Notes and observations from ePoetry 2007 May 20-23, Universitaire Paris 8
Originally written for the IDC list serve 2007
ePoetry is a series of international colloquiums and artist's presentations held biennially at various locations around the world. Previous events have been held at the State University of New York, Buffalo (2001), the University of West Virginia, Morgantown (2003) and Birkbeck College, University of London (2005). It proclaims itself the most important of international festivals of digital poetry. Given that it is the only such regular event dedicated to digital poetry this claim is indisputable.
The event takes the form of an academic conference strand during the day, involving a mix of peer reviewed academic presentations and artists' round table discussions, complemented by evening performances, presentations and mini-installations. As with all such events the range of works and perspectives on practice and theory presented was diverse and not necessarily coherent. It is not surprising that artists and academics in this field come from diverse countries and cultures. Whilst there was a large presence from France and a good number from the US and other English speaking countries there was also a refreshing number of practitioners and theorists from South America, southern and Eastern Europe. The lack of any representation from Asia or Africa suggests that either the international reach of this event is not complete or that this area of practice and research exists in those cultures where there are the necessary precursor artistic traditions in place; practices such as concrete and visual poetry, performance poetry, interactive media arts and networked arts.
Paris is incredibly multicultural but the dominant culture of France remains founded in the high (Western) traditions of the arts. Paris's colourful and ethnically diverse street culture rarely seems to connect with this official culture, especially in the visual and literary arts (music is a different story, Paris being the World's world music capital). France is torn between its constitutional commitment to a unified French identity and the actuality of its contemporary multiculturalism. Nevertheless, it is still a likely site for any reconciliation between Western Liberalism and other cultural traditions. Whether recent political events in France, dominated by debate on immigration and French identity, will accelerate any process towards reconciliation or lead to worsening conflict is yet to be seen. The consensus on the left is that things will get worse before they get better but as has been seen elsewhere (e.g.: Northern Ireland) it can be the case that it is when the most extreme of positions are brought together that significant reconciliation becomes possible.
This larger political and social context, within which ePoetry 2007 was held, was reflected in much of the events content, both explicitly and implicitly as well as through absence (e.g. the already noted absence of Asian and African perspectives). Chasms of cultural conflict were also played out amongst mainstream players. American feminists were outraged by a performance work involving a female artist stripping under the video gaze of her male partner. When the Americans' later asked the artists “would you consider reversing roles” the male performance artist replied “if I had a sexy body then I might be willing to reveal it”. There was no evident irony in his reply and he clearly failed to comprehend the American (and general) amazement that 30 years of feminist discourse had clearly had little effect in this context.
The conference strand was, not surprisingly, a babel of languages reflecting the diversity of its participants and its multicultural context. Much was lost in translation. One comment on torture at Abu Ghraib was translated as torture in China. That there were no Chinese present meant insult was avoided. As already observed, conflicts can emerge where they need not and meanings can be radically misplaced. To the writer and artist such accidents can be serendipitous, but in a world ultra-sensitised to difference such errors can prove explosive. In a less dangerous but nevertheless highly pertinent example, poetry and poetics were regularly conflated as the same, failing to recognise that poetry is a practice involving language (and thus is poetic) whilst poetics is a more fundamental concept concerning the relations between things. Poetics is not concerned with practice but with the (dis-)ordering of things.
Much of the initial discussion in the conference focused on the relation between the avantgarde and digital poetics. The premise was that digital poetics represents a new avantgarde and that from this it follows that digital poetics is a good thing. That the avantgarde can only exist in relation to a largely homogenous society is overlooked in this argument. Contemporary heterogeneous social environments do not offer the easy target of a mainstream or bourgeoisie against which an avantgarde can differentiate itself. As we have seen on the streets, Paris is a truly multicultural environment. There is no mainstream. It is only within the bubble occupied by a certain cultural elite that the notion of the avantgarde seems to be sustainable. That it is an historical rather than contemporary paradigm did not seem to have revealed itself to many of those involved in this debate and thus the resulting discussion seemed disconnected from current artistic and social realities.
In a society of a thousand heads there is no place for the avantgarde to differentiate itself from its social body. This body, which was once an obese mainstream presence, has withered to a skeletal foetus, sucked dry of its life by a thousand hungry heads, each concerned with its own existence. In France we see this change played out between street level culture and the social and political elite, distanced from the noisy and messy reality “outside”. Post modernist relativism, the historic intellectual response to this shift from mono to multicultural social formation, has dispensed with the grand themes of the avantgarde. Without a return to a narrow definition of society the social body the avantgarde needs to feed off will remain desiccated and unable to offer nourishment to what was always the obverse of that which it sought, and failed, to transcend.
In the same way that cultural diversity is framing the context of contemporary social discourses it also informs the underlying hermeneutics that inform knowledge/language and its relationship to power. Tectonic social changes are breaking down previously homogeneous structures leading to a steady erosion of the culturally specific signifier as the means to power. Specifically, and of particular relevance to ePoetry, text is under threat from the multicultural visual pidgin we are now all familiar with from television, advertising, airports and environments where diverse peoples come together. This is a pidgin that is largely pictographic and iso-semiotic in its sign structure. A new hermeneutics thus arises where this pictographic pidgin supplants text, evolving towards a reductive, isomorphic, non-abstract and semiotically debilitated language field.
This process could be seen to be determined by technological change, as a function of digital media convergence. However, it now becomes clear that the underlying factor in all this is likely not to be technological but cultural change - the cultural force majeur of international migration and the global movement of human populations. That this dynamic and unsettling process of global social change is only going to accelerate, perhaps driven by environmental change, will likely lead to the further debilitation of the word in favour of a visual hermeneutics that allows for more diverse sources of authority in signification, reflecting and facilitating a multicultural world premised on multi-polar cultural origins. That a side product of this process is likely to be further conflict between a currently dominant Western Liberalism and other emerging cultural paradigms cannot be ignored, although such issues were not articulated at ePoetry 2007.
Putting aside the context of ePoetry 2007 and the discourses that might spin out from that, there were a number of very interesting contributions by both theorists and practitioners. Convened by Phillipe Bootz and Patrick Burgaud (University Paris 8), the key presenters included Philippe Castellin, Jean Clement, Tibor Papp (France), Jay Bolter, Loss Glazier, Charles Baldwin, Alan Sondheim, Chris Funkhouser, Eduardo Kac, Jim Andrews, Stephanie Strickland, Talan Memmott (USA), Friedrich Block (Germany), Marcus Bastos (Brazil), Janez Strehovec (Slovenia), Annie Abrahams (Holland) and Ambroise Barras (Switzerland).
Much of the work performed over the three live evening events remained rooted within the performance poetry tradition. Flash animations illustrating word play rarely manages to add anything significant to the oeuvre and certainly such works do not propose any significant shift in how a digital poetics practice might evolve. Many works presented thus failed to transcend being illustrated poems. To my mind there seems a similarity here to the dead hand that Powerpoint passes over academic presentations, with Flash functioning to banalise what might be potentially interesting textual projects and performances.
Lucio Agra and Paolo Hartmann performed a witty, playful and visually engaging VJ set. Language definitely played second fiddle in this work, with the visual and aural to the fore, but at least these two instruments were played in tune. A typically anarchic and visually rich Brazilian mix was projected around and over the audience whilst the performing duo sat more or less motionless on stage. The potential readings available in this work remained, for this observer, obscure. However, the visual invention involved never failed to engage and thus it was, at the very least, an enjoyable distraction.
Jeorg Piringer's performance involving voice activated textual visual elements in a large scale digital projection was similarly engaging in a straight forward manner. Simple in presentation and concept, this performance relied on the capabilities of the performer and the cleverness of the code used to create the work. However, this work was not as technically innovative or as artistically ambitious as Messa di Voce (by Golan Levin, Zach Lieberman, Jaap Blonk and Joan La Barbara) and for anybody familiar with this prior piece Piringer's efforts were thus diminished in effect, even though his work could be regarded as more pure in its intent and concern with language.
Jim Rosenberg, an icon of literary experimentalism and a pioneer of digital poetry, gave a thoughtful and well judged presentation of his new software authoring interface, “The Inframergence”. Complex in structure but visually minimalist and strikingly elegant in realisation, this is a very serious work that offers not only a sophisticated engagement with how language can come to signify but also poses important questions about the nature of writing, interpretation and semantics. That a number of theorists immediately engaged with this work during the conference strand was not surprising. Such work will attract theoreticians like bees to honey.
However Rosenberg's impressive contribution was immediately left in the shade by two young authors who performed on the same programme. I am sure that Rosenberg was heartened by the evidence that digital poetics is not only a practice involving middle aged white men. Aya Kapinska (Poland/USA) performed a textual Playstation hack as a techno club dance come computer game performance (in the style of Wii). The rhythms and alliterations were given immediate effect and the spoken word came again to life as we saw texts flying around in an abstracted psychadelic 3D world, paced to a dub beat. This work relied as much on the competence of the performer (Kapinska) as on the technical and conceptual strength of the audio-visual component.
Eugenio Tisselli (Mexico/Spain) presented his works “Degenerative Page” and “Regenerative Page”. These two works offer a perspective on a kind of practice that was surprisingly not more visible at ePoetry 2007. These are the practices we are familiar with from Net.Art, from the work of JoDi and Kosic and their anarchic and playful reverse engineering of the means of production and dissemination. Tisselli's works developed this theme further than many precursors in novel ways and his plans for world domination through a multi-lingual practice suggest new directions for net based art at a time when many commentators (not least the first generation of Net.Artists) have declared net art dead. Noting the overarching themes, articulated at the outset of this text, Tisselli's work engaged with mutliculturalism and the pursuant limits of written language and its technological infrastructure in an explicit manner whilst remaining at all times subtle and problematic.
Ever-young John Cayley's “Imposition”, based on a text by Walter Benjamin (On language as such and the languages of man), was a visually engaging work which was, by his standards, relatively minimalist. This is a work that brings language to life, a language composed of multiple languages, colliding and creating a frisson between themselves. In a sense this multilingual play could be seen as a metaphor for the entire conference, a playful cacophony of voices in distinct yet merging languages, discursively engaging one another rather than articulating in parallel. In Cayley's work members of the audience login to a common remote server and interact with a generative multilingual language machine, this in turn creating a visually simple but conceptually complex display projected on a large scale in the conference auditorium. As well as the imagery there was also a vocal soundtrack; a female voice articulating in song the phonetics involved in the textual constructions. An abstract soundscape, being essentially non-semantic, it gained great complexity and interest as more and more people logged on and their dispersed computers began to replicate, out of phase and with differing timbres, the vocalisations around the auditorium space. The result was a complex and dynamic spatialised sound sculpture composed of the human voice, evoking a sense of the multiplicity of the voice, language and the pre-linguistic.
Roberto Simanowski presented a close reading of the work “Listening Post” by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin. His analysis read the work as being at the juncture of and as a function of a tension between the visual (image, installation) and language (writing, voice). This work is well known but seeing good quality documentation and listening to Simanowski's detailed analysis brought it to life and opened up new interpretations in a piece that could be regarded as a slick technologically determined artwork, the sort of thing that wins Golden Nica's. Simanowski's final observations appropriately reflected on how technology will inevitably come to cannibalise language.
This gave this observer reason to consider the implications of Stanislaw Lem's “The Futurological Congress”, a novel set within the context of an academic conference, not unlike ePoetry 2007, where the main protagonist awakes in a future world to find that the relationship between people and their language has been inverted and the instruments of writing have come to master the writer. Leaving Paris I wondered whether the revolution Lem described, where both society and its technologies are torn apart and reconfigured, might not only come to pass but be in process right now.
ePoetry 2007 has established its post-conference website, which will continue to be updated with material. It is expected to include the complete peer reviewed set of academic papers (bi-lingual where possible) as well as documentation of artists work. Its url is www.epoetry2007.net
Paris/Edinburgh, May 2007