2000: Ben Fry’s Tendril

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.” (http://benfry.com/tendril/ )

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.

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