Détours: Unresolved Questions about JR Carpenter’s in absentia

The following is adapted from a paper presented at ACCUTE Congress (18 May 2016, Calgary, AB). 

This post will examine the digital potentials for feminist and activist mapping by looking at the important electronic literature example of J.R. Carpenter’s in absentia. in absentia appropriates the now ubiquitous format of Google maps—using both the mapping and “street view” features—to examine the ways that Montreal’s Mile-end neighbourhood has experienced a gentrification that limits and inhibits emotional and feminized means of moving throughout and living within this area of the city. By using bilingual French and English writing (with no useful translation for lost Francophones or Anglophones traversing the text) and a relatively limited set of instructions, Carpenter recreates feelings of limitation and isolation within the city. The subheadings that alter the map—“à louer,” “à vendre,” “perdu,” “trouvé,” and “vide”—tell the story of place that formerly was home to young families, artists, animals, and relationships burgeoning with passion and health. As these buildings are sold and rent prices skyrocket, in absentia works to record what is lost when businesses and corporations usurp the city.

Through its interactive nature, in absentia immerses the reader/player in the streets, following graphic “détour” and the shadows of former pets as they clutter the map and dislocate former residents. In this way, in absentia is an extremely affective text where residents of other Canadian cities cannot help but feel their lives and experiences echoed in the text bubbles that emerge. The reading process here echoes the communal nature of in absentia’s production, wherein, as the site’s ironically-named “home” page states: “in absentia launched on June 24, 2008, with a dance party in the parc sans nom, between Saint-Laurent and Clark, under the Van Horne viaduct. New stories were added over the summer, in English and French.” I want to pay homage to this communal, underground, and joyful nature of the work’s production by incorporating voices of current residents of Montreal, and especially of Mile-end to speak to the ways in which the processes of gentrification and eviction have continued throughout this vibrant area of the city in the eight years since Carpenter presented this work.

The relationship to place and to mapping has been a concern of feminist poetics for a long time, especially in Canadian poetry. Poets as diverse as Marlatt and Brand, Atwood and Robertson, use alternative, personal, affective, and experimental mapping to revise their understandings of place to suit a feminist poetics. We could also say that some of the better parts of Canadian experimental poetics (male-dominated as they have been) are preoccupied with the same resistant mapping processes; after all, what is The Martyrology except a giant map? Though clearly and specifically located in Montreal, the narratives and brief personal anecdotes she includes in in absentia might be the experiences of any of us who have been poor grad students or artists renting crap apartments in any Canadian city. In “a louer” Carpenter includes an anecdote dated 1992:

My apartment is so cold someone from a warm place must have built it. I curse that ill-informed immigrant—from Portugal, or Greece maybe. Tile floors in the hallway, in the bathroom, in the kitchen; pale blues, pinks and a honey-golden sheaf-of-wheat motif. The windows don’t close properly and the walls are too thin for insulation. Now I’ve heard it all. Sneezes, grunts and telephone conversations. Country music, salsa and bad hip-hop.

The cartographic project now—so often impersonal and, in postcolonial terms, so often at the expense of indigenous personhood—becomes a search for home and for the personal instead of the traversing of new and external spaces. Drawing from issues of hypertext (via George Landow) and feminist mapping practices, Carpenter in her lecture “Mapping Web Words” writes this of cartographic practices:

Cartography is arguably a literary invention—maps offer a singular point of view defined by a specific vocabulary. We imagine our anarchic, moveable, anonymous world in the guise of a readable map. And we labour under the illusion that we can know the world by naming it. Looking back at my early web projects, I see them now as ‘sites’ of longing for belonging, small stand-ins for home.

Carpenter’s mapping is unique in that it maps a real place. And, it does so in order to bring the reader/player/viewer of the work into new and unique forms of reader engagement. On the level of navigation the “reader” of the work gets to make some agential choices Carpenter uses Google mapping technology (of which by now we are all too familiar) to track and critique the gentrification of Montreal’s Mile End, famous as a hub of artistic production and community (it’s where we get Grimes, Drawn & Quarterly and Ubisoft, for example). This brings users into the community and allows them to become, however distantly, a part of that artistic group, and to begin to feel its dissolution. In absentia, as a bilingual English and French piece, is uniquely Canadian and uniquely Quebecois, and its interest is in merging the intensely personal alongside the impersonal project of mapping and geo-tagging. The convergence of personal with more impersonal data-gathering tech is a hallmark of electronic literature more generally, and has been used extensively, especially as a feminist project, in Canadian electronic literature. In absentia is an almost disorganized and difficult-to-navigate collection of maps, narratives, images and text (some from Carpenter, some from other voices) that attempts to present the reader with some agential choices about how they receive, interpret, and navigate its pages, calling into question how we navigate maps and other impersonal datasets digitally, and how this practice informs the ways we navigate space IRL.

This is why the comment bubbles in in absentia that are attributed to voices other than Carpenter’s are so frequently affective, personal, and confessional (and occasionally included without names. For example, under the “perdu” tab, a narrative pops up from a graphic road sign in which a new speaker leaves a lengthy comment recording this loss:

I lived for awhile in a lovely one bedroom flat, on the ground floor, complete with veranda where I could sit and watch the street. One day a handsome young man stepped up and told me he’d been born in that flat and could he please visit, and see inside. We became fast friends, often rambling together on the mountain. One moonlit night we wandered there and played on the swings. That night Marc told me he was dying, HIV positive. I left Montreal and that apartment. Several years later I returned, and visited his grave, then the swings—then feeling bold, I went to the apartment, knocked on the door and said: I was born here, and can I please visit and see inside.

In speaking to current and former residents of Mile End, I discovered the same willingness to discuss community and intensely personal loss. One friend told me that the idea of community is part of what drew her to Mile End in the first place. “I would run into people I knew all the time: on the street, at the laundry mat, on the mountain, in cafes, at shows, on rooftops, at spontaneous afterparties,” she told me. “I worked for a youth community organization—so I was constantly trying to cultivate community. But it was happening organically all around me. Friends of friends of friends all studying or working in the arts/social justice world sharing resources and skills… This Mile End community has followed me to Toronto.” Later, she added,

I got accepted in my first-choice Master’s program at York… So I moved. I was so depressed when I first came to Toronto. The city landscape seemed so ugly and devoid of community. It’s like no one cared about aesthetics or beauty here. I missed the sounds, scents, and movement of the Mile End. I missed running into people. The only neighbourhood that made any sense to me was Roncesvalles … I liked the narrow sidewalks and small local shops. It’s conducive for talking to people.

We might argue that digital mapping practices can have the effect of Toronto’s ugly downtown core: impersonal datasets, geo-tags that do little except geo-tag, and one million Starbuckses. But, what in absentia demonstrates is that they can also be Roncesvalles, a neighbourhood I had the pleasure of living in for one lovely year, or Mile End, or whatever the correlative neighbourhood is here in Calgary. And it’s not the only project to do so: Carleton University Hyperlab’s mapping of Lansdowne Park or Stan Douglas’s Circa 1948 all interrogate the impersonality of mapping in a similar fashion. And, what’s more, Carpenter’s project has some significant oversights. For example, Carpenter discusses issues of rising rent, of the immigrant experience, and of the problem of needing to commodify one’s art to continue it, but it more or less fails to address the larger questions of uneven development, particularly because of the way that gentrification often plays out across lower income neighbourhoods, to say nothing of the fact that in absentia almost completely fails to address issues of race and indigeneity despite their centrality to discussions of gentrification and spatial injustice. We might say that these are not her project—and that’s fine—but it is worth noting what conversations are not included in a project that works so hard to include diverse and disparate voices.

I’d like to completely change the direction of this post by resolving something that I didn’t realize when I set out to write this. When I originally conceptualized this project I imagined that this paper would, above all, look critically at the mapping practices of in absentia to make a case for the importance of Canadian electronic literature, and of the activist and feminist features that make Canadian electronic literature such a valuable contribution to the genre. I argued that with Carpenter at the forefront of new and innovative work in Canadian electronic literature and digital poetry (she currently has three works included in the Electronic Literature Organization’s online collections), Canadians from across the country are leaving their mark on this new genre. I guess I still believe that that’s true. I also still might argue that in absentia demonstrates the unique contributions Canadian writers offer to the digital literary community. But, upon further researching this piece, and in brief discussions with the author, I realized that looking carefully at in absentia led me not to be able to develop the genre of Canadian elit, but to start to collapse those terms.

See, Carpenter is a pretty vocal critic of the term “electronic literature,” identifying more comfortably with the designation “web artist” but frequently being referred to by scholars (like myself) as a writer of electronic literature. Even her website, LuckySoap.com can’t seem to decide on a designation. The link in the header for “electronic literature” brings you to a page with the title “Digital Literature” and a URL webprojects.html. When she was asked in an interview why she felt her work was being categorized and interpreted as elit, Carpenter laments:

It has to do with canonization; once you’re categorized, it’s hard to change the way your work is read. The Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) website has a definition of Electronic Literature that I don’t fully identify with. It doesn’t quite cover certain aspects of my work. Most Electronic Literature scholarship still orients itself in relation to literary tradition and the book; I do a lot of work in relation to the book, but I also do a lot in relation to landscape, visual art, collage, assemblage, performance, and so on. … Sometimes writing about my work in terms of only literature excludes those reference points.

And to be fair, even though we experience, traverse, and yes ultimately “read” in absentia from the comfort of our own computers in our own homes or offices, Carpenter’s work in this piece probably has more to do with locative media projects, performance pieces, or installations than it does concrete, typewriter, or earlier generative poetry which are the clear predecessors of works that more easily fit into the “electronic literature” or “digital poetics” categories.

Carpenter makes it very clear in interviews, especially the few questions of mine she was able to answer via email last week, that she really considers new media art (the broadest term I can think of to encapsulate all these digital projects) to be an international community, and that she considers herself to be an international poet and artist. But what’s really interesting about the whole thing, and what could have been the focus of this paper if I knew it in time, is that she concedes that the effects of the gentrification of Mile-End might have something to do with the feelings of dislocation that pervade not only her work from that period, but her thoughts on genre and national literatures in elit altogether. As she wrote to me,

not long after I wrote that lecture/article [“Mapping a Web of Words”], I was evicted from my apartment and so in effect from my neighbourhood. I moved to the UK in 2009 and have lived here since. I am not sure I would have known what to say about a Canadian elit, even if I’d stayed. I still have a lot of connections … in Montreal, but it’s always been a very international community for me.

What’s more, Carpenter isn’t utopian about the radical potentials of the digital project as some earlier practitioners like the aforementioned Landow might have been, but rather she argues that the digital poetics merely exacerbate the difficulties of identification and categorization that already exist. As the tongue-in-cheek disclaimer that precedes her introduction on Brick Books’ “A few digital poets presented by Jhave” notes, Carpenter’s work demonstrates that “[t]he difficulties of belonging are compounded by internet-based digital poetry.”

So, I don’t really know if in absentia teaches us anything about the category of Canadian electronic literature, a genre I want to exist so badly because it looks good on paper and sounds an awful lot like the kind of shit that gets funding. If anything, it’s the exception that proves that there ain’t no rules. That the radical potentials of digital writing are becoming reified slowly but surely not by organizations like the ELO or the ELMCIP who work tirelessly to demonstrate the variety of works they uneasily lump into these weak and porous categories, but by readers and scholars like me who use funding applications and conference paper proposals so try and make them fit.


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