On “Between Page and Screen,” by Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse

A few weeks months have passed since my initial post on the Poetry off the Page Symposium in Tucson. Technical difficulties with the admin for this blog, and a new job, are to blame for the hiatus, but I did want to devote some time to a work that was especially interesting to me, particularly in its interrogation of the relationship between old and new media, and in identifying a space in which there is a reflexive relationship between the two in which both media further the importance of the other. Further impetus for writing up my thoughts on this work came from my attendance at the recent Convergence on Poetics conference in Bothell, WA – a conference whose discussions will merit a further post or two of their own.

Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s Between Page and Screen is a hybrid work whose title considers the space occupied somewhere in between the two media coupled together to perform readings. ‘Coupled’ here is a word chosen carefully. Many of the page/screen performances constitute letter exchanges between P and S (Page and Screen would be the logical presumption), and these are themselves manipulated, words extracted and turned into discrete concrete poems.  These relationships are always within the context of manipulation by a body, a relationship foregrounded in the webcam interface.  The poems themselves are also the basis for an investigation into etymology – and thus might be considered to parallel (through semantic / linguistic evolutionary interrogation) the material constructive developments of text works – materialities clearly fundamental to reader agency when presented in this way.

Clearly, Borsuk and Bouse’s vision here seems not to challenge the creative and dynamic potentials of the printed page; indeed, they harness the stasis of print to trigger the dynamism of the animated and volatile screen renderings of text. In this work, the screen and the page work together to produce a work that exceeds the potentials of both media in isolation. Rather than witness language in spite of its media, we instead are invited to participate in the mutual influence of linguistic, formal and physical materials.

The book element of the text defies the standard notion of what constitutes a ‘text’, comprising solely of geometric shapes that act as coded triggers for the Flash application. This application interprets the shapes as instructive keys for which poem to display. One medium completes the other in a reflexive relationship of decoding. Without digital interpretation, the book on its own does nothing (it does imply a coded layer and is therefore implicitly expressive, but regardless of the speculative gain this entices, it is nonetheless impenetrable referentially) and without the book, the program has no input and is similarly impotent. Performance surfaces are similarly co-dependent; the book acts literally as a physical platform upon which the texts ‘stand’ whilst at the same time requiring the screen to render this play. This interplay of visual trigger and translation into textual action on-screen requires careful attention at first, as one learns the methods of extracting a text from the page, and with it, learns the nuances and quirks of the activity of the software.

This previous point is not a trivial one: at several points during her demonstration of the work, Borsuk’s manipulation of the book triggered (presumably unintended) explosive endings to the textual renderings (this occurred in the Tucson reading). The software, when interpreting an action as either the closing of the book or the turning of the page, performs closing action that explodes the text into disappearance. Far from being considered some kind of failure or buggy behaviour in the work, to me this foregrounded the relationships described above and underscored the relationship between the volatile text being rendered and the supposed ‘stable’ – yet on the surface non-referential – printed trigger.

This instability is a useful point of reference when considering the texts themselves (yes, there are texts to be read here!), and although perhaps tenuous, so too is the geometric form of the trigger texts. Considering these shapes as texts (they are commands – they mean something unique and quantifiable) yet (for me anyway) being easy to forget in terms of their uniqueness merely as shapes, they represent the often subtle or unnoticed qualities of a language as it develops, literally shapes. So then do Borsuk and Bouse’s text enact this process and discuss it in content. Borsuk’s own explanation does a far better job than I could (especially her discussion of the “shield” page) of relating how the various concrete works enact formally and semantically the etymologies of key words taken from the exchange of the letters they intersperse.

Borsuk reading sequence

Amaranth Borsuk — partial sequence from “Between Page and Screen”

Get the printed book.

Between Page and Screen (online)

Amaranth Borsuk discussing Between Page and Screen at the Poetry Off the Page Symposium (University of Arizona Poetry Center – via the Voca website)


Clemente Padin, Nick Montfort and Translating the Concrete

I just read a pretty fascinating couple of short articles and thought I’d meld them into some half-baked thoughts. What else are blogs for, right?

In a recent post on Grand Text Auto, Nick Montfort discusses briefly Ottar Ormstad’s making “the case for non-translation at the recent Paris 8 conference.” Though I have not heard this case, I can attempt some guesses at what some of its arguments might be.

A major attribute of much concrete poetry (itself a variety of sub-genres and wildly varying in aesthetic approaches) is one of being self-contained. If the poem exploits semantics at all, these semantics can tend to be insular, not looking outward to a wider context of social-historical system. Instead, meaning is often derived from the interaction of space and content in the poem. An example of this might be an old favourite, Eugen Gomringer’s Silencio poem, in which the meaning of the word is exemplified by its absence in the centre of a box created by that very word. Articulation articulates non-articulation.

“Silencio, ” by Eugen Gomringer

Funnily enough, Silencio might offer itself up as a prime candidate for translation, since it really doesn’t matter what language the poem is in. Silence means silence, and its visual absence enacts its meaning. One might also consider this an argument against translation, since the translation does nothing new to the poem other than offer a direct equivalence of reference.

Montfort notes the “langauge-specific[ity]” of the Padin poem shown by Ormstad:

He then links to a further article in which he has attempted to ‘translate’ the poem.

What interests me about this effort (and the explanation of it) is that the material constraints with which Montfort is working necessitate a considerations and reconfiguring of the thinking of language and its associative qualities. Shifting the focus from direct referential equivalence to the implicit meanings created by the word associations resulting from material fusions, Montfort hits at the heart of the originating message-through-material-fusion, being forced (no matter how tongue-in-cheek the manner) to consider how such a message might be conveyed through material and subsequently vocabulary-based restrictions in another language.

What I really don’t know, however, is whether this look outwards is an argument for, or an argument against, translation in a concrete poem…

Poetry Off the Page Symposium Commentary: Day 1

This post is the first of what will be a few write-ups of my experiences at the Poetry Off the Page Symposium, held at the University of Arizona Poetry Center last weekend (18-20 May). Rather than provide a comprehensive account of everything, the following and subsequent posts aim to get my thoughts, musings, ramblings and questions into some kind of articulation. If any attendees end up reading this, I welcome input through comments on the event!

By way of introduction, The symposium ran from 18-20 May 2012, and was organised by the University of Arizona Poetry Center (whose Executive Director is Gail Browne). The event curator was Annie Guthrie, who did an outstanding job, both in her programming of the event and in keeping events as much to schedule as could be reasonably expected given the performance nature of so many events. My thanks to both Annie and Gail for this event – a departure from the poetic norm for which I hunger!

The symposium’s reception was a time to mingle and and check out the installed works throughout the Poetry Center’s library and upstairs areas, including Christine Hume’s installation piece Pillowtalk (Covers): a Sonic Insomnia, a table of pillows with integrated speakers that encourage participants to sit, heads firmly on desk pillows, and play the work into their ears. Perhaps it was the reception Corona, but there was not much of a chance of me surviving such comfortable participation for longer than 5 minutes without waking up several hours later. I had to keep moving!

Christine Hume, "Pillowtalk"

Christine Hume, “Pillowtalk”

Of particular relevance to the readings that were to follow were Claudia Rankine’s The Situation series of films. The symposium site describes these short films as

video essays [that] speak to national and international moments in contemporary culture and address our visually saturated culture by bringing language to the images we consume. The series attempts to juxtapose temporal memory alongside historical critique through the layering of sound and image.1

The moments captured or represented on the screen were therefore highly charged with their social, cultural or historical contexts. Particularly in the cases of Situations 1, 3 and 5, I found that the layers of noise or visual effects fragmented these moments and their temporal specificity, introducing an abstraction compounded by occasional repeated phrasings. The famous World Cup Zinedine Zidane incident, for example – a flash of a moment in literally the final moments of the footballer’s career – is stretched across several minutes, with the stop-start frame stretching making the incident an achingly slow build-up whose climax is at once the basis for the film yet at the same time relatively inconsequential in the scheme of the holistic work. Likewise, with Situation 3, the screen noise, garish and technologically foregrounding, masks and then reveals horrific, graphic depictions of the dead.

Rankine’s presentation further contextualised the works, showing an additional film not (as far as I could tell) focused on a specific historical moment as in the case of the The Situation films, but instead reciting the accounts of several black interviewees relating their experiences of being pulled over by the police. Alongside this, a suitably quotidien coverage of black youths in a clothing store – pointedly mundane and inconsequential.

Prior to Rankine’s talk, Christine Hume gave a performance of her sound work, Speech Talks Back, a documentary-/essay-poem whose spoken text was placed in dialogue with the materials being used alongside. References to Gregory Whitehead were well placed in the piece, as Hume (I believe?) used some Whitehead, before using overlapping and looping of archived speech / interview language, including 911 call sound from the Travon Martin incident, and Steve Reich’s Come Out, which utilises a short quote from one of the Harlem Six to overlap itself, slightly out of sync, before becoming increasingly distorted and unintelligable. Eventually these looping structures transition into seemingly pure rhythm, overriding the semiotics of the phrase. The sentence looped begins to sound like a distorted heartbeat, or a piece of industrial machinery. This is perhaps a suitable comparison, since machinery can also mean the apparatus at work behind abstract systems, such as language and culture / politics, and these are the very machinations that are being interrogated.

Cecilia Vicuña was up next, and gave a (semi?-) improvisational talk for the symposium. Beginning by literally threading the audience with long strands of woolen material, she then spoke through various degrees of noise, volume and clarity to deliver the talk. Imagine a gentler-sounding version of Diamanda Galás’ vocal gymnastics and you may get an idea in terms of the noise/clarity dichotomy, though that comparison is admittedly inadequate. Vicuña’s account of the process noted that, despite her desire to “thread” the people of Tucson in her preparations for the talk, the heat meant that there were hardly any people to thread. Instead, she threaded landscapes and other animals, and of course, us, the audience, into her poetic body.

It seems appropriate to consider a thread of my own to close the post. To me, what ran through all three of these performance-talks was the importance of the noise element to sense, and to the delivery of the voice as carrier / personalisation / ownership of language. Noise seemed to me to be fundamental in the foregrounding of its opposite – of those intense moments of clarity of language and/or historical significance. These were subsequently often humorous (Vicuña) or, as in the case of Hume and Rankine, horrific. Yet they always complicated themselves through the displacement of vocal authority either through displaced recitation (the relating of accounts of experiences of release from prison, and being pulled over in Rankine) or through noise filtration (the dynamics of the voice in Vicuña or the source materials of looped / filtered vocals in Hume).

  1. Poetry Off the Page Schedule, http://poetry.arizona.edu/content/poetry-page-schedule. Accessed 22 May 2012

Breaking the Ice for the Millionth Time

Well, it’s that time again. The time where I open up another incarnation of my blog, and ride a wave of enthusiasm by actually writing on it.

I was generally pretty good at keeping up with my blog over at Itch Away. However, there was something of a professional identity crisis, combined with the increasingly unwieldy manner in which the site was designed, that eventually made updating the thing an unnecessarily involved task. Writing wasn’t the problem — making it work properly was. I had set up all sorts of fancy extras — little extras I could apply if I wanted to. The problem with that was that if I decided not to add these features, the posts looked horrible. Features and settings were bolted on with no decent planning, and eventually I felt like I wanted to set fire to the blog and claim the insurance money.

With this new, ‘from the ground up’ blog, I have made the whole thing more flexible and friendly to mobile updates and quick imagery. I love having custom headers as a creative constraint, and all of this, with the help of WordPress’s much-improved features (and a decent stock theme to hack to pieces) should hopefully encourage writing a little more regularly, although perhaps not at length with each post.

This site will hopefully help to mitigate the issues (deep, psychological issues) relating to my hybrid interests of poetry, digital poetry and literature, and coding. Having a space where both can be explored, whilst giving readers a chance to filter if desired, is the goal. Over the coming weeks and months, various ‘professional’ updates will be made, as well as thise relating to my practice as an artist. Spurred on by my recent visit the the Centre for Creative Collaboration in April (about which I mean to write a shot post next week), I am encouraged to allow this hybrid nature of my interests to play out in an experimental way. Like Jim Andrews, I regard my website as a body of work, always evolving. Experiments, works-in-progress, essays, discussions, complete work — all of it forms a kind of self-reflexive dialogue that I find essential for moving forward with all areas of my practice. Hopefully, along the way, it proves useful or at least interesting or entertaining for those reading it.

The crazy aspect of developing my new site was that I sat on it for so long until it was ‘ready.’ It is still not ready, and portfolio items, and published digital writings will be going up in the coming weeks and months too. However, this was preventing me from blogging, and since I am about to pack up the laptop and head down to Tucson for the Poetry Off the Page symposium, I was desperate to have the opportunity to write up snippets of my experiences there whenever I get the chance. That will be my first contribution to the Commentary section of the blog.