trAce/Alt-X Hypertext Competition 1998
In the first awarding of a major new prize in this new emergent form of literature--if "literature," or skill in letters, is still what it is--it is natural that the range of forms and creative concepts among the entries should be almost bafflingly diverse, answering to many of the competition's explicit and implicit guidelines, but rarely to all.
This year, those guidelines focused on web-based hypertext (thought of as "multi-sequential" writing) that may integrate other media (sound, images, Java, etc.) but "should be primarily text-based and easily accessible from the average web-surfer's home-computer."
Of the three main criteria, the first was "High quality writing," followed by "Excellent overall conceptual design and hyperlink structure" and "Ease of use for the average web-surfer." On this latter score, is Shockwave an available plug-in for "the average web-surfer?" I don't know, but have had to assume that using it would not disqualify the artist, since so many did. Part, perhaps, of next year's guidelines.
With that in mind, I felt that two pieces together best exemplified the intentions of the award and that therefore they should share the first prize: Jenny Weight's hyperpoem "Rice" and Scott Rettberg's hyperfiction "The Unknown."
"Rice" is a spectacularly beautiful visual and aural experience, moving from sixteen images which constitute a kind of table of contents into sixteen very different poetic approaches to the Vietnam story. It uses music, voice over, and a variety of software applications, including Shockwave, as part, so to speak, of its hypertextual grammar to evoke scenes, past and present, some historical, some experienced as a tourist, some imagined via Internet browsings. Its artistic effect is accumulative, the very range of its approaches to the theme becoming part of its innermost "meaning." It perfectly exhibited "Excellent overall conceptual design and hyperlink structure."
"The Unknown" perhaps most exemplifies the original intentions of the award, being entirely text-based with no special effects or multimedia enhancements, a "traditional" (if ten years or so of activity can constitute a tradition) hyperfiction, genuinely multisequential and massively rich in story material, following the imagined adventures of three supposedly rich and famous collaborative writers on a mock book tour all over the world. The author or authors (I don't know who "William," "Scott," and "Dirk" are) is/are a bit overly conversant with the literary vanguard for my own comfort as the judge of this competition (I am myself for a brief window or two a character in the story, and there is even a visit to Brown University), but in the end I felt the piece was so much more substantial than most of the other entries (and funnier, too, one might add) that it did not deserve to be punished for that reason.
One of its more impressive achievements is to locate a frame (the endless tour) that allows for a great range of wildly variant stories without need of a linear chronology, always naggingly troublesome to a hyperfiction.
I would also like to cite three additional pieces for Honorable Mention and encourage their further publication: the self-reflective hyperfiction, "*water always writes in *plural" by Linda Carroli and Josephine Wilson, a set of meditative variations on the theme of a woman waiting for a stranger; Michael Atavar's elegantly designed 'calendar,' making rich use of color and sound and horizontal scrolling; and "kokura" by Mary-Kim Arnold and Matthew Derby, a moving, somewhat melancholic hyperfiction centering (quite literally) on the atomic bomb, and citable above all for its eloquent prose and clarity of design.
The next trAce/Alt-X Hypertext Competition will be launched in early summer 1999.