David Prater Interviews Talan Memmott

By and | 1 December 2011

DP: But the iteration that we see there on the site now is the final iteration – do you have any screenshots of what it looked like at the start?

TM: Well, I mean, technically, they’re all still on the server, it’s just that you really don’t have access to them, they’ve been cut off. I mean to produce consistency as we started to archive work, things had to be re-incorporated into the archive, and very much the whole series of volumes was pretty much hand-coded.

Even the archive was produced manually, because the data that was necessary for including the work changed over time, and MYSQL was really not around in 1998, and to run a database was a whole different issue. I mean in the long run if it is permanently archived it would probably be rebuilt with a little more contextual information. But I mean it’s still online – that it still exists, and you can still access most of the work, is amazing to me.

DP: Why is that amazing to you?

TM: Well, first of all, I don’t necessarily believe in the permanence of digital information. And thinking about coding standards, one thing that I tried to do with all volumes was to keep the coding completely basic, and that’s probably why it’s lasted. But, ah, when I think about that – like old issues of, say, October (at least the way I used them, in terms of writing all over them and taking notes and stuff) – they would not last eleven years. Or say, like a copy of Flash Art – things would be faded, it wouldn’t look the same after eleven years, so there’s something about that. I mean the technology maybe has faded but the design especially by the time it reached the last volume, is still consistent.

DP: Yeah, I think there’s something to be said for the simplicity of the coding that you use in the early issues. I had a look at some of the source code for those early pages, and the style sheet is there in the actual HTML code, it’s not a separate file, each page is a self-contained world. Do you think it’s necessarily better to have a database driven sites with all sorts of cascading style sheets and so on?

TM: I don’t know if it’s better or worse but it certainly requires more maintenance.

DP: Right, yeah …

TM: Which means more people have to be involved, and it becomes a more complicated process. I mean there is a small advantage to keeping it simple and keeping it manual.

DP: What kind of changes did you see happening in the web world between 1998 and 2002? In what sense was that a political moment in time?

TM: Well, political moment maybe, but certainly a cultural one. I’d say between 1996 and 2002, more and more people were adopting the web, and getting off of services like AOL and such. So, I mean what I see within the journal because of the period that it was published from 1998 to 2002, is that the beginning works are more formative, with a lot of leveraging of what could be print literature presented on the web, but a little more design-rich than most of the journals going on at that period in 1998. At that time it was much more formative but if you look over the years you see much more self-contained work created where the design, the coding and so on is developed by the authors themselves.

So at one level this is the advent of web-based electronic literature; at another it’s also the beginning of the adoption (or the incorporation) of the idea that at a very basic level, HTML is just not that hard to learn. And a webpage is something that anyone can create, essentially. So from the beginning of 1998 but as time goes on, you see more sophistication in terms of authorship, more media-rich environments, more fully realised work rather than preliminary experiments in web-based electronic literature.

So in that regard then the journal does represent this kind of interesting historical moment for technologically based cultural practice in general. You know, by the time Beehive finished, although there is some Flash work in there and some audio work in there, the incorporation of video and audio was still not as easy an enterprise as it is now. So that progression has not stopped since the journal ended but it’s an interesting kind of formative moment, those four years, especially in terms of what it meant to practice literature online.

DP: On that subject, you spoke before about Beehive being a journal of ‘hypertext, hypermedia and literature’. To what extent do you think those terms still applied at the end of the journal’s lifespan?

TM: Well, I can think of it this way: at the beginning of Beehive, even though I called it a journal of ‘hypertext, hypermedia and literature’, I think I was much more interested, as an editor and curator, in narrative structures. By the end of this I was much more interested in the whole mixed semiotics notion, where it’s about meaning-making, it’s about signification – even if it’s non-representational, it still has a degree of signification – and what affordances are available within media technologies. So even my mindset as an editor changed over the period, and a lot of this is technologically based.

When I look at my own creative practice, I see that kind of progression happening too. So my editorial practice affected my creative practice, and my creative practice affected my editorial and curatorial practice. The journal progressed, but a lot of the editorial was based on continuing research on what was being produced, what was apparently becoming culturally significant. Whether or not it was in the moment it was published in Beehive was not necessarily important, I wasn’t interested in that. But the idea of presenting work because it was interesting and well done [laughs], and maybe took some risks, was much more important.

DP: You spoke before about the emergence of, for want of a better word, electronic literature, as opposed to hypertext literature, as a culturally significant form of expression during the time that you were running the journal. In your view, or from your viewpoint, was that something that was isolated within the United States?

TM: Absolutely not. No, no. I know that that’s a sort of common academic theme, that it really is just a North American phenomenon at some level but when I really start to think about it, although Beehive was entirely in English – actually there’s one piece that is primarily in French – this was going on in France, and Australia, Brazil, in Scandinavia, so we have maybe these pockets of things going on that are very different in terms of their output.

Thinking about what I said about hypertext moving to electronic literature, I think what I’m mainly meaning to say there is that once the web came around there was a lot of work that could have been produced in Storyspace or in other platforms that was very link-node based. So there was a degree of understanding of what the web offered that was different from these other platforms that really began in about 1996. In 1998 there was a flurry of work that started to be produced but it was still very much link-node hypertext oriented. So moving from ‘hypertext literature’ to ‘web-based literary hypermedia’ might be a more accurate way of putting the transition that I see.

DP: Okay, because I guess what’s ironic about that sort of transformation is that in some academic readings of the web, it’s been a process of increaisng commercialisation, whereas for example Eastgate Systems and Storyspace was always predominantly a commercial model, and yet your journal has always been available freely. Did you ever think at some stage that a site like Beehive could have been commercially viable?

TM: Well, we actually did an experiment, and at that point the sophistication of how you commercialise a culturally-based website was not very sophisticated [laughs] – sorry for that tautology, but …

DP: [laughs] I’ll let you get away with it, just this once …

TM: [inaudible, possibly obscene] … we did run a pilot program where we ran ads, and where we ran an ad for Storyspace – who didn’t have to pay for it at all, but we were doing an experiment to see if people clicked on them. What ended up happening – and this is nothing against Storyspace, or the other people who ran ads there – was that nobody clicked on them. So we decided against it. At that point, because Beehive was sponsored by our company, Percepticon, we had the resources to run this, and it seemed less significant to make it a commercial venture than it did to present an avenue for these writers to show work. And that’s primarily a resource-based thing, and a corporate philosophy we had.

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