Silicon Speech Shape

November 27th, 2011 — 10:22 pm

By modelling the geometric resonance of speech, visually expressive letterforms emerge.

The advantages of light emitting screens rather than reflective paper are obvious:

all the features of the letterform can modulate as sounded.

Diaphragm, trachea, larynx, tongue, palette, lips:

tubes that resonate to create resonance.

Language landscapes labyrinth lingual.

New letterforms grown from formulas.

Coral reefs, language, compilers, modular organs in bodies, brownian surfaces, broccoli, human brains.

“… virtually all complex systems, regardless of whether they are composed of molecules, neurons, or people, can be meaningfully described as networks.” (Olaf Sporns, Networks of the Brain. pg.29)

Saussure famously described the arbitrariness of the sign: a gap between sign, signified and referent.

That gap is reduced by digital typography.

Occasionally, the gap is erased by digital poetry.

Occasionally, language hits a singularity & dies.

Some celebrate. Some grieve.

Visual Language (Encyclopedia Pictura)

October 26th, 2011 — 05:18 pm

In my thesis, I state:

“I think visual language evolution is on a trajectory toward becoming a real-world object. The shape of these letterform objects might correspond to embodied structures: visual analogs of mathematics that arise from the acoustic resonance inside our bodies. It can be argued that much of proportional aesthetics (theories of golden mean symettry etc.) arises from embodiment, evolutionary activity over millennia etching patterns in physiognomy.

What I am suggesting is that innate shapes (geometry or topology in Thom’s terms) already exist for letterforms. They implicitly underlie our oral audible language, they are subconscious sculptures intuited from the shape of diaphragm, larynx, mouth, lips and tongue. They have been etched there by speaking. Some shapes are personal, some shapes are cross-cultural. Yet it is these shapes and vibrational presences that are being given birth and dimensional form within 3D animation, ads, and digital poetry.”

Computation provides us with unprecedented tools to implement such a vision. Perhaps the most fundamental agreement with my viewpoint comes from an unusual source: Encyclopedia Pictura are a trio of motion-graphic artists who have made extraordinary music videos for artists such as Bjork and clients like Spore.

Near the bottom of their website menu is a discrete link to a page devoted to visual language: a set of drawings and eventually doodles which outline their vision for an augmented reality application which utilizes morphological text that is relationally appropriate to the sound of the voice of the speakers.

In other words they propose precisely what I have advocated in my thesis and worked towards with works like Human–Mind–Machine. Except they have actually gone farther, providing one-to-one relationships between sounds and candidate shapes. Continue reading »

Genetic Initiatives

October 26th, 2011 — 11:58 am

As far as I know, there have been 4 primary interventions that involve directly writing poetry into genes.

The first was renegade bio-artist Joe Davis’ Microvenus project. He wrote an an ancient fertility glyph into an e coli in 1996 and exhibited it at Ars Electronica 2000. For this he invented his own coding structure.

The second was Eduardo Kac’s insertion of a biblical verse (“Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”) into a strand of DNA for his 1998 Genesis exhibit. In this exhibit networked viewers control a UV light which effects the rate of bacterial propogation (in other words, alters its publishing).

The third was Craig Venter who on May 20th 2010 announced that his team had created and watermarked the first self-replicating artificial organism with a codified puzzle, the names of the organism’s authors, and 3 citations, including one from James Joyce: “TO LIVE, TO ERR, TO FALL, TO TRUIMPH, TO RECREATE LIFE OUT OF LIFE”. Ominous? Perhaps. Trivial? Not at all. This shifts the definition of self-publishing.

The fourth poetic-genetic intervention, Christian Bök’s Xenotext Experiment, was proposed in 2007 and implemented in 2011; it apparently releases poetic responses (proteins encrypted in readable ways).

Each of these processes is far from creating a living language that will persist without complicated life support or function as viable technology for reading that will challenge the book or screen. Though Venter’s organism replicates; and Bök intends to splice his next verse into a very durable critter and potentially outlive humanity, there is the problem of user interface developments: how exactly do we read these texts except as interventions which challenge our conception of memory substrates?

Each project is more akin to a microbe making a tattoo on an elephant than a sustained treatise on molecular poetry. Yet these tiny revolutionary incremental splices interject imagination onto molecular substrates, intertwine the context of text with molecular biology, and anticipate a radical shift in the materiality of reading.

How does this connect to digital poetry? Rapid sequencing and subsequent manipulation of the genome emerge in parallel with computation. The genome for the first self-replicating synthetic cell was “designed in the computer”. Binary encoding processes convey the word into flesh.

A few net resources for Elit

August 9th, 2011 — 10:09 pm

EPC, Electronic Poetry Center.
ELO, Electronic Literature Organization.

ELMCIP, Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice.
NT2, laboratoire de recherches sur les arts et littératures hypermédiatiques.
OBX, typographic animation software lab initiated by Jason Lewis.

Electronic Book Review, a peer-reviewed journal of critical writing on electronic literarature.
NetArtery, group blog initiated by Jim Andrews.
NetPoetic, group blog initiated by Jason Nelson.

Third Hand Plays, group exhibit curated by Brian Kim Stefans on the SFMOMA Open Space blog, July-August 2011

What is Digital Poetry?

July 23rd, 2011 — 07:00 pm
  • a compression utility (it converts paragraphs into tiny enigmatic phrases)
  • a Memory Resource Unit (inducing long-term potentiation from the cruft and spam of experience)
  • GPU accelerated lyricism (lamentations & celebrations with some multimedia)
  • a translation algorithm (converting the cultural heritage of bards into interactive & generative formats)

Living Language

June 7th, 2011 — 11:59 pm

Richard Rorty identified philosophy as a series of turns.
Like the head of a small bird, the head of philosophy pivots around to find new concerns each generation.

In the early twentieth century, Wittgenstein’s linguistic turn precipitated a concentration on language as fundamental metaphor. In 1994, the pictorial turn (of W.T.J. Mitchell) proposed a visual generation, ocularcentric and inundated in photons. The pictorial turn is living in parallel competition (and partial completion) with many other concurrent turns: the genomic turn, the media turn, the hybrid turn, the non-linear turn, the interactive-tangible turn, the agency turn, the augmented turn and the singularity network turn.

When tavits become indiscernible from reality, where language and the pictorial meet new-media 3D-representations, there will be a re-turn toward aesthetic animism, animism without precedent: a digital animism that includes language as a proto-animal.

This will be the turn toward living language.

TAVIT: Text Audio-Visual Interactivity

May 29th, 2011 — 12:40 pm

Digital poetry is a multimedia hybrid-art-form, a subset of visual language fusing with digital technology, increasingly mediated by networks. Contemporary poems are animated interfaces; and they often utilize dynamic interactive typography superimposed over video, generative or 3D environments. A brief list of the disciplines involved: visual art, sound composition, literature, media studies, computer programming.

Multimedia-hybrid digital poetry means that the term ‘text’ is insufficient.
Future theorists will require terminology specific to the domain, I suggest:

  • TAV (text-audio-visual)
  • TAVT (a tav in a 3D territory)
  • TAVIT (an interactive tavt)

I have no illusions or expectations that these terms will achieve widespread adoption, but am certain that some terms like these will of necessity emerge to concisely and accurately convey the difference between text, tav, tavt and tavit.

Suggested use: “That was an amazing tavit!”, “The intertavituality of these works is self-evident”

This post is the first in a series that explore ideas contained in my thesis drafts.
I recently returned from presenting this material at E-Poetry 2011. (Download presentation: pdf / ppt ).
Subsequent posts will unravel more details.

Feedback is welcomed.

2009 : David Clark’s 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein

April 15th, 2011 — 05:34 pm

As a meta-monument, a monolith, to the confluence of philosophy and poetry, and an extended meditation on the convergence of thought in multimedia, David Clark’s 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein is a rapturous virtuosic sprawling labyrinth that confounds, nourishes and provokes. It is (in my view) a consummate example of hybrid interactivity, future cinema, net-art and scholarship. It is in effect a poem. Written, directed and animated by Clark with a team of collaborative assistance, 88 Constellations establishes learning as an aesthetic act, philosophy as path-based, and trivia as profound.

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Each of the 88 constellation lines is a micro film woven around ricochet facts. Parts of a possible path : Wittgenstein didn’t talk until he was 4 years old, gave away a fortune, went into exile, read pulp novels, published one thin book. Thus simple things become thick with synchronicity.

Why 88? Here’s a morsel of the voice-over: “Constellations and piano keys, two upright infinities, two fat ladies, 1, 8, 8, 9, Chaplin Hitler and Wittgenstein,  star-crossed sons of fate, born to love and born to hate, one would last to 88, ….” Chaplin, Wittgenstein, Hitler were all born around the same day in 1889. Somehow these lives become vectors that hurtle through modernist architecture into the Twin  Towers.

From 2001: A Space Odyssey to Sept. 11th 2001, science fiction pervades pop culture until the antagonism between high and low thought itself pops and there in the rubble is genuine revelation. Stockhausen refers to the twin towers’ collapse as the greatest act of art. Repetition and intentionality colliding with the sturdy architecture of our beliefs even as it constructs lies and legends. Art for ark’s sake. Form follows functionlessness.

In my view, Clark is constructing epic poems. Just as the ancient oral poets regurgitated the news of their time in convulsive memorable writhing heaps of meaning, Clark investigates coincidences until we “connect the dots”. Probing the paradox of superstition’s roots in fact, parables growing out of perturbed patterns. Each viewer becomes witness to Wittgenstein’s profound yet often incomprehensible speaking to himself. For Clark thought occurs inside and outside us in conversations with culture. King Kong’s 1976 finale on the Twin Towers sits side by side with an elliptical morsel on the Petronia Towers: “Two tall twins side by side, 88 lights, a ghost in the sky, 88 floors, 88 floors, 88 floors in Kuala Lumpur, the world’s tallest building has 88 floors, 2 Islamic stars, 8 sides a door.” The Tribute of Light created on the site of the Twin Towers is created by 88 lights; it all echoes Albert Speer’s cathedral of light for Hitler’s Nuremberg rally. Homosexuals, gypsies and jews all gassed. In Clark’s words, these lights look outside ourselves to look in, in an act of reverse astronomy. Culture becomes a catastrophe, a mutating shape we impose meanings upon.

As virtuosic as it is sinuous, in 88 Constellations enigmas sprout from collisions and connections erupt from hidden symmetries. “Infinity is the number 8 lying down”. Goddard making a film about cities and woman. To get laid; to lie; to lie down. Language too lies down, and lies and gives up at its limit which is love. As lovers discuss Wittgenstein and Derrida in a cafe, concepts become corporal and eventually confound, we become the cream in their coffee, harvesting the crushed whirling suctional effervescent force of spoons.

Wittgenstein wrote: “Our words will only express facts.” Wittgenstein also said “Nothing is hidden.” Yet here in the 88 Constellations everything through surplus seems obscure, making less sense as it makes more. Loos: “Design purged of ornamentation” in the style of the Tractatus, effortless computation.

Moving sideways through such a ripe evanescent turmoil of excess facticity, Clark repeats certain themes like fugue motifs (repetition, logic, 88, repressions, twins), weaving toward an idiosyncratic reservoir where innate ideas absorb and integrate their opposites. Similarly the sound-scape (designed by Clark) operates contrapuntally, as a generative modular entity: sparse, elegant and effective. Appropriate for an architecture of “more is less.” Closure refused; the question remains a quest: “Who is Ludwig Wittgenstein?”

And the question for us is: “What is David Clark?” A poet? Animator? Musician? Scholar? Philosopher? Culture junkie? Provocateur? Pulp mediast?

Wittgenstein loved mystery novels. I love 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein.

An Image-Essay on Image-Texts

March 31st, 2011 — 12:44 pm


The Future: Augmented Walkabouts

March 9th, 2011 — 09:19 pm

“Playable text had earlier been achieved by interactive video installation – Tom White and David Small’s Stream of Consciousness (1998) and Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv’s Text Rain (1999) – but in the Cave environment, raining, or swarming, text becomes truly volumetric.”
Rita Raley, Writing 3D. Special Issue of Iowa Review. Sept. 2006

CAVEs are expensive items and it is unlikely they will achieve market penetration. On the other hand, cell-phones are cheap and rapidly becoming ubiquitous. And if the screen-size trend (identified as far as I know by Bill Buxton) toward wall screens (big) and handhelds (small) continues, it is reasonable to assume that some (that is to say: lots of) digital writing will become mobile, geo-locative and ultimately augmented. Narratives will superimpose themselves over normative reality. There are numerous examples of geo-locative narratives done with audio (Janet Cardiff, Murmur, Teri Rueb, etc…) and the artist BLUESCREEN did a piece where fictions could only be read at specific locations, but what I want to discuss here briefly is a foreseeable form of mobile literary immersion where the reader moves freely around finding phrases that can be both seen (superimposed as if extant) and heard; literature that can be played and plays out (like Blast Theory but with augmented reality on a cellphone) as if it were real.

Augmented reality is a subset of what I call assimilation of text by image. Imagine, for instance, I place GPS-triggered text over every road sign in my neighbourhood; readers who point their cellphone cameras at these signs will see this new text, superimposed as if it were there. There is an augmented app for mobile devices that already background subtracts, compensates for light, adjusts for viewing angle (emulating perspective), and incorporates the text directly over the actual objects: Word Lens. As of this writing, Word Lens simply translates between Spanish and English; future versions and spin-offs will obviously become writing tools that enable authoring onto the city, writing onto the surface of reality. Imagine (faster processors, better cameras and)Word Lens functionality wed to Layar, an augmented reality app that allows authors to create gps-specific overlays of cities accessible through cell-phones.  It echoes the vision of billboard-poet and QR-code visionary Giselle Beiguelman, who in Issue 1 of Emerging Language Practices ( April 2010), re-expresses what she has written about before: “Mobile Tagging is a phenomenon directly related to the popularization of mobile telephony and the popularization of QR-Codes. It is a kind of writing practice for the reading to be held in transit, based on a bimedimensional bar code – QR-Code (Quick Response Code). In other words, it is nomadic writing for expanded reading”.

Not only will this expanded reading alter the accessibility of reading, it will certainly accelerate subtle shifts in perception about text, destabilizing notions of where it is, who wrote it, and how it can be shared. It seems safe to assume that it will become increasingly difficult in upcoming eras to differentiate between inscription traces that originate in matter and others that emerge from remote display processes. Writing will detach from the womb of matter even as it paradoxically becomes more location and viewer specific.

Postscript Update: Two contemporary AR practitioners of note, the poetic short-story writer and future cinema researcher Caitlin Fisher has her AR piece Requim online — I saw Requim at DAC in 2009 and was charmed by its warped nostalgia and mutant pop-up book appeal — and the other practitioner of note: poet and MIT post-doc Amaranth Borsuk whose Between Page and Screen AR work (also online) exhibited at 2010 ELO conference was both technically superb and evocative.

2012: Against Against

February 18th, 2011 — 09:25 pm

Lev Manovich inverts the conventional way of looking at how photography forced a change on painting: “Thus, rather than thinking of modern art as a liberation (from representation and documentation), we can see it as a kind of psychosis – an intense, often torturous examination of the contents of its psyche, the memories of its glamorous past lives, and the very possibilities of speaking. At first this psychosis produced brilliant insights and inspired visions but eventually, as the mental illness progressed, it degenerated into endless repetitions. ” (pg 282. 2008 draft of Software Takes Command)

A parallel observation also holds true for contemporary poetry. With the rise of the printing press, it lost its base as the deliverer of news. As novels and stories and journalism arrived direct, poetry sought new terrain in which to establish continued relevance. In the same way that painting turned to the subject of painting, poetry turned to the subject of its substrate: language. Contemporary poems are about language. This truism is stated often: poetry is about language..

Character, story, and observations of nature are already comprehensively covered by many other media. The poetic avant garde along with philosophy is now in the business of investigating the tropes and turns of language: it investigates how things are said; and it investigates these issues sonically, culturally and procedurally with an eye to destabilize how we receive what is said. Unfortunately, where this focus, at the birth of several movements such as Dada or LANGUAGE, led to superlative works which activated levels of unprecedented discourse; now, perhaps there is the sense (I have it) that poetry has reached a strange impasse.

Burroughs and Gysin spawned a revolution. OULIPO cemented its cerebral appeal. In response to the commodification of creativity and the stable narrative voice (i.e. the repressed voice), poetry adopted a cut and paste collage methodology of hallucinatory deflections. Subsequently, appropriation became a key methodology of the conceptual elite. I agree with Kenneth Goldsmith only partially when he says (in the intro to Against Expression a new ubuweb anthology of conceptual lit) : “With the rise of the Web, writing has met its photography. By that, I mean that writing has encountered a situation similar to that of painting upon the invention of photography, a technology so much better at doing  what the art form had been trying to do that, to survive, the field had to alter its course radically. If photography was striving for sharp focus, painting was forced to go soft, hence impressionism. Faced with an unprecedented amount of available digital text, writing needs to redefine itself to adapt to the new environment of textual abundance.” (pg. xvii, Against Expression.)

As I said, I partially agree, here’s why: The printing press and typewriter were already poetry’s photography. The web is yet another animal entirely.

Isn’t the dilemma now that we are all inundated in a massive onslaught of word spew every day? Do we need to construct more of it?  Is the only space left for poetry a narrow ledge of irony, and a ctrl+c ctrl+v heartbeat? Conceptual approaches of writing will continue on their own path, finding solutions to their own lines of inquiry.

In the next few posts, I will be exploring other paths, challenges and difficult potentialities digital literature has before it. These are basic changes occurring in the operating system of how we write at the root level. Specifically, the development of a living language, assimilated into motion graphics and code embodied. Word as spime. What I will be proposing here is very specific to those so inclined to this approach. To paraphrase Sol LeWitt: “I do not advocate a digital form of poetry for all poets. I have found that it has worked well for me while other ways have not. It is one way of making poetry; other ways suit other poets. Nor do I think all digital poetry merits the viewers attention. Digital poetry is only good when both programming and poetry are good”

2000 – ? : Dreaming Methods

February 13th, 2011 — 09:12 pm

Like the tentacles or root system of a macabre plant, Dreaming Methods (a website developed by programmer-poet Andy Campbell often with primary collaborator/partner videographer Judi Alston) distributes audacious and sensual digital fiction thru multiple media: browsers, apps and pdfs. Its vision is disturbing yet never horrific: conspiracy theories, incest, suicides, rape, dreams, runaways, amnesiacs. Brooding soundscapes. Destabilizing (often impeccable) interactivity. Dreaming Methods provokes a gliding psychotic trance.

Info dribbles thru the stale air of decaying flats, the polluted breezes of derelict rail-lands, infected with casual malice, ripe with stories. Each work sutures vignettes of eerie tranquility with implied violence, trauma scenes. Its like being paralyzed and a bit stoned. There is always a story about someone who might have`done something, but no one is ever seen. No faces appear. Time shatters into melancholic shards. Psychosis is just off-screen.

Words seep out of furniture. Their meanings as fragmentary and ephemeral as dust. Chapter readings often require fulfillment of goals. Readers become players as they are played (sustained and engaged, drawn in and drawn upon). Scale shifts frequently: rooms zoom into details. The edge of a decaying mattress. An old calculator. Text is swimming everywhere. Memories saturate space, as if molecules were tongues. The system is permeated with stories all the way down. Yet even proximity cannot resolve the palpable abiding sense of alienation.

Dreaming Methods is a creepy excursion into the hypnagogic trenches: part waking, part wonder, part abyss. It is also an exercise in sustained stylistic grace and a profound engagement with digital literature. Over a decades`work, Andy Campbell has succeeded in developing a signature that combines sophisticated coding, narrative torque and aesthetic fastidiousness. It has a bit of the glitch of during their donnie darko days before they got totally branded. On Dreaming Methods, the work aims not to sell or to shock but to shelter in homage, lost memories, latent dreams, bits and bandwidth, esoteric audio-visuals and intricate code. Swaying between being lost and feeling loss, it iterates (and exits) loops both computationally and emotionally.

1926 Marcel Duchamp – Anemic Cinema

February 5th, 2011 — 02:28 pm

The spinning wheel[1] is fundamental to both hard-drives and to Marcel Duchamp’s 1926 film Anemic Cinema, an early example of animated text. In Anemic Cinema[2] phrases painted in spirals onto a flat disk  rotate at constant speed. The reader reads inward from the edge to the phrase’s end near the spinning centre. This process evokes algorithmic alchemists with circular charts and simultaneously anticipates the mobility and motility of digitally animated text pulled along curved paths and extruded on MTV. In Duchamp’s film the eye slips in or out along a serpentine labyrinth. Vinyl LP grooves existent in phonograph recordings (viewed when drunk) may have been the inspiration. Certainly the vortices of Hitchcock emulators and Brio Gysin’s Dream Machine are descendants. Reader flexibility is necessary: the poetic line is not flat, it is curved and on the move. Semantic impact emerges in spasms as legibility unravels like a snake.

Anemic Cinema is an engine that derives visual energy from mechanical rotation. This echoes the origin of malleable language: the clay potter’s wheel spinning so that fingers dragged from the centre to the edge form patterns. In Anemic Cinema, patterns function as visual punctuation between each of the text segments. They also provide time for the text’s complex puns and aphorisms to be digested.

The over-exposure strobes of the early film-stock date it to contemporary eyes as an antiquarian project; yet, this is a project that for its era must have required the use of technically advanced equipment combined with idiosyncratic vision. In this sense, it is close in practice to digital poets who extend software and work with new media: it leverages the edge of tech. Anemic Cinema places Duchamp[3] at the origin of animated text and visual poetry in high art and forms a useful link between ancient clay glyphs, potter’s wheels and petroglyphs, and current motion graphics and spinning digital media: disk drive, laser disk, CD-ROM, DVD.

[1] The spinning wheel is a motif that travels through technology in ways that connect to the activity of reading: from potter’s wheel, alchemists charts, phonographs, vinyl LPs, disk drives, cd-roms and dvds. Reading migrates from finger to ear to eye to laser.

[2] The title Anemic Cinema foreshadows a central credibility dilemma for visual animated poems. Seemingly lacking in the enriched healthy visual stimulus of imagery, visual poems are the anemic stunted cousins of real poems and real cinema.. Duchamp’s sardonic title diagnosed this credibility gap early.

[3] The work is signed by a pseudonym of Duchamp: Rrose Selavy

2008: Karsten Schmidt: programmable typography

December 22nd, 2010 — 04:12 pm

Post-Spectacular studio, directed by Karsten Schmidt, in 2008 developed a dimensional typography Type & Form experiment that explores boundaries between animation, code, concrete poetry and sculpture. By synthesizing formal elements with technical skill, Schmidt establishes a benchmark for digital typography.

The Type & Form font was grown generatively using a reaction-diffusion model. Pixels migrate into and populate rough letterform masks (islands that have sprouted in the diffusion fluid). 2D slices of pixels adhering to the substrate boundaries of this algorithmic process combine to form a 3D volume. The methodology borrows techniques from MRI data scanning. The final result is output from a 3D printer. This process is like an incunabula[3] of the digital age.

But is that all it is? Is it only typography? If so, then why consider it in the context of digital poetry? As noted elsewhere, Gomringer prophetically worried that concrete poetry might someday degrade into “…an empty entertainment for the typographer”[1]. Type & Form might seem at first glance to be vulnerable to such a critique. Lacking in direct references to either human experience or organic nature, it can be interpreted as a superficial design exercise. Superfluous technology applied without concern for deeper resonance. Yet, an alternative interpretation is equally valid.

Type & Form is a computational and poetic use of materials that explores language as mediated entity. It is a static fossil for now, but future descendants will be kinetic. Borrowing algorithms of fluid diffusion that mimic the flow of blood or estuaries to develop its form (mathematics as meaning generation), superimposing complex layers (ambiguity and/or the classic striated onion of literary studies), extruding data into brittle stone (inverse Frankenstein algorithms where process petrifies), Type & Form contains within its developmental process all the crucial vectors of a digital (and literary) post-post-modernity. Linear flat paper poems become architectural nodes; concrete poetry gets an extrusion upgrade.

Karsten Schmidt of Post-Spectacular Studio. Type & Form cover sculpture for Print magazine (2008)

Obviously, this project entailed a firm grasp of code and computational process. In an interview at OFF 2009, Karsten outlined his view on the divide between artists and technicians: “…you have all those creatives who don’t do any technical stuff, which I think is the totally wrong approach, because how can you do creative stuff in the field without the technical expertise or the craft skills?”[2]. His view has resonance for digital poet-artists (who faced by the inexorable learning curve mountain range) outsource their tech tasks. A continuity argument: medieval scribes typically knew how to use inscription tools, concrete poets coveted typewriters, digital poets develop intimate proximal relations with digital tools.

Letterform newborn. Semantic sensuality.

[1] Solt, Mary Ellen. 1969. Concrete Poetry; a World View. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
[2] Quotation from vimeo video posted on blog at
[3] Incunabula is a fancy word, it sounds like the bile of a tree frog, or the foam that erupts from the mouth of hardrives, but instead refers to the first books created with the printing press in Europe (before 1501).

2000: Ben Fry’s Tendril

December 16th, 2010 — 04:36 pm

In the domain of dimensional typography with implications for digital poetry, there are some prescient pioneers. Ben Fry’s (2000) alternative web browser called Tendril sets precedents aesthetically and technically. In Fry’s words: “tendril is a web browser that constructs typographic sculptures from the text content of web pages. the first page of a site is rendered as a column of text. links in the text are colored, and when clicked, the text for the linked page grows from the location of the link.” ( )

As Tendril’s text dynamically grows it is woven into bulbous 3D threads that evolve over time into spinning bloated rhizomatic tubers. The surface of these structures is visually composed of text. These are now visual objects, hybrids or chimeras: data-mining refuse (conceptual probes into knowledge and reading), modulated geometric primitives (abstract visual art), and animated organisms (information visualization of biological memes). Tendril is a quasi organism and a hybrid cultural entity, it feeds on text, digesting it into rhizomatic skin. Tendril automates appropriation; it is like Flarf exponential:  reconfiguring what it retrieves into a format that is readable as tumescent infinities.

Obviously, legibility is not the key pleasure involved in most typographic sculptures. These redolent forms, undulant in black space, swollen with language, are unreadable. The reading machine process programmed by Fry operates unseen behind the screen, engorging itself on text that stretch into curves that ripple as they excrete networks. This is sculptural animation that occurs in an on-screen ecosystem. And since it is no longer visible live it is also a fossilized excretion (the residue of Tendril is a few movies and jpgs and probably a snarl of code rendered inoperative by shifts in network protocols). So what the documentation provides is evidence (but not the actuality) of the passage of an incipient text-eating network-organism, a progenitor of creatures that will roam the net eating words and shitting pulsating rhizomes.

For me, Tendril is a canonical example of time-based language-driven digital art that simultaneously satisfies aesthetic and conceptual criteria. Naïve viewing derives satisfaction from the organic suppleness of its form unravelling from nothingness; informed viewers derive additional stimuli by contemplating the interaction of networks at an abstract level.

What’s also interesting about Fry’s Tendril is how amenable it is to both cinematic and computational critiques. The archetypal story of cinema is the chase scene (hunt or seduction); Tendril’s morphology can be read as extruded paths, spaces of latent intent, topologies where words seek each other. Or perhaps these tubes are the tunnels of words through which we seek each other. Perhaps these are the vibrant paths of preening literary culture, the excess verbiage of reporters, the infinite roots of a forest of bloggers.

Let’s push the metaphor into embodiment a bit: curvaceous and plush Tendril evokes language’s guts, the throats of oral storytellers, and the fallopian tubes of Orphic oracles. In the trembling of its languaged surfaces, it is possible to read culture as a single tongue. At the same time as it seems to invite metaphoric transplants and poetic close-readings, Tendril denies this possibility; its river of words pass by in fragments of texture-mapped polygons rotating away from the eye like whales breaching in oil. Any oscillatory rivalry between legibility and pictorial subsides quickly into pure pectoral awe: watching Tendril flex its form takes precedence. Aesthetic instinct trumps contemplative text.

Thus Tendril stripped of its semantics remains capable of conveying thoughts viscerally, it speaks to the articulate muscles in us. It is the writhing hollow intestines of poetry itself.

Language: what is it?

November 29th, 2010 — 05:11 pm

Language: what is it? What is this thing we use all the time, that you are reading now, that De Saussure calls a “concrete natural object in the brain”? Is it Burrough’s infamous virus? Possibly. But that’s a way of seeing it that requires a little psychotic torque. Or, is  language (take a deep breath here) an inanimate functional formal system of amodal symbols generated by recursive grammatical transformation rules occurring within a human cognitive architecture[1]? Perhaps. But even though there’s clear explanatory power in linguistic or logical descriptions, structural definitions rarely touch or attempt to explain ambiguous intimate meanings: language’s emotional capacity. Language evades easy reification; all definitions are contingent, no size fits all.

Poetry gets us into even more trouble. Ambiguity occurs when we try to locate it: where is poetry? Is it in the mind? Body? Culture? Language? Meter? Is it a universal feature? Culturally-specific? What does it include? Song? Visual art? Dance? New media? Ads? Websites? Film credits? Off-balance, most sane critics have decided to defend some niche; poets (self-reflexively, effectively and perhaps wisely) invoke poetry itself:

“Poetry’s bones are the bones of dance: not movements and pauses as such, but meaningful units of movement and pause, which is to say images and events.” (Bringhurst: 27) The way Bringhurst sees language transform through rhythm into images and events is crucial to accept as tenable before proceeding toward a theory of visual poetics.

In The Neuroscience of Language: On Brain Circuits of Words and Serial Order, Friedemann Pulvermuller considers “language in the language of neurons” (1), and proposes that “Distributed functionally coupled neuronal assemblies, functional webs, … represent meaningful language units. These distributed but functionally coupled neuronal units are proposed to exhibit different topographies” (50).  To explain meaning, Pulvermuller introduces a metaphor: in the presence of meaningful words, neural webs ignite and reverberate: “Ignition is a brief event, whereas reverberation is a continuous process lasting several seconds or longer” (Pulvermuller: 169). This metaphor of fired ignition and structural reverberation resonates with poetry[2]. Brain becomes fuel for passion again: a musical  instrument, and it is language which is the spark, flame and burning reverberating sound.

With the beat of meter, poems strike neurons into songs, and these songs sing language into being: biochemical topologies, undulating in a wind of transduced signals. Neurology is not incompatible with poetry; the disciplines agree on the transformation of language into topographies, words migrating into the palpable form of affect[3].

[1] See Boden’s  (2006 : 590) Chapter 9 ‘Transforming Linguistics’ on Shannon, Humboldt, Chomsky, Harris, etc. etc. etc….

[2] Ignite resonates in spite of its having been subsumed in behaviorist discourse.

[3] A visual epistemology is difficult to envision because of the ambiguity of images in comparison to numbers (Jim Andrews reminded me of this structural fact in a recent email). But in the digital era, when images are translated into data (formally rigorous mathematical notation), implausible disciplines like this may emerge. By analyzing masses of images in conjunction with responses (from crude meters like time watched, to sophisticated metrics like BMI), the topography of  affect experienced while seeing images will itself become an image of a global aesthetic appetite landscape. Information visualization is the landscape painting of the next century.


Boden, Margaret A. 2006. Mind As Machine: A History of Cognitive Science. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Bringhurst, Robert. 2007. Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking. Gaspereau Press.

Pulvermuller, Friedemann. 2002. The Neuroscience of Language: On Brain Circuits of Wordsand Serial Order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Engberg: “Born Digital: Writing Poetry in the Age of New Media”

March 27th, 2010 — 04:01 pm

This (rambling overview) post examines Maria Engberg’s (2007) doctoral thesis: “Born Digital: Writing Poetry in the Age of New Media”  for several reasons: first, I found her name referred to on the ELMCIP “Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice” website (and since she is one of a handful of principal investigators on a grant that just got a million euros for a 3 year study on digital literature,  I got curious about folks listed as collaborators and googled them); second, I found her university website and wrote to her requesting a copy of her thesis which she kindly forwarded; and third, because the thesis (as I read it or am reading it) represents a thorough insightful overview of a majority of the contemporary digital poetry theorists and in-depth readings of some key works from the 1996-2004 era. (I also watched a video presentation synopsis by Maria); and fourthly (and perhaps irreverently and irrelevantly) I haven’t posted here in a while and this competent thesis on digital poetics formed a necessary provocation to review and compare my own thought against someone who has traversed the path before me.

The thesis begins with clarity (a clarion call):

“The present dissertation studies digital poetry, a literary practice that so far has been given scant attention in literary scholarship. I seek to articulate an analytic method grounded in close readings of selected poems as materially instantiated and experienced by a reader….digital practices and poems are at the forefront of a cultural moment which will have a great impact on how literature is created and studied.” (p. 1)

The claim of “a cultural moment which will have a great impact” may seem obvious to those of us working within digital gravity (where the capabilities and potentialities of digital media are swiftly emerging), but it remains contentious to some members of the traditional literary establishment which continues to consider the book and word in static printed form as the only medium for literary values. From the perspective of a digital poetry practice, traditional literature poised precariously (like a vertical airplane balanced on the head of a nano-pin)  is on the edge of an osmotic transformation: a metamorphic process that involves accepting time-based (film, video and special fx) kinetic media as capable bearers of literary meaning. Inclusivity of these media as augmentations into literature will not as some traditional critics argue weaken literature’s strengths but surely will enhance them, allowing new arborescent capacities and forms to sprout from infertile interstitial inter-medial plots of language.     Continue reading »

Karl Kempton’s ‘Kaldron’ & Katue’s ‘Plastic Poetry

January 15th, 2009 — 07:21 pm

The notion of the lived poem (that transfuses through the bones, hops the brain-blood barrier and instigates a transcendent or visceral contact with an alternative way of being) is an ancient one. It’s practitioners tend to be committed to the poem as autonomous, free to escape the rigid confines of discourse or the narrow cage of pure discipline. Karl Kempton exemplifies that form of mind. Kempton published Kaldron on paper from 1976-1990 (in 1997 it moved online:  here). It is (according to its masthead): “North America’s Longest Running Visual Poetry Magazine”. As such it is significant archive of experimentation with fusions of word and image, mail-art, concrete and other sundry items of literary marginalia.

As Kempton describes in an extensive essay (hosted on Dan Waber’s LogoLalia site ) VISUAL POETRY: A Brief History of Ancestral Roots and Modern Traditions

“A visual poem may be defined simply as a poem composed or designed to be consciously seen. The modern visual poem is generally composed with disassembled language material. This stuff of language includes word, text, note, code, petroglyph, letter, phonic character, type, cipher, symbol, pictograph, sentence, number, hieroglyph, rhythm, iconograph, grammar, cluster, stroke, ideogram, density, pattern, diagram, logogram, accent, line, color, measure, etc. Today’s minimalist visual poet, or the post World War Two term, concrete poet, generally composes with fissioned language material to create new and free particles, and/or sonic patterns, clusters, densities, and/or textures. The visual poet composes with these freed particles and generally weds or fuses them to one or more art forms. By doing so, by crossing art form boundaries, the visual poet composes in a field of multimedia or borderblur or intermedia.

The multimedia or intermedia blur between borders is continued (perhaps compounded) in digital poetry, the ephemeral trace of ink or paint is replaced by unsituated knots of bits of data that exert momentary transitions on integrated circuits. Touch is abstracted thru keyboards. The blur gets even deeper when one considers the impulses of mysticism, sexuality, emotion, dreams and hallucinations that must co-exist (in a digital poem that aspires to profoundity) with Bauhausian design principles which emphasize clarity, functionality and efficiency. This is the bipolar state that must be navigated if the full richness of digital poetry is to emerge.

Kempton refers to this divide (in his terms, at his time) as being a split between the Orphic and Concrete movements, between the rune (meditation) and poem (mental states).  “The polarity remains with us today between the head and heart, the materialist and the mystic” (p.4). The Orphic movement was founded by Apollinaire, it’s focus was on raw transcendence, passion, the pure instant; in Kempton’s words, it was  “dedicated to a purity of lyrical abstraction” (p.16). The Concrete movement focalized around formalized theorems and structural ideas of what constituted a real concrete poem; their concerns were in protecting a didactic lineage.

In Kempton’s extraordinarily rich essay (which has all the qualities of an ode or epic threnody), he depicts a lineage of Orphic poets (who were also visual poets) exiled from the canon of Concrete poetry anthologies: among them  indigenous artists (petroglyphs…), Kenneth Patchen and  Paul Reps.

Personally, I have been astounded that Patchen’s work is not at the core of every major literary university curriculum. His works introduce formal innovations in poetic-prose (visual poems, words crossing multiple pages) combined with a primordial ethical fury. His neglect can only be a symptom of how reluctant society is to embrace a visionary whose diagnosis of contemporary malaise was so utterly scathing.

“What I have come to call the Orphic lineage in visual poetry endured after Cummings and Patchen. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the line continued in the works of David Cole, Doris Cross, Kathy Ernst, William Fox, d.a. levy, Joel Lipman, Marilyn Rosenberg, Karl Young and others in America and bpNichol and others in Canada. Tom Phillips in England” (Kempton. p.28)

In a 2007 essay on the opening page of Kaldron by Karl Young (himself an accomplished visual poet who has created physical book-poem-sculptural works and is –I think– Kaldron‘s co-editor) Introduction to Oceans Beyond Monotonous Space: Selected Poems of Kitasono Katue, Young describes how a resistance or backlash against the Concrete poetry movement created a situation where mail-art was the one of the few venues for exchange or exhibition of visual poetry for decades. Young suggests that by “the mid 1980s, visual poetry was at its nadir in the U.S. in terms of exclusion from publication.” These historical contexts frame a description of Kitasono Katue’s practise of Plastic Poetry.

“In his initial statement on Plastic Poetry, Kitasono said that it was time for poets to put down their pens and brushes and make the leap to photography as a means of writing. … Kitasono literally sculpted his poems before photographing them.”

For Young, mail-art and Kitasono Katue are precursors to today’s visual culture on distributed networks. For myself, Katue’s hybrid osmosis from poetry into sculpture and photography anticipates (by 30 odd years) my own similar migrations (away from the pure word-on-page paradigm) into photography, video, programming and crude 3D sculptural typography. Katue’s lively manifesto-tone and simple-yet-clear imagery reverberates and resonates for contemporary digital practice in visual-poetry:

Kitasono Katue (1966): “I will create poetry through the viewfinder of my camera, out of pieces of paper scraps, boards, glasses, etc. This is the birth of new poetry.”

As the tools change, artistic motivation remains consistent: to develop traces and representations of inner states that communicate and expand the domain of human awareness. So, to paraphrase Katue, “I will create poetry through the GPU of my computer, out of morsels of dust, 3D models, stray events collected on video, etc. This is the birth of new poetry.

With every technology there is the birth of a new poetry. Each machine is a new baby.

Peter Cho: digital typoTypo(design-po)graphy

January 15th, 2009 — 12:30 am

Contemporaneously with J. Abbot Miller’s Dimensional Typography, Peter Cho (an award-winning designer who later received a fine arts master from UCLA and a masters of science from MIT) was beginning to release typographic experiments that stretched conceptions of type as a carrier for meaning; the boundaries were stretched digitally with a zen-like precision using programming and rendering. His concerns place him at the membrane between an artist, a poet and a designer, but his consistent focus has been fonts, glyphs and the squirming squiggles of the semantic word. In 1998: Peter Cho developed Forefont type.

“These letterforms stemmed from dissatisfaction with flat, texture-mapped type that disappears when rotated in a virtual three-dimensional environment. Forefont type pushes up against a grid and retains its “bumpy” profile when tilted towards the viewer.”

In the same year Cho developed, a storm swarm 3D algorithmic text, Nutexts

“Nutexts is a series of experiments exploring three-dimensional space through typography. In each experiment, the text of a short or medium-length written work is laid out in a virtual three-dimensional environment according to a set of simple metrics or rules.”

Cho’s 2008 work Wordscapes continues the process of exploring dynamic force and participatory 3D typography. Interactive thoughtful and brief, one word for each letter of the alphabet is mapped to a set of mouse-sensitivities. The interactivity amplifies the semantics; it is animation in the classic sense. This is Warner Brother’s not Dostoyevsky; behaviors do not change over time, but each in its succinctness satisfies and nourishes expectation. Delivering a wry synaesthetic insight with elegance and brevity. Genuinely a coherent step toward an animate alphabet.

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Cho’s work that reaches the deepest (for me) is Takeluma a speech-sensitive installation completed in 2005. Takeluma reminds me of Kurt Schwitters if he had been exposed to shape-memory alloy. It is in essence a project that directly explores synaesthesia and develops a speculative language around form.

“Takeluma is an invented writing system for representing speech sounds and the visceral responses they can evoke. Takeluma explores the complex relationships between speech, meaning, and writing. While modern linguistics suggests that the relationship between signifier and signified has no discernible pattern, poets and marketing experts alike know that the sounds of words can evoke images which elicit an emotional impact. The project explores the ways that speech sounds can give rise to a kinesthetic response. The Takeluma project comprises several animated and print works and a reactive installation.”

By loosening language from the strait-jacket of definition, Takeluma explores a tentative hybrid between linguistics, abstract art and sound poetry which succeeds formally, intellectually and physically.

1996: Dimensional Typographic Poetry

January 9th, 2009 — 02:50 pm

 “Dimensional Typography: Case Studies on The Shape of Letters” is a great title I would have loved to have thought of it; it’s also a great book written and conceived by J. Abbott Miller in 1996. I am endebted to the ever-resourceful Jason Lewis for loaning it to me from his library.

“Dimensional Typography: Case Studies on The Shape of Letters” is a classic: succinct, beautiful and revelatory. The opening essay is only 8 pages (online) but manages to cohesively develop a taxonomy of dimensional type. The remainder of the book is devoted to Case Studies: pictures of experimental 3D fonts with concise descriptive blurbs.

Abbot’s definition of dimensional typography invites me (as a digital poet) to offer a definition of dimensional poetry as an extension of dimensional typography. The extension may seem a bit lame and predictable at first glance but bear with me, building from Abbott’s foundation toward poetry offers a complete perspective on the role or relation of digital poet to tradition and media. If typography is the physical substrate (the body or ecosystem) of literature, then poetry is interpretable as the phenomenological essence or process of literature, a way of getting at the raw truth in awareness. So dimensional poetry can be understood as the exploration of dimensional typography’s EMOTIVE AND SEMANTIC PRESENCE. Typography, in this schema, is a subset of the poetry. In other words, typography is an element of the physical context; while poetry expands beyond pure context to include content.

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Petroglyphs, Concrete Poetry and Graffiti

November 18th, 2008 — 03:45 pm

The term graffiti referred to the inscriptions, figure drawings, etc., found on the walls of ancient sepulchers or ruins, as in the Catacombs of Rome or at Pompeii. Usage of the word has evolved to include any graphics applied to surfaces in a manner that constitutes vandalism.
The only known source of the Safaitic language, a form of proto-Arabic, is from graffiti: inscriptions scratched on to the surface of rocks and boulders in the predominantly basalt desert of southern Syria…

Historical art pedigrees are as convoluted as evolutionary genetic change. The links between petroglyphs, concrete poetry and graffiti and digital poetry may be tenuous, but just because the web of associations is delicate does not mean it should not be explored. From its roots in the organic knot of human preoccupations, the visual blending of text and image with graphical trace has taken diverse roads to satisfaction. Cave walls and corporate billboards share a similar appeal, their absence provokes anarchist aesthetic sensibilities to scorch the emptiness with contorted logos.

Concrete poetry has many tentacles, arising simultaneously in multiple countries, one of its more forcible threads emerged in Brazil. In 1951, Augusto de Campos launched a literary review “Noigandres” which incited a concrete poetry revival in Brazil. Forty-six years later in 1997, de Campos began creating animated gifs and Flash-based versions of his poems.

His poetry traveled from painstaking manual playing with typography to animated digital works. Scratching on page to scratching on screen. From sharpened stick, to crushed pigments, to printer ink, the concern remains consistent: migrating the preoccupations of mind across the membrane from its interior onto an exterior skin. Leaving a trace that evokes a language shape.

Contemporary aerosol graffiti has its origins in the late 1960s as bombing and tags proliferated across North America. Tangents and floods of typographic mutations and hiphop converged to provoke a radical shift in the possibilities of text as image. In many respects, graffiti outpaced the innovations of concrete poetry: unconstrained by pages, impassioned by their position outside the laws, graffiti artists radically redefined the terrain of typography.

Contemporary assimilation of graffiti and concrete poetry into motion graphics –ironically immersed in consumerist advertisements–, was the next burp of typography. Computers enabled a generation to convert the sensuous curves of cave-urban petrographics into motion graphics. Graffiti was animated in the service of selling new shoes to kids ingesting hiphop mythologies of style. (see ) The revolutionary protest of taggers riding the high of street chemicals was replaced by creative committees plundering the creativity seen on trains.

Golan Levin

November 11th, 2008 — 03:09 pm

Since the physical language workshop at MIT, Golan Levin has been at the forefront of programmatic explorations of typographic space. Interspersed with his purely visual explorations he sporadically returns to typographic explorations that usually involve text generated and manipulated in realtime.

In Ursonography (2005: Jaap Blonk and Golan Levin) Levin built “a new audiovisual interpretation of Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate, ….  [with] an elegant new form of expressive, real-time, “intelligent subtitles.” With the help of computer-based speech recognition and score-following technologies, projected subtitles are tightly locked to the timing and timbre of Blonk’s voice, and brought forth with a variety of dynamic typographic transformations that reveal new dimensions of the poem’s structure.”

Schwitters screaming at the top of his lungs probably imagined his gutteral morphemes spattered against clouds, strewn across buildings, diving through screens. Levin’s Ursonate reaches toward those hallucinations.

In The Dumpster (2006: Golan Levin, Kamal Nigam and Jonathan Feinberg) blog posts are dynamically searched and the ones that refer to romantic breakups are injected into a visualization. Unwittingly broken-hearted bloggers become collective authors at a party hosted by the programmer. Texts that were once announcements of isolation enter into a massive herd of blobs that have gravity.

Semantics of Interaction and Motion (Jason Lewis lecture)

October 28th, 2008 — 02:57 pm

Source Note
The material and flow of this post is derived directly from a lecture by Jason Lewis of OBXLabs in his University of Concordia CART355 Typography class. October 28/08.

Jason begins the lecture by stating: “If you are moving something: why? The why is connected to meaning…There is an intrinsic space for beauty, but I also believe that one of the approaches to take to digital media is to think very seriously about motion and interactivity as tools to create the meaning…”

A taxonomy of tools explored thru examples follows. The commentaries are in some cases derived from Jason’s talk but often I discursively interject.

1. MAS962 Course at MIT, Brad Gielfuss [sic…to be corrected, tomorrow]

First example of text created by lines on elastic springs interactively controlled by user.  Instrumental meaning not semantic meaning is foregrounded. “Engagement operates in visual register.”

2. Letterscapes by Peter Cho (2002) and Type Me, Type Me Not

Concrete poetry and medieval letterscapes are updated in Letterscapes, while in “type me, type me not” there is a clear reference to mappings between sound and letters and motion that expressively. So display and appearance begin to have semantic sense and are coherent. Synaesthesia possibly enters into consideration.

3. Evan Zimroth’s, “Talk You” used in Camille Utterback’s Text Rain (1999)

The phrase from the documentation video “falling letters that do not really exist” is a trope from the virtual-real dichotomy that was often cited in interactivity theories. Utterback’s canonical piece utilized the poem (she negotiated the rights for it) and the floating letters had some sort of underlying sense. Zimroth: each part of my body turned to verb”. The choice of text occured after the design, so that the symmetry between semantic meaning and interaction is only occasionally insightful, but it is very effective at engaging people, at inviting them to play with language with their bodies. (Questions arising: are people still reading when they are interacting?)

4. “For All Seasons”
implements 3D text where the motion uses semantically relevant visual fluid dynamic algorithms : fish, leaves, and snow are converted into primal essences. Interactivity is implicit and can be discovered by the viewers. The 3 first season connect content to context literally. The final season which incorporates a tree is the least effective which suggests that incorporating visual indicators that are not algorithmic.

5. Screen (2004) created by Noah Wardrip-Fruin (with Sascha Becker, Josh Carroll, Robert Coover, Shawn Greenlee, and Andrew McClain) at Brown’s Cave “explores memory… new experiences of text….defies traditional VR…begins with textual experience…surprises again by introducing instability into text…reader can strike at text.”… Struck words return to wall or break apart into neologisms….What happens to sequential meaning or stroy when words are mosquitoes generating. “Finally the user is presented with a remnant memory text generated from her bodily actions.” The wall of conventional connected words is suddenly pierced by holes. A voice speaks. Does this construct a model of memory as menacing, small morsels of language that distract us from the present? Migratory bits that need to be pushed away, put back into the past, onto the wall. So basically the active detioration of memory is converted into a game, the primrdial spasm of the subconscious as it ejects material is problematic in that it puts the viewer into a singular linear relation with the text: user as superego, cave as id, time as the inexorable forward motion of past events.

Jason: ‘the primary computational logic is collision detection; in text rain it is edge detection’. NWF in an interview states: “Well, to put your mind at ease, everything is intentional…”

Lecture finishes with question: “Where does authorship reside?” And a flowing continuum of potential hybrid positions emerges.


Personal postscript: this lecture set me thinking about the seed text that I will use in a piece currently under production. Seeking the symettry of code and content, form and feeling, interaction and intuition, seems like the equivalent of serarching for the sweet spo, groove, attunement, flow etc… that occur when all the disparate levels and radiant topology of creation converge in a singular work.

1990: Robert Kendall’s It All Comes Down to _______

October 21st, 2008 — 04:20 pm

Kendall’s early DOS work ‘It all Comes Down ________’ is still (circa 2008) downloadable from his website, with the caveat that “the program will not run at speeds above 33Mhz; sorry, it was written a long time ago” In this contemporary era of dual core 2G laptops, Moore’s law has effectively sealed off Kendall’s creation inside a vault guarded by emulators. Funkhouser (who evidently went to the trouble of seeing these works on an emulator) writes:

Kendall was exploring textual experimentation in a manner similar to Bootz, Dutey, and Maillard and Papp by using a hypermedia narrative that combines linear words and phrases in various fonts, sizes and colours. […] For Kendall working with the computer provides the opportunity to utilize a uniquely contemporary set of tools … “Soft Poetry” is, he writes in the readme file, ” an update to the ancient traditions of the word as art object –the tradition of calligraphy, illuminated manuscripts, visual and pattern poetry […] by making serious poetry more tangible and just plain fun,” Kendall writes, “it can serve as a great introduction for students. Again and again it has captured the imagination of young people and those who don’t like poetry“. (Funkhouser, p. 137-8)

20 years after Kendall wrote these words, in a mediated ecosystem filled with frenetic-kinetic text, where TVs everywhere are exploding with information bars and motion graphics (think CNN transitions with 3D audio-synched glow-strobed ribbons of DNA-style headlines), and many simple advertisements (for soap, toilet paper, cosmetics or cars — racing over a desert of letters, chased by a swirl of gracefully chaotic logos) feature the aesthetics of a film’s credits, it seems probable that the awe and wonder effect of kinetic text might face a steep threshold of boredom in a media-saturated consumer. The wow-moment of a student introduced to poetry requires greater and greater labour and budget to compete with the coalesced output of hollywood and ad agencies. Independent poet-designers (the contemporary equivalent of the small-press of yore) cannot really compete against big-budget team efforts.

Video poems (the descendants of kinetic poetry) which feature extraordinarily rich motion graphics are also almost-invariably conservative in their poetic choices. Heebok Lee’s lush beautiful sensitive-yet-epic-3D setting of Yeats’ poem He wishes for the cloths of heaven is a typical glossy professional example of how graphic art outpaces the conceptual in sheer aesthetic magnetism:

Nevertheless (to return to the 1990s and Robert Kendall), it is also feasible to glimpse the contours of Kendall’s mind by exploring his online writings. In his entertainingly sardonic intro to his 1996 hypertext A Life Set for Two, Robert Kendall probes what was the sore nagging cavity in the tooth of 1990’s digital fiction: the page-pixel transition, the lack of stuff, the missing book.

So here I am, the poet anxiously coming to you with my illusionist’s act, hoping you’ll wink and look the other way at just the right moment so I can make the handkerchief of disbelief disappear. Ahem . . . Please direct your attention, if you will, to . . .

Where’s the page?

But, you nervously ask, where’s the page? Well, I nervously reply, there is none. Instead, there are pixels, semaphores of colored light on a screen invoking ranks of virtual print. There is nothing to hold in your hands. There is nothing solid and changeless. There is no single linear sequence underlying the text, no page numbering to guide you.

The dilemma of virtuality and absence is succinctly repeated in aphorism form on Kendall’s Word Circuits homepage:

This is a place for poetry and fiction born to pixels rather than the page–writing that’s digital down to its bones.
Art is the technology of the soul.

Apart from having created some of the earliest DOS poems, published hypertext with Eastgate, taught digital poetry, created a small collection of early web-poetry on his site Word Circuits, and created installations with original music, Kendall offers up some of the most acerbic intelligent discourse in the genre. Before reading Funkhouser, I had never heard of Kendall: not surprising in an era of 7 billion simultaneous sentient humans.

Occasionally a mind resonates with our sensibilities and Kendall’s lithe kinetic prose evokes Vonnegut mixed with drafts of Derrida. Plus, his musings on the nature of how the brain constructs meanings are in agreement with contemporary psychological models and tangentially support my tentative hypothesis of the irrelevance of media. Current theory is populist-intelligentsia-expressed in this New Yorker article on itching:

The account of perception that’s starting to emerge is what we might call the “brain’s best guess” theory of perception: perception is the brain’s best guess about what is happening in the outside world. The mind integrates scattered, weak, rudimentary signals from a variety of sensory channels, information from past experiences, and hard-wired processes, and produces a sensory experience full of brain-provided color, sound, texture, and meaning. (Gawande)

Kendall, jubilantly, expresses a very similar cosmology in his 1996 “Words and Mirrors: an introduction to A Life Set for Two.” He compares a digital poet trying to emulate or represent the mind ( an ephemeral constructed fluctuating, writhing quality which evolves in each instant) who utilizes branching dynamic digital media to the ancient craft of playwrites who use flesh and blood actors to “shore up” the illusion.

Our view of the world emerges not so much from the immediate mechanisms of perception, with their (we assume) direct lines to physical reality, as from the alchemical processes of mental reflection and recollection. Perception resides only in the fleeting moment of the present, that pinprick at the tip of the mind. We’re forced to grasp the world by groping through the vast, cluttered repositories of memory and knowledge that we’ve culled from it.

So from the chaotic striving and narrow sensory-channeled sifting of memory and perception our instantaneous presence in the world generates the thick discourse of experience. What does this insight mean for digital poetry? Well it puts in question the whole hierarchy of values that cluster around which technologies are better: HD video versus YouTube becomes a mute point. Consider how the paper page of the novel is an irritatingly static thing covered in black glyphs, yet it has and continues to provide many moments of exquisite lusciousness, provocative emotional launch points for reveries and epiphanies. The small screen of a laptop can be as absorbing as an IMAX theatre. A moment standing on the edge of the grand canyon may be truncated by the need to pee and petty irritants like a noisy bus, yet a rich multi-faceted experience may emerge for someone who sees a grainy morsel of film. Why? Because it is the brain which generates experience, fillng in the gaps, and often replenishing deficits in the source perception. Like in the fairy tales where poor orphans imagines themselves prince/princess, the capacity of our organic bodies to extrapolate beyond the limitations of media is vigorously active.


Gawande, Atul. 2008. “Annals of Medicine: The Itch.” Reporting & Essays: The New Yorker. Available at: [Accessed August 27, 2008].

Funkhouser, C. T. 2007. Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms. 1st ed. University Alabama Press.

Kendall, Robert. 1996. “Words and Mirrors: an introduction to A Life Set for Two.” Eastgate Systems. Available at: [Accessed August 27, 2008].

He wishes for the cloths of heaven. 2006. Available at: [Accessed August 27, 2008].

Typographic Innovations: 1980’s onward

October 21st, 2008 — 02:49 pm
Source Note

The material and flow of this post is derived directly from a lecture by Jason Lewis of OBXLabs in his University of Concordia Typography class. October 21/08. It charts a very broad course through typographic innovators who actively worked in both advertising and design prototyping from the earliest emergence of widescale digital typography. If you like this post then check out the custom typographic software and i-poems Jason Lewis and Bruno Nadeau create at OBX.

Continue reading »

1982 : Eduardo Kac, Não!

September 15th, 2008 — 09:18 am

Eduardo Kac like Melo e Castro and Augusto de Campos, was there at the birth of videopoem. His first work Não! was released in the same year as the de Campos digitalized ‘Pluvial…Fluvial”. Online versions of Kac’s work are available. Ticker tape parades of neologisms, letter growing into space, rhythmic motion. The seeds of vector animation are evident combined with a formalist approach rooted in concrete poetry give these works an austere rigorous presence.

“Não!, 1982/84 – Created in 1982 and presented on an electronic signboard in 1984 at the Centro Cultural Cândido Mendes, Rio de Janeiro (in Portuguese). “Não!” is organized in text blocks which circulate in virtual space at equal intervals, leaving the screen blank prior to the flow of the next text block. The visual rhythm thus created alternates between appearance and disappearance of the fragmented verbal material, asking the reader to link them semantically as the letters go by. The internal visual tempo of the poem is added to the subjective performance of the reader. The poem was realized on a LED display.” [Source:

Kac’s digitalpoems over the next decades move into projections on walls, Director-based poems, hyertext, VRML and holography. In essence, he is one of the primary investigators of typography in digital contexts.

Eduardo Kac -- Reabracadabra (1985)

Eduardo Kac -- Reabracadabra (1985)

1971: Alan Sondheim’s “4320”

August 27th, 2008 — 07:47 am

Since 1970, Alan Sondheim has been playing with 3D. A visit to his website –which is less website than a low-tech bulk online server-list of the contents of Sondheim’s eccentric yet consistent art-research output– reveals an astonishing array of diverse unsorted and unsearchable materials spanning decades. Sifting through the links is akin to searching someone’s desk drawers: ancient and new file formats press up against each other, innocuous stubs of text share space with complex renders. All this reflects the complex dynamic scope of Sondheim’s intellect and his irreverence. In a document enigmatically labeled jp.txt, yet entitled “Virtual Reality 1971”, Sondheim introduces and reproduces a brief segment of text from his early experiment “4320”:

[In 1971 I created a videotape called “4320” using Charles Strauss’ pro-
gram for hypercube projection at Brown University. The machine was a Meta-
4, controlled by keyboard and joystick. Two women (Andrea Kovacs and Beth
Cannon) sat at the console in turn, and attempted to control the projec-
tion – driving it first orthogonally, to produce a cube – driving the cube
orthogonally to produce a line – and shrinking the line to a point. The
women “inhabited” 4-space. I reproduce part of the dialog ….]

1. “Ok, drive that back into three-space now. Wait, it’s still moving in
four.” “I’m losing control, there’s a bending –” “Try the lower console.”

2. “It’s doubling for some reason, looks like you’re sliding along another
axis somewhere.” “It won’t stay still for me. Hold it. No. There, hey
where’s that coming from?”…

Scrolling further through the same unformatted document one encounters a set of brief quasi-psychedelic parables on geometry, desire, jokes and hypertext. The references in this elusive jq.txt document do not reveal when they were written; conjecture occurs. Indebted (perhaps) to William Burroughs, if Burroughs had read Vannevar Bush and ingested Ted Nelson, the stories function as elliptical entrances into a torrent of output (machine poems, rants, theoretical landslides) that Sondheim has released onto zines, diverse listservs and discussion groups. A sample:

The first Lieu runs as .htm, cutting/incising into the textual body; it is
lieu.htm. The second Lieu substitutes language for html, transforms other
sections of the texts, results in a breathing-apparatus. The first places
text between < >, as with a block of granite, sculpted away; intermediate
sections between and are visible. Formally, using locates comments, but browsers tend to ignore extraneous uninterpret-able commands.

Funkhouser connects Sondheim’s “4320” to poetics

In 1970 Alan Sondheim … began to explore the effects of 3-D graphics on language … Sondheim’s videotape “4320” documents (with video and audio) two users’ experience with [this 3-D] … The text resembles a multivoiced poem. (Funkhouser. p 139-40)

Funkhouser also identifies the crucial connectivity of this conceptual-computational intervention to poetics and then emphasizes its uniqueness:

Such an approach to working creatively with computers was unique at the time: most works were coded so as to produce programmatic texts rather than producing an immersive experience that could lead to verbal responses. (Funkhouser. p 141)

Sondheim’s site also contains occasional .mp4 files documenting the ongoing impossible-yogic contortions of endless renders. The preliminary impulse (“4320”) of Sondheim in 3D has evidently continued, extending into avatars mapped onto dancers’ body (from bvh files) in extremely erratic (polygon Francis Bacon without smears combined with an absence of inverse kinematic constraints) poses.

Click on the image to see a Sondheim movie uploaded on 24-Jun-2008 12:46:

Alan Sondheim, screengrab from Faced.mp4

Alan Sondheim, screengrab from Faced.mp4

1969: Lillian F. Schwartz & Ken Knowlton’s Observances

August 26th, 2008 — 02:55 pm

One of the pioneers of utilization of computers for creating a visual concrete poetry effect according to Funkhouser in Prehistoric Digital Poetry is Lillian F. Schwartz. Schwartz is typical of an early innovator, she is primarily an explorative artist who made contributions to vision theory, many documentary films as well as creating this poetic work. Observances cited in Funkhouser (p.104) is primarily a visual fx that has become a common filter: altering the opacity of characters to create a subliminal image. The classic ASCII face. The image below utilizes a poem by Laurens R. Schwartz, is cropped, and was originally published in McCauley, Computers and Creativity (1974):

The bio on her website outlines the earliness of Schwartz’s involvement with computation:

Schwartz began her computer art career as an offshoot of her merger of art and technology, which culminated in the selection of her kinetic sculpture, Proxima Centauri, by The Museum of Modern Art for its epoch-making 1968 Machine Exhibition.

1969: Jackson Mac Low : PFR-3 Poems

August 26th, 2008 — 01:41 pm

Jackson Mac Low is a poet who worked like a computer before computers, and after computers arrived began to use them to implement algorithmic methods he had already been doing by hand. From 1962-1968, he composed 22 Light Poems [2] without a computer. The poems are all combinatorial and loosely composed upon algorithmic method, sometimes he inserts his own phrases, sometimes he uses phrases from obscure sources (the back of a collage) as glue between algorithmically generated material. For 22 Light Poems Mac Low assembled 280 names of different kinds of light, sorted them into rows and columns and associated each column with a letter from his name or his wife’s name and a playing card. Then he shuffled the playing cards and whenever he needed or felt impelled to insert a light word selected a card.

Mac Low describes how he constructed each poem in an appendix to 22 Light Poems; the following couplet from the 22nd poem arises by using letters from the title to draw words from the chart of light words; where words did not exist random digits drew words from an old dictionary ‘lamp’ entry. It’s reference to artificial light can be seen as a perhaps unintentional analogy for the vacuum tube of early computers:

Can the light of a dark lantern cause
word division?

Not when artificial light
enforces complementary division. [Mac Low. p.70]

Mac Low’s compositional method therefore is a classic man-machine hybrid: algorithm and imagination, calculation and sensibility, chance and choice. Phrases and stories from his own process mingle with the output of constraint operations. Nested in between the arbitrary and the crafted, the poems carry with them a voice which far exceeds the poetic capacity of Jean A Baudot’s purely computationally created poems. The aesthetic advantage of taming and polishing the output of algorithms is clear.

In 1969 he [Jackson Mac Low] participated in the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: with the aid of a programmable film reader he composed the “PFR-3 Poems.” This interest has only strengthened in the last decade.) Indeed, 42 Merzgedichte In Memoriam Kurt Schwitters (1994) is a series of poems … recombined and transformed by computer programs.[1]

Mac Low evidently easily made the transition from analog to digital poetry. The use of chance operations and algorithms in his analog work predispose him to accepting the computer as an adjunct, facilitator, and tool to increase efficiency and expand the complexity of how combinatorial phrases are produced. By merging the strengths of the algorithmically-rapid integrated circuit with the symbolically resonant and affective human brain, Mac Low rides along the rich seam created by the merger of jolting unpredictable output of randomization and the sustained process-oriented pattern-perceiving knit of mind. Thematic consistency is ensured through authorial choice while the computer performs work of chance-choice. The author remains but the tools have changed.

1. Campbell, Bruce. “Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 193: American Poets Since World War II, Sixth Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Joseph Conte, State University of New York, Buffalo. The Gale Group, 1998. pp. 193-202.” Available at: [Accessed August 26, 2008]

2. Mac Low, Jackson. 1968. 22 Light Poems. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press.

1968: Cybernetic Serendipidity

August 25th, 2008 — 12:57 pm

Talks that began in 1965 culminated in an exhibit entitled “Computers and the Arts” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London in 1968 with the intention of

dealing broadly with the demonstration of how man can use the computer and new technology to extend his creativity and inventiveness (p.3)

The catalogue opens with an essay by Norbert Weiner on cybernetics and the exhibition was extensive: movies, paintings, dance, films, machines, environments, and poems.

In the ‘computer poems and text’ category, an assemblage of the pioneers: Marc Adrian, CLRU (the Cambridge language Unit’s Margaret Masterman and Robin McKinnon Wood), Nanni Balestrini, Alison Knowles and James Tenney, Edwin Morgan, Jean A. Baudot, and E. Mendoza.

All of the works are generative. Matrices of phrases randomly realigned or shuffled according to semantic rules  into novel configurations sprouting from the mainframes of institutional computers. Only one work (Mark Adrian’s) involves playing with the display; in Marc Adrian’s work the “choice size and disposition of words is chosen at random” [Reichardt, p.53]

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Reichardt, Jasia, and Institute of Contemporary Arts (London, England). 1969. Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts. New York: Praeger.

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