Stir Frys and Cut Ups

T he stir frys are related to cut ups. The sorts of examples of previous cut ups I'm aware of range from the textual and audio cut ups done by William S Burroughs to the sorts of experiments by Dali to more recent experiments by, say, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, to more visually oriented cut ups done by some of the Web artists such as Reiner Strasser and Ted Warnell and others. Then there's the totally automatic text dicing machines by Lee Worden and a few others. I'm skipping lots of work here, obviously--such work is proliferating (and part of what I want to get at here is why it is proliferating). The common thread among these works is the way that textual or visual materials are quite literally cut up into pieces and then rearranged, partly at random and partly according to either the artist's associativity and/or the associativity the artist gives into the hands of the reader/viewer to rearrange and recombine the materials.

What's New?

What can be new about this? Well, when Burroughs wrote/made Naked Lunch and his trilogy of cut up novels, it was taken rightfully as something startlingly new despite Dali's having done something of the same thing. Burroughs did it on the level of chunks of text whereas Dali did it with individual words or just simply smaller units and in a much less ambitious way, ie, no novels and Dali probably didn't produce the interesting body of theoretical, speculative writings about his cut ups that Burroughs did. Burroughs created a whole world view from his cut ups and related writings. But Burroughs and his partner in crime, Brion Gysin, did acknowledge the part that the painters played in their experiments, saying that they were simply applying a technique that had been practiced for some time in the visual arts.

If we acknowledge that our ideas are drawn not always from a blank tablet but are instead indebted to the work of those whom we have read and heard and seen, we see that much of what we do, however original, is cut together from the work of others. More generally, the language we use is gotten not from a blank tablet but from what has gone before. So there is a sense in which even this sort of writing is a cut up or cut together.

What's new in the stir frys is the spastic interactivity they give to the reader/viewer, the way that they insist on hanging together as texts, physically, anyway and, if they are successful as texts, rather than simply as langwidgetical text toys, the range of insights they afford into themselves and the random and the cut up and the Web and into oneself, since the stir frys allow you to make your own texts.

Hyperlinks and Cut Ups

It seems to me that there are a couple of things about the Web that naturally go with cut ups. The hyper link itself is wonderfully diverse in its associativity. The way that we end up going from text to text via hyper links makes for a cut up of sorts, cut ups not on the level of the word, as in Dali, or the chunk, as in Burroughs, but on a larger scale, link to link, text to text. The memory of surfing the Web, recalled later, is often of an intoxicating blur of diversely associative texts strung together by our own and the individual authors' associativity via the provided links.

In fact the stir frys can be thought of as a certain sort of hyperlink structure or mapping from one text to another. Each individual text can be considered as a set of elements and the stir frys establish a one-to-one mapping between the elements of the various texts. But rather than the usual situation, where linking replaces the entire screen, mousing over stir fry text replaces only a part of the text and the body of the new text moves as an entity to adjust itself to the change, providing the pleasant illusion that it has some sort of unified character or personality even in its transformations. They want to stay unified. This behavior or character is one of the things I like best about the stir frys. It ain't entirely gimmick: one of the things you'd like in a cut up is meaningful association, not just widely combinatorial permutation. The stir frys really try to keep it together, however much they are doomed to be scrambled and somewhat addled texts.

I was going to say that another thing about the Web that naturally goes with the cut up, besides the hyper link, is the interactivity. But maybe interactivity is just the result of hyper links? No, that's not true: email or other text input is not just hyper links, and audio interaction is not just hyper links, though maybe all interactivity is architecturally a hyper link or vector between parties.

In any case, driving a computer as a reader/speaker/chatter/correspondent/etc is an active thing, and one is presented with all sorts of choices along the way be they via the hyper link or other interaction, not the least of which is the interaction that happens just in the way we read and think and choose even when we're reading a plain old book. But the question I'm trying to figure out is why the cut up feels totally at home on the screen, on the Web, I'm trying to understand why that literary heritage of the cut up has been richly congruent with the spirit of a lot of contemporary Web art.

Mechanical Process and Writing

I went to hear Marvin Minsky, the great artificial intelligencer, speak many years ago in Victoria BC. At one point he said he felt that the main thing the computer has contributed to knowledge is deeper understanding of process, of processes.

All of the variations on the cut up method have some mechanical process involved in them.

Of course, computers are processing machines, they are process machines, a phrase that has some redundancy in it, since machines inevitably automate some process or processes.

It's this mechanical dimension of cut ups that suit them so well to new media.

There are many 'process centered writing techniques' that share this property with cut ups. Certainly the appeal of Burroughs's writing, the atmospheres and their association with the cut up, has served to make the cut up, in all its variations, widespread. But it also has to do with the ease and flexibility with which the method can be automated and the process not illustrated but engaged.

I've thought of making a program that allows people to make their own stir frys. But it is not altogether a mechanical process to make an engaging stir fry: you have to pick texts that collide and interpenetrate in an interesting and hopefully startling and even enlightening way, and you have to choose how to cut each of the texts into pieces and those decisions should be based on seeing the results and then being able to edit again. A lot of work to make a program that would permit subtle makings, which is why I haven't made it.

Inner and Outer Process

Before I started working in radio, I didn't appreciate the value of the random and semi-mindless experimentation in writing or art more generally. But as I began to experiment with sound and cutting tape up and randomly reassembling it and then not so randomly but still there was randomness, etc., I was delighted to find how stuff arises just via the doing and semi-mindless experimentation. Stuff arises and then you can shape it or not as you please, as you start to appreciate the nature of the stuff arising, start to understand something about the processes and the materials. So you end up not constraining them utterly and strictly determine what results, not that much shaping, but throw the right wrenches into the works at key points.

Might it be that dreams happen this way too? You know the feeling in a vivid dream that you really aren't choosing what's happening, though you may choose how you react to what's happening? The conventional idea is that we really are choosing what's happening at some deep, denied or simply hidden intentional level. But maybe we aren't choosing what's happening; maybe stuff is arising through the same semi-mindless process of experimentation, the same putting of building blocks together via a process that doesn't so much involve choice of how the blocks go together as just putting them together without choice but nonetheless according to a process or two.

Then to have a feel for the processes and the building blocks, the materials and the process.

I've been thinking about the way that stuff just arises and the process of working with and generating that stuff for awhile. The notion that at the most fundamental or formative level, we do not choose what happens in dreams—I mean that there are mental processes that function without any conscious choice whatever like blood pumps without our choosing it—and that in our experimentations we are both kind of duplicating those processes externally in the way we set up the external processes that generate stuff and also allowing the mindless generative processes within ourselves their potent place in our response to these external processes... this interests me. I mean on the one hand, there are the two mindless types of processes: the ones inside us and the ones we implement in the things we make, particularly when it comes to making little langwidgets. Then there are the mindful processes. The ones in us and the way we zap those into the langwidgets. Additionally, there are the mindful and mindless processes of the reader.... into and out of the primal and the mindless and the (pseudo) random and the mindful...

Cut Ups/Cut Togethers

One of the stir frys, Correspondence, draws from some email correspondence between myself and Mary Phillips and Lee Worden about the cut up and, more generally, into matters of language. I wanted to do at least one cut up involving our email because we're working together on a project about the cut up or centered around it--who knows how it will turn out--but also because the correspondences of email, that interaction, that creating together, involves a weaving together of our thoughts and words for which the cut up is a kind of metaphor. Both Mary and myself and Lee shared in email a sense that there was something about the cut up that we couldn't quite put our finger on, that was eluding us but was compelling and beyond us.

Certainly there's a sense of introducing the unknown when working with the cut up. And this sense of introducing the unknown has an exciting synchronistic aspect to it and dovetails with the synchronicities of correspondence and communication over the vasting sprawl of the Web and its virtual imaginary wonders. Correspondence was also a tribute to my friends' writing and our involvement together in this seeking together of insight about the cut up and language and art. It occurs to me that hyper links establish a certain correspondence between two texts or perhaps two people or x and y.

Collaborative Architextures

Also, this project we're working on together is one of the first projects for, which ideally will flower into a magnificent collaborative site between many Web artists around the world, so there was desire on my part to create something collaborative to share not just with Mary and Lee but with the rest of the artists on the webartery project.

Each in our different houses variously around the globe connected via the conduits and architectures of communications. Creating together these word structures that themselves have architectures.

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