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Judy Malloy, Editor







Dene Grigar: Reflecting on Fallow Field: An Artist's Paper


Fallow Field: A Story in Two Parts, The Iowa Web Review, September, 2004

Dene Grigar, who works in the areas of electronic literature, emergent technology and cognition, and ephemera, is a Director and Associate Professor of The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program at Washington State University Vancouver.

Created with compelling narrative constructs that poetically address place, community, and community issues, her works explore telematic storytelling, collaboration, and performance, using multimedia and/or social media.

In addition to Fallow Field: A Story in Two Parts, she is the author of The Jungfrau Tapes: A Conversation with Diana Slattery about The Glide Project, also published by The Iowa Review Web, and When Ghosts Will Die, (with Canadian multimedia artist Steve Gibson) a work that experiments with motion tracking technology to produce networked narratives. Her most recent project is the Fort Vancouver Mobile Project, a locative / mixed media effort that brings together a core team of 23 scholars, digital storytellers, new media producers, historians, and archaeologists to create location-aware nonfiction content for mobile phones to be used at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

Dene Grigar is the editor (with John Barber) of New Words: Exploring Pathways for Writing about and in Electronic Environments,(Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2001) and she serves as Associate Editor of Leonardo Reviews and as the incoming President of the Electronic Literature Organization. Her work as a distinguished curator of electronic literature has included exhibitions at the 128th Modern Language Association Convention, Boston, MA, January 2013; and at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, April 2-5, 2013. (both with Kathi Inman Berens) In 2012, she co-curated the Electronic Literature Exhibit at the 2012 Modern Language Association Convention (with Lori Emerson, and Kathi Inman Berens) and Electrifying Literature: Affordances and Constraints, the Electronic Literature Organization's 2012 Media Art Show. (with Sandy Baldwin)

In her Authoring Software statement on Fallow Field, Grigar documents the scholar's journey that led to this evocative narrative, in which the archetypal Texas Gulf Coast landscape is implied in text, image and sound. Cornfields and farm earth shape the disintegration of a relationship; text is slowly revealed in brief, numbered lexias; images compliment words with artists book clarity. Resonant of Greek tragedy, with mythic characters and situation, Fallow Field leads the reader into a relentless, immersive drama.

For more information about Dene Grigar, visit her website at http://www.nouspace.net/dene



Dene Grigar: Reflecting on Fallow Field: An Artist's Paper

Fallow Field is a short work of fiction, published in 2004 in The Iowa Review Web, that chronicles the breakdown of a marriage. Composed in 30 segments of text that we used to refer to regularly in the pre-mobile era (when the affordances of screen space made chunked text an authorial decision instead of a necessity) as "lexias," it was originally penned in May 1993 as I puddle-jumped up the continent on four different legs of a Southwest Airlines flight from Dallas to Detroit to attend my first academic conference at the University of Michigan. Once the words were recorded on paper, I changed little -- they flowed so easily from my head to hand.

As repugnant as the two main characters are, they exist as envisioned -- hard as dried earth and passionate to thhe point of folly -- because they remediate characters of great Western myths. I had just completed my PhD exams and was preparing to write a dissertation on Homer's Penelope when I wrote Fallow Field. The previous two years were spent learning ancient Greek and beginning my translations of Homer, Antigone, The Bacchae, parts of the Oresteia, and other Greek texts. The archetypal power struggle between women and men (e.g. Hera and Zeus, Helen of Troy and Menelaus, and Klytemnestra and Agamemnon) was an idea swarming in my head like the Furies themselves. I had to release it (and, so, them) and make sense of it for a contemporary culture in a way that did not merely attempt to tell the same stories.

For that reason, Fallow Field is set in no particular place or time and reflects no one culture, and the protagonist remains nameless throughout. Certainly those who know me may recognize, however, the strong Texas Gulf Coast influence, particularly its people, terrain, and sensibilities that inflect most of my literary work. I have to admit now clearly 20 years after writing the story that the female character's voice -- not her words, mind you -- is my own mother's, truly a force of nature in all its tempestuousness. For better or worse, she, like the chthonic goddesses of ancient Greece, was deine, or "awe-inspiring" -- the descriptor used for all them by Homer. My mother required, therefore, like them, the immortality that myths provide. Fallow Field was intended as a gift to her, for she lives on, online, railing at the elements and her fate in all her fearsome and muddy glory.

After writing Fallow Field, I realized that it was not meant to exist as a print publication but needed sound and images to move the narrative along. I should mention that along with studying ancient Greek literature, I was also exploring hypertext fiction and poetry. The conference in Ann Arbor where I was headed when writing Fallow Field was the Computers and Writing Conference, and I was giving a paper about using Storyspace, a hypertext authoring system used for creating literary works, as a tool for analyzing Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons. I still enjoy the works created with Storyspace and continue to use it in my research. At the time, however, I was imagining my story as cinema, so I put Fallow Field away until I could figure out how best to instantiate it.

I finished grad school, headed to my first academic position, taught myself to code HTML, hunkered down for the six years one spends getting tenure, and remained obsessed with hypertext fiction and poetry. The same summer I was awarded tenure -- 2001 -- I headed to Kate Hayles' National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on electronic literature. In seven very busy weeks, she introduced me to new media theory, exposed me to more works and authors of electronic literature than I had previously been aware of, and inspired me to learn Flash. All of these activities conspired to shape Fallow Field, most notably the opportunities Flash provided for literally moving a story along and, so, providing a cinematic experience for readers. I began to edit -- not the words of the piece but its structure and presentation, breaking it up into two sections and those sections into the 30 lexias mentioned previously. During this period of working on Fallow Field, I came to see it as an experiment with what Hayles calls "electronic textuality." It explores the "software functionality" (Writing Machines, 19-20)[1] of hypertext -- however, not for breaking down narrative structure, as seen in various other works like Michael Joyce's seminal afternoon: a story [2] or Deena Larsen's Disappearing Rain [3], but for holding the narrative structure more tightly together in my tale about characters whose lives are horribly broken and fragmented already.

Once the structure was determined, I turned to the elements needed for my cinematic approach: images and sound. By this point, the web (thanks to the development of web browsers) had become quite robust, making it possible to publish high quality, color images online; sound, however, still faced challenges due to its heavy need for bandwidth. With broadband still rare, I turned my attention instead to the images and waited for a better time to tackle sound. At the same time I was working on this aspect of the story, I began a post-doc with the Center for Advanced Inquiry into Interactive Art--Science, Technology, and Art Research (CAiiA-STAR, now Planetary Collegium) at the University of Plymouth in the UK, emerging at the end of my first year, in 2003, with a completely coded version of Fallow Field -- that still lacked sound.

At Texas Woman's University where I was on faculty in the English Department, I had no access to a sound studio to record the music and sounds conceptualized for finishing the work. Call it cosmic, call it fate, or simply call it reading the right listserv notices at the right time, but I saw a Call for Proposals for a week-long workshop entitled "Writers for the Future: TEXTLab," sponsored by trAce Online Writing Center in Nottingham, England. Devised and hosted by Sue Thomas, a pioneer of electronic literature, TEXTLab aimed to provide participants with everything needed to complete a work of digital writing. I applied and was accepted. For one week I worked in a studio with technicians and engineers who helped me prepare the sound for the final version of my work. By the end of the week, Fallow Field was ready for publication, a full 10 years since it had been written.

Even as I was making it, I knew I was experimenting with a lot of ideas. The first, I mentioned earlier: creating a work of hypertext fiction that does not break down or fragment narrative structure. "Mutability, Medium and Character," published in a special issue of Computers and the Humanities in 2002 [4], reflects this idea about the way textuality can shift our experiences with and methods of interpretation of fiction.

But I was also interested in exploring whether images and sounds can hold as much weight as words in a work of literature. The computer surely wasn't differentiating between the 0s and 1s of the words, "fallow field," anymore than it did the image of the fallow field or the musical motif I gave the work. Can we readers give equal weight to each as well? If so, what causes this phenomenon, and why would this kind of finding be important to writers of electronic works? I ponder the answer to the second half of this question in "The Role of Sound in Electronic Literature," published in frAme in spring 2006.[5]

Finally, because at the time I was working on completing Fallow Field I was teaching in a PhD program in Rhetoric, I was also interested in the notion of arrangement and was thinking about how the story's structure affected its discourse. How was it "adjust[ing] people, objects, events, relations, and thoughts"? (Hauser 33)[6] I attempted to answer this question in "Kineticism, Rhetoric, and New Media Art," published in Computers and Composition in 2005. [7]

The fact of the matter is in creating Fallow Field in the way I created it, I purposely set out to produce what is called in contemporary rhetorical theory a "readerly text" rather than "writerly text." Experimental though it is, Fallow Field was not intended to highlight or lay bare machinic practices like Talan Memmott's masterful Lexia to Perplexia. [8] It was intended, instead, to strike a balance between technologies of production and textual elements for the purpose of telling a provocative and -- what I still see as a -- very painful story about the death of a marriage. It also attempts to bridge traditional assumptions readers have about "literature" as they have experienced it in print-based contexts with their growing awareness of the electronic environment gained through working and playing online.

The Iowa Review Web agreed to publish Fallow Field in 2004. This is where it remains today. Online. Backed up in archive on my own server and on CDs in my office and a bank vault. An old myth, written in a language morphing into something else and for a medium fading in popularity. You see, I have not yet updated the code to meet new HTML standards, nor have I yet addressed the Flash problem for access with iPads or iPhones. Though I believe the ephemeral quality of electronic works imbues them with a certain fatal beauty desirous at times, an overriding need to keep my nameless harridan, her impotent husband Theo, and her faithful lover Alexander alive for posterity will, no doubt, win out one day and drive me to give Fallow Field new life in a new format.

For this lover of ancient texts recognizes the necessity of preserving one's vision and legacy through translation, not just the transference of word to word, as I have done with the Bacchae but also medium to medium. Someone thought to write down Homer's oral poetry, certainly a lesson we contemporary literary scholars and artists need to reflect upon as our cultural gaze shifts from desktop to mobile screen.

Notes:

  1. N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

  2. Michael Joyce, afternoon: a story, Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, 1989.

  3. Deena Larsen, Disappearing Rain, 2000.

  4. Dene Grigar, "Mutability, Medium and Character," Computers and the Humanities, 2002. pp. 359-378.

  5. Dene Grigar, "The Role of Sound in Electronic Literature," frAme, Spring 2006.

  6. Gerald Hauser, Introduction to Rhetorical Theory, Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1986.

  7. Dene Grigar, "Kineticism, Rhetoric, and New Media Art," Computers and Composition 22:1, 2005. pp. 105-112.

  8. Talan Memmott, "Lexia to Perplexia," Electronic Literature Collection 1, College Park, MD: Electronic Literature Organization, 2006.










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