Archive for January 2009


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.

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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.

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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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