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)