http://www.sporkworld.org/ Accessed 30/11/11

APPENDICES are available upon request.  Please email yen(at)yenooi.com

This paper was initially written for a postgraduate assignment.  As this is a working version, please note that it should not be cited yet unless the author is contacted first.  To do so, please email yen(at)yenooi.com.

Any feedback or comments would be greatly appreciated.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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