An App for Deciphering Ulysses

Israeli digital artist Ariel Malka’s unique interactive approach is the talk of the Internet town

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Just as the Israeli mobile app Yo, which reduces interpersonal communication to a single syllable, is reaping international success - Israeli designer and digital artist Ariel Malka has published an application that would seem to be its polar opposite: a game whose purpose is to aid in the reading of one of the 20th century’s most important and complicated novels, James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

He Liked Thick Word Soup quickly became the talk of the day on blogs and websites around the world. In the app, users navigate the first four pages of the challenging novel by untangling knots of sentences through a slow, hypnotic finger game that is an allegory of traversing the book as a whole.

“I wanted to create a very complex reading experience, obsessive and sensual, and ‘Ulysses’ seemed like the perfect text for this,” Malka says. “I created an artistic-research experiment that examines touching the text. Many people don’t succeed in reading the book itself without a guide. I let people play with the book and saw that it caught on. They enter an obsessive passage. Even if they’ve never read the entire text before, they are drawn into touching it. The reading is combined with the sense of touch, and the power of the text itself creates a sensual-sensory experience.”

He adds that the app is intended to research how we write and read in the digital age. “This is genuine interactive reading. If one overcomes the complexity of the app, one can read the first pages of the novel exactly like an e-book.”

Malka timed the app’s release to coincide with Bloomsday, the date on which the events of “Ulysses” take place, which is celebrated every year on June 16 in Dublin and by Joyce fans around the world. Since the app’s publication, it has earned many mentions in well-regarded publications around the world, by writers who were surprised by its originality.

“When you open the app, you might not understand what you are supposed to do with it,” Malka admits. “Everything looks great, but what’s the point? I don’t want to answer that, I want people to discover the point for themselves.”

Malka, a married father of two, was born in France in 1971. He says that as a boy he enjoyed drawing and reading comics, and that at 14, after getting his first personal computer, he learned programming. “Ever since getting that first computer, my main means of expression is virtual, digital,” he says. “You won’t see me at exhibitions, I don’t build installations. My medium as an artist is the visual and interactive side.”

In France he was a member of Dror Habonim, a Zionist scouting movement, and at age 18 he immigrated with his garin group to Israel. He says he was attracted to the freedom in Israel, and to the desert. He never pursued formal higher education. “I’m in between being an autodidact and a dilettante,” he says.

A still image of Ariel Malka's LUI LES HÉBREUX MOI PHARAON app. Photo by Ariel Malka

Why “Ulysses”?

“There is no other literary artifact that comes close to the cult of ‘Ulysses’ – with the exception of the Bible,” he says. “It’s not an ordinary novel, Joyce wanted the reader to devote his life to reading it, and he hid puzzles and clues within it so that scholars would argue about his intentions into eternity. He entered the minds of his characters, and traveled among their thoughts and streams of consciousness. He is constantly engaged in banality, and brings up all the uninteresting thoughts of Leopold Bloom. In France we didn’t really grow up on it, and in Israel it is possible even less, but if you are English, Irish or American it’s obvious that it’s the greatest English-language novel of the 20th century. The most innovative. You’re amazed by the text.”

Indeed, apart from “Ulysses,” most of Malka’s earlier work dealt with biblical texts.

A still image of Ariel Malka's LUI LES HÉBREUX MOI PHARAON app. Photo by Ariel Malka

In 2001 Malka began working on Chronotext, which became his life’s work. Its aim is to find new digital tools for interactive creation in the virtual space between reading, space and time. Chronotext is a collection of experimental programs, sketches and toys that he uploads each year during the months he devotes to research and creative work. Some took months of work because they were written in obsolescent programming languages. His website, chronotext.org, contains a development time line, first attempts and idea fragments alongside a record of engagement with new technologies and the abandonment of old ones.

Malka says he created Chronotext because he sought to change our attitude to text. “To invent new tools that will lead to other results in reading and writing, in using media and language, because everything affects the content. I was drawn in the direction of epistemological research, of shaping experience, of turning information into knowledge.”

Renovation halted the infinite creation

In order to earn enough money to support his family and his artistic projects, Malka works in high tech eight months of the year. “It’s been that way for 10 years now. It’s very hard, even though for the most part my high-tech work is writing code, which helps me in developing Chronotext,” he says. “Until now I gave up on the right to earn a living from my art or my research. I carried out pure research, out of curiosity and scholarship, in the areas of cognition, literature, Bible, and made surrealistic art that was the opposite of practical. That freedom typifies Chronotext: To work on projects, some of which grow while others wither. But since I devote most of the year to work, I didn’t promote Chronotext particularly. I didn’t work with a gallery or push myself, and that’s totally my own fault ... until a friend invited me to a conference in Haifa and pushed me into speaking with a representative from the Israel Museum. She asked about my art and put me in touch with Adolfo Roitman, the curator and director of the museum’s Shrine of the Book. After they liked my sketch, I put together a work with him.”

A still image of Ariel Malka's JAVASCRIPTORIUM. Photo by Ariel Malka

Malka received his first official recognition for his work Javascriptorium, which was displayed in the Shrine of the Book for two years. “It was supposed to be displayed forever, but in 2009 there were renovations and the Shrine of the Book’s information center was allocated for a different purpose, and no space remained for my work,” Malka says. “I wrote a program through which I displayed the text of Genesis 1 on a three-dimensional spiral shaped like a screw, a shape that suited the metaphor of the text. It’s an interactive, many-layered computer program that was projected onto a big wall in the dark, against the background of music composed by Marc Piera in France, for the work’s display in an exhibition in the national library there.”

Even in less than ideal conditions – on Malka’s Macbook in the middle of a crowded cheap restaurant in Ramat Aviv – the work is hypnotic and disorienting. Against desert expanses of text blows the spiral cloud pillar from Genesis, as the sounds of a horror film spill out of the cushioned headphones. In another section, viewers are sucked into a dark and infinite space of primeval text that approaches from within a rounded gate. And then another storm of infinite text spirals is borne along on this unnatural three-dimensional expanse, that in the next moment is flooded by a white light that erases the text and returns to a disturbing silence.

Shrine of the Book, Jerusalem. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi

The decision to display the work in the Shrine of the Book stemmed in part from its being the place in which the Dead Sea Scrolls – the oldest copies of the Bible found to date – are displayed. “Instead of researching the life of the Essenes, the desert cult who lived circa 200 B.C.E. and influenced Christianity, we wanted to give viewers an experience that would connect them to the lives of these people, who believed in an imminent apocalypse as a result of the defiling of the Temple. They lived under the threat of the Romans, which is why they went into the desert and created their utopia, and copied out the Bible in a scriptorium as part of their daily routine.”

Malka views his latest work as a milestone in his career. “It’s important to occasionally have such things, otherwise you are in the desert for years, and it can make you crazy. It’s easier to reach people through free cellphone apps.”

Beyond the artistic value of He Liked Thick Word Soup, Malka says the work also has an educational value. He says it can be used to transmit a text to bored students and bring them closer to literature, but he also suggests using it as a tool for mass hypnosis. “I’m waiting for a dictator or a guru to contact me,” he says jokingly.

Ilya Melnikov