When we discuss what the meaning of works we encounter in class, we use various epistemological approaches. The core of this analysis can be understood as exploring how we making meaning and what types of knowledge we use to do so.
My work was on Jason Nelson’s i made this. you play this. we are enemies. For the second work, I used up aganist the wall motherfuckers by Justin Katko. I chose these works because they are both maximalist pieces that are overwhelming, dysfunctional, and make commentary about online spaces.
Both can be described as ergodic pieces — that is, a non-trivial effort is required to traverse the pieces. In both videos, the narrators experienced negative physical manifestations of the piece. Both used music and overwhelming visuals to trigger physical responses: in up against, the narrator remarked several times how the flashing images hurt his eye and were overwhelming. By the end of you play this, my eyes and head hurt; I even added a text slide to the video describing the feeling as “being in an internet k-hole for 10 hours even though I’ve only been playing for 30 minutes.” In order to experience these pieces, literal physical effort is required in order to access the meaning of the piece.
If we refer back to Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s essay, the “Five Elements of Digital Literature”, there are 5 ways that we can interact with digital art: data, process, interaction, surface, and context. Both narrators in these pieces derived a significant amount of meaning out of the surface.
For you play this, I spent several minutes at the beginning of the experience figuring out how to actually interact with the surface – at one point, “mashing all my keys” to figure out that I could, in fact, make my avatar jump. However, the overall meaning did not come from how I interacted with the game: I was mainly a traveler, traversing space, with things happening to me. There were moments where I could chose to click and trigger a video to pop up or if I got caught by certain animations I was booted back to the beginning of a level but overall, I got the sense that this was a game that was the influencer, rather than the other way.
The surface was constructed of 10 levels, each as a different online space (Google, Yahoo, Disney Channel, etc.) populated by text, drawings, moving platforms, videos, and various digital artifacts. In the first 2 minutes, I tried to relate the space I had entered to an academic source, throwing out Janet Murray’s name and remarking on the heavily spatial aspect of the game – but because of the maximalist nature, I very quickly abandoned the idea I would be able to relay formal knowledge in the face of blaring music, gameplay, and overwhelming visuals. (Interestingly, this may have been one of Nelson’s goals in creating the space; one of his “directions” for playing the game is “stop trying to get it”).
Instead, I related to the surface through informal and procedural knowledge. Procedurally, I am familiar with how most online games – using the arrow keys to move, the spacebar to jump, and using the moving platforms to move through levels. Knowing “how to” play the game allow me to traverse through the 10 levels.
Informally, I found the game evoked a sense of nostalgia about online spaces for me. Therefore, I was connecting my own experiences of online space to the visual/audio dysfunctional spaces (that alluded to online spaces) that Nelson presented. There were many moments where I said, “this reminds me of…” I related many of the levels to YouTube videos or popular Disney games I remembered watching and playing as kid. On the last level in the video, I remarked how it felt like “how Facebook feels now, just a corporate wasteland.” In order to contextualize and understand the piece, I relied on outside knowledge & previous experiences.
Some outside knowledge I relied on to understand the piece:
Charlie the Unicorn: at 25million views, this was an internet staple of the mid-2000s middle school experience for me. When I saw the unicorns in level 3, it immediately triggered the memory of Charlie for me.
Muffins: in level 4, some of the text about muffins and the video pop-up that played reminded me another YouTube video that is deeply ingrained in my elementary/middle school psyche: Liam Kyle Sullivan’s “weird YouTube” videos where he plays various comedic characters who are alternatively obsessed with different things (for grandma it’s muffins, for Kelly it’s shoes).
Facebook’s awful new feeds: I related the feeling of being on the “alien spaceship,” vapid level 4 as akin to scrolling through Facebook, now that FB’s feeds have been reduced to bad click-bait articles and corporations trying to pass as interesting people.
Towards the end of the piece, I remarked that it was like a window into the “collective conscious” of online space; if the piece does intent to play with the tug-of-war between collective and individual experiences of online space, relying informal knowledge does seem to be the most effective way to approach the piece. The piece’s meaning is derived from experience of these spaces (how we experience Google homepage daily versus how we experience the “Google” level in this game), memory, and the surface of game.
In up against, the surface is also the primary means of extracting meaning. The piece is a .mov file that contains a loop of various flashing, neon, overwhelming visuals – a corrupted, digitally rendered space with a spoken word piece serving as the audio. Hagood remarked that the visuals often made it look like his screen shattered, so from the start the piece plays with our notions of what is “whole”, what is “broken,” what is “functional” vs. “dysfunctional.”
The piece is so overwhelming that it seemed difficult for the narrator to come to any conclusions about the piece while watching it, which was a similar experience to mine – it was difficult to talk about meaning while being inundated by audio and visuals that are specifically designed to be overwhelming. To making meaning here, the narrator relied primarily on interpreting the placement of visuals and spoken word poem (the surface and “data” – if the poem can be considered “word data” here – of the piece). He also relied on informal and self-regulatory knowledge; there were points where we admitted he didn’t know what the piece was about, or why certain visuals were incorporated (for example, the army man in the beginning of the video). He approached the piece with an authorial meaning, which is described by Rabinowitz as “reading” a piece in a way (or as close to as possible) how the author intended it. The nature of the authorial approach becomes clear when he makes comments like the army man was placed in the video, therefore must have some sort of meaning — here, he seems to be searching for the author’s intent.
The narrator did come to a conclusion about themes in the piece revolving around brainwashing, authority, and violations. These conclusions were made via informal knowledge of the kind of language we use regarding authority, by connecting a phrase police and authorities use (“get up against the wall!”) to the phrase in the piece (“up against the screen”). Our informal understanding of what it means to brainwashed — the fractals, the overwhelming nature, the aggressive attack on the psyche — also influence how the piece is understood. The narrator even utilized pop culture references, like the movie Zoolander (where brainwashing via technology happens), as a reference point to derive meaning.
Some outside knowledge I relied on to understand the piece:
Get up against the wall: we are able to relate the existing understanding of what it means when a person with authority says “get up against the wall” to what it means when Katko says “up against the screen.” The existing knowledge of how this phrase is steeped in authority, deviance, and power helps to contextualize the variation on it in the piece.
Zoolander brainwashing scene: this video constitutes prior knowledge of what brainwashing “looks” like, which informs how the narrator came to conclusion about the flashing colors and shapes amounting to a narrative around brainwashing.
An interesting side-note about both of these pieces is that we don’t actually find meaning out of what we “read” as text in either one. While there is text as part of the interface of you play this, the experience of the game does not rely on the close-reading of them. up against has a spoke-word poem, but not text whatsoever. Therefore, we do not “read” these pieces — we viscerally experience them, which loops back to my first point about both pieces evoking a physical response.