The Pixel/The Line

The Pixel/The Line

Pat Harrigan

For all the talk of cyber-difference, screens still behave like pages. The contributors in section six have developed, in response, a digital aesthetics unlike that of print.

Most text that appears on computer screens acts little different from text on paper. It sits on a virtual “page,” perhaps reflowing if the page’s dimensions are altered. It goes away if we “scroll” beyond it, or if we perform one of the established analogues for page-turning (usually a button-click of some sort). More exotically, our mouse clicks may animate screen text, or we may select pages by typing commands rather than pressing buttons.

This paperlike behavior calls into question claims for electronic writing’s newness. Although it is a commonplace to say that electronic writing can exhibit structures and processes that could not plausibly be expressed in traditional media, the pagelike structure of most electronic texts still provokes neophytes into asking, “How is this different from a choose-your-own-adventure book?” And when selections of electronic text are constructed “on the fly” from smaller bits of text, we still might ask, “How is this different from `A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems’?” “A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems” is the text with which Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais founded the Oulipo in the early 1960s. It consists of ten printed sonnets: beginning with the first line of any sonnet, one may choose the second line of any of the ten sonnets, and so with the third, and on through the 14th – yielding 1014 poems. Today the Oulipo continues its investigation of new structures and frameworks for writing.

The three artist/theorists presented in this section take our conceptions of textual interaction further. In their work, and in the work by others described herein, text is presented in manners impossible to sensibly understand through the metaphor of the page. Here texts (sentences, words, even letters) alter algorithmically over time. Here our whole bodies engage with texts that take interaction beyond “one finger and one eye.” An argument is made that the combinatory possibilities of language – of the “literal” – provide more appropriate guidance for work with digital media objects than the ascendant “image.”

In the environments described by these essayists, writing has become very different from most previous electronic writing. As noted above, the atomic unit is no longer the paragraph or the line, but the word or letter. Writing becomes as much about the design of the interaction and textual recombination processes (which will determine the units that appear, and what relation they have to the reader’s body) as it is about the composition of the units fed into the system.

Yet it might be argued that these systems represent no more than an extension of the approach of “A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems” – moving beyond the combinatory possibilities of paperspace to video pixels and simple computation. This may be – but this is a significant movement, and its consequences are only beginning to be explored.


John Cayley: Literal Art: Neither Lines nor Pixels but Letters

Camille Utterback: Unusual Positions: Embodied Interaction with Symbolic Spaces

Bill Seaman: The Pixel/The Line: Approaches to Interactive Text, and Recombinant Poetics - Media-Element Field Explorations


Queneau, Raymond (translated by Stanley Chapman) (1961). “100,000,000,000,000 Poems.” In Oulipo Compendium, edited by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie. London: Atlas Press. Original French text: Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes (1961). Paris: Gallimard.