Julu by Alan Sondheim
Alan Sondheim is a New York-based artist, writer and critic who has worked in the experimental arts since the early 1970s. Since the 1990s, he writes something he calls the "Internet text", consisting of frequently autobiographical E-Mail writings for which he does use his software - most notably his Unix commandline environment around the shell, awk, grep, sed and other text-manipulation [...]
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Alan Sondheim is a New York-based artist and essayistic writer active in the experimental arts since the early 1970s. Since 1995, he works on his "Internet text" [http://www.anu.edu.au/english/internet_txt/], a body of experimental E-Mail writing that criss-crosses and defies such categories as literature, philosophy, E-Mail art, codework, autobiography. A hard-working artist, Sondheim composes several of these messages per day and posts them to such arts-oriented mailing lists as wryting, 7-11, syndicate, Webartery, _arc.hive_ and Nettime. Unlike the work of On Kawara and other mail artists, Sondheim's writing avoids seriality and strict conceptualism, capturing an ever-changing "net subjectivity" made up both from his mind and the technical codes it communicates through. The part of his writing relevant for this festival which in Sondheim's own terminology could be called "codework" is deeply intertwined with the software he uses; most notably his Unix/Linux commandline environment involving the shell, awk, grep, sed, tr and other text-manipulation tools, but also commercial software like Mathematica -- which he uses to manipulate video -- and multimedia authoring environments. In his codework, Sondheim appropriates the Unix paradigm that all data is streams of text for his writing, by merging data streams and streams of consciousness into one,a phenomenon he described in 1999 in a mailing list discussion on the Ars Electronica award for Linux:

"Linux is art, not because it receives a prize, but because of the aesthetics, in the collaboration, in the organism whose parts are naked and self-evident even to those reasonably unfamiliar with operating systems, in the ability to make and wear it like a skin crossing the world where the Net continues to flow and stumble. Linux in shell mode is a potential field that appears to follow the thinking of the user; it doesn't appear (unless one wants it to) like a carapace or graphic superstructure. It's film-theory '68 all over again, the parameters and articulation of the system visible, the artifice revealed, the imaginary laid out in palimpsest. What's more, it's not only easy to configure (in the sense of speech), but also to program (using shell scripts, 'dialog,' etc.); if art is connected in any way with representation, one might say that the interactive representation of linux is, if not art, at least fashion, wearable, at problematic variance with capital (punk for example), useful for intruders, the mouth and tongue for some of the rest of us.

In other words, for some of us, linux _has_ changed the language."


In Sondheim's "Internet Text", software, as code which recursively generates code, becomes the writer's equivalent of a complex musical instrument. As with musical instruments - Charlotte Moorman's video cello seems a good comparison, although Sondheim doesn't like it too much in itself -, the relation to the software is intimate, and thus is involved in reflecting subjectivity and sexuality in a very physical way, in his video work with Azure Carter as well as in his writing. Still, he maintains that "the [software] commands are catalysts for text production - not designed to deliver the final text, but to deliver a textual body I can then work on, operate upon."

A straightforward piece of "working" software code by Alan Sondheim is "Julu", picked here as just one fragment of his overall work. According to Sondheim's own description, "it asks a lot of questions and returns complex texts I can use for writing. It has 'arrays' in it, lists of words that it will substitute in various sentences at various times. [...] When the program runs, it asks me to enter lines, gives me material in return - and I write in and out of the material it gives; it then rearranges the lines according to its own internal logic, and gives me a text at the end." The sourceode of Julu itself is an artistic and literary work, and is readable to programmers and non-programmers alike.

Just recently, net artist Lewis Lacook has written an hommage to Alan Sondheim in software (current Flash prototype running at http://www.lewislacook.com/alanSondheim/), a word processor/text editor transforming all typed-in text as soon as the user hits the "enter" key. Lacook took the inspiration from a project Alan Sondheim began to
program in Pascal and left unfinished in the 1980s, a text editor which would "frustrate" the writing of the user, and implemented the idea so that text entered will "sometimes [...] will be replaced by a line from some of Alan's writing, sometimes it will spatter your text in asemic strings across the box, sometimes your text will simply disappear, and sometimes a combination of these will happen.". The background film loop is taken from a nude video performance of Alan Sondheim himself.

by Florian Cramer, posted 08 May 2003

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