e-poetry, an art without object

Friday February 3rd, 2006.
E-poetry means using computers as a medium. E-poets have been strongly influenced by the concrete, sound, and visual poetry, by computer generated poetry, and by avant garde art movements of the sixties and seventies. However, e-poetry is something different and distinct. Using the computer not only as a tool, but as an interactive medium operating in real time that focuses on process: the user has an active role in the development of the work of art. The art object is the process itself initiated by the user.

If I believe the e-poetry Center and the Bibbliothèque Nationale de France, I am an e-poet. It is in a way true. I am sure of the “e”, I am sure of the ‘e’ -part: I use the computer both as a tool for writing my poems and as a medium for distributing them. But I am less certain of the ‘poet’ part: I don’t know what makes an e-poet different from a normal poets, and neither do I know what makes e-poetry different from other electronic arts. Furthermore can it still be called ‘writing’? I mix texts, pictures, colours, movement and sound. Using multimedia it might be better to call it visual art or video art. There is some truth to that, however, it is not possible to record my work on videotape. Nothing would happen. There is no public performance. Only one user at a time can ‘read’ or ‘play’. Interactive programs generated by programming create a deeper structure. The performance depends on the interaction between the program and the machine, the machine and the user, and is not predictable.

There is no doubt that electronic poetries owes a great debt to concrete and visual poetry. A very thick red line links us to that immediate past. Many critics and academics have identified this link (Jacques Donguy, Friedrich Block, Charles Bernstein). Concrete, visual and sound poetry has evolved into this new genre. I remember the visual poetry festival in Edmonton (CA.) in 1979. Eduardo Kac, the critic Eric Vos, and I performed on stage “farewell visual poetry”. It amounted to a manifesto in which we told the audience - consisting of concrete, sound and visual poets, and collectors of visual poetry - that visual poetry was a thing of the past. In many ways I feel that the artist in me embodies the transformation from visual poetry to e-poetry.

Towards the end of the eighties, I invented the wheel. At that time I published poetry in numerous small press reviews, but I was dreaming of language independent poetry. I taught French literature to foreign students and was searching for texts that would work visually as well. I then went to China, and there I discovered Chinese calligraphy and felt this was the solution I had been looking for: poetry made visual through the power of signs. I began to draw letters and words with Chinese ink on Chinese paper, ignorant of the rich past visual poetry only a decade before. By doing this I left the world of poetry: the publishers, booklets, paper and press. I entered a completely new world peopled by painters, artist suppliers, galleries and museums. There is surprisingly little communication between these two worlds. Very soon I heard about Dutch visual poets (I lived in the Netherlands at the time) and through them I entered the unknown continent of sound, concrete and visual poetry. Their theories and practice chimed with my own ideas about poetry and art. So I still agree with Eugen Rominger’s manifesto and the basic principles of the second Bauhaus. According to linguistics, language is material. Words are things made of sound. This implies I also subscribe to this aspect of concretism: I reject lyricism, what I think of as therapeutic poetry. To me poetry is kneading language into a shape. It is not spitting out ideas and meaning.

I owe a debt to concretism. I owe an ever bigger one to visual poetry. Historically, visual poetry was born from the use of images as constitutive elements of the poem. Examples of this are the Italian poesia visiva or the Brazilian Augusto dos Campos semiotic poetry. Modern poets could not remain blind to the omnipresence of images in our daily lives. Pictures are a main component of the signs panel. I experienced visual poetry as a liberation from the constraints of verbal language. Even without direct link between the concrete and visual poetry and the e-poetry, both expressions are, visually, very close to each other. We are so used to read images; it is not a big step to look at words, for example to click on them. It is remarkable that in most software you may choose between icons, text-only, or both. When you click on a word, you do not click on the meaning, but on the image of the word. It is exactly that, which the concrete poet Rominger pointed out sixty years ago. The page and the screen are both two dimensional, clearly delineated. That may sound tautological, but each attempt to place signs somewhere on a page or a screen depends of this compulsory reality. It is well known that screens dislike long sentences. A long paper is not easy to read on screen. If I have to read a PDF, I print it first, going back to the Gutenberg galaxy. On screen, in terms of ergonomic, or aesthetics, words are visual objects, equal to images and icons. When the main poetical element is space (the space of the white page), signs are not only readable from top left to bottom right, but located according to theoretical typologies (see for instance Pierre Garnier or Richard Kostelanetz). They distinguish topological structures or iconological, icono-synctatical structures. Every web designer should have good knowledge of visual poetries. Besides, the computer makes does not differentiate between text and picture: both are objects and both can be reduced to the same code. This is why a screen can also be compared to canvas. It is flat, edges, colours, the likeness is obvious. Nowadays it is a truism to say that screens are multimedia. We all think communicating through images is trivial. We live in visual environments: television, magazines, billboards, and so on. Pictures make sense, they tell us something, and we understand them. Visual poetry with its conception of polysemic meanings and multi-interpretation has materialised finally in electronic poetry. The image/poem asks for participation, an investment from the reader. In the experimental poetries of the sixties (see as example the Poema Processo), the reader is participative, he is a “do-reader”, in French a ‘lectacteur’.

However it would be wrong to think that electronic poetry is nothing more than a transformation of visual poetry into new technologies. When I said that e-poetry is multimedia, I did not speak yet about sound and sound tracks. I shall keep it brief: sound poetry is as important as all visual poetry put together. The 20th century changed poetry from a genuine literary expression to a global semiotic art. Guillaume Appollinaire’s utopist words came true that all arts fuse into one. The computer makes the total poetry outlined by visual poets as Adriano Spatola or the Dutch Robert Joseph technically easy. Multimedia, and especially video, brings the static page, poster or book, to a moving and changing surface. Video art is one of the main digital art forms. It would be easy to conclude that video deeply influences e-poetry. Video, from VHS to DV, brought a fantastic set of new possibilities in contemporary art in the seventies. But in my own experience and those of the e-poets I know, I think that video has had a very small impact. I have always wondered why there are so few cartoons and animations in movements such as the surrealists, the ‘lettrists’ and the concretists. Poetry hardly used this innovation. Only computers and computerized animations brought moving images into poetry. In 1996 I made the first CD-Rom of animated poems. (See Docks online : Computer poetry). If we look at the animated poems of the nineties, particularly in the French review Alire, all poems are programmed. There is no video. Some young authors, like Philippe Boisnard, at it via video-art. However, there is little contact between these two forms of expression. Video poetry is often a stop-gap before going on to video visual arts or to programmed arts. Animated poetry is something else: animation of words or of letters is based on syntactic animation. The sign cannot be reduced to colours and moving multimedia. There is only one single medium, the text. Animated poetry reveals two different linguistic codes: spoken vs. written language. A very rich and deep root of e-poetry is the computer itself. In my own experience the links between the eye of the poet and the new technologies is clear. Jean-Pierre Balpe for example comes from another side of computer poetry and literature. He himself is very familiar with the new technologies. Computer poetry was made for the first time in 1959, when Theo Lutz in Germany and Brion Gysin in the U.S.A let a computer produce the first computerized verses. (See: Alain Vuillemin: Poésie et Informatique In the sixties in France, Alamo, a group of scientists and mathematicians, (l’«Association pour la Littérature Assistée par la Mathématique et l’Ordinateur») began to think about the use of computers in literature. At that time, they could only produce printed texts. That means that e-poetry does not focus on visuals on screen, but from the outset another main computer-specific feature is present, namely generation by calculation. A generated poem is run by a program made for this purpose. This is an old idea. François le Lyonnais, one of the Oulipo creators, already spoke about « writing machines » in the Oulipo manifesto in 1961. Technologic evolution changes our life deeply. Every day we see new writing styles appear. Think at the so called code poetry (Mezz or Alan Sondheim), which is the transposition of computer codes into text, or think also of the SMS poetry with it is own syntax and spelling. France had its own precursor to the internet, called Minitel. Artists such as Eric Develay and Orlan (the latter better known for her body art) created works for Minitel. Internet also produced a completely new way of making up poems with the use of hyper textual web pages. Non-linear reading, sound fragments, photographs, pop-ups, labyrinthical structures are one products of the internet.

I outlined the computerized text generation as one of the components of e-poetry. There is another source of e-poetry in modern arts, certainly for me. For example, there were numerous links between concrete poetry and Fluxus. Many artists went from poetry to visual arts and back. As said, visuals and matter bring the poet/writer into another social environment: the visual arts circles. Most of us are the product of three components: visual and sound poetry, Oulipo and the avant-garde (Fluxus, the Situationnists, the sociological arts). We all share - certainly in France- a background in the avant-garde. We are looking for new expressions, new ideas, turning art upside down. Think of Italian futurism with its fascination for technique, or the Situationist movement in their use of re-appropriation, anti-copyright, rejection of the market rules. Modernism is an integral part me.

We share with our predecessors a common history and common values. But e-poetry is fundamentally different from modernist visual poetry and also different from 20th century painting. A widely held misconception is that e-art is just an art for the screen. First of all, the fact that an occurrence is digital does not make it an e-occurrence. Digital video is video. Typing a poem with a word processor can make good written poetry. Using computers as a tool is essentially different from using computers as a medium. What we get on screen is what Philippe Bootz calls the “texte-à-voir”: in other words what we are given to see. The user only sees a small part of what the artist made. Bootz calls this “texte-auteur”, the author’s text. Programming is a material that the artist uses, just like they use pigments or wood or words. This part of the art work will never be seen, except when the author wants it and when the user owns the same tools. By programming inside the ‘texte-auteur’, the artist does not create objects, but transient moments, which on screen appear as objects. To get an observable transient, you need a program, data, a programmer, a machine, and a user. When the user runs a work on a machine this autonomous process means the work becomes less of work of the author and more a work of the user, even though the author is still supposed to manage it. You can run the same work twice, but it will never be the same. Each experience of the work will be a fresh one. Knowing this basic fact means the author thinks differently about the output, what can be observed, and what the author can appropriate as “his/her work”. In short, what you see is never what you get. Globally, the “calculation machine” used as a medium offers two main structures: generation and interactivity, and all the combinations between them. According to Bootz, interactivity has four characteristics: it is a browser, the art work is hyper-textual, it commands processes, something will happen or not on the screen. What happens is happening is variable and uncertain. New processes may start; programs may answer to stimuli, immediately or a long time after. Interactivity can be a symbolic component of the work, which it clearly is in a lot of my works. It is a narrative or visual structure. Through interactivity, the user has to analyse or to be aware of what he does. Acting (I prefer the word reading a process) becomes a meaningful component of the work itself. It does not matter whether the user finds what is going on or not, the important thing is that the physical act is a part of the work. This is the main difference with other interactive arts: the dialogue happens between a user and an author through the mediation of a machine. Where it happens, when, and how is not important. By programming, the author can create an infinitely varying output. And, when the user is asked to participate (and why not, that is the game?) his actions can in turn generate an infinite number of different “objects”. It is obvious that, unlike previous art which always created and gave objects to see- even in performances- e-art is not object based. It is the art of generative process, not the product of generation. The whole process of generating/running/using is the work of art, not what the audience gets. Electronic art is a time based art.

The new e-work is a mix of approaches and structures : multimedia, processes, behaviours, various kinds of generation, various kinds of interactivity, user total implication of the user as a part of the whole, as a piece of the artwork. You can find many interesting works on the web, but I am not sure if specific web poetry already exists. Mostly, so called web art is an amount to navigating through data for various purposes. Again, the computer is used as a communication tool and not as a specific medium. The web has specific needs, online processes; it uses the architecture of the net, and is strongly linked to time. Very few works of art on the net fall within this definition. For instance, if the user can download the work (as you can do on my web site), and play it, you may have a true e-work, but not necessary an “e-web-work”. True net art shares the same characteristics as other electronic works of art. What the e-art adds is the ongoing process. The process replaced the object. The use of other new technologies like the mobile phone can only strengthens the movement towards art which, after have been cleared from object representation, is also cleared of the object itself. Nothing for sale. I like that.

(Prepublishing: e and eye London april 2006)