Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for the ‘Interactive Literature’ Category

‘The Flood’ by Superbard (George Lewkowicz)

In Interactive Literature, Saboteur Awards, Short Stories on April 21, 2013 at 1:57 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

What is particularly interesting about The Flood is how it translates the live storytelling experience into a digitally portable medium. For instance, the first story ‘Dr Who and the Water’ was performed by Superbard (aka George Lewkowicz) at the Birkbeck Writer’s Hub October Hubbub last year, and he plans to continue performing stories from The Flood around the UK. At the moment, the ebook features three stories by Superbard and illustrations by Maria Forrester, accompanied by music and narration from the former. The latest update in iBooks added music and narration for the third story, ‘The Ark’, plus a burst of social commentary in the form of new song, ‘Two by Two’.
The Flood - Superbard
A complaint that is sometimes levelled at digital storytelling is that it resorts to gimmickry, privileging the manipulation of form at the expense of good stories. Thankfully, there is no danger of that in The Flood. Opening story ‘Dr Who and the Water’ nicely sets up the arrival of the titular flood. Rather than spend time trying to explain why the flood has happened, the story self-assuredly brings the reader into a remoulded reality where London is ‘Venice with no buildings’, and everyone is still unconcernedly going about their business, including watching the Doctor’s onscreen triumph. (I would quibble with the story’s referencing a particular Doctor Who episode though, since that so precisely dates the story’s time setting.)

‘Brixton’s Afloat’ is my favourite story of the three, due in no small part to its catchy refrain (vocals by Nikki Blemings):

Now that Brixton’s afloat will you lay your body next to mine,
And we’ll sink to the bottom of the sea.
For now my darling we should smother ourselves in brine,
Now that Brixton’s afloat upon the sea.

The story itself is told in a familiar form, making use of diary entries, but even the tiniest detail like how the narrator begins each entry by describing what kind of tie he wore that day (the tie is later dropped in favour of jeans, then waterproof trousers, and finally a wetsuit, as the flood progresses) lends a twist, especially when one is experiencing the story aurally.

As for final story (for now) ‘The Ark’, it manages to evoke a blend of pathos and disgust simply from the device of having the characters sit down to play a game of bridge. The addition of song ‘Two by Two’ just before the story emphasises the class aspect of the card game choice, but there is also something pitiful about a group of people (illustrated as animals though, which is apt on multiple symbolic levels), the ‘worst of humanity’, carrying on as if they were not stuck in a sinking ark. Superbard also displays his gift for live storytelling in the story’s closing line: ‘and then for the first time, they started to breathe’.

Frankly, if The Flood were to just finish on that note, I would consider it a satisfying book. Fortunately, The Flood is an ongoing project, and readers are invited to contact Superbard on Facebook or Twitter to suggest storylines or characters. With any luck, you might even be made a character in the stories, with your choices determining Superbard’s handling of your character, turning The Flood into a form of collaborative storytelling. (The credits for the current three stories connect the various characters to their real-world inspirations.) On the whole, this is a project that makes for great reading-cum-listening, and my only regret is that I cannot be in the UK to catch Superbard performing one of these stories live.

Review: Glasshouse by Kate Tempest 28/02/13

In Interactive Literature, Performance Poetry on March 13, 2013 at 2:23 pm

– reviewed by Karl Niklas


Glasshouse, written by Kate Tempest, is a piece of forum theatre produced by Cardboard Citizens. It is currently touring hostels and various other venues and their next public showcase is at Rich Mix this coming Saturday 16th of March.

The worlds of performance poetry and forum theatre seldom meet, which is, to me at the very least, a little surprising. Both styles and art forms look to ask the questions that one often dares not ask, empowering both the audience and a performer with truths in the most unique of ways, and both certainly seek to challenge.

Those unfamiliar with Forum should know that once the main action of the play has finished, the designated ‘Joker’ or facilitator encourages the audience to make comments on the action, find moments where the action could be altered by characters making a different choice, and then bringing that audience member out to replace the actor and improvise the scene in this different direction.

This permission to voice truthful concerns plays neatly into the company’s choice to employ a performance poet as a playwright. Kate Tempest, the current ‘what’s hot’ in acceptable urban street culture, perhaps best known for her viral poem ‘My Shakespeare’, has penned a script that neatly combines and reconciles these art forms. Her style and voice come through most clearly during the impromptu monologues, though it must be said that on occasions her authorial voice cuts in too clearly, leaving the audience well aware that they are quite literally hearing someone else’s words in the characters’ mouths. The pointed ‘two fingers rap gesture’ even made a mild appearance.

The poems on their own paint a picture of nights unwanted, disorientated figures struggling the streets with nowhere to turn. Her style is classic performance poetry, dropped word endings, half rhymes and off beat rhythms, very much in the style of the New York scene, but bringing her English twists and idioms to the fold.

These aside, the actors handle Tempest’s script with aplomb, shifting roles with ease, making a whirlwind of the characters (please excuse) tempestuous lives. The play runs at a breakneck pace, perhaps a little conscious of the time limit needed for the full forum experience, and the need to fit in the three viewpoints that ultimately inform the scene that descends our heroine into homelessness.

Though the styles are neatly combined on the whole, whether the story itself is open enough for Forum is a different matter entirely. While there are obvious and fairly succinct moments that should be altered to make Jess’ life better, Tempest’s plot line is so neatly wrapped up that it feels like there is little room to move for those willing participants that come up from the audience.

This said, it is indeed an interesting experience to have the audience so involved in affecting the action. Ultimately the show works towards providing those audience members from the hostel with an experience that may have elements that reflect their own story, and the chance to help inform the characters will reinforce the knowledge of the real world services that work with the homeless.

Cardboard Citizens have created a wonderful show, filled with engrossing, chameleonic performances, most notably the fragile mother portrayed with a sublime and subtle frailty by Jo Allitt. In spite of the brilliant and charismatic Joker Terry O’Leary making her facilitating presence well known, the play itself falls short of the mark as a life changing piece of forum, but succeeds as a tightly knit drama that is performed with skill. It just never felt like we as the audience could change enough to make a real difference.

a picture of nights unwanted, disorientated figures struggling the streets

Saboteur Awards 2013

In All of the Above, anthology, Interactive Literature, Magazine, Novella, Object, online chapbook, online magazine, Pamphlets, Performance Poetry, Play of Voices, Saboteur Awards on March 1, 2013 at 9:35 am

Your Pick of this Year’s Best Indie Lit!

Nominations are now closed, you can view the shortlist and vote for the winners here. Buy your tickets here.

Once a year, to mark our birthday, we at Sabotage like to give out some awards to the publications we’ve most enjoyed during the year.

In the past this was restricted to magazines, and it was held solely online.

This year, however, we’ve decided to do things a little differently.

First we’ve BLOWN UP [geddit?] the categories to include spoken word shows, anthologies, pamphlets, innovative publishers, your favourite literary one-off, … And secondly, we want you to vote for the winners!

This is going to happen in two parts:

  1. First you’ve got to nominate your favourites, which is where the contact form below comes in handy. Nominations close on 31st March at midnight (UK time).
  2. The very next day, we’ll be posting a shortlist here made up of the top 5 nominees and we’ll open up a round of voting. Voting will close on 1st May at midnight (UK time).

Then, this is the fun part, we are going to have a PARTY on 29th May at the Book Club, London, where we’ll announce the winners. It’s going to be a big celebration of indie lit in all its glory and we’d love it if you could attend. There’ll also be performances, a mini-book fair, music from LiTTLe MACHINe and our very own critique booth. Ticket details will be here soon.

The small print: the works you vote for have to have been created between 30th April 2012 and now. If you’re voting for a publisher or a spoken word event then they have to have produced something during that time frame, ditto for the one-off literary project.

We’ll be showcasing the shortlisted works on Sabotage: if they haven’t been reviewed yet by us, we’ll make sure they are. Winners get to perform at our event, be interviewed for Sabotage (like these guys did), and feel warm and fuzzy inside.  If you’re looking for inspiration, why not plunge into our archives? Here are some reviews of anthologies, magazines, novellas, pamphlets, spoken word nights and poets, objects, … We strongly encourage you to vote for more than one category.

If anything’s unclear, read our FAQ and do ask!

Electronic Literature Collection #2

In All of the Above, Interactive Literature, online magazine on February 5, 2013 at 11:37 am

-Reviewed by Strat Mastoris

Electronic Literature

I was given the link to Electronic Literature Collection volume 2 a few weeks before Christmas, and suddenly it was like having an oversized Advent Calendar on my computer screen. The homepage is bright red, with a grid of over sixty boxes, each one a small window opening onto a different experience. The Christmas feeling continued as I started examining boxes to see what goodies were inside – Do I open the presents in order, or start with the brightest wrapping? Sit and play with the one I’ve just opened or rush to open another?

The e-Literature collection is remarkably wide-ranging. There are contributions by authors from Asia, North Africa, North and South America as well as Europe, and the offerings extend from simple movement games that could be played on a mobile phone to complex multi-layered documentary narratives. There’s only space here to give a taste, but the collection seems to fall into three categories:


Words could always be arranged on the page to give another layer of meaning to the text (remember the mouse’s ‘tail’ from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ or the experiments of e e cummings), but the parameters of ‘concrete poetry’ have been massively extended by using the new possibilities offered by computer algorithms.

Basho’s Frogger and Jabber are two pieces by Neil Hennessy that build words up out of an alphabet soup using simple rules of vocabulary and ‘the Game of Life’. Letters move around the screen randomly, joining up to form increasingly long words as they bump into complementary vowels and consonants. Order and structure appear out of a random environment by pure chance, and it’s hard not to be reminded of Darwinian evolution as ‘ate’ becomes ‘rate’, then ‘crates’ and finally ‘desecrates’.

The Mandrake Vehicles, by Oni Buchanan, takes the opposite route, extracting letters to change meaning. A thirty-four line piece of writing has as the first line – ‘not knowing enough to shriek when (not knowing when) they’. Some letters are extracted, blooming balloon-like out of the text and disappearing, then some of the remaining letters detach themselves and trickle down to the foot of the page, forming a collection of perfectly usable words (which of course were contained in the original text). The remaining text contracts horizontally, every line undergoing the same process, giving a new first line of ‘towing no ghost, no wing, the’. The process is repeated a second time, leaving a final first line of ‘winnowing heart’. A page of text has become a short poem – which was latent in the original (the ‘art‘ in ‘heart‘ coming from the second line).


Hypertext links allow a text to be given multiple layers of access, to match the needs and interests of the reader. The linear narrative structure can be enhanced by explanatory passages or illustration, or indeed can be made completely non-linear, jumping from topic to topic as fresh information develops the reader’s understanding of the subject.

Voyage into the Unknown by Roderick Coover takes the linear route – literally, as it’s a history of the first navigation of the Colorado River, in small boats, in 1869. We move along a timeline of the journey, dotted with links that take us to diary and journal entries and geological and topographical details along the way. Near the end there are sections on how the trip was recorded in the newspapers of the time, and a fascinating juxtaposition of the engravings which appeared in those newspapers (vertiginous rock formations, dramatically lit) with actual photographs of the same terrain taken later (much flatter and less overpowering). And of course we had available the original written observations, too. We gained a remarkable insight into ‘travellers’ tales’ …

88 Constellations for Wittgenstein, by David Clark, is non-linear in several ways. The home page features a night sky atlas – north and south celestial hemispheres with stars and the main constellations: Orion, Ursa Major and Cassiopeia, for example, shown. Clicking on one takes the reader to some features of the life of Ludwig Wittgenstein – mathematician, philosopher, gardener; one of the most interesting men of the twentieth century. Moving randomly through the constellations I discovered (through audio narration, photographs and videos) his writing of the Tractatus logico-philosophicus, that his sister was friends with Sigmund Freud, that Alan Turing (the computer pioneer and codebreaker) had attended his Cambridge lectures, also links to Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’, the Vienna of ‘The Third Man’ and, much, much more. A mass of material that I have only begun to work through.

Audio and Visual

Not audio-visual, note. The collection shows ways of using both sounds and graphics in various ways to achieve differing effects.

Tailspin, by Christine Wilks, uses sounds to give us the story of a grandfather, stricken with tinnitus which cuts across communication with his children and grandchildren. As we move around the opening page we hear the children’s noise overlaid with the buzzing of his condition, and sense his frustration as he blocks all contact by refusing to use a hearing aid. On deeper levels of the programme we learn that he was an aircraft fitter in the War, and that his chronic deafness prevented him being a fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain, and thus probably saved his life. Deafness as a mixed blessing.

Wordscapes & Letterscapes, by Peter Cho, use computer graphics in ways that are both beautiful and technically elegant. ‘Letterscapes’ is a gem, to my mind the best piece in the collection. The opening page features a disc of all 26 alphabet letters, slowly rotating – almost like a telescope view of a galaxy. Click on any letter and it opens up to full screen, which is where the magic begins.  Each letter is given a different treatment – most seem to be hanging in space and the perspective alters as one moves the cursor over the image. ‘A’ is a simple uppercase letter suspended over a blue liquid. Move the cursor and the ‘A’ slowly turns, meeting its reflection as the letter touches the liquid and then is immersed. ‘J’ is again a yellow letter on blue, driven by the cursor but leaving an afterimage as it twists and turns. Move the mouse quickly enough and you can have your ‘J’ extended right across the screen -for a second or so.  ‘W’ is made of white triangles on an orange background. Move it and the letter breaks up and reforms, like a tessellated Escher engraving. (Confession – I spent hours playing with ‘Letterscapes’.)

This collection is published by the Electronic Literature Organisation, which exists to promote the ‘reading, writing, teaching and understanding of literature as it develops in a changing digital environment’. I’m excited by the possibilities of digital technology, as demonstrated by these few examples and the rest of the collection; but for many, I have serious doubts about calling them ‘literature’.

It seems to me that the first duty of literature, in whatever medium it is expressed, is for one person (the author) to tell another person (the audience) a story. We read a poem or a book, watch a play or a film, and are moved or enlightened by the author’s thoughts. We like the piece, or we hate it, based on the interaction of our experience with that of the author. That’s why our understanding of works of literature and art alter over the years – we change, and so therefore does our relationship with each work’s creator.

But then what to make of a piece like Poemas No Meio Do Caminho – (‘Poems In The Middle of The Road’) by Rui Torres? This piece from Brazil takes lines of poetry, floating in a beautifully rendered digital landscape, and allows the viewer to select one word at a time by clicking on it. The word changes (from a randomly generated selection of suitable alternates), and by means of some kind of relational algorithm other words in the poem change, to give other lines of poetry, whose subject matter is thus different. With sufficient lines of poetry, and every word impacting on every other available word, the possible resulting poems are numbered in the trillions.

It’s artfully done, and (I assume – the site is in Portuguese) that the new poems will have some kind of meaning, but in what sense are they written? We can project meaning onto them, but it’s not a meaning consciously intended by the author. What is meant to be our relationship vis-à-vis the computer algorithm?

But maybe that’s the point. A changing digital environment means that we are going to have to redefine a lot of relationships.