"I have always had a fancy that learning might be made a play and recreation to children, and that they might be brought to desire to be taught, if it were proposed to them as a thing of honour, credit, delight and recreation or as a reward for doing something else... there may be dice and playthings with the letters on them to teach children the alphabet by playing, and twenty other ways may be found, suitable to their particular tempers to make this kind of learning a sport to them."
- John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693)
The idea of teaching children through play is a very old one. Plato's Republic suggests that " knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind... do not use compulsion, but let early education be a sort of amusement; you will then be better able to find out the natural bent." But it was not until the advent of printed religious instruction in the medieval age that ABCs became in any sense 'playful'. At that time, the alphabet was printed as a part of a 'primer' that was chiefly a book of prayers.
In 1570 the first known English pictorial alphabet in print appeared in John Hart's 'A method or comfortable beginning for all unlearned', where woodcuts illustrated each letter with an object. Over the next century an increasing number of pictorial alphabets and poems appeared to help children learn their letters.
John Locke's comments presaged an huge increase in the variety of printed visual alphabets which has continued unabated to the present day. Frequently the letter 'X' has proved a problem for these alphabet writers: as Hilaire Belloc wrote in his Moral Alphabet,
"No reasonable little child expects
A Grown-Up Man to make a rhyme on X"
My hope with this project is to introduce a younger audience to a variety of styles of digital poetry through the familiar format of an animal A-Z.
Animalamina ranges in style from animated and visual poetry to generative and 'game' type interaction. Each scene represents a specific poem, and is revealed by interaction within the scene. There are two styles of play: in the 'game' version, the user chooses their own path through the scenes, and progress into new scenes is rewarded by the corresponding letter at the bottom and the ability to jump back to that scene at choice. In the 'teaching' version, all the animals are accessible from the start with the cheat button.
I initially conceived writing an animal ABC in a traditional print format, but researching just some of the hundreds and thousands now available, it was difficult to see what i could add to the genre.
Digital artists are developing very exciting new directions in poetry and storytelling, yet the availability of specifically digital poetry for children (rather than online versions of print poetry) - remains extremely limited. There may be several reasons for this: writers and artists often prefer to create work for mature critics and exhibitions, as adult audiences tends to be seen as more financially or personally lucrative in terms of career development; creating pieces for children is also seen as less contemporary or 'sexy' than creating pieces that explore mature or technological themes. In addition children are relatively invisible as a specific audience for digital works outside of computer games and educational software, with the result there are fewer public arenas for new digital content for young people.
Whilst the development of national curricula has improved the emphasis on literacy and ICT, writing and technology are still largely seen as separate subjects, which encourages multimedia producers to create software that focuses on one or the other: this means digital writing for children tends to remain at the edge of each curriculum. There are also problems of location and practical access to technology, beyond the classic division of school=education versus home=play.
My intended audience for Animalamina is aged 5-11. It is intended for use at home, as a reading and multimedia learning tool for parents to explore with their children, or by children on their own; but also as a resource for teachers with suitable facilities to explore themes in both the literacy and technology curricula, not just spelling, poetry, creative language, and computer use, but also the forms of writing possible in a digital environment.
Apart from my own love of children's poetry, I believe there is much of relevance and interest to the digital art community to be learned through creating content specifically for children. As the generation who are naturally most comfortable with new media, the way that they interact with and understand these kinds of projects may yield valuable insights into practices we view from an adult perspective, including user interface and navigation issues, but also what it is we mean by 'reading' a text in this context.
The concept began in 1993 with a series of written poems. I find the 'old fashioned' method of pen and paper works much better for the initial brainstorming of ideas which is crucial in my method of writing, allowing a more flexible visual relationship of words and sentences to each other than can be portrayed in a word processing program, and the ability to make notes or amendments very quickly in locations or at times where technology is impractical.
From the very early stages of the project I knew that I wanted many visual styles to make the scenes as different as possible from each other, to give a sense of surprise from never knowing what would come next. An additional aim was to avoid what Lev Manovich has criticised as the 'vector-orientated look' of 'Generation Flash' that he suggests "always happens when people begin to generate graphics through programming." Whilst Flash was the obvious choice for this project due to its abilities to combine animation, sound and interaction, it does encourage the use of vector graphics (where the image data is described in mathematical equations rather than in pixels) created within the software itself, and this can lead to similarities in visual style.
Flash also includes the ability to import and convert non-vector ('raster') graphics (bitmaps, jpegs etc), and this was my primary method in this project. There are disadvantages to this approach: primarily, file sizes become much larger, which can be a problem for internet based projects. The key advantage of this method was the ability for the visuals to have a warmer, hand-drawn feel which tends to be absent from most vector-based Flash work, helping each scene to be as visually unique as possible.
I have been fortunate to meet and work with a number of traditional visual artists through the experimental magazine and artist's network 391.org, who were my first port of call for potential collaborators.
The process began with a call for submissions within this artist group and friends, explaining the idea behind the project, and giving an A-Z list of animals. The artists were invited to select their favourites. Once the 26 had been satisfactorily divided between the artists, each was free to draw the animal in a way that either interpreted the relevant poem, or represented the animal in some other way. I tried not to pre-influence the style or quantity of supplied artwork; in some cases the artists gave me several different frames and separate backgrounds to work with; others gave me scans of their paintings, from which the individual elements had to be separated in flash.
At the same time I worked on the relationship between each animal, as one requirement was that each scene would be linked to a number of other scenes/animals. This ended up being one of the most difficult parts of the project, as the scenes were completed over a period of several months, so many were unavailable to use as links during the creation of particular scenes, and had to be sympathetically inserted later.
One of the most interesting aspects of the project was the various ways that each artist interpreted the brief. In some cases there were ongoing discussions regarding the poem and potential styles of illustration, which in turn led to a lot of interesting research into styles of children's illustration and animation which had influenced us in our youth, and why we thought it was successful (some examples were the pooh bear illustrations, the magic roundabout, dubbed japanese manga and anime, and the cut-out and stick-on clothes that used to be seen in children's magazines).
After receiving the static graphics from the artist, the next stage of the process was to create test animations suggested by their images.
There were two main reasons for these test animations: firstly, to ensure that the artist was happy with the animation style I had used; and secondly to help me visualise the display and interaction of the poem text with the particular style of visuals.
Through the animation tests and initial scenes I was able to begin editing and re-writing each poems to fit the scene, working particularly on the type of interaction or 'game' through which the user would reveal the poem.
In some cases images that the artists had supplied also suggested particular ways the poems should develop, for example in 'Pigsy': the initial poem was very basic, and the artist interpeted this with a variety of objects - a planet, a submarine, a television and a piano - which led to the development of the poem to include these words and appropriate synonyms. Hence this initial process of textual and visual feedback from/with the artists led to the scenes taking some fascinating directions as a direct result of their input.
There are many typologies that could be used to explain the varieties of digital poetry included in Animalamina, and to compare the scenes with each other. I would like to focus on the concepts of non-linearity and chance: both concepts have been discussed elsewhere, but here I want to concentrate on the use of programmed algorithms to create types of randomly generated, non-linear narratives.
Before we go any further, a quick look at the meaning of 'random': it originates from the Middle English randon meaning impetuosity or speed, and the Old French randon meaning rush or disorder. Today it is mostly used in a similar way to mean the opposite of order; something that has no specific purpose, pattern or objective.
The use of chance in art dates back at least 85 years to the dadaists, and has been explored by artists such as William Burroughs in his writing, Gustav Metzger in his 'auto-destructive' art and John Cage in his 'aesthetics of chance', where he describes the artist's role as being "the instigator and manipulator of the natural elements... having initiated the reaction of diverse elements, the artist, like the viewer, essentially steps back and watches to see what happens next".
Hyena High' is revealed in a traditional (linear) fashion, but uses random algorithms in the method of display of the hyenas and other characters, to rotate each static frame in a random sequence to create the animation.
'Dogdinner' uses chance in the display of the text, as well as the visual animation of the dog. As with Cage's aesthetic, the viewer can sit back and watch, but interaction provokes further changes in the display of individual lines within each verse.
It is important to note that the display is not totally random. Chance is implemented here, as in all the poems, within specific parameters, a limited set of author-programmed choices or restraints. In this case, the use of chance in the visual placement of the words is intended to give the effect of a living organism, corresponding to the theme and style of the scene. In this way meaning is constructed through the both the words and their visual display.
'Slow Owls' uses chance on several levels to create and eventually destroy meaning. When selected, each owl may only speak with O, W, or L words; these words are chosen randomly from a set of 20, and are re-selected after a random period of time. In addition, the owls move forward and backwards - or dance - randomly, which causes the poem to be continuously re-created through the horizontal placement of owls and words.
An interesting point here is that there is the notion of an 'ideal' number of owls: with too few, the poem is simply a series of unconnected words; with too many, the words change too quickly for meanings to be established.
In 'Moolix' there are several uses of chance within the set of pre-programmed choices. On the left, a chimera is created in the vat from two random selections of 14 animal halves. On the right, the ingredient that has been added to create this particular 'batch' is chosen at random and displayed on the board, so the poem develops as each new chimera is chosen.
The original name of the poem, 'Song of the Moolix', is represented here in the loose verse-chorus-verse-chorus on the board, so although the potential combinations of 'ingredients' means that there are over 1 and a half trillion possible poems within this scene, the structure of the poem remains the same each time.
In working on this project I learned a lot about the use of chance to create non-linear work. There is often a point where the poem is almost obliterated - for example in Slow Owls - where the principles governing the display of text are at their loosest. In others like Moolix, the text remains visually static, but chance is used to assemble the content in a way that creates a different poem each time. Finally, the interaction of the user with the screen elements, such as in Dogdinner, creates an additional chance input to the meaning of the poem, allowing a physically determined measure of user-authorship of the text. I hope to develop these ideas in future works by continuing to assess the critical points where the use of chance causes meaning to be created or collapse.
With particular respect to digital writing for children, I hope that as children begin to read Animalamina I will be able to further refine the interaction and language by examining the way they respond to the scenes individually and as a whole. This feedback process will continue indefinitely. I also hope to guage the extent to which visual, animated and interactive elements affect the meaning of a text for a generation that are often assumed to focus on the visual.
More specifically, I believe it will allow me to assess the extent to which children intuitively understand types of non-linear texts, which should help me to better explore the potential of digital writing to create new strategies for teaching and encouraging traditional and new media writing from this age group, within and beyond the current categories of arts subject learning (reading vs. theatre, traditional methods of reading poems vs. literary criticism, and personal creative development).
Chris Joseph, February 2004