Archive for August 2008

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

Comments Off | Uncategorized

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.

1 comment » | Uncategorized

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.

Comments Off | Uncategorized

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]

This SimpleViewer gallery requires Macromedia Flash. Please open this post in your browser or get Macromedia Flash here.
This is a WPSimpleViewerGallery

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

Comments Off | Uncategorized

1964: Baudot, La machine à écrire

August 21st, 2008 — 06:25 pm

1964: Jean Baudot, a pioneering engineer-linguist, creates the first French machine-generated published poetry.

Published by the Editions du Jour in Montreal,”La machine à écrire mise en marche et programmée par Jean A. Baudot” (“A Writing Machine created and programmed by Jean A. Baudot”) is still circa 2008 available (mildewed and seemingly unread since 1976) in the Concordia library. A rough translation below (by myself) of Jean Baudot’s introduction reveals his language and concerns as strikingly contemporary and lucidly clear. Either time has stood still or it seems that new media evoked unresolved concerns early in its evolution.

In this preface to his pioneering work on human-machine creativity Jean Baudot, who was an engineer by training and became a linguist writing on formal grammars, writes about the ubiquity of computers, their capacity to emulate human tasks, and his goals.

Humans have always been attracted to automation. From the beginning of time, humans have invented devices to imitate and surpass human capacities. Most often these machines have reassured humans of some control over the material world.

Certainly a sense of domination is elicited when contemplating a machine performing a task previously only possible through labor. We find ourselves stronger and above all conscious of our privileged nature.

Technological development of recent decades has taught us to be astonished by the power of machines. We know that machines are work tools. Its with them that we progress.

In this domain , computers – loosely called electronic brains – play a major role. These utilities have invaded industry. Without them a big part of our scientific, industrial and commercial activities would be instantly paralyzed. In effect, computers, vast manipulators of data and info, can be utilized for executing very varied tasks. They are model students. It is sufficient to show them correctly, only one time, how to execute a task for them to accomplish it at often prodigious speeds. One such machine can learn a multitude of different tasks, and always remembers the particularities of each.

The phrases which appear in this volume ["La machine à écrire mise en marche et programmée par Jean A. Baudot" ] were composed by a computer. The texts are less a literary performance, but more the result of an experience which merits some interest. Composition is considered, without any doubt, as fundamentally human activity, it is therefore troubling to observe a machine functioning without any external intervention writing evocative phrases in a credible style. How can it be possible? It’s extremely simple. It is sufficient to teach the machine some grammatical rules, a foundation vocabulary and let it work. We assist then the works of a genuine robot which writes without comprehending what it says because it doesn’t know the sense of words. [...]

Our goal was to observe how a machine behaves after it has been taught a little grammar and has at its disposal a constrained lexicon (630 words approximately). In order to avoid introducing, consciously or unconsciously, bias taken in the choice of words placed at the disposition of the computer, we decided to extract a manual of French of the simplest level possible.

To that end we chose the manual of the 4th year actually used in our schools and entitled “My French Book” (Brothers of the Sacred Heart). The 630 corpus represents about half of the words utilized in the manual. All the words utilized are therefore simple and at the level of a 10 year olds vocabulary.

During the research, the machine having been appropriately programmed was left running overnight. Imagine our surprise the next morning to discover it had printed thousands of phrases and it seemed as if it could continue without stopping. This volume represents a ample of those phrase composed by automated processes. The phrases are reproduced as they appeared, even if sometimes the temptation was strong to modify them slightly.

I leave it to the reader, literrati or amateur of new styles, to their own conclusions.

Jean A. Baudot
Montréal, juin 1964
p.s. the reader, interested in the technique related to this automated process, will find some explanations in the appendix.

But what of the poetry created by Baudot’s machine? Baudot warns us to consider it as examples of a process not a literary exercise. And that is an appropriate warning because the text is only occasionally luminous and as fragmented as a drunk HD trying to smoothly waltz. It’s also a bit like a randomized scrabble board played by semi-literate spiders: the sentences are stiff formal aphorisms that never congeal into sustained impact. It possesses astonishingly readable basic grammar but is lacking in the subtle contours of emotional play and emotional taste of life. These are machine words. Fragments that suggest a state space of potentialities that marches and meanders toward automated plot-generators and Kurzweil’s Cybernetic Poet.

Shown to a Quebec visual-artist using the pretense that they were poems by a human, the language of the machine-generated poems immediately evoked Baudelaire and Alain Robbe-Grillet. The reader responded: “I don’t understand the juxtaposition of words… Other poetry has a flow that I can feel and understand. This I can’t.”

These alienated responses resonate with experiments done by linguists in natural language: humans cannot learn artificial languages without effort. Generative grammar suggests a neurological foundation etched into synaptic circuitry that predisposes us to syntactical conjunctions and organic morphemes. Extrapolating, perhaps there is a neurological parser for art, a dendrite module for meaning, a cluster coiled into a knot experienced as soul. Similar speculations have motivated the search for the neuronal correlate of consciousness by Christof Koch and Francis Crick.

In one of the appendices to La machine à écrire the quebec poet-troubadour Felix Leclerc points out a crucial ongoing often-repeated unresolved challenge to computational creativity:

“Ask it [the computer] to be numbers, that’s reasoning, it will be it, but to be heart, I don’t believe it.” ~ “Demandez-lui d’être chiffre, c’est-à-dire raison, elle le sera, mais d’être coeur, je ne le crois pas.” [p.75]

Subtle contextual connectivity, the sinew of narrative, the sinuous twisting truth of lived emotional reality, the ache and ebb of our tidal hormonal interiorities: even contemporary computer-created art lacks this sensitivity. The reason remains the same as what Baudot clearly states: computers are not aware of meaning, the computer “doesn’t know the sense of words. “. (Human meaning at least.) Lack of flow remains a central flaw. Here are a few sentences in both english and french from page 45 of “La machine à écrire”:

La vacance et un mari oublieront des fillettes. ~ The holiday and husband will forget girls.

Une peur cultive un serpent. ~ Fear cultivates a snake.

The meanings that emerge from these phrases are imported by the reader: snake and fear accidentally bumping against each other in the archetypal basement provoke a tiny spark. The result is unintended and so resists integration into a sustained sense of the work as art. One could argue that decades of artists following in the footsteps of John Cage have elaborated complex strategies for including process and contingency into art-making. But behind those products, the human artist acts as conceptual filter, explicating and enriching approaches to accidents by placing them through discourse within historical context.

Baudot’s work is contextually a process-artwork that highlights the dilemma of meaning. When computers become conscious of meaning (which involves all the attendant emergent psychic tendrils of purpose intuition and need) then perhaps machine-created art will become meaningful in a way capable of sustained emotive interest rather than intellectual curiosity. As it is Baudot’s work is a crucial preliminary step which anticipates the core of generative poetics practice as it has continued for the intervening 4 decades since 1964: grammars and recombinant structure.

One tendency of contemporary computer-created art-work is to circumvent or sublimate this deficiency of meaning flow (and the lack of an ineffable taste of an auteur’s predelictions in machine-created output) by investigating low-fi DIY aesthetics and conceptual interventions in the hope of distracting viewers from the essential reality that emotional depth remains computationally intractable.

2 comments » | Uncategorized

1963: Marc Adrain, Text I

August 20th, 2008 — 12:03 pm

Marc Adrian was one of the artists featured in the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibit at ICA in 1974. Prior to this he had constructed films which were based on procedural workings (what he called “methodic inventionism”).

His method eventually expanded into working with text processed by computers. He is considered one of the pioneers of film structuralism; yet also can be considered one of the forerunners of kinetic poetry; the image in Cybernetic Serendipity echoes the Flash-based work that has proliferated in the last decade. Funkhouser discusses the “fluid aesthetic quality”[1] of Adrian’s work and states:

Adrian’ piece is important for several reasons. The ‘computer texts’ are among the first examples of works presented with unconventional ‘syntax’, permutation and aleatoric reordering of pieces of language. [1]

Adrian’s earliest film using text and this hybrid method of computers and film was Text I. 1963, 35mm, b&w/so, 154sec

“The films TEXT I and TEXT II are a mere permutation; TEXT I results from a memory program of a computer. The words were chosen by the challenge that they can be read in English and German alike with no change of meaning.” [2]

Marc Adrian - Computer Poems. [3


1. Funkhouser, C. T. 2007. Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms. 1st ed. University Alabama Press. pg. 95.

2. Canyon Cinema: The Films of Marc Adrian. Available at: [Accessed August 23, 2008].

2. Reichardt, Jasia, and Institute of Contemporary Arts (London, England). 1969. Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts. New York: Praeger. pg. 53.

Comments Off | Uncategorized

1963: Clair Philippy ’150 words a minute’

August 20th, 2008 — 12:21 am

Funkhouser’s timeline includes: “Clair Philippy (USA), “blank verse at the rate of 150 words a minute” 5 poems published in Electronic Age.”

Only a few feeble trickle references exist to this work online. No residue of the actual output exists. Time has coherently erased all but the shadow of it’s existence.

Every cultural precursor is at similar risk of oblivion. Clair Philippy totters on that precipice; time will soon erase and etch him/her. Yet the fragment that remains is alluring: blank verse at the rate of 150 words a minute. A wind-up doll of Wallace Stevens regurgitating culturally-rich automated modernism. Extreme muse potency. Algorithmic genius. The inspired machine that converts all flesh-body-based authors into obsolete anachronisms has its roots in this elusive speed. As if poetry were a car that eats epiphanies; authorship becomes a race to vomit verses.

The fastest typist in the world operates at precisely the same speed as Philippy’s 1963 computer poet: 150 words a minute. Given Moore’s law, an intevening 40+ years of IC development and algorithm evolution, virtuosic contemporary computers beat this record with ease. Think ethernet: gigabits of data sloshing around LANs. Mouthfuls of words as massive as blue whales stuffed with krill. As of Sept. 2007, a self-claimed freestylin rap record by Paul Singh (on youtube) is 456 syllables in 53 seconds. Human just cn’t keep up w/t cuttin corners. Txt mssg dsnt approx cyber speed.

The only evolutionary advantage of flesh is our capacity to problem solve and create meaning. Meaning unfortunately is probably only interpretable by us: in other words, it may be that meaning is bio-computer specific. Slugs and dwarf stars just won’t understand human poetry; they might have their own.

One future implication is that as computers evolve aesthetic appreciatory capacities and autonomy, they will write rapid opuses specifically for self-consumption. Blanched cutups of populist culture tossed in a salad of post-modern aphorisms and assembly code, delivered in binary belches. Ruminating on us: the parasitic termites on its skin.

Mammalian brains demand information in a very narrow bandwidth; consciousness can only tolerate a few bits per second; its read-write memory latency demands it. In the same way that our diet is a narrow subset of available matter, brains are cognitively niched. We graze on information at rates that our arcanely slow by cybernetic standards. Other cognitive things will have alternate criteria for success. All definitions or worth or value are arbitrary contingent user-reader-dependent glimpses toward a taxonomy. Digital poetics is a wind-swept web of potential interpretations, traps and slouches in bifurcating fibre.

In this case, Clair Philippy signals the birth of the generative methodology school: poet-programmer frankensteins into programmed-poet. The machine speaks. We are watching its lips but nothing is moving. We are batching its blips but something becomes variation. We are building its sentences with arrays and randomization. Allison Knowles (House of Dust) and Jean A. Baudot are early members of this tradition.

Kurzweil and haiku generators are the middle era. In the same way that the sestina is a simple numeric parlour game played by polymath poets, algorithms can omulate poetic pattern. And if that is possible then its possible the traditional poem subject ‘soul’ may take the form of digital algorithm juggling. As Douglas R. Hofstadter points out:

If a person’s soul is truly a pattern, then it can be realized in different media. Wherever that pattern exists in a sufficiently fine-grained way, then it is, by my definition, the soul itself and not some kind of “mere simulation” of it.

So digital poetry is poetry. Soul word number recursive riff. Poem GUI. Computer writers. Digital authors.

Comments Off | Uncategorized