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A Quick Note on Swift Current: the World's First E-Journal
Karl E. Jirgens
From OL3: open letter on lines online (2000)
"A home page on the inter-net can be written by anybody, so, we have a full Zamisdat era..."
-- Umberto Eco (4, Rampike 10/2)
The freedom of voice on the inter-net has reached astonishing proportions in a very short time. Recently Umberto Eco spoke on Hypertext and electronic publishing with reference to Zamisdat publications that emerged during the middle of the twentieth century. Zamisdat was a mode of non-state-sanctioned, self-publishing behind the iron curtain during the cold-war which provided ways for marginalized voices to make themselves be heard. With the emergence of the world-wide-web, we see the surfacing of a new generation of "Zamisdat" publications as Eco calls them. With reference to literary matters and the internet, the earliest example of such a publication can be found in Swift Current, the world's first literary data-base created by Frank Davey and Fred Way in 1984. In many ways Swift Current opened the gate to a new realm of unhampered literary expression. Before addressing Swift Current directly, I will comment briefly on conditions arising through the world-wide-web. However, it is worth keeping mind, that in regard to literary endeavours, these conditions first manifested themselves with the appearance of Swift Current. The information highway has few limits or restrictions. Our e-culture has anarchistic qualities, and the range of expressions available on the web is as broad as all human thinking. I will confine this short retrospective to literary matters, but as most intrepid web-surfers know, there are home-pages for virtually every human activity imaginable. But, with hundreds of new web-sites popping up daily, it is worth reflecting on the lull before this electronic storm of cultural activity. The present tumult is all the more impressive when one considers the fact that PCs did not become broadly accessible for general use until the early 1980s. In two short decades, and numerous technological quantum leaps forward, we find our communications and cultural environment transformed. McLuhan's predictions of an "instantaneous" culture discussed in Laws of Media among other books, have proven true, and the multi-locational "global village" has now shrunk to the size of a PC monitor. A new mind-set characterized by its own language and behavioral patterns has emerged with these technological advances. Although the technical protocol for using computer data-bases is essentially logical, web-surfing is a decidedly non-linear experience rich in lateral movements through hyper-textual layers. Surfers can find access to various sites by making a series of spatio-temporal leaps through the inter-net. Searches can hop-scotch with impunity over national and geographic borders. Some of the effects of this electronic web-culture are fairly obvious. The instantaneous pan-global linkage of thought serves to create a kind of plastic collective consciousness which affects conventional thinking patterns for those who wish to immerse themselves in this medium. Derrick de Kerckhove offers a short list of inter-acting and contrasting thought patterns that typify e-culture in his The Skin of Culture. Responding to McLuhan's definition of analogue/digital, or, left/right-lobe modes of thinking, de Kerckhove identifies interactions between non-linear (lateral/mosaic, dynamic, analogue, "fuzzy") logic on the one hand, and linear (vertical/hierarchical, static) rigid-logic systems on the other hand (148). Computer systems themselves may embrace digital formats, but the audience's interactions with the web can result in what are termed analogue experiences. With the addition of audio-capabilities through down-loadable CD files, the multi-media inter-net, can also function as an inter-media forum eminently suitable for artistic expression. Dick Higgins has discussed his term "inter-media" extensively in works such as Modernism Since Postmodernims: Essays on Intermedia. The possible interlocutions of text, image and audio in contemporary web-sites ensure a potential to generate true inter-media expression for the internet. The interplay of logical systems and creative expression finds a new frontier on the web. The hardware for web-systems might be logical, but encounters with web-sites can be associative, creative or even intuitive. For those who are familiar with modes of pattern-recognition, it should be apparent that the cyber-experience can be right-lobe oriented, and arguably post-modern in its (post-)structural configurations. The emergence of hyper-textual links between sites helps to contribute to this post-modernity, and results in a communication network that is both multi-layered, transitional, and fluctuating. For better or worse, the e-dimension has taken on a virtual life of its own, and this liveliness carries with it a socio-political impact. At present, the inter-net features an eclectic cross-section of voices. If Foucault was right about the direct relationship between empowerment and the vocalization of ideas, then the world-wide-web has quite suddenly provided a broadly dialogical forum. The dialogism of these viewpoints is readily apparent, particularly when one considers conflicting viewpoints of events such as the clash in Kosovo as discussed on different world sites. The interpretations of the events in Kosovo as expressed by Ottawa, London, Beijing, Moscow and Kosovo itself, were all markedly different. But, through the net, it was possible to hear a heterogenous rather than hegemonic interpretation. The same heterogeneity applies to literary expression as it is found on the web. In Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, George P. Landow discusses the ramifications of hypertextual networks as communications infrastructures that can link global communities through expression or knowledge. Landow also reminds us of the democratic implications involved with a web-system in which everyone can function as both author and audience:
The person occupying the roles of reader and author must have access to information, which in practice means access to a network. For the writer this access to a network becomes essential, for in the hypertext world access to a network is itself publication. (188)
The internet has become a medium which rivals all others in regard to its audience and its availability. There are significant spatio-temporal characteristics to this relatively new medium. If we confine discussion to primarily literary matters, then it is evident that prior to the advent of computer culture, the publication of a literary article could take anywhere from six months to a year before it appeared publicly in a journal. Often several years passed between the time a manuscript crossed an editor's desk and finally appeared in book format. There usually followed a series of public readings and then, a critical response which usually lagged some six to twelve months afterwards. But now, with a web-site, an author can complete a text, make it available to the world, and receive both audience and critical responses, all within a day or two. The freedom to publish electronically, and the compression of the time between the first appearance of a writer's creation and the audience's response have interesting repercussions. Often, the "feedback" an author receives affects his/her approach and methodology. It is now possible for authors to gain almost instantaneous feedback to either new works or works-in-progress. Writers have traditionally tested works-in-progress on audiences at public readings prior to their release in print form. This still happens, but with instantaneous access via electronic media and with the malleability of the text in electronic form, each e-text can be thought of as a sort of palimpsest, subject to revision at the author's discretion. A general tone of provisionality has entered into the creative sphere because of the flexible nature of these new electronic venues. Nor, are texts any longer "owned" in the same sense that they once were. Rather, they have become part of a larger public domain, not unlike bill-boards, or television. Science fiction writer, William Gibson offers an informative example. In a recent interview with Gibson, I discussed his famed Agrippa: Book of the Dead project co-created with Kevin Begos and Dennis Ashbough. This project was reputed to be an electronic text within a sculptural format. The work was dedicated to Gibson's father. This project was to be prepared for an expensive, limited edition aimed at a highly select audience. It was designed so that it would self-destruct as it was read. This intriguing self-destruct feature attracted considerable public interest and critical attention. Extensive discussions on the Agrippa project can be found on the inter-net particularly in sites dealing with speculative and science fiction. Most of these discussions either ignore or, more often than not, are oblivious to the fact that the project was never completed. Discussions are stimulated by the fact that the text that Gibson prepared for Agrippa was boot-legged and published on the inter-net where it can be found to this day. Interestingly, Gibson's Agrippa text as it is found the world-wide-web, is not identical to the original version. Because it has been down-loaded and bounced through various electronic sites, subtle changes have been introduced; a changed word here, a new, or lost line there, and so on. And because there are a number of mutated and different copies of the text available at different sites, there is no single "authoritative" version. Gibson comments on the manner in which his text has become part of the larger public domain:
So, the result of the thing for me, in a funny way, was that I produced a sort of monument to my father, because the piece is a long three-verse poem about my relationship with my father who died when I was very young and I didn't get to know him very well. And it wound up being this permanent ghostly presence on the inter-net, which I couldn't erase if I wanted to. Which is interesting too. There is no place to go and pull the plug on this thing. It sort of lives there. So, it worked out really well. It was quite startling the amount of press it generated on its own. It generated as much commentary as a book. (8, Rampike 11/1)
The legendary hype concerning this electronic text may seem to be out of proportion with its true status when one considers the fact that the project never actually happened. However, the degree of commentary on what turns out to be a rumour, or, urban legend, is an indication of the power of the web as a medium. Much has been said about the tactile experience of reading a book, but I believe that most will agree that even with an autographed copy, there is something rather impersonal about a mass-circulation paper-back. However, within the literary or artistic realm at least, web-sites tend to carry a sense of closer, more direct contact with the originating artist/writer. Some of this closeness may arise from stories of "hackers" who have managed to gain access to some of the most restricted sites in the world. There is a sense of immediacy and personal involvement associated with the discovery and perusal of a new site. The fact that many sites permit audience comments directed to the artist(s), helps to reveal why the web can provide an more intimate audience engagement. The actions of seeking, encountering and responding to texts on the web involve a relatively direct inter-action between artist and audience. The result is a deterioration of the conventional borders between artist, audience and art-work. A new mind-set and a greater sense of audience engagement results from such inter-actions. In Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation, media critic Pierre Levy comments on this phenomenon in his essay "The Art of Cyberspace":
The established differences between author and reader, performer and spectator, creator and interpreter become blurred and give way to a reading-writing continuum that extends from the designers of technology and networks to the final recipient, each one contributing to the activity of the other (disappearance of the signature). (366)
Levy goes on to discuss e-creations in terms of "micro-territories" in which authorial attributions tend to become obliterated. Information tends to transferred, forwarded and modified, so that a de-territorialized, nomadic semiosis and fluctuating environment emerges. In The Ecstasy of Communication Jean Baudrillard discusses a culture of simulacra, of imitations of imitations of imitations: a sort of infinitely regressing departure from primary expression. Web-sites often offer electronic images and representations of actual event-phenomenon. Some sites are kinetic, and some have acoustic capabilities. Some home-pages even generate moving images that range in speed from the hesitant layering of a slow-scan video transmission, to a rate of delivery that is as quick to the eye as a video tape. But, because web-sites tend to be inter-active and often provide fora for communications, readers can direct comments to each other as well as to author/artists on the web. More importantly, readers can often receive a response. It is far less likely that a member of an audience will receive a response to a letter sent to an author care of his or her book publisher or film or television producer. The opportunity for group discussion and an inter-change of ideas is something that in the relatively recent past was only possible at conferences, or "live" readings. But, where conference and reading gatherings eventually had to adjourn, web-site discussions generally can continue 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They are always "open" for comments and discussion for anyone who cares to participate. And so, with the inception of the web, a degree of democratization has occurred. Finally, with print media, in order to reach a large audience, an author had to be published by a mass-circulation press. The relative economies involved with elements such as author as commodity, literary reputation, advertising budget, agent's expenses, promotional and tour financing, and so on, all serve to significantly limit entry into a relatively restricted sphere. Consequently, audience recognition has always been co-lateral to the accessibility and economic strength of one's publishing house. Generally, the more powerful the press, the less accessible it is. With an electronic venue, many of these restrictions are by-passed and instead, texts stand on their own merits, attracting or repelling audiences accordingly. All of the socio-cultural ramifications that I have discussed above, emerged instantly with inception of Swift Current, the world's first literary data-base.
With its emergence as a literary data-base in 1984, Swift Current provided post-modern formatting, compression of time, instantaneous access, economic freedom, blurring of audience/author borders, de-emphasis of artist's authority, by-passing of hierarchical structures, and a broader more democratic forum, among other things. Swift Current was initiated by Frank Davey and Fred Wah along with input from Dave Godfrey. This ambitious venture involved a Unix-based literary database that would provide, for the first time in Canada and the world, an electronic literary forum. Using a UNIX-based VAX 11-750 computer located at York University in Toronto, the project linked writers more or less across Canada, and provided an electronic mail system as well as a site for creative and collaborative projects, group discussions and critical commentary. Originally, there was to be a second VAX unit at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, but, this never came to be. Nonetheless, the Toronto server functioned well and the UNIX system communicating through "C" language was compiled into C/PM or MS/DOS with available transmission speeds set at 300, 1200 and 2400 baud (relatively quick for the mid-1980s). As a result of the "gateway" and "terminal" programs prepared for Swift Current, nearly all popular brand personal computers were able to find access to the database, thereby making it available to any individual, school or library that had access to a computer. As an early contributor to Swift Current, I used an Apple IIe which I found to be durable, simple, and given the limitations of the technology of the time, easily adaptable to on-line usage.
Swift Current was designed as a low maintenance electronic literary magazine. Davey, Wah and Godfrey have all commented on the political effects of computerized communications. Godfrey likens e-culture power-structures to the ancient crofter tradition in his essay "Power, Communications and the People" (found in the fourth edition of Gutenberg Two). Davey, in an interview published in Rampike ("Institutions" double-issue: Vol. 3/3 & 4/1), argues that freedom of the press belongs to those who control the press:
I've always believed that people who control technology, have effective control over what content that technology distributes, so that people that control the book publishing industry, do control what books get published. Now, these people may be very benign perceptive generous people and often they have been, and they publish the kind of books that you or I may want to see published. But even more often than not, they use the technology not to serve literary but quite understandably to serve commercial ends. People who publish mass circulation books are not interested in developing a literary heritage. And quite often the literary publishers will find that they have to find a balance between the commercially marketable book and the one that's going to be of literary significance, and these two are not quite the same. When writers control that same kind of technology, they don't have to make that distinction, they don't have to worry about whether a book is going to be of one kind or another. It's possible to publish a book which is of literary merit and happens to be of mass interest. That will also happen, the book will find its market, it may even be picked up for second printing by a publisher who can publish more, but the important thing for a writer is that the available technology be made to serve contemporary writing, and that the writers are not shut out of that technology in any significant way. (26)
Swift Current's operators (Davey and Wah), did not serve a conventional, hierarchical editorial function. Instead, they ensured smooth running of the system, and apart from that, confined their participation largely to responding to e-mail or contributing articles of their own. The selection of articles for "publication" in Swift Current, was done by the writers themselves. Because of its relatively "open" concept, Swift Current was able to by-pass more conventional hierarchical or hegemonic media structures. Authors could get published simply by logging on. Some limitations applied in that contribution rights were granted only to those writers who had published at least one literary book. This process served to decentralize the literary authority normally associated with editorial and publishing bodies. The menu of sub-sections on the database included "collaborations," "commentary," "drama," "fiction," "help," "mail," "poetry" and "visuals." For subscribers as well as contributors, this e-journal provided a "delete" function that permitted readers to "edit" their own version of the journal. Using a simple menu of functions that included: S)elect author, G)o back to main level, A)dd author, or Q)uit, readers could customize their own files in the e-journal by adding or deleting entries according to whether or not they found them interesting. And, if they changed their minds, readers could still re-establish files at a later date. The journal was not available in print form, but it was possible for subscribers to generate print copies of any of the texts. All subscribers and contributors were permitted one free reading copy in print format. Limited print runs of no more than 100 copies were permitted for educational use. And a small royalty of 3 cents a page was charged for pages that were mechanically reproduced (and bound if desired). Small educational editions of a writers' works were permitted thereby enabling the publication of anthologies of contemporary Canadian writing. Subscriptions to institutions sold for $100. and individual subscriptions sold for $25. per year. It was originally hoped that Swift Current would be available to all writers everywhere across Canada, but as it turned out, access was available only to those who lived in cities with data-packet switching networks (Datapac), or those with international data services (e.g.; Tymnet). Consequently, the majority of contributing authors were from Toronto and Vancouver with some from the western provinces, and a few from Quebec and the maritimes. Libraries and schools were not quite acclimatized to the new electronic environment and lacked the necessary policies for subscriptions, so, relatively few became subscribers. There were notable exceptions. For example, Swift Current did have a subscription from Riverdale Collegiate in Toronto through Trevor Owen, and this contact eventually mutated and led to the electronic Writers-in-Residence program which still exists and is currently receiving institutional grant funding.
Readers who subscribed to Swift Current were not automatically assured of the quality of the various texts, but instead had to determine the worthiness of each text on its own merits. The editors of Swift Current were aware that the nature of publishing itself could be affected by this new medium. In his paper presented to the American Library Association (New York City, June 28, 1986), Frank Davey outlined the influence of past media on literary endeavours. He explained that the introduction of print media led to the growth of prose as well as the emergence of the novel. The development of newspapers and magazines contributed to the growth of the short story as well as the serialized novel. Lending libraries that appeared during the nineteenth century inspired three-volume novels which could be loaned to three readers simultaneously. Davey was aware that the electronic format introduced by Swift Current would likely shape future writing. His New York paper is available in print form in the Swift Current Anthology (published by Coach House Press in 1986). The publication is now out-of-print but can still be found in some libraries. Davey's early intuition regarding the influence of the web on writing has proven true. Among other things, the inter-net has spawned hypertextual works and has encouraged collaborative writing. Swift Current was quite energetic during its heyday. New articles appeared daily. Contributing authors included the originators (Davey and Wah), as well as notables such as David McFadden, Stephen Scobie, George Bowering, Eli Mandel and bp Nichol, along with many others. Some of the best writing in Canada popped up in Swift Current. For example, Nichol contributed an entry from Book VII of his Martyrology, and Mandel, submitted a theoretical paper on the Canadian Long Poem (which was also presented at the "Long-Liners" academic conference on the Canadian Long-Poem at York University in Toronto, in 1984 -- see; OL3: open letter on lines online Sixth Series: Numbers 2-3, Summer-Fall, 1985 for a documentation of the conference talks and proceedings). Poems, fictions and commentaries were submitted by an engaging spectrum of writers that included Don Austin, Homer Bumblebee, jwcurry, Kevin Connolly, Dennis Cooley, Jan Horner, Angela Hryniuk, Karl Jirgens, Lionel Kearns, Crad Kilodney, R. Loewen, Lesley McAllister, Ken Norris, Tom Osborne, John Oughton, Lissa Paul, Robert Priest, Stuart Ross, Libby Scheier, Gerry Shikatani, Steven Smith, Robert Stelmach, Richard Truhlar, J. Michael Yates, Jim Wong-Chu, Caroline Woodward and Mike Zoll, among others. By the time Swift Current ceased its activities in 1990, literary web-sites were proliferating throughout the world, but Canada's own Swift Current had distinguished itself by being the first and one of the finest of its kind. Since then, the daily increase in web-sites everywhere has exceeded all expectations. As a neo-Zamisdat form, web home-pages have provided a plethora of sites for writers and artists in almost every sector of the globe. The future of the web may find parallels with the tower of Babel, or, it might one day undergo regulation, but in the meantime, its anarchistic super-structure offers an explosion of voices now available to anyone who cares to seek them out.
As are most encounters these days, my recent experience of web-sites has been eclectic and sporadic. Such is the configuration of the world-wide-web. Arguably, Filliou's "eternal network" has moved on to an electronic dimension. New sites pop up almost daily, their locations are often surprising, and their agendas vary from conservative to defiantly post-modern, from naive, to politicized, to anarchistic. Some are set up by individuals, others by groups, but all offer instant access to a diversity of expression that far exceeds the average individual's available time for exploration. Sometimes uneven in quality, sometimes startling in their professionalism, these sites offer a remarkable diversity of expression from rough-and-ready works in progress, to polished eye-popping multi-colour phantasmagorias. Web-sites can range from reliable and enduring to sporadic and ephemeral. There are no guarantees. Generally speaking, sites offer free access, although some may request a modest "donation" for substantial usage. To avoid lengthy delays, or even crashes, it is recommended that one be aware of the capacities of one's own PC when investigating such sites, but, such concerns aside, "the world is your oyster." Here is a short, eclectic and non-representative list of active web-sites that might be of interest:
Undu Review: firstname.lastname@example.org
Damian Abbott: http://www.damian.mcmail.com/inventory/subs.htm
International Society of Copier artists: http://members.aol.com/isca4art2b/I.S.C.A.HomePage.html
Glossolalia Electronic Journal for Experimental Literature and Arts: http://www.saunalahti.fi/jlehmus/index.html
Ouroubouros Virtual Gallery: http://www.cogitate.com/ourobouros/
Picasso's Stampland site: http://www.deluxxe.com/stampland/
Democratic Art as Social Sculpture: http://www.fortunecity.com/victorian/palace/62/
Man Gallery: www.geocities.com/man_gallery
Poplite Half-staff: http://www.geocities.com/Paris/5979/mailart.htm
Antonio Perez: http://www.teleline.es/personal/nonopp
Hans Braumueller: http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/braumueller>
Dragonfly Dream: http://www.dragonflydream.com
Clemente Padin: http://www.artepostal.org.mx/artistas/padin.html
Taubenturm Mail-Art: http://www.diessen.net/taubenturm
Lucas Mulder's Sicmag: www.sicmagazine.com
Coach House Books; http://www.chbooks.com
Images Film & Video: http://www.interlog.com/~images
Joachim web-assist: http://www.joachim-antwerp.com
Kaiser Mailart: http://www.kaiman.com
MAS Mag Yugolsavia: http://www.artistamp-inc.com/linksite/masmag99.htm
Intl. Bureau of Recordist Investigation: http://www.interlog.com/~ibri
Moria e-Journal: http://www.moriapoetry.com.
Inventory magazine: http://www.backspace.org/inventory
Las Toninas Mecanicas: http://www.miuweb.com/arturug/toninas.htm
Baudrillard, Jean. The Ecstasy of Communication. Trans. Bernard & Carolyn Schutze. New York: Semiotext(e), 1988.
Davey, Frank & Fred Wah. The Swift Current Anthology. Frank Davey & Fred Wah, eds. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1986.
De Kerckhove, Derrick. The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality. Toronto: Somerville, 1995.
Druckery, Timothy, ed. Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation. Denville, NJ: Aperture Foundation Books, 1996.
Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972.
Godfrey, Dave & Douglas Parkhill, eds. Gutenberg Two 4th Edition. Toronto/Victoria: Press Porcépic, 1985.
Higgins, Dick. Modernism Since Postmodernism: Essays on Intermedia. San Diego: San Diego State UP, 1997.
Jirgens, Karl. "Swift Current Interview with Frank Davey." Rampike "Institutions" (double-issue) Vol. 3/3 & Vol. 4/1: 25-29.
Landow, George P. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1992.
McLuhan, Marshall & Eric. Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1988.
OL3: open letter on lines online. Long Liners Conference Issue. Sixth Series: Numbers 2-3, Summer-Fall, 1985.