Alan Sondheim is an artist you must follow. He tackles the frontiers of reality and through his work we can understand what is possible and what we really can do there. His magnum opus is Internet Text. He started work on the project 1994. It’s a meditation on various subjects, including philosophy, psychology, language, body, and virtuality.

Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He holds a B.A. and M.A. in English from Brown University. He lives with his partner, Azure Carter, in Providence, Rhode Island. You can read the rest here.



Volodymyr Bilyk: Can you describe – step by step – your more or less ordinary working session?
Alan Sondheim: I’ll try. I’m not sure I have an ordinary working session; I work every day, but the timing is deeply chaotic – for one thing I have bad insomnia and anxiety, and given a night’s choppy sleep, I work around periods of exhaustion. I have a neurotic compulsion to produce constantly, however, and there are periods of time which work best for me. In the afternoons and early evenings, I’ll practice music, as well as work out musical ‘situations’ for various instruments. These are almost all acoustic, with straight pegs for the stringed ones; I have to be careful with tuning and the humidity. I practice with both bowing and right-hand fingering, working with as much difficulty as I can; I also work on left-hand technique, which is critical for unfretted instruments (hasapi, viola, violin, oud, etc.). Finally, I work with wind instruments – daily with shakuhachi, including no-holes shakuhachi (which are just tubes with a shakuhachi mouthpiece), and every 2-3 days, with clarinet or alto clarinet. Embrochure is critical with all of these, and hard for me.

Every day I also write, and if I can, work with images or video in virtual worlds. I’m pursuing my philosophical interests (which I think determine everything I do), and I try to push my writing to the limit, and experiment with the ‘edgespace’ of virtual worlds as well. I use some older perl programs I wrote, as well as linux/unix scripting for my texts, often culling from all of my work – for example, I could enter a simple command like “grep -h “sphere ” texts/*.txt > zz” to find all the examples of “sphere ” in my textual work to date (about 35 megabytes ascii); the result can then be modified in any number of ways to produce a coherent work, literally a textual body, that contains the germs of a phenomenology on a particular subject, enhanced by repetition, cuts, jump-cuts, elisions, etc. If and when I put the work up, I’ll combine it with at the least one or more still images, and often video as well, so that the philosophical extends into a kind of experience that augments, bypasses, or dilutes/sidetracks, what’s produced by the words themselves.

I have a number of laptops and gaming machines here; I use Windows 10 (for the most part, also linux), and log into my linux/unix/bsd account at panix, where I work with a text-based terminal environment, for me the ‘purest’ languaging (and its restriction) of all. This frees me incredibly to write. When I’m out, I work in a small Win10 tablet or a Nook with a terminal program; I’m really comfortable with linux as a subset or window within other operating systems. When I’m out, at a coffee shop for example, I feel amazingly free to write – the difficulty of the virtual disappears and it’s almost like having a conversation at my fingertips.


When I’m home, I’ll often have soccer on in the background; I’m a Barcelona fan, but now Eibar as well, and it’s calming for me. I also watch a lot of BBC news, and, when I can get it, Al Jazeera. I drink coffee incessantly, nothing else; it keeps me going. I try to write a minimum of 43 lines a day, but with the textual culling I do, the texts can reach 100 lines or more – with the philosophical work, much longer. I feel always I have very little time to live (I was told I was going to be dead by 25), so I produce as often and intensely as I can, so as not to leave anything undone. My work is aphoristic, choppy, intense, edgy, etc. I write sexual pieces as well but have to be careful not to let myself be too aroused, or the text veers into typical territory.

I read constantly, mostly philosophy, cosmology, particle physics, Buddhist texts, and logic/mathematics, to the extent I can understand what I’m reading; many of my books are above me, and I supplement them with video lectures, etc. I want to know as much about the universe as I can, and I read in these areas daily. I also read grammars and lexicons for non-Indo-European languages, to extend my knowledge of syntax/semantics outside the usual. Being Jewish, I’ve also attempted Hebrew, and a very little Assyrian, Babylonian, etc. (On the other hand, there’s Hittite, which is fascinating); Ellen Zweig and I, years ago, did some classical Chinese translating as well. On top of these, I’m also ransacking the past, looking at various strange 18th-early 19th century books in English that resonate with digital/virtual phenomenology. All of this is just reading, of course.

Finally, I have a general tendency (being seriously depressive at times) to look horror in the face; hence, my writing stemming from thinking about absolute terror, torture, global organism extinctions, scorched earth policies, and so forth. I give talks on these, and I’m always frightened of these talks – I’m giving one in Pennsylvania, for example, as a keynote for a new new media program, and I’ve been working on it for a couple of months. I want to deal with anguish, with inconceivable despair, and what one can do in these situations; this kind of work gives me nightmares on top of the insomnia, but for me, it’s a form of politics without politics – I don’t want to deal for example with the origins or history of ISIS, but the confrontation ISIS engenders in people who are fleeing, who are about to be killed, and so forth. For me, this is where the heart of being lies, within the human sphere – and of course the human sphere itself is embedded within cosmology, particle physics etc. But the human sphere is fundamentally abject, tawdry, always already falling apart, and that’s where my work lies; that’s what I think about.

And finally, finally (far more than you need), when I’m falling asleep, I tend to try and figure out simple topological/3d-4d figures, and how they’re interrelated – not mathematically (I don’t know have the talent, knowledge, or expertise for that), but in terms of visualizations; when all else fails, I’ll get up, and try to work in the other room, so as not to wake Azure. And I have to say, Azure’s at the heart of all of this; she keeps me sane, to the extent that I may be sane, she gives me a sense of beauty and grace that otherwise is pretty much foreign to me…


VB: Can you tell me about your major project Internet Text? What is it about?
AS: This started in 1994; it’s a continuous meditation on the phenomenology of cyberspace and associated phenomena. At this point “cyberspace” as a concept would be replaced by a more general digi-sphere, which we inhabit, and which inhabits us. The Internet Text is a collection of interrepated files, produced usually at the rate of one or two a day; the entirety is at – it’s the text files, for example tt.txt which I’m working on now. The files are in more or less alphabetical order, and individually are about 70-100k ascii in length.
VB: What was its origins? What are your intensions with it?
 AS: Here is an early description:
The "Internet Text" currently constitutes around 100 files, or 10,000
printed pages. It began in early 1994, and has continued as an extended
meditation on cyberspace, expanding into 'wild theory' and literatures, 
symptomologies of the edge.

Almost all of the text is in the form of short- or long-waves. The former
are the individual sections, written in a variety of styles, at times
referencing other writers/theorists. The sections are interrelated; on
occasion emanations are used, avatars of philosophical or psychological
import. These also create and problematize narrative substructures within
the work as a whole. Such are Susan Graham, Julu, Alan, Jennifer, Azure,
and Nikuko in particular.

The long-waves are fuzzy thematics bearing on such issues as death,
sexuality, virtual embodiment, the "granularity of the real," physical
reality, computer languages, and protocols. The waves weave throughout the
text; the resulting splits and convergences owe something to
phenomenology, programming, deconstruction, linguistics, philosophy and
prehistory, as well as the domains of online worlds in relation to
everyday realities.

Overall, I'm concerned with virtual-real subjectivity and its manifesta-
tions. I continue working on a cdrom of the last eight years of my work
(Archive), as well as a series of 3d animation and other videos, some of 
which are on cdrom.

I have used MUDS, MOOS, talkers, perl, d/html, qbasic, linux, emacs, vi,
CuSeeMe, Visual Basic, etc., my work tending towards embodied writing,
texts which act and engage beyond traditional reading practices. Some of
these emerge out of performative language - soft-tech such as computer
programs which _do_ things; some emerge out of interferences with these
programs, or conversa- tions using internet applications that are
activated one way or another. And some of the work stems from
collaboration, particularly video, sound, and flash pieces.

There is no binarism in the texts, no series of definitive statements.
Virtuality is considered beyond the text- and web-scapes prevalent now.
The various issues of embodiment that will arrive with full-real VR are
already in embryonic existence, permitting the theorizing of present and
future sites, "spaces," nodes, and modalities of body/speech/community.

The texts are roughly in the order written; the last-entered at the moment
is nd. They may be read in any order, and distributed in any medium;
please credit me. I would appreciate in return any comments you may
VB: Do you have Grand Scheme of Things for it?
AS: Seriously, I don’t believe in Grand Schemes; the whole idea of the text is against that.​
VB: Do you know when and where to stop? or Is this project “forever ongoing”?
AS: It won’t be finished but  will stop when I’m dead or incapacitated.
VB: can you tell me more about your musical practice?
AS: ​Music for me is fundamentally both calming and difficult; playing at speed requires real concentration; at the same time, working with a physical instrument (almost always acoustic) results in a dialog between myself and the world that is removed from the digital. I rarely practice scales, but I do practice playing in tune; I need to work on this, on muscle memory, finding both the proper positions for the left-hand fingerings, and working out new positions. I should practice at least two hours a day, but at times it’s a lot less. The wind instruments require the most, because embrochure is difficult; with instruments such as the saz or oud, I need to work on unfamiliar scales, making them part of me.​
VB: Have you ever tried to write your own programs? do you have what is your dream gear of choice?
AS: ​I’ve written a lot of programs in simple languages such as script (linux or unix), perl (which I’m not great at), and years ago, in Basic, Qbasic, Pascal, etc. Years ago as well I worked with a TI59 calculator, which can be programmed in a kind of assembly language. At the moment, I’m working either with terminal windows in linux (which gives me great flexibility), or modifications of existing programs (for example the rewrites I did with emacs). I wish I knew more virtual world scripting directly; instead I tend to modify scripts there as well. As far as gear goes, I work with gaming laptops, which I love, mostly with Win10 now; I’ve also installed linux on a netbook and an older gaming machine. I’ve used linux for 20 years, on and off. My dream gear at this point would also include 3d goggles, 3d printers (which I’ve used before, but now have no access to), motion capture equipment (ditto), etc. Anything to extend the (inter)penetration of body and virtual/digital domains, in other words. So I’ve learned to deal with available tech; I’m dependent “on the kindness of strangers” so to speak.​
VB: What do you think about text generators?
AS: ​Very complicated question for me. I’ve worked with ones I’ve made myself – even back with some of the TI59 programs. The work I do culling text from my own texts is a form of generation as well. But for me there are limits; I’m interested in the poetics of the body and its symbolic productions – which means if there is a poem produced by a human, by direct writing (however defined), and an identical poem produced by a text generator – the latter has no inherent interest for me, since it doesn’t inhere to the body, is not part of an organic habitus. If you have a program write “Help me, I’m dying” – and a human, the response between the two would be worlds apart. I realize all the philosophical problems with this position of course, and am side-stepping them. For me, the dance (for example) I’m interested in, is that produced by the body in extremis – the body which pre/sents, stands against, the technological or even presentational apparatus; this holds as well for the work I’ve done on or with sexuality. I see this kind of work as a form of rupture of the technological, cyborg/prosthetics notwithstanding. And it has political ramifications – reacting fundamentally to the slaughter occurring in Syria​, as much as possible – not thinking through this material as digital mediation (although for us it is), but as the cutting of living meat. Again, yes, the contradictions, but on the other hand, without this perspective, we’re guilty ourselves of ethological acting-at-a-distance, not engaging with the numerous ruptures our so-called civilized world is currently undertaking.

VB: Do you use cryptography methods in your writing?
AS: ​Sometimes; I’ve worked with steganography for example and simple ciphers; I’ve also produced pieces using substitution codes that get so blighted as to be almost impenetrable. If you code many -> one, for example, you can’t reverse. Let’s say is a simple example, [A-Z,a-z] -> 3; then you might have a line like 333  333333333333  3. 333… – and this is illegible, the 3’s marking only the length of the words… but that’s fascinating on its own level, relating to the cold death of the universe…​

mur14 (1)
VB: can you offer some writing exercises?
AS: ​When I’ve done this, I’ve tried to present things from my thinking about codework, and suggest to students that they use the linux command line, to create substitutions, expansions, contradictions, etc. etc., to see what will happen. At times I’ve also suggested simple themes – for example – write the last piece you will ever write; write a piece you will write in 2050, etc. I’ve taught creative writing to very good effect, and never assigned exercises – instead I treated everyone in the class as a fully-developed write, taking their work seriously! This is important. So we’d produce magazines or booklets back then, and now I think we’d work with WordPress or Lulu or some such. But I don’t have teaching opportunities and won’t again (because of my age); all of this is stillborn.​
VB: What have you learned from trying to work constantly?
AS: ​That writing is real-time, that it deviously seems to forestall death, that it creates a vast and expanding habitus, that it’s everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, that I write for others who may or may not come to the table…​
VB: Have ever felt a burnout because of that?  Have you ever stumbled upon not knowing what to do next? 
AS: ​Actually not, no burnout; the world is far too fascinating, there is far too much evidence of that. When I find myself stuck, I might practice music or read a grammar manual on, for example, Tahitian or another Oceanic Island language, or I might just play shakuhachi or violin or guqin, etc. – worlds within worlds, always opening up!​
VB: Can you describe one of your more adventurous sessions?

AS: ​I’m not sure what you mean here. With video – I’ve shot underneath a tornado, in violent winds from Hurricane Sandy, in blizzards, etc. – these conditions fascinate me and I have to of course be careful with cameras. With audio, I’ve played in places such as the Inclined Plane Railway in Johnstown, PA (I’m still here, now, after a conference); with photography, film, and video, I’ve done a lot of shooting at the burning mountain outside Wilkes-Barre, PA, and have followed firefighters into burning buildings in Los Angeles. There are always these things… But writing or music – these should always been adventurous in themselves. Then there is sexual writing/video/photography/etc. I did off and on, almost none now – and the difficulty there can be keeping arousal under control, seeing this work as work, ​with pleasure taking a back seat.

Probably the most adventurous work, however, was done with Foofwa d’Imobilite, Maud Liardon, Azure Carter, and myself, making video and audio work in the Alps, around the area of the Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland. That was amazing.​
VB: what do you think about multimedia ways of literature? 
AS: ​It’s like asking what do you think of written novels? to me. It depends on the work. I’m not so interested in work that is dependent on big data or mapping {A} to {B} – Dow Jones stockmarket results for example to a path through a non-linear novel – because big data and mapping have, themselves (and in a way they’re the same thing) become tropes, stereotypical, taken for granted – if they’re questioned, they’re often not questioned deeply enough, for example to destroy the cohesion they seem to have on the surface or within the digital structures themselves…

VB: Can you describe how do find a new ways of expressing ideas – the process itself? Where do you start and when you know it’s time to stop? What tools do you use?

AS: ​I use any and all available tools, anything I can find; most of the videos are short because they’re instances or snapshots of productions, they’re states-of-affairs of a particular sort. And I read constantly, math, science, some philosophy, poetry/poetics, new media things as well, and these feed into what I’m doing. I look for limit cases, pushing software or comprehension to the edge of legibility; pushing virtual world behavior to the edgespace of the world so that anomalies appear. The main tools are some limited programming, various virtual worlds (including one that resides on my computer alone), musical instruments, some Supercollider programs Luke Damrosch wrote for me, and so forth.​

VB: What do you think about multiple versions of one piece of work – todat any piece of art can be represented in a various ways – as a recording, as a video, as a collage, image-macro, a description, a comment, reference and so on. Is this multiplying useful for an artist – what it can bring and where it can lead?  

AS: ​I can’t answer this; it depends on the artist. I try to move on after everything I do, but other people refine. This doesn’t really apply to me. And of course a piece of art can’t be represented, say, as a collage, and then as a comment – these are different media; only intermedia connecting these things might apply. You should ask someone else I think.​

VB: What do you think about consciously using old ways of expressions in order to constrain and reorganise yourself?

AS: ​I’m not really interested, honestly, in ‘ways of expression,’ and have no interest in constraining myself; the content of the work, its phenomenological or philosophical position, motivates me. I’m not sure what ‘reorganize myself’ might me; again, I don’t think it applies to me. I do work, musically, with issues of virtuosity, but that’s because playing as such leads me somewhere else, to new territories. That said, I’m also fascinated by instruments like guqin and hegelungs that are culturally embedded, that I have to approach with a sense of humility; I have to understand them.​

VB: What do you think about a concept “to boldly go where no one has gone before” – is it relevant in age of Internet? Is it necessary to do something new for sake of doing something new or is it important to do the right thing in the right time?

AS: ​​I hope my work is new and in some areas maybe even ground-breaking, but that’s not for me to decide – the same goes for its relevance. Every day there are new digital/electronic wonders, new discoveries in particle physics, mathematics, cosmology; of course these are relevant. You might look at Bourdieu’s Distinction here – what’s relevant depends on habitus, community, communality, etc. And the second question – Is it necessary to do something new? – for me it is; I don’t want to repeat myself or the past in general. But hardly for the “sake of doing something new” – what’s the point of that? And I don’t know what either the right thing or right time might be; I don’t think this applies to me. I do think that failure is important; it leads to new ways of thinking, to reconsideration of what one is doing.

VB: What do you think about distracting activities?I mean – things you do in order to not to do what you usually do?

AS:​ I have constant distractions, and I often work through them, usually watching La Liga football for example. A lot of time has to be down time or time for music practice, which I can do while multi-tasking; then there’s necessary time for background reading. But often I’ll do things to clear my mind, searching for fungi, birding, etc. when I have a chance.​

VB: Have you ever experienced a so-called writer’s block? By the way – isn’t it a stupid concept that exists only to provoke funny answers?

AS: ​I haven’t experienced it but it’s not a stupid concept – what makes you think that? I know people, including well-regarded theorists for example, who suffer from this, who have a great deal of difficulty expressing themselves, to the point of real despair.​

VB: Have ever experienced the need to be somebody else? I mean something completely different and devoid of any of your usual ambitions.

AS: No; I don’t like myself, but I’ve never wanted to be anyone else either.​