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Private Public Reading: Readers in Digital Literature Installation
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Private Public Reading: Readers in Digital Literature Installation

Mark Leahy


This chapter sets the genre of installed digital literature in the context of other disciplines and art forms. It uses an intersection of critical frames from the visual arts, cinema, and writing to develop a way of thinking about a body of work that uses text, digital media, and space or location as integral features. The topic being at an intersection of disciplines, and so not neatly interpretable with the tools used for any particular one, the chapter addresses a number of aspects of these overlapping disciplines to venture a means of understanding how we read installed digital literature.

In an interview with Roberto Simanowski, digital artist Noah Wardrip-Fruin discusses the role of text in his own work and in the work of certain other artists who create digital installations. Simanowski comments on Wardrip-Fruin's work: "it strikes me that your works are installations, or performances, in which text is not reduced to 'graphical objects' as you put it, stripped of linguistic function" (Wardrip-Fruin 2005a). The textual elements in these works are there to be read. Referring to a work by Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv (Utterback 1999), Wardrip-Fruin comments:

I think for Camille and Romy the particular text that's in Text Rain is important. They used lines of a poem, and negotiated for the copyright clearance. They wouldn't have done that if it didn't matter what text they used.


He is making a distinction between the use of words or text or writing, of literature within digital work, where what the words say or mean or how they are read is significant. They are something to be read, not something to be merely recognized as letters or words or text. If the point of the work Text Rain was to demonstrate the functioning of the interface, the possibility for the audience or users to manipulate the falling letters, then what the words said, how they combined into phrases would matter little. This he feels is the view of the audience from an electronic art background. He goes on to contrast the attitude to the writing, the text in other art or digital works.

People in the prints-on-walls art community don't think that you could arbitrarily substitute text in a Barbara Kruger piece. People in the electronic writing community don't think you could arbitrarily substitute text in a John Cayley piece. But text, for some reason, doesn't seem to be a recognized artistic medium in the electronic art world.


The business of writing and reading, then, is important in the work Wardrip-Fruin makes. And this is a reading and writing that occupies physical space and may be carried out in the company of other readers. This is literature that shares features of other disciplines or other modes of writing or of making art.

The perception of a genre of installed digital literature is a result of the shifting of the gaze of the writer's/critic's attention that is focused on distinct discrete events drawn together as a grouping by the act of observation/attention. Each contingent identification of the genre, each gathering into its loop is temporary, perhaps displaced by a new work, by a new angle of reading. The genre (if it exists) is located at an overlapping in Venn diagram fashion of a number of areas of making, of writing, of display, of knowledge. These include Expanded Cinema, computer poetry (electronic poetics), outdoor advertising, monumental inscription, public reading, each of which represents aspects of what might constitute this genre, but none of which exhausts its possibilities. If installed digital literature deserves a separate chapter within this Companion, then it must be because there is a body of identifiable work that is generically grouped, grouped by formal characteristics, or there is a range of work that can be attended to as engaging with a shared set of questions. These distinct shared questions that set installed digital literature apart from other digital literature might involve:

1.  the site or location of the work (where it is shown/seen);

2.  the third dimension (in "real" space as opposed to virtual space);

3.  the materiality of the digital textual work;

4.  embodied reading (reading that is aware of involving the reader's body);

5.  public reading (reading that takes place in the presence of other readers).

This set of features also accepts some parameters for digital literature. Text is made available to a reader, text that in its presentation or generation engages with modes or methods particular to digital technology, e.g., coding, database or editing software, the possibilities of the World Wide Web.

Having moved through a discussion of these various features and how they may have developed toward modes of digital literature, this chapter will focus on the reader's experience of the reading of the installed text. What is distinct is not the content of the text, it is not the style or genre or mode of writing the text engages with, but how that text is physically, spatially, bodily, socially accessed, encountered, and received by a reader. Are there qualities of digital work that distinguish it from other texts located in a site or place? What aspects of reading or engaging with digital texts can be particularly expressed in an installed mode? Are there qualities of database technology, or coding, or the World Wide Web which intersect in a productive way with being presented as a sited installation? The chapter will try to demonstrate those aspects of reading that are particular to installed literature, and those aspects that are particular to digital literature.

The fact that there is a reader physically present in/with the work may suggest that the artist use technology that is responsive to this presence. Work that depends on interactivity and responsive installations works with this. Text Rain, already referred to, uses the presence of the activator/reader to operate the work and to interpret it. The reader's (presumed) familiarity with particular kinds of text in the context of public reading may be a reason for the digital writer/artist to draw on or reference those associations, with advertising, with monumental or heroic texts, with information or instructional texts. The reader who enters the space of the installation, who encounters the digital text, will have read other public texts. Some of these are the texts of billboards, some are informational or directional texts of urban signage, some the unofficial inscriptions of flyers or graffiti, others the official texts of war memorials or state buildings. This is writing we read in public, that we read with others, that we read as addressed in a particular public manner. The reader of the digital installed text may also be familiar with the "print-on-walls art" that Wardrip-Fruin refers to, and with electronic poetry. The work will be encountered then as an intersection of these readings.


If the digital element of the installation is not of the site but must be added to it/ placed on it/placed in it, does this push the installed digital work away from any possibility of being site-specific? For a work of digital literature, it may be that there are material qualities of that work made evident in the siting or situating of it. Equally it can be noted that the site/location will pre-exist and underlie the work, as the place or location, and the digital introduction into/intervention onto it are of distinct materialities. The focus of this section of the chapter may be on what is siteable or placeable in a digital work of literature. Digital work is sited and located conventionally on the World Wide Web, on websites, at home pages, in "my space," its location pointed to using URLs; it may be accessed via links, by downloading it (copying it from its storage space to the user/reader's portable space), by installing it from disc. One aspect of installed digital literature may be to expose and explore facets of a place/site through a digital medium. The questions will engage with what is siteable, what is locatable in digital work, and how a reader or user may recognize a digital work as having qualities of place or space.

Site-specific artworks can be described as one development of an aspect of twentieth-century Modernist experiment. Linked to land art and conceptual art work of the 1960s, they are related to and are somewhat distinct from installation art.

As discursive terminology, site-specific is solely and precisely rooted within Western Euro-American modernism, born, as it were, lodged between modernist notions of liberal progressiveness and radical tropes both formal and conceptual. It is the recognition on the part of minimalist and earthworks artists of the 1960s and 1970s that "site" in and of itself is part of the experience of the work of art.

(Suderburg 2000: 4)

The site-specific deals with particularities of the physical material place in or on which the work is sited. This differs from installed work, which on some occasions engages with a Modernist notion of space as being without context (or in the white cube context of the gallery/museum institution).

The site of installation becomes a primary part of the content of the work itself, but it also posits a critique of the practice of art-making within the institution by examining the ideological and institutional frameworks that support and exhibit the work of art. "To install" becomes not a gesture of hanging the work of art or positioning the sculpture, but an art practice in and of itself.

(ibid.: 5)

For digital literature to deal with site there must be an acknowledgement of the sitedness of other modes of digital work, their location on a website, their presence on a disc, or within a data storage location. These locations are not usually termed material, but may be pointed to by the use of a URL or other indication of the point via which the specified digital information can be accessed in a particular organized manner. The monitor of a desktop computer, the touch screen of an ATM, the hand-held Gameboy or Nintendo DS, all are located at the point of interaction, are sited somewhere when they are being read, used, played with. Installed digital literature accepts these sited aspects of digital literature, but places the work in a further complex of aspects of site and place and location. In this way it may be taking on some of the arguments of earlier installation art and site-specific art, and shifting these concerns to questions that are particular to digital work.

Erika Suderburg discusses the terms installation and site-specificity and gives them a genealogy, from early Modernist works such as "Light-Space Modulator" (1923–30) by Lázló Moholy-Nagy, through the minimalist work of Robert Morris and the gallery and land-art work of Robert Smithson. She considers the critical reception of and classification of this work by Michael Fried, by Rosalind Krauss in "Sculpture in the Expanded Field," and Douglas Crimp in his On the Museum's Ruins (see further reading). From this lineage of argument she concludes that the site of the work of art cannot be neutral, that the institutional space that supports the artwork, and the space made by the work's occupation is ideologically marked. This site is articulated by the installed work. James Meyer, in Suderburg ed., distinguishes between a literal site and a functional site for site specific or installed work. Quoting artist Joseph Kosuth, he defines the "literal site" as singular. It is understood by the artist and the audience as unique, as having distinct material and local qualities (Meyer: 24). The work of art in the literal site is "a kind of monument, a public work commissioned for this site" (ibid.: 24). The uniqueness of the work parallels the uniqueness of the artist, of the artist's response, of her sensibility to the particular qualities of this site. Users of the site (those for whom it is a place of work or leisure) may respond negatively to the work, and this conflict can lead to a clash between Modernist or high art ideals and the practice of the space/location the work occupies. This is most notoriously documented in the debate around, and subsequent removal of, Richard Serra's Tilted Arc from Federal Plaza in New York (see Weyergraf-Serra and Buskirk 1990).

Meyer continues to define "functional site" as being much more concerned with the institutional structures that form or define a site, the conditions that lead to a work of art being in that location, or that underlie the artist's intervention. There is not the focus on the physical place. "Instead, it is a process, an operation occurring between sites, a mapping of institutional and textual filiations and the bodies that move between them (the artist's above all)" (ibid.: 25). Sitedness in the functional site is dependent not primarily on physical location but on relations, on information, on system, on exchange. This model offers a useful point of connection to digital artworks and literature that similarly engage with such immaterial aspects of a place, of a used location. There is a temporary and temporal aspect to the work, it exists in relation to daily or seasonal or other human uses of the place, and is not permanent, being installed not as a monument, but as something put up for a time (like a circus or funfair that intersects with the rhythms of a village for a limited duration and then moves on).

Marita Sturken, also in Suderburg, discusses installation in relation to the viewer. Her comments might be related to work sited on the web, or other locations in which a reader/viewer may encounter the work of art. A location in which she encounters an artwork in time, in space, and that situates her in relation to the work and that location.

In addition, installations that deploy such technologies as video and computer devices delineate time; they are constructed with particular concerns about the length of time viewers will stay with the work versus its cycle, as well as concerns about how to get viewers to move in particular ways in the space.

(Sturken in Suderburg ed. 2000: 287)

The space of the installed art work is a space negotiated by the reader/viewer. Having put in place "the rules, limitations, and context" (ibid.: 287), the installation is offered by the artist to the visitor. Not occupied by the artist, the site of the installation is operated by the viewers; it is the site for the visitor's performance and is performed by her.

How do digital installations engage with these terms, with space and time? The dislocation of "site" in the term website, or the non-place of the monitor screen as interface, is brought into relation with the building or the town or the room in which the reader/viewer engages with the installed work.

Interactive traffic on the Net seems to imply that the restraints of spatiality are loosened in a global continuum. The location of the installation is exactly this place. The Net is everywhere, and in principle therefore nowhere.

(Walther 2002: 26)

This is a different engagement with these terms to that of works in the tradition of installation in the visual arts, and develops notions of materiality, scale, and context in a distinct manner. The work is shifted from engaging with the space it occupies, the place in which the data is temporarily made available, made accessible. This everywhere/nowhere may apply to an idealized conception of the Net, but the persons interacting with this material are somewhere, and as readers they occupy a place in which they read, and a time during which that reading takes place. An installation which depends on the action or presence of a reader or viewer to be activated, to become operational, is both located in the space where that person through their physicality can affect the work, and located in the non-space of RAM (random access memory) or a server without which the work cannot happen, but which has no direct bearing on the appearance of that work or the reader's experience of it. The notion of the functional site as Meyer describes it relates very closely to concerns that a creator of digital literature may engage with, and attention may be drawn to the intersection between the institutional structures that support the work, that make it possible, and what is manifest in the space of reading. The reader will be aware on some level of the coding and scripting that supports the simplest digital document. Thus a work that presents these relations as part of its context, as part of the site in which the work is read, along with the physical space, situates the reader at a crossing point of a mesh of site-specific relations.

The Third (or Fourth) Dimension

Literature on the page has articulated in a variety of modes the two dimensions of the surface on which it is displayed, over which the reader's eyes travel; this has been examined in the work and criticism of Johanna Drucker, among others (see her Figuring the Word). This articulation has a range of manifestations within the history of Modernism and the twentieth-century avant-garde tradition, from Guillaume Apollinaire's calligrams and poem objects to the collages and text-covered spaces of Kurt Schwitters. These two dimensions have been further articulated on the screen of digital literature and computer poetics, where the possibilities of hyperlinks, Flash animation, frames, scrolling, and the mix of moving and still elements has been explored. Young-Hae Chang in the work on his Heavy Industries site (<>) presents fast-moving graphics that engage with political questions in his native Korea, or internationally. The reader is held by the texts, needing to concentrate to read them as they flash on the screen sometimes accompanied by jazz or other music. Kenward Elmslie (<>) uses conventions of book illustration and hand-drawn animation to develop the visual aspects of his poetry, creating vibrant displays that sometimes use recorded sound. The poet, editor, and critic Brian Kim Stefans demonstrates a range of work that uses simple graphic presentations of poem texts, to Flash animated tumbling and dancing letters, or in "Rational Geomancy" (<>), refers directly to the situation of reading a book, holding it as a material object, in an animated writing through of an opening of Steve McCaffery and bp Nichol's book of the same title.

There has also been the opening out of the illusory or virtual third dimension, either in the GUI with stacked windows and shadow effects, or with more complexity in graphic representations of three-dimensional spaces, buildings, landscapes, or other imagined or illusory spaces. This may be the space of a narrative explored via hyperlinks, and represented graphically on the screen, or it may be the logical linking of game spaces in a representation of a three-dimensional space.

In considering the computer monitor or the projection screen as itself occupying space (while being a more-or-less flat surface within that space), and a reader having a location in relation to that screen, the place of that reader before the text must be acknowledged. The installed text is placed in a three-dimensional space, whose context may or may not be directly taken into account, but the reader occupies a particular place at the time of her reading, and this contributes to her reading in some way. Following from the discussion of site in relation to digital work, the manner in which the third dimension operates in these installed texts draws attention to a tension between the physical or material space in which the reader's body moves, and the modification of the physical space by the digital (immaterial) element.

In "Lens" by John Cayley, developed with the Cave technology at Brown University, he considers the dimensions of text (Figure 16.1). Looking at the fact that letters in the roman alphabet are flat, he observes that on the page letters have no third dimension; if lifted from the print or screen surface they are of infinitesimal thinness. Their function depends on being seen frontally; if they are given some thickness and then turned they become progressively less recognizable. Letters can be fattened into three-dimensional objects, but will remain legible or functional only on one face of any such solid. In his work for the Cave Cayley presents text that surrounds the reader, text whose individual characters turn so that they always face the reader as she moves through the space. The letters turn while the words and lines remain in place, hence the text becomes less legible as the reader moves further to the side (Cayley 2005).

Noah Wardrip-Fruin in Screen, another work using the Cave, works with reading as a text game that is played in the three-dimensional space of the Cave (see Wardrip-Fruin 2005b). The reader/player reacts to words moving in space around her; words peel away from the walls, and she can strike at them to return them to the wall. The action of hitting the words can replace them within the text, reorder the text, or break the words into constituent letters that occupy gaps in the text. The reader in her interaction with the text, with the words, recognizes them, recognizes groupings, sees word elements become recontextualized as they are moved around the wall of words. Both this piece and Cayley's use words as graphical objects, as this is the manner in which the programming manages them, but the works also allow for reading, reading that recognizes aspects of the writing, its occupation of space, its dimensionality, the manner in which turning the letters shifts the legibility of the writing. The work acknowledges that letters as components of writing, as elements of an alphabetic system, are inherently manipulable; they lend themselves to recombination. The kind of reading that happens in the space of engagement will take on the articulation of new letter sequences, familiar sound possibilities, phrases that survive, word sequences that disintegrate or disappear. And this happens above, or behind, or beside the reader, not just in front of her face which is the conventional space of reading.

Figure 16.1  Screen shot made by Dmitri Lemmerman, from the immersive VR Cave work-in-progress version of John Cayley's "Lens".

Materiality and/of the Text

Writing as sign, as signifying, is to some extent always immaterial. As information, as content, as signified, it points, it tells, but is not. But to engage with a reader, a receiver, it is made material on some level, as sound, as ink on a surface, as digital information. This materialization has dimensions (temporal/spatial/substantial) and the reader is with this text, before it, sharing these dimensions. The siting or installation of a digital text may make evident some materiality of the immaterial digital text — locating it, grounding it on some specific site.

In his essay "Transcendental Data," Alan Liu discusses the shifts between material and immaterial in the transition from modern to postmodern (or postindustrial). He writes that "materiality" was overlooked in the modernist modeling of the form/ content binary. And, having developed "telemedia" without fully exploiting them, modernism gives way to the postindustrial, which through the fuller extension of "telepresence" removes the material base. He claims that while developing technologies that allowed for transmission of data or information (content) across distance, modernism remained wedded to a conception of presence as located in the material (form). The postindustrial no longer has this attachment to the material, and depends on the distribution of presence that is facilitated by the internet (Liu 2004: 80).

When the material substrate was removed to allow for internet transmission, that is, variable methods of standardization — for example, XML documents governed by a common standard but adaptable to undetermined kinds of hardware, software, and usages — could suddenly be imagined. Material embodiment — in the substrate of a work and the bodily practices of the artisanal artist both — was now immaterial to the full, independent expression of content and form.


If a digital text can be termed immaterial, this is perhaps because of the fact that it does not have a single material constant, but can be transmitted in the form of binary code information, etc., to be then output in some form where or when it is called up, played, presented. The material form is not inherent in the text, it is not constant. Installed digital literature, by locating the text in a particular place, at a specific site, gives it a constant (for the duration) material form; it takes on material characteristics of its location, the spatial dimensions are set for the time of the installation. The texture of the surfaces, the warmth or cold of the reading environment may all be controlled. These aspects are aspects experienced by the reader/viewer (otherwise they are of little relevance) and also draw the discussion of this work back to how the reader/viewer is located in it, is engaged by it, positioned in relation to the work.

Johanna Drucker in her essay "Intimations of Immateriality" raises questions of the immateriality of digital text. She comments that documents in digital storage may be output in a variety of forms through a range of devices, being experienced by the reader or listener or viewer as poetry, or images, or music (Drucker 2002a: 154). For Drucker, there is "no necessary relation" between the material form of input and output in electronic media. Translation between storage and display modes preserves no material aspect of writing.

Code scintillates between material and immaterial conditions long enough to let us ask what (and how) the substantive content of material might mean, and what an immaterial text might be.


Elsewhere, Drucker comments on materiality and space from the point of view of the writer of/in a digital text. For her the materiality of digital writing will be defined by two characteristics, "display within a single screen space that is redrawn on a planar surface" and the possibility of an abstraction as machine code (Drucker 2002b: 689). Either or both of these aspects may be articulated for the reader in an installed work, the single plane surface can be multiplied, twisted, broken up, made diffuse, and made to take on the characteristics of the space or site, and the code which makes the display possible may be made evident in the display, in the operation, in the claiming of authorship or copyright.

Another discipline that engaged with questions of materiality was experimental cinema work in the 1960s and through the 1970s. One practitioner who has explored these questions in essays and criticism is Malcolm Le Grice. In his preface to Le Grice's collected writings, Sean Cubitt links Le Grice's concerns to Laura U. Marks' notion of haptic cinema, as he describes it, "a sensory experience that translates light into touch, the lick of light across the colour field, across the eyes, across the skin" (Cubitt 2001: xiv). Such a conception of film as a material medium was one of the possibilities developed in Expanded Cinema. Le Grice describes a materialist focus on the medium over any representational function (Le Grice 2001: 275). In the early 1970s in Europe and Britain, works were made that treated the time of watching, the light of the projector, the space of viewing and projection, the juxtaposition of the illusion of the frame and real actions (ibid.: 274). These materialist practices were partly driven by a desire to resist or disrupt the illusory and absorptive emphasis of mainstream and narrative cinema (ibid.: 170–1). Many of the strategies employed are available to makers of installed digital literature, where a play between reading and seeing or touching words may be developed. The projector and/or the screen are physical or material elements in the installation of digital literature. The artist/writer may manipulate aspects of these to alter the reader's engagement or experience of the work.

The beam of the projector sculpts the light, the light that travels from it in one direction. The beam has one direction (unless a mirror is used), it is tied to the properties of light that are used to make the text/image visible or legible. Light travels from its source (a bulb) through air, dust, a room, until it meets a surface and then it falls flat on that surface, covering the irregularities and perhaps distorting the images in the process. This beam functioned thus in pre-modern technologies of spectacle and display, and continues to function with contemporary digital projectors. An installed work may exploit this property of the beam, using shadows or interruptions of the light beam to generate reactions, to prompt responses by the program. The physical interruption of the beam in a space, or a feedback image of the reader's body in the space, can act as an interruption to a layer of data. Talking Cure by Noah Wardrip-Fruin uses a projected image of the viewer's body interrupting the layers of text to generate new readings (Wardrip-Fruin 2005a). Having the beam fall on a surface that is not a blank screen, not a purpose-made receptor surface, but one that has semiotic content brings both the material being projected and the place/site of projection into relationship. The site or location is illuminated by the beam, and the place gives form or texture to the projected material. Jenny Holzer's more recent projections of Truisms, for example at a number of sites in central London in 2005, have used high-powered projectors to present the texts on buildings in urban environments (cf. Morley 2003: 207). The meaning of the texts is altered by their now having a context of a particular location. The building itself may be altered for the reader as the temporary slogan modifies the facade.

Embodied Reading

Installed digital literature may be installed or written in such a way as to make the reader aware of her own embodiment, aware of herself as physically occupying space and as moving in that space, as present in a particular space with specific characteristics. This makes the act of reading material, materializes the matter of reading by emphasizing it as a bodily practice, not something involving only the eyes. Thus the action of moving the arms in Text Rain or in Screen shifts the letters of words of the text; the body of the reader comes into play in reordering the stuff she is reading. As in the materializing of the digital text in a physical dimensional space, there is also a materializing of the action of reading, reading as a being with the text and of moving in relation to the text. The illusion of transparency in reading, reading past the words on a surface to their narrative or informational meaning, is disrupted by the reader's awareness of her being with the words. The space the text is located in is the space that the reader also occupies. Text and reader are subject to shifts of light, of time, of environment. In some cases they are set in space and she comes to them, in others they are reactive or responsive, or move with her or around her in space (advertising on buses, fly-by banners or hot-air balloons).

In May 1987, in Santa Monica, California, David Antin presented "Skypoem: An Aerial Literary Event" (Sayre 1989: 201–2). The text of this poem was written in the sky by skywriters, puffing out one line at a time in dots of white smoke. The text was digitalized, in that the writing was programmed as information, and generated in discrete bits. The work in its installation made the reader aware of her body, on the ground, craning her neck to look up at the fugitive text, and as the three lines were written separately the reader had to wait if she was to see the whole poem, or might have moved off, turned away and so would only see part. A number of works installed by Jenny Holzer also use this public space, the street, the urban square, and make the reader aware of her need to look up, to stop, to wait for the changes in the text, to become aware of her body moving through the urban environment as being a reading body. For example, in her installation of "Truisms" on Spectacolor signboards in London and New York during the 1980s, Holzer used the rhythms of these flashing electronic light displays to present texts that shared some of the syntax and address of advertising slogans (Morley 2003: 180–1). Like Antin's "Skypoem," there is the possibility for any reader to feel the words were for her, and the space they allowed for reading the non-specific pronouns meant any pedestrian or driver in the street was pointed to by them. The walkers' presence in the urban space was made apparent.

Being in the work, in the space occupied by the work, the reader may be said to be immersed in it. This physical absorption in the work is distinct from the immersion of reading an absorbing narrative. As discussed by Charles Bernstein in "Artifice and Absorption," the disembodied pressure to attend to the story, to see through the words on the page to the content, leaves the site of reading and the reader's body out of consideration (Bernstein 1992: 31). The writer may use direct address to the reader to break out of this absorptive frame, to make opaque the window through which the reader is apprehending the world of the text. As the use of pronouns in Antin's and Holzer's work, discussed above, implicates the audience physically present to the text, the anti-absorptive expletives and insults of Bruce Andrew's poetry can disturb the sense the reader has of her occupation of social space. The ear is assaulted by the text taken in through the eye (ibid.: 32–35). Marie Laure Ryan discusses modes of immersion in reading and interaction with printed and electronic texts, and considers how the reader in reading may be immersed in a fictional or real space, in an other space conjured by the text. These questions of space, along with narrative time, are for Ryan one aspect of immersion through participation (Ryan 2003: 120–39). Modes of reading and levels or types of absorption shift with the genre of text being read. The lazy weekday afternoon reading of a mystery novel is a physical experience of being engaged with a text. This differs dramatically from the way in which a reader is physically engaged in reading John Cayley's "Lens" piece within the Cave.

Modes of reading and the form or experience of particular genres are inextricably linked and the material or immaterial modes of publication/transmission will determine or be determined by modes of readerly engagement, physical, bodily, active, interrupted, immersive, etc. Roger Chartier develops this point in relation to genres of printed, book, or electronic texts. He describes the reading of encyclopedic texts as "segmented, fragmented, discontinuous" (Chartier 2004: 151). The structure of such texts is suited to this mode of reading, and their reception in electronic form is facilitated by this. For Chartier, those genres that demand some perception by the reader of the whole, of the work as a "coherent creation," in his examples monographs and novels, are not well served in electronic form. The ways of reading generated by these genres are not satisfied by publication in electronic form (ibid.: 152). The ways of reading demanded by an installed text may require a physical engagement, may require bodily movement either to activate aspects of the installation, or to access portions of the text. The reader's body may provide a continuity for an otherwise fragmented text, or the experience of the text as complete may be conceivable only through being in it. The text will exceed the reader's body to some extent, in contrast to how a book or other codex form may be grasped as a whole. As a reader the text exceeds my body, and my body in the text brings it to the point or place of reading.

Public Reading

One characteristic of reading a text that has been installed in a three-dimensional space is that often this reading is done in the presence of others; this is reading in public, the reader reads and sees others reading while she herself can be seen to read by others. This shifts the reader's engagement with the text from the private reading usually considered the norm for reading a printed text in book form, or the individual engaged with a single monitor screen and a text in whatever form that is accessed through that monitor. The kind of attention the reader will give to a text in public, the time she spends with it, the choice to go and to return, the immersion in the physical space of reading, the level of absorption possible (or the nature of that absorption when compared with private reading) are all qualities that the artist or writer can articulate and work for in her making of the work of installed digital literature.

In an installation the reader is in the work in some way and so the mode of address is distinct from a printed text or a work of literature engaged with on a monitor or other individual user interface. The installed work can address a wider audience in the manner of advertising hoardings or monumental inscriptions, being located in a space where any number of viewers may see them and read them. The reader, as described by Philippe Bootz, is herself viewed as a reader by other readers. The reader is both spectator and actor, both addressed by the text and visible as part of the scene of reading for other spectators (Bootz 2004: 115). The work is public in a manner distinct from an openly accessible work, it occupies a public reading space and addresses itself to many or to any viewer. This address is less to an imagined or ideal individual reader than to a series or group of readers at once, the holes in the text are not addressed to one reader, the "you" is already multiple, and the installed work makes this evident. Peter Dittmer's "Die Amme 5" (2005) is the latest version of a project he has been modifying over more than a decade. The work makes evident a play between being a particular reader reading (and writing) in public, and in the same moment being any individual who chooses to interact with the installation. "Die Amme 5" as a physical installation is very large, in excess of 20 meters in length, and comprises computer hardware, a number of individual user terminals with screens, a heavy steel framing structure, a robotic arm, and a number of containers of liquid. Engagement with this installation takes the form of entering questions via a keyboard to the machine, which responds using a sophisticated program to generate answers from a database that is continually updated and augmented by the user input. The machine, whose title can translate as "The Wet Nurse 5," demonstrates emotional reactions to the user's input, and if sufficiently angered the arm will spill a glass of milk. There are no game-type shortcuts or hints to getting the machine to respond, and the user, who may become engrossed in the written exchange, is also visible to other visitors to the installation. The other viewers and readers can assess what sort of reading experience is happening, and can themselves develop competing strategies for writing so that the milk will spill (Ensslin 2006: 36–9). Carrie Noland, writing of the physical interaction between user or reader and machine, observes that the physical gestures we use are learned, and to some extent they are determined by the programming. The user's actions in the space of writing and reading are shifted from those of the autonomous reading subject of the book text to a public actor making particular gestures in relation to the machine and other users.

Choices made during the process of reading (or interacting) are partially determined by features of the programming; they are not realizations of a unified subject's autonomous and individuated desires.

(Noland 2006: 220)

Questions of public and private, of the location of "the work," are raised by these installations. Do these works demand an appropriate reading? An appropriate reader? The work of completing the text is not a task open only to an individual reader, but to readers who are also aware of their fellow readers and of being read by them in the space of interaction.

Reading takes place in public, in a space and sometimes in company. As a reader I am in the work, and am part of that work for other readers/viewers. Jill Walker, considering the interaction of a viewer or user in an installation, describes how the visitor performs certain movements in order to participate in the work. She continues, "In addition my movements position me in relation to this representation: it is a representation that includes me" (Walker 2003: 200). This representation is also for those others who may be present, who can see her as part of the situation, who understand her movements as a performance for them also. The reading of, or operation of, the installation affects it, there may be a response to the user's presence, her actions, her position. She reads other readers (as) in the work, and reads the work in relation to its site.

If the site for the installation is an institution, a museum, a gallery, a university, the audience may come with particular expectations, of entertainment, of aesthetic or formal engagement, of information. George Legrady (Legrady 1999), in an article on spatial aspects of interactive installations, considers the role of the performer in the work. To recall Meyer's term, "functional site," the institution is one element of the web of interrelations that form this site. The audience will enter the installation aware of the public context it is operating within. And aware of themselves as necessary to the full functioning of the work and the site (Legrady: 111).

Considering public and private reading in relation to large-scale or installed textual works, one important body of work is that by Barbara Kruger. She does not use digital media in the main, but did use the Spectacolor light board in New York's Times Square in a work commissioned by the Public Art Fund Inc., in 1983, one of the sites later used by Jenny Holzer. The work, "Message to the Public," presented a text dealing with the media, in particular the television news media and its coverage of war and violence, and the relation of this to masculinity. Rosalyn Deutsche (Deutsche 1999) writes of Kruger's work in relation to public space, criticizing the label "public art" as consigning those works installed in galleries and museums to a separate private category. For Deutsche, outdoor spaces are also privatized, in particular those spaces such as Times Square and Piccadilly Circus that are sold for advertising, or outdoor spaces monitored by private surveillance systems (Deutsche 1999: 77n). Works such as Holzer's projections or Kruger's installations draw readers' attention to these complex distinctions between public and private. They activate through writing and reading the power relationships that operate in these spaces. Deutsche complicates the public/private distinction, and its relation to spatial practices. The reading of a work of art in public will to some extent occur in the privatized space of art. She refers to Jacques Derrida's text Positions (1981) and develops an argument that understands any social space as constructed on otherness (Deutsche 1999: 77n). The installed work is read in the context of the space made for it by art or literature. The location of literature in that space is made possible by the functional site, by the operation of the institution that licenses or sanctions the work.


Is the installation of digital literature distinguished by the mode in which it addresses its readers, or by the work of reading that it elicits from those readers? If the work is located in a particular place or site, then the reader for that work is also located, the reader reading is placed in/by the work as (s)he engages with/in the work. The installation of digital literature makes manifest material qualities of digital work, and situates this textual work in a context, a context of reading, of interaction. Bruce Andrews in "Electronic Poetics" proposes a mode of reading electronic literature that engages with, and is implicated in, the social. This social context of reading may draw on a number of the factors discussed earlier, materiality, embodiment, site, space, and a sense of a public context.

The readers' map becomes the intertext, letting underlayers of significance showing [sic] through. Sense is an elastic social game world. If you want to create a social connectionism, it has to be between the social tilts & volleys of the language; it has to reverb off of the reader. The pleasures of anti-illusionism require active work. Reading, put more directly in charge, is intertextual. The reader is the

(modifying, reconfiguring) playback device, not the target of it. (Andrews 2002)

The action of reading installed digital literature involves the reader's body in relation to other bodies, recognizes that where we read is an element of our act of reading, and makes evident the site of reading as part of its materiality. As it offers a resistance to the absorptive immaterial immediate text, the installed text locates the reading in a socially mediated space of human (inter)action.

References and Further Reading

Andrews, Bruce (2002). Electronic poetics. <>. Accessed March 31, 2006.

Bernstein, Charles (1992). Artifice of Absorption. In A Poetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 9–89.

Bootz, Philippe (2004). Reader/Readers. In p0es1s: The Aesthetics of Digital Poetry. Berlin: Hatje Cantz Verlag, pp. 93–121.

Cayley, John (n.d.). "RiverIsland." <>.

Cayley, John (n.d.). "Overboard." <>.

Cayley, John (2005). Writing on Complex Surfaces. <>.

Crimp, Douglas (1995). On the Museum's Ruins. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chang, Young-Hae <>.

Chartier, Roger (2004). "Languages, Books, and Reading from the Printed Word to the Digital Text" (T. L. Fagan, Trans.). Critical Inquiry 31.1: 133–52.

Cubitt, Sean (2001). "Preface: The Colour of Time." In Malcolm Le Grice (Ed.). Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age. London: BFI Publishing, pp. vii–xvi.

Deutsche, Rosalyn (1999). "Barbara Kruger's Spatial Practice." In S. Emerson (Ed.). Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 77–84.

Dittmer, Peter <>.

Drucker, Johanna (2002a). "Intimations of Immateriality: Graphical Form, Textual Sense, and the Electronic Environment." In E. B. Loizeaux and N. Fraistat (Eds.). Reimagining Textuality: Textual Studies in the Late Age of Print. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 152–77.

Elmslie, Kenward <>.

Ensslin, Marcus (2006). Performativity and Narrative in Digital Writing: The Metatext of Code. Unpublished MA Dissertation, Dartington College of Arts.

Krauss, Rosalind E. (1986). "Sculpture in the Expanded Field." In The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 276–91.

Legrady, George (1999). "Intersecting the Virtual and the Real: Space in Interactive Media Installations." Wide Angle 21.1: 104–13.

Le Grice, Malcolm (2001). Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age. London: BFI Publishing.

Lennon, Brian (2000). "Screening a Digital Visual Poetics." Configurations 8.1: 63–85.

Liu, Alan (2004). "Transcendental Data: Toward a Cultural History and Aesthetics of the New Encoded Discourse." Critical Inquiry 31.1: 49–84.

Manovich, Lev (2001). The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

McCullough, Malcolm (2005). Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Meyer, James (2000). "The Functional Site; or, the Transformation of Site Specificity." In E. Suderburg (Ed.). Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art. Minneapolis: University of Min-nesota Press, pp. 23–37.

Morley, Simon (2003). Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art. London: Thames & Hudson.

Noland, Carrie (2006). "Digital Gestures." In A. Morris and T. Swiss (Eds.). New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 217–43.

Ryan, Marie-Laure (2003). Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sayre, Henry M. (1989). The Object of Performance: The American Avant-Garde since 1970. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.

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Sturken, Marita (2000). "The Space of Electronic Time: The Memory Machines of Jim Campbell." In E. Suderburg (Ed.). Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 287–96.

Suderburg, Erika (2000). "Introduction: On Installation and Site-specificity." In E. Suderburg (Ed.). Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 1–22.

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Wardrip-Fruin, Noah (2005a). Digital Literature. (Interview by Roberto Simanowski at <>.) Accessed March 26, 2006.

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Weyergraf-Serra, C., and Buskirk, M. (Eds.) (1990). The Destruction of Tilted Arc: Documents. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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