Between the Narrator and the Narrative
based on a talk presented at the Modern Language Association Conference, NYC,
December 29, 1992
The congruence in my work
of poetry, information, and visual art
stems from the "eruption of language
in the field of visual arts"  in the 1960's and 70's
when John Baldassari, Lew Thomas, Alexis Smith,
Ed Rusha, Ben Vautier, John Cage, Alison Knowles,
Laurie Anderson, Arakawa, Joseph Beuys, Hans Haacke,
and others (bred on Jack Burnham
and Rosalind Krauss, on Douglas Davis,
on Joseph Kosuth's "Art After Philosophy")
began making art in which *word* based criticism,
and/or philosophy, and/or process *was* the work.
Like Sol LeWitt's SUNRISE & SUNSET AT PRAIANO,
Jennifer Bartlett's RHAPSODY,
or Lew Thomas's GRASS, SAND, CLOUDS,
my work is molecular.
"The field is one order," Thomas says,
"a whole parcel, in which the random parts are
blended together by the illusion of similar
textures...To reiterate: photographs of
grass, sand or clouds transmit their meaning
relative to the development of ideas
involving scale, setting, randomness and order. 
"In other words," Robert Leverant says in the
book that accompanied the
seminal 1976 PHOTOGRAPHY AND LANGUAGE show
"the single snapshot is unsatisfying to many
young photographers, and thus multi-media,
sequential, multiple image, and conceptual
photography have developed.
In these approaches snapshots are used molecularly
and the possibilities of the snapshot
are as vast and infinite as the Mind itself." 
The seeds of an interactive art
(that involves and connects the audience/reader);
the seeds of computer art in which the artist is cloaked
in the persona of the narrator,
in which social content is as primary as structure,
lie in performance art like Paul Cotton's
that in the 1970's integrated art with life,
like ROBERTA BREITMORE where Lynn Hershman *became* Roberta
like Tom Marioni's
THE ACT OF DRINKING BEER WITH FRIENDS IS THE
HIGHEST FORM OF ART
The seeds of information organization
in my work come
from earning a living working with information systems.
In 1965, I rolled up and down the aisles
of The Library of Congress Annex
editing entries for the Union Catalog
that was produced, at that time,
from a huge room that contained thousands of
3x5 cards filed in open file trays,
and in 1969 I was co-designer/programmer
of a computerized card catalog
for Ball Brothers Research Corporation in Boulder, Colorado
From these and other jobs jobs I took the idea of
and the practice with *MANIPULATION* of information
and added it to my molecular, text-centered art.
I began to think in terms of catalog cards
and database records -
small but meaningful pieces of information
that could stand by themselves
but could also be manipulated - combined with other images
to make a whole with greater meaning -
such as WIGGLY BUSH MEADOW  a visual information
installation Doyle Saylor and I produced
in the San Francisco Public LIbrary
in the late seventies
that consisted of maps, videos, small books,
large paper quilts and trays of filed words and pictures.
In my "narrabase" structure,
narrative poetry is shuffled,
continuously changes order,
so that the reader is like a traveler in a forest
where fallen leaves from many trees
rustle intermingled on the October ground.
He or she remembers the way the woods looked in July
or anticipates the way the woods will look in April.
He or she sees the tracks of horses on the path
and remembers and the horses
that walked there in the morning.
For my "narrabase" UNCLE ROGER,
that began running on
Art Com Electronic Network on the WELL in 1986,
I designed complex structures and interfaces of
keyed paths that were appropriate to the
convoluted Silicon Valley society in which
Uncle Roger, a semiconductor market analyst,
In contrast, in 1990,
for my narrabase ITS NAME WAS PENELOPE,
I designed a simple interface that would
reflect the photographer narrator's
clear, direct vision and that would connect
(rather than stand between) the narrator and
In ITS NAME WAS PENELOPE, the reader is given,
at the will of the computer's pseudo-random number generator,
a series of individual screens -
each, like a photo in a photo album, representing a
picture from Anne's memory --- so that the
work is like a pack of small paintings or
photographs that the computer continuously shuffles.
The reader is invited to step into Anne's mind,
to see things as she sees them,
to observe her memories come and go
in a natural, radically nonsequential manner
that creates a constantly changing order -
like the raveling and unraveling of Penelope's web.
In my narrabase, THE YELLOW BOWL, the contrast
between the narrator's "true" memories
and the ways she distorts them to shape the story
places the reader on the uneasy ground
between the narrator and the narrative.
The narrator is a single parent whose name is Grace.
As the reader moves back and forth between the
sequential, fictional stories about Helen and Clara
that Grace tells her daughter
and the randomly displayed, "true" memories
that she distorts to shape this story,
separate but related narratives emerge.
THE YELLOW BOWL integrates two disparate structures
used in my earlier works -
the narrabase structure I used with variations
in UNCLE ROGER and ITS NAME WAS PENELOPE
and the "narrative data structure"
used in THIRTY MINUTES IN THE LATE AFTERNOON
and in WASTING TIME.
Narrative data structures utilize
the computer's capabilities
for fluid, animated text display
rather than its capabilities of manipulating information.
Mine evolved from a dream I had
in which information about waste streams
(I worked for a company that dealt with
environmental technology at that time)
was displayed in three separate but
parallel streams of text that spewed side by side
in readable type size from
overhead printers on an auditorium stage.
In THIRTY MINUTES IN THE LATE AFTERNOON,
a collaborative narrative data structure
that I produced on Art Com Electronic Network on the WELL
3 characters were developed simultaneously by 15 writers,
using the WELL's topic system.
The group-written thoughts and actions of the 3 characters
were then displayed in 3 parallel columns of text.
In the YELLOW BOWL, two parallel stories move
sequentially, in narrative data structure style
on the peripheral
dominated by the huge randomly accessed "Grace Files"
that loom in the conceptual center.
Grace tells Martha related stories
about two strong woman characters.
inside "The Grace Files"
it becomes apparent that Grace's recent separation and divorce
are what are on her mind -
that split feeling that one has
when a long term relationship breaks up -
a "halved" feeling triggered in Grace's mind
(so that without her full knowledge, it drives the story)
when, the Yellow Bowl, an heirloom artifact
that had belonged to her mother-in-law
accidentally breaks as the narrabase begins.
The feeling of separation, the desire of the
child to have his/her separated parents
reunited/ the idea that she and Gary might
get back together are not what Grace thinks
she is saying,
but these things dominate the randomly generated "Grace Files"
as Helen and Clara move slowly towards each other in
separate, parallel tracks.
"The word random is a problem," Harold Cohen
says about his AI based AARON. ".....The
curious thing is that if we were to see a
human artist do what Aaron was doing, we
might say he was drawing spontaneously, but I
don't think we would ever suppose he was
drawing randomly......." 
In my narrabases, I use *whole* (screensized)
lexias of poetic information
that can stand by themselves,
but that also imply larger narratives
when combined by the reader/computer.
These implied narratives are never unexpected by me
as I know what I have put into the databases that comprise my works
and why I put it there.
"One theme that characterizes twentieth century
science, " Cohen says
"is the power and ubiquity of
randomness. It isn't that the rules of the
universe are suddenly suspended - all those
carefully teased-out laws of science - its
just that randomness operates within them,
producing not so much random as contingent
Contingent: "liable to occur but not with certainty;
possible; dependent on conditions ot events
not yet established."
Contingent/contingency, "their relentless contingency" 
words that occur often in Terry Harpold's
and Stuart Moulthrop's writings.
Given the many possibilities of navigatible path combinations,
I am not sure that in Storyspace hypertexts
"the attention of an observer simply becomes shifted
from one geometry to another" as Martin Rosenberg claims. 
However, there is a difference
between the contingency of linear, writerly, narrative paths
and the contingency of the radically nonsequential,
visual, monitor framed texts in ITS NAME WAS PENELOPE.
In the YELLOW BOWL, the contrast between
the linear flow of the Helen and Clara stories
and the disorienting, nonsequential Grace files
creates a slightly different kind of contingency
as the reader is thrown back and forth
between the narrator's memories and the narrative.
A reader might see this record from "The Grace Files":
He approached the tent where I was sitting sewing
Sometime later or before,
- a middle-aged man with brittle brown hair.
He opened his raincoat, under which,
like some newspaper story flasher,
he had nothing on.
Holding his hand on his erect penis and gesturing with it
in my direction, he said:
perhaps not at all,
this same reader might encounter this record
that takes place during Helen's journey:
The man opened his white lab coat
From within the Clara file,
and drew and a shiny orange red mushroom with rough white spots
and brilliant white stem
from an inside pocket.
He held it is his hand gesturing with it in Helen's direction.
Do you want some? he asked Helen politely.
the reader might
read these words:
Elliott was a thin man who moved like the snakes Clara had seen
and contingently read these words
in the old nature videos her father edited sometimes
to make new game segments.
He looked at her though thick eyelashes.
"You want me to take you back to Thecity Road
in the rusted truck?
We'll see. I don't think so," he said.
"Do you want to dance?"
in the Grace Files:
Like a snake slithering into tall grass
beside an old asphalt road in Kentucky,
Ralph edged onto the kitchen stool
with the plate of tofu held steadily in both hands.
1. Prinz, Jessica. Art Discourse/Discourse
in Art. New Brunswick, NJ. Rutgers
University Press, 1991. p.
2. Thomas, Lew. Structural(ism) and Photography.San Francisco, CA, NFS
3. Leverant, Robert, Ontology of the
snapshot. IN: Photography and Language. Lew
Thomas, editor. San Francisco, Camerawork
Press, 1976. p. 11
4. WIGGLY BUSH MEADOW, San Francisco Public Library,
April 18-May 27, 1978 (with Doyle Saylor;
sponsored by La Mamelle, inc. as part of the LOCATION project;
partially funded by the NEA)
Carl Loeffler's La Mamelle was
an artists space that evolved into
Art Com and then into Art Com Electronic Network.
Carl, constantly moving, always one step ahead of the times,
catalyst,integrator was responsible for pulling me online
5. McCorduck, Pamela
Aaron's code, meta-art, artificial
intelligence, and the work of Harold Cohen.
NY, Freeman, 1991. 225 p. (pp. 66-67)
6. ibid. p. 67
7. Harpold, Terence. "The Grotesque Corpus"
Perforations no. 3 Spring/Summer 1992
8. Rosenberg, Martin. "Contingency, Liberation
and the Seduction of Geometry: Hypertext as an
Avant-Garde Medium" Perforations no. 3 Spring/Summer 1992