Karl-Erik Tallmo,
Visual Iris Open


This is an artist's book, first published December 3rd 2005 at Galleri Bibb, an art gallery in Stockholm. The content is the Hypertalk code from Karl-Erik Tallmo's hypertext novel "The Watcher's Ability to Interfere" ("Iakttagarens förmåga att ingripa"), which was the first hypertext novel to be published in Sweden 1992.

  The book is downloadable here as a PDF file. (115 pages, 337 K).

Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to purchase a printed copy, signed by the artist.

”The executory potential of the words furnishes them with a certain poetic lustre”

About the book "Visual Iris Open"

An interview with Karl-Erik Tallmo made in December 2005 by Swedish artist Edvard Derkert.

Why did you choose to publish a hypertext novel in 1992 – "The Watcher's Ability to Interfere"?

Well, to keep it short, I had been working for several years during the 80's on a novel that was supposed to be printed. It pointed in many different directions, however. Most of it was regular text, but I also experimented with passages where the combination of sentences was determined by chance, and I also utilized a sort of repetitive technique, akin to minimal music, such as Steve Reich's or Terry Riley's works. A lot of ideas used in the novel were actually sort of waiting for computer technology, so when I got a Macintosh in 1988 and discovered the possibilities of the Hypercard software, I just couldn't keep myself from transferring the novel to this medium. There wasn't any real hyperlinking feature in Hypercard at that time. What one could do was to format a certain string of characters as a "group", and thus making it sensitive to mouseclicks. Then you had to write a piece of code, that could react to the mouseclick and execute something, such as having Hypercard go to a certain page, show a picture etc. I have described the background of the making of that book more extensively on a special page on the web.

What sort of response did you get to your hypertext novel?

You might say that it fell between two chairs. Those who expected some kind of computer game were disappointed because it was too boring, and those who should have grasped the idea of a new type of text based artwork didn't care – probably because they assumed it was some kind of silly computer game.

Those, however, who took their time to read the text and not just searched for places with various effects, usually found it to be a suggestive and well-written story.

Now, more than ten years later, you have published a "non-interactive" version of your work, which not only contains the text but also the Hypercard programming. How large a part of the text consists of the code?

No, the new book does not contain the entire text of the novel. Far from it. If so, it would comprise approx. 465 pages instead of 115 as it is now. It contains the programming, which is made in Hypercard's own language Hypertalk. It contains every piece of code that controls the behavior of the electronic book, so to speak, things that are normally not visible but rather constitute the machinery behind the text pages one can read on the screen. There are, however, many instances where single words, sentences and longer passages from the main text of the novel sort of leak into the code. All of a sudden words like "eggshell", "abroad", or "blue" turn up – or sentences like "Shouting while inhaling was dangerous, her mother had told her" or "How come he felt so incredibly like an American right here in this bathroom?". The reason for this is that texts frequently are displayed in the margin or as a pop-up field on top of the body text. The simplest way of doing that is to put that text within the code that controls the display.

From the exhibition at Galleri Bibb, December 2005.

I often compare this to standing in the wings at a theater, where you can see all of the ropes and tackles and machinery that raise or lower the side-scenes, and at the same time you hear isolated words and phrases from the stage where the play is going on. It is something very intriguing about this, to just vaguely be able to imagine something in its entirety. I am not exactly the first artist to be fascinated by fragmentation. Peter Cornell wrote a book in the 80's, titled "Roads of Paradise", which implied that only the footnotes of a work remained. The reader was supposed to imagine the main text. And Armand Schwerner wrote a sort of archaeological poetry, where large parts of the text were missing.

But this "leaking text" is only half the reason why I made the book. The Hypertalk language has in itself a sort of poetic quality. I remember that when I started out with Hypertalk some time around 1988, my first thoughts were that to a large extent this is pure poetry.

It is not like C++ or Pascal but very close to the normal use of language. What is so exciting is that the words are charged and possess a power in a direct instrumental sense, in a way they don't do in normal language. This executory potential of the words furnishes them with a certain poetic lustre, also in this case, outside of the computer. Printed on a book page they are like fish flapping on land, and yet I think they convey a sort of transcendence.

Here's a very basic example. You may create a clickable button and within it store the following piece of code: "on mouseup, go next card, end mouseup". This means that later when you click the button, it will react when the mouse button is released ("mouseup" that is), and then the instruction between "on mouseup" and "end mouseup" will be executed. In this case Hypercard will flip to the next card or page.

You can also make a text field clickable and tie a piece of code to it, so that when clicked it changes the font face, for instance, or deletes all text in the field. Precisely this may be accomplished with the help of a script I find almost Zen-like: "on mouseup, put empty into me, end mouseup". This means, objects can refer to themselves as "me".

Sometimes you must check if a certain condition is satisfied and then let the code start a certain action, if the condition is met. For example, if a text field has been filled with a randomly generated text, it must be emptied before you get to it the next time – the reader shouldn't see the old text once again. Then you could have a piece of code that, exactly when you turn the page, checks whether a certain field with a certain id number is empty or not. If the field is not empty, an instruction that empties the field is given. The task could also be to let certain fields with text be visible in certain contexts while they should be invisible in others. Then there is a pretty funny syntactical turn of phrase that one can use for control:

"if the visible of background field id 29 is the visible of background field id 29, then hide background field id 29"

This can be hard to explain to someone who has never dealt with programming, but the phrase "the visible of background field id 29" may have the value "true" or "false", depending on whether this field number 29 is visible for the moment or not. Normally one would write:

"if the visible of background field id 29 is true, then hide background field id 29"

However, "true" might as well be phrased as "the visible of background field id 29", since this in itself is a way to express this value of the field. Then "false" could be expressed as "not (the visible of background field id 29)".

I like quips like that. I have always been fascinated by all things "meta", when things refer to themselves – and this is something similar.

Maybe I should add that the code is normally written one instruction per line. I changed this, according to a system so that the text is printed in sequence, with one "handler" or piece of code per paragraph – thus making it more like a narrative or a lot of short news-items arranged one after the other. There is a system of parentheses and semicolons etc. which indicate nested instructions, that is, when one contains the other, like Chinese boxes. Another typographic detail is that the text that leaks in from the real novel is set in italics, in order to be easier to discern. Since the Hypertalk code itself is in English, all Swedish text that "leaks out" of the novel has also been translated into English, so that the whole work gets more uniform.

Is this a text aiming at programmers? How do you think an "ordinary reader" should approach this code?

Well, I don't think all programmers would appreciate it, but one certainly understands more if one is familiar with Hypertalk or some other computer language like that. However, I believe you could read this text also as a sort of concrete poetry – although that is not exactly easy reading either. Of course, this is a very esoteric book.

Another aspect of this is that this book in a way is true, while the original novel, regarded as fiction, is not true. The Hypertalk code certainly is made up, but at the same time it is reality. (Maybe you could say that also about the original novel as well – it describes itself truthfully to 100 percent, in the same way as you might say that the real landscape is a very exact map of itself on the scale of 1:1.) It's about different realities, on different levels – which fascinates me.

Maybe I should explain also that when it says "cd" in the text, this is short for card, "btn" means button, "fld" is short for field, and "bkgnd" or "bg" means background. For a while I planned to write out the abbreviations in full to make it more like normal language. Maybe I will in a later edition.

I tried to read the text out loud, which revealed a poetic dimension. Have you considered recording the book as an audio book? That would be an ironic gesture, wouldn't it?

Yes, I think that would work pretty well. Not the entire book though, that would be way too much. But I have considered reading a few sections or maybe do a couple of text/sound compositions using synthetic speech, which as you know is something I am tinkering with too. If this happens, I will upload the sound files on the book's web page.

What is your view on interactive text art today? Or on interactive art in general?

Well, of course, publishing the totally static program code of an interactive book in print is a sort of irony, as you suggest. Or self-directed irony. Although already in 1992, when I published the original novel, I found the concept of interactivity misused to a large extent. In a similar way as when democracy is confused with pseudo-democracy, there were many who regarded interactivity as a marvelous possibility for the reader to participate. Yet, the reader is forced to run in a labyrinth created in advance by the programmer. True interactivity, as it was once defined by Stewart Brand and Andy Lippman at MIT, implies a high degree of unpredictability regarding choice of path and point of arrival. Neither man nor machine should, so to speak, be tied to a certain outcome. And this is something very different from the kind of interactivity we have seen so far. That is not to say that it is something bad, but it is something else.

When it comes to the possibilities to use interactivity in art, we have, of course, seen only the beginning. It takes longer time than most people imagine for a new medium or a new artistic tool to settle. One should use it for things that older media don't do better. And it is important that the users, the audience, the readers to a certain extent can see through the medium, that it is transparent. Today one is still very much aware of all of the buttons and mouseclicks and windows, in a way that one is not when reading a printed book. The pages and cover of a book don't interfere with the reading experience, but graphic interfaces on computers often do.

© Karl-Erik Tallmo | Home