Originally published in hyphen magazine, N. 12, 1996, pp. 9-13.


How do you read your text?
Eduardo Kac and Hypermedia poetry

Kurt Heintz

In the late 80s, I was dispatched by Letter eX to cover a joint reading by Palestinian and Jewish writers at the University of Illinois. The program was held in a gallery filled with art from Palestine: drawings by children caught in the intifada, sketches and paintings by Israeli and Palestinian artists and Arabic calligraphic art.

That last element harkened to a moment I had at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, and really triggered my imagination. Classic Islamic culture refrains from direct representation in art, so the creative spark has to find other releases -- designs, decorations, abstractions, patterns, textures -- which ravish, delight, and enrapture the eye in lieu of more earthly and literal pleasures. A visit to the Taj Mahal in India or to any other great mosque will verify this. This calligraphy, the high art of presenting the poetry of the Qur'an, is a divine and reverent mediation.

Since then I've wondered whether there is such an experience in the secular west. After all, what do we do with our language? We spit it out with aggression and verve on stage. We publish it in plain books and read it in polite gatherings. We spike pop music with it. Occasionally, as in Avital Ronell's "The Telephone Book," the nature of the text is itself a text, an alternate channel to the words themselves, but even Ronell's typographic channeling is less an aesthetic expression than a critique of communication. It aspires to artistic ends, and touches them, but it does not suggest such ends are the central purposes of the book.

Enter telematics, hypermedia, and holopoetry.

Telematics are the constellation of arts which use networks and long-distance systems as the media for the artist's message. Telematic art originates in one place on Earth but is perceived and interpreted by the viewer in a different place entirely. Hypertext, such as is found on the web, can be considered a telematic form if it's part of a long-distance connection from author to reader. Holopoetry is as it sounds, poetry composed in holograms. Artists in these forms often have a hacker buried deep inside them who is pushing artistic buttons in their human host's consciousness. They try things which may seem kluged, oblique or sublime, but they gravitate toward frontiers driven by the novelty in the collision of art and technology.

When I encountered Eduardo Kac on the Internet, my search begun at the Alhambra finally took a turn. Kac is an articulate, soft spoken media artist, born and raised in Brazil, living in Kentucky and now of some renown in the United States and abroad. Kac's words do not sit still on a page. They have dimensions an motions of their own. They play specifically for the reader at the reader's request. Rather than tessellate into patterns in stone, they move and evolve with theatrical effect in time and space.

To be sure, we've already been partly exposed to this process. Television exploits such creative titling to sell us air travel, credit services or cola. There's an interesting comparison to be made between the present round of commercial for Nexxus hair care products and the experimental poetry videos of Richard Kostelanetz. In the commercials, descriptive and inviting language flows through a woman's hair in ways with amplify and comment on the words themselves; letters regroup into phrases and blend into a prescription of beauty. In Kostelanetz' videos, letter may simply wink on or off, or change one at a time to compose new words or nonsense, as though someone were trying different permutations to solve a crossword, revealing coded relationships.

The credit of the Beats and their contemporaries, who coined a concrete poetry by typing poems in the shapes of their subjects, both textual endeavors have a prior graphical example in the West. However, commercial semiotics have outpaced fine art because the capital incentive drove the process harder. The text in the Nexxus ad carries subtle connotation by its curvy movement, its typeface and even its varying degrees of soft focus. The text invites the viewer to contemplate the relationship between its action and its printed meaning. In contrast, the typical television viewer would be unimpressed by Kostelanetz' video works, which use flat typefaces and very simple rules of composition. In this comparison it's important to keep the commercial's agenda in mind, to remember that the play of the advertiser's words happens on the advertiser's timetable, not the reader's, and the message is still beholden to a product, not itself. The Nexxus ad is a creative commercial, but it's not art.

Of course, the web is a playground for such graphical adventures, and Eduardo Kac is very much at home there. (To see how at home he is, jump to http://ekac.org.) Kac has also worked in a mix of other telematic and new media art forms. He is a video-conferencing veteran of some years, has used robotic cameras as part of his installations, and has toyed with subliminal text in e-paintings. While still a young artist in Brazil, he relished tampering with the very commercial semiotics mentioned above through his graffiti and billboard installations.

I asked Kac to visualize his personal poetic cosmos on the web. "When you open it you're looking at a black 3-D space at a particular point," he says. "As a shape crosses the boundary of the screen, it clips to reveal the volume inside." The words are cast as three-dimensional figures in this virtual space. One may approach them from any angle, maneuvering at will around the letter forms and other objects in this space. "You have to decide whether to move closer or farther to determine what you see. Eventually you may zoom right by it, and go through long distances of empty space until you see small bits of light which are themselves new words," Kac says. The distance encourages a kind of psychological journey for the viewer who will see little or nothing unless they actively move within the virtual space. The language must be pursued and that pursuit depends on the reader's state of being.

In the sense that perspective in this synthetic realm is governed by the viewer, encounters between the reader and the language are not structured in the linear sense which you are enjoying here on the printed page. The encounter with the words and their form is sculptural, architectural, nearly physical. Says Kac, "The words are almost like a solar system in that sense. You're moving around and you may never come to them in the same angle. As much as I've tried I've never managed to read the same text twice."

Now, the concern for how a word looks is not the strict domain of video or hypermedia producers. Performance poets have been occupied with the how of words since they started. As it turns out, Kac's own poetic roots extend to performed poetry in Brazil. "In the very beginning, I read poetry publicly, but that was in the late 70s. I moved away from that traditional recital mode of poetry because the work I did in the 80s involved a lot of performance." Kac did not want a static reading of static text. His work "was written to be performed. It was previsualized to be in a public square in Rio or Saõ Paulo, with the rhythms, the punch lines, the free-flow of a public presentation."

Toward the end of this performance period in 1982, Kac began experimenting with holography as the medium for his poetry. Holography afforded him a chance to "print" his poetry, so to speak, while retaining the graphic and dimensional qualities he enjoyed as a visual artist. It also added viewer involvement to the text. "Writing is a process with involves the freezing of your thoughts, culminating in making marks on a page," he says. "Words that are fixed -- even if you're using collage, creative typography, whatever -- always ended up on the page. There is something to be said about the compositional rigidity that even the most radical poetry could not overcome." In other words, it does not matter what one writes; the printed page can only portray text in specific ways which other media can exceed. "I wanted to do something that could be developed over the years which others could work, too. Perhaps we [poets] would have to wait for holography to become cheaper to explore, but there was no reason why others couldn't produce holopoems."

The interaction with a hologram is a direct precedent and, for Kac, a direct model for the VRML (virtual reality modeling language) universe. "The text doesn't sit there in fixed relationships. The relationships are subject to violent transformations and oscillations which are dependent on the viewer, the turbulent environment," he says. So there is no necessary linear sequence for the words.

"Holography is not scriptable. What holography gives you is a 3-D space. Since the beginning I developed a discontinuous syntax. Discontinuity is not a metaphor," Kac says. You'll see different things in the holopoem with regard to where you physically stand and, as you move about, figures will change. As in Kostelanetz, the appearance or disappearance of a single letter can change the meaning entirely.

Kac continues, "Even when you're looking at a holopoem in serial time, this time is reversible. It's removed from the flow of time, the sequentiality of syntax. You're not really dealing with a linear, harmonic syntax structure. You can go from left to right, but also from right to left and the text is still open to signifying in both directions. What kind of time is this? It's definitely not linear time as we know it. It's suspended. This is only possible in holography."

The comparison above between the high-production commercial and fringe art-poetry films is not lost on Kac. I asked him for his comments on that Nexxus ad. "As TV became more sophisticated so did the text," he says. "What's impoverishing about this is that all these new potentials are being used to commodify the world, to sell. We need to overcome this bias. This is a form for our time. There's no reason why poets shouldn't embrace it." But commercialism has marked television as a dirty medium for writers. "In the same sense that television tries to get us to look through the tube at the happy couples on the beach and see that the war scene is clear, TV wants us not to look at the tube to perceive the medium, to see the degree of manipulation in place," Kac says.

But why are most writers never concerned with such representations of text? According to Kac, writers are similarly caught up in a focus on the words coming through the page rather than appreciation of the page itself. "Writers are alienated from their environment. This idea that the word [on the page] is pure somehow is a fallacy. We're going to collectively reveal that writing has always been circumscribed by the textual environment." New writers will begin to address both aspects of publishing, what is said and how it will look, Kac explains. This echoes a current voice in the poetry film movement, that of Canadian scholar William Wees who advocates reading the poetry film as "image-text"; the image is elevated and merged with the text into a common unit since the perception of the text cannot be separated from the text itself, a process as true for books as it is for film.

The near future promises some real change as Kac describes. The "we" to whom Kac refers above is a gathering of hypermedia artists who intend to change how the critical elite regard poetic text. Kac is a guest editor for a new media poetry issue of Visible Language which will address hypermedia poetry in theoretical terms and will be published as a hypermedia document so examples can be accurately cited. "It's a small publication by the Rhode Island School of Design," he says. "My ideas are finally embodied on paper, and I've been working on it for two or three years." Kac's story will discuss "not so much new ways of distributing verse-based poetry but documentation of innovative poetry which cannot exist by any other means than [being] digital, electronic or photonic... poetry that cannot be presented in paper. The media that the poets are working with are very diverse: hypertext, holography, virtual environments, and video poetry based in text." The issue includes a monograph by Dutch theorist Eric Vos who examines all the pieces to analyze the common threads and includes a "webliography" so readers can link to other on-line examples.

The page as we know it may no longer sit still, be silent or, for that matter, be flat.


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