By Leslie Goufo Zemmo, Giorgio Busi Rizzi and David Pinho Barros
In June 2016, for three days, scholars from all over the world met at the Université de Liège for a ground-breaking bilingual conference on digital media. The starting points for the discussions were several challenging questions about the way storytelling is evolving with the adoption of new technologies on the part of artists and writers. Poetics of the Algorithm was mainly concerned with the ways in which medial creations are changing, the impact these changes have on viewers and readers and how humanities scholars should deal with this paradigm shift. The ethical implications and the political consequences of the current state of digital creation were also fore preoccupations of the organisers Aarnoud Rommens, Benoît Crucifix and Björn-Olav Dozo when they set up this project.
The conference papers were divided into three different thematic groups, each one developing on a separate day. The first one was dedicated to digital comics and, after a brief but clarifying introduction to the general programme of the encounter, the panel “Thinking about Digital Comics through Practice” set the tone for the event: a group of academics and practitioners provocatively discussed the present and future of digital comics using as examples their own research and creations. Nicolas Labarre brought a powerful reflection on research produced and published in comics form, questioning its recent history and devoting special attention to a very significant work in this field: Unflattening, by Nick Sousanis (2015). Among other very pertinent interrogations, he wondered whether this might be considered a self-limiting practice, since in this kind of work the form usually overshadows content. The three following speakers (Anthony Rageul, Daniel Merlin Goodbrey and Yannis La Macchia) focused mainly on their own productions, using them as a starting point to debate several ways of building stories through user interaction, both on screen and in print. Some of the deliberations raised by Anthony Rageul, for instance, led to extremely interesting inquiries, such as “is coding a way for authors to reaffirm their place?”, whilst Daniel Merlin Goodbrey delved into problems of play integration in online comics.
A presentation of Belgian-Greek alternative comics and visual artist Ilan Manouach’s astonishing new storymaking machine Shapereader closed the morning session. He impressed the audience showing how this repertoire of forms and patterns can effectively translate words and meanings into tactile formations and be used with remarkable success within communities of visually impaired people.
In the afternoon, the focus of the debate shifted to the ways comic scholars have been, or should be, proposing new models of hermeneutics to deal with digital narratives. United in a French-speaking panel entitled “Bande dessinée numérique : esthétique et lecture”, Julien Baudry, Magali Boudissa and Jean-Bernard Cheymol brilliantly raised the issue of how aesthetics have been evolving in the computer era, making reference to several cases of artists who work transmedially, such as Marc-Antoine Mathieu, and particularly analysing his 3’’.
Following these presentations, the conference focused on the ontological redefinition of comics confronted with their digital declinations. Côme Martin started by highlighting how these new creations are searching for a novel, specific status, while Ernesto Priego, together with Peter Wilkins, proposed to situate these practices in relation to the concepts of Gestell and grid. A momentous presentation by Richard McGuire wrapped up the debate. This keynote was particularly appealing, since the American artist’s award-winning graphic novel Here was from the start a pivotal inspiration for the whole conference, even providing the background image for its arresting poster. The conversation with Stephen Betts, the IT engineer responsible for the transposition of the comic book to the iPad version, was especially significant, since it brought some extraordinary insight into the narrative, aesthetic and technical implications of such a process.
On the 17th June, the sessions started with a panel called “Networks/Circulation”, which united recently graduated PhD students around the topic of digital elements that had not originally been devised as artistic supports, but have been reused by authors as expressive means. Estelle Dalleu dealt with the diegetic uses of the GIF, concerning herself mainly with writer Dennis Cooper’s digital visual novels Zac’s Haunted House and Zac’s Control Panel. Dinu Gabriel Munteanu, on the other side, inquisitively approached the re-sharing of pictures on Tumblr microblogs as a way of storytelling as well as of mood-communication, whilst Vendela Grundell acutely explored the effects in spectatorship of photographic and cinematic glitch art.
After the coffee break, the panel “Digital Practices” dived deeper into the core of some of the main concerns of Poetics of the Algorithm, confronting the problems of distribution and interaction with digital objects. Loraine Furter of the Hybrid Publishing Group was mostly interested in presenting inventive and efficient solutions for small art publishers. Robert Rapoport, on the other hand, introduced his research on automated editing and explored the aesthetic implications of these processes. The morning’s work closed with a keynote by Sarah Kember, who produced an extremely interesting talk on the ethics of the digital revolution. Her main consideration was about how this shift is not being taken as a utopian opportunity to redefine social roles and restructure community interaction principles. From the standpoint of feminist theory and technology studies, she chiefly contested how gender roles are not being changed in the digital era and that most of these innovations are actually preserving a biased and conservative world-view.
Jonathan Impett and Raffaele Pavoni presented on the music of code and software in the panel following the lunch break. Both presentations investigated how sense is transferred in the remediation between music and different media, with a particular attention towards computer technology. Impett opened the debate with a magnificent communication that explored the reciprocities and the interactions between code design and music composition, considering both their aptness and resistance to commodification. Pavoni proposed a functional scheme of analysis for interactive music videos. Focusing on the experiences of Oculos, Chrome Experiments and YouTube 360° Video, this very fascinating presentation tried to account for the four agents (software developers, music companies, video producers and public) that shape them in different ways and different moments.
The last panel of the day, aptly titled “Rethinking Interface”, revolved around the theme of interfaces. The session showed the increasingly frequent transformations of sense with the advent of new comics reading devices. Sylvie Fabre eloquently showed that the meaning of a text does not depend solely on its language, but is ultimately negotiated in the interaction between the users and the reading supports. On the same topic, Dane Watkins investigated the way in which the lesson in readability coming from comic aesthetics can be put to use in order to enhance the usability of digital interfaces. Finally, the day closed with the stimulating keynote by Gregory Ulmer on the mechanisms of digital devices and how they are shaping a fully new cultural condition of contemporaneity that Ulmer refers to as “electracy”, following the already established categories of orality and literacy.
The last day of the conference (June the 18th) began with the panel investigating mediality in the digital age, concentrating on some of the key processes of transmedial products and transmedia adaptations. Simon Grennan and Ian Hague opened the debate with a presentation discussing medium-specific features in comics and video games. They fashioned the audience underlining the similarities and differences between play and narrative, drawing from Chatman’s famous theorisation of the latter. Olivier Crépin continued the debate addressing the transformation of the narrative rhythm and the complications that intervene during the adaptation of the comic The Walking Dead into a television series and its later expansion into a truly transmedial narrative. The morning ended with Gert Meesters’ presentation, showing how the very positive reception of the iOS adaptation of the renowned comic Suske en Wiske (in French, Bob et Bobette) betrays a certain discredit of the normalization operated on several narrative features of the source book.
In the first panel following the lunch break, the presentations revolved around the theme of game design and narratologies. Fanny Barnabé, who opened the panel round, gave an excellent presentation on videoludic narrative theory. She synthesized her book Narration et jeu video, showing how traditional narratological tools are not able to satisfyingly account for the narrativity of video games and proposing instead to rely on the concept of fictional universe. Mark Johnson and Mark Reed took their turn with a consequential paper centred on participatory game design, which they propose to break down into the two categories of active and counteractive participatory design. David Myers closed the session with a presentation critiquing what he labels the “Possible World Scenario” (PWS), signalling the differences between possible worlds and storyworlds as a means to unpack the relationship between games and stories.
After the coffee break, the afternoon continued with the panel “Reprocessing Literature Through the Algorithm”. Martin Zeilinger opened the debate by proposing a transdisciplinary approach in order to read Beckett’s 1981 play Quad as an algorithmic expression, a perspective he tried to expand to the theatrical production at large. Philipp Sack followed, relating the insights of the Arizona State University project “Poetry for Robots” (P4R), experimenting with algorithms to create metaphorical imagining; this outcome was achieved resorting to data coming from a collective poetical production, inspired, in turn, by some stock photography. This also provided several enlightening reflections on the alleged semantic neutrality of those photographs, their allegorical charge and how it is influenced by their status of commodity.
The last session centred on OuLiPo and digital avant-gardes. Nathalie Berkman opened it with a rich communication dealing with her experience with the Digital OuLiPo, a project launched by the Princeton University Center for Digital Humanities, whose aim is to prove how the mathematical methods of OuLiPo can enhance mathematical thought.
Finally, Catherine Lenoble and An Mertens concluded with a presentation entitled “Exercices de style with algorithms”, born in the context of Algolit, a Brussels-based digital art project reflecting on the relations between code writing and literary production.
After a participated discussion, the conference ended with final remarks from the organisers. It was an exciting, enriching and thought-provoking encounter, and all the participants are sure its consequences will be conspicuously felt in the future of digital media scholarship.
Leslie Goufo Zemmo carries out a thesis project within the research unit Sémiotique et Rhétorique (UR Traverses) at the University of Liège. After an MA in Linguistics, Literature and Culture (University of Dschang, Cameroun), with a thesis focused on the semiostylistics of African TV series, she worked as an assistant within the Arts faculty of the same institution. Since 2013, she is a doctoral student at the University of Liège where she works on the semiotics of African, Franco-Belgian and Brazilian comics, focusing on the representation of women. She has published in journals such as Alternative francophone and Signes, Discours et Société.
Giorgio Busi Rizzi holds a BA in Foreign Languages, an MA in Comparative Literatures and one in Italian Language and Culture, all from the University of Bologna. He is currently attending a PhD in Literary and Cultural Studies, working on a research project about nostalgia in contemporary graphic novels, with a joint supervision by the Universities of Bologna and Leuven. He has written about comics studies, magical realism, humor theory and translation, and TV series.
David Pinho Barros is an assistant professor, researcher and film curator. He holds a BA in Modern Languages and Literatures from the University of Porto, with an Erasmus period at the University of Paris III: Sorbonne Nouvelle and an MA in Communication Sciences – Film and Television branch from the New University of Lisbon, with a dissertation about the New Wave Japanese Cinema. He is studying, since 2014, for a PhD in Literary, Cultural and Interartistic Studies – Comparative Studies branch at the University of Porto, where he is developing a thesis project titled “Clear Line Cinema” with a cotutelle agreement with KU Leuven in Belgium. Currently he is also an invited assistant professor at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Porto. Since 2008, he has worked as a film curator and producer in Portugal, Belgium and the United Kingdom, and taught film history and analysis courses at the Alliance Française, at three different faculties of the University of Porto, at the University of Minho and at the New University of Lisbon.