Excerpted from: Bohn, Williard. Modern Visual Poetry (Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press and Cranbury, New Jersey, Associated University Presses, 2000), pp. 287-288.


Williard Bohn

Eduardo Kac's work embraces both computer poetry and holography. An exhibition of his "Language Works" in Chicago in 1998 featured a hologram, two videos, a set of Iris inkjet prints, and a computer terminal where visitors could operate six programs. Conceived as independent (and monumental) entities, Kac's holopoems are generally composed with the aid of a computer. In return, the artist explores various holographic preoccupations on the computer screen, where his prolific imagination assumes innumerable forms. Many of his works can be seen on the Internet, where they may be downloaded onto the viewer's own computer and enjoyed indefinitely. Like other poets and artists, Kac felt the printed page imposed serious limitations on visual poetry, which was confined to a rigid, two-dimensional mold. "I was looking for a poetic language," he recalls, "that would be malleable, fluid, and elastic" - one that would more accurately reflect the thought process. He was encouraged to experiment with holopoetry by its nonlinear structure, immateriality, and lack of stability.

In contrast to traditional poetry, holopoems have neither a beginning, a middle, nor an end. Rather, Kac explains, they "seek to express dynamically the discontinuity of thought ... through fragments seen at random."Where the reader begins, for example, is determined by where he or she happens to be standing. Thereafter, every movement that produces a change in the angle of vision creates new reading possibilities. While one word gradually metamorphoses into another, in-between meanings are also generated. As Garrett Holg notes, Amalgam (1990) "literally liberates language from the printed page by giving it sculptural form and projecting it into space and time. " Suspended in midair, the poem consists of two sets of words depicted in three dimensions: "Flower / Void" and "Vortex / Flow," which merge with one another as the viewer adopts alternate perspectives. Illustrating the instability of language, Julia Friedman adds, Amalgam's slippery syntax "challenges the viewer to search for meaning between the words." However, the poem's meaning turns out to be as elusive as its syntax. Although the words seem at first to be nouns, most of them could just as well be verbs. Flipping back and forth from one pair to the other, the viewer struggles to detect a unifying principle. Does the work constitute a four-term homology, for instance, an exercise in mirror imagery, or a metaphorical statement? An extensive investigation fails to yield a satisfactory answer. More than anything, one concludes, the poem represents an "amalgam" of its visual and verbal possibilities.

Other holopoems incorporate either a simpler or a more complex interplay between words and images. Adopting a minimalist approach, Phoenix (1989) consists of a single letter transfixed by a flickering flame. With a little effort, Kac explains, the ambiguous letter (W) can be perceived as a stylized bird with open wings and the flame as the letter I. The composition would seem to refer not only to the mythical bird, perpetually reborn from its own ashes, but to the artist himself, who, recently transplanted from Rio de Janeiro, was experiencing a rebirth of his own in Chicago. Significantly, Phoenix was the first of his pieces to be composed in that city. Superimposed upon the blue flame, Kac adds, the red letter produces a vibrant magenta suggesting that "we are as fascinated by laser images today as primeval man was by fire." Conceived in collaboration with Richard Kostelanetz, Lilith (1987-89), is a trilingual composition that comments on the legendary figure evoked in the title. According to Jewish tradition, with which the artists take issue, she is both a demonic figure and the symbol of sexual temptation. As one views the poem, the words "HE," "EL" (short for "Elohim,"," i.e., "God"), "ELLE" (she), and "HELL" merge with each other. These transformations are meant to criticize the bias surrounding the myth of Lilith, who is revealed as the product of a masculine culture that created God in its own image.

As the twentieth century draws to an end, it is clear that visual poetry has enjoyed unparalleled success during the past one hundred years. Whereas earlier critics gleefully predicted the genre's rapid demise, it not only refuses to disappear but continues to be as popular as ever. Indeed, judging from the recent proliferation of graphic poems, visual poetry is at the height of its popularity.

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