This week, as I watched some animated poems and "played" a piece of interactive fiction, I couldn't help but notice that many of the more sophisticated pieces took more than one person to build. Artistic collaboration is nothing new, of course, but within the emerging world of digital literature it seems to be more important than ever.
Is the new media changing the way artists work?
Chris Joseph might not go that far. But as a writer who works in a variety of digital media, he's well aware that joining forces with other artists can yield some very interesting results.
Joseph is Digital Writer in Residence at the Institute of Creative Technologies at De Montfort University in Leicester, England. His multimedia project Animalamina (www.animalamina.com) is an unusual and delightful piece of interactive poetry for children. He created it in collaboration with 12 visual artists.
"I think collaboration is very common, and almost essential, for a full multimedia project," Joseph says. "Very few people have the full range of skills required - writing, music, art, programming."
Taking his inspiration from the classic storybook teaching tool of ABCs, Joseph first composed poems featuring animals representing each letter of the alphabet. There are buzzing bumblebees, for instance, and "very very vultures being (very) rude."
He envisioned the project as a traditional print piece, but worried he wouldn't have much to add to the already well-trodden ground of ABC books. Digital art, by contrast, was hopping with possibilities, especially for his intended audience of kids 5 to 11 - people who understand interactions with computers much better than their parents do.
He described his idea to his visual artist friends and asked them for submissions. The artists, working in different media, contributed pictures that Joseph then animated in Flash. The resulting piece is a dynamic set of interactive, interconnected poetry animations set to sleek electronic music that Joseph composed.
One of the most striking aspects of the piece is the breadth of styles represented. The backdrop of one scene is a panoramic photograph of a view from a mountaintop; the user spins the image around using the cursor in order to see the view from all angles. The piece representing the letter C features animated cats that began life as charming paintings by Clare Drapper, bright, splashy creatures wearing loony expressions that put me in mind of the pets in George Booth's New Yorker cartoons.
Simply put, Animalamina wouldn't be nearly as interesting without multiple contributors.
"I think I've been pretty fortunate so far in my collaborating partners. All the Animalamina artists were friends, including a couple who I've only ever known online, which was more important to me than any kind of assessment of 'quality,' and I love the variety of styles that resulted. But I think it suggests a basic problem, which is finding and funding collaborators to work on multimedia projects," Joseph said.
This is the very problem Born Magazine (www.bornmagazine.com) exists to solve.
Created in 1996 in Seattle as a print publication that facilitated linkups between artists and writers, Born went online the following year. Today it features collaborations between creators of traditional literature and artists who work in digital media.
The current issue includes an unnerving poem called "He Wants to Take Your Picture," written by Susan Brown and brought to life by the art/design team Synthetic Infatuation. As retro-cute images slide around and tell their own story, the poem is recited by a robot voice that doesn't get the inflection of American English even remotely right - you know it, it's the terrifying "Agnes" voice from your Mac's VoiceOver program. The piece is as much performance art or film as it is a print poem.
Scott Benish, the magazine's online curator, explains that some of Born's collaborations are set in motion by Born editors, who select a poem or short prose piece from the submissions they've received and pass it on to a visual artist, who then interprets it in "interactive media." Other times a team works together throughout the process, blending words and visuals from their project's inception.
"Design - visuals, interactivity and audio - has the potential to really enhance the understanding of the piece, or even completely change the interpretation of a piece, which can be interesting or unfortunate, depending on the point of view of the writer," Benish said.
A potential pitfall? There had to be one; without risk there is no art. In other words, stay tuned. This literature is evolving every day.