Stalking, Shredding, and Streaming: Reading E-Lit Through Artists’ Alternative Web Browsers

1 hour
Browsers play a crucial role in how electronic literature is circulated and experienced. Much electronic literature is disseminated via the web, and many works are written expressly for the web. As with any interface, though, web browsers are not neutral—in fact, browsers have long been a contested space for defining negotiating electronic textuality. From the first shots fired in the ‘Browser Wars’ to the present, many entities and organizations have asserted varying visions for the capabilities and capacities of web browsers, each putting forth a distinct imagined potential for global hypertext documents.

Alongside the emergent commercial browsers of the late 1990s, several artists made alternative browsers that articulated other ways of conceptualizing a global network of electronic documents, and stood in relief to the particular electronic textuality manifest in browsers like Netscape Navigator and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer—a hypertext imaginary that still deeply informs the predominant browsers of today. I will present my research into three such works: The Web Stalker (1997) by the artist collective I/O/D, Shredder (1998) by Mark Napier, and netomat (1999) by Maciej Wisniewski. These works offered alternative interfaces to the web, providing users with means to interact with electronic documents that challenged and expanded upon the reading practices encouraged by mainstream browsers. Moving beyond the metaphor of the printed page, a static arrangement of text and image, these browsers imagined electronic texts as spindling graphs of nodes and links, as shredded cut-ups, and as interweaving streams.

I will draw on interviews with the artists and art historical analytical methods to describe the development, functioning, and long-term impact of these works. In particular, I will consider the ways in which these artists’ browsers can inform the study and practice of electronic literature. As works that critically examine the conditions and structures of reading and writing on the web, these browsers constitute important boundary objects between the fields of visual art and electronic literature, although previous discussions of these artworks have not fully made this crucial interdisciplinary connection. The field of e-lit scholarship and practice needs to continue developing a critical language for describing the role that browsers play in shaping reading experiences, and an examination of these artists’ browsers can profitably contribute to this.

As an environment for reading and writing electronic texts, the web continues to be a live, contested, and exciting space. In addition to discussing how these artworks inform conceptions and imagined potentials of the web browser, I will employ these as tools for analyzing works of electronic literature; I will use the artists’ browsers to read several works of web-based electronic literature, considering how these reading experiences differ from those afforded by mainstream browsers. Although these browsers were created for a web quite different from that of today, I will argue that these works remain vital, pertinent tools for understanding current electronic texts, and continue to provide inspiration for what global hypertext might yet become.
University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill
Doctoral student

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