Where's Waldo / the Text?

Where's Waldo / the Text?

Where's Waldo / the Text? is an audio narrative created as part of my presentation, "Internet Radio and Electronic Literature: Locating the Text in the Act of Listening," at the Electronic Literature Organization Conference, Paris, France, 24-27 September 2013. The audio narrative was designed to illustrate the themes of my presentation.


ELO logo Electronic Literature Organization Conference
Juried exhibition, international
Paris, France
24-27 September 2013

Following the conference theme, Chercher le texte / Locating the text, my presentation, "Internet Radio and Electronic Literature: Locating the Text in the Act of Listening," argued that sound(s) are essential to literary experiences associated with electronic literature, as much as, perhaps even more so, than reading and writing. The text then, could be located in the act of listening. This sound narrative illustrated my argument.

Like Wally/Waldo, the time-traveling central character, always wearing a red-and-white stripped shirt, a booble hat, and spectacles, in the children's book series (and television series, comic strips, and video games) Where's Wally? (Where's Waldo? in the United States and Canada) by British illustrator Martin Handford, text can be said to be everywhere, already, at once, sometimes hidden in plain sight, but always available for those who seek out its offerings and affordances (potentials for particular actions).


I created Where's Waldo / the Text? as an audio narrative to illustrate the themes of my presentation, "Internet Radio and Electronic Literature: Locating the Text in the Act of Listening," at the Electronic Literature Organization Conference, Paris, France, 24-27 September 2013.


Object: Audio file
Format: mp3
Bit Rate: 356kbs
Duration: 6:00
Created: 2013
Creator: John F. Barber

Timeline and Content

Railroad overpass rumble
Hoboes and homeless folk gather under this overpass. Trains rumble overhead throughout the night, like the sound of fish dreaming, a beginning with great narrative possibility.

Tunnel footsteps
Any narrative begins by leading away from the familiar world and toward that which is new, different, strange, sometimes foreboding. The text, like a tunnel leading to the unknown, beckons the reader, encourages the participant, rewards the traveler.

Tunnel ambience
As noted previously, a narrative journey can be foreboding. How to represent its exact nature and essence in words? Sometimes sound is more telling, and thus becomes the text.

"Welcome to our fairy world"
A text can speak with many voices. Here is the first we hear, welcoming us. What awaits us? Will we locate the (a) text?

Fear ambience
The unknown can also be frightening. Again, how to best illustrate this feeling with words, which are so relative, vessels each comprised of all the meanings they have ever carried? Perhaps the sentiment is better conveyed acousmaticaly.

Opening line of Beowulf spoken in Middle English
At the root of any literary experience is the narrative, itself often located in the vocalizations of the oral storyteller. Inspiration for such stories may be legends, myths, or songs from a distant past when remarkable feats were undertaken by mighty, even supernatural beings. The legend of Beowulf is such a narrative, and even though spoken in a tongue unfamiliar to most, the sound of the narrator's voice maintains the narratives' vibrancy through the centuries and locates the text in its telling.

Voice(s) of the muse(s)
Inspiration for a text's narrative is often unclear, even unknown, as if the author is possessed by alien voices not her own. These voices may seem familiar, yet strange, compelling, drifting, etherial, from distant origins. If only we could find the key to break the code. Such are the voice(s) of the muse(s). Plato declared such voices, and the poet's attempt to interpret them, madness. The charge has stuck, locating some text(s) within that darkness ever since.

Despite contemporary theory discrediting the practice, a text is often a shared experience between its author(s) / reader(s) / interactor(s) / participant(s). Sometimes the experience is personal, locating the text in one's heart or mind. It is often the small(est) voice that helps us locate the text. Unbidden, unannounced, often unheeded, the voice (might we say "of the text"?) repeats itself, often overshadowed by others, "Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. . . .".

Layers of space
A text may not manifest as a complete artifact. Instead, it pulses through several, different, forms, shape shifting when confronted by cultural markers, moving in and out of the crowded field of one's attention, yet always, like Waldo, wearing distinctive attire, obvious once we learn to read the particular literary iteration, yet subtle enough to allow hiding in plain sight.

Ghost story
A text may be found in unlikely places, through serendipitous circumstances, perhaps created from artifacts that have no perceived literary function. Such texts provide an opportunity for the writer/creator/artist/audience to contemplate the original artifacts, as well as their recombination(s). Here, sound files found on discarded cassette tapes are recombined to provide a narrative about "Charlie, the ghost."

The opportunity then for locating texts is broad, deep, and rich with beauty, like space. We launch ourselves with optimism, believing that even if we miss the moon (the/a literary canon) we will land among the stars (the vast possibility of available texts).

Nhoj Rebrab
As I said, locating a text might be quite serendipitous. This one arrived in a spam email message. Read silently, it is an interesting example of generated text. The word juxtapositions are misaligned but a certain "je ne sais quoi" is apparent, especially when transformed from text to speech.

Pan Vrublevsky
Another spam email, another piece of generated text, another computer generated voice. The result: a dialog, a literary experience, a text forming in space around a shared mote of imagination.

Shan Eigner
Yet another character emerges from the spam. A conversation evolves. A new (object? artifact? planet? text?) appears, offering a sharing of perspectives.

Virginia Esquibel
The final raconteur, and coincidentally, the last spam generated text email message sent from an unknown source. The muse(s)? Madness? A ghost story from the heart, or mind? Is it best seen (read?) in the evening or morning sky, lying on its back awaiting our attention? Does it matter? We have located text and that may be all we need to know.

Tunnel footsteps
Our journey successful, text located, we return to familiar surroundings, back through the tunnel leading away from that which is new, different, strange, sometimes foreboding and toward the familiar world.

It's amazing!
A final sentiment regarding our search. It's amazing that text can be located in so many different places, and experienced so similarly (Wally's red-and-white stripped shirt; so obvious, yet such an effective camouflage), but so very differently. Rather than simply augmenting, sound (both vocal and non-vocal) can BE the (electronic) text. Acousmatic listening experiences can (re)imagine the culture(s) of sound and electronic literature as closely connected, even overlapping, providing potential for engaging and immersive electronic literary experiences that locate the text in the art of listening.


Artist Statement

The inability to visualize sound sources promotes an acousmatic listening experience focused on the act of hearing. As a result, we take interest in sounds for their own merits, refining our listening, thus becoming more aware of our listening variations and subjectivity. Where Is Waldo? was conceptualized to make these points.

  • Sound (environmental, mechanical, soundscapes, and human vocalization) provides the basis for narrative, the heart of every literary experience
  • Rather than sound(s) in electronic literature, sound(s) might be heard as electronic literature; sound(s) might form the basis for new works of electronic literature
  • Evolving considerations of web-based radio, inspired by radio (transmission) art and audio drama, may provide models for these new forms of electronic literature that are deep, rich, engaging, and immersive literary experiences that locate the text not (solely?) in the acts of reading and writing, but also in the act of listening.