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Cybermountain logoSeven Reasons Why Sandsoot is the Way It Is


Stephanie Strickland  


In May 1998, when I sat down to write a poem about Sand and Harry Soot, all I knew was the names. Very soon I knew it was a ballad, a tale told over and over of love gone wrong, a song with real voices in it, voices recognizable from our social surroundings. I was immersed in internet culture, in porting a hypertext I'd written from one platform to another, and to me "sand" was very clearly silicon, not only the silicon dioxide of beach sand, but silicon microchips, and by extension the entire online world that the work of Silicon Valley made possible, its promise, its frustrations, its elusiveness, its liveliness, whether that liveliness be called artificial or virtual, "life" or "intelligence." And Soot, Harry, with whom I tended to identify despite our gender and temperamental differences, was a man made of carbon, biochemical man, a man of flesh and mood, a person.

In May 1998 Jean-Pierre Hébert, working with Bruce Shapiro, set out to do a proof of concept of Sisyphus, a device (to be demonstrated at Siggraph 99) that writes in sand, the writing being accomplished by a computer-driven ball. Hébert and Shapiro call themselves Ho when they work together, building the physical sandbox and hardware, writing the software algorithms that produce intricate mathematical representations as well as analogues of Zen gardens, waves, Tibetan sand paintings and much more.

In August 1998 Jean-Pierre and I met at Berkeley at an ArtMath conference where I presented my hypertext True North. He suggested to me that we collaborate on something, to which I agreed, but months passed and this did not really happen. I kept returning to his informative Webpage on algorithmic art; still, our tentative communication did not produce an actual project. Until I set out upon another collaboration, one with Janet Holmes.

Because my repetitive stress injuries mean I must keep keyboarding to a minimum, I asked Janet for help building a Website. But because we are writers, what turned out to interest us was making a Web piece for "The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot." At a certain point in this project I realized that my verbal ideas about Sand and Soot had been realized physically, in many cases, by that other team, Jean-Pierre and Bruce, and I proposed that we use some Sisyphus images for SandSoot. Jean-Pierre agreed and put up a test page for us and responded to our requests with wonderful alacrity. Our own progress was considerably slower. We haven't yet gotten to the Website! But what I want to stress is how many different minds were being brought to bear on this work. And remarkably enough, two of them, Janet's and Bruce's, were located in St. Paul, MN where people are serious about supporting the arts.    



Though Sisyphus images are the predominant ones in SandSoot, many others are used. The process of finding these and obtaining permission to use them in itself consumed numbers of days. Every image was tested many times, for overall fit, for what it contributed to the page it was on, and for where it led, as we conceived of the Contributor section of the poem as wholly integral, not ancillary, to it, as being itself a mini-Web in which the words of the Ballad were held. In our view a Net aesthetic often combines documentary and invented moments in a manner made familiar by the broadcast media but carried to a new intensity on the internet.

Each contributor page reveals an artist working with a particular digital technique, or an important mathematical technique used by programmers, or playing with a convention or idea that characterizes either digital representation or internet culture. Of course a few items, like the hex dump and the Metro card, represent digital output firmly ensconced in the gravitational world. Some of the images are metaphoric, and some are literal. In all cases, the titles of the images are important and are revealed by mouseovers in a level 4 browser. In several cases, as with Ana Voog, Ho, Paul Friedlander, ISFA, Jorn Barger or Teach Bowen, the contributor URLs lead to a veritable archive of internet life or digital possibility that contextualizes the entire poem. (We were delighted to discover that Ana Voog also lives in the Twin Cities.)    



Janet and I, and I dare say Ho, feel that inappropriate binaries plague thought. Digital culture is correctly associated with binaries of one sort, but it is simplistic to think that creation based on silicon chips or creation based on carbon compounds is well-characterized&emdash;either one, or in their relations with each other&emdash;by any given tree, grid, classificatory scheme or the like. Thus even at the "binary" level of the allocation of zeroes and ones, there is no simple division in the Ballad. Sand moves to octal representation from "her" zero, at one point, and at another usurps the number one which otherwise Soot has taken to himself.

By design, there is not only no rigid allocation of numbers, there is also no privileged node, no privileged navigation, no highlighted link, no assigned colors. Three navigation methods are explicitly described, each explicitly recommended, and their combination in any fashion also recommended. Though it has been suggested that two of these methods are "ported from print," namely the complete and the navbar random readings, we do not agree. In print, one does not track the image to obtain an intentional sequence unless one is reading a picture book. And unlike flipping through a book, each navbar "zero" icon triggers a page name in the browser window line (the status bar) that is indexical&emdash;each such name is a word or phrase that occurs only on that page and nowhere else in the Ballad. Thus considerable information is available beyond what flipping would provide. In addition, flipping never marks a flipped page, whereas our navbar lightens the zero for every page read. We have inverted the convention of link darkening to mean "read." In our view, what you have read has enlightened you and is part of you and is now brighter, whereas what you don't know remains in the dark. The convention of link-darkening seems to relate to a practice of racking up points, more "live" ones to take out, that may carry over from video game culture.

  Beyond the three methods there are "tendencies and flows." For instance, linkwords are often color-contrasted, but not always. In a few cases, where it is appropriate to the content of the node, a linkword "blinks," that is it changes color upon being clicked. These are then color cues for backtrackers. As well, there is a persistent but not rigid tendency for links to be found in both the Soot and Sand part of the text at each node.

  Since true colors don't travel across the net at this point, we use color differences or intervals to suggest meaning. Certain nodes share the same intensity of color, an aspect best appreciated on monitors that show the most colors. Color contrast, however, between Sand and Soot, between nodes, and between words, can be noticed on any color monitor.    



Can this lack of schema work? We asked two very experienced print readers with good online familiarity but no experience with hypertext literature, an award-winning poet and an award-winning programmer. The poet speaks for them both in the answers below.

When you first read SandSoot did it have underlined links?

"No. Unless you mean the underlined zeros at the bottom. But I didn't use those initially to get around, finding it much more interesting to click the text and pictures directly. Those links weren't underlined."

  Did you realize you must move your cursor over the text looking for the links?

  "Yes, that's how I made my way around without instructions."

  If so, did that procedure irritate you?

"No, not in the least. I like the process of looking. That's part of the treasure hunt/fun aspect."  

Or does it seem more "seamless and adventurous" than having the underlines?

"Exactly. I wouldn't like the underlines. Would find them distracting."

Also, should How to Read be a bit larger on the present menu page if we want people to actually read it?

"That might help. But I bet I wouldn't have chosen to do it that way first. Something about liking to find my own way around."

We like readers who can be slowed down enough in their involvement with a piece that they come to feel as those test readers did. We also notice we have come to identify not only with Soot, but now also with Sand, who "panned speed" though "seeming fast." A sensuous languidness, a willingness to be pulled in, or to pull in, is part of what we feel about her.

Certainly the intent of the Ho pieces, Sisyphus in actual operation, is to create a meditative environment, which occurs as you watch it draw and also as you contemplate what it has drawn, that transient and fragile image.

Our readers will perhaps prefer "surprise" to "clicking through," although in the navbar we do provide the means to assure a complete reading. Visual poet Austin Straus talks about "the excitement and adventure of decipherment in general, as in interpreting dreams, unraveling mysteries from scattered and seeming unrelated clues, or relating seemingly unrelated objects and words so that a coherent story emergesŠallowing enough ambiguity and disparity of images for the reader/reviewer to make up his/her own story (or poem) and to create and solve his/her own mysteries." [Poetry Flash, Jan/Feb 1999]

The reader who likes to feel her way, literally, who comes to dwell with some patience on all words of the poem, and on all sections of the poem, will be rewarded, not only with links, but with access, via the Coda and the Contributors, to an entire world that will carry her out to new places.

On the other hand, un-readability is also part of the digital experience in our view, and certain nodes, like ZaumZoom, are less readable than others on certain browsers. All of Alex Heilner's images in SandSoot play with scale inversion or scale-confusion as part of the digital phenomenon (is it a microbe or Manhattan? A helicopter or an insect?). Unreadability is also a part of the digital experience by reason of platform and browser incompatibility, rapidly shifting representation conventions, generation gaps in reading experience, and many causes we don't yet understand. In SandSoot we wish to acknowledge unreadability and the fact that reading takes place anyway&emdash;in spite of it.



  As some very helpful readers have pointed out, this Ballad does not need to refer to what we think it does. Your Sand and your Soot are not necessarily mine. So much the better. We want your referents to work as well as ours. This kind of goal puts a lot of pressure on the writing, in our opinion. It is akin to choreographing a dance piece for a theater in the round. Every step, every posture, every gesture, has to work for every seat in the house. In addition, in hypertext, the dance has to work even if members of the audience enter and leave at different times. It is also analogous to visual artwork that sets out to be readable at any scale, as for instance fractal work does. We do hope to leave that more coherent impression one takes away from a dance or scale-crossing image, and not simply the pleasure of watching an n-ring circus though we do also like work built to that model.



The Ballad and its carefully chosen set of contributors represent a wide world of thought. The contributors come from many walks of life, are of many sensibilities and have had many different kinds of training. All are integral to the piece, but neither print nor hypertext conventions at this point make it particularly easy to actually foreground multiple streams of authorship or to actually situate and contextualize a given piece with sufficient fullness.  

We try to address this issue with the Coda. The Coda recapitulates the Ballad in 33 brief phrases that allude and link to images and their associated artist statements and set of URLs. Each image, in turn, if clicked will re-enter the Ballad. So the reader has both a way out and a way in, but has, we hope, noticed that no piece is truly self-standing, least of all this one where collaboration is so much a part of its fabric.



Soot loves Sand, we are told. We see him as a devoted and frustrated lover. But we are never really told that Sand loves Soot. We learn throughout the course of our reading that the things they thought separated them probably do not, that each partakes of some of what we assume "goes with" the other, that they can exchange roles, languages, colors.

Sand is demeaned if considered information-per-se. Not simply because she has a physical substrate manufactured by, say, Intel. Sand itself, not exactly solid, liquid or gaseous, has the particular properties of granularity beautifully explored by Sisyphus, wondrously associated with time, in a Sisyphus-drawing, an hourglass&emdash;or a system clock. Sand is border-like, seashore-like, it invites us to play and to build. It beckons, but is it "really" stony or "really" fecund, sexual, virtually sexual? For one answer choose Ana Voog on the Contributors page.

Sand as meta-medium, the digital medium into which everything else can be poured or translated, sound, image, touch, data, has its own Protean or Circean character; a hyperspace, a cave, in which any world can present itself and be lived. There is a kind of process of interpenetration, or perhaps learning, that goes on between Sand and Soot, yet they are strongly contrasted to the end. Does Sand love Soot? Stay tuned.