His work has been described as “a fantastic, multidimensional way to get out of the rut of single-perception thinking.” A software designer and programmer of inordinate curiosity, Ariel Malka of Tel Aviv, Israel, claims to suffer from “a rare form of Autodidact Dilettante Hyper-Creative Disorder” and candidly admits to having no formal background in literature, design, or programming. Yet, Malka is a talented off-hours creative coder, exploring the fascinating realm of interactivity in digital space. In our interview below, conducted via e-mail, Malka shares his experiments in “Chronotext” and app-building.
At your site Chronotext, you indicate you conduct “software experiments exploring the relation between text, space, and time.” What is Chronotext and how and when did it emerge?
Chronotext emerged in 2001, following a career break dedicated to research. It is my personal research into interactivity with text in the digital age. I put into practice my skills as designer and programmer to conduct software experiments. The field of investigation is infinite—epistemological, metaphysical, literary. I’m progressing semi-randomly, approaching topics as a dilettante.
Chronotext also is my artistic project, where everything is possible: utopia, avant-gardism, surrealism, even the melodramatic account of my hopes and fears. The project took off in 2003, after I joined the processing community, which at that time was instrumental in fostering the “Hybrid Generation” of people interested equally in aesthetics and computing.
Chronotext is like a tree, and I’m the part-time (currently, sole) gardener. New branches constantly spawn from the trunk. Some grow actively, often leading to further subdivision; a few can remain dormant for years and then suddenly blossom.
How did you become interested in using Chronotext?
I was given the opportunity to prepare a couple of courses on the theme of interactivity in digital space. My initial objective to define the concept of interactivity resulted in pseudo-academic research during which I was influenced by the works of such researchers as Mitchell Resnick (e.g., his theory of Constructionism), Janet Murray (e.g., her concept of “multiple points of view”), and Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (e.g., their concept of Autopoiesis).
It became obvious that interaction is related to epistemology, and that one needs to design experiences to facilitate the transformation of data to information and then into knowledge (cf Nathan Shedroff’s work).
At some point, I conducted a series of tangible epistemological experiments; for example, entering some unknown Website and trying to write down thoughts as fast as they come while discovery takes place. One interesting finding was that supposedly elaborated ideas often result from a chain of associations initially motivated by some extremely banal thought.
The plan for the next experiment was to record the individual thoughts of several people reacting to a similar input, though not necessarily at the same time. Focus gradually shifted from epistemology to a study of perception with some artistic potential. It became clear that implementation of such an experiment would require programming. And so the concept of Chronotext was born.
What forms are your experiments with Chronotext taking?
Some are embryonic desktop apps or unpublished mobile prototypes, with potential waiting to be exploited (e.g., textoy, 2011).
One is a preparatory study of a browser app, which led to a commissioned desktop app projected in museum space.
Some are self-commissioned desktop apps that produced experimental visual and auditory experiences (e.g., Lui les Hebreux moi Pharaon, 2013).
The latest is an interactive artwork for mobile phones and tablets: He Liked Thick Word Soup (2014):
It’s worth mentioning that the browser-based experiments are not working anymore, because Java technology has become obsolete—evidence of the ephemeral nature of software and the Sisyphic condition of the developer to preserve his body of work. The plan is to re-master the most significant works.
Do your experiments build on each other; that is, do you apply what you’ve learned in one experiment to create or improve upon another?
Absolutely. The first generation of experiments was very basic but served as a foundation for learning, for example, how to control a virtual camera, write text on a curve, perform a word-wrap, etc.
The more topics you master programmatically, the richer the compositions you’re capable of producing ad infinitum.The influence of processing—the idea of iterative design given legitimacy by Casey Reas and Ben Fry’s demystification of the art of text programming—was crucial.
You use the text of James Joyce’s Ulysses in your interactive mobile app “He Liked Thick Word Soup”, which allows users, at increasing levels of difficulty, to read up to four pages and manipulate up to 100 sentences from the novel. Did your idea for the app precede your choice of text? What factored into your decision to use “Ulysses” specifically?
In 2004, an early browser experiment, the now-defunct “TextWire, ” proposed manipulating a long wire of text using a mouse. From that emerged the notion of using concrete or visual poetry on one side and deciphering chaotic pieces of information on the other.
Around 2009, following the introduction of touch screens and “porting” of code to the iPhone, it became clear that the experience of manipulating text wires with our fingers involved some interesting emotional factor.
In 2014, I selected “Ulysses, ” which had been on my radar for a while, as the perfect text for creating an intricate, obsessive, and sensual reading experience for touch screens.
How many design/programming hours went into the app’s creation?
About three months, not counting significant preliminary work in 2004 and 2009.
Did you use a particular group of testers?
Until recently, the testing protocol was not so sophisticated. I used to trust my intuition and a small dose of feedback from family and a few friends. Seeing people interacting with an early prototype during a public event confirmed that the concept would work, motivating me to give the project another couple of months of hard work.
Apart from creative play in word manipulation, what does this app show us about how we read or about that “relation between text, space and time”?
I’m satisfied with the answers provided in this user review: “What a fantastic, multidimensional way to get out of the rut of single-perception thinking. Initially you’ll be tempted to ‘solve’ the task of un-jumbling, finding and manipulating the intended word(s) onto the unfinished sentence to ‘complete the sentence’ as quickly as possible. . . But, amazingly, the slurping-soup sound and the genius of reading lines written by James Joyce out of context, then fitting the highlighted word(s) into place make an entirely new stream of consciousness-experience happen. . . [It’s] a whole new way to play with words. Weird, addictive, mesmerizing. FUN.”
What are some challenges of creating an app like this?
Creating a satisfactory interactive experience is a lengthy, difficult process. Many iterations and the right dose of perfectionism are necessary.
The programming challenges are rendering a large quantity of crisp text and making it “touchable, ” and putting math and physics into practice to build a realistic model. . . There was no existing open-source solution proposing ready-made code to handle the two challenges.
Reinventing the wheel is often necessary when you want to create something original. In addition, mobile programming requires additional effort in terms of optimization, because of limited computing power. Also, you need expertise in two very different mobile operating systems: iOS and Android, the latter particularly challenging because of the wide range of devices to support.
As for design, the ideal is to provide an optimal experience, regardless of screen size. There are two major constraints: (1) Screens may have variable sizes but the size of a user’s finger remains constant. (2) It’s not possible to reduce text beyond a certain size and keep it readable. The solution is to create two distinct experiences, whether playing on a mobile phone or a tablet.
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