women-in-hypertext

In 1993, a poet named Judy Malloy became the first female artist-in-residence at Xerox PARC. As corporate think tanks go, PARC was a good place for a residency: with a vague mandate to “invent the paperless office of the future,” Xerox’s mirrored, hillside campus in Palo Alto had been responsible for some of computing’s most symbolic innovations, everything from object-oriented programming to overlapping windows on a screen. Even outside computing circles, it was known for its freewheeling approach. Ever since its founding, the most important meetings were held in corduroy bean bag chairs, low and cozy enough that nobody would be tempted to jump up and attack anyone else’s ideas.

Judy had been a librarian before she was a poet, and it was by working with library catalogues that she’d developed an affinity with the language of databases, writing poems and stories on leftover index cards from work before coding her own narrative databases (“narrabases”) from scratch. On her first visit to PARC, she gave a talk in the bean bag room, reading a story from a sheaf of 3x5 index cards taped together in accordion-like folds, an explicitly analog technique that must have made quite an impression on her audience of computer scientists. None were more impressed than Cathy Marshall, a researcher who was then building hypertext systems. “By the end of her artist’s talk,” Cathy later wrote, “I knew I wanted to strike up a collaboration.”

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L: Judy in the 1980s, collecting information for OK Research. R: Bad Information, Somar Gallery Space, San Francisco, 1987.

The two women had already met—Cathy’s office was a stop on Judy’s campus tour—but the encounter had been fraught. Judy was on her period, worrying her blood would breach the Kotex. By the time she got to Cathy’s office, the bag of frozen peas she sometimes used to deaden back pain was leaking pea juice down the furrow of her pants. She felt ghastly, haunted by an “aura of blood and pea juice,” and even worse, that day, senior Xerox brass—the “funders”—were lurking the hallways, putting everyone on edge. “Too corporate,” Cathy wrote. “Too metal and glass.” Cathy showed Judy VIKI, a spatial hypertext system she was building that allowed for soft, implicit associations between ideas. Judy commented on the system’s colors, then hurried to the next stop of her tour, dripping pea juice and blood.

After seeing Judy’s talk, however, Cathy was moved. She reexamined her own place in PARC’s research community. Judy’s vulnerability gave her a sudden frisson of imposter syndrome. She felt as though she were masquerading: as an adult, as a researcher, as a businessperson. Later that day, she glimpsed Judy deep in conversation with another researcher, looking serious enough. “We must all do this,” she thought. Not long after, Cathy put on a pair of jeans and drove out to the basement apartment in Berkeley where Judy lived with “a broken heart, an extraordinary black cat, and no car.” Here the encounter was more real. They sat together in Judy’s back garden, feeling the sun and the peering gaze of Judy’s yellow-eyed cat, Tess. They shared coffee and beer at a table with a faded oilcloth cover. Judy showed Cathy one of her card-files. Finally, conversation came easily.

Judy was a poet who wrote FORTRAN as elegantly as verse; Cathy an engineer with an English degree. Judy used databases to string together fragments of literature. At PARC, Cathy built systems to organize thought. They both had brothers. They had both lived in basements. They were both accustomed to being the only woman in the room—at PARC, at school, in the art world, and everywhere else. Sitting in white plastic chairs, they talked. And talked.

PARC’s Artist-in-Residence program was built on partnerships between artists and technologists, and PARC had already assigned Judy her collaborator, Pavel Curtis; she was to write stories for his virtual world. But the opportunity to work with another woman in the densely male environment of Xerox PARC was too promising to ignore. By the end of that afternoon in the garden, Cathy and Judy decided what they wanted to do: they would build a story together, in a frame borrowing equally from Cathy’s systems and Judy’s databases. It would be a confessional, like “one of those conversations that occur in coffeehouses or bars between people meeting for the first time,” told through interlinked documents. Using the technology of hypertext, they “would look for the links in our artist-researcher existences.”

Cathy and Judy lobbied PARC administration to officially recognize their collaboration, and when their bid was accepted they became the first two women to be paired by PARC’s Artist-in-Residence program. Several times a week, Cathy and Judy exchanged short screenfuls of text via email. The literary hypertext world has a name, “lexia,” for such chunks of text, but Cathy and Judy called them “screens.” Each was related to the last by association alone, following threads that began with their conversation in the garden: childhood, family, work, love. Receiving a screen, each would respond with whatever sparked their memory, often making the connection between a screen and the response it garnered so tangential as to earn the aura of mystery. “Cathy would mention someone,” Judy explains, “and I had no idea who that was. I didn’t respond by asking questions about who that was—that wasn’t the premise of how we were working. But sometimes I would try and tease it out… I would come up with some parallel experience and see if she would mention that person again.” This volley carried on for two years.

In the beginning, they composed screens from their offices at Xerox PARC. Sometimes Judy wrote from her Berkeley apartment, and for a while Cathy wrote from College Station, Texas. The correspondence traced the upheavals of their lives. Judy wrote from Maricopa County Hospital in Phoenix, where she was hospitalized after being thrown from her bike by an oncoming car. When she made it back out West, she wrote between waves of pain, on “a foggy summer morning and in the damp air,” with “metal rods in my leg that did not exist when this work began.” Their screens existed outside of time, which “became very fluid, malleable, during our exchanges,” wrote Cathy. “We’d flit back and forth between childhood, earlier today, and indeterminate points in between.”

After Berkeley, they met again only once: for lunch, in the PARC cafeteria. The conversation flowed so freely that they worried they’d have nothing left to say in their screens. “We were afraid that we’d get ahead of ourselves,” Cathy explains. They vowed never to meet again. It was a sacrifice for two like-minded female researches at the same company to forsake contact, but they believed in the integrity of the work. From that point on, it was just the screens. Or almost: some mornings, Judy would walk a sideways path across the PARC campus, cut through a field of horses, pass under a barbed-wire fence, and scramble down a short hill, just to pass by Cathy’s office window and wave hello.

On these walks, she’d pocket ephemera from the woods. Sprigs of grass, twigs, and horse chestnuts would find their way back to her sleek Sun SPARC workstation, a computer faster than anything a layperson—let alone a poet—could dream of in the outside world. The horse chestnuts appeared in their screens as well. Judy wrote to Cathy: “I lay them in neat rows across the top of my workstation monitor, or throw them into the tall grass in the fields where the horses are.” Cathy, from her office, responded with an anecdote from childhood, about an older girl with whom she ran off the trail to gather horse chestnuts “smooth as river stones.” When Cathy talks about her collaboration with Judy, she never says that they wrote to each other. “We wrote together for a long time,” she says. Looking back on their screens, Judy would sometimes forget who wrote which, confusing hers and Cathy’s memories. “Rereading the mystery-filled unfolding of our oddly linked lives still sometimes sends chills down my spine,” she later wrote.

This collaboration has no final form; it never ended. A version went online in 1994, and Eastgate Systems, a boutique electronic literature press, released it as a hypertext novel, Forward Anywhere, on floppy disc, in 1996. Preparing the work for publication was harder than expected. As Judy recovered from her car accident, Cathy mapped out their correspondence manually, on a paper graph connecting each screen’s relation to the rest.“This map covers five sheets of paper and grew so inexorably complex that I could not bear to continue creating the diagram,” she lamented. “Arrows snaked around the margins of the page. Lines became dotted lines, and I found screens that were part of multiple sequences.”

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Forward Anywhere by Judy Malloy and Cathy Marshall.

Cathy gave up on the map, and the pair settled on a hypertext interface design drawing elements from Judy’s earlier work. In published form, the screens appear one at a time, driven by three functions: forwardanywhere, or linesForward moves through the screens in the order they were written. “This type of navigation simulates the process, and captures the mystery,” Cathy wrote. Anywhere calls up a screen at random. Cathy observed that this revealed their interconnectedness even more; “through new juxtapositions, the Anywhere function reveals unintended connections at the merging of our voices.” The final function, Lines, is an interactive tool for building new screens based on keywords, from a database version of the text. In each new composition it generates, the lines link back to their origins, creating paths through the work neither linear nor entirely random. These functions, which Judy had been exploring in literary “narrabases” and hypertext works like Uncle Rogermy name is scibe, and l0ve0ne since as early as 1986, resulted in a highly interactive text. Of the Lines function, Cathy writes, “this function adds a third voice to the work,” meaning the reader.

The task of hypertext is not to manufacture connections, but to discover where they have always been. Hypertext researchers before the World Wide Web built systems to support this endless, sacred hunt for entanglement and hidden structure, as inherent to thought as ecosystems are to the natural world. Judy and Cathy marveled at their oddly linked lives, but we are all connected. Difference is only the unknown. For a database poet and a hypertext researcher, that much was obvious. Links are what is waiting to be found, by those with the patience to pull the threads: backwards, forwards, anywhere.

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Xerox PARC’s campus in Palo Alto.

Xerox PARC celebrated its 25th anniversary in October of 1995. For the occasion, its onetime artist-residents returned to the campus to exhibit their work. As a group, they’d produced anthropological films, laser-directed turntables, and a real-time sonic rainforest, but Judy and Cathy’s collaboration was harder to present in any tangible form. For the anniversary, they settled on the encounter itself—not in the halls of PARC, or in the bean bag room, but out in Berkeley. In the middle of PARC’s corporate lobby, flanked by the reception desk and a set of formal green couches, they installed a replica of Judy’s old backyard. The oilcloth was too new, not yet faded by the sun, and there was no yellow-eyed cat. But the white plastic chairs were right. In front of each, they placed a wireless laptop, a recent PARC innovation, the MPad. Visitors could sit where Judy and Cathy had once faced one another and page through the record of their courtship, a pocket of female intimacy in the midst of glass and steel.

The architects of PARC’s Artist-in-Residence program assumed that each artist-scientist pairing would develop to its maximum potential within a year, and hired artists to come work at PARC on annual contracts. They learned, however, that because “it takes a long time to develop a common language, the artists never really leave.” Figuratively, at least, that proved to be true. Cathy and Judy continued to write together for years, long after Judy’s contract term elapsed. Eventually the work ended and a friendship began, although neither can pinpoint when. Like the afternoon in Berkeley, they outlasted the moment.