Archive for October 2008

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 [ 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.

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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].

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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.

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