Thursday, February 12, 2009

Coover at Brown

Vince Levy's special report, written after visiting Robert Coover at Brown:


Hypertext was born at Brown University. It was here that Ted Nelson developed HES – or Hypertext Editing System – in 1976. HES introduced the first digital links, allowing electronic readers to navigate between multiple texts with a mouse click. This was the start of hypertext, which in its most basic definition is text that is not constrained to a linear (or page) structure. What started with links between digital documents has expanded to text that includes sounds, graphics, videos, or as Coover has pioneered, text that can be projected in three-dimensions in a virtual reality simulator.

Ted Nelson’s development of hypertext attracted Coover to Brown, where in 1989 Coover taught the first-ever hypertext writing course. This was prior to HTML and Internet browsing as we know it, and students wrote on IRIS Intermedia, a Unix-based system of permissions and user groups that allows linking to otherwise read-only documents. Project size was limited to 240kb floppy disks, and as Coover told me himself, the whole process was very “clunky and mechanical.”

Coover has been teaching hypertext (also called “electronic writing,” or “writing digital media”) classes at Brown ever since, responding each year to the rapidly expanding abilities of digital media – HTML, the Internet, greater computing speeds and memory. Many of Coover’s undergraduate and grad-student apprentices are now leading hypertext authors/teachers across the U.S., with many works written in Coover’s classes now considered paradigm hypertext works: Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, Judy Malloy’s Its Name Was Penelope, Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden, and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl.

Coover told me that he was drawn to hypertext because its ability to break linearity was similar to his experiments to do so in page writing. Although Coover had collaborated with students on a few hypertext projects, he mainly chooses to facilitate the rise of a generation a electronic writers and not participate.

Coover believes that literary genres are determined in-part by the technology with which we are able to write, and that new types of writing will be born of the electronic writing generation. Kids who are 12 and 13, Coover told me, will grow up to be the first generation purely accustomed to reading and writing electronic texts. And who is to say that they won’t produce a new literary genre just as Cervantes, one of the first generations to be raised with bound-books in the house, produced the novel.

I’ll leave this section with a few quotes by Coover on hypertext from a 1999 talk at a digital arts and culture conference called “Literary Hypertext: The Passing Of The Golden Age.” This talk really helped me understand Coover’s creative project, the experimental behavior of what we’ve read in class, and most importantly where Coover’s literary values are located. The entire talk is very compelling, so if you’re interested I recommend checking out the rest:

“These pioneer narrative hypertexts explored the tantalizing new possibility of laying a story out spatially instead of linearly, inviting the reader to explore it as one might explore one's memory or wander a many-pathed geographical terrain, and, being adventurous quests at the edge of a new literary frontier, they were often intensely self-reflective.”

“As many of my student electronic writers remarked, we were able to read and write in the way that we think, creating and/or accessing the various elements of a narrative the way one accesses the fragments of one's life story held in memory, say, or the way that one backpacks through a strange country, making hypertext not the latest fantasy tool, but a kind of neorealism. And, once we got used to it, there was no reason we could not achieve that sort of focused, deeply imagined, "lost" reading experience we so treasured in books — finding, as the hyperpoet Stephanie Strickland has said, "an individualized, meditative space, of the kind that supports mental doodling, rest, quiet exploration in a safe space, as books were wont to give us."

“And will the new literature look like the old literature? No, it will not. Changing technologies continually reshape the very nature of the artistic enterprise. The dominant narrative forms of our times, the novel and the movie, for example, would not have been possible without the technologies that created, not so much the forms themselves, as the new audiences toward whom artists directed their endeavors, some translating the classic modes into the new technologies, others exploring the new technologies for new forms appropriate to them. This emergent expressive environment provided by the computer and the WorldWide Web is impatient with monomedia and simple self-enclosed sequences.”


The Cave is a 3D modeling program at Brown. It was developed by the science department in 1998 to study molecular structures of things like snake venom from various perspectives. Immediately Coover wanted in, but it took a few years to convince the administration to let a writer play with one of the university’s most expensive science tools. But Coover was the first to propose using sound and text in the space, and the initial work he created with students in 2000 has guaranteed his spot in the Cave since.

After many years of writing code and developing modeling programs with engineering students, the Cave now has an undergraduate writing class in its third year. It’s taught by Coover and John Cayley, a British hypertext poet that Coover brought to Brown’s staff. Their students are necessarily a mix of music studies, engineering, writing and art students, and their collaboration is essential to building a Cave narrative, which draws on all of these fields. (When sharing projects, one girl in the course had hole-punched dots from every flavor of Orbitz gum boxes, then scanned them so that they float through the Cave in a sort of galactic stream. “This one’s from RISD” Coover whispered to me.)

The actual Cave itself is a four-walled box (no rear or ceiling). Four projectors which hang in the ceiling above project images onto giant mirrors, which reflects them onto the Cave walls from behind. Rear-projection looks the same on-screen as if projected from the front, and the reason for bouncing the rear-projection off of mirrors is to save space – otherwise, the projectors would need to be about ten yards away from the Cave’s walls in either direction (the basic effect is that you’re surrounded by three TVs and standing on the forth). I thought it was quite interesting to see that Cave narratives are given through projectors and mirrors given the frequency with which these objects, and the metaphor systems associated with them, have appeared in Coover’s writing.

Inside the Cave users wear electronic 3D goggles that create a three-dimensional effect by rapidly opening and closing each lens (unlike the red/blue 3D glasses out of the cereal box). Wearing them in the Cave puts everything projected into three dimensions, as if you were given a first-person perspective in a video game. The room is now an X-Y-Z coordinate grid where words, objects, and even Orbitz dots float freely about, leap from the walls, and even pass through you. In a demo Coover put me in of a tour through a medieval castle I instinctively braced myself as I smashed through a wooden gate.

The Cave also features a master set of 3D goggles that have a motion sensor attached. This motion sensor traces the user’s gaze and movements throughout the Cave so that the virtual world responds to your position. Thus, you can “walk” through and explore a virtual world, or pick up an object up and interact with it.

To get a better idea of how these optics work, here’s a video online of a girl viewing “Screen,” a Cave narrative scripted by Coover, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Sascha Becker, Josh Carroll, Shawn Greenlee, and Andrew McClain.

At first the narrative’s text is projected onto the Cave’s walls without effect, in two-dimensions, as it is read aloud. But about 1/3 of the way through the narrative the words fly off of the walls into the room, and the user is able to grab and re-direct them using a motion-sensor glove. Even though you can see the words flying about in this video, keep in mind that you’re still only viewing this in 2D – to the girl in the Cave with the glasses on, each word is a giant 3D object, plummeting towards her in the open space of the room.


Coover describes the Cave-writing experience as most akin to script-writing. Throughout my time with him Coover discussed hypertext and Cave writing in opposition to page-writing, and his distinction between the two as forms of literature was clear.


On day two of my Brown visit I sat-in on Coover’s Exemplary Ancient Fictions course. Here, students read and analyze the “rules” of various types of ancient fictions – dream narratives, myths, creation stories, etc - and then workshop their own creative projects within these genres. When I arrived, students were sharing their dream narratives and discussing the Gilgamesh myth. Coover kept the lights off and played the Métamorphoses Nocturnes symphony to set the dream mood as class began.

With each Exemplary Fiction genre, students compile a collaborative list of the rules and characteristics of the genre, and then critique their own creative work according to how it obeys these structural limitations. As with hypertext, Coover constantly contrasts these genres with contemporary writing and authorship in discussion.

The exercises teach students how and why it’s okay to break the rules of contemporary writing, or as I’ve read Coover say in an interview, “a good tale told well.” For Coover, rule-bending and structure-breaking is acceptable when it creates and maintains its own logic.

“I’ve learned my understanding of realism from Kafka,” Coover said at one point in class discussion. “What’s real is what emerges from your metaphor as its reality. It’s not an imitation of the world itself but working through whatever metaphor you’ve created – how to keep it real … an unlikely set of elements that are held in check by a kind of realism.”

Coover ended class with another lesson on the malleability of genre by reading a Kafka parable, “Leopards In The Temple”

Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in artificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.


As I mentioned in my email, Coover has brought an international writer-in-exile to Brown under fellowship every years since 2002, starting with a visit Salman Rushdie. The writers get a year with scholarship, housing and health care to produce whatever they like. Past fellows have included French, Arabic and African authors. Coover introduced me to this year’s fellow, Ma Thida, from Burma. She’s completed a novel since arriving in October and hopes to finish two more by the end of the Fellowship. Coover is currently organizing a literary festival for her in April with other Burmese/international writers and a few of his buddies like Don DeLillo. Perhaps the festival will coincide with an end-of-the semester classroom visit to the Cave?

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