Category Archives: Digital Transformations

‘A real reconfiguration’ – an interview with the writer Kate Pullinger

I went to the British Library the other day for a workshop — a small, invited group discussion — about digital transformations in and of literature and the publishing industry. The event was convened by novelist Kate Pullinger (whose 2009 novel, The Mistress of Nothing won the Governor General’s Literary Award in Canada) together with Professor Janis Jefferies and Dr Sarah Kember, both of Goldsmiths. The workshop might lead to further conversations and research, which would be great because while there are currently quite a lot of events discussing these types of issues, the panels are almost always weighted towards publishers and it is not so often that writers are actually invited to speak, something that Kate herself has blogged about recently. This always feels like an oversight because writers can be quite active in exploring the kinds of innovation that new publishing models offer and some are pushing just as hard at boundaries of platform and format and engagements with readers to explore and shape what the futures of storytelling and publishing might be.

Maybe it is my experience of working at the Arts Council which has taught me that it is often artists – in the broadest sense – who lead the way in discovering and exploring the possibilities and implications of new media, and that it is a fundamental challenge for the slower-moving organisations and agencies, whether publishers or funders, to try to keep up. As a writer myself I’ve also been aware that although one might sign over ebook rights in a novel this doesn’t mean a publisher can or will do anything with those rights, and that one needs to use any opportunity to experiment with new ways of reaching readers. You can’t just sit back and wait for the next book to come out and see what a publisher might do for you at that point, as if it is something in which you have no agency yourself.

I met up with Kate Pullinger back in the spring to discuss some of these ideas. We’d both just been to The Story conference at London’s Conway Hall, so I started off by asking what impressions Kate had taken away from the event…

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‘I guess I came away with that it was a good day, because it goes in so many directions at the same time. And also unlike Book Camp and a huge number of these day-long conferences I go to, it was about story, it wasn’t about publishing, which I suppose they so often are. But also it was a slightly frustrating day, which I suppose is inevitable: there are bits that you want more of and bits that you want less of, and that’s quite subjective. I suppose the two talks that have lingered with me for the longest is the Adam Curtis which wound everybody up, but in an interesting way.’

For the benefit of readers who weren’t at The Story conference, Curtis had been previewing some of the ideas from his then still forthcoming documentary series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, subsequently broadcast on TV in the UK by BBC 2 in May 2011. His suggestion in Conway Hall, that we’re all unaware of the power structures behind the internet, social media and the web 2.0, or that artists are somehow failing to deal with this, was treated as a revelation by some and as incredibly naïve by others; myself included. Speak for yourself, mate! I’d thought. Where have you been for the past two decades? Haven’t you heard of Heath Bunting?

‘It definitely provoked a divided response,’ says Kate. ‘But his work always makes me feel both those things. I always think, “Oh you’re a total lunatic,” but also I think, “Oh you’re absolutely right!” And then the other presentation that I thought was really revealing was Phil Gyford’s talk about his The Diary of Samuel Pepys online project, because of the extraordinary, multi-platform delivery that he’s gone for with that. And I was really interested in the whole business of the tweeting and all these people around the world tweeting back to him in character. Did you hear that one? And it’s been going on for years, and it’s got all these people passionately involved with it, which is extremely difficult to achieve. And I think he has done that in this slow methodical way but also that he’s been very clever in the way he’s added new platforms and new aspects to the project from it’s humble beginnings as a web-site, and he has taken his audience with him and found new audiences at the same time. Because I do think that that is the hardest thing to do. You know, you can attract a lot of attention by making a big splash, but then to actually keep it and keep it growing in a way that isn’t flashy is a real achievement.’

The network of relationships and conversations that have built up around The Diary of Samuel Pepys reflects something that’s also happened in a really big way with Inanimate Alice, a transmedia project, a kind of digital novel, that Kate and co-writer Chris Joseph have written for creator and producer Ian Harper. Kate tells me that the fourth and last episode of Inanimate Alice was published in around 2008, but that since then people have been making their own follow-ups.

‘This is largely pedagogically driven,’ she suggests. ‘Which was not anticipated, but there are the four episodes that we’ve published and then there is this absolute plethora of episode fives that have been created all over the world, usually in educational settings, but those settings range from primary secondary to higher education, as well as lots of people using it with learning disabled kids. So Inanimate Alice has got this very active life of its own which was definitely unanticipated initially, but from fairly early on while we were creating the episodes it became apparent that teachers were using it. And early on, sort of around the episode two stage, Ian commissioned a colleague of mine at De Montfort University to create some lesson plans that could be used in classrooms and were freely available to download, and which turned out to be exactly what teachers wanted. So that little bit of encouragement has led on to this really very large and active pedagogical community growing up around the project. The Facebook page and the twitter feed are just remarkable!’

So apart from that initial small investment in the lesson plans to support the work, this is all happening without additional funding? People are putting their own enthusiasms and passions into it?

‘Yes, exactly! At the moment there’s a librarian in the US called Lara Fleming who is very active in promoting it as a tool for digital literacy, and there are a couple of teachers in Scotland and a couple of educationalists in Australia and they’ve sort of formed a bit of an ad hoc team, and again with no funding, and that’s been very fascinating.’

There is a pause while one of Kate’s children texts her: ‘If they’re asking me a question I’d better answer.’ Then: ‘I wished I’d been at the first Story conference,’ she says, ‘because were there any writers this year?’

Well, there was Graham Linehan talking about his writing process. And Matt Adams of Blast Theory opened with the presentation about Ivy4evr, the interactive SMS drama we’d made for Channel 4 and which I’d written, but no you’re right, last year there was Tim Etchells, Cory Doctorow and myself on stage, so there were fewer writers in that sense.

‘Oh yeah, Matt explained Ivy4evr really well,’ says Kate. ‘The “story ladder” idea – which is a great term for that type of storytelling. He explained it really clearly.’

I always joke that I’m more intelligent when I’m in the same room as Blast Theory, but the collaboration really forced me to look at writing more closely and in a different way than I had before, and actually the kinds of notation that we had to develop to understand and work with the forms of interactivity at the heart of the project really were mind-expanding! Also fascinating were the huge amounts of data and feedback that were generated and we are able to access and draw upon at every stage of every exchange between the players and ‘Ivy’.

‘We were sitting there listening,’ says Kate, ‘Sue Thomas and I, and saying, “There has to be some kind of AI [artificial intelligence] here,” but Matt didn’t really discuss that aspect of the project.’

Maybe you’re right, I say, because thinking about it I noticed that people reviewing the presentation – who hadn’t played Ivy4evr – were saying things like, ‘Ivy4evr looks like it runs on rails‘, and I was thinking NO it doesn’t! It’s so interactive, that’s why it took so bloody long to write. You know, the script was this vast spreadsheet of different fields and fragments and possibilities – all of it completely automated – and what it absolutely was not was simply a succession of decision points that led you down different, branching pathways like those old style, ‘now-turn-to-page-36′, so-called interactive novels. Sometimes the interactivity might come from the engine/’Ivy’, remembering profile data about you, or remembering something that you’d said a few messages back, but mostly it was from the engine reading and parsing and understanding what you were saying back to her! And the script had to be open enough to accommodate the assemblage of messages composed from many different sources but which each still needed to feel like a ‘discrete’ unit of communication. However it was composed, each message had to function and be understood as a single, coherent text message of 160 characters that had been written by one person, by Ivy, in response to the user’s last message.

‘Is that project still “live”?’ Kate asks. ‘Will it have new iterations?’

Well, I would love it if it did, because it was so interesting for me as a writer: having the chance to test every sentence, you know, almost every word, with these ever larger user groups against all kinds of criteria: to test, rewrite, test, rewrite, and also to learn from the kinds of language that the players we were testing with were using. Matt Locke who commissioned Ivy4evr for Channel 4 talks about ‘call and response cycles’ in new kinds of storytelling, and what was amazing with Ivy… or certainly a revelation for me as a writer was that we were able to build that call and response not just into the way the finished work functions, but also into the actual development of the writing. So I think that next time I start a new novel — I’m just finishing a novel at the moment which I started before Ivy4evr – I’m really going to miss, you know, being able to test each paragraph on readers at such an early stage.

But also it’s interesting because Ivy4evr is a text message conversation. This means that each player writes half of their version of the story themselves, with the messages they send to Ivy, which is fascinating in terms of where you think any actual story is located, and as a writer setting up something like that it is not just about laying out tracks.

‘No, no,’ Kate quickly agrees, ‘it’s a much more meaningful form of interactivity.’

It’s about people having a direct engagement that sneaks in under the radar, and producing the work themselves in a way, which is a difficult thing to fit into a traditional idea of what publishing is.

‘Absolutely! It’s not difficult for you and I.’

Or for the people who are playing it!

‘But it is very difficult indeed,’ Kate picks up the thread, ‘for anyone in traditional publishing to get their head around. There are a lot of challenges. I think that when I first started working on digital fiction projects nearly a decade ago I had this assumption that these two worlds that I was inhabiting you know digital fiction and print – for want of a better term for it – were going to merge, and to me that seemed not only possible but desirable. But it’s not happening. It’s not really happening. And the ways in which the publishing industry think that it is happening are in fact false, so the whole business of the digitisation of publishing, from the digitisation of work-flow all the way through to the rapid rise of the ebook, and all the other stuff, you know, the enhanced versions of ebooks etc. that’s all still completely about traditional publishing, even though it’s digital. And the idea that I had, that people who were interested in writing and interested in stories, and interested in finding audiences and readers for stories, would be interested in using these new technologies to explore new ways of telling stories is not true, it’s just not true. And that’s because, there’s a lot of reasons for it I think one of them is that the publishing industry is an old industry and it’s about selling books, and for them to deviate from that in any way is a big thing. But there has been a real reconfiguration of the relationship that writers and readers can have, through social media, through book clubs and online versions of book clubs. I do think that is really happening, I mean you just have to look at someone like Ian Rankin or Margaret Atwood to see how they use those social media tools really effectively to communicate really directly.’

And some publishers, I say, like Faber, who have been quite quick to recognise that all of these other kinds of conversations which happen around the book, things like writing classes and retreats, archives (the courses that novelist Anna Davis is leading for the literary agency Curtis Brown is another example) can be commodified…

‘Curated and utilised in a commercial sense? Absolutely! I think that there are lots of clever things happening like that. I think World Book Night was an example of that. But when it comes to new forms, it is not happening. And whether or not it will I really have no clear idea about. I think I feel more pessimistic about it than I used to. But also I’m questioning whether or not it is actually a desirable thing to bring the two things together! Maybe I’ve just been misguided for the last decade, even thinking that was a good idea.’

So that old distinction between the writer working in print and the writer working in digital media still holds. From what you’re saying that is still very much the situation.

‘Yes and, say, the huge audience that Inanimate Alice has grown and which has remained loyal to it, has no interest to a traditional publisher, and that has continued to baffle me. And I think the other side of the story is that most writers aren’t driving it. Most writers aren’t interested in it either. Most writers in the traditional sense of a writer who writes books, they’re not interested. They’re fearful of it. Don’t you think that’s true?’

Well, a writer friend of mine who is otherwise very very engaged with the web and has been for the past decade, also keeps surprising me by coming out with ideas about piracy which are based on the same old ‘Home taping is killing music‘-type of arguments. But if traditional writers in the main are suspicious of the possibilities or the challenges that digital media presents to their understanding of what writing is and how writing functions and how they can earn their living as a writer and all of those things, then who are the people who are going to be telling the stories that rise to the challenge. Where is innovation coming from, Kate, as far as you see it?

‘I think it’s coming from a number of different directions really. I think there are lots of interesting writers who work in the digital realm who have nothing to do with book publishing. Maybe not lots and lots of them, but it’s definitely an emerging field and with emerging business models as well. Which has been the thing that has lagged but is now happening because of the App Store and things like that. It’s just simpler to sell stuff now than it used to be. And I think these people come from different directions. It’s quite common for them to come from a film background or the art world, with the cross over of net art and digital arts. But I think those people see themselves as entirely separate from the book publishing world. And then of course there’s a whole lot of people who are interesting in trying to get in to that realm who come from games and web design. The most successful are people like Six to Start and Enhanced Editions. And certainly in the UK at the moment there does seem to be a field that’s kind of bubbling at the moment and they seem to either not need writers or simply to find a writer if they need one. Probably using a model like you working with Blast Theory. Those kind of hybrid organisations seem to be doing really interesting things.’

Kate is currently Reader in Creative Writing and New Media at De Montfort University, Leicester, so I ask what she thinks are some of the challenges that young artists, young writers, face with this kind of fragmentation of traditional book publishing, and where the infrastructure that it depends upon is shrinking and changing. You know, the amount of retail space available for books on the high street shrinking so rapidly. How if at all does she see young people, students, responding to the challenge?

‘I do think that it is finding new ways of publishing. I’m using the word publishing in a very broad sense and I’m reluctant to use the term “self-publishing” because of all the connotations that it brings with it, because it is what it is. Because that’s what Inanimate Alice is. Inanimate Alice is self-published, but to use the term “self-published” or even worse, a journalist I did an interview with in Canada last week described it as “fiction for free”!’

Free in a bad way?

‘Yeah, in the worst possible way. So side-stepping the connotations of those phrases, finding ways to publish that are meaningful and that work with what they’re trying to publish. And again I think I’ve been so interested to see for example there’s this poet called Jörg Piringer who has been on the digital poetry scene for a long time and he’s started publishing his work as apps. He recently published this very beautiful kind of poem-game that is called abcdefgall the way to z; one word. And it costs like $1.99 and as of Christmas 2010 he’d sold 30,000 copies. So I think that those kinds of ways of collectively publishing or new ways of publishing are the things that that generation and younger are going to be looking at. Except you can’t just stick it out there, you have to have the networks to support it, don’t you. You have to be part of a complex network of connections in order for it to work. Which is why it worked for Jörg, through his being active in the e-poetry world.’

Which is not new.

‘No, that’s not new, Tony, no. It’s been like that for centuries.’

I tell Kate that I do occasional bits of teaching too, and that I often find students really hung up on the idea that, ‘I will get myself an agent and I will get myself a publisher’ and that’s what being a writer is, you know. That is the only model: novel, agent, publisher. So I’m always saying to them, you know, yes, maybe that will happen, yes maybe it will but don’t wait. If you can find a community now by doing open mic nights, live literature events, getting a short story published in a magazine, or selling a pamphlet or giving a pamphlet away or whatever suits your work, finding or building a community of interest around what you do, then you’re beginning to build a relationship with readers and that’s the key thing, to create spaces for those kinds of engagements.

‘Absolutely, and as you say there’s nothing new about it at all. I also think there’s something I often used to say that the book was an obstacle that prevented people thinking about the future of storytelling because people are so in love with the book, but I think that’s changing. But I also think that people are in love with the idea of the solitary author, the lone author in ‘his’ garret, and that all these kinds of projects that we’re talking about don’t fit with that model at all. They’re much more to do with collaborative networks and communities and it’s a kind of psychological barrier in a way you’ve got this object of the book and the person alone in there.’

So how do you see that changing, Kate, or do you think that’s too deeply ingrained?

‘I don’t know. I’ve just been trying to think about that lately but I haven’t come to any conclusions, because it does still exist as well: the lone artist in their garret who produces their first book and it turns out to be a huge best seller. It happens!’

Yeah, and that’s a great story in itself! People never get tired of hearing that… Zooming out slightly now: for a short story commission I’m working on at the moment I’ve been looking at photos that the artists Jane and Louise Wilson have been taking in Pripyat, the deserted town in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine. One interesting thing, to me, is that in these photos everything of any value, whether it’s floor boards, wiring, everything, has been stripped out of every building, everything with any scrap value, apart from books. So all the school rooms still have all the books on the shelves that were there when the town was evacuated. And I love this this idea of books being the things that have lasted there and the ambivalence of that. Does it say something about the persistence of books or does it say that they have absolutely no value? Or both things at once? Is that a useful metaphor?

‘I saw or read yesterday, someone was re-tweeting this story about one of the towns on the northern coast of Japan, a town that following the earth quake and the tsunami and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima has absolutely no infrastructure left, and how the local newspaper has been creating hand-written, hand-made copies of the paper, like four or five handmade copies that are posted in strategic places in the town.’

That sounds familiar. I just wrote a story for the Russian Club Gallery and while I was there I found a discarded copy of a one-page broadside edition of the Daily Express from the third day of the UK General Strike in 1926. And it is such a reduced idea of what a newspaper is — simply one foolscap page, printed on one side — and yet it still functioned. This one was printed on card, I guess so that it could be stuck on the wall in a pub. Similarly a few months ago I was writing about the Cartonera publishers, the really innovative street publishing movement that started during the economic crash in Argentina of 2003 and which has now spread to almost every major South American city. These are all developments in publishing that have nothing to do with technology but everything to do with the future.

‘Yeah, well, that’s why I was so interested and it was so appropriate that that tweet about the newspaper in Japan had come from Margaret Atwood, because that’s one of the things that she bangs on about, you know, that digital is completely fine with her, but what happens when the grid fails? — being the dystopian writer that she is. And so the Cartonera movement, or this example of these hand-written newspapers in Japan, is absolutely an example of just that: publishing when the grid fails.’

Actually I think that is a really optimistic note to end on!

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Kate Pullinger, The Mistress of Nothing, is published by Serpent’s Tail, £7.99

Ksenija Bilbija and Paloma Celis Carbajal (eds), Akademia Cartonera: A Primer of Latin American Cartonera Publishers, is published by Parallel Press/University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, $40.00

As in free speech

Just back from a very enjoyable weekend of performing and compering at the Free University of Glastonbury. Here are a few photos…

On Friday I read from the satirical stream of filth consciousness sentience that is my novel CHARLIEUNCLENORFOLKTANGO.


Compering on Saturday I had a very interesting conversation with Dorian Lynskey about 33 Revolutions per Minute, his fascinating history of protest songs.


Also on the Saturday programme were Bad Science author Ben Goldacre, comedy writer Emma Kennedy, as well as comedian Marcus Brigstocke who spoke about his new book, but the highlight was interviewing the one and only Suggs for a heaving tentful of Madness fans.

Suggs is a lovely bloke and a great raconteur, so his forthcoming one-man show should be a blast. Keep your ears open for news of this in the autumn. Like me he is also a big fan of Resonance 104.4 fm and gave it a plug or two during our chat.

What I’d been looking forward to the most was performing my recently published short story ‘A Porky Prime Cut’, with live accompaniment from UK acid house pioneer Richard Norris on the Saturday evening. We didn’t get any photos of that, sadly, but it went so well that we’re going to do a studio version at some point very soon. More news on that as and when. In the meantime…

…to underline the Free University of Glastonbury’s belief in both freedom of speech AND free beer, we also gave away copies of a strictly limited print edition of ‘A Porky Prime Cut’. I’ve got a few spares of this to give away, so message me if you would like to lay your hands on one.

Free University of Glastonbury 2011

Lots of last minute preparations for this year’s Free University of Glastonbury which is the name of the festival’s literary strand (not quite as described by the Observer). I did an event for the Free University of Glastonbury for the first time last year and really enjoyed it, so I was delighted to be asked back. All of the Free University events take place in the hula-styled environs of the HMS Sweet Charity stage, in The Park area of the festival site. There are some great people involved this year, see the full programme just received from FUOG instigator Mathew Clayton below (which was definitive as of last night and which differs slightly from the info on the festival website).

I’m performing on Friday lunchtime around 12:15, compering the Saturday lunchtime session, and then in a special late addition to the bill I’m performing with UK acid house legend Richard Norris on Saturday afternoon at 17.30.

I’m really excited about this. Richard has composed a new backing track which he’ll be mixing live as an accompaniment to my story ‘A Porky Prime Cut’, which I first performed at my National Portrait Gallery gig (with bass player Simon Edwards) a month or two back.

In as much as it is about anything, ‘A Porky Prime Cut’ is a kind of collision between Throbbing Gristle’s design aesthetic and the Bournemouth funk, soul and zine scenes of the early ’80s – via vinyl obsession, the history of acid house, art school and the cryptic etched messages of UK record pressing maestro George Peckham a.k.a. the ‘Porky’ of the title. It’s fantastic to be doing this gig with Richard, not least because he is a real pioneer of the British acid house scene: as part of Psychic TV he co-produced their Jack the Tab ‘compilations’ in 1988.

To celebrate the Free University of Glastonbury gig with Richard, a strictly limited edition print version of ‘A Porky Prime Cut’ will be available free on the night while stocks last.

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For the Friday gig I’m probably going to be rambling about various things like this,

and this,

as a kind of preamble to talking about this,

and reading from my novel CHARLIEUNCLENORFOLKTANGO (which I’ve blogged about here and here).

I’ve barely taken in the rest of the festival programme, although my friend Tim Etchells has just posted some amazing photos of his illuminated sign which was installed in the Shangri-La area last weekend (note the moody-looking sky).

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The 2011 Free University of Glastonbury programme (in order of appearance) :

Friday:

12:15 Tony White

13:00 Jon Ronson

14:00 Mark Thomas

Saturday

11:30 Dorian Lynskey

12:15 Suggs

13:00 Emma Kennedy

13:45 Ben Goldacre

Intermission

16:40 Marcus Brigstocke

17:30 Richard Norris/Tony White

Sunday

11:30 Gavin Knight

12:15 Richard King

13:00 Matthew De Abaitua

13:45 Edwyn Collins and Grace Maxwell

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New feature – short story bibliography

I’ve added a new feature/page to the blog: a short story bibliography (click here or find it via the navigation bar above). The list begins with a story called ‘Title Track’ from 1994, and runs to what at time of writing is my most recent short, ‘Auto-destructive Arts Policy’, which was published a month or so ago. This bibliography is very much a work in progress and it will be tweaked and updated as needed. I’ve added a brief explanatory note (or list of excuses):

…basic bibliographical information about forty-odd editions of I think twenty-seven short stories published since 1994 [...] in roughly chronological order. It does not yet include ISBNs (where these exist), links to publishers’ websites or places where the stories can be purchased, watched or listened to, nor (quite) every online or print edition of some stories. [Where] I can’t lay my hands on a particular physical edition I have been unable to provide page numbers. Asterisks denote that to the best of my knowledge a particular story or edition is definitely out of print.

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but the information was so dispersed, the stories published in such varying editions and formats by numerous publishers, art galleries and museums, magazines and journals etc., that it has taken much longer than I thought to get to this stage.

More info as I find it…

Free MP3 of A Porky Prime Cut live at the NPG

Thanks to Gabriel Thorp at the National Portrait Gallery, London, who grabbed a digital recording off the desk during my Dirty Literature gig with Tim Etchells on 18 March 2011.


Creative Commons Licence
A Porky Prime Cut © Tony White, 2011; Music © Simon Edwards, 2011. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Feel free to extract the MP3 from this player (e.g. using the Firefox add-on ‘Download Helper’) if you prefer to listen using your own MP3 software or device.

Electra who put the event together will be putting the recording of the whole gig on their site very soon. Regular readers will know that I’ve been very excited to work with bassist Simon Edwards on this, so I wanted to make the live recording of ‘A Porky Prime Cut’ with Simon’s funk bass accompaniment available as a standalone piece of audio in its own right too. This is also a chance to test out the WordPress audio player for the first time, so as ever feedback is welcome.

You can download ‘A Porky Prime Cut’ as a free ebook courtesy of James Bridle’s excellent Artists’ eBooks site. We’re also hoping to put this recording on to the EPUB file as an extra.

I hope you enjoy it.

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Acknowledgements: ‘A Porky Prime Cut’ by Tony White is part of Digital Transformations, an arts project using photography, film, sound, mapping, creative writing, web design and exhibition to raise the profile of the communities of Kinson, Townsend and West Howe in Bournemouth. Digital Transformations is coordinated and curated by SCAN with Bournemouth Libraries and Arts, and Bournemouth Adult Learning. It is funded and supported by The Learning Revolution Transformation Fund, Bournemouth Borough Council, SCAN, Bournemouth University, and The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE). The collaboration with Simon Edwards was supported by Electra as part of their Dirty Literature programme for the National Portrait Gallery, London.

A Porky Prime Cut


Last week I gave a reading from a new short story entitled ‘A Porky Prime Cut’ at the National Portrait Gallery London, with live musical accompaniment from bass player Simon Edwards. Twitter friend @Alexandra_Wall posted this excellent photo of the gig on Twitpic. Thanks Alex.

It was a very enjoyable evening and I shared the bill with old friend Tim Etchells. All of this was for the launch of Electra’s exciting new Dirty Literature series of talks and readings that runs through until June. Tim read a lovely new piece which is quite hard to describe, but felt like a kind of sit-com in fragmented monologue form that was culled (or collaged) particularly from a series of increasingly unhinged internal memos from an ever smaller group of constables who guarded the Gallery in the early years of the 20th century. There is a plan to get audio and video of the event online, so when it’s up I’ll post a link to Tim’s piece. At present it doesn’t exist as a published text, and I’m not sure if Tim has plans to perform it again, so do have a look at the video when it’s up.

Tim and I have known each other for quite a while now. We met in the late 1980s when I was at art school in Sheffield where Tim’s company Forced Entertainment are based. Here is the Streetview photo of the former Sheffield art school premises on Psalter Lane. The Googlemaps car snapped it just before the college was closed down – hence the banner above the door. I have very happy memories of being at Psalter Lane, so the thought that these buildings have all now been knocked down makes me feel slightly bereft. However, it is still possible to get an arts education in Sheffield. The courses have survived it’s just that they’ve moved out of these mainly purpose-built studio buildings down to other Sheffield Hallam University buildings in the city centre. I was there quite recently. It was good to be back.

Tim was one of the first few people that I invited to do something for Piece of Paper Press when I started the imprint in 1994. He wrote the short story ‘About Lisa: a small bad story in twelve good parts’ in response to the constraints of the format and we published it in the usual edition of 150 in 1995. Here is a slightly murky scan of the front cover!

Tim has blogged about that period in the introduction to a new German language, Swiss edition of his collection Endland Stories, which sadly is out of print in English.

My story for the NPG gig, ‘A Porky Prime Cut’, was commissioned by digital arts agency SCAN in Bournemouth as part of their Digital Transformations project. I first blogged about the project here around a year ago, when I met the two other artists involved, Simon Yuill and Kevin Carter. Then I blogged some more here, here, here, here and here! You may gather that it was a very generative project :-)

The story is kind of a culmination and a condensation of all of that research.

And it was particularly generative not least because it made me confront my own biography even while writing a short story set in and around a town I hardly knew. Or two towns: Bournemouth and Poole. Writing ‘A Porky Prime Cut’ made me look again at some of my own formative experiences, in particular those moments where as a teenager perhaps you might discover that you have some kind of creative agency. All of which made me remember just how contingent my own art education really was.

So it felt quite special having the chance – thanks to Electra and the NPG – to read the story as a 20-minute standalone piece with live music from Simon Edwards in the form of his fantastic 85 bpm funk bass accompaniment. This really is something that both Simon and I are hoping to do again.

I’m also hoping that we can add the MP3 of the performance on to the ebook which you can download for free from James Bridle’s wonderful Artists’ eBooks.

The ebook includes beautiful colour photographs of Turbary Common taken by Bournemouth photographer Diane Humphries. Diane also took this photo of me on my first visit to Turbary Common, one cold, wet and misty March morning a year or so ago. At some point soon ‘A Porky Prime Cut’ will also I think be available via Bournemouth Libraries, both in ebook form and as a special print edition on Piece of Paper Press. I’m hoping there will be an event or two down there, too. I’m looking forward to that very much.

Dirty work, ‘Slang Truth’, Errata

1) Dirty Work

Lots of work behind the scenes in the past week for the inaugural Dirty Literature event that I’m doing with writer Tim Etchells at the National Portrait Gallery on 17 March. I’ve been rehearsing with musician Simon Edwards, who will be providing live musical accompaniment to one of the pieces I’m reading. I’m very excited about this, and I’m hoping we’ll get a good recording of the piece on the night, too, which we can make available after the event.

The producers, Electra, sent through a j-peg of one of the slides I’m planning to use during my reading (see left). It is a reversed-out version of my freehand drawing after the Throbbing Gristle flash design that I’ve mentioned in a previous post. I’m planning to use analogue technology in the shape of some Kodak Carousel projectors that are permanently installed in the National Portrait Gallery’s theatre. We’re testing it all out on Wednesday.

Tim and I last shared a bill at The Story 2010, Matt Locke’s annual conference about contemporary story telling across media and platforms (which just had its 2011 outing). Planning my reading for Dirty Literature I had wanted to respond to the location of the National Portrait Gallery at the southern end of Charing Cross Road, so was looking for creative commons licensed images of the Poll Tax Riots that took place in and around Trafalgar Square 21 years ago in March 1991. I found a couple of great images online — scans of distressed old photographic prints (see right), scratched and covered in finger prints — and funnily enough it turned out they had been taken, all those years ago, by Russell Davies who was the MC at The Story 2010. Russell has generously granted us permission to use them.

The blurb for our event just went to press in a publication that Electra and the National Portrait Gallery are producing to publicise and document the series. Here’s the latest version of what I’ll be doing:

Responding to the ‘Poll Tax riots’ and recent protests in Trafalgar Square, White will read from Charlieunclenorfolktango, his satirical 1999 novel about an alienated police force, before being joined by musician Simon Edwards to preview a new short story commissioned by digital arts agency SCAN for their Digital Transformations project.

The Dirty Literature series at the National Portrait Gallery kicks off with Tim Etchells and I on 17 March at 7.30PM. As noted previously, the event is free, but booking is essential.

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2) Foxy-T in the Indy

Last Friday the Independent published a feature article by their Deputy Literary Editor Arifa Akbar in their weekly Arts & Books supplement entitled (in the print version) ‘Stories from the Sounds of the Streets’, which includes brief interviews with myself and others about our own work and/or about ‘the vernacular tradition in literary fiction.’

I very much enjoyed chatting with Arifa about all this. A couple of factual errors* about Foxy-T crept in to her final copy, but I guess that is par for the course, and I am amazed and delighted that Foxy-T continues to be written about nearly eight years after publication: most novels having (I’m paraphrasing a long-lost note from Iain Sinclair) ‘the shelf-life of a fruit fly.’

The article is framed by questions of authenticity:

slang narratives continue to raise debate over what is seen, and sometimes claimed, as a more authentic mode of storytelling

The double-page spread of the print version is punctuated with pullquotes from writers Stephen Kelman (‘I felt from the beginning his voice was authentic…’) and Gautam Malkani (‘…I thought wow. It is authentic, but invented authenticity’).

I’m not sure that ‘authenticity’ is the issue, but it reminded me of the line scrawled on the cover of The Fall‘s 1982 LP Room to Live: ‘Undilutable Slang Truth!’

Sarfraz Manzoor writing about Foxy-T and Londonstani in a piece following the publication of Malkani’s novel a few years ago asked whether an unrealistic expectation of authenticity is placed upon writers from Black and Minority Ethnic groups. Maybe so. I think ‘authenticity’ is also used as a kind of critical shorthand that masks more complex questions of power, identity, class, narrative, the reading experience, etc etc. For me writing Foxy-T at the turn of the century, it was precisely the inauthenticity of Bangladeshi rude boys calling each other ‘rasta’ — an observable/audible rupture with the necessary identity politics of Black British language in the second half of the 20th century — that made the novel possible; that the novel set out — amongst other things — to explore.

After the usual ‘street talk scare stories‘ (which I’ve discussed here), Akbar’s wide-ranging and broadly positive article is very welcome. I was and am thrilled to see that Foxy-T is also included in a round-up of ‘The best in “slang” fiction’  alongside how late it was how late, A Clockwork Orange and Trainspotting. Great!

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3) Errata

*One of the small (but to me, glaring) errors in The Independent article states that Foxy-T was ‘published a year before [Monica] Ali’s Brick Lane and [...] was buried beneath the critical acclaim of her book.’ Ouch! Actually, Faber and Faber published my novel one month after Ali’s, but Foxy-T continues to receive plenty of its own ‘critical acclaim’, including recently here in the Indy itself or in this Browser interview with the esteemed Great Hedge of India author Roy Moxham. More press elsewhere on this site, of course.

FYI, the Radio 4 Today Programme interview about Foxy-T that is mentioned in the article is weirdly absent from Today‘s otherwise more or less exhaustive ‘listen again’ archive, so I put it on Youtube:

The Origin of Species*

  1. 20 Jazz Funk Greats
  2. 2nd Annual Report
  3. 3-and-in
  4. A William Burroughs Reader
  5. Acid House
  6. Allen Ginsberg
  7. Arena
  8. Armadillo
  9. Barrett
  10. Bedford van
  11. Brideshead
  12. Burroughs
  13. Cities of the Red Night
  14. common
  15. common
  16. common
  17. conté crayons
  18. Derrida
  19. easier to get hold of these days
  20. Elder
  21. etched
  22. Farnham
  23. Foundation
  24. Francis Bacon
  25. George Peckham a.k.a. Porky
  26. Gravity’s Rainbow
  27. hawthorn
  28. histories
  29. Horses
  30. into the vinyl
  31. Joyce
  32. Land of a Thousand Dances
  33. Laurie Anderson
  34. Leeds
  35. light
  36. Light of the World
  37. Listen to my last words
  38. lodgers
  39. London Underground
  40. masking tape
  41. MG sports car badge
  42. Midnight Express
  43. Monty Python
  44. Mute
  45. Natty Rebel
  46. NME
  47. on telly a couple of months earlier
  48. Patti Smith
  49. Patti Smith
  50. photocopied
  51. Polaroid
  52. pony’s hoof
  53. Pre-Raphaelite
  54. preppy
  55. Psychic TV
  56. record
  57. Rimbaud
  58. routines
  59. screaming popes
  60. Scritti Politti
  61. Siouxsie
  62. skin
  63. smugglers paths
  64. soulboy
  65. suedehead
  66. Super-8 camera
  67. TG
  68. TG graphic: the black square, red bar across the middle, white flash of lightning down the centre
  69. that voice
  70. The Central School
  71. The Gospel Comes to New Guinea
  72. The Observer’s Book of British Wild Flowers
  73. Throbbing Gristle
  74. Triangle
  75. Turbary
  76. UBUWEB
  77. videoed
  78. Wallisdown Road
  79. wedges
  80. West Howe
  81. William S. Burroughs
  82. Wilson Pickett
  83. Winchester

* An alphabetised list of links from the epub version of a forthcoming short story commission (due for publication in February 2011). The story will also be illustrated with photos by Diane Humphries.

Ivy4Evr – automaton anxieties, entropy and potential

As I write, there is still time to register for the pilot of Ivy4Evr, the SMS drama for young people that was commissioned by Channel 4 Education, created by Blast Theory and written by me. Places are limited and to participate you must visit the actual site at www.ivy4evr.co.uk and register by midnight on 9 October.

In advance of Sunday’s launch there is not really time to reflect, let alone to really write anything and certainly not to discuss the process or any other aspect of the project in any detailed way, but perhaps there will be time to do that later anyway; here and elsewhere. A couple of talks have been offered already. Since I can’t write anything myself I thought it would make a change to string some links together for reference but also to see if anything is emerging in how others are writing about the project.

The blurb for Ivy4Evr promises that: ‘For a week she’ll tell you **everything** but,’ it asks, ‘can she trust you and what will you tell her? Sign up and Ivy will text you about her life. If you text her back she will chat to you.’

The Social Uproar blog (‘Helping charities and non profits use social media’) are typical of much early coverage, giving Ivy4Evr some excellent announcement space. Other writers pick up on the project’s stated interactivity.

Katie Bacon at Youth Work Online (‘Exploring youth engagement in a digital age’) featured Ivy4Evr and one of Katie’s readers responded by using the comments function to ask, ‘who will be on the other end of the phone to talk to [young people] about sex, drugs etc.’ Katie followed up this query by asking Blast Theory for more information. She received and posted a detailed summary which included these two sentences:

The project uses an automated system where SMS messages are generated by the SMS engine. There is no person involved [my emphasis] in the sending of SMS to the registered participants.

Similar anxieties emerge at the Mobile Industry Review where Ewan McLeod also wonders aloud about the nature and the workings of the project:

All you have to do to participate is sign-up to get free text updates from Ivy. Then, I imagine, you can reply to her. Or to the production team sitting watching their SMS console.

It’s a great image, ‘the production team’ at their consoles, thumbing away furiously and replying on behalf of Ivy to every text that comes in. Given the number of potential participants, and the week-long, real-time nature of this pilot episode, for Ewan’s vision to really be the case we’d have needed some vast call-centre with a player:operative ratio of around 1:1. Ewan has signed up and promised to tell us how it goes.

Both writers’ anxieties conjure up visions of Ivy as a contemporary equivalent of Wolfgang Von Kempelen’s ‘Mechanical Turk’ from 1770 — an apparent automaton but one that was in fact operated live and in real time by a person who hid in the rather bulky cabinet beneath.

Ivy is not like that. Not at all.

Some comments that appear following posts about Ivy are themselves automated, like this obviously ‘commentbot’-generated* non sequitur to a post by Carly Bennett that appeared on her blog, Writing from the Tub – My life as a writer in Bath:

‘Dissertation Writing service’ said… Despite the bulk of information online we often fail to get the specific information which is needed this post is good & contains relevant information that I was in quest of .I appreciate your efforts in preparing this post.

Elsewhere Alastair Shortland on Facebook took a more user-centric approach, asking the Ivy4Evr page: ‘Will you also be using MMS [Multimedia Messaging Service]? Will the SMS messages contain links to images or web content? Guess I should just wait and see ;-)’

Some reflect on the fact that texts sent to Ivy are charged at the normal network rates, while others realise that because they live outside the UK they will not be able to participate. We’re sorry about that too.

Last night I had an email from my friend Drazen Pantic. I’ve known Drazen since 2001 when I commissioned various writings to accompany the seminal CODE Conference (‘Collaboration and Ownership in the Digital Economy’) at which he was a speaker. Drazen is a native of Belgrade, Serbia, where in 1995 he founded OpenNet, the internet department of Radio B92 in Belgrade and Serbia’s first internet service provider. In 1999 Drazen Pantic was given the Pioneer Award of the Electronic Frontier Foundation for his use of new media technologies to counter political repression in the former Yugoslavia. He is now based in New York where he continues to explore, promote and create tools for free and open media.

Drazen sent me a link to a very nice online tool called YouReputation, which is,

a viral reputation scanner, based on on [an] innovative mathematical engine and Internet technology. YouReputation scans static and dynamic Web and social networks according to a given query (name, URL, combination of words) and computes viral entropy and viral potential for the query and identifies most viral sources with their Bayesian probabilities.

I love the idea of mapping entropy and potential. As I write this Ivy4Evr has a ‘viral probability’ of 0.483.

I will monitor our progress during the week, and try and speak with Drazen to find out more about his viral reputation scanner, how to read it. For now though, the YouReputation engine and accompanying blurb feels like an apt metaphor for a moment that I have come to recognise just pre-publication of a book, for example, when anything might happen, when entropy and potential are poised, entwined and waiting for the moment when the game starts.

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Ivy4Evr launches on 10 October 2010.

Sign up and Ivy will text you about her life.

If you text her back she will chat to you.

To register visit http://www.ivy4evr.co.uk

Follow Ivy on Twitter – http://twitter.com/ivy4evr

Join Ivy’s Facebook Fanpage – http://www.facebook.com/ivy4evr

Follow Drazen Pantic and his YouReputation experiment on Twitter http://twitter.com/openplayer

*For information about my own commentbot experiment see an earlier post, ‘Knowledge Commons #3′, from 21 April 2001.

Recharging

After posting (below) my attempt at drawing a Throbbing Gristle-style lightning graphic that I needed for the ebook of a forthcoming short story commission, I suddenly remembered where else I’d recently seen a similar design…

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