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The Double Negative (review of the Send & Receive symposium)

Below is a review of the Send & Receive: Poetry, Film & Technology in the 21st Century symposium written by Jay Bernard for the arts criticism journal, The Double Negative.

Trade Tattoo, Len Lye. GB 1937. Courtesy of the Len Lye Foundation and The British Postal Museum and Archive. From material preserved and made available by the New Zealand Film Archive Ngā Kaitiaki O Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua

Film meets poetry meets technology: as FACT’s Type Motion exhibition draws to a close, Jay Bernard assesses the changing perception of poetry in an ever increasing digital age…

By chance, I caught Helvetica (the 2007 documentary about the font) in the same studio space the night before the Send and Receive symposium. I mention this because there was an interesting parallel between the two: not just the fact that they had been curated as part of FACT’s Type Motion exhibition — which I will get to shortly — but because they were uniquely concerned with aesthetics; with the way that appearances are also ideologies.

Helvetica, that ubiquitous modernist font admired by corporations and anti-capitalists, conservatives and radicals, for its non-partisan and readable allure, has re-established itself as the hallmark of openness. If you want to come across as clean, educated, respectable and intelligent, place a sans serif font onto a block colour – preferably white – and there you have it: the aesthetic of our time. The film makes the point that white is the colour of the academic paper, apt for a very academic discussion. But not a discussion that departed from the realities of making work in the twenty-first century; in fact, a discussion that brought the complicated persistence of tradition to the fore. This is because a question was ignited by the speakers: what are we doing when we create digital poetry? And what are we doing it for? This question — as is often the case during the best discussions — among many.

“Our frontal lobes are being fried in the vast, distracting oils of our news feeds”

Zata Kitowski, founder of Poetry Film, asked the following: what do we call this zone of creativity where film meets poetry meets technology? Poetry Film? Code Poetry? Digital Poetry? She was in the company of George Szirtes (poet and twitterpoet), Jason Nelson (anarchic digital poet), Deryn Rees-Jones (founder of the centre for new and international writing), Dr. Marco Bertamini (of the Visual Perception Labs) and Suzie Hanna (animator). And the question she asked was in the context of another question that defined the whole day: how has the digital age changed the way in which poetry might be written, communicated and received?

Like many discussions examining the ways in which traditional media is being changed or usurped by new forms, it is difficult to approach an answer to the above question without looking at the question itself. The Internet is 40 years old; the web is 25 years old; web 2.0 is about 15 years old. The question of how much reading habits change in such a short and spotty period is complicated by the many studies suggesting that our frontal lobes are being fried in the vast, distracting oils of our news feeds; that we retain less information when reading on a screen; that we now find it difficult to lose ourselves in traditional literature. Looking at that, we can easily conclude that our literary cultures have shifted, which is obvious, but quite what that shift is is harder to pin down.

“But of course poetry is not achieved by computers. It can be read on a screen, sent by email, beamed from space, but the machine itself does not do the complex thinking a person does”

George Szirtes talked about the formal shift inherent in the Twitter poem — such a set of constraints did not previously exist, though there is some overlap with the popularity of the haiku. His surprising image of the Twitter stream being analogous to the streams of conversation we have was probably the most insightful observation, precisely because it got at the way a lot of digital technology is actually modelled on the analogue world. But of course poetry is not achieved by computers. It can be read on a screen, sent by email, beamed from space, but the machine itself does not do the complex thinking a person does; a Twitter poem can, arguably, also exist on a napkin.

But when Twitter inevitably fades away, will the form persist? Will it have passed into our culture independent of its original location? Was it the formal constraint or the platform that defined it? And which will survive? Is it most effective when temporary? More specifically, is it most defined when temporary? Deryn Rees-Jones showed some concrete examples of poems generated from Twitter feeds — Kim Kardashian, Nigel Farage and Roger McKinley, our host — which were disarmingly accurate, if disjointed, reflections of their author’s personalities.

Type Motion; screens in Gallery 1. FACT, Liverpool 2014

Similarly, the Type Motion exhibition was a very intense, disjointed experience, which was difficult to endure. Mirrors, video, light and sound, simultaneously, so that it was only possible to appreciate each work when you were very close to it. Some pieces stood out only because they were even more lurid and persistent than the whole. The experience felt like an immersive version of Jason Nelson’s Game Game Game and Again Game – an intense hand-drawn game with autobiographical elements, or Birds Still Warm from Flying, a rubik’s cube that has lines of poetry sticking out from it. His recorded presentation of the work was fascinating not least because he didn’t comment on the fact that much of what he has created is very alienating.

For anyone who has trouble engaging with digital art and poetry, the big question might be: how do we read this stuff in such a way so as to get a classically satisfied reading experience? Nelson’s art looks as though it should be in the realm of visual art rather than poetry, because the visual dimension trumps the literary. Uh-uh, as the essay Poetics of Aesthetics: Poetry in Motion by Grace Kelly, included in the symposium’s information pack, says:

‘To read poems—any poems—as visual art is a grievous mistake and perhaps is the most common misunderstanding of this genre. While concrete poetry employs visual means, it’s the tension between textuality and visuality that gives the work its punch, making it successful poetry.’ (Goldsmith, 2008, p.196)

“In theory, the Type Motion exhibition is wonderful; in reality, it’s a little arch, a little detached, a little hollow. But it doesn’t half make you think”

There does seem to be a gap between how conceptually interesting a lot of digital work is, and the actual result. In theory, the Type Motion exhibition is wonderful; in reality, it’s a little arch, a little detached, a little hollow. But it doesn’t half make you think. When playing with a mesmerising game that allows you to fly through buildings, I wondered if the question of how we write, read, send and receive digital poetry and art might be turned around, and the same question asked of a computer.

It might be that, as machines do not yet have the capacity to originate genuine poetry (what do I mean by originate and genuine, yes, but let’s hold on that for now), we do not yet have the skills to read and fully appreciate the poems we are generating. The aesthetics of the digital age — the glitchiness, the non-sequitirs, the abstraction, as well as the sleekness enabled by CSS3 and HTML5 and embodied by Apple — might be a style better suited to another epoch in the digital age. The indescribable vaccum in fonts such as Helvetica — the way that font sits in space — might be our brains glitching out at something we have not evolved to perceive.

A few weeks ago, Oliver Burkeman’s long-form article on the Guardian website discussed the ideas of Christoph Koch, the chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, who said “in all seriousness that [. . .] on the basis of his recent research he thought it wasn’t impossible that his iPhone might have feelings.” It might, in all seriousness, be possible that our computers are the best appreciators of the art they are made to generate.

This was a fun thought, and very much in the spirit of an event that could have been improved only by having a voice of dissent. During the discussions at the end of the day, one of the facilitators was vocal about finding computers and the current wave of digital art unnerving. For her there seemed to be a gap between what she was seeing and what she was supposed to see. How many others feel this way?

Jay Bernard 

Jay was at the Send and Receive Symposium at FACT Liverpool (5 February 2015) in association with the University of Liverpool, PoetryFilm and The Poetry Society. It invited participants to imagine the future of poetry, with presentations from artists, scientists and thought leaders, examining innovative platforms involved in contemporary poetic practices

Read Jack Roe’s Type Motion Review here

Main image: Trade Tattoo, Len Lye. GB 1937. Courtesy of the Len Lye Foundation and The British Postal Museum and Archive. From material preserved and made available by the New Zealand Film Archive Ngā Kaitiaki O Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua. Central image: Type Motion exhibition at FACT Liverpool

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