Digital humanities practice: Site-specific digital literature.
The field of electronic literature (e-literature, digital literature) which emerged at an “interdisciplinary nexus of literature, creative writing, communications, computer science, art and design” (Rettberg 2016), is increasingly associated with digital humanities. Scott Rettberg (2016) describes the creative production of electronic literature as a digital humanities practice: “not an application of digital tools to a traditional form of humanities research, but rather experiments in the creation of new forms native to the digital environment”. The rapidly changing digital environment offers writers and artists abundant opportunities for experimentation, as is evident in the diverse forms and threads of practice, such as hypertext fiction and poetry, kinetic poetry, literary apps, interactive fiction, collaborative writing projects, computer generated literature, literature in the form of social media, and site-specific digital literature. In this dynamic environment, there is also the need for approaches and critical language to understand, describe and theorise the developing narrative forms and practices.
In order to investigate these new creative and publication possibilities, an interdisciplinary practice-based research space (Byderhand) was established for the experimentation with and understanding of digital literature – especially site-specific literature. Site-specific digital literature (locative literature, place-bound literature, ambient literature) is a form of electronic literature in which multimodal texts are made available at a specific site by means of digital (especially mobile) devices. The concrete place is inherent to the creation as well as the reading or experiencing of these texts. Some international examples of site specific digital literature projects are textopia (a project by Anders Løvlie in Oslo, Norway), StoryTrek (a project developed by Brian Greenspan in Ottowa, Canada), and StreetReads and the Story City app (produced by Emily Craven in Adelaide and Brisbane, Australia). Byderhand 2015 was presented as part of the literature programme at the Clover Aardklop National Arts Festival in Potchefstroom, South Africa and was marketed as an interactive reading festival. The project consisted of four sub-projects involving different locations, genres and target readers, namely: poetry and children’s poetry in the Botanical Garden, short stories and children’s stories in a coffee shop, a story for teenagers on a local school ground, and comic strips in taxis. Readers accessed the multimodal texts by means of QR-codes scanned with their cell phones. In the poetry project (Byderhand Tuinverse) fifteen poets wrote poems for the North-West University Botanical Gardens. The poems are complemented by recordings of readings by the poets, typographic animations and musical arrangements. The user interface enables the reader to select and experience a particular rendition of a poem. The artist Strijdom van der Merwe made 15 totems to be displayed with the poems, thus combining digital art and tangible art. In 2016 translations of the poems in English and Setswana were added to the selection. For more information on the project see www.byderhand.net.
Byderhand 2015 could be considered as an experimental publication system and involved the aspects of production, marketing and distribution, mediation and reception of texts. Rettberg (2011) argues that since a publishing industry for electronic literature doesn’t yet exist, the collaborative effort in the creation, publication and distribution of electronic literature is more clearly evident than in the traditional publishing industry where the collaboration has become invisible to a large extent. In experimental literature the roles of designers, artists and editors are usually more clearly identified and acknowledged. The post-project reflection of Byderhand 2015 confirmed that this liminal zone is indeed a good place to experiment with and to describe processes, collaboration and new cultural forms.
The question examined in this paper is how the interaction and interplay in this experimental publication system for site- specific digital literature can be understood and represented, so that it can be of value to: 1) the conceptualisation and presentation of site-specific digital literature projects; 2) the understanding, description and analysis of multimodal site- specific digital literature. A multimodal ensemble for site-specific literature has been compiled, which relied on Miller’s (2011) key elements of digital media, Kress and Van Leeuwen’s (2001) multimodal theory of communication, and Page’s (2011) multimodal ensemble for narrative analysis. Three dimensions of the composition and orchestration are distinguished in the proposed multimodal ensemble for site-specific digital literature, namely: 1) the components of site- specific digital literature; 2) communicative practices and technical processes; and 3) immersive experiences.