Chances are that most books reviewed here at LitStack are written in the
customary way—by one person, working alone, isolated from the influence of the world. That notion of the solitary artist, created during the Renaissance and revered by 20th century Modernism, now competes with digital creations produced and disseminated to a global community, and may one day soon render the solitary art-maker a quaint, niche model. At this point in the review, solitary control junkies like myself might peer up from whatever we’ve been toiling over, squint into the hot glare of this new-fangled idea, then go back to our lonely work, certain that is the only way to make art—without another sensibility to get in the way.
Meanwhile over at hitRECord.org, a throng of inspired artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers are dipping into each other’s work, remixing, re-envisioning, re-imagining and producing crowdsourced versions for consumption both in the marketplace and the hitRECord community. This collaborative enterprise is a project of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, known as an film actor to many, Joe to his friends, and JGL online. He founded hitRECord in 2005 and has since served as director, mentor, and general cheerleader of a community that counts over 60,000 active members. Known as hitRECorders, members upload content—stories, images, photos, music, short films—to serve as creative jumping off points for other members. It’s a world where ownership matters less and ideas and collaboration is everything. But this isn’t an art for art’s sake endeavor.
hitRECord organizers regularly market the site’s projects and split the profits with contributors, distributing over $50,000 to artists last year. hitRECord also goes on the road, presenting live shows (most recently in Seattle and
San Francisco) to showcase work and record new material. HitRECord’s most recent project is The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories (Volume I). Curated by Gordon-Levitt, the pocket-size hardcover features forty-three haiku-like fictions with accompanying black and white illustrations, all created in the collaborative online hive.
The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories was first inspired, Gordon-Levitt says, by an “anonymous virtuoso” from the U.K. named wirrow, who named the Tiny Stories genre after the minute fictions he composed on beer coasters at a pub. After wirrow began posting samples on hitRECord, other members were inspired to create their own. The Tiny Stories book project was launched in 2010, and brings together sixty-seven contributors and over 8,500 contributions from the hitRECord community. As of this week, an e-book edition is available and features an addition of six tiny films.
So where does a hardback book of thumbnail fiction fit into this landscape of art in the age of digital dissemination? Well, it’s portable and well-designed, and features a handsome cover, as well as front and back endpapers printed with (tiny) images of the book’s artwork, something like a Where’s Waldo of Tiny Stories. Though right off, this collection of stories is clearly not the usual kind. There’s no table of contents, and no attribution of authors to individual stories. Instead, the back matter features an index (“Resources”) of collaborators and record numbers—online locations of creations. And this is where we find that each of the stories has a story of its own.
Take for example the Tiny Story on page 38: “The element of surprise
wasn’t/allowed near the Periodic Table.” The story is quirky and ironic,
and like many in the collection, manages both wordplay and a compressed narrative of the playful variety. Referring to the index, I learned that a hitRECorder named Bryn_Haz wrote the first version of the text: “The element of surprise cried when he realized he wasn’t allowed on the Periodic Table.” RegularJOE (that would be JGL) is the story’s second collaborator and his re-mix comprises the published version. The story’s illustration, of a sad Surprise walking away from the party, was created by rejjie, whose online record includes a footnote: “Extra kudos if you can identify the valence shell configurations,” a reference to the number of atoms spiraling around each Element’s head.
For me, the pairings of story and art are most successful when an image suggests ideas and emotions outside the text and allows imaginative room for the reader to make her own connections. A Tiny Story by wirrow reads:
“One night your walls will disappear/and all the things you held so dear/will float away inaudibly,” which is lovely, odd, and mysterious enough to have kept me thinking about what such an event might be like. The accompanying illustration is one of my favorites, a line drawing of a floating boy, reminiscent of Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince.
At the moment, the work of hitRECord is especially relevant, when the first online protests against SOPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act, are taking place. The bill, which will be voted on by lawmakers later this month, pits the freedom to share intellectual property online with what traditional media industries see as copyright infringement. As I write this, Wikipedia is blacked out for the day and over 7000 other sites have followed. If SOPA is confirmed, the content sharing that is fundamental to a site like hitRECord could be censored. How copyright issues will be defined against the inherently copyable nature of the internet is yet to be seen, but Gordon-Levitt is prescient on this point, saying recently:
[hitRECord] demonstrates what can happen . . . if people are willing to
forgo their prideful ownership of things and just work together and share
This democratic view of art-making may sound idealistic now, but creativity based on networks and sharing may soon be the standard. And when that happens, those of us working alone may indeed feel a little lonely. We may even find ourselves like that element of surprise walking away from the table—a bit left out of the party.