On the Materiality of Meaning
Mobile Text & the New Paradigms of Virtual Literature.
William David Jhave Johnston

im.ma.te.ri.al Pronunciation: "i-m&-'tir-E-&l Function: adjective Etymology: Middle English immateriel, from Middle French, from Late Latin immaterialis, from Latin in- + Late Latin materialis material Date: 14th century 1 : not consisting of matter : INCORPOREAL 2 : of no substantial consequence : UNIMPORTANT

Net-art is expanding exponentially. Are these objects? Material or immaterial? Where are they located? On a server? on a CPU? In a waveform? Evidently, the micro-alignments on a silicon chip are inaccessible to direct human perception. Since digital reality is a realm accessible only through the interpretive abilities of computers or electron-microscopes, is it immaterial? Is materiality dependent upon tactility? As metabolism-based creatures, we trust what we can touch. My feeling is that net-art constitutes a material medium; it is not any more immaterial than video, film or photography. It is a visual/sonic representation of reality that relies upon the interpretive powers of a device. In actuality, the internet is a massive coagulation of corporate power and sturdy hardware: eminently materialistic. Nevertheless, there are numerous subtle deep-seated questions concerning immateriality evoked at the confluence of literature and net-art. The nature of the word is changing; its solidity destabilized; its fluidity enhanced; its new metamorphic identities shimmering as they coalesce...

The ability of software to manipulate, mutilate and animate text is provoking a quantum evolution in the way human beings read and write. At a daily level, on TV, video, film and computer screens everywhere, the latest brand names, movie-titles, logos and sound bites fade-in and fly toward us, vividly surrounded by flocks of pulsating imploring adjectives. Putting aside all ethical or aesthetic considerations, these computer-generated word-spasms are utilizing the technical seeds of a new potent tool of literatary praxis: software-generated mobile-dynamic-text...text that arises from nowhere and disappears again.

"In digital environments, it is now normal for words to mutate into other words, flow along predefined or random pathways, modulate in size and colour, overlap, fade, spin, fold, roll, shake, bump, respond to touch, react to noise, be born from nothing, live in a frenzy of other words, and die. Profound significations develop as words are animated in ways that humans associate visually with living organisms."1 This excerpt from an introduction to my digital exhibit, NomadLingo - online at the net-art Gallery "Year Zero One" curated by Michael Alstad - constitutes my own rudimentary axiom for building poetry in a digital environment. Normally the tactile solidity of a word as a single object with a known definiton is sacrosanct. There exists a materiality of meaning. For example, the word "chat". Anyone who has ever touched a cat knows what the word means. But if the word is on-screen and begins to fluctuate and becomes "char" , cascades quickly through a stream of other words while flying among more words which are also morphing, then what does this suggest about the solidity of the meanings we have come to associate with our cat? Does this word "chat" and our friendly cat relate? They do in this sense: the word "chat" can now leap across the screen, or be frightened by the word "chien", it can grow, it can hiss. So, is it an object? An animal? Maybe it is for now only an ephemeral emulation of an animal, a construct without a definitive graspable conventionally solid form.

Words in these environments are no longer concrete objects that can be defined in static terms; they are dynamic modalities, data-streams interpreted by interfaces; ephemeral clouds of ricocheting linguistic molecules reassembled into subjective synaptic syntactical knots; flocks of morphemes, clusters of phonemes - hyperplane matrixes with bifurcating tendrils of symbolic integrity.


SKY: Hillman Curtis/Christina Manning
GENIUS: Thomas Swiss / Skye Giordano