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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.

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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.

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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 »

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Continue reading »

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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)

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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

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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]


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.

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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.

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1962: R.M. Worthy, Auto-Beatnik

July 18th, 2008 — 12:57 pm

Reports vary on where it was first popularized (Funkhouser says Time magazine, a blog suggests Horizon magazine) but sometime in 1962, a subdivision of a computer company called the Laboratory for Automata Research of the Librascope Division of General Precision, Inc led by R.M. Worthy had their research popularized.

“Librascope engineers, concerned with the problem of effective communication with machines in simple English, first ‘fed’ an LGP 30 computer with thirty-two grammatical patterns and an 850-word vocabulary, allowing it to select at random from the words and patterns to form sentences. The results included “Roses” and “Children”. Then Worthy and his men shifted to a more advanced RPC 4000, fed with a store of about 3,500 words and 128 sentence structures, which produced … more advanced poems.” Here are some selected works by the “Auto-Beatnik”, that “cool calculator” …


Few fingers go like narrow laughs.
An ear won’t keep few fishes,
Who is that rose in that blind house?
And all slim, gracious, blind planes are coming,
They cry badly along a rose,
To leap is stuffy, to crawl was tender.

The results might have made Kenneth Patchen snort with derision or weep with praise at the small vulnerable baby spirit being born. Perhaps André Breton posthumously realized that Soluble Fish is now computational, the human brain only a snail sneeze in a rapid fire automation of erratic digital misnomers and binary one-liners. Intriguingly, these poems came out of a lab; art-research and the synthesis of artist-scientist in computation contexts have roots here. For some reason I am reminded that Wallace Stephens worked for the Hartford Accident & Indemnity Company, that the bohemian Charles Bukowski model of the renegade outsider addicted to Dionysian excess is balanced by the sturdy steady crew-cut managerial-poet persona with a tender incisive eye and sensitivity to linguistics. To that dichotomy can be now added the third aspect: the digital servant faithfully working its way through algorithms, a bit like an autistic savant, capable of replicating great feats of memory yet incapable of distinguishing relevancy or value. Meaning still relies on the intuitive input of the reader.

Nevertheless, note that the machine is ‘fed’; and note also how little it takes to grow a poem: 32 sentence structures, 850 words. Similarly, DNA codon triplets are built from base pairs of 4 elements; combinatorial complexity is the foundation of life.

Evolutionary language mutations expand the chain-link jewelry of existence.

If you are curious, read more Auto-Beatnik examples.

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1961: Balestrini’s Tape Mark poems

July 17th, 2008 — 05:02 pm

According to Funkhouser (p. 12 & 41, PDP), in1968 Cybernetic Serendipity exhibited (experimental Italian poet) Nanni Balestrini’s 1961 Tape Mark poems . Virtually no reference to Balestrini currently exists online, except for a wikipedia entry (in italian) and this poster of the exhibit catalog:

Cybernetic Serenditpity 1968

Cybernetic Serendipity, ICA London August 2nd to October 20th, 1968

Baletsrini’s poems (cited in Funkhouser (p.41) from the exhibit catalog translated by Edwin Morgan) are remarkably readable. Computationally collaged from 3 different writers, Balestrini’s Tape Mark poems traverse a strangely sensual meridian:

Hair between lips, they all return
to their roots in the blinding fireball
I envision their return, until he moves his fingers
slowly, and although things flourish
takes on the well known mushroom shape endeavouring
to grasp while the multitude of things come into being.

It’s poetry that slips in and out of effectiveness. As I read it the first 4 lines cohere voluptuously, then the fifth strikes an infertile mechanistic tangent that might have been solved by a human emotional-editorial eye. Funkhouser attributes their effectiveness to the use of literary phrases as the unit. These units resonate and conjoin as do other human cultural artifacts, cohering according to the skill and sensitivity of the writer. In this case the writer was a hybrid: a computer algorithmically solving rules, and a human (Balestrini) tuning and feeding those algorithms.

It suggests what many others have already suggested: that computers can offer creative trampolines, variational exploration machines that create trajectories from which the poet can select possible paths. It also clearly delineates the eerie capacity of the human mind to impose order, pattern and meaning onto mangled heaps of language.

From the LANGUAGE poets to OULIPO and the DadaEngine (and other more contemporary combinatorial permutating word-salads) a lot of poems owe their origin to the same impulse that inspired Balestrini. Language can be algorithmically cut: digital and analog each have strengths.

Exquisite corpse cpu.

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1960: Brion Gysin, I AM THAT I AM

July 16th, 2008 — 05:49 pm

There is minor irony that the second historical figure in a lineage of digital poetry is a painter: Brion Gysin. [Sources: Prehistoric Digital Poetry (pg.39) and Kostelanetz’s Text-Sound Texts]

Cohort of William Burroughs and narcotic doyen of a furtive circle of eccentric lunatics, Gysin combined surrealist techniques and Dadaist recipes with digital algorithms (programmed by Ian Somerville in 1960 ) to create permutational poetry based around the phrase I AM THAT I AM


Echoes of the hypnotic reveries of the theosophist charismatics and the chanting of the bedouin transplanted into computational form show an early resonance between rhythmic repetitions designed to either numb the mind or open it inexplicably into trance and esoteric meaning structures inherent withinn the syntactical synew of language itself. Gysin theorized in his 1960 essay entitled Cut-Ups Self-Explained:

Writing is fifty years behind painting. I propose to apply the painters’ techniques to writing; things as simple and immediate as collage or montage. Cut right through the pages of any book or newsprint… lengthwise, for example, and shuffle the columns of text. Put them together at hazard and read the newly constituted message. Do it for yourself. Use any system which suggests itself to you. Take your own words or the words said to be “the very own words” of anyone else living or dead. You’ll soon see that words don’t belong to anyone. Words have a vitality of their own and you or anybody else can make them gush into action.

The permutated poems set the words spinning off on their own; echoing out as the words of a potent phrase are permutated into an expanding ripple of meanings which they did not seem to be capable of when they were struck into that phrase.

The poets are supposed to liberate the words – not to chain them in phrases. Who told poets they were supposed to think? Poets are meant to sing and to make words sing. Poets have no words “of their own.” Writers don’t own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody. “Your very own words,” indeed! And who are you?

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1959 : Theo Lutz, Stochastic Text

July 16th, 2008 — 04:29 pm

In 1959, on a Zuse Z22 computer Theo Lutz inserted sixteen chapter titles and subjects from Kafka’s The Castle into a database and programmed them to recombine into phrases joined by grammatical glue. As with most of the early references on this site, this reference appears courtesy of C. Funkhouser who cites Lutz (on pg. 37 of Prehistoric Digital Poetics) as potentially the first known practitioner of contemporary digital poetry.

Not every look is near. No village is late.
A castle is free and every farmer is distant…

It seems appropriate to hail Lutz as the first computational-poet (for now: until the archives yield a new figure, until new research reveals that Allan Turing was composing love letters in a basement lab using algorithms as a teenager; or that Ada Lovelace had a functioning Difference Engine; or perhaps as many speculative fiction writers might remind us, some alien civilizations predate our human computer generation by eons; or as Florian Cramer writes: “The oldest permutational text adapted in Permutations is Optatianus Porfyrius’ Carmen XXV from the fourth century A.D.”.)

Lutz’s 1959 essay is remarkable in that it recognizes the problem of meaning as being central and even suggests a potential probablistic pathway toward resolution:

It seems to be very significant that it is possible to change the underlying word quantity into a “word field” using an assigned probability matrix, and to require the machine to print only those sentences where a probability exists between the subject and the predicate which exceeds a certain value. In this way it is possible to produce a text which is “meaningful” in relation to the underlying matrix.

One predominant domain of AI research follows this thread suggested by Lutz: statistical probability. In addition Lutz’ notion implies the matrice of language is analogous to a network and that proximal sets may evoke meaningful relations, or perhaps that meaning is a pathway between mathematically linked nodes. All of these notions are still currently active as research paths.

Aside: as any archaeologist knows, the dilemna with time is it corrodes, then eradicates all traces. The www may grant the illusion of anti-amnesia but googling Theo Lutz, the first entry that arises is a german website with a copy of Lutz’s original 1959 essay. As Ollivier Dyens, often points out the internet is centripetal: so I moved sideways; I did not go directly to the essay on Theo as any sane medieval scholar would do; instead, I went to have a look at the host site: . From there, in the first article I opened that was in English (a very sassy and witty 2003 dig at Lev Manovich’s idea of 6 as a good number for multitasking: ‘Multitasking as Avant-garde – or who is the Processor?’ by Johannes Auer ) I encountered 3 out of the 6 links she had used to demo her sardonic point to be dead.

The internet although interconnected like a body sheds skin like a body, leaving a detritus of disconnected tissue and historical dead-ends. Even memory diffused and redundant within a modularized network has limits.

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1721: Jonathan Swift’s writing Engine

July 15th, 2008 — 06:40 pm

It might seem astonishing that as early as 1959, computers were ubiquitous and automated creative writing was being explored but as Jean Baudot mentions in 1964, humans have always been concerned with automation.

In the historical context of occidental literature, consider the following excerpt from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (Book III, Chapter 5) written in 1721 which describes an automated writing machine. This excerpt is reputedly based on Raymond Llull Ars Magna, a combinatorial method for debating theology. Swift’s imaginative and accurate depiction of physical array systems proves that artists often explore technological potentials before implementation occurs. Inspiration precedes implementation yet accurately depicts the methodology utilized in many computational art-works.

We crossed a walk to the other part of the academy, where, as I have already said, the projectors in speculative learning resided.

The first professor I saw, was in a very large room, with forty pupils about him. After salutation, observing me to look earnestly upon a frame, which took up the greatest part of both the length and breadth of the room, he said, “Perhaps I might wonder to see him employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge, by practical and mechanical operations. But the world would soon be sensible of its usefulness; and he flattered himself, that a more noble, exalted thought never sprang in any other man’s head. Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas, by his contrivance, the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.”

He then led me to the frame, about the sides, whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me “to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work.” The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.

Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences; which, however, might be still improved, and much expedited, if the public would raise a fund for making and employing five hundred such frames in Lagado, and oblige the managers to contribute in common their several collections.

He assured me “that this invention had employed all his thoughts from his youth; that he had emptied the whole vocabulary into his frame, and made the strictest computation of the general proportion there is in books between the numbers of particles, nouns, and verbs, and other parts of speech.”

I made my humblest acknowledgment to this illustrious person, for his great communicativeness; and promised, “if ever I had the good fortune to return to my native country, that I would do him justice, as the sole inventor of this wonderful machine;” the form and contrivance of which I desired leave to delineate on paper, as in the figure here annexed. I told him, “although it were the custom of our learned in Europe to steal inventions from each other, who had thereby at least this advantage, that it became a controversy which was the right owner; yet I would take such caution, that he should have the honour entire, without a rival.”

(Book III, Chapter 5)

Swift’s entire passage is a subtle multi-faceted meditation on the folly of creativity, the absurdity of ownership, the power of algorithms and their limits.

Compare the mechanistic and materialist dig that Swift makes about intellectual theft at the end of the preceding passage with Brion Gysin’s proclamation on non-ownership of words:

“The poets are supposed to liberate the words – not to chain them in phrases. Who told poets they were supposed to think? Poets are meant to sing and to make words sing. Poets have no words “of their own.” Writers don’t own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody. “Your very own words,” indeed! And who are you?”

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330 A.D. : Florian Cramer & the roots of Permutations

July 14th, 2008 — 03:03 pm

Florian Cramer is the preeminent theorist of permutation literary arts. In numerous essays and programming works he has researched and investigated the roots of generative literary practice to an ancestry that predates modernism and the dadaist by millennium. As shown by Cramer, lured by the confluence of geometry, numbers and words, ancient alchemists and esoteric practitioners established systemic models for generative literature long before the computer came along. Florian Cramer summarizes his work:

The website ( consists of a number of server-side computer programs written in the Perl programming language, each of them reconstructing – and thereby re-inventing – one of a few dozens of combinatory poems written between 330 A.D. and today by, among others, Optatianus Porphyrius, Jean Meschinot, Julius Caesar Scaliger, Georg Philipp Harsdörffer, Quirinus Kuhlmann and Tristan Tzara. Although it is difficult to distinguish a combinatory literature from other forms of literature ever since linguistics defined language as a combinatory system itself, combinatory poetry nevertheless could be formally defined as a literature that openly exposes and addresses its combinatorics by changing and permuting its text according to fixed rules, like in anagrams, proteus poems and cut-ups. Frequently, written combinatory literature does not denote the generated text itself, but only a set of formal instructions with perhaps one sample permutation. Since the poems of Scaliger, Harsdörffer, Kuhlmann and Tzara fall into this category, they turn into something profoundly different as soon as their algorithms are being transscribed from book pages into computer software. The website therefore is an open experiment for finding out what might be lost and gained from such a transscription. Permutations is, in my view, not an art project, but rather pataphysics and gay philology.1

Speculatively extrapolating from Cramer’s research, it is possible to see life itself as an enormous combinatorial literature. Indeed the gnostic model of demiurges (sub-gods) capable of delineating rules for universe creation rests upon a similar cosmology. From the Biblical ‘In the beginning there was the word….’ through DNA research into the modeling of life from codons, the idea of existence itself as a latticed intersection of stored strings, poetry capable of provoking life, is a prevalent reoccurring model.

When viewed through this poetic lens, posthuman debates about how humans will gain mastery over genetically modeling of lifeforms, and arguments over autonomy of lifeforms, are analogous to disputes between literary schools. A vibrant ecosystem of computationally generated microorganisms assembled by nanobots may someday constitute a viable field for meta-poetic play. Eduardo Kac’s progenitors may auto-assemble bacterial poems.

As it is Cramer (in agreement with Funkhouser and Glazier) emphasizes what is often repeated in digital poetic debates that digital poetry must utilize the unique capacities of the medium:

Any concept of digital literature which does not reflect language combinatorics and algorithmically processed language is severely restrained.

I feel that this canonical attitude is debatable since there are a couple of unresolved problems involved. The first problem is that combinatorics is often referred to as constraint-based language, and yet the fault Cramer sees with non-combinatoric work is that it will be restrained. Restraint and constraint verge on synonymous; so both ways of practice (combinatorial and non-combinatorial) involve limitation. Perhaps restraint and constraint constitute mutually beneficial aspects of divergent artists practices each with inherent limitations and strengths, rather than inferior/superior strands. Combinatorics exposes the mechanistic pattern-based linguistic roots of poetry; corporal poetics exposes its capacity to explore affect, flow, taste and emotional contortions. The second paradox is that Cramer’s research demonstrates that combinatorial practices predate the computer by millennium: therefore combinatorial and algorithmic processes are not unique to computational media; computational media merely facilitates the ease with which variations can be generated. Implementation becomes significantly easier.

In fact an argument could be made that there is no unique capacity computers offer. Everything from algorithms, coding, networks and replication has antecedents in biology. Human technology is just a feeble attempt at emulating organic process. This liberates artists to play with computational media without constraining themselves by formal requirements in order to ensure the validity of their work. Validity in this context is a socially-dependent feedback mechanism that establishes temporary nodes of arbitrary valuation.


Cramer, Florian. “Combinatory Poetry and Literature in the Internet.” Available at: [Accessed August 29, 2008].

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