The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Writing as real-time performance

Consider a few things that are colliding, at this moment, in my brain.

Warm-up number one: The writer Michael C. Milligan is writing a novel in three days. Just as interestingly—maybe even more interestingly—Eli James over at Novelr is live-blogging the process. It starts on Tuesday.

Warm-up number two: If I get to $10,000 over at Kickstarter (I’m $76 away!) I’m going to write an entire short story on my flight to New York on Tuesday.

Warm-up number three: Alain de Botton as Heathrow’s writer-in-residence. You see him stalking the terminal, taking notes.

All together, these set up this sort of writing-as-performance vibe. The text alone is not the thing.

Now, here’s what’s really got me thinking: Google Wave has a playback feature. EtherPad‘s got it, too. This takes wiki-style document versioning a step further, or maybe a million steps further. It’s so much more granular! It goes keystroke by keystroke and attaches a time-stamp to each one. It records and recreates not just words and spaces, but confidence and hesitation.

So, skip past the obvious notion of playing back the creation of a standard short story or a novel. That’s fine; it makes me shiver, but it’s fine.

Think instead of a short story written with playback in mind. Written for playback. Typing speed and rhythm are part of the experience. Dramatic deletions are part of the story. The text at 2:20 tells you something about the text at 11:13, and vice versa. What appear at first to be tiny, tentative revisions turn out to be precisely-engineered signals. At 5:15 and paragraph five, the author switches a character’s gender, triggering a chain reaction of edits in the preceding grafs, some of which have interesting (and pre-planned?) side effects.

Talk about intertextuality.

I’m sure there are arty precedents (and if you know of any, I’d love to hear about them). But this feels like an interesting moment, simply because these are tools with (potentially) mass audiences. It’s possible that a lot of people are suddenly about to get a bit better at version-scrubbing, at understanding documents in time. And that means—maybe?—an audience for writing as real-time performance.


You saw right? Paul Graham composes one of his essays in EtherPad. It’s definitely not as cool as the idea you describe, but it sure is interesting to watch/read.

Do you suppose someday your head will actually explode from all these ideas, Robin?

(I hope not.)


Tal Zaken says…

I sincerely hope that this idea comes to fruition in a big way. Time-organized text could be a great new medium, almost like a play acted with text as characters, the words themselves developing personality. Awesome.

I was thinking about this too! Tonight! At the Utterback talk I emailed you about too late to get you to go, but gosh you need to go to this series sometime. (Before hand the curator asks for announcements, neat media stuff the audienc was involved with, and I was gripped by this desire to announce your book on your behalf, but I just couldn’t decide if you’d want me to.)

But, but but! Wave seems like it has a lot of promise. The playback has been slightly janky for me, but oh so exciting still. Utterback’s first big piece, text rain, reminded me of the cheesy tipsy joys of magnetic poetry in the kitchen at so many house parties in the early 2000s. It also reminded me of this lovely game that was also my first big disappointment on the web, way back in 1995. The game is–you write a sentence down on a piece of paper. The 2nd person sees your sentence and adds a sentence. but each n > 2 person sees only the n – 1 sentence, and only adds the sentence following it, so the story carenes wildly as you pass it on around the room. (Big disappointment–someone wrote a webpage to do this back in 1995, and users so constantly and immediately took every story and turned it into curses and porn, I stayed offline for days. But a Wave app like this, oooh. .) You could imagine doing some mix of all of this. Every person in the audience is allowed to contribute 30 words, some mix of verbs and nouns and adjectives and preopositions. (Upon and beneath. I’d make sure those got in) Then the performer has to form the sentences live, on a projected surface.

But I mean, this isn’t necessarily new. This is spoken word slam poetry, the Iliad, call and response preaching, improv comedy. The new element is writing the sentences *down*. (Up! Up on the *Screen*.) It’s like taking a really good literature seminar (where the professor assembles a meaningful mindmap collage of phrases and statements on the board, drawn forth from the discussion), and applying that aesthetic to every other topic.

When I first read the title of this post, I envisioned a writer sitting at a laptop on the stage of some large auditorium. There is a huge audience that is watching what he or she is writing on a large projection screen. Only instead of just watching, they are all a part of it–through Wave or a similar medium–and making contributions and edits. At the end of the night, everyone leaves with a copy of the finished product…

This has actually already been done.

Care to elaborate? Any pointers?

Robin is our Hungerkünstler.

more serious may be <a href="; Mallarmé:

Mallarmé attempted to write an absolute
book, the quintessence of all literature and
all reality-the Total Book. The world exists
to arrive at a book, he said. This book
would be proclaimed by a sacred ceremony
of predetermined detail, a proof as well as
a communion.

The form of The Book can be described
briefly: four books, which can be ordered
as two pairs, make up The Book. Each book
is subdivided into five volumes (not only
interchangeable within each book, but also
from book to book). Thus, Mallarme envisions
the mixing and exchange of the volumes
of one book with those of another.
Each volume of each book is made up of
three groups of eight pages-24 pages in
all. Each page is discrete and may be further
broken down, having 18 lines of 12
words. Thus, words, lines, pages, pagegroups,
volumes, and books all may be
shuffled into new combinations. This disposition
offers a multitude of possible readings.

Mallarmé even proposes that each
page be read not only in the normal horizontal
way (within the page’s verticality),
but backwards, or vertically, or in a selective
order of omissions, or diagonally.
Mallarmé imagines another important
structural inversion in the reading of the
total Book: the five volumes form a block.
The reader looks through the pages, and
reads according to depth. Each line of each
page helps form a new vertical page. Paging
is therefore three-dimensional. This
absolute integrity of the container implies
integral organization of the content.

Jacques Polieri, “Le Livre de Mallarmé: A Mise en Scène”

The idea was, these would be performances – each pge would be unrouled read displayed…

“Social Tesseractions are marked by fluid, process-oriented engagement rather than rigid procedural structuring. Process centering prompts a re-evaluation of data formation and alters the entrenched importance of institutionalised categorisations. An emergent example of process centering is Google Wave. Google Wave uses an algorithmic variation of “operational transformations” [live concurrent editing] which occur through a process called transformation:

* The server transforms the client’s request, resulting in the client manifesting the same transformed output.
* The notion of concurrency is invariably important as it mimics geophysical conversational states.
* Utilizing the server as a point of relay [when more than one client’s output is involved] assists in providing scalability and reliability.
* The playback feature allows the server to present the document as a stream of operations that have occurred thus far in a particular wave/state.

Transformation relies on continual modification via process centering. This accent on process acts to rewire the notion of documents as statically defined “objects” and [by proxy] any information contained within. This has enormous implications in regards to such institutionally-governed categories such as literacy, media, the professional/amateur divide, narrative, and information construction…”

jeremyet says…

We Tell Stories (2008) had a live writing component – for a week Nicci French wrote a short story live, an hour every day for five days. The audience could see the words appear as the authors typed them and could discuss the evolving story in a chatroom. This was performance writing – the archived story is here

Z. Ralia says…

The artist E. G. Gauger is doing this with painting. It’s called SWEATSHOP and has been running for a few weeks now. It’s like internet painter’s busking; the camera runs while the painting goes up, has a chatroom audience, and sometimes a tip jar. Other times, Gauger works on commissions that the audience sends in. It’s intense.

I’ve been playing with and getting excited about Google Wave. One note and then a larger idea.

Note: While the participants in a wave that’s being edited can see the individual keystrokes as they happen, playback is in larger chunks.

Larger Idea: Wave allows for the creation of “robots,” which are programmed participants in the wave. This is where I’d really like to experiment to develop a unique, non-linear narrative. I’d create a robot for multiple points of view and set them up to vamp off of each other once any real person created a wave with them. I’m actually working on code and will announce more at my website as it solidifies.

Your Wave robot idea is super SUPER interesting. Can’t wait to hear/see more.

I’m assuming that you’ve seen this?

Check your Wave BTW.

I’ve been doing time-lapse videos of myself writing short pieces of music criticism:

hip hop rising star Lil Wayne:

and experimental musician M. Rosner:


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