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Italian electronic literature | What is it?

On 13th May 2022, I gave a presentation, together with Iuri Moscardi and Prof. Massimo Riva (Brown University) at the online portion of the AAIS Digital Lab, organised by Valeria Federici (University of Maryland), titled OPERA APERTA. Theoretical and methodological approaches to digital art and literature. As a way to introduce Iuri Moscardi's project of Twitteratura, one of the genres I examine in my monograph Opera aperta. Italian electronic literature from the 1960s to the present (Peter Lang, 2022), I offered an overview of the main genres of Italian electronic literature, starting from the definition provided by the Electronic Literature Organisation (ELO) in 2004: ‘electronic literature’ refers to ‘works with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer’. It goes without saying that it would be impossible to classify the endless combinations of literary forms and media in today’s digital creativity, as they often manifest as a sort of ‘creative cannibalism’ (Funkhouser 2007). We can, however, distinguish at least four main experimental forms and practices in electronic literature in Italy, which do not exclusively pertain to electronic arts and media or digital storytelling, but have actually existed for centuries in analogue media.

The first is ‘combinatory literature’, which includes various examples of combinatory fiction and poetry generated by mainframes or computers through either the recombination of given texts or textual elements in printed texts. Italy has been a groundbreaker in the international panorama of computer poetry: the neo-avantgardist Nanni Balestrini’s poem Tape Mark I (1961), created with an IBM 7070, was one of the very first poetic experiments in computer poetry – together with Christopher Strachey’s Love Letters generator (1952), Theo Lutz’s Stochastische Texte [‘stochastic’ poems] (1959), Brion Gysin’s ‘I am that I am’ (1960) and Rul Gunzenhäuser’s automatic poems Weinachtgedicht (1961). There have been multiple variations of combinatory literature over the decades, including the intermedial transposition of fiction into web art and the recombination of its parts.

The second experimental form is ‘kinetic and interactive poetry’, that is, works involving experimentation with the animation of texts and graphical forms, using PCs or videos in conjunction with specific software, such as Adobe Flash. Although these experiments often combine literary, visual and sonic art, they have usually been recognised within the realm of avant-garde experimental literature or poetry, like Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, or the experiments of Oulipo. In Italy, as in other countries, video poetry, for example, has been considered an extension of visual poetry – or ‘new visual poetry’, as some critics call it. Gianni Toti’s video poetry, for example, laid the groundwork for this poetics in video as it experimented with creative typography and the relationship between form and meaning. Within video poetry, other significant examples include Giorgio Longo’s ‘grafomagmas’, which are combinations of poetic texts, music and video images; Luisa Lux’s ironical video poems, such as ‘Poeta’ (1996); and I Giovanotti Mondani Meccanici and their performative video poetry (1994). A very interesting and more recent example of digital poetry as a ‘superheterogenous’ genre is Fabrizio Venerandi’s Poesie elettroniche (2017), which combines combinatory poetics, visual poetry and kinetic poetry.

The third experimental form is ‘hypertext fiction/poetry’, which originated before the World Wide Web, but soon developed as a multimedia interactive genre at the intersection with video games. In Italy, the genre emerged as a form of ‘text adventure’ with Enrico Colombini’s Avventura al castello (1982). A decade later, net poetry, which involved artists and critics such as Caterina Davinio, Julien Blaine, Clemente Padin, Philadelpho Menezes, Mirella Bentivoglio, Eugenio Miccini, Lamberto Pignotti, Tomaso Binga, Massimo Mori, Francesco Muzzioli and Marco Maria Gazzano, used the hypertext extensively in their projects. More recently, the publisher Quintadicopertina, directed by Fabrizio Venerandi, has launched a new interactive series called Polistorie (2010– ), which specialises in e-book games, interactive novels, wiki novels, and interactive stories.

The fourth experimental form, which is the most relevant for today’s Digital Lab, is ’network writing’, which includes the so-called ‘new narratives’, such as blogging and micro-blogging, allowed by web 2.0 technologies, as well as the intermedia genres developed across digital platforms and printed books, such as Twitterature, Facebookature and novels generated from blogs or social networks updates, in addition to other so-called ‘divergent forms’ such as visual narratives, locative narratives, augmented and virtual reality works. Arguably, social media have effected the significant shift from electronic literature to the various forms of ‘transmedia storytelling’ (Jenkins 2006), that is, the development of a story across multiple media platforms, in which users’ input (user generated content (UGC)) plays a crucial role in the ‘agency’. David Herman’s concept of ‘storyworld’, that is, a complex story that lends itself to being articulated across the most diverse ‘creative spaces’, such as books, films, comics, entertainment parks and merchandise, lends itself to understand this new era of narrative theory. And, crucially, as Marsha Kinder emphasises in the introduction to Transmedia frictions (2014), this new phase calls for a more sociological and visual approach to narrative processes. We are not simply dealing with multimodal texts, but with a series of social and psychological practices that have extended from the user–text interaction to users-to-users interaction. Various Italian writers, such as Wu Ming, Michela Murgia, Tommaso Pincio, Francesco Pecoraro, Scrittura Industriale Collettiva and others, epitomise this category. And I would add Twitteratura as another brilliant example of “network writing”.

Last, but not least, there is a new category of ‘open works’ encompassing works of fiction or poetry, be they electronic or not, that find, as David Clark highlighted at the 2015 ELO conference in Bergen, a new life thanks to ‘software upgrades, reboots, fan remakes, episodic television, transmedia forms, gamifications, and the translations and transpositions that literary material goes through these days’. They could not be more ‘open works’, as digital media imply that literary content doesn’t ever have to end. Stories don’t need to have closure. Literature has entered a life- cycle of repetition and reproduction shaped by the quality of their literary genetics interacting with predators of reception in the new media landscape. Literary works are now more like a species than a singular life form. Or perhaps – stealing from quantum mechanics – we can say the waveform never collapses if we accept a many worlds version of literature in the digital multiverse.

Crucially, why do we need to study and reflect upon these experimental forms of Italian electronic literature? What do they tell us about Italian culture? First of all, electronic literature is not meant to replace the more traditional “print literature”. However, it tells us something important about the relationship between humans’ narrative forms, mass media and computer technologies. Secondly, like print literature, electronic literature has had various functions: it has been conceived as a form of entertainment or playful experimentation to enhance and extend the affordances and languages of literature, but it has also served political, ideological and educational purposes, offering a critical perspective on technologies and their impact on society. Every time we use certain technologies, such as PCs or social media, we accept a certain cultural logic embedded in it, as well as its symbolic forms, through which we communicate and make sense of the world. So, the creative and critical use of these technologies, as in the case of electronic literature, can play an important role in highlighting fallacies, inconsistencies and social issues.

The discussion will continue today (30 May 2022) at the in-person Digital Lab AAIS in Bologna (Palazzo Marascotti, 2.00-3.30pm), together with Prof. Riva, where I hope to highlight the connections between electronic literature and Umberto Eco’s seminal book Opera aperta which I believe to provide a useful methodological framework for analysing creative practices across literary forms and electronic media. Some of its main principles, namely interactivity, intermediality, programming and entropy, are prerequisites for most artistic works that overtly aim to experiment with co-agency as a form of interaction between authors/ humans and other machines. More soon.

Emanuela Patti

[Please note that part of this blog post is an adapted extract from Emanuela Patti, Opera aperta. Italian electronic literature from the 1960s to the present, Peter Lang, 2022]

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