“The Art of Moving Words”

This post constitutes the curatorial statement for the exhibit built in ELL for the National University of Ireland Maynooth entitled Moving Words:  Kinetic Poetry and Prose, 1984-2014.  The exhibit opened on Thursday, March 14 at 5:30 at Illuminations Gallery.  I was invited by electronic literature scholar and Director of Illuminations Jeneen Naji, PhD to create this show for the gallery.  The exhibit runs through the month of March. The show received a mention in The Guardian on 12 March, 2014.

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For visitors to exhibits like this one who are new to new media, the notion of electronic literature may seem odd. We generally think of literature as stuff of books: Words on pages.  Neat lines of text, sometimes with a few static images to illustrate a point.  A visual art form whose silence is finally broken when we hear the sound of our voice reading the story or poem in our head. So, I can only imagine what visitors may think when exploring Moving Words:  An Exploration of Kinetic Poetry and Prose, 1984-2014 and reading literature whose words flow across the screen, whose images transform into letters and float away, and whose text rattles like a snake when we touch it––and coming to the realization that artists have been authoring literature for computers for at least 30 years.

Introducing new audiences to electronic literature––and in the case of this exhibit, to the genre known as kinetic poetry and prose––is one of the joys of curating. But another is to offer insights into the works and allow them to be seen in a new light. Putting together this exhibit has, for example, made it possible for me to see more clearly the natural and deep connection between technology and art production and to lay bare to an audience the fact that artists are forever experimenting with the tools at hand, going so far as to create art even when they have to invent their own tools and methods to do it or change direction entirely when they hit a dead end. Frankly, it is difficult not be awed by the human drive to create. In effect, this exhibit, as all I have mounted as a curator, celebrates the human spirit and our desire to forge new paths and innovate the world around us.

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Apple’s Superbowl XVIII ad, 1984

1984, the starting date of this exhibit, represents a pivotal moment in our cultural consciousness. It was the year that introduced both the personal computer and the term, “cyberspace,” into the Western psyche.  Americans may remember the famous Superbowl XVIII Apple ad directed by British artist Ridley Scott that featured a female athlete racing past the mass of people who had previously been enthralled by a Big Brother-like character looking down from a massive screen––the idea that the end of Orwellian totalitarianism suggested by the date, 1984, was at hand, all because one could possess one’s own unique, non-conformist Macintosh. That same year readers were treated to the dystopic “sprawl” envisioned by Canadian novelist William Gibson, and his vision of the universe inside the net, conceptualized so vividly in his book Neuromancer.  We followed the protagonist Case into cyberspace and, like him, came face to face with artificial intelligence, the characters Wintermute and Neuromancer controlling the real world from inside this place that Gibson described as one involving “consensual hallucination.” Also of importance to those in the US––though at the time it may not have seemed tangential to our experience with stand-alone computers much less literature––was the break up of the Bell System, a sign many really did think marked the end of the totalitarianistic phone service euphemized as the benign figure with the folksy name, “Ma” Bell. What developed in the wake of her demise is the current array of “choices” Americans have for smart phone providers, which seems not much of an escape from conformity as the Apple ad had promised, but at least making it possible for us to roam a bit more freely than Gibson’s “console cowboys” tethered to their desktops. The US and Ireland, the motherland for this exhibit, share a history that, perhaps, many are not aware of: In Ireland that same year the Department of Posts and Telegraphs became two separate units, An Post and Telecom Eireann, the latter of these giving birth to Eircell and, so, its mobile telephone network.  Now called Vodaphone Ireland, it is the largest mobile phone provider in the country.  Like Americans, the Irish may also marvel at their mobility.

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“First Screening,” bpNichol, 1984

Yes,1984 was a pivotal year for laying the groundwork for the digital information age for many English speaking countries. And it was for a pivotal one for electronic literature, too, though few of us would have noticed at the time. It would be two years before I would get my hands on my own Macintosh and another five before I heard the phrase, “hypertext novel,” used for the strange computer environment that had me clicking words on a screen to move a first-person narrative along. But it was in 1984 that Canadian Barrie Phillip Nichol, or “bpNichol” as he is known, experimented with moving the words themselves on the screen. It was not the first time an artist explored computer-aided art (that honor is generally bestowed upon others working decades before) or a theorist imagined a way to extend the boundaries of textuality (that would have come from Vannevar Bush’s memex in the 1940s and Ted Nelson’s hypertext in the 1960s), but bpNichol does represent one of the first examples of a concrete poet who used a computer to make the intellectual leap into animating the words of a poem, a genre we referred to today as kinetic poetry. “First Screening” featured in this exhibit, constitutes this highly experimental approach to authoring literary work for the computer screen. Ana Maria Uribe, an Argentinian artist had the same idea. Like bpNichol she published, first, print-based concrete poems––hers was entitled Typoemas (1968).  Decades after, having discovered net art and Flash software, she made her words come alive for the web, essentially imbuing them with life for the screen, an experiment that resulted in Anipoemas. “Red Dry Leaves” in this exhibit is one of the 32 poems Uribe produced for publication in 1997.  Both authors make up the first of five stations in this exhibit, a section entitled “Early Words.”

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ASCII representation of a classroom, mid-1990s

“Net Words” includes works that arose out of the growing popularly and ubiquity of the web following the introduction of the browser in the mid-1990s. The concept of the net, a place that we teleported into, the dangerous datasphere of Gibson’s novels, and also Neil Stephenson’s, and Pat Cadigan’s, and other cyberpunk writers, gave way to the web, a tangle of connections whose space we ultimately wrote on and coded for. Those of us playing in virtual environments like MOOs in the early to mid-1990s and conceptualized our objects and ourselves in monochromatic, mute ASCII letters were rudely awakened to the colorful, boisterous spaces of the web where we could publish our work over vast distances, share music with people whose tastes were in sync with our own, and be mesmerized by memes of dancing hamsters and talking cows––features that kicked off the revolution that we are still embroiled in today about privacy, ownership, and distraction.  Flash software was net art’s drug of choice, hyping us up on animation––until, that is, 2010 when Apple banned the software from its popular iPhone. But for well over a decade (an eternity in tech-time) net art held sway, and many artists learned to animate and script their stories and poems. Thom Swiss’s “Shy Boy” (2002) and Dan Waber’s “Strings” (1999) represent this important genre. But also found in this section is “Northern Venetians” created by Scottish writer Gerry Smith in 2013, included to remind us that the impetus to experiment with this type of electronic literature lives on, compellingly so, post-Flash.

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Diana Slattery, The Glide Oracle, 2014

We do, indeed, talk in terms of post-Flash now. Mark Sample’s roundtable discussion at the Modern Language Association, “Electronic Literature after Flash,” had Flash artists and electronic literature scholars wax theoretical on “the death of Flash e-lit, the study and preservation of Flash works, and the rise in electronic literature of HTML5, JavaScript, and apps” (Sample Reality, 10 Apr. 2013). While we may have witnessed the death of Flash in our lifetime, we certainly are not experiencing the end of kinetic art. The irony, it seems, is that the very environment that drove the demise of the popular software––mobile––is the very one artists are colonizing in order to continue exploring the genre today, leaving behind that which no longer works, Flash, and finding new ways to express themselves through HTML5, CSS3, Javascript, JQuery, JQuery Mobile, C++, and Java. Diana Reed Slattery’s app “Glide Oracle” in this exhibit is a case in point. The Glide Project (2001), one of the most inventive net art works on the web published at the height of the genre’s popularity, was a collection of modules that augmented her novel, The Maze Game (2003), a story about four young people selected to engage in a ritualistic dance of death for the entertainment of the ruling class. Slattery had conceptualized a glyphic language built out of the graceful gestures used for harvesting lilies to which people of this world were addicted. The “Oracle” module of Glide allowed users to select a series of glyphs that would spell out words that held meaning, a prediction of sorts. The project lasted online for many years even after the version of Shockwave upon which it was built became obsolete and Slattery left the university where the work had been produced. Eventually, the project disappeared from the web, but its spirit lives on as the “Glide Oracle” app. The other kinetic poetry and prose apps in this station, “Mobile Words,” include Andreas Müller’s “For All Seasons;” Jason Edward Lewis’ “Snake,” “White,” and “Death” (all, 2013), from his collection of works, P.O.E.M.M. and Aaron Reed’s “18 Cadence” (2013).

Words are not the only thing moving in kinetic poetry and prose.  Artists themselves move in performance with words as in Jerome Fletcher’s “The Fetch” (2013), found at the station entitled “Living Words.” As the artist describes:

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Jerome Fletcher, “The Fetch,” 2013

“The Fetch” is a double-reading. Projected digital texts are read by one performer while the second performer searches the net for double texts which use the same combination of four word groups to be found in the projected text. “Fetch” has a double meaning here. In Gaelic folklore, it is the wraith or doppelganger which is seen as a premonition of someone’s death. Secondly, the fetch cycle is the basic operation by which a computer retrieves and executes a program instruction from its memory.” (“The Fetch,” Cherchez le texte)

Represented here is the text performed by Fletcher at the Electronic Literature Organization’s Paris conference that took place at the Bibliotècheque nationale in September 2013.

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Michael J. Maguire, “The Promise,” 2008

While the exhibit reflects the production of art from many countries (Canada, the US, Argentina, Austria, England, and Scotland) at its first four stations, the intent of this exhibit is not to argue for national trends or reflect a global production of kinetic poetry and prose.  Instead, I am interested in the technologies of production influencing the genre’s development and selected works that reflected that criterion, as well as worked within the affordance and constraints of the exhibit space where the works reside. However, I was, indeed, interested in highlighting the work of an Irish author in the fifth station so that I can show that electronic literature is being created in the country’s own backyard. “Irish Words,” therefore, showcases two works by native son Michael J. Maguire.  Born in Dundalk, Ireland, Maguire began his career about the time the exhibit begins––in the mid-1980s. Like Nichol and Uribe, Maguire created for both traditional literary mediums––in his case, live performance––and the nascent medium of computers. He founded Taintech Creative Studios in the 1990s, a company that produced computer games. Michael has spent the last five years pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing (Electronic & Digital Literature) at University College Dublin. Digital Vitalism (2014) featured in the exhibit, constitutes the creative project for his thesis.  “Promise” (2008) produced five years earlier, is also included in the show.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this statement, putting together this exhibit of kinetic poetry and prose has made it possible for me to see more clearly the natural and deep connection between technology and art production and to lay bare to an audience the fact that artists are forever experimenting with the tools at hand, going so far as to create art even when they have to invent their own tools and methods to do it or change modes when they hit a dead end. I hope you see as I do, artists like bpNichol discovering computers and, then, envisioning a way to use them to move words that he had previously conceptualized on paper as concrete or those like Diana Slattery, who, undeterred by the demise of Shockwave, stripped down her life’s work to its essence and published it in a new medium and language to ensure its ongoing availability to a new reading public. I hope, like me, you find these works not just compelling, but heroic, and this exhibit a celebration of the artists’ spirit and vision.

I want to thank Dr. Jeneen Naji from the Department of English, Media Studies, and Communication at the National University of Ireland Maynooth, for inviting me to curate this show and for her colleagues in her department and across the university for making the show possible. I appreciate the collegiality and hospitality they showed me. I also thank CMDC senior, Whitney Anderson, for the beautiful website she created for the exhibit and the authors themselves who produced these wonderful works and allowed me to feature them in this show.