Chris Funkhouser. "Bionanomedia Expression." Postmodern Culture 18.3 (2009) Project MUSE. [Library name], [City], [State abbreviation]. 8 Apr. 2009 <http://muse.jhu.edu.proxy.artic.edu/>.
Volume 18, Number 3, May 2008
Department of Humanities, New Jersey Institute of Technology
Review of: Media Poetry: An International Anthology, ed. Eduardo Kac. Chicago: Intellect Books, 2007, and Kac, Hodibis Potax. Ivry-sur-Seine (France): Édition Action Poétique, 2007.
Poetry liberates language from ordinary constraints. Media Poetry is a paramount agent in pushing language into a new and exciting domain of human experience.
Eduardo Kac, Media Poetry
Introducing Eduardo Kac’s collection Hodibis Potax, the fictional author “Philip Sidney” (identified as “Director of Thermal Ion Verbodynamics Division” in a “Department of Literary Timeshift Experiments” at an “Eternaut Training Center” in Shanghai, who refers to the artifact in hand as a “qbook”) recalls Kac wanting to send holopoems (holographically displayed poetry) towards Andromeda in 1986. Set in the future, the introduction describes the collection—a short and beautifully rendered bilingual edition of Kac’s work over the past twenty-five years—and situates his artistic output as a whole as being ahead of its time. Poetry, writes Sidney, “makes things either better than nature brings forth, or quite anew, forms such as never were in nature” (7). For him, this trait is literally apparent in the work in Hodibis Potax (a curious title for a printed retrospective, since it is devoid of overt meaning). These playful gestures, and the lofty statements offered by Sidney with regard to Kac, are an interesting reflection—as match and counterpoint—to works presented both in this monograph and in Media Poetry: An International Anthology, an anthology Kac recently edited. Whereas Kac’s own inventions are futuristic and fanciful explorations of non-literary territory, relying on good-natured cleverness to deliver a message or concept, the poetry and poetics illuminated in Media Poetry are absolutely contemporary (often reporting on completed works), and are for the most part serious discussions of process and product.
In 1996, Kac edited a special issue of the journal Visible Language devoted to “New Media Poetry: Poetic Innovation and New Technologies.” The first anthology of its kind, it was one of the few authoritative texts about diverse global practices in digital poetry, containing many useful references to historic artworks, artists, and theories. The value of the writing and images Kac initially collected is signaled in his introduction: “The revolutionary change in writing and reading strategies new media poetry promotes,” he writes, “are likely to have a long lasting presence” (100). A decade later, Kac—now more widely known as a biological artist than a pioneering author, theorist, and curator of digital poetry—has revisited his influential (yet somewhat obscure) anthology and has published a revised edition titled Media Poetry: An International Anthology. He has also issued a partial catalog of his own artworks via Hodibis Potax. Together the two volumes intimately chronicle a trajectory of digital poetry through the lenses of major critics and practitioners, and offer an in-depth catalog of a single artist, Kac himself. Extensively updated, Media Poetry combines original content (with amendments) alongside new essays important to the study and practice of electronic literature, and proves Kac’s initial observation correct. Poetry created with computers and by other scientific means is no brief trend; this volume provides expert viewpoints on emerging media poetry practiced since before the emergence of the World Wide Web. Scholars will almost certainly use these writings to fortify discussions about the subject for years to come. Hodibis Potax complimentarily spotlights one artist’s range of elegant output in fields the anthology historicizes but can only partly divulge (e.g., Holopoetry, Digital Poetry, Biopoetry, Space Poetry).
Media Poetry is valuable both as an historical record and, as it is intended, as “a contemporary tool meant to be instrumental in the wider dissemination of the poets’ achievements—the poems” (9). The book is organized into three sections—Digital Poetry, Multimedia Poetics, Historical and Critical Perspectives—although these distinctions rather fluidly demarcate the artistic practices under investigation. A set of appendices include an up-to-date “Media Poetry Chronology,” a “Selected Webliography,” sources, and biographies. Covering past and present areas of inquiry, essays in “Digital Poetry” and “Multimedia Poetics” share practically identical approaches: the author uses her/his own artworks to explain a particular perspective on computer-based poetics. This characteristic diminishes in the “Historical and Critical Perspectives” section, in which the essays (with the exception of Jean-Pierre Balpe’s “Reflections on the Perception of Generative and Interactive Hypermedia Works”) have broader objectives; here the authors present an overview of works done by others. Each section of the book contains one more “new” essay than old, tipping the balance of the collection’s focus in favor of the contemporary, an editorial decision that promotes new thinking on the subject while establishing its lineage. Ideas that come from pioneers of media poetry are entwined with the latest thinking on the subject, covering the gamut of experimentation within the discipline. A reader who is not already familiar with any of the essays might not be able to distinguish the writing of one era from another, a testimony both to the vitality of works presented and to the sophistication of the field in general.
Kac’s curatorial approach shows that many forms of digital expression are no longer new to artists and writers, and that “what is at stake in media poetry is not a retake of the modern ideal of the ‘new’ as a value in itself” (8). Addressing the subject as media poetry (instead of “new media”), Kac widens the scope of investigation to introduce “photonic and biological creative tools as well as non-digital technology” (such as works on videotape). Compared to other fine anthologies on the subject, such as New Media Poetics (Morris & Swiss, eds., 2006), Media Poetry is overtly more expansive in scope, significantly veering away from literary (or even artistic) foundations much of the time. While the focus of investigation in both volumes is digitally processed material prepared for computer screens, Kac includes essays on a wider range of topics than are usually covered in the field and covers unexpected disciplines that inform the work. By doing so, Media Poetry provides a greater sense of expansion of diversified forms in poetry as redefined by media poets than other anthologies on the subject.
Essays from the original volume by Philippe Bootz, John Cayley, Ernesto M. de Melo e Castro, Ladislao Pablo Györi, Kac, Jim Rosenberg, André Vallias, and Eric Vos—now landmark writings representing fundamental aspects of mediated poetry such as automatically generated text, visual poetry, hypertext, holography, and use of unconventional syntax—are interwoven with new essays in each section. While the more recent essays unquestionably reveal new areas of exploration, the familiar material here is still vibrant and seemingly contemporary because media poetry, if no longer new, is still at an early stage of development. But media poetry is always finding new realms in which to operate, which Media Poetry clearly attends to. Kac selects eleven new pieces for the book; each discusses possibilities that have emerged since the mid-1990s. Kac wisely includes essays by authors who focus on the implications of the influence of machinery on poetry, paying particular regard to increased portability, media convergence, broadband networks, and gaming. In addition to technological and artistic considerations brought forth in the volume, the growing influence of scientific thought emerges as a substantial theme in several essays.
Strickland’s essay, “Quantum Poetics: Six Thoughts,” for example, one of the longest and most sophisticated pieces in Media Poetry, begins by discussing “Time Dimensions” in new media poems. The fact that “Quantum Poetics” is the focus, emphasizing temporal and biological aspects of (or made possible by) works, indicates a move away from a technical, or even an aesthetic, orientation in analysis. Strickland’s discussion establishes time as an important component in the narrative of digital poems. Strickland also considers the anti-spatial orientation of some works, the meaning of acts of multitasking, media resonance, translation, and the implications of the layering of information on our minds, bodies, and texts. “There is no seamless information environment,” she writes, “only increasingly extended forms of attention and inter-attention, cross-modes of attention, muscular, neural, endocrinologic, visual, acoustic, kinesthetic, and proprioceptive” (37). Strickland’s non-technical musings on the possibilities for digital poetry represent a trend in digital poetry to merge the arts and sciences and reflect the wider critical outlook found elsewhere in Media Poetry. While most of the essays are—understandably, unproblematically—rooted in the technological aspects of the work, Strickland’s and those of a few others (e.g., André Vallias, Kac, Brian Lennon) include philosophical and scientific perspectives. Her discussion of the particulars of True North, The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot, V, and other works is not overshadowed by theoretical considerations. Kac’s essay, “Biopoetry” (which appears in Media Poetry and Hodibis Potax), also acknowledges digital poetry’s affinity with science. Since poetry has been migrating away from the printed page since the 1980s, he writes, “in a world of clones, chimeras, and transgenic creatures, it is time to consider new directions for poetry in vivo,” and proposes the “use of biotechnology and living organisms in poetry as a new realm of verbal, paraverbal, and non-verbal creation” (191). Offering a twenty point outline, accompanied by illustrations of six biopoems he has created or envisioned (2002–2006), Kac playfully outlines various directions human expression can take through biotechnology and the use of living organisms. His “microbot performance” involves writing and performing with a contrived mechanical bee, “in the language of the bees, for a bee audience, in a semi-functional, semi-fictional dance.” Other ideas presented are equally unique, but the fact that some, like “Nanopoetry,” “Transgenic poetry,” “Luciferase signaling,” and “Haptic listening” are far-fetched and involve technologies inaccessible to most people raises questions about the practicality and public utility of microbot performance. In general, the essays in Media Poetry demonstrate that media poetry is a sophisticated expressive force that cannot be dismissed as a superficial folly. These essays contribute to legitimizing the practice, and give readers plenty of reasons to consider the work. The importance of a concept like “Biopoetry” is thus its originality. Media poets, especially those who are steadily producing new works at present, can afford to look towards the future in such a way. Years hence, perhaps we will see some of these ideas brought to fruition. Even if only aesthetic (and not practical) results could be achieved, the displays envisioned by Kac would still represent a profound artistic achievement and an expansion in the sphere of the arts. Who knows? Maybe seeing a spectacle such as “Luciferase signaling” (creating “bard fireflies by manipulating the genes that code for bioluminescence” ) could have a positive, transformative effect on society.
Kac’s more down-to-earth essay in the volume, like most of the others, discusses work already accomplished by the artist. He traces the metamorphosis of his digital poems “from ASCII to cyberspace,” culminating in a brief discussion of an “avatar” poem he has created (“Perhaps,” 1998/99). In “Perhaps,” a “world” with 24 avatars (each a different word), the reader establishes her/his “own presence in this textworld through a verbal avatar” (63), recalling practices often used in gaming. The names of the avatars Kac has chosen resonate with digital poetry’s burgeoning engagement with scientific principles (e.g., ion, lumen, nebula, quanta, titanium, and xeric). Otherwise, the essay is much like others in the collection that illuminate the various qualities (kinetic, interactive, visual, hypertextual) that make digital poetry what it is—not a rival to, but an activated relative of, written and artistic forms.
Several of the newfound spaces for poetry, including cell phones, Personal Digital Assistants (PDA) with Internet capabilities, and other portable devices, are introduced in Giselle Beiguelman’s essay in Media Poetry, “Nomadic Poems.” Beiguelman discusses three of her projects, each of which indicates shifts in the modalities of poetic presentation invented after Y2K, that employ mobile devices such as electronic billboards to generate spontaneous works. Using a combination of wireless and other technologies to prepare interactive verbal and visual artwork, Beiguelman investigates “the possible realm of a post-phonetic, hybrid culture, crossed by printed and digital layers, where the informational and esthetic codes are entangled through programming and produce a new semantics involving a rearrangement of signs and signification processes” (97). Following indirectly in the lineage of Concrete poetry, she intends to put unconventional, often symbolic poems that are written in ways poems are not normally written in places they are not normally seen. Making historical connections here is not as important, however, as noting that Beiguelman’s applications of common technology for creative purposes are historical acts. Many artists have used L.E.D. displays, but few—if any—have enabled interactive content in such a way. This effort to reach out to mass culture by using the tools of mass culture expands the physical terrain and the visibility of the poem. Using the latest digital gadgets outside their original contexts, Beiguelman’s works seek to project text into the reader’s “non-place, space-time of antiphenomenology and visibility,” where “within the intersections of words and symbols, the boundaries of communication and of art are being redefined” (97–98). She addresses the foundations for, and conditions of, her work, showing how poetic works can be made (and consumed) by someone walking down the street typing SMS messages (or the like). In her examples the emphasis is graphical; in Poétrica (2003–04), non-alphabetic fonts construct visual patterns in order to “undo verbal and visual ties through the combination of fonts and numbers, languages and codes” (102). Not only is Beiguelman exploring new technological ground, she convincingly redefines the boundaries of what can be considered a poem. Such mobilized, transient conceptions of poetry give rise to yet another connotation for the (now clichéd) phrase, “poetry in motion.” While acknowledging that all the efforts involved with the projects may be in vain because such projects can (and do) vanish, Beiguelman does not offer critical perspective on her work. One of the “starting points” for these projects is the claim that “nothing imprisons the text” (97). Knowing the unreliability of network technology and hardware, however, and given the limitations of handheld interfaces, it is difficult to believe that anyone participating in the project would not encounter various sorts of limitations. By concluding the piece with the statement that “the interface is the message” (103), Beiguelman implies that these works produce a change in presentation, but obviously that is not all there is. With these new interfaces, new types of poems are made.
Two promising areas of growth, namely gaming and hardware modification, are revealed in Orit Kruglanski’s contribution to Media Poetry, “Interactive Poems.” Kruglanski tells a casually written story about her writing digital poetry using alternative methods, media (including PDA), and adapted hardware. Her first project was a poem-as-game, titled “InnerSpace Invaders” (1998), based on the type of interaction found in the videogame Space Invaders (a user shoots words descending on the screen); her second involved modifying the voice and content of a child’s speaking doll. A modified Palm Pilot (tilt sensor added) served as the platform for another project (“Please,” 2000), and Kruglanski built a “force feedback mouse” for another (“As Much as you Love Me”). In this work, a mouse to which two electromagnets are added sits atop a metal mousepad; a microcontroller in the computer modulates magnetic friction, making the mouse harder to move. In addition to ruminating on her enthusiasm and concerns regarding interactive poetry, Kruglanski’s essay documents (without extensive detail) some of the first efforts to present poetry as an interactive, digital game—a practice seriously pursued subsequently by Jim Andrews, Marko Niemi, and others. Since artists such as Aya Karpinska have subsequently made poems using gaming consoles, cellular phones, and magnetic card readers, and Daniel Howe—in order to realize his outstanding work “Text Curtain”—has built a computer and an operating system that permits simultaneous use of two computer mouses, Kruglanski’s essay seems almost prophetic. As does each of the essays added to Kac’s collection, Kruglanski’s provides an insider’s view of the innovative media poets are working on at present, suggesting areas of application readers may expect to see develop further. Because the works are often very complex (yet sometimes subtly so), having such authorial accounts is invaluable. In addition to giving context to future endeavors, these essays offer useful instructions on how to read the poems. Processes used by the poets are demystified, showing clearly what is going on inside the participatory mechanisms they have constructed.
Bill Seaman’s “Recombinant Poetics” discusses interactivity within mutable fields, and the dynamic construction of meaning, through his computer-based application “The World Generator / The Engine of Desire.” Bootz’s “Unique-reading Poems,” Balpe’s “Reflections on the Perception of Generative and Interactive Hypermedia Works,” and Kostelanetz’s “Language-based Videotapes & Audio Videotapes” are equally strong, and build functional models and frameworks of communication for multimedia poetry by using their own works as a point of departure. Each, in its own way, creates a framework for understanding the shared responsibility of the reader and writer who interact with, to use Seaman’s phrase, “mutable dynamic media” (159). The consequences and significance of layering texts and meaning using complex, interactive methods are discussed throughout the collection. In sum, the essays in Media Poetry provide a broad-based view of the practices they cover, exposing multiplicities (histories, contexts) inherent in the work. They explain expertly what is at stake and what is entailed in reading and participating in such texts. Two essays in the “Historical and Critical Perspectives” section of Media Poetry, Friedrich Block’s “Digital Poetics or on the Evolution of Experimental Media Poetry” and Lennon’s “Screening a Digital Visual Poetics,” provide a practice-based history alongside theoretical observations to portray a viable scenario that places digital media poetry in the lineage of experimental twentieth century arts. As have others, Block connects contemporary critical discourse in digital poetry to the intellectual climate of Europe in the 1960s (e.g., deconstruction, cybernetics). Artistic analysis of digital poetry, for Block, involves considering the material and digital media, the animation and information process, and the audience’s activity and interactivity. These are the points of consideration in an “art-specific” reading of texts that sees texts as being made in the spaces in between literary and technological context and action. Lennon traces the evolution of digital text, and explores the results of the “putative demise of textuality” on the Web. He offers yet another perspective for media poetry by addressing hybrid theoretical models, hybrid bodies, and, finally, the type of hybrid practices with which we are now becoming familiar. Through a study of Kac’s 3D/virtual poem “Secret” (1993), Lennon speculates on the role media plays in future traditions of poetics. “Secret” is amongst Kac’s many works illuminated in Hodibis Potax; as we see in this particular piece, a simple “ideogrammatic word constellation” (Lennon’s phrase) appears as the viewer interacts with the virtual object. As in many of Kac’s poems, a combination of single words or short phrases is used to convey a larger concept, coordinated by the media employed. On the surface, Kac’s work tends to use clever poetic juxtapositions of language, especially as textual layering is minimal. In effect, however, Kac relies as much on myth, the unknown, novelty, and fancifulness.
The first section of Hodibis Potax contains more than twenty illustrations of Kac’s holopoetry (adding more than two dozen representations to what appears on his website, http://ekac.org ). The terse poems expand as a result of their highly technologized treatment. Morphing, dissolving, and juxtaposed words appear as the viewer moves in space. Another section of Hodibis Potax, “Digital Poetry,” documents Kac’s electronic experiments circa 1982–1999, some of which are available via the Web. These works display fundamental attributes of digital poetry: permutation, and kinetic graphical rendering (sometimes distortion) of visually-based expression. Since the analog/print form does not represent the “live” work faithfully, one value of these pages, beyond their vibrant documentation of the work, is that they may lead the reader to authentic versions of the poems, as does (ideally) the “Webliography” in Media Poetry. In addition to the essay on “Biopoetry,” Hodibis Potax also includes another essay that appears on the Web, “Spatial Poetry,” which speculates on possibilities for “poetry conceived for, realized with, and experienced in conditions of micro or zero gravity.” Of course, such work is only imagined at this point, but if we are to believe the author of the book’s introduction, it will eventually be produced.
While wordplay is an unquestionable characteristic of works produced by media poets (e.g., Melo e Castro’s distortions of language and Kostelanetz’s morphing words), a serious tone pervades Media Poetry. In Kac’s own work, by contrast, we do see humor. In “Biopoetry,” for example, he envisions “Atomic writing,” in which atoms are precisely positioned to create molecules and spell words. “Give these molecular words expression in plants,” he writes, “and let them grow new words through mutation. Observe and smell the molecular grammatology of the resulting flowers” (191). Can such ideas be completely dismissed, seen as ludicrous? Given the accomplishments of DNA and genomic engineering, who’s to say that “Atomic writing” or “Luciferase signaling” will remain impractical and without value? Kac’s levity, while it does not exceed the boundaries of possibility, is a welcome diversion from the staid articulations offered elsewhere in Media Poetry. The new “space” of digital writing, as evoked in Media Poetry, has evolved so as to include the overt influence of physical sciences, the important role time plays in media poetry, and authorial interests in gaming. Now the field is becoming even more aesthetically diversified, and its demographic expands (e.g., powerful essays by women are featured, whereas the original volume had none).
Media Poetry is a news-broadcast from an international gathering of digital poets; Hodibis Potax provides a vivid record of the techniques used by a pioneer in form(s) not commonly practiced, such as holopoetry. The absence of an accompanying CD-ROM or DVD featuring examples of the work discussed in these volumes would be notable, were it not for the generous “Webliography” included in Media Poetry and at ekac.org; Kac’s website has for many years featured examples of most of his oeuvre. Logistical, technological, economic, and other factors that prevent media files from being appended to books about electronic literature are becoming less a misfortune thanks to the World Wide Web. As new forms and approaches to composition emerge, our authoritative documents need revision (as we have seen for example in Jay David Bolter’s Writing Space and George Landow’s Hypertext). We can hope that Kac will, in decades hence, continue to use his experience and expertise as an artist and researcher to issue additional volumes.
Chris Funkhouser is Associate Professor in the Humanities Department at New Jersey Institute of Technology. Working in the developing field of digital poetry, he was a Visiting Fulbright Scholar at Multimedia University in Cyberjaya, Malaysia, in 2006; in 2007 he was on the faculty of the summer writing program at Naropa University. The Associated Press commissioned him to prepare digital poems for the occasion of Barack Obama’s inauguration. He is author of a documentary study, Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959–1995, published in the Modern and Contemporary Poetics Series of the University of Alabama Press (2007). An eBook (CD-ROM), Selections 2.0, was issued by the Faculty of Creative Multimedia at Multimedia University (2006). He is a member of the scientific review committee of the digital literature journal regards croisés, based at Université Paris 8, and has produced and edited publications online and in-print, including an early Internet-based poetry magazine (We 17, 1993), and a literary journal on CD-ROM (The Little Magazine, Vol. 21, 1995). Since 1986 he has been an editor at We Press, with whom he has produced poetry in a variety of media.
Kac, Eduardo, ed. “New Media Poetry: Poetic Innovation and New Technologies.” Visible Language 30.2 (1996).
Copyright © 2008 PMC and Chris Funkhouser
Back to Kac Web