Prying: Jhave on Tender Claws’ New App
By JhaveDecember 29, 2014
Pry by Tender Claws
PRY IS AN INTERACTIVE multimedia fiction created and launched as an iOS app by Tender Claws, the duo Danny Cannizzaro and Samantha Gorman, in 2014.
First, the Verdict
My opinion: Everyone interested in the contemporary state or future of literature as a hybrid tactile mediated experience should experience Pry.
Pry solves some fundamental problems of multi-touch storytelling, and evokes a complex, unprecedented coherence between custom interactive gestures, audiovisuals, and psychological insights. There are caveats: interactivity eclipses both narrative and characterization. Plot resolution and catharsis are minimal (unsurprising since many chapters are yet to be released). Ironically, Pry’s interactive gestures advance plot psychology in a way that is so clever, sophisticated, impressive, and prescient, this virtuosity overshadows simple engagement, even erodes it. Or at least it did for this particular reader: having never seen gesture used in quite this way before, it was hard to concentrate on the content (serious) while enjoying the interface (fun).
Pinch Instead of Page
The Pry splash page and prologue video is a savvy casual intro intercut with retro flashbacks set in an overall tone that suggests a micro-drama, the story of a young soldier shipping out, but more nostalgia than guns. My initial qualms concerned the military storyline — it’s not my thing, and I’m tired of soldier tales, khaki, PTSD. The details of characterization provoke questions: Why is the young man so organized, yet also so late? Why so unconcerned about throwing his neat stuff into a chaotic rucksack? Does anyone enlist who looks like this, like a hipster? Do they use Speed Stick and pack Tarzan? The first chapter opens with a video sequence from a classic remorse POV, the camera descending from ceiling onto the figure staring up from a bed, and then (without knowing if this occurs before or after the prologue) the first sentence appears: “Awake, but not full. What time is it? Check.” And beneath it, “Spread and hold open to see through James’ eyes.” So we are given the character name in a didactic, after a brief word-free intro video vignette.
Is this a book? It comes with instructions, and a help window. I for one have no problem accepting it as a hybrid literary creation but suspect some literati purists might challenge its pedigree.
Around 2001 the design studio Hi-ReS! released a labyrinthine multilevel website promo for the film Donnie Darko. It required tenacity and a gamer’s ingenuity to crack the levels. In order to offset the difficulty, the site used extensive, subtle didactics to deflect the viewer toward correct choices. In that website, motion-graphic transitions encouraged engagement, yet the user’s major activity was reading. Similarly, on entering Pry, engagement blooms not because of character development or plot suspense; it blooms because the transition effects are gracious, the didactics are sufficient and minimal, and the writing sophisticated, ambiguous, and personal. A pinch-open gesture flicks the screen open like an eye, a brief shot of ceiling — ink jelly blooming stain — and then it’s gone. The screen has sealed itself and in its place the second written phrase of the novella appears, and beneath it the second didactic: “Pinch and hold closed to enter James’ subconscious.”
There are only two unrequested didactic panels displayed in Pry (pinch open to see outside/memories; and pinch closed to see inside/subconscious), and on release the screen returns to its previous state. Based on this austerity of interface design, the reader progresses: reading the surface, peeking out, peeking in. Solely for this gestural precision and serene minimalism, Pry deserves to be experienced. It distills user effort down to relevant essentials. The two gestures reflect a nascent syntax, a minimal set, for how to navigate between three layers of text.
Yet this simplicity is a ruse, in fact. In chapters 1, 2, and 6, the pinch gesture works (with mildly different effects in each), then for chapter 3 there is a new (unannounced!) gesture to learn; and this is part of the joy and trouble with Pry. The gestures are so elegant that experiencing them generates a pleasure that eclipses the story. The effect is often proximal to wonder: it’s playful, giddy, strange. A disjunct arises between the heavy themes of eroticism, violence, and loss expressed in the content, and the joy felt pinching mediated text into innovative transitions. Ironically, the writing must swim against the tide of joy generated by the interface’s success; it is difficult to allow entry into darkness if the door is a playground. And if you fail to understand the gestures (as I did on first entering the third chapter), the effect is frustrating, a bit like wandering into a TV store in search of coffee.
In 1986, BBC released a serial TV drama entitled The Singing Detective, narrated by a hospitalized writer hallucinating and crippled by psoriatic arthritis. Immobility influences his formulation of three parallel narratives — personal flashbacks, a detective story, and the story of the hospital bed in which he rests. The series shifts among these parallels using accepted cinematic syntax.
Unfortunately, no accepted syntax yet exists for interactive literature on multi-touch devices; so the Pry pinch gestures are strong candidates to consider for general adoption. They “meaningfuly relate to the reading process,” as the Pry webpage puts it. Pinch-open-eye (see), Pinch-close-eye (think or dream), release (narrate).
The electronic book desperately needs conventions; after the printing press the novel emerged and along with it narrative techniques for how to handle first-person narration; film adopted montage, but on the commercial multi-touch screen — first launched in 2007 with the iPhone, it’s current parents (Android and Apple’s iOS) divorced, it’s growing pains evident — and the new syntax has not emerged. Kindle, Nook, and other ebooks are literally only books; the paradigm of flipping pages prevails. One of the values of Pry is the alternative expanded hybrid media page it proposes; these are not pages or texts, these are tavits (text-audio-video-interactives).
The Singing Detective narrator believes stories offer “all clues and no solutions.” A similar confusion pervades Pry, which when pinched and held closed (as instructed the first time, holding a wound to suture it) offers a swift flashing set of diagnostic words (appearing one by one very swiftly) beneath which a black-and-white montage of eyes, ophthalmologist lenses and lights, and reading charts swim. It is related to atonia — the ancient Greek ἀτονία (atonia) refers to “slackness, debility” — and it is used to describe what happens during REM or when muscles lose strength.
The style of the serial-flashing subconscious text in Pry is based on a well-established tradition of text display. It originates in a cognitive science technique for measuring attentional blink called RSVP: rapid serial visual presentation. Popularized in 1999 by YHCHI (another avant-garde e-lit writing duo, Young-hae Chang and Marc Voge, much celebrated, their signature style exploiting nothing but RSVP Monaco-font black-text-on-white synched to jazz or Nina Simone), the technique sounds trivial yet is on first impact addictive, precipitating a strong desire to keep up — the changing YHCHI text never pauses, has no interactivity, and simply runs relentlessly from start to finish, then sometimes loops.
RSVP was also utilized by William Poundstone in Project for Tachistoscope [Bottomless Pit] (2005), which explores subliminal advertising. And RSVP is periodically rediscovered and marketed by reading apps as the next-best-thing, most recently by apps such as Spreeder or Spritz. But while the RSVP text style is not new, in the case of Pry, where the subconscious text sometimes loops several times like an obsessive ode, it is (as far as I know) the first use of the technique interactively in fiction to reflect and reinforce the psychology of internal refrains or litanies, psychic pleas or pronouncements, thoughts that erupt into consciousness then subsist, trauma that is silent, lingering, or dormant until touched. And it is in that fusing of context and content that Pry offers a unique contribution.
Strobe flashing words hypnotically lock the mind’s focus and position the reader as a psychoanalytic surgeon, an emotional archaeologist, uncovering events buried by seismic circumstance. If novels encourage empathetic voyeurism, Pry is a forced confessional, a space where the text reveals more than it intends to, ruptures when touched, words flickering beneath its skin.
Where Did It Come From?
On iOS devices, the pinch has been used before by Aya Natalia Karpińska in Shadows Never Sleep (2008), where readers zoom into a grid of static, monochrome, concrete poems. Karpińska’s use of zoom is exploratory, unconnected to her textual content. A more proximal potential ancestor of the rip in Pry (where text opens a ragged edge and reinforces the narrator’s psychic content) is Saul Bass’s titles for Hitchcock’s Psycho: letters torn apart by an internal secret — Venetian-blind voyeurism. Pry adapts the film noir notion of the secret witness, attaches it to an idea of letterform as a surrogate for psyche, and with a deft use of tactile iOS multi-touch, converts the reader into a pry bar, leveraging curiosity to explore story.
In chapter 6 of Pry, (chapters 4 and 5 are coming soon; currently only 1, 2, 3, and 6 have been made) the pinch gesture modulates and begins to trigger the appearance or disappearance of blocks of text within existing paragraphs. It’s tough to describe, but the animation is slick, the effect sinuous and addictive. It induces a sense of the text as a Pandora’s box capable of infinite expansion or contraction. There is no exact precedent for this particular interactive animated insertion, but inserting more text-within-text has many precedents; word replacement has been at the core of e-lit techniques for decades. A couple of prominent examples: John Cayley’s work since the mid-1990s consistently used word or letter replacements to morph texts; Cayley directs the Writing Digital Media program at Brown University (where Samantha Gorman studied) and is a prolific, astute critic. In 2000, Judd Morrissey’s The Jew’s Daughter used rollovers to replace sentences and words within paragraphs; his text transformed as it was touched.
The one dilemma of the active-replacement technique is that it requires the reader to read sentences that are modulations of previous ones; as new phrases are inserted between sentences already read, continuity issues arise. Formally it has merit, but for populist engagement it’s problematic. Sent back to read again, I often ask: “Why?” It takes a rare writer to operate like a linguistic Philip Glass, looping phrases. Humans are relentless and remorseless in rejecting narratives that do not reward our time. Pry risks alienating readers who lack a taste for variational disclosure.
One of the first iOS apps to creatively utilize the capabilities of the mobile device for e-lit was Erik Loyer’s Strange Rain (2011). Loyer is one of the pioneers of narrative-based electronic literature; his early iconic web-interactive sci-fi story Lair of the Marrow Monkey (1998) magnetized words and phrases to mouse motion. In Strange Rain, orientation of the device alters the viewpoint, touch triggers the narrator’s individual thoughts to fade in, and drag provokes sequences of thought to emerge. As reading continues, features modulate; Loyer describes this as “going deeper into the experience” where readers earn “Game Center achievements” and can remain aware of how far they have gotten by collecting sets of experiences. Pry operates on similar principles, where readers unlock content; and for navigation, Pry relies on a traditional index — accessible anywhere — which allows the reader to resume or restart chapters. It’s functional and swift, but there is not a restart at the point where previous reading stopped. That of course would require more code.
Apps on iOS utilize a proprietary language called Objective-C; for Pry, Danny Cannizzaro taught himself the language. In 2010, Jörg Piringer used Objective-C to create the idiosyncratic iOS app abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz, where critter letters selected by the user evolve in diverse ways. Jason E. Lewis (disclaimer: I’ve worked for and collaborated with Jason) and his team at Obx labs at Concordia University have an ongoing project entitled P.o.E.M.M. (Poetry for Excitable [Mobile] Media). As of 2014, Obx has created and released eight iOS poetry apps. Each app features a new mode of interacting with text; there is often a symbolic symmetry between the action and content (words follow, spew from, split, bob around, merge at, or bite fingers); in these (as in Pry), gesture consciously contributes to semantics; it is not an afterthought, it is integral.
The dilemma for the e-lit hybrid media writing discipline is that the kind of clever custom transitions Pry and other projects use might become next season’s stock filters. Eventually, the novelty wears off. Apply with one click: audio as a structural aspect of narrative; flickering one-word-at-a-time RSVP stream of consciousness; video vignette sinews.
Few reviews of contemporary novels marvel over paragraph size or book binding or layout; unless you are a materiality-specific critic, what matters is not matter but the immaterial aspects: the writing, psychological acuity, structure, impact. But no credible review of an interactive e-lit work can ignore the materiality of the media, or the innovations established that demarcate its space within the turbulent, evolving field.
Pry accomplishes what no prior e-lit work has done so far: to credibly blend competent video, text animations, and literature with custom interactivity specific to iOS multi-touch that contributes psychological insights into character.
What About the Writing?
So far I’ve been praising the innovation integrated so elegantly into Pry, but what if one were to encounter only the text itself, external to the app? In other words is the writing “good”? Would it work if printed? An unequivocal answer is impossible, since the evaluation requires an amputation. What could replace the videos, interactivity, and transitions? So many of the internal references and resonances within Pry arise in the interplay between the specifics of its technology, audiovisual media, and text. As an intermedial cultural object, Pry can’t simply exist without its ecosystem, it requires the formal qualities of the device.
Refusal to consider the text in isolation (which I do consider anyway below) may seem like a cop-out to book purists habituated to thinking of the quality of “writing” as a tangible, intuited essence apprehensible to the initiated. Yet imagine a similar extraction: a masterpiece novel converted into an oral storytelling format — Dostoevsky or Virginia Woolf recited by a Homeric bard. Without the specific technology of the book (the ability to linger or leap, to loop back over a section, to set it aside and return right at the bookmark, to read slowly/quickly, and then taste the words and stare off into space absorbing their resonance), the novel dissolves. The book is not just a binding; it’s a set of gestures, opportunities, and rituals.
Still, at a literary level, simply as storytelling, Pry is low on narrative cohesion. I was engaged and intrigued and led inexorably on, but more by curiosity and wonder at the transitions and forms than by suspense or need for resolution of the content. Pry is a fetus, a structure in the process of emerging. Chronology remains mysterious. How do the demolition sequences fit in? Who’s who? Who did what? How?
In spite of overt references to intimate trauma and loss, exposure to interior thoughts, and a limited number of main protagonists (three), characterization seems sketchy. And I do not think this blur is consciously intended by the authors as a reflection on the postmodern deflection of stable identity; it does not feel like, as in Marguerite Duras, an exploration of enigmatic archetypes. Pry feels as if it is intended to be a real story with real people, the kind of story that has events, chronologies, consequences, catharsis, tension, crying. Instead, character is implicit, suggested, partial, drowned in disjunction, and uncertain. And again this lack occurs partially because Pry is unfinished, partially due to a paucity of concrete chronological details, and partially as a by-product of the app interactivity that constantly invites flickering, attenuated attention, eclipsing the reverie that savors cadence, coincidence, and the uncanny.
Instead of contemplation, there is effervescent ricochet. Often, caught up in playful momentum, I couldn’t help hitting the screen quickly just to see the intriguing changes accumulate; and then it was impossible to read back sentences that were lost; to retrace was impossible, I had to restart the chapter. When I reread the work a second time, I found myself encountering videos and sentences that I had totally missed before. It is a topological space with plenty of room for exploration, but how does one get a full sense of a being? Characters diffuse behind a glaze of transitioning text and never (for me) fully coalesce into differentiable entities. The novelty of the (essential, innovative, and lovely at a psychological level) interactive interface trumped the quiet absorption of subtle narrative threads. The written language (which is accomplished technically, and resonates when viewed independently) arises elliptically in aperiodic fragments, outlining neither depth nor volume.
Imbuing the story with an implacable psychological specificity, bringing the characters to life as fleshy, intricate, paradoxical people (with histories and habits and not just pockets of phrases that pour disordered into blocks), and then guiding the reader to live with or within the characters as they experience clear, irrevocable, precisely temporalized events is the challenge that the Tender Claws duo face as they complete this potentially breakthrough novella-app. It is the dilemma of any impregnated creature: how to carry it to term, to nurture it beyond the crib, so it can stagger forward and convince others it exists. It is a problem compounded by the freedom that branching media offers narratives; books are linear, stoic, certain in sequence, and this has offered authors the clear capacity to calibrate and define psychological portraits. Nabokov did not engineer his insights and plot around the possibility that readers might skip pages 3-17, 40-52, 65-78; instead, he engineered his insights and plot so they would not.
Tender Claws are well situated as they finish Pry to create a true hypermedia literature, specific to multi-touch devices, with a density of character and plot sufficient to satisfy reader-viewers raised on novels and films. Pry already extends storytelling into interactive interface design with unprecedented dexterity and grace. Developing this slick iOS app required coding, film directing, design skills, and literary writing. E-lit needs exactly this innovative technical merger in order to develop interactive syntax foundations for producing fundamentally rich experiences.
If you want to see one of the seeds of future lit, read Pry.
Jhave is a digital poet who uses algorithms as aesthetic tools. His work reconciles computation, emotion, concepts, and the ancient idea of poet-artist as conduit. Current research: poetry generation using machine learning. Position: Assistant Professor at School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong.
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