Clicking for Godot

Salon 21st: Clicking for Godot: By Scott Rosenberg. In the world of interactive art, everyone's waiting for the next Shakespeare -- or at least hoping that computers can deliver a good time.


Scott Rosenberg
October 2, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

PART ONE: GODOT AMONG THE AVATARS

"A country road. A tree. Evening." Two guys in hats -- Didi and Gogo, as they call each other -- are stranded in a desolate void, awaiting someone named Godot.

Finally, one of them cries out: "It's Godot! At last! Gogo! It's Godot! We're saved!"

Advertisement:

It's a false alarm, as Samuel Beckett wrote the line. But wait! In this performance, there is somebody there -- some dude named Muscleman, a recumbent beefcake model straight out of a men's underwear ad. He pops in and asks, "Why are you waiting for him, anyway? I forgot."

I've seen at least a dozen productions of "Waiting for Godot," but none quite like the one presented a couple of weeks ago at the Digital Storytelling Festival in Crested Butte, Colo. The text was Beckett's. But the "stage" was a Palace chat room on the Net. The characters were those in the original play -- joined by anyone else logged onto the Palace that night who happened to stumble into the virtual room ("The Waiting Room") where the drama was unfolding. The audience included not only lurkers inside the Palace itself but festival attendees in a theater, watching on a projection screen.

The Palace is a two-dimensional visual chat room filled with graphical "avatars" representing participants, so Didi and Gogo took form through more than just their typed dialogue. On screen, they sported the blobby happy-face avatars that the Palace uses for "guests"; they became droll Everymen, with little dunce-cap fezzes in place of Beckett's bowlers and a limited palette of expressions and hoppy moves. Since the Palace lets you use Macintalk digital voice synthesis, Didi and Gogo also "spoke" in identical, robotic voices. (Macintalk valiantly struggles with the phonetics of unfamiliar words, so here, "Godot" came off as go dote.) The result was stiff but not unaffecting -- a kind of digital puppet theater.

In "Waiting for Godot," as one critic famously put it, "nothing happens, twice"; in chat rooms, nothing happens over and over again, as people gather every evening and, mostly, wait for something to occur, for someone to say something interesting, for some diversion to help pass the time. To the artists who conceived and executed the stunt they called "Waiting for Godot.com" -- Adriene Jenik, Lisa Brenneis and Jonathan Delacour -- Beckett's existential vaudeville offered a perfect commentary on the world of online chat. At the same time, the Palace chat system provided an unruly public environment for a theatrical experiment -- a space for online street theater in which bystanders could stagger onto the "stage" at any moment.

Thus the apparition of Muscleman, who -- like Thumper, a saucy-looking brunette pin-up, and several other avatars -- crashed the performance and interjected some ad libs. At one point, Didi and Gogo left their "Waiting Room" home to visit a crowded Palace space called the Pit, where their presence evoked comments like, "I think we should all change our names to Dodo and Gigi" and "didi and gogo r u hackas?" The improvisatory interruptions came full circle when Muscleman, getting into the spirit of the event, changed his avatar's name to Godot. That made this "Godot" a first: one in which Godot finally shows up.

As far as I've been able to discover, this "Godot" is also a first of another kind -- a maiden effort to bring the structure of drama and the weight of a classic text into the crude, ephemeral environment of online chat. In a post-performance discussion, the performers and their audience came to the same conclusion: The hovering possibility of interference -- the ever-present threat of street-theater-style disruption -- was precisely what was most compelling about the show.

Advertisement:

I had always imagined the first drama that would get staged in a chat room would be Sartre's "No Exit," with its celebrated sound bite, "Hell is -- other people!" ("L'enfer --c'est les autres"). But in the world of interactive art, it turns out that the spontaneous and unpredictable interventions of "other people" are infinitely more fascinating than any script, no matter how profound or beloved. When you present art with no boundary between stage and audience, the heckler and the interloper triumph: People will pay less attention to the work itself and more to how "other people" prod and poke it. Muscleman will trump Beckett every time.

That's not necessarily a crime. To be sure, Beckett was obsessive about protecting his plays from tampering, and most likely he'd have abhorred the cyberspatial incarnations of his Didi and Gogo. But Beckett's dead -- and the world today is full of interactive artists, all struggling with the very questions this "Godot" raised.

Interactive artists -- whether they produce CD-ROM movie-games or "serious hypertext," Web sites or live performances -- want to use digital technology to share some of the power of creation with what used to be called their audience. The technology offers a kaleidoscope of new possibilities for participation and collaboration. In the past, artists who wanted to play around like this were limited to small groups in their immediate community; today, technology lets interactive artists reach a potentially mass-scale audience. And so they dream of what was once an impossibility: improvisation on a global scale; art with the depth of a classic, the immediacy of a video game and the reach of TV.

But there's one problem they're still struggling to solve. How do you cede some measure of control or authority to the audience, reader, listener, "user" -- yet still deliver a work that's expressive, moving, memorable, satisfying?

Advertisement:


CLICKING FOR GODOT
[PART TWO: HYPERTEXT WASTELAND]

I'm reading Mark Amerika's ambitious and critically acclaimed "Grammatron" -- a work of hypertext fiction housed at a Web site. Screen after screen of black text on red background pops into my browser window:

Advertisement:


'Interfacing,' she was quoted as saying

*criture

creature

I am

I am a machine

A writing-machine

Not this tragic dream that mourns the loss of unity

The text keeps flashing past in telegraphic chunks. After maybe 70 screens that offer you no options, nothing to click on, the site spits you out into a more conventional hypertext maze -- a collection of fragmentary paragraphs you can hop around, link by link, following some carefully limited pathways the author has shaped for you. The story that only murkily emerges -- if you're willing to hang out with "Grammatron" long enough -- follows a scientist named Abe Golam, who has invented a writing program named Grammatron and a language called Nanoscript, through a dystopian future.

Sounds familiar? Amerika's Alt-X site is a focal point for the "avant-pop" movement of artists who infuse formal experimentation with pop-culture materials. And "Grammatron" turns out to be a hypertext Mixmaster blending bleeding chunks of the work of Philip K. Dick, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. But something crucial is missing.

Advertisement:

Even at their worst, the writers Amerika imitates have always found some means to engage you with their stories. The pulp conventions of science fiction, mystery and suspense novels are only partly decomposed in books like "Neuromancer," "Snow Crash" or any of Dick's tales. And each author's love of those conventions remains palpable even as he's picking his way through their remains. The conventions, in turn, serve their purpose; they keep us reading to find out whodunit, what the McGuffin gizmo really is and whether the world gets saved.

In hypertext fiction, too often, there's no incentive to keep reading. We begin reading any new story in a state of confusion, sorting out the cast of characters, where they are and what they're doing. In traditional fiction, a good author will dazzle us by creating a complex, carefully calibrated sequence of revelations to orient us and then sometimes disorient us again. In hypertext, the initial fog never lifts.

Like their companions in the computer-gaming world who have created story-games like "Myst" and "The Seventh Guest," hypertext authors hide the hearts of their stories behind barriers and challenge us to pass through. But the best games at least deliver a satisfying resolution, and fun along the way for those who enjoy solving puzzles. Most hypertexts are so devoted to ambiguity that they fail to communicate much of anything at all. The hypertext author does this in the name of empowering readers: They're free at last to construct texts of their own, to experience the joy of play. But we don't perceive this activity as freedom; too often, it feels like work.

The theorists of hypertext argue that they're engaged in a grand and noble project of undermining the hierarchical, domineering role of the traditional author. Hypertext, according to Amerika, is "an alternative to the more rigid, authoritarian linearity of conventional book-contained text." In their minds, hypertext authors are blasting a hole in the foundations of the patriarchy and letting The People pour into the fastnesses of culture.

Advertisement:

But where are The People? There's only a minuscule audience for "serious hypertext fiction" -- like "Grammatron" or the many works published by Eastgate Systems, the small Massachusetts firm whose authors have long been championed in the pages of the New York Times Book Review by hypertext guru Robert Coover. The best hypertexts -- like the highlights of the Eastgate catalog, Michael Joyce's pioneering 1987 "Afternoon," Stuart Moulthrop's "Victory Garden" and Shelley Jackson's "Patchwork Girl" -- share an estimable gravity, an obsessive attention to detail and a fascination with the formal possibilities of digital narrative. They command respect. But they are unavoidably academic -- lab experiments produced by grad schools for grad schools.

"Grammatron," despite its pop trappings, displays all the worst failings of "serious hypertext fiction": It deploys listlessly abstract language on behalf of pretentious theorizing. It seems to aim for a kind of exuberant word-jazz, but its vocabulary is drawn from the sodden muck of literary theory. It thinks, in Amerika's words, that it is somehow getting language to "groove with the machine" -- but there's no groove of any kind to dance to. The interactive ideal of hypertext is an open-ended collaboration between artist's and reader's minds; the reality is a kind of hermetic literary pastime -- at worst, a form of computer-enabled intellectual masturbation -- that traps the reader in a claustrophobic cul-de-sac.

One screen of "Grammatron" candidly admits, "It's possible that you won't ever make your way into my work." That possibility doesn't seem to distress Amerika. But in an entirely separate universe of interactive art, artists are turning their attention away from arid formal experimentation and back to the fundamental question of interactive technology: How do you get an audience involved?

Advertisement:

CLICKING FOR GODOT
[PART THREE: I'LL TELL YOU MY STORY IF YOU TELL ME YOURS]

Interactive art existed long before computers. The Homeric bard remixed his orally-transmitted epic for each new audience; the medieval mystery play provided a role for everyone in the village; the Victorian family gathered in the living room to play new chamber-music pieces. Every age has had participatory art forms that blurred the line between artist and audience. It's our late 20th-century society --with its dominant model of broadcasting enforcing an unprecedentedly passive approach to the consumption of art -- that's an anomaly.

Advertisement:

There's a burgeoning movement in the small world of technological art today that aims to reverse that passivity. Most critics of the couch-potato culture of TV have tended to be technophobic. But this cadre of performers and teachers embraces digital tools, hoping to use them to level the old distinctions between the creator and the crowd -- and make good on the radical artist Joseph Beuys' battle cry, "Everyone's an artist!"

You can find the epicenter of this artistic movement -- call it digital populism -- at the annual Digital Storytelling Festival, where "Waiting for Godot.com" was presented. Hosted for three years now by performance artist Dana Atchley (and long sponsored by Apple Computer), the Digital Storytelling fest has always been less an industry conference than a small gathering of like-minded artists, educators and technologists. The roster has included hypertext authors, interactive filmmakers and other experimental souls, but most of the work presented each year is by artists who, whatever their medium, tell traditional stories -- with a beginning, middle and end. They use technology -- Premiere and Photoshop, e-mail and the Web -- not to deconstruct a narrative but to distribute it more widely and let the audience talk back.

One model for this movement can be found on the Web, at sites -- like Abbe Don's Bubbe's Back Porch and Derek Powazek's The Fray -- that serve at once as showcases for writers' personal stories and bulletin boards for readers to respond. Don's site began as a skein of tales about her own great-grandmother; Powazek's is more of an open mike for true-life stories (usually, for some reason, with a depressing bent). Both sites are open-ended and invite visitors to add their own yarns to the mix.

Another model is the workshops run by Joe Lambert and Nina Mullen of the San Francisco Digital Media Center. These weekend-long "digital boot camps" take participants who've often had little or no experience with computers and teach them how to turn personal artifacts -- photos, clippings, heirlooms and hand-me-down tales -- into five-minute Quicktime movies. The work that emerges -- love stories, memorials to dead relatives, ghost tales, road sagas -- is rarely revolutionary and often unpolished. But it is consistently surprising and frequently moving. And even with the pieces that are a mess, you can feel the fledgling filmmakers' pleasure and freedom.

Advertisement:

At these Web sites and classes, the emphasis is on using technology to create something forthright -- and to speak in an authentic personal voice. Computers are viewed less as a radically new medium that suspends existing artistic traditions than as a new distribution device and expressive tool for artists who are doing essentially what they've always done.

The radicalism here isn't aesthetic but social. This version of interactivity doesn't decree that authors abandon their traditional job of shaping a story; it simply asks artists to share their stage -- to invite their audience into the creative process. Taking turns as storyteller: The idea is straight out of kindergarten, but that doesn't make it any less subversive.

The standard complaint about interactivity from accomplished novelists and filmmakers is, "Why should I let you finish my story? I'm the one who knows how to make it a good story -- that's what I get paid for." The taking-turns approach lets the pros have their chance to do their thing -- and still leaves room for self-expression on the part of the erstwhile audience.

Now, as any actor will tell you, sharing the stage has its ups and downs. In a situation like "Godot.com," interruptions tend to steal the show. It's easier to set rules for sharing the stage on a Web site than in a chat room or a live performance. But at least we know where to start. If we understand interactivity to mean interaction between people -- in a world where technology allows more people than ever before to create their own art and share it -- then all art gradually becomes interactive, and technology becomes as transparent as the pens and books we take for granted today.

Advertisement:

That's one possible future. There's another, older vision of interactivity that's also still with us, and will probably never disappear. It's hard to give up the Frankenstein dream of imaginary worlds that exist entirely inside the machine -- of stories that run on their own digital steam.


CLICKING FOR GODOT
[PART FOUR: IF HAMLET'S ON THE HOLODECK, WHO'S PLAYING HIM?]

Anyone who makes, writes about or talks about interactive art understands that, fundamentally, it's all made by people. Just as Garry Kasparov wasn't actually beaten by a computer but rather by the scientists who built and programmed the Deep Blue machine, so all digital art -- even that generated by seemingly autonomous programs functioning without evident human intervention -- can be traced back to the hands of a human being who wrote some software.

Still, there's a real divide between artists (like most at the Digital Storytelling Festival) who are satisfied with viewing computer technology as a tool and a medium, and artists who yearn to invent technology that generates its own art -- to hand over as much of the creative act as possible to the machine. The hypertext artists and game designers have pursued a crude kind of interactivity that locks the reader/player into a few limited software routines and blocks any active contribution from the audience; the digital storytellers have tried to restore the primacy of the human-told tale, and use technology to make the exchange two-way. Now a new wave of interactive theorists is arguing that this exchange of meaning can take place between a person and a computer, after all.

Speaking at a recent conference on electronic art, Sherry Turkle argued: "We are moving away via MUDs, Tamagotchi, etc., from a conception of the computer as a reflection of self to one where the computer is an interactive other."

There's a thorough and engrossing chronicle of this idea in "Hamlet on the Holodeck," a new book by MIT scholar Janet Murray about "the future of narrative in cyberspace." Murray tries to define the traits that make the digital medium unique: "Digital environments are procedural, participatory, spatial and encyclopedic." (The first two traits, she maintains, are what we usually mean by "interactive"; the second two, by "immersive.") You can argue with some of Murray's definitions -- for instance, many digital environments aren't, in fact, spatial -- but she has drawn a valuable map of the terrain that digital artists are traversing and contesting.

"Hamlet on the Holodeck" traces a vision of interactive narrative back to the literary experiments of "Tristram Shandy" and forward to the imaginary Holodeck, the Star Trek universe's virtual-reality playroom. Murray finds the stirrings of new digital art forms in everything from Joseph Weizenbaum's famous Eliza chatterbot -- which talks back to you in a parody of a psychiatrist's responses -- to today's MUDs, multi-user online spaces where players adopt alternate identities and struggle for fame and fortune (or just hang out).

What's great about "Hamlet on the Holodeck" is its compilation of historical examples and experiments -- its version of the back-story of interactive art. But as Murray moves forward to trace her vision of where this art form is going, she begins to rely more and more on conditional phrases: The artist of the future might be something like this; the first interactive masterwork could develop along these lines; audiences of the future will perhaps experience such-and-such. At some point in its arc, "Hamlet on the Holodeck" switches gears from critical thinking to speculation; and while that makes it fun to read, it also leaves you with some nagging doubts. For all the splendor of Murray's visions of revolutionary new "digital narrative environments," she isn't able to name a single "proof-of-concept" -- an engineers' term for a prototype that demonstrates how some difficult project can indeed be made to work.

At a place like MIT, Murray no doubt stands as a rare voice of humanism -- but within the broader debate over interactive art, her point of view is heavily tilted toward machine dreams. She sees the act of authorship beginning to disappear inside the cogs of software rules: "Future audiences will take it for granted that they will experience a procedural author's vision by acting within the immersive world and by manipulating the materials the author has provided ... rather than by only reading or viewing them." The end-point of the processes Murray depicts will be, she proposes, the arrival of "the next Shakespeare of this world," who might be "a great live-action role-playing GM [gamemaster] who is also an expert computer scientist."

Anyone who has ever played the live-action role-playing games to which Murray refers -- the sit-around-a-table kind popularized by Dungeons & Dragons -- knows that they consume insane quantities of time. Perhaps Murray's cyber-Shakespeare will put his or her computer-science expertise to use in solving that problem -- and making it possible for such pastimes to be enjoyed not just by restless adolescents but by adults with lives.

There's a deeper problem with Murray's dream, though. Like many teenagers in the 1970s, I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons myself. The fun of it was almost entirely social -- watching my friends invent and transform characters, and creating my own to mix it up with them, all within a framework created by a human gamemaster, not a computer. There were always two styles of "GMing": You could build a detailed world, establish strict rules and maintain them inflexibly in the face of whatever your players did. This style was eminently fair, but resulted in long stretches of boredom, with GM and players both imprisoned by predetermined procedures. Or you could invent a world partly on the fly and do your best to keep things interesting for your players as they wandered around -- leading to a kind of improvisatory storytelling collaboration between the GM and players. This may have been less impartial, but at least it guaranteed a good time.

Computers are wonderful for organizing rules and procedures; they are not yet, despite our best efforts, very good at knowing which story twist is captivating and which is dull. Maybe some now-unimaginable breakthrough in computer science will allow the invention of an algorithm for narrative pleasure -- but I'd be utterly surprised if it happens in our lifetimes. For the foreseeable future, I'd place my bets on the computer as a platform for people -- a space for human beings to tangle with one another, trade tales and wonder when some Muscleman character will crash their party or interrupt their drama.

Still, the seductive fascination of the machine-as-artist won't stop haunting us. And each new experiment, each stab at developing autonomous computer art, commands our attention. We are like Beckett's characters at the end of "Waiting for Godot": "Let's go," they say, despairing that their Godot will ever show up -- but the stage direction reads, They do not move. We know how bad the odds are, but we don't want to leave the theater, either -- on the off chance that, one day, our machines will start telling stories of their own.


Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

MORE FROM Scott Rosenberg

BROWSE SALON.COM
COMPLETELY AD FREE,
FOR THE NEXT HOUR

Read Now, Pay Later - no upfront
registration for 1-Hour Access

Click Here
7-Day Access and Monthly
Subscriptions also available
No tracking or personal data collection
beyond name and email address

•••


Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •