Iconic elements in Eduardo Kac’s Holopoetry

                                                                                     John J. White

As a general matter of principle, it makes sense to explore forms of perspectival iconicity in shaped poetry with reference to the technology available at the time works were produced.  Even as late as the Futurist period, the problem of print technology still often had to be overcome by resorting to hand-engraved letters, deformed words and shapes.  Coming at this topic from a deliberately different angle, I should like to break away from the homogeneous corpus of early twentieth-century illustrations and move forward to the final decade of that century.  For what I want to do is consider one of the most significant new forms of shaped poetry of the last century, one where the illusion of depth and perspective is created, not by the use of conventional printing or handwritten words, but by means of a combination of holography and digital technology.  Such experiments transcend dependence on the printed word, the drawn shape, the page or the canvas.  They are the result of work in, but emphatically not transferred into, a relatively new heuristic medium.  In a way at best only prefigured by the poetic ‘mobiles’ of the 1950s and 1960s, what are called Holopoems are designed to break free from what their inventor rejects as the “rigidity of the (immutable) page” (Kac 1996: 192).  According to Kac, a “holopoem must be read in a broken fashion, in an irregular and discontinuous movement, and it will change as it is viewed from different perspectives” (Kac 1996: 189).  Such a reception has implications for the forms of signification involved, for it represents an emancipation from static, unequivocal forms of iconic effect, in favour of the “textual instability” (Kac 1996: 193) of the multi-layered and multi-facetted hologram.  The result is a work which continually oscillates between “morphing” text and protean images in a more fundamental break with the semiotics of a fixed sign-object iconicity than any other work of the twentieth century had accomplished.

What Eduardo Kac1 has invented with his holopoems is a form of poetry that seeks to work within a form of four-dimensionality.  In a situation where “the perception of the texts changes with viewpoint”, time, embodied in the viewer’s shifting perspective, also becomes a constitutive factor.  As Kac puts it:

the perception of a holopoem takes place neither linearly nor simultaneously,
but rather through fragments seen by the observer, according to decisions he
or she makes, depending on (...) position relative to the poem. Holopoems are
(...) quadri-dimensional because they integrate dynamically the three   dimen-
sions of space with the added dimension of time (...). A holopoem is a spatio-
temporal event; it evokes throught processes and not their result.
(Kac 1996: 186f.)

Inevitably, by virtue of their protean quality, such programmed multi-sequences resist adequate replication on the page and hence cannot be reproduced as illustrations.2  Somewhere during shaped poetry’s evolution from the creation of an illusion of three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional surface and the combination of virtual space and holography, a point has been reached where conventional methods of reproduction are no longer adequate because they would limit the experimental field.

Here is not the place, nor is the present writer qualified, to consider the technical means by which recent holographic experiments have created a digitally enhaced high-definition illusion of spatial three-dimensionality; the poet has himself given a general account of his creative strategies in “Writing holopoems” (Kac 1996: 195ff.).  However, it is clear that we have come a long way from the codes and conventions of earlier examples.  And as was the case with the 1960s experimental radio-play’s espousal of stereophony and quadrophonic effects, the tendency has not been to use the new sophistication for narrowly mimetic purposes, but to develop new kinds of abstraction and syntheses of abstraction and referentiality.  This is the case with many of Kac’s so-called “mobile signifying systems”. Here is his account of the method of his early   1980s Holopoetry, work largely carried out in Rio de Janeiro before his move to Chicago:

Holographic poetry tries to exhibit the impossibility of an absolute textual structure, it attempts to create verbal patterns with disturbances that magnify small changes in meaning according to the perceptual inquiry of the reader.
For example, a syntactical system can be created in which one could see twenty or more words occupying the same space without overlapping: a word could also transform itself into another word/shape or vanish momentarily.

Letters can collapse and reconstruct themselves or move to form other words in a time-reversal transition.  These and all other latent expressive possibilities of holopoetry are unique to its grammar and they are only possible in part because its space (...) is an oscillatory field of diffracting light as opposed to the tangible surfaces of pages and objects.  (Kac 1996: 193)

As this suggests, the medium’s dominant pull is in the direction of abstraction, as if what could be offered is a more adventurous virtual reality version of Gerhard Rühm’s multiple word hanging in implied space.  But, and it is more than just a ‘ latent possibility’, a surprising number of Kac’s works are actually based on a central tension between abstraction and references to the experiential world from which its words, shapes and choreographies have been abstracted.  Consider, for example, the following account of a poem entitled ‘ Phoenix’, where the two letters of the alphabet employed, “w” and “i”, in places suggest a bird and a vertical flame respectively, and yet refer iconically beyond the phoenix-legend to other aspects of contemporary reality:

My first piece in Chicago was Phoenix (1989), a poem composed of only one letter that draws attention to its visual properties instead of representing a particular sound.  Designed with ambiguity, the letter “w” might be perceived as a stylized bird with open wings.  It floats in front of the holographic film plane and is transfixed by a vertical open flame that can be read as the letter “i” and which moves randomly according to air currents.  The laser transmission letter-image produces a curious harmony with the actual flame, suggesting that we are as fascinated by laser images today as primeval man was by fire.
Where the laser red meets the blue flame, a hybrid magenta is perceived.
(Kac 1996: 200)

Despite all the three-or four-dimensional modalities of abstraction, there is still a strong, albeit permutational, form of iconicity in evidence in ‘ Phoenix’.  And the same interplay between abstraction and iconic referentiality within a perspectivized and continually modulating poetic space can also be found in the following abbreviated account (drawn from his catalogue raisonné in Visible Language) of Kac’s 1992 holopoem ‘ Astray in Deimos’:

(The) natural subject (of Astray in Deimos) is the landscape of Deimos, one of the two moons of the red planet.  This holopoem is imaginarily written by someone who has visited Deimos, which so far is only known to us through photographs taken by the Mariner and Viking probes.  (Kac 1996: 207)

(the work) explores metamorphosis as its main syntactical agent.  Deimos (“terror”) is the outer, smaller satellite of Mars.  The piece is comprised of two words (...) which are seen through a circle of predominantly yellow light.
Surrounding this scene is a web-like landscape made of shattered glass, which partially invades the yellow light circle.  The circle may represent Deimos as seen in the sky from the earth, or a crater on the surface or even a spacecraft window through which one may look down at the spacescape.  (Kac 1996: 205)

There can be no doubt here about the iconicity of the non-verbal images; even the work’s title suggests some equivocal form of referentiality.  But what about the words themselves?  There are at root two - “mist” and “eerie” (at times suggestively eliding to create the further word “mystery”) - that oscillate and move in and out of the various perspectival frames as the virtual reality event proceeds in a sequence unique to the individual beholder’s position and movements.  Here is Kac again on the “mobile” aspect of the words’ reception:

As the viewer moves relative to the piece, he or she perceives that each line that renders the graphic configuration of each letter starts to actually move in three-dimensional space.  The viewer then perceives that as the lines and points undergo an actual typographical transformation, they slowly start to reconfigure a different (...) letter.  If the viewer happens to move in the opposite direction, the noun is transformed back into the adjective. (Kac 1996: 206)

Each viewer is in this sense “astray in Deimos”, his or her visual experiences will involve different oscillations between the noun, the adjective and their protean context.  Since there is no overall shape to the work but simply a series of position-governed patterns, it is like being on an alien poetic planet without a map.  The instability of the adjective (“eerie”) and the noun (“mist”) iconically reflects such a predicament.  But as is usually the case in holopoetry, the iconicity is no longer the product of an immutable, single iconic relationship between sign and object, but a matter of seemingly infinite momentary permutations.  As Kac says, “holopoems don’t rest quietly on the surface”:  “each viewer ‘writes’ his or her own texts as different vantage-points make words shift, blur into one another, metamorphose into objects, vanish into mist or reverse the process” (Kac 1996: 190).  Terms like “turbulent syntax”, “textual instability”, “time-reversible fluid signs”, “luminous dissolution”, “impossible space”, “animated fragmentation”, “morphing”, “time-smear” and “the branching of holographic space” proliferate in Kac’s verbal evocations of his various effects.  But the point that needs emphasizing in the present context is that in certain of them, with titles like “Chaos”, “Adrift”, “Omen”, “Havoc” and of course “Astray in Deimos”, the abstraction is by no means devoid of referentiality and there are moments of short-lived or potential iconicity, which then characteristically morph into some other mode of signification.

At almost the same time as Eduardo Kac was experimenting with various forms of holographic poetry, the Umberto Eco of Kant and the Platypus was edging towards delineating some of the implications of holography for our conception of iconicity.  Admittedly, the discussion seldom centers on the hologram, not least because Eco’s volume is very much governed by the need to reassess positions previously held in A Theory of Semiotics.  Having written elsewhere at length on the mirror’s importance for an understanding of visual iconicity, Eco now turns his attention to closed-circuit-television images and, more pertinently, those of an enhanced form of television, in other words, forms of hypoicon unknown to Peirce:

Let us suppose (...) that the television has been perfected to the point that we can have three-dimensional images large enough to correspond with the dimensions of my field of vision, and even (...) that the screen has been eliminated and there is some apparatus that transmits the stimuli directly to the optic nerve.  In such a case, we would really find ourselves in the same circumstances as someone looking into a telescope or standing in front of a mirror, and this would do away with most of the differences between what (Ransdell 1979) calls a “self-representing iconic sign” (as happens in the perception of objects in mirror images) or an “other-representing iconic sign” (as in photographs or hypoicons in general).  (Eco 2000: 373)

Such a television would in certain respects border on virtual reality, another of the challenges to a twenty-first century conception of iconicity.  But rather tellingly, Eco’s musings about the nature of such a super-TV end with the words “there are no theoretical limits to high definition” (Eco 2000: 373).  Later, Eco cites Maldonado (1992: 40) and concurs with him on the fact that “a new typology of iconic constructs, all the way to virtual reality - and therefore not static but dynamic and interactive iconic constructs (he could be describing Kac’s holographic experiments) - sets new problems that require new conceptual instruments”.  Eco concludes:  “I think that a general semiotics must explain the fact that these phenomena exist (and question us), and not how they work in a cognitive sense” (Eco 2000: 43).  That his thinking is pushing towards the threshold when confronted with the modalities of iconicity in virtual reality, the hologram and other forms of surrogate stimulus is hinted at when Eco refers to a standard test for the iconicity brought about by surrogate stimuli:  “a good rule for detecting surrogate stimuli (trompe l’œil effects like the film of icy vapour on the outside of the proverbial advertisement’s beer glass) would seem to be the following:  if I change my point of view, do I see something new?  If the answer is no, the stimulus is surrogate” (Eco 2000: 356f.).  But a cautious endnote adds a rider: “If the answer is yes, it is not sure that the stimulus is natural; we could be faced with a hologram. I suspect that question of holograms should be approached from the point of view of my further discussion on mirrors and TV images” (Eco 2000: 427).  And there the reader is left.  Reference to the hologram and virtual reality in Kant and the Platypus is largely in the context of sophisticated high-definition iconicity.  And this may not be inappropriate, given that this is where most of us first encountered holography:  in the eerily accurate three-dimensional replicas that suddenly started turning up in our shopping malls a few decades ago.  Yet as we have seen, in experimental poetry the medium has moved in a variety of less mimetic, but nevertheless in some cases still partially iconic directions.

Futurist poet Bruno Sanzin’s work, for example, shows minimalist referentiality and hence some rather schematic iconic codes for suggesting perspective.  Minimal, and also ephemeral, iconicity is of course also a feature of Kac’s work, though in a very different and more profoundly innovative sense.  Kac’s own personal view of the early twentieth-century avant-garde’s experiments  with iconicity tends to make them look like little more than an insignificant blip in the annals of genuine experimental poetry.  In a historical preamble to his account of holopoetry, he reminds his readers:

Some poets tried to give a new direction to the ancient “figurative poem” (i.e. a poem in the shape of an object), but this tendency is a minor part of modern and contemporary literary experiments.  Even in Apollinaire’s œuvre, shaped words do not always signify straightforwardly the subjects of the shapes they were molded into, creating an ideogrammatic tension between the symbolic (verbal) and the iconic (visual).  (Kac 1996: 192)

Having commented at length on the confinement of the printed word to the flat page, Kac makes no reference to experimental works which seek to overcome - or at least compensate for - that limitation by perspectivizing their shaped words.  Perspectivized iconicity is the missing link between the grand tradition of two-dimensional visual poetry which Kac pays homage to (Kac 1996: 186f.) and his own holographic poetry.

Perspective is still a major factor in “Astray in Deimos”:  not just as a feature of reception, but also in the various referential scenarios suggested in Kac’s commentary.  But now, instead of the relatively fixed referentiality of perspective that we encountered with the Futurist material, we have protean play with referential possibilities and non-referential virtual spaces.  Iconicity of depth and perspective have not been jettisoned in favor of absolute abstraction, but they have lost their fixity.  As a result, we are arguably as far out into the outer space of one particular form of protean shaped poetry as the moon Deimos is from the planet Earth, our normal framework for visually iconic effects.


1.  Eduardo Kac, a poet working at the time in Rio de Janeiro, invented the holopoem in 1983, thus “freeing words from the page”.  In 1989 he moved from to Chicago where, as he puts it, “I was able to work  and experiment on an ongoing basis”.  In 1995 he received the highest international accolade in the field of holography, the Shearwater Foundation Award, for his invention and development of holopoetry.  He has works in several international public and private collections and has written extensively on innovative poetry and the visual arts.  He is also on the editorial board of the journal Leonardo.  For further information, see Kac’s website:  http://www.ekac.org/.

2. “Because of their irreducibility as holographic texts, holopoems resist vocalization and paper print reproduction.  Since the reception of the texts changes with viewpoint, they do not possess a single ‘ structure’ that can be transposed or transported to and from another medium” (Kac 1996: 201).


Eco, U. 1968.  La struttura assente.  Milan: Bompiani.
Eco, U. 1976.  A theory of Semiotics.  Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Eco, U. 2000.  Kant and the Platypus:  Essays on Language and Cognition.  Tr. A. McEwen.  London: Vintage.
Kac, E. 1989.  “Holopoetry and Fractal Holopoetry:  Digital Holography as an Art Medium”.  Leonardo 22: 397-402.
Kac, E. 1996.  “Holopoetry”.  Visible Language 30: 184-212.
Maldonado, T. 1992.  “Appunti sull’iconicità”.  In  Reale e virtuale.  Milan, Feltrinelli, 119-44.
Ransdell, Joseph. 1979 "The Epistemic Function of Iconicity in Perception," in Peirce Studies1, 51-66.


Excerpt from: White, John J. 2003. “Perspective in experimental shaped poetry: A semiotic approach”. In From sign to signing: iconicity in language and literature 3, By Wolfgang G. Müller, Olga Fischer, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, 105–127.

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