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On-screen typing is a Royal pain

October 05, 2003|Michael T. Jarvis

A visit to Bruce Sterling's "Embrace the Decay" turns Internet surfers into involuntary typists on a vintage Royal typewriter. The on-screen image eerily is in sync with whatever is typed -- including caps lock and returns -- but after five lines are completed, the machine is worthless, and a strange new adventure begins.

"There's a lot of stuff in that interactive piece: The more you do, the more it does," Sterling says from Austin, Texas. "It doesn't run unless there is interaction."

Located on the digital gallery of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art's Web site (, the piece is something of a departure for Sterling, who's known as a futurist, journalist/cyberpunk and novelist. He frequently lectures on electronic art, but before "Embrace the Decay," which was "installed" last month, he'd painted only with words.

What prompted him to dive into "Decay"? "The LAMOCA people came to me," he says. "It was too weird and wild and I couldn't turn it down. They were looking for people to dabble in that milieu, and frankly, I couldn't resist it.... It's flattering and fun, working in a cyber art context."

Choosing the subject was easy, Sterling says. "I'm one of the last generation of writers who actually used typewriters. There's no point in using a typewriter. I'm used to the media being ephemeral and temporary. I have eight different word processors and none of them work."

Sterling's artistic vision of a machine that responds in ever more mysterious ways forced him to draw technical assistance from his vast mailing list of futurists, wonks, dreamers, computer experts and game designers. "We talk about graphic and industrial design. We've got about 1,800 people on it. It's just plain fun. A lot of our friends are geeks. I'm not a flash programmer -- I'm Mister 'Digital-words-in-a-row' version. The only thing I did with my own hands for this is ... decay some of the paper."

Sterling can envision other sorts of commissions. "If I'm still alive in 20 years, I wouldn't be surprised if someone called and asked me to work on a microorganism. It wouldn't surprise me a bit."

-- Michael T. Jarvis

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