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delirium : Promiscuous creativity
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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
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?
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
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
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
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.