The Baltic Ring
seminar on digital media and literature, Jyväskylä University
March 19. and 20. 2004

debriefing By Kenneth Krabat
April 2nd 2004

(This is a very subjective and quite possibly very inaccurate retelling AND re-thinking of a two-day brainwash intro to an intellectual and artistic endeavour the mentioned speakers have spend years refining. Therefore view my contribution as flawed pr.definition. Or do what ever you damn like - as long as you don't quote me... (right now, do NOT think of an elephant))


The Baltic Ring is the name of a co-operation among countries along the Baltic Sea on the topic of literature and the actors of literature. I was invited to participate in the seminar by the Danish partner, the authors' refugium and translators' centre, Hald Hovedgård near Viborg in Denmark, where I have stayed to work a few times. Peter Q, the daily manager there is of the opinion that my 6 years of maintaining a publishing website should have enabled me to relate to the topic of the seminar: Digital medias and litterature.
 I was somewhat sceptical - I mean: One thing is publishing on the net, another is being the representative of Denmark in such a joint venture. But I ignored my feelings of inferiority as best I could - I was going to Jyväskylä, the town of designer and architect Aalto - I was going to Finland for the first time in my life, and I refused to do anything but look foreward to the event with joy.

March 18. 2004 Extremely effective preparations - hotel and ticket and transportation from airport to hotel had all been booked and paid well in advance, most of us were coming the day before the seminar and would meet over dinner, and who could have anticipated that the plane between Helsinki and Jyväskylä would be cancelled for the first time in 17 years, on the very same day I was coming to Finland? But I was ready for adventure, and even if I was without a Euro in my pocket, in a city where staying outside during the night would kill you, there was no reason to panic. I had full confidence in myself, in the world - and especially in all the other travellers of the 1 1/2 hour flight, all of whom were going home for supper and definitely had no intentions of staying the night in Helsinki airport: We DID get on another flight, and I was only just late enough to miss supper, and instead stumbled straight into an easy meal and my bed at the Alba Hotel in Juväskylä.

March 19. 2004 I awoke to a day of golden sun on the frozen lake and the immense walkway/bridge glistening outside my windows. Shower and breakfast. Next meeting each other in the lobby, the participants of the seminar and the organizers. 56 Euro were handed out to cover supper and transportation, and chatting like people at a party over the first beer we walked in little groups up the ice-covered streets of Jyväskylä. "Who are you and who am I, and for what ever reason are we here?", but it really meant so insignificantly little, as we were all here on foreign ground, and sensing the feeling of Finland had greater meaning than idle chat. My inflight had been at night, but the thing about the never-ending forests and the 1000 lakes seemed to hold water just by looking out over the frozen Jyväskylä lake, and I wished I had had my iceskates to go swooooshing away to the farthest end, where the ice fishermen sat in self containing black clusters, steam rising from their mouths - at least in my mind, they did.

Matti from the local charter of the writer's union felt compelled to take us through a section of the university, designed by Alvar Aalto: inserted stories, narrow 8 meter tall walkways with balconies in two levels and at the very top a wealth of windows in the roof; in the '30s probably a miracle of light-flooding to the light empoverished Finns, but to me just one of the Nordic steps into the shapability of concrete (I am not architectonically sentimental)(showing my ignorance her...) I would also much rather be out in the Finnish snow - even if I had travelled from a Copenhagen hot with the sun of spring, and maybe, maybe not - I could not quite decide - had brought too little clothes.

In the auditorium at the university the professor of digital cultures at the university of Jyväskylä, Raine Koskimaa, took us through the book in the digital world: The book as container, the book as technology, intellectual rights and problems arising thereof, experiments with the lending of digital works, with a special view to the Nordic countries of allmost 100% literacy (our national/Danish project,, has suffered the fate of all these projects: high on tech, low on content, and the number of loaners bordering on zero, mostly, but not only, due to libraries being good at getting to the hearts of statistical problems, bad at reaching the hearts of the public, and incapable of becoming a player in the financial struggle between publisher, author and retail), Print-On-Demand and consequences and aspects hereof, experiences with mobile reading devices to replace or supplement the physical book (like rocket book, which never took off, or Gemstar, which faded from the scene in 2003), and a host of other details, his power presentation all together forming the image of the ebook as the digitized secondary to printed matter. Even if this presentation felt very low level at first, it later struck me how well it laid the ground for the following presentations: Showing me that the reading public (at least in Europe) has not yet found reason to percieve digitized matter (ebooks and etexts, well, basically eArt) as equal to printed matter and art taking place in the analog world.
  I suppose this rejection has something (or all) to do with habit. In the case of literature: The well known worn path of the mental approach to always experiencing (more or less) chronological story telling - and: "I can leave a bookmark here and return to the exact same place I left off" (not being into zen).
  I would soon see that I too was a creature of habit.
Time for lunch and 30 minutes to get an idea of who everyone is. Then on to a presentation of hyperlinked storytelling structures, our guide being poet and lecturer Deena Larsen, whose digital works are curriculum in schools and universities in the US.

Hyperlinked storytelling structures... Most stories (and many poems) on paper are fairly linear, meaning they are openly progressive in time, and they have a beginning, a middle and an end. Experiments of course do exist which deviate from the emulation of the oral storytelling tradition, meaning they go off on tangents, or bend or break the concept of linear time, but the physical medium (paper) do impose various organisational limitations to the text, which storytelling in digital media does not possess. As Deena Larsen demonstrated in many of her hyperlinked works from the last 20 year - which everyone can sense the scope of every time they click a link in a homepage, instantly to be transported somewhere else - a hyperlinked story has no beginning, middle or end. The story unfolds (not "is told", as much as "is presented" or programmed) and must be experienced as no more, and no less, than the unity with the text one creates through participating with the way the text is presented. Unlike the book there is no set way; though the parameters of the simplest hyperlinked stories ARE set - set charaters, set locations, set historical periods - their succession is not. The "reader" is thus - as opposed to the unfolding of the story when reading a physical book - co-actor in the creation of the telling: You click a link and change pace, skip to different characters, places, different historical or chronological time. The final experience therefore bears more resemblance to today's computer-gameplay of 1. a setting, 2. a controllable character, 3. winning, with the winning part left out for the time being - making of the totality of the story a joint result of programmed text and the "player's" interest in the possibilites of the story's dramatic, psychological and informative elements: If you like the elements presented, you make your own unique story, thank you ma'm!
   The first part of Deena Larsen's presentation was also a demonstration of what happens in the digital world, when technology is left behind: A very large hyperlinked story landscape "Marble Springs" of poems depicting people and locations and background information (consisting of over 3000 entries) was programmed in Hypercard, Apple's presentation software of the late 80's to late 90's - and was left behind, when Apple made the jump to OS X and UNIX. Due to contractual problems Deena Larsen had no way of porting "Marble Springs" to a later platform, or develop the presentation of the hypertext. And was thus forced to collect old harware, ancient Apple Macintosh SE's, to be able to pass on hardware to people who were interested in her early work.
   (One the second day of the seminar as people (me) had pestered her enough to show her wall of old Mac's, she finally relented.)

At this point in time I was quite frustrated. Why the hell did I take up a seat at this seminar: I really could not percieve how hypertelling could be of any help, use or advantage to us, ordinary writers. Afraid I would stray even further from what I regarded as my "serious writing", I have consciously avoided what I percieve as "the time consuming pitfall of programming" - though occupied with maintaining a website for many years, I have hardly begun to explore the many possibilities of html-programming, not to speak of anything demanding that I think programming while writing poetry - and comparing myself to the rest of the participants I felt I may have been the more experienced net-programmer all together, so... what was I doing here?
  In the following debate I subsequently managed to see myself as ultra-sceptical, three-steps-from-being-a-luddite - even though I use the computer as a tool and have done so every day for 12 years. Basically I was defending my base with everything I had, refusing to be sidetracked by this tempting demon of (as I percieved it) rational thinking... But one hour of hypertelling on paper and people improvising, playing and having fun, prepared by Deena as a workshop to show the interconnectedness of inspiration, brought me back to Earth. Good ole' Earth. Thank you, Deena.

The day ended with a lot of food and a lot of drinks, first in the Writers Union's house (threathened with closure from downsizing cultural funding...), where the poets had to go first in order to get the more established (set...) participants on to the floor, and it became really really late, and then the poets went to a bar and to a bar and to a bar and to a night club, and the female Finnish students all looked alike - but who cared, I only came to dance, and my buddies came to flirt, and I danced till I got bored, and my buddies didn't score, and I appearantly WAS adequatly dressed, as I did not freeze during the walk through the frozen night town, or maybe I had just had JUST enough to drink, and I slept like a lamb. All of four hours before returning to breakfast and the seminar hall.
  (For those of you interested in big-city stereotypes, looking for a "big fat nigger" late at night may make sense. For those of you thinking solely in sexual terms - well, have you ever found one? Suffice to say: WE didn't find any, though we came close).

20.3.2004 The body of Deena Larsen's work does not significantly transgress the boundries of "real", "coherent" litterature, but instead examines the limitations of the story: Which and/or how few narrative elements can you present, and still make it possible (or interesting) for the user/reader to create her own story? If you as programmer stay within the possibilities of the interlinked story and remain within sight of the world of linear story or poem, you are in hypertext, borderline analog/digital - text more sensitive to user interaction than a regular text, but still based on the concept of linearity: if you keep at it, at some point you will have accessed all the parts making up the programmed whole (needless to say the user enters into some sort of contract with the programmer about availability of the story parts).
 The morning's presentation by John Cayley, poet, translator of chinese and publisher, and the seminar's other foreign lecturer, should not be percieved as the logical step up from (relatively speaking) static hypertext to something more dynamic, as I first thought. There was no less text or given coherence in John's work with cybertext than in Deena Larsen's presentation of hypertext. Rather contrary, John Cayley's underlying texts seemingly stayed more restrained ("normal") and linear (probably in order to contain some mode of order in the programmed graphical or auditory de-construction of the text); but the context of the "user experience" took presedent over the telling/the story/the poem thus removing its unassailability by making the text inferior or equel to the context (would your poem be the same on paper as on a screen or on a wall or airplane banner?)
 See it this way: Linear progression in time does not suffice to "acquire" the "whole" "telling"; it is a whole with you, the user, and the setting, and time. Like in John's work "river island", where the recitation of a poem in several languages is experienced to sonically disappear and appear as the player manipulates a 3D image of a riverbed on the screen in such a way that it looks as if one is revolving in a 360 degrees circle. Like you would hear voices grow strong or faint, when you turn your head.
 For me this overlapping of text in different languages and versions points to something I have only seen grossly simplified in the computer game world of adrenaline pumping body focus: The connection between the conscious sensualism and the unpredictable surrounding world. The programmed "fuzzyness" or "unstability" of the texts is employed as a key into a presentation of the reality that everyone knows from himself: The unique state of perception when one's senses are fully unfolded and the body does not enter into a state of alert. Being at peace and able to percieve the world as one pleases, whithout disturbance.
 Many of the works of John Cayley (that I saw) contain the elements of disappearance and (re)appearance - mutations and permutations of what under "normal litterature circumstances" you would expect to be static, ie. the text, the story, the poem. In my tiny poet's heart it hurts to see the firm structure of the poems splintered, as the programming/the presentation of the text on the screen worked away at emulating unpredictability. But Cayley promised that lenghty enough spectation of these works would make it so (like in the everyday reality's observation of patterns and structures in every litte thing) that you would suddenly begin to sense the patterns of disappearance and reappearance, and would thus be able to percieve the text as a whole, allthough it would rarely and not for long be seen as a static whole on the screen. To myself I translate this to the process of reading something several times, understanding a little bit every time, but never the same bit, or at least not the bits you underlined the last time you read, but at some point you have absorbed the essence, and do no longer need chapters, indexation or personal notes.

Lunch was had in the company of all at a nearby restaurant. Just prior to leaving, the afternoon presenter, the Finnish author and researcher Marrku Eskelinen, had a tripple espresso. As to the why I have no idea - maybe he too had spend half the night out on the town - but during the first hour of his lecture he was like a caged ferocious beast, a warehuman with atrociously long intellectual fangs showing, in a roar of discontent with the whole act of dissemination, shoving the reading of a rhetorical-analytical manifest on ergodicity down the throats of the defenceless participants - who by all means took it kindly, as there was no doubt he meant everything, from the denouncement of bad literature to physically felt anger with every born and living incompetent. I never realised what ergodicity meant before returning to Denmark.
 Then he stopped himself and apologized for his caffeine provoked rage. But even if I did not understand much of his lecture, I actually was rather happy with his unprofessed dilemma of telling vs. knowing, as being forced to the edge of my limits of intellectual capacity and experience caused the remittance of my programming- and break-poems-apart phobia - and after he had drilled the seven of us through a suit of 7 programmable ways to transformation, and given us 5 minutes to come up with an application of same to a thematically representative story from a choice of our own, "it's all about building unfair games" (Marrku rocks, in his own way), I was rewarded a major insight for all my worries:

Everything is nothing but fucking programming:
I am. You are, he she it is! That is all! :
WOW! :

The readers, the normal reader and the participating hyper/cybertextual participants, are game players, DE-CODING programming placed into or "around" the text. We, who write in a normal fashion, may not think too much about what we do, when we re-break the lines of a poem, or send the hero to bed with fever over the next 10 pages. But what we do is programming a reader reaction, which the reader has to participate in, play along with. If we do it well, we will be rewarded with the player/reader's continued immersion. If we do it less well, the best that can happen is that our intent will just be accepted as flawed; the worst, that participation stops here. We program for - not necessarily result ("having read this you WILL believe in the existance of a monotheistic deity!"), but participatory framework: Believable Other Reality. Which may, or may not, change the philosophical outlook of the player/reader - but that's a different kettle of fish ;-)

What was not obvious from the title of the seminar, was that the concept of programming was the heart and core of the whole of the seminar (at least how I was able to percieve it at this point in the seminar...) - from the present majority-perception of "the book", over new media/technology interactions demanding awareness of programming as half the job, to hardcore intellectual language and consciousness theory: Coming into the world of digital media we are dealing with a way to relate to a text that utilizes a reality simulation. That is, tries to reproduce different ways of experiencing access to the world through the text, or the access to the world with the text and (just to complete the customary poetic permutation) access to the text "through or with" the world.

What became obvious is that the digital version of the programmed story(telling) is absolutely still in the making. Only 10-20 years old as an artform it is, and so few serious artists yet that interface and artists are still joined rather than apart as creator and tool - and presentation and access are in many ways still bound to the restraints of the monitor and the remnants of "old" thinking (in terms of what can be accepted/understood as literature). (Even the very experienced John Cayley was quite surprised to see how much different his own work appeared on the really big projection screen in the auditorium.)
 I am positive much can and will happen in this sensuous litterary pendent to wellknown shoot'em'up computer gaming (which basically only speak to our basic insticts). There are levels of interaction which today can only dealt with in proxy - but it is only a matter of time before programmed scenarios and "stories" can have physical consequences for the user's body. And once projections become 3D, via holograms or similar technique, "literary" gameplaying will expand from the processing-by-thought alone to other realms: One must imagine all the various ways we access our verbal and spoken language, besides the physical writing or speaking - set metaphors, synonyms, knowledge of origin (ethymology), grammar, synthax, patterns of similarity or oppositions, the list is very very long - and connect the way we think to an emulation which in some fashion makes it possible for us to interact with the underlying structure of the language building blocks, thus presenting us with new ways of percieving oral or written communicative attempt (as what we are talking about here of course are artistic twisting and turnings of set perceptions of reality). If you have trouble envisioning this, just remeber John Cayley's story of the usage of The Cave to travel through a text projected onto special goggles that made the text a stereo image of huge letters of light, and the sensation of interaction like physically floating through the story (quote: John Cayley).
 I came away from the seminar with (well termed by another participant) two years of university tutoring crammed into two days: I knew beforehand that I program my texts for specific reactions and emotions; I strive for optional control of the readers' breathing during reading; I take an interest in cognition, in reality tunnels, in the making and breaking of subjective reality, but I had not understood that this is what IS done - what people DO. That this is what any actor in life does. That reality in its real essence is programmable.

And then all of us hit town to program reality with jazz, beer and absinth. And thus had the chance to bid ice and snow goodbye in a sensible way. But good people are always hard to say goodbye to. This is a re-programming I find is hard to do: To let go. But like anything else it can be learned, once the problem is identified. If I really want to.

Kenneth Krabat - Værkstedet Cirkel    k r a b a t @ m e n n e s k e . d k
Hald Hovedgård, det danske forfatter og oversættercenter
The Baltic Ring Seminar on digital media and litterature, Juväskylä 2004
Raine  Koskimaa
Is  There a Place for Digital Literature in the  Information Society?

Deena Larsen
John Cayley
Marrku Eskelinen

Pix   Kenneth Krabat's Pix  organiser Tuija Eerola's pix  organiser Tuija Eerola's pix   Deena Larsen's pix  John Cayley's pix

last ed. feb. 3rd 2007