Quest for the Critical E-dition: An interview with Leonardo Flores

Leonardo Flores, Associate Professor of English at University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez

The following interview is a guest post from Jose (Ricky) Padilla, an intern with the NDIIPP program working on issues related to software preservation and the innovation and infrastructure working groups of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance.

In this installment of the Insights Interviews Series I interview Dr. Leonardo Flores, Professor of English at El Recinto Universitario de Mayagüez de la Universidad de Puerto Rico and Fulbright Scholar in Digital Culture at the University of Bergen. In this interview I ask Leonardo various questions on his project to create a critical edition of Jim Andrew’s e-poem Arteroids.  I was excited to discover more about this project to create a critical edition of a born digital work with over 80 versions and also to get a chance to hear more about his unique blog in which he presents one work of E-literature a day.

Ricky: Would you care to explain your project to create a critical edition of Jim Andrews e-poem Arteroids?

Leonardo: Arteroids is a work of electronic literature created by Jim Andrews in 2001 and developed actively until 2004, with touch-ups until 2008. Created using Macromedia (now Adobe) Director, this video game poem would make a relevant critical edition for several reasons:

  • This is an important work of electronic literature, frequently cited, assigned and studied, in part because it uses some of the structure of an early videogame (Asteroids) as a structure in which writing, reading and playing come together.
  • While the work is published online, its source code is not available. A critical edition would make it available, which would be of interest for people who wish to perform code readings, Critical Code Studies or remixes of the work.
  • A critical edition would make available the source files for the published version and numerous other source materials, including a total of 82 different versions of the work. The challenge of assembling these materials would contribute to textual and editorial theory (also known as bibliography) by creating a type of variorum or fluid-text edition of a work of electronic literature.
  • It is a great example of the challenges of preserving born-digital objects, particularly those created using closed source proprietary authoring systems because it is a work in danger of becoming obsolete, since its code is incompatible with Adobe Director 11 and above.
  • A critical edition of Arteroids would engage issues studied in emerging disciplines, such as the Digital Humanities, Software Studies, New Media Studies, Electronic Literature and others.

 Ricky: How did this project come about?

Leonardo: When I was working on my dissertation—a single author-study of Jim Andrews’ electronic literature—he gave me a copy of his “Arteroids Development Folder” a collection of 1331 files that went into the creation of this work, including 82 different versions of Arteroids. These materials are a gold mine of information on the conceptual and functional development of the work. I have since been exploring and processing these materials since he shared them with me in 2008.

Ricky: You mention in your dissertation that Jim Andrews gave you the folder containing all the files used in the 82 versions of Arteroids. Could you tell us about some of the most interesting files or information you discovered while exploring that folder?

Leonardo:There is so much in there! Raw and processed image and sound files, partial and complete documentation files, letters to the Canada Council for the Arts (which funded Andrews for a year to develop this work), documents describing future (and unrealized) versions of Arteroids and the source files for many different numbered versions of the program itself. I discuss some of these early versions in chapter 4 of my dissertation and in my recently published article Authorial Scholarship 2.0: Tracing the Creative Process in Online Communities.

One of the most fascinating versions is an unpublished playable version titled “Arteroids 1.0 for Arts Council” which features voice-over commentary by Jim Andrews in different sections of the game. Similar to a directorial commentary track in a DVD or BluRay, this offers at least one possible model for adding a critical layer to playable versions in a critical edition.

Ricky: In one of your talks at the University of Bergen you presented some of the difficulties you encountered in this project. Could you please elaborate on or mention some of the most significant problems.

Leonardo: A big problem is that in order to be able to examine the code one has two options: producing an extremely lengthy textual output of it in Lingo, or get an old version of Director (before version 11) to open the source files and examine them in the interface they were developed in. Recent versions of Adobe Director have a new audio engine, which requires that the code be “updated” to the new version, which renders the Arteroids code illegible. How can one provide access to the code without costly and legally unavailable copies of this old version of the authoring software?

I have attempted to contact Adobe on numerous occasions on this matter and have not been successful in receiving a response or establishing a productive conversation. I would like for them to either release the old versions of the software to the public, or provide some kind of a “reader” version of Adobe Director 10.5, which would allow readers to at least view the source code through its interfaces (see image below).

Screenshot of working with Arteroids files

The biggest problem is that, despite a recent update to a version 12, Director seems to be a mostly abandoned project by Adobe. How much longer will Director files and the Shockwave format be supported? Shockwave files are not viewable in Linux machines, iOS or Android devices, and there seems to be no interest in developing that functionality. Instead, the latest version of Adobe Director offers the ability to publish works iOS apps—a development that doesn’t help Arteroids.

Ricky: In the same paper you explain how Andrews leaves messages in the code of his digital works. Could you explain the importance of the preservation of code for the study of born-digital works?

Example image from a version of the e-poem

Leonardo: There is much insight to be found in the code, both about its function and conceptualization. As you can see in the image above, we can see that each director file contains many “objects” within it: scripts, behaviors, sprites, images, text files, audio files and documentation—each with metadata, such as file size and date modified. Some of the objects are unused in version 2.0 yet remain within the source file as vestiges of a previous conceptualization of the work. For example, the cast member selected above is a mysterious behavior script named “Now I am me.” Jim Andrews himself doesn’t remember what it does, nor do I (yet), but it resonates poetically inside of Arteroids. It is one of the earliest objects in Arteroids, present since Andrews reconceptualized the work from an animated floating head chasing a ship to a game about language moving on screen. The code for the floating head remains inside of future versions of the game, but their behavior lives on in the code that regulates the blue texts and allow us to interpret the texts in that light. Can the blue texts be understood as attempting to consume the player’s “IdEntity” (another significant naming)? There is so much more to explore in Andrews’ code, which informs the behaviors we see on screen.

Ricky: You have a blog where you present and write on one e-poem a day. What are some of the goals you wish to achieve with this blog? Do you see any problems with the preservation of blog and the works being discussed in it?

Leonardo: This daily scholarly blog reviews poetry that explores the expressive potential of digital media, also known as e-poetry. This kind of poetry isn’t merely using the Web for publication– it is native to this media, which means it cannot be printed out without loss because it is kinetic, interactive, generative, multimedia.

With over 450 entries to date, I E-Poetry has become an encyclopedic database, offering concise entries with poetic, technological and theoretical contexts, close readings of the poems, and some strategies for new and experienced readers to approach the works. As the age of print comes to an end, we increasingly compose, shape and read language in digital media and screens. It behooves us to learn about these poetic explorations of our new media landscape.

While the blog itself isn’t difficult to preserve—I have a mirror site as a backup—the works linked to present numerous preservation issues. It is understandable: they were created in different computational environments as we have now. The obvious example is with works created and published in proprietary authoring systems, such as Basic, Storyspace, Hypercard, Shockwave and Flash—the last two work in browsers, but not in iOS or Android tablets, for instance. Works created with open standards can still present problems, however, as standards change and certain codes become deprecated. Many works created in DHTML and JavaScript in the late 1990s and early 2000s can’t be read correctly by most contemporary browsers—only Internet Explorer, retains enough backwards compatibility to execute that old code correctly. See my posting on old versions of “Enigma n” and “Seattle Drift” by Jim Andrews.

Another example is the Marquee tag, which has been disavowed by the W3C, yet is used prominently in works like “Larvatus Prodeo” by Braxton Soderman, and has been replaced by the JavaScript div tag to create the same effect, as seen in “Along the Briny Beach” by J.R. Carpenter.

There are few systematic efforts to preserve the source files for works of electronic literature. An important initiative that can help with this is the ELMCIP Knowledge Base, which in addition to being a growing research database, allows contributors to create records for works of e-lit, and attach documentation and source files, if so desired. Anyone can become a contributor by e-mailing kb_editor at elmcip dot net, which I highly recommend for creators and scholars or electronic literature.

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