For the next two months, Word Life is focussing on Alt Lit. What is Alt Lit? To me, it is the Beat literature of our generation. Broadly, it is text-based works ranging from poems to videos to image macros (images with text), short stories or novels, and has been blowing up on the Internet for […]

For the next two months, Word Life is focussing on Alt Lit. What is Alt Lit? To me, it is the Beat literature of our generation.

Broadly, it is text-based works ranging from poems to videos to image macros (images with text), short stories or novels, and has been blowing up on the Internet for the past few years, bolstered by the popularity of vlogging poets like Steve Roggenbuck, a few Facebook groups and sites like Internet Poetry Tumblr, alongside US writers like Tao Lin and others. Alt Lit has gotten some mainstream coverage but not a great deal, and not much in the UK.

If you’re not intimate with the internet you might struggle with Alt Lit. What makes it our generation’s Beat Literature is that it is the literary zeitgeist of the net’s first generation natives. Alt Lit is personal and playful. It can be wide-eyed and sincere but also communicate completely loneliness. In addition, there is a refreshing flattening of forms. It doesn’t seem to matter to many Alt Lit writers what specific form work happens in. What’s most important is that it is about being alive now.

Image Macros / imagine i’m writing this article while staring right into your face

For me, the image macro is one of the most exciting things about Alt Lit. There’s a graphic design aspect to an image macro, but it is essentially a text-based form as the images and the words have to be interpreted against each other. One is the stage and the other is the actor, though these roles can swap and change.

This could be a description of an everyday meme, except that image macros don’t necessarily aim to make you laugh. Where memes are bathos, image macros can be pathos too. But with their crude MS Paint style, the aesthetic can often be so similar that the first time you see an image macro you can feel as if you’ve been left waiting for a punchline, as if someone said a private and touching story in the middle of rowdy pub lunch.

The heavy content of the text can feel mismatched against the images. In Michael Hessal-Mial’s fantastic macro series, ‘mspaint and heartbreak‘, some images are silly and nonsensical, as if from an acid trip or a fantasy novel, while the words are deeply confessional and sad.

Online, the juxtaposition between the absurd and the heartfelt is radical. On the internet our attention is competed for with explosive content and social media newsfeeds can feel like sci-fi film city streets where everything is fast and cheap. So when this content is just as evocative and strange and yet only wants to connect with you, it shifts the frame of things. It becomes intimate and sincere in an unreal world. By pulling in and referencing the circus of the digital world, it tells us something about modern communication – for me, how difficult it is.

In situ / If you rly loved me you’d give me your facebook password

In depicting a conversation between two friends, an 18th Century painter might have looked at their posture, clothing and expression. The Alt Lit artist uses text, font, collage and screenshot. And surprisingly the result can be very personal. You see what the creator sees from their own highly subjective position, experiencing as they do. As a viewer you shift from being a consumer, soaking up content, to a participant, directly experiencing life from the perspective of their computer screen.

In this way, Alt Lit, and image macros, can be subversive in all the right ways. A whole genre of image macros involves re-labelling stock images of happy people, much like the original demotivational posters, but with a more nuanced and often philosophical angle. The pieces conjure up the work of culture jamming groups like Adbusters and CrimethInc. Other image macros involve distorting screenshots of websites or photos to reveal the truth behind the pixels.

The brevity of images and the way they seem to be thrown together add to this. Image macros as we have them now aren’t necessarily right for being reproduced on giant canvasses in famous art galleries. There aren’t brush strokes for you to peer at. You can zoom into the pixels if you like but you’d spend your time better if you just made a macro yourself as a response. After all, you’re using the same technology to view the macro as was used to make it, the same technology we all use to send pic comments and emails. It’s just to see image macros in the same vein as message content rather than as fine art pieces to hang over your fireplace. As Alt Lit networks like Internet Poetry Tumblr are free, easy to access and fairly anonymous, the playing field is a level one. And as with a lot of internet-based art, there’s no distinction between audience and creators. We’re all artists now. Yay!

Next month: Alt Lit poetry.

pawel-sysiak

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Image: Paweł Sysiak

More on Alt Lit:
Internet Poetry Tumblr
Links to articles on Alt Lit by Alt Lit Gossip
‘Unlike’: Forms of Refusal in Poetry on the Internet by Sam Riviere

Hosted by Andy Cook