The room is dark, and an author stands in shadows at the back of the room in front of three laptop computers. The opening screen lights up the room, a circle of words against a black screen. A horse is heard neighing. A single tone begins to sound, over and over. The author begins to read:
"The end of a man's life can be inferred from the meticulous collapse of his horse. His most basic qualities are reflected in its style. The players form a still horizontal line in the jousting lane and the sound of trampling cuts through them. Do you have a move yet, for your death? Lenny Bruce falls and her shoes are carried off. My heart is breaking apart."
As he reads, the circle of words on the screen begins to come apart, and to move in a complex pattern. The words begin to recombine in a new arrangement. The words move in time. The words begin to dance.
A man wearing a collarless Beatles suit approaches the front of the room, walking in a measured kind of martial dance and followed by a woman in a blue dress. The man carries a mask of a horse’s head. As he reaches the front of the room, the walls behind him fill with texts in intersecting arcs. He puts on the mask and begins to move as if he himself has become a horse. As you attempt to read the text, three projected screens across, you realize that the arcing texts seem to be arranged in patterns that have more in common with architecture than they do with the stanzas of a poem. While the horse in the Beatles jacket and the woman in the blue dress continue their time-based performance, the operator in the back of the room scrolls across and down. The pattern of intersecting arcs of texts extends far off the screen in seemingly endless virtual space. Reading the work feels very much like trying to make out the details of an intricately detailed cupola as you stare up and walk around it.
Judd Morrissey, Goat Island, and 145+ additional contributors are contributing to the work-in-progress The Last Performance (dot org). The project’s developers describe it as “a constraint-based collaborative writing, archiving and text-visualization project responding to the theme of lastness in relation to architectural forms, acts of building, a final performance, and the interruption (that becomes the promise) of community.” The project is a kind of hopeful monster, a mutated form of literature that combines elements of dance and performance, information and physical architecture, and Oulipian constraint-driven approaches to writing. The visual presentation of the project is based on the structure and details of the Dzamija, a mosque built on top of an old church in Zagreb, Croatia. Elements of the structure were derived from a dance performance by Goat Island, a Chicago-based performance collective. The organizational principles of the text are largely algorithmic. The individual texts themselves are written in response to a series of odd, seemingly arbitrary constraints such as “Construct a last performance in the form of a heavy foot that weighs 2 tons and remains in good condition.” The texts that form the material basis of the project are contributed both by the authors who have been working most closely on the project for two years and by readers who stumble across it on the Web and decide to contribute a text by responding to a constraint or to one of the other texts.
Like many works of electronic literature, The Last Performance (dot org) is many things at once, and can be read in many different ways. By this I mean not only that one can the reader apply different interpretative strategies to the text, as one could with any work of literature, but that the work offers the reader a wide variety of physical configurations of its constituent parts. While each of the short texts in the work can be read individually on a single page, the work also includes a presentation of the entire database called “minaret” which offers us a visualization of the entire text on the basis of word frequency. The constraints form a kind of thematic infrastructure for the work, and because they are presented and linked together, we begin to see connections between the fragments, whether or not they actually exist. A sort of double-reading takes place in that while the individual fragments of text retain their individual identity, the reader is also compelled to regard them as part of a larger whole in one sense, as pure data in another. To further complicate matters, the work can be encountered in a number of different contexts: as it was performed live, as in the example above, as encountered on the individual computer screen, or as an art installation, as it was exhibited at the Haus Der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin.
Note: Adapted from "Words to Light Up a Dark Room" published in Norwegian as "Ord som kan lyse opp et mørkt rom: Om elektronisk litteratur" by Scott Rettberg in Vagant 1/2009.
Ian Hatcher was a production assistant on the work. Marc Jeffrey is a prominent contributor who often performed the work with Morrissey in live contexts. The development of the project was supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation / Creative Capital Arts' Writers Grant Program. Additional support provided by the Chicago Artists' Assistance Program. The tile may alternately be referred to as "The Last Performance" without the dot org. The majority of the texts in the work are in English, though other languages are also used. As of this writing 9 August 2010, the work remains open to new contributions.