Rant About Small Modern Art

A couple of months ago, I wrote something called Hsi. It was inspired by the 5k Web Page Contest at sylloge.com -- a challenge to design a complete web page (or even site) in 5120 bytes or less. It was also inspired by the 55-word nanofiction challenge.

I recommend you look at Hsi before you read this essay. And look at the 5k contest winners, too. They're all pretty cool, and I hope my entry is cool too. But I want to talk about the difference, which won't make sense if you haven't seen them.

So I didn't win. I didn't even get mentioned.

I'm a bit disappointed, of course. Not just about not winning. (Nigh a thousand entries! Wow. But:)

Just about all of the winners were programs -- JavaScript or DHTML. (Notable exception: The Five-K Gallery.) Most of the entries were, that I looked at. Not many people took up the challenge of presenting interesting content in five kilobytes. Those of us that did, didn't often get attention.

(I feel a bit strange saying this. "Content" is just the newest buzzword, and what is interactive fiction but the presentation of content through the behavior of a program, instead of (in addition to) static blocks of text?)

But I find some meaningful difference, and it's related to the difference between a CRPG (Nethack, early Ultima) and an adventure game. The total amount of text an author puts into an IF work is... relevant. It's not the length of the story (a thousand informative digressions don't lengthen the story); it's not the playing time, and certainly not the quality. But it's the size of the experience, in some sense I can't otherwise evoke. Mixing up the text doesn't mean there's any more of it.

(This is the ultimate failure of choose-your-own adventure books. The reader (player) can tell that there's no more stuff in it than any other book of the same length. He may get twenty endings, but that doesn't make the experience twenty times as good.)

So with these 5K entries. A program can be interesting to play with; and making the source code small takes cleverness. But the cleverness doesn't make the result more interesting. You just say "Oh, and it's cleverly implemented, too." It's not a substitute for putting more... content... in the same space.

Whereas in static art -- prose, music, painting, sculpture -- brevity and simplicity add to the impact of the work itself. When you use fewer words to accomplish the same result, you're focussing the reader's attention, distracting him with less clutter.

Simplifying a piece of code doesn't do that -- not to the user.

Don't mistake me; I like clever code. I like many of the 5K contest entries, a whole lot. Some are aesthetically simple and effective, in addition to being programmed tightly. (the days, for example -- I admire both the visual design and the interactivity, quite aside from making it fit in 5K.)

But: the other end of the stick should be explored, too.

I'd run the contest myself, but I couldn't handle the sort of response that sylloge.com got. A challenge limited to static pages, with the only interactivity being the hypertext of plain HTML...

...but the boundaries are too blurred these days. No clear line between changing frames of JPEGs, MPEGs, and Shockwave. No meaningful distinction between the trick I used in Hsi and JavaScript. I would have to invent entirely arbitrary limits, and what fun is an arbitrary restriction?

(What good is a newborn sestina?)

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Updated May 5, 2000.

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