Rob Wittig, who was involved in the group's projects from beginning to end, reports on the insomniacs' (self-chosen designation of the users of the bbs) exploration of the possibilities and aesthetics of 'collaborative writing' in general and 'collaborative writing' in an electronic environment in particular.
Invisible Rendezvous is not a theoretical book, despite its extensive theorising about hypertext and the implications of electronic communication for literature. The book consists of two parts: a historical overview of in.s.omnia and a number of 'exempli gratia', a selection of work written for various projects. The two parts provide a good overview of the development of the in.s.omnia group from a sort of political, performance-oriented art group into designers of collaborative electronic literature. Various issues are treated upon in precisely the order in which the insomniacs stumbled on them, including the characteristics and implications of electronic literature.
The character of their explorations drew the insomniacs naturally to electronic communication, which seemed suited par excellence to their ideas. It is interesting that the seeds of many of the frameworks and ideas used by the insomniacs in making electronic literature were already present in pre-digital projects like their Invisible Seattle. The goal of this project was to let the inhabitants of Seattle re-design their city in fantasy in order to gain a new perspective on their everyday reality. They themselves claimed: Since 1979, Invisible Seattle has conspired to 'take over the city by hypnotic suggestion'. Each of our acts has been an attempt to inject an element of 'fiction' into the so-called 'reality' of an unsuspecting, average American metropolis and self-proclaimed liveable city. Collaborators of in.s.omnia took to the streets, spread pamphlets, collected views of passers-by, organised manifestations, etc.
The goal of the insomniacs at that time remains a red thread running through their digital projects of today: an 'alternate geography' (now about the most-used metaphor of all, as evidenced by all the 'digital cities' and 'worlds' in moo's), an answer to the question: how does one look at the everyday world? and the stimulation of ordinary citizens' creativity. In the computer, the insomniacs found the solution to the problem of how to have a novel written by an entire city. In the Novel Project, the sequel to Invisible Seattle, most of the insomniac's activities have moved from the street to cyberspace.
The insomniacs were interested not in the new technology itself, but in the creation of new habits of mind and in changing everyday life. They are inspired mainly by situationists like De Certeau (the aesthetics of everyday life) and Joseph Beuys' dictum that everyone is an artist (never actually put into practice, according to Wittig). Their literary ideas are affiliated with Derrida, Borges, hypertext theoreticians and oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle).
The greatest danger threatening experiments like those of in.s.omnia is the potentially poor quality of the unsolicited contributions. If the in.s.omnia example makes anything clear, it is that the main challenge facing collaborative electronic literature is the creation of a framework that stimulates users' creativity and at the same time stops the process from degenerating into a mass of mediocre, endless babbling, a fault of many collaborative literary experiments. The insomniacs were aware of this problem and sought solutions in the ideas of oulipo.
The goal of oulipo was to generate literature through the use of pre-determined rules. What makes oulipo such an outstanding model for collaborative electronic literature is its use of pre-determined rules for text production that also stimulate people's fantasy. For example, Perec used a map of an apartment complex as a model for his large novel La Vie Mode d'emploi. The analogy with the division of a bbs/site into various spaces is obvious. Another aspect of relevance for in.s.omnia is Perec's interest in the creation of a catalogue of everyday life, in capturing a reality that is so self-evident as to seem invisible.
The insomniacs' point of departure is the well-known idea that mainstream art does not adequately render people's contemporary experience and can thus no longer function as a guide to reality. According to Wittig, collaborative literature can succeed in this respect, with its emphasis on context, timing, fluidity, irony and formal sabotage. He also claims that this kind of writing is closer to everyday reality. (Wittig uses the well-known argument that the avant-garde is the true Realism and thus better and more interesting.) 'Collaborative writing', in which one's own story is linked to the context of others', in which everyone is the context of all others, more closely resembles our reality, according to Wittig: This inundation by contradictory contexts is a fragment of the day-to-day culture that surrounds the board and its users.
in.s.omnia is about the development of literature in the age of electronic communication, about its characteristics, possibilities, aesthetics and implications. It is a literary avant-garde discovering the computer. It was an experiment aimed at the discovery of those characteristics, possibilities and aesthetics.
In describing the characteristics of electronic literature, Wittig discusses hypertext, but also uses scratching and sampling as a metaphor to characterise production. Hypertext thus becomes a handy tool for making scratch/sample literature. And Wittig doesn't forget to mention that all great literature from Rabelais via Sterne to Joyce's Finnegans Wake is actually sample literature. But neither here nor elsewhere does he treat on the most interesting issues in greater depth, as for example the hidden correspondences between Finnegans Wake and the dream of an all-inclusive hypertext. Other aspects dealt with are the disappearance of the book, the changing status of the written word, collaboration, play-structures and the use of 'nyms'. Users of this bbs used pseudonyms, thus playing with various different identities. Insomniacs have names like Multatuli, Nether Lans and Grothus.
Wittig is not theoretically inclined. He explains clearly, but seldom goes into depth. When he states, for example, that the disintegration of libraries into messages will lead to a kind of desert of minimalist monads - all fragmentary, all out of context - a world of sound bites and slogans, he does not get any further than the announcement that sound bites form constellations, are hypertextually linked and that the practice of in.s.omnia indicates that there is nothing to be feared.
Another thing I find a bit tiresome is the routine affiliation with post-structuralist and post-modern theory. The result is an all-too-well-known summary: 'fragmentation of the self', 'writing against the book' and 'the disappearance of the author'. It is probably all accurate enough, but produces little or no new insight if it goes no further than quick references with a bit of illustration. I begin to long for a couple of divergent opinions (someone who doesn't claim that hypertext is the realisation of post-modern ideas about text). While it is true that these are ideas that were current in in.s.omnia ten years ago in the 'Derrida room' (thus absolving them of the charge of not having kept up with the times), they sound a bit worn-out when rehashed today. On the other hand, the strength of Invisible Rendezvous is precisely that it uses all those post-structuralist terms and other theoretical ideas in the context of a real experiment and not merely in the context of theory-speak, as is usually the case. And that is a large plus.
What makes Invisible Rendezvous interesting are the excerpts from the work written for the bbs; not so much the 'exempli gratia' as the alternation between Wittig's text and the other excerpts in his report on the history of in.s.omnia. The designation of the title page – Rob Wittig for in.s.omnia, instead of Rob Wittig – is an accurate one. Some of the writings are banal or only interesting because of the underlying idea, but many others are a pleasure to read, especially because of the free flight taken by fantasy (for example, That Night in Zyzzyzzzywa). The best work makes me wish for more good frameworks for such collaborative, electronic art.
Such frameworks already actually exist (or might exist). Many of the ideas that pass in revue in in.s.omnia seem to (or actually do) recur in moo's. You log in with a 'nym', the problem of creation of an inspiring and limiting context is (sometimes) solved by the play-structure and the difference in hierarchy between characters and wizards. This makes much of Invisible Rendezvous sound old-fashioned. But it is a report from the 'prehistory' of electronic communication, when there was still no www and almost no digital cities. But that also gives the book its relevance because the questions the insomniacs stumble on and try to answer are still relevant for 'virtual communities' and electronic literature.
Invisible Rendezvous is a good, if perhaps over enthusiastic book. Its lack of theoretical depth is compensated by an abundance of actual examples that speak for themselves about the possibilities and shortcomings of collaborative electronic literature. The fact that it is a 'report from the inside' – a report of a continuing experiment with interactivity and hypertext – makes this book very much worth reading.