Originally published in the Proceedings of the Fifth International Symposium on Display Holography, Tumg H. Jeong, Editor, Proc. SPIE 2333, Bellingham, WA, pp. 138-145 (1995).



HOLOPOETRY: THE NEW FRONTIER OF LANGUAGE

An interview with Eduardo Kac


by IV Whitman

"Everything has been said . . . provided words do not change their meanings and meanings their words."
Goddard, Alphaville


According to some critics, Brazilian poet Eduardo Kac might be ahead of his time. The axiom, which was no less responsible for describing the likes of John Cage, Guillaume Apollinaire and Marshall McLuhan, is fitting for the likes of this artist who is a descendant of the legacy of visual poetry and also a skilled arbiter of the new media of art, namely, technology.

Kac's works are each exhortations to view and interpret media and language with new eyes. A digital field reduced to semantic structures and "discontinuous syntax," as he likes to say, provides an environment where the text moves in space as the viewer attempts to perceive the textually woven color field Kac calls the "holopoem."

Because the varieties of perception are infinite with a holopoem, this new breed of highly refined and meticulously calculated art is as mystifying to the viewer as it is to its maker. Kac has taken language and added a twist to the traditional left to right, top to bottom reading process: the "z" axis and a new kinetic factor. This fourth dimension not only allows the words to float, but, more importantly, gives the words new meanings as they are layered, forced on top of each other, appear and disappear, in clouds of mist and fields of color.

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1962, Kac experimented with a variety of poetic techniques before he appropriated holography in 1983 and began to create his holopoems. The following consists of excepts from an interview during the course of two hot July days in the summer of 1993 in Chicago.

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The two of us walk toward Lake Michigan at dusk on Sunday night-microphone in hand as we move down the street. Cars drive by and, finally, as we reach the lake, the water slaps the concrete jetty we sit on. The sky is clear and the air is warm and humid; hardly the Chicago one would imagine. But, it's summer. Our conversations begins to pick up and I turn on the recorder. I interrupt Eduardo mid-sentence in order to officially begin our interview.

WHITMAN: . . . say that again. I liked what you said about . . .

KAC: If I had to take a poet's work to a desert island, I would take Cummings' because I think he is unique in several ways. First of all, Cummings was not creating his unconventional style just to write non-semantic, abstract compositions. He always wanted to communicate something but felt that traditional means were not sufficient for him to express what he wanted to express. He needed to change the nature of the medium he was working with. I emphasize with that a lot because I felt that I could not work with the traditional, printed page medium anymore. I had to change my medium altogether to be able to do what I wanted. And although Cummings did not do that exactly, he made use of the graphic components of our written language in a way that was highly visual: the white space, the breaking of the line, the regular spacing of the typewriter. The geometry of writing implied the typewriter.

I do not use holography as it was handed down to me, as holography is normally understood. I really change the way, or at least I came up with my own way, of using it, in a way similar to the way that Cummings used the typewriter. The typewriter was meant to write linearly and he said there is something else here that is not being explored. So he examined what its potential was. Holography is traditionally known for the duplication of three-dimensional objects. I do not, however, believe that three-dimensionality is what holography is all about. Creating a three-dimensional structure with a hologram would simply be an extension of the two-dimensionality of the printed page which, to me, is missing the point. What I do is try to recover a temporal dimension to the word that otherwise would be lost in the third dimension. Holography has a unique potential for storing information in a non-linear way and this is what I try to explore more than anything else.

I use what I call "discontinuous syntax." So, instead of creating compositions that remain fixed on the surface of the page or the film or that remain stationary as a three-dimensional volume, I break that space in different ways. Each piece deals with this problem in a unique way. But what underlies them all is that I break that space into zones in such a way that you can never have the full gestalt or the full view of the poem at once. It's totally broken into different viewing zones that ask you to navigate in that space, oscillate with the poem, and create your own reading. So there is this breaking down, this collapsing of the two-dimensional, stable surface which physically makes my writing possible.


WHITMAN: Do you see your work in any way similar to what the Cubists were trying to explore in regard to the concept of simultaneity?


KAC: No. Simultaneity is a characteristic of print-based visual poetry and is not a characteristic of holographic poetry. Most visual poets from the 10's to the 70's wanted to create texts using the same kind of structures the painters used. The line, the color, the graphic forms -- all were used together on a two-dimensional surface in a way where there is pretty much no hierarchy. You can look at the background, you can look at the landscape on the background or you can look at the people in the foreground of the painting. You can concentrate on different areas, if you will, but the picture acts as a whole. All the elements are working together simultaneously on the picture plane to create unity, that whole, which is the painting.

What visual poets tried to do by using typography and new printing techniques was to break away from the linear structure that characterized poetry. They tried to work more along the lines of the painter and the visual artist. Therefore they gave up the line, the one dimensional line, as the base for writing and assumed the two-dimensional surface of the page as a new compositional unit. From then on it was a clear step to the three-dimensional, solid form of objects. I think that there is a clear direction towards a four-dimensional immaterial medium which is holography because I am dealing with three-dimensional space as well as time.

A lot of the syntactic and semantic efficiency of visual poems created by poets associated with movements such as Futurism, Cubism, Lettrism, and Concretism resulted from precise information about each letter. By that I mean that each letter has a specific color and size, each letter has a position on the page, each letter has a relative position in relation to another letter on the page and there it stays. But all this breaks down in my writing. Words and letters don't have a specific position. The position changes depending on what point of view you see the poem from. And, therefore, I emphasize less the structure than the behavior. The simultaneous structure implies a stationary, stable form that you can look at and the behavior implies a more interactive, a more discontinuous syntax. The letters do something as part of their signifying process.

Additionally, if we are both looking at a holopoem, what I see will be different than what you see. We are both looking at the same physical point on the surface of the hologram, but I will see it differently than you. We will never have a complete perception of the text because there isn't such a thing. It is a text that implies non-completion and that leaves a lot of room for the reader to create his or her own paths and choices and decisions.

I believe in the more interactive, viewer-activated text that really depends on the reader to release its potential in a way that is not metaphoric, but in a way that is actual and literal, actively involving perception and cognition together -- to probe the text, to change the text in order to read. So reading becomes this very kinetic, very dynamic activity, sometimes even sending completely different inputs to each eye-which I call "binocular reading" because, in a sense, for the first time you are really reading with your two eyes.

This has never been meaningful in the process of reading itself. Looking at the printed page here, what I see with my left eye is just a different viewpoint of what I see with my right eye. Retinal rivalry is not a poetic issue, but what matters is that in a holopoem you can read a text that is fluctuating, that has this conflict between the two inputs.


WHITMAN: But you are creating a new non-language from whence comes the difficulty of trying to reconcile the dilemma people have when they see a language that no one speaks but you.

KAC: Isn't that what poets do?


WHITMAN: It is! But there is friction between this non-sense and sense which I think could be called "idea" in regard to your work.


KAC: It's true that there is a tension between sense and non-sense, meaning and non-meaning. But what's different is that now you have a text in which you are in between, and most of the time you spend there. When you are in that transitional zone, what you see oscilates without having to flow in any particular direction. My idea is to ask you, the viewer, to read something in between those two or more words. I do this by making the letters force their way into each other and dissolve into each other in order to suggest meanings between the words in a way that I could not do with straight forward language.

For example, if you think of two extreme concepts, black and white, you can clearly think of a third term-gray. Gray defines a very clear zone between those two ideas. Now if you think of metal and sugar, there isn't a word that clearly defines the mid-point between those two ideas. Why is that relevant? Well, that's what poetry is all about. It is the investigation of hidden meanings and hidden possibilities in language. What I want to do is reach that middle point between sugar and metal without inventing a word. I want the words to battle, let the words go at it, let the words collapse, let them dissolve, let them move and let the viewer explore that transition in space and time and try to respond to these words.


WHITMAN: So, you are dealing with two things that depend on the viewer's movement in front of the hologram, that is, the optic sensations that occur with the left eye and the right eye and the tension that is created there optically, as well as the interpretive tension, that is, trying to figure out what the words are trying to say and that fight that goes on there.


KAC: Exactly. And you see the words express that conflict in a sense in Amalgam, (1990) for example, because the poem has words such as "vortex" and "flow" where there is something implied which is a very subtle, very quiet, very congenial motion contrasted with something that is wild, chaotic, that drowns, and implies destruction.


WHITMAN: A classic example would be Adrift, I think . . .


KAC: In Adrift [1991] you see the word "subtle" and you pretty much don't quite see anything else at that point if you're looking like right there. When you see the word "subtle" in black against a color background, you don't see anything else. So you are looking through a viewing zone. As you leave that viewing zone the word disappears altogether and you see the words "lightning" and "when," almost disappearing. You then see the words "gears and" and in the viewing zone that you are in now you don't see "butterflies," or "breathe," for example . . . So these are discontinuous viewing zones and they never allow you to grasp them at once. Also, when you move in front of the holopoem, you perceive different viewpoints and you perceive the words changing and floating.


WHITMAN: What has been the role of the computer in your holopoems?


KAC: Computers have given me more freedom in terms of typographic creation and spatial organization, but more importantly they have allowed me to explore new linguistic behaviors. In Adrift, for example, I combine digital and holographic spaces. The letters in the word "breathe" are blown away like leaves by the viewer's gaze. Also, computers have stimulated me to try to push further the principle of syntactic discontinuity. For example, in Adrift the passage between viewing zones kind of flows; it's not abrupt. But in many other of my pieces there are big gaps between the viewing zones and these gaps do not have any semantic function, like the white space in "A Throw of Dice" by Mallarmé or in the concrete poem. They are empty. It's just emptiness: non-semanticized space that has a structural function in the reading process but that does not resonate as silence in the way that the white space on the page does.


WHITMAN: So, in formalist terms, you don't have positive and negative space?


KAC: Right . . .


WHITMAN: You just have positive space.


KAC: That's an important discussion right there because of these dualisms -- positive and negative, presence and absence. The black ink of the printed page in the concrete poem stands for the voice, the sound, or the word as opposed to the silence of the white space. I do not operate within that dichotomy at all. I am much more interested in the graphic substance of the word and I de-emphasize the acoustic dimension of the word. I am more interested in the word, the written word, the specificity of the written word, in itself as a non-secondary system in relation to the spoken word. I am not aiming at an oral resonation of these words. These holopoems cannot be recited; they cannot be performed at all and I find that to reveal the ultimate specificity of the discontinuous syntax. They are not meant to be performed; they are meant to be experienced as a new kind of written word, a new kind of visual poetry that exists in a space that invents its own rules.

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We get up from our concrete seats beside Lake Michigan on Columbus Drive and Jackson Blvd. around 8:15 p.m.. A fire burns in the distance to the north, somewhere in Chicago, and dragonflies are everywhere. We walk a few blocks to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and take the stairwell to the basement which echoes with our voices as we walk down its painted brick hallways. We continue our conversation from the lakeside . . .

WHITMAN: So, how could one discuss your work thematically?

KAC: Thematically? Well, I think poets have always written about the same things: human concerns, life and death, relationships, love, hate, social issues, the things you see, the things you think about. Sometimes I look at what I've done so far and there really isn't a thematic concern that I try to pursue. As far as that goes it's very spontaneous, you know. I don't have an agenda for themes.

But if I look back at what I've done so far, the Cabala, the permutation charts of the Cabala . . . . You see, in Hebrew the numbers are also letters, so every word has a numerological dimension to it. My first computer holopoem in Chicago was a piece called Multiple (1989) that consists of four signs that traverse the film plane, perpendicular to the viewer. So if you move to your left, you see the word "poem," but that word is written in such a way -- tilted in space -- and with a typeface that resembles numbers so much that when you look from this side you see the numbers, 3-3-0-9, which is a simple equation: 3x3=09. I'm attempting to recover some of the hidden meanings of the Hebrew alphabet in that piece, and, of course, all the meanings that the number 3 has in numerology and mysticism.

Abracadabra, (1984/85) my second holopoem, also was influenced by the Cabala because "abracadabra" is a Cabalistic word. Lilith, (1987/89) a piece that I did with Richard Kostelanetz, was heavily influenced by the Cabala. Shema (1989), a piece that I did in memoriam to my grandmother, the only piece in which I actually used the Hebrew language, in a sense, is also influenced by the Cabala, because I'm talking about the recovery or about the integration of the soul after death, to nature and the sun.

WHITMAN: Mysticism is one thing that all your work has in common . . .

KAC: Cabalistic mysticism, specifically. I am not interested in other forms of mysticism.

WHITMAN: But your holopoems I think are mystic in some way because they are mysteries. You have to search for these mysteries that are within them and without light they aren't there. So, there are certain things, there are certain metaphors you could use to explain them in a mystical way, but also they are elusive.


KAC: That's a word that very well describes . . .


WHITMAN: They are very elusive in the same way that mysticism or spirituality is. So if you try to describe a holopoem, you couldn't. You would have to see it in the same way that you have to experience it. And I think there is a kind of mystery in technology that you touched on. As much as we try to explain what the hologram is and how the film reacts to the light, there is something . . .


KAC: Fascinating! To pursue that line of thought of the themes, I can clearly see that in "Abracadabra," "Multiple" "Lilith" and "Shema", I am being influenced by my interest in the Cabala.

But if you look at the other pieces, another area of concern of mine is the natural phenomenon. This amazing thing I discovered here in America is how fast the clouds move. Clouds here in Chicago move so fast. You don't see that in Rio. It's just that peaceful, sunny thing throughout the whole year. Here you have the typhoons, the cyclones, the earthquakes, disturbances, the earth being alive and moving and changing. I want to recover or recreate that in language: to disturb language, to make language uneasy, to make language collapse, to make language fall and break and pulverize and transform itself, escape through your fingers. I want that chaos, that recycling, that destructive power, that power that takes things away from their place. I want all of that in my poetry.

This fascination with natural phenomena that I was never so much aware of . . . you can see that in the behavior of the letters and words in the computer holopoems. They are much more disaster prone, if you will. I'm interested in appropriating this sort of natural behavior into language, but in a way that would expand what language can say beyond its ordinary use or meanings. In Adrift it says, if you translate it linearly: "subtle lightening when gears and butterflies breathe." Seeing gears and butterflies breathing is sort of seeing the whole, or how everything is connected: man-made and not man-made, being alive and breathing in this convulsive environment, in this ever changing environment.

Science fiction is another theme that recurs, I think. When I was 7 years old I was reading comics or science fiction books and it was no big deal to me for people to actually land on the moon, for example. I still have a comic book from 1969 in which the super-hero fights this holographic criminal. And in order for the super-hero to fight him, he has to become a hologram himself. All of that, in a sense, belonged to the imagination of a child growing up with comics and television.

So, the Souvenir D' Andromeda (1990) piece, in my mind, is a souvenir that somebody brought from Andromeda for you. And traveling to Andromeda and experiencing Andromeda is something that cannot be described with language as we now it here, stationary, on printed surfaces and so forth. Language has to be, in a sense, reinvented to express that space travel experience. That's something that poets always did. You know, poems about environments they have experienced. The whole tradition of the haiku and being observational about the seasons and about nature, that's something that poets always did.

Appolinaire wrote in 1918 in his The New Spirit and the Poets : "Poets will carry you, living and awake, into a nocturnal world sealed with dreams. Into universes which tremble ineffably above our heads. Into those nearer and further universes which gravitate to the same point of infinity as what we carry within us." So, it's along these lines.

The other piece, Astray in Deimos, (1992) reflects a similar interest. Imagine that somebody visited the smallest moon of Mars and wrote a poem about it. But to express what he saw, that poem must be in a language that has that metamorphosis, that transition to convey what he felt and what he experienced about that landscape.

And another recurring theme, perhaps, is vision, vision not on a banal, mechanical level. My first holopoem is a sort of manifesto for a new way of seeing. Holo/Olho, (1983) "olho" meaning "eye" in Portuguese, and you have all the fragmentation in it that tries to create a syntax based on the idea that the part contains the whole and the whole contains the part. So, "Holo/Olho" syntactically tries to appropriate a unique feature of the holographic space, which is the fragment containing the whole and vice versa. It tries to recover that in the structure of language itself .

So, vision, the deeper meanings of vision and visuality, apparently, are a recurring theme, too, like in Omen (1990). In this piece you have the word "eyes " that can be read in different ways and that emerges out of a cloud of smoke and then disappears, dissolving into this cloud of smoke. It is ambiguous as something you can see through but at the same time blocks your vision. "Omen" implies something that occurs in the future, so there's that whole idea of looking into the future. There's a whole metaphor, a visual metaphor, being created there about seeing and not seeing and that, in a sense, reflects what I feel is going on in my life.


WHITMAN: What do you think the public's and the critic's reaction has been to your work here in the United States?


KAC: I guess that depends on what you call critics because, you know, traditional literary critics won't consider this poetry at all. [Claus] Clüver is one who I think acknowledges merit in what I am doing. I don't know if Clüver would be a critic; he's a comparative literature scholar. I think Eric Vos, an experimental poetry scholar from Holland, and Richard [Kostelanetz] see significance in what I'm doing. Also, new media arts critic Louis Brill has written about my work. The public's reaction? I don't know. Loren Billings, the director of the Museum of Holography in Chicago, told me that a lot of families came into the museum when I had my work there and they had a lot of schools and tourists and she said they spent quite awhile looking at my work, trying to put the pieces together and trying to understand what was being communicated and so on. It's hard for me to know. I think that a lot of people may still find the work very difficult to understand because, first, people are not used to seeing holograms as art works. People are used to seeing holograms that pose no interpretive problems: holograms of clowns, holograms of reclining nudes, holograms that conform to habits of looking. Holographic art works do not, and I'm not only talking about my own, but holographic art works, the significant ones, the ones that deserve to be called so, do not conform to traditional habits. So people are just not yet used to looking at holographic art as such, period.

Visual poetry, you must admit, is not a field that is well known by the common audience. People don't know that there is such a thing as visual poetry. They have seen advertisements that were influenced by visual poems and maybe they've even seen visual poems, but they don't know there is a tradition that is a literary genre. So here comes this guy who tells them, "This is not only holographic art, but this is also visual poetry. And you can never see the whole thing from one view point." Most people still look for the literal meaning of the words and most people will not allow themselves to read the transitions in the sense that they read color fields blending into one another in a Mark Rothko painting. I think that this is an issue of conventionality. Maybe if I keep making holopoems and if more people explore this concept, then it might not be so difficult to understand in the future. But I can't give up the issues I'm dealing with in order to make the work more accessible.

The whole motivation for me is to investigate new possibilities of language. I create these works because I want to see them. That's the bottom line. I only make a holopoem if it's something that I think would be great. That motivates me to go ahead and spend all the money, to spend nights in the lab and so forth. To see something that I want to see present, here, that otherwise wouldn't be. I know I won't see it if I don't make it. So there is a fascination with making it and looking at it and saying "Incredible! Language can do this. Language can behave in this way. Language can communicate this way, also." That is the biggest motivation for me to go ahead and make it.


IV Whitman is a writer who lives in Providence, Rhode Island, USA. He has published interviews with writers and artists such as Dick Higgings and Jenny Holzer.


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