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consuming "rice"

Alenda Chang

The Electronic Literature Organization describes Australian Jenny Weight, or rather, geniwate, as "a multimedia artist and writer" whose work has already earned significant critical attention her 1998 work of electronic long poetry, entitled "rice," won the trAce/Alt-X Hypertext Competition and her more recent composition Nepabunna was a finalist for the ELO's own 2001 poetry award. Online journal Riding the Meridian characterizes geniwate as a former writer of "conventional" poetry and practicing performance poet who turned to the Internet for new creative possibilities. "While it is sometimes hard to reconcile her current work to the poetry tradition," Meridian editor Jennifer Ley writes, "she still wishes to be a part of that tradition, to be challenging it rather than rejecting it." (Incidentally, geniwate embarked on a Ph.D. last year, but remains a committed electronic writer and "distance educationalist" at the University of South Australia.) Of the many issues that geniwate's "rice" reflects critically upon, of foremost concern is Vietnam's millenniums-old history of foreign subjugation and the transnational problematic of viewing one culture through the lens of another. The work itself—a deliberate and imaginative blend of influences, incorporating music, spoken poetry, photographs, digital images, animation, and acerbic textual commentary—brings into question the relationship between artist, tourist, and colonizer, and exposes the inevitable friction and occasional breakthroughs posed by crossing boundaries of country and media.

Accompanied by vaguely Eastern-toned music—a repeating melody punctuated by seemingly urgent and at the same time ominous repeated staccato notes—"rice"'s prefatory splash page devotes itself to de rigueur "best viewing" recommendations, production acknowledgements, and contact information. These minutiae, set out in a no-nonsense red Arial font, underscore the dramatically spaced lowercase white letters of the title—fuzzy-edged, almost like chalk on a sidewalk or alleyway graffiti—all stark against a black background marked by the shadowy imprint of an off-center white grid: three unequally spaced parallel lines running vertically crossed by another three lines running horizontally. This suggestion of format unfolds on the following screen, which presents a table of roughly rectangular images arranged in a 4 x 4 pattern, altogether 16 different selectable options with no particular suggestion of order or correspondence (though each section is labeled and the numbering system starts at the top-left and moves left-to-right and top-to-bottom like the Western reading eye, with only one exception):



Notably, the pale grid from the first screen resurfaces in the background of six of the sixteen subsections, suggesting possible interpretive paradigms. In a technological sense, the grid is reminiscent of a network, each intersection of lines representing a node of confluence. Thus, in a piece largely concerned with the meeting of two widely disparate cultures—the proverbial East meets West—the lines themselves suggest directional indeterminacy and cultural crossover. At the same time, the grid also suggests rigidity, imprisonment, and the imposition of frameworks of understanding, akin to a colonizer intruding foreign traditions onto a colonized people or, in the case of tourism, the existence of unconscious preconceptions and/or stereotypes regarding the place and people visited.

The images themselves present a curious mix of Vietnamese and English found objects, ranging from business cards to banners to merchandise packaging to various forms of identification. Each serves as a portal to a distinct segment of the work, akin to doorways in an architectural space—for instance, the Wrigley's Spearmint gum wrapper leads to a page unusually devoid of text. Discordant strains of rock music gradually impinge upon the ear, eventually accompanied by a poetry reading in which the disembodied and distorted voice (presumably geniwate's) reads something like "patrolling caisson hill station / there must be some way out of here / but there's no one around except tourists / all waiting for the evacuation / and I can't get no relief / my duct tape belongs to a stranger / the darkness full of Asian danger / we are burning the buildings behind us / fifty days for a mile of ball duct / the hawkers are selling duct tape for two bucks each / we don't reckon they're real." If one listens carefully, the male singer in the page's audio backdrop (most likely Jimi Hendrix singing Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" as listed in the project's credits) echoes her bleak words, "can't get no relief." When this performance is over, clicking on the only active link (the gum wrapper as guide) leads to a radically different screen, a bright red background with the words "TRUTH," "FREEDOM," and "HAPPINESS" stacked on top of each other in lurid yellow, yellow lines underscoring each. The blockiness of the fonts and the use of all-caps suggests a sort of didactic irony; the color scheme presents a violent and surreal contrast to the dark edginess of the preceding page—eerily reminiscent of McDonald's signature golden arches and red- and yellow-tinged optimism, perhaps the quintessential embodiment of Western capitalism; also, perhaps, invoking Communism and in particular the Vietnam flag (yellow star on red field) and/or the flag of the 1975 Communist-defeated, American-backed South Vietnam republic (red stripes on yellow field):

Cumulatively, the experience of navigating and attempting to comprehend "rice" parallels geniwate's creative struggle to capture or accurately portray Vietnam, hindered by the consciousness of her status as stranger and tourist; she appears to have visited the country in an artistic and investigative capacity, but found herself hard-pressed to reconcile Western values and beliefs with the widespread poverty, oppression and filth she observed, along with the country's ingrained history of despair (with the Vietnam War as an obvious locus). This feeling of incomprehensibility is effectively transmitted to us in the form of fuzzy or small, partial images in which the text is often tantalizingly unreadable, or simply in another language (deliberately lacking "user-friendly" translation), turned on its side, and so forth. Spoken words and recorded sounds often seem distorted or garbled. At the same time, each object and its related commentary serves as an indictment of Western involvement in the region and capitalism as a whole—in one "room," the background is wallpapered with various shades of the line "Vietnam is working for you," suggesting sweatshop exploitation and recent Third World manufacturing scandals as well as Marx's unseen labor working to supply the voracious demand of ideologically brainwashed consumers elsewhere in the world. In another section (top row, leftmost tile), geniwate comments ironically on the nature of the Web itself—we are fed a series of impressions of Vietnam we initially believe to be authentic, only to discover that geniwate plagiarized each vignette from Internet sources before even setting foot in Vietnam. In her own words:

   The previous things never happened to me
   in Vietnam. I acquired the Vietnam
   experience on the internet before I left
   Australia. It was vastly more efficient. Then,
   to get them out of the way, I wrote these
   poems.

   Whew.

   Now I had a new problem: what if there was
   nothing else?

   You need some return for your outlay;
   something more than a Rolex copy.

   But the tickets were booked - the
   cockroach dust bought. I would just have to
   hope the conceptual booty
   was as good
   as the shopping.

Though the text resembles casual prose, the words have the nuanced pacing of poetry—one doubts that the line-breaks are completely arbitrary, as would be the case with automatic text wrapping. Instead, there is a deliberate tempo and separation between words that places emphasis on certain terms, e.g. "poems," "nothing," "something." The financial language—"acquired," "efficient," "outlay," "bought," "booty," and "shopping"—draws attention to our capitalistic baggage and in effect juxtaposes the artist's process of garnering ideas and inspiration from foreign soil with more hostile forms of economic takeover and appropriation. Hence, geniwate the artist prowls for "conceptual booty" while geniwate the tourist anticipates more material purchases.

Metaphorically, the project's title itself invites interrogation—rice as a structural principle conjures intriguing possibilities: the particular (grain-level) and the whole; abundance; uniformity; even a quality of random sampling that, once repeated often enough, leads to a greater overall understanding. It is also worth noting that rice, as a staple of the Asian diet and one of the stereotypical representations of Eastern living, connotes difference. It also represented a key factor in Vietnam's value to competing colonial influences earlier in the century—a University of California, Santa Barbara, Web site devoted to Vietnam/Indochina's economic "significance" during and following WW II argues that what made Vietnam "such a critical international policy issue" was, primarily, food:

As one of three East Asian rice exporters (along with Thailand and Burma), Vietnam had the capacity to feed millions beyond its own population. Through its export of more than 1,725,000 metric tons of rice in 1936 alone, Vietnam supplied the rice eating regions under French control with a staple the empire could not have otherwise provided. Thus, early on it was Vietnam's agricultural potential that was seen as the reason why French or Chinese interests would want to "acquire" Indochina for themselves.

The concept of frames offers another valuable structural metaphor with which to approach "rice"'s construction and consequent meaning, again in terms of a framework of understanding, particularly "Western" conceptions of the "East." For instance, on the main index page, a highly stylized poster of a glamorous female bathing suit model or actress stands in apparent contrast to the passport-photo-like picture of an androgynous Vietnamese woman, hair cut quite short, wearing a serious expression—Hollywood-inspired ideal versus plain and somber reality. Aside from the background grid discussed earlier, frames also double as interpretative barriers and delimiters, in the form of a TV screen in poem8, the walls of a hotel room in frame12, camera stills in poem14, and so on, all to some extent symbolic of imprisonment and claustrophobia. As "users" of this electronic work, we share this sensation; in our movements we are allowed little room for experimentation—each segment is fairly linear in structure, often requiring subsequent clicks but never any divergent options, simply backward or forward. As a whole, the piece resembles a gallery or art installation—separate rooms constituting a whole—more than a truly interactive experience. We are readers, listeners, witnesses (and therefore, we become complicit).

In the absence of a plethora of critical commentary in regard to electronic literature, how do we interpret "rice" in all its complexity—a totality that incorporates elements of vocal performance, photography, and poetry in a peculiarly digital and ultimately political blend? In Issue One, Volume Two ("Women and Technology") of Riding the Meridian, geniwate herself suggests the answer, bringing together equally disparate influences in her reflections on Donna Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto" as well as her fondness for knitting, an apparent contrast of traditional woman's work to the often masculinized world of technology and computing. In geniwate's eyes, however, the two are not mutually exclusive—she concludes that "Western, wealthy, educated women are now in a position to knit new types of products—identities, lives, programs—and sweaters too, if they want. I don't think technology is a panacea, but it does give the privileged few of us alternatives. Not easy alternatives, for technology is difficult and we are not gods—either in knowledge or power. But for me, the game it allows us to play is (almost, for nothing is ever) enough." This fragment of her commentary illuminates to an extent our possible critical approaches to "rice," requiring synthesis and reconciliation. Ultimately, too, geniwate is very much aware of her Western "politics of location" (to use Adrienne Rich's term), and for her, technology is a recognized privilege as well as a means of opening up original possibilities.




Works Cited

Authors beginning with: W. Electronic Literature Directory. 30 Mar. 2003 <http://directory.eliterature.org/browse.php?let=W&rectype=authors>.

Beamish, Thomas D. CASE: 1941-1945 Indochina at the Crossroads: Colonialism, Trusteeship, or Independence? June 2002. Department of Sociology at University of California, Santa Barbara. 9 Apr. 2003 <http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/projects/casemethod/beamish.html>.

geniwate. "rice". 1998. 9 Apr. 2003 <http://www.idaspoetics.com.au/rice/riceheading.html>.

The Greater Annamites: Location & Description. World Wildlife Fund Indochina. 8 Apr. 2003 <http://www.wwfindochina.org/eap/Location_description.shtml> (no longer available).

Incubation Conference. trAce Online Writing Centre. 30 Mar. 2003 <http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/incubation/biog.cfm?presenter=135>.

RiceRomp: Teachers - Social Studies. 2001. U.S. Rice Producers Association. 8 Apr. 2003 <http://www.riceromp.com/teachers/lessonContent.cfm?pId=35>.

Sanford, Christy Sheffield and Jennifer Ley. Hypertext by geniwate. Riding the Meridian. 30 Mar. 2003 <http://www.heelstone.com/meridian/wate.html>.

The World Factbook 2002: Vietnam. 19 Mar. 2003. Central Intelligence Agency. 8 Apr. 2003 <http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/vm.html>.



copyright 2003 Alenda Chang

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