Foreign Logics: Thirty Tourist Episodes

CD ROM by Bernard Cohen and David Bickerstaff

Author’s Note by Bernard Cohen

The Pieces

I wrote the thirty short pieces which make up the under-layer Foreign Logics over about a year, about half in the three months of the collaboration and the rest substantially re-written or re-shaped in those three months. Their settings are unstated, though they are based on my experience of "being tourist" or "being foreign" in Europe (including England), Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand.

I then selected ten words from each piece, and these became the over-layer, the part of each episode which is visible on arriving. (The underlayer becomes gradually visible as the user moves the mouse nearer to a randomly generated hotspot on each page.)

To me, the process of drawing out ten words from each piece to make the over-layers of words in orbit was also one of narrative construction. I wanted to suggest a story with each group of words, and also either to disguise the under-layer through misleading word choice or to inflect its reading through emphasising words which may not be ordinarily emphasised in reading it.

Collaborative Process

Writing is often said to be a solitary occupation and (on one level of composition) it is: I think of words in my head and then write them down (into a notebook or a computer). At some stage I put them in an order. I begin to think of them as (potentially) making up a larger unit: a story or a novel or a poem or article or radio or performance piece or hypertext. Perhaps I set out to write in one of these forms or perhaps the words suggest a form to me.

In other ways, writing is always collaborative. Writers need feedback and, if serious about producing good work, appreciate constructive criticism and editorial suggestions. Any published work becomes immediately subject to industrial forces, including the structure of the publishing company, the appearance of the publication (its "packaging"), the means of distribution and marketing the work or the publication in which it appears and so on.

Most writing participates in this way of working from early on. A piece may be commissioned, in which case its style, form and/or length will usually be set by someone other than the writer.

Although the romantic image is of the writer in his or her garret, most contemporary writers are not isolated, at least not culturally isolated. Media is everywhere. It is impossible to drive through the countryside without seeing advertising (on billboards, bumper stickers etc). A writer would have to be stiflingly conscientious to avoid extraneous cultural influences, and would probably be a much worse writer because of it: steering clear of newspapers and books and TV could hardly contribute to an understanding of human interaction today.

The reality is that there is no such thing as uninfluenced writing: it is not now nor has ever been possible. For me, a more authentic and honest approach is to acknowledge that complete originality is impossible and to choose the sorts of influences which will help me to write in ways which try to fulfil my ambition for a piece of work.

Foreign Logics is a collaboration in these general senses, but also (and more obviously) a collaboration by direct negotiation. David said he liked the first pieces I showed him, but that he hoped most would be shorter. He didn’t like me using line breaks, so nothing looks like a poem any more. I liked his icons, but not the timing of the original music. We discussed the pros and cons of triggering PONG automatically, and vigorously considered its frequency. Certain technical proposals were too complex or unstable.

How Foreign Logics came about

Background to the project

My first book, Tourism (Picador Australia, 1992) was in the form of a tourist guidebook to Australia. I thought of the book as a sort of novel, though it had no protagonists or plot, only really an organising voice and the hint of a love story (and even this was without any sense of who the lovers were). Critics were divided on the book’s merits. One called it a "postmodern tour de force" whereas another declaimed: "The back cover blurb calls it a novel, but you might as well call it a gazebo or a stirrup pump."

Tourism was not a best seller. It is currently out of print, though it does retain something of an underground reputation and earned me a place on the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists list in 1997, five years after its publication.

In 1999 I met Peter Ride, artistic director of DA2 Digital Arts Development Agency, when I presented a workshop in a writing-for-the-internet course he’d convened. I gave him a copy of Tourism, and he — appropriately enough — read it on a flight to Canada.

He saw the potential of its form, introduced me to David Bickerstaff, and commissioned a prototype. The rest might be literature...

Bernard Cohen, May 2001

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