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delirium : Promiscuous creativity
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Promiscuous Creativity
A Conversation with Douglas Cooper
by Nancy Costigan

Douglas Cooper's second novel, Delirium (1998), was the first novel in history to be serialized on the Internet. Yet Cooper to this day remains one of the Web's most virulent critics, especially in terms of its potential as a creative medium. While this author and artist continues to work periodically in cyberspace (one can view certain writings, photographs, and paintings via his Web site, www.dysmedia.com), most of Cooper's creations end up in bookshops and architectural fairs, or on canvases and stages, instead.

As a writer, philosopher, painter, architect, and screenwriter, Cooper's artistic universe contains mostly fragmented structures. His artwork binds together numerous media, allowing each one to reinvent itself and to instill new values, new perspectives. Nancy Costigan recently spoke with Douglas Cooper about his Internet publishing experiences, "cacostrophic" paintings, artistic promiscuity, and his upcoming third novel, The Invisible Hand.

h0: I would like to start off by discussing your second novel, Delirium. Could you refresh our memories concerning its first incarnation as an Internet serial?

Douglas Cooper: It was really a question of examining a new medium and trying to figure out the best way to pour narrative into it, the best way to take advantage of the inherent structure of this new technology. I knew about the Internet in a very vague way. I had a film agent down in Hollywood, and we discussed the possibility of serializing something on the Internet. I didn't really know what I meant by that, but I was looking for an interesting way to serialize my next novel. They set me up with Time Warner - this was in 1993.

They showed me a little bit about how it worked, and I thought, this is precisely what I'm looking for. I've always been obsessed with Borges and "The Garden of Forking Paths," which actually turned out to be iconic. That's the short story everybody turned to five years later, when they were talking about creating narrative for the Web.

If you're going to create narrative within this medium, you look at the possibility of forking plot lines. The problem is that if your plots are going to fork every three or four sentences, sooner or later you're going to have six thousand plot lines, and it's impossible. You can only take it so far. We thought of various ways to deal with this and I settled on something which, in retrospect, is not as interesting as I'd thought it would be - just four parallel plot lines. You could navigate between them using a central navigation page. Each of the four plot lines would kind of grow at its own rate - imagine a bar graph with four bars growing at different rates. That's essentially what it was. It's not an uninteresting concept, but I feel that in many respects I could have done more.

Certain critics underlined the lack of a hypertextual structure...

If there was one criticism I needed, that was the one. Of course, that was a conscious decision. I decided not to go down the hypertextual route, and that disappointed h0: hypertext partisans, who wanted to see the Web in precisely that way. On the other hand, I've never seen a successful piece of fiction that does use the Web in that way. What the Web is best at, apart from selling things and exhibiting pornography, is delivering traditional academic texts, which rely very heavily on citations, footnotes, etc.

Were there any images on the site?
Yes, but the images in Delirium were entirely irrelevant to the novel itself. They were eye candy, mostly there for the purposes of navigation, and to evoke moods. It's not as if this novel was ever thought to require these images in any respect.

So one wouldn't be missing something important if one only read the paper version?
I think you'd be lucky to lose the images. The Web experiment was interesting, but I would have modified the Web site if I could have. I would have re-examined its structure, and I would have structured the book quite differently. Much as I believe in fractured narrative, I also believe in a certain master plan, which I don't think I imposed in that case. I would rewrite Delirium rather substantially if I had the opportunity.

I thought your first two novels complemented one another quite well, though I found your first book, Amnesia, to be much more poetic than Delirium.
I think I would agree with that. We spend too much time in New York hanging out with overgrown sneering adolescents, who are in fact thirty, forty, fifty years old but still haven't wiped the sneer off their face, to quote critics of George W. Bush. That is the perennial stance of the New York avant-garde: to look back and sneer. It's not a very fruitful approach.

I was visiting Montréal a couple of months ago, and I have to say that people are so much more serious in Montréal. Even if their efforts fail, they are trying to do something much, much more serious than most of the people I know involved in experimental media, literature, or drama here.

There is still a belief in Montréal that you can make work that matters - whereas here you look back at work that mattered and point out how it no longer matters. I think Delirium was infected by that attitude, which I find juvenile. I now realize that I kind of went down the wrong path, even though I encountered the best of the sneering avant-garde. So I'm returning to a motif, but I wouldn't quite call it sincerity; my mode has always been ironic.

Do you want to have your novels translated into French?
For some strange reason, everybody but the French have taken interest in this. Of course, French is where they belong. I would love to have a Québécois translator working on it.

Delirium was an incomplete hypertextual narrative, but a full-fledged paper novel. It seems as though the Internet has been a playground, an experimental space for your work. But none of it ends up there permanently. Why is that?

The Internet is beginning to depress me as an artistic medium. There are tremendous possibilities, yet I don't know anybody who is really taking advantage of them. If you're going to put work on the Internet, it has to be organic in some sense. It has to be the sort of work that couldn't exist in any other medium. Most of what's up there now is created in another medium and just deported to the Internet for no specific reason. I do that occasionally, so I'm guilty of that too, but it's the last thing I want to do. If I'm going to create work for the Web, or if any artist is going to, they have to figure out what the Web is and why this work is appropriate to that specific medium.

In general, I'm very critical of, and somewhat disillusioned by, new media. And I say that as someone who has been at the centre of new media creation since the beginnings of the popularization of the Web. I hate to sound world-weary, but I've seen most of it.

I'm very open to being impressed, though. I really am looking for something that will be deeply moving. But I have yet to be deeply moved by anything I've encountered on the Internet. I think we're in a stage analogous to the early days of photography, and especially to the early days of cinema, when we had no idea of the motif capability of cinema. It might take two or three generations before we clear that out, and more than one very profound artist, concentrating on that specific media. What it will require is a genius, somebody like Griffith, or Orson Welles.

Are you currently working on any projects that would be fit for the Web?
I've been experimenting a fair bit with PhotoShop, which is a fascinating tool if you're using it for photography, but it's equally interesting if you use it for other purposes. PhotoShop grows out of paint. It happens to have been created for the manipulation of photos, but has become a tool for the creation of imagery, as much as paint was. That piece of software is at least as complex as a cathedral. I don't know if anyone has ever spoken so deliriously about PhotoShop! The engineers will write me love letters.

I'm trying to create abstract work that takes advantage of the structure of the Web browser, which is not quite the same thing as the structure of the Web. You can scroll a certain length using Internet Explorer. But you can only scroll sideways a certain way before it stops you. So I'm creating long art and thin art. Most people on the Web are trying to create deep art, which I think is the problem.

This is my concern at the moment: how to make sense of the notion of long art. It sounds ridiculous, but Giacometti had precisely this concern. It's specifically appropriate to this medium, because it's something that is framed by the browser, that can only be experienced within the browser. It's a specific type of experience. It's so much more simple than what I was trying to do with Delirium, but in many ways I think it's going to be more elegant.

Let's turn now to your Web site, Dysmedia. What is its main purpose?
It began as an online portfolio, and an experiment with PhotoShop. I wanted to figure out how to make my own things on the Web, because I had been at the mercy of graphic designers and HTML encoders. They hadn't always done what I would have liked to see, so I decided to take control of the process. I decided not to put my own work up there, but to create work that was appropriate for the Web. Dysmedia just became a sort of private museum, a laboratory. It's an attempt, insofar as there is a critical intent, to question the transparency promises of the Web. In many ways, Dysmedia tries to be an "un-Web" site. It's very unclean graphically; it's not a very sanitary Web site.

Dysmedia also hosts a series of paintings entitled Cacostrophe. Could you explain this notion?
The first project was to set up a series of large canvases and write my novel on those canvases with paint or with various media, to see if I could make the vision and the process of writing into a kind of visual field in itself.

Text, before you understand it, is a kind of primary visual experience. And then comes the process of understanding or reading a text, which is the process I'm supposed to be involved with as a writer. So I developed a notion of "cacostrophe." which is an invented word that describes what happens to the meaningful text when you push it beyond meaning.

Foucault has this notion of the calligramme, which is the feeling of the text before you understand it. It's an aesthetic experience of possible meaning. I was hoping these images would function in that way, as well as be a palimpsest to the manuscript, pointing towards the creation of a novel. If the calligramme exists prior to meaning, the cacostrophe is what you create by taking a meaningful text and deliberately pushing it into the realm of nonsense.

In the past you've described the Internet as a brothel or a mall. Elsewhere, you have spoken of the architect as a whore - doing whatever people ask of them. You, on the other hand, define yourself as a "genre slut."
Why all this talk of promiscuity?

The notion of promiscuity is very important to me as a metaphor for the explosion of media, as well as for a certain approach to sexuality. In many ways, it's the characteristic motif of the last fin de siècle. It seems that the end of every century, in some respect, bounds down with the idea of promiscuity. My new novel is based quite explicitly on Don Giovanni.

Could you give us more details about this third novel?
Part of my process has always been to take three or four themes that strike me as loosely analogous, have them collide with a single narrative, and then make sense out of the collision. This is the process of the third novel, called The Invisible Hand.

I'm interested in the notion of genre promiscuity, of a single artist unable to restrict himself to a single way of accomplishing things. This isn't simply a strategy, but a kind of obsession. I know loads of people who cannot restrict themselves to a certain medium. They find themselves uncomfortable in that predicament. One famous example of the moment are the architects Diller and Scofidio, who for the longest time would not make buildings, but restricted themselves to performance and installation.

In order to make sense of this within a novelistic context, I decided to concentrate on some of the greatest metaphors for actual promiscuity: Don Giovanni and Don Juan. These icons are promiscuity embodied, in both its positive and negative aspects. So that's what the novel has become on a certain level: an analysis of promiscuity, both in a metaphoric and a very ordinary way. In many ways, this novel is about taking what's ordinary and pushing it beyond what is ordinary.

How do you use these metaphors, Don Juan and Don Giovanni?
Within the context of today's politics, it's very difficult to simply associate promiscuity with a man who is in some sense larger than life, whether he is seductive and satanic, as in Mozart's Don Giovanni, or a grandiose buffoon. To have a male figure wandering about, unquestioning, is an utter problem. So I've decided to make my Don Juan figure a woman. There is an actual living counterpart to this figure, who is an icy female pornographer who collects men not simply through the creation of images, but through the signing of model releases, so that those images might be published. Since the novel is about promiscuity, it's perfectly acceptable that it takes on various forms. It will incorporate nonsense poetry, for instance, which is something that has interested me for a long, long time. It's a form of abstraction, and has the same relation to language that Pollock's paintings have to representation, though it precedes Pollock by many years. One of my characters thinks in terms of nonsense rhyme. Nonsense poetry fits with the notion of cacostrophe, the meaningful text pushed beyond, into something else. The Invisible Hand is also going to incorporate photography.

Will photographs stand in for parts of the novel's narrative?
I have a feeling that sometimes the pictures I include will precede the text, sometimes the images will come after the text. It will never be a simple illustration. I think that's too easy. As a novel writer, it would be a dream to have an image stand in for a piece of narrative. That's the object of good screenwriting. Whenever you can take a piece of dialogue and reduce it to an image, you have accomplished something good. I'm very used to thinking in that way.

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