The Poetics of Technology: Reflections on the Art of Eduardo Kac

Andrew Prescott

Much of our cultural history of the past two hundred years has been defined by anxieties about the growth of a technological and commercial society. In the nineteenth century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge bewailed ‘the philosophy of mechanism which, in everything that is most worthy of the human intellect, strikes Death’, while Matthew Arnold declared that ‘Faith in machinery is our besetting danger’. For such commentators, culture represented a means of staving off the threat of an industrial society ruled by money and commercialism.

It is easy to fall into a false binary of opposition between art and technology. When pioneering artists and scholars first demonstrated the potential for using computers in arts and humanities research in the period after the Second World War, their work often provoked antipathy because of this anxiety to maintain a distance between art and the machine. In my inaugural lecture at King’s College London in 2012, An Electric Current of the Imagination, I argued that artistic practice offers a particularly effective means of fostering a creative and critical relationship between art and technology. I declared that ‘Such a new conjunction of scientist, curator, humanist, and artist is what the digital humanities must strive to achieve. It is the only way of ensuring that we do not lose our souls in a world of data’.

Since 2012, I have held an AHRC fellowship as Theme Leader Fellow for its strategic theme of ‘Digital Transformations’. One important outcome of this theme has been further exploration of the way in which artistic practice offers innovative perspective on our relationship with technology. Artistic experiments with a range of text technologies from the typewriter to the computer provide exciting insights into the materiality of the text and the way in which text interacts with our senses as readers and writers.

One event held under the auspices of my fellowship which seemed to me to encapsulate these possibilities was an exhibition, Design and the Concrete Poem, curated by Bronac Ferran at the Lighthouse Gallery in Glasgow from 28 September – 6 October 2016. This exhibition introduced me to the work of many artists whose exploration of the materiality of text and poetry I found compelling.


Design and the Concrete Poem introduced me to such reinventions of the text as dom Sylvester Houédard’s experimentation with typewriters or Liliane Lijn’s use of letraset on metal drums to create Poem Machines. The way in which Lijn’s exploration of Dickensian engineering workshops in London in the late 1960s inspired her Material Alphabet (1970), and her fascination with industrial processes and images, epitomises the way in which artistic practice can generate creative conjunctions with technology. Pierre and Ilse Garnier’s poem cut on a Gestetner duplicating stencil, shown for the first time in the Glasgow exhibition, offered both a novel view of textual materiality and an elegy for an obsolete technology.

Liliane Lijn. Get Rid of Government Time. 1962. 29.5 x 38 x 30 cm. Letraset on painted metal drum, plastic, painted metal, motor. Words from a poem by Nazli Nour. Frame altered in 1965. Link Here – https://bit.ly/2KcsLpu

One artist whose work I have found consistently helpful in thinking about the interaction between technology, communication and our human condition is the Chicago-based Eduardo Kac (b. 1961), and I am delighted to have helped arrange at Furtherfield his first UK show, Poetry for Animals, Machines and Aliens.

Poetry is challenging. A poem questions our certainties, makes us see the world from different angles and, by encouraging us to pause and reflect, subverts that mechanistic goal-oriented outlook which so horrified Coleridge and Arnold but nevertheless dominates the modern world. Technology can give words and letters new shapes and resonances and, in so doing, subvert a consumer-oriented view of technology.

There can be no more imposing expression of technological achievement than the International Space Station. One of the most fascinating aspects of the video of Eduardo Kac’s space poem Inner Telescope, performed in 2016 by the French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, shown in the Furtherfield exhibition, are the interior shots of the cramped space station, jam-packed with wires, containers and panels from innumerable scientific experiments. The confined space station contrasts with the expansive views of the earth visible through the space station windows. This contrast itself seems like a commentary on the puny character of human technological ambitions.

Kac proposed the idea of space poetry in 2007. He pointed out that weightlessness would affect the temporal and physical logic of a poem, while the readers’ sensory engagement with the act of reading would also be different under zero gravity. Inner Telescope vividly illustrates how a simple performance such as cutting paper may be different in zero gravity, while the movement of the paper (cut into a form representing the word ‘Moi’) seems to epitomise the fragility of textual communication. In the rigidly scheduled life of the space station, Inner Telescope uses poetry to pause and reflect on the complex interrelationship of humanity, technology and the wider universe.

Adhuc (1991), Eduardo Kac. Hologram. Edition of 3. Lent by Jonathan Ross Hologram Collection. Photos by Pau Ros

One major thread of Kac’s art has been the relentless interrogation of technology to create radical and original poetic visions. Kac experimented with the potential of the typewriter to allow different juxtapositions and textual shapes in his Typewritings of 1981-2 and from these experiments sprang his first digital poem, Não! (No!) , in 1982-4. Não! was presented on an electronic signboard with an LED display with fragmentary text blocks, encouraging the reader to guess at the links between them.

The digital poems shown in the Furtherfield exhibition illustrate how Kac makes use of digital technologies to redefine the relationship between the reader and text and to reveal new poetic elements in short words and phrases. In Accident (1994), a digital loop introduces shifts and uncertainties into a text, recalling the nervous hesitation when two lovers meet, but also causing the reader’s perception of the text to change as the piece progresses.

Another remarkable pioneering digital poem on display at Furtherfield, Letter (1996), uses virtual reality markup language to create a three-dimensional spiral of text which the reader can spin, invert, twist and explore from every conceivable angle. The text appears to be a single letter, but turns out to be two letters, one from the artist to his dead grandmother and another to his newly born daughter.

Letter (1996), Eduardo Kac. Video of work realised in Virtual Reality Markup Language. Photo by Pau Ros

Text and language are perhaps the two technologies which most profoundly shape our lives. By altering our perception and engagement with text, Kac raises questions about the way in which we communicate and understand each other. In his beautiful holopoems, one of which is on display in the Furtherfield exhibition, Kac creates texts which shift and change depending on the angle at which they are viewed. Text technologies frequently give the impression of immutability, but Kac’s holopoems remind us how unstable and deceptive texts may be.

The full range of Kac’s technological exploration is impossible to encompass in a single exhibition, but some sense of it is evident from his website (www.ekac.org). Particularly fascinating is the way in which Kac has explored the poetic possibilities of technologies which are now redundant. Although the platform on which the work was realised is now obsolete, the work nevertheless anticipates contemporary digital cultures. Thus, Kac used the French videotext network Minitel to show the possibilities of network art. He demonstrated the potential of large-scale collaborative works by various pieces using fax. Kac was already experimenting with the potential of telepresence, robotics and wearables in the 1990s.

At each point in these explorations, Kac urges us to engage with these technologies creatively, to use them to create fresh visions, and not simply to accept them as consumers. As a historian, I have long felt that humanities scholars too often passively accept the technological resources and tools made available to them by commercial companies and others. One of the reasons why I believe passionately that humanities scholars should engage more closely with artistic practice is that such a dialogue will foster a more creative and critical approach to the use of digital methods by humanities scholars. The artists whose work I have encountered in the course of my AHRC Fellowship, such as Fabio Lattanzi Antinori, Michael Takeo Magruder, and Katriona Beales as well as pioneers such as Nam June Paik all convey the message that we need to engage creatively with technology. Technology is a threat if we view it passively as an inhuman external force; if we rather seek, like Kac and these other artists, to interrogate, extend and reimagine technology in a creative way we can hope to take greater ownership of it.

This is most spectacularly illustrated in Kac’s bio-art. It is now becoming evident that new biotechnologies will within a short period of time profoundly alter human existence and personality. Kac’s bio-art (following in a tradition which includes the creation of germ pictures by Sir Alexander Fleming) again encourages us to engage creatively with these emerging technologies.

DNA is text and DNA can be poetry of the most profound sort. In a series of works called Genesis (2001), a synthetic gene was created by Kac by translating a sentence from the biblical book of Genesis into Morse Code, and converting the Morse Code into DNA base pairs according to a conversion principle developed by the artist. The sentence chosen was Genesis 1:26: ‘Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’.

Visitors to the gallery showing Genesis could trigger mutations in the bacteria’s DNA by switching an ultra-violet light on and off. This in turn mutated the text when it was converted back in morse code and then into English. The artist comments that ‘the ability to change the sentence is a symbolic gesture: it means that we do not accept its meaning in the form we inherited it, and that new meanings emerge as we seek to change it’.

Kac’s most well-known work is GFP Bunny (2000) in which an albino rabbit called Alba was bred in a laboratory with a gene causing the rabbit to glow fluorescent green under a blue light. Kac’s image of Alba has become very well-known and was perhaps one of the first iconic art images of the twenty-first century. We will be exploring the cultural phenomenon of Alba in another exhibition at the Horse Hospital called ‘…and the Bunny goes Pop’, opening on 2 June 2018.

The Alba Flag (2001), Eduardo Kac. Silkscreen on polyester fabric. Edition of 3. Lent by the artist. Photo by Pau Ros

The distinctive image of Alba, shown on The Alba Flag (2001) hanging outside Furtherfield during the exhibition, is also a highly poetic image, conveying many messages about identity, the nature of life and belonging, and the increasing intersection of these with technology. Kac’s memories of Alba prompted him to create a wordless language system incorporating rabbit imagery which he called lagoglyphs (from the ancient Greek words ‘lagos’ for hare and ‘glyphe’ for carving).

Kac has now begun a series of Lagoogleglyphs, large lagoglyphs designed to be visible from the satellites which provide the imagery for Google Earth. Lagoogleglyph I (2009) was installed at Oi Futuro, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Lagoogleglyph II (2015) at Es Baluard Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Palma de Mallorca, Spain. Lagoogleglyph III has been installed in Finsbury Park.

Lagoogleglyph III (2018), Eduardo Kac. Photo by Pau Ros

The Lagoogleglyphs encapsulate what is to me the central message of Kac’s work. Google is a vast all-encompassing technology giant which encourages us to consume its services while it makes money from data about us. The way in which Google Earth acts as a panopticon for the world, presenting an idealised sunny view of the planet’s surface, symbolises the hierarchical downward nature of much modern technology.

How can we seek to make our presence felt with the world of mass corporate technology? Painting a huge image in Finsbury Park is an inspired way of intervening in the artificial deracinated corporate view of the human world presented in Google Earth.

When the Arts and Humanities Research Council established its strategic theme of ‘Digital Transformations’ in 2011, the terminology echoed that used in many corporate contexts, and was redolent of improved business processes and data management. Eduardo Kac’s work reminds us that real digital transformations are achieved through creative interrogation of technology and through reimagining how we engage with that technology. Poems turn out to be true drivers of digital transformation.


We spun a dream last night by Francesca da Rimini

We had a dream last night, we had the same dream’1

I’m looking for a new love, a mouth that promises . . .

once upon a time . . .

or . . .

in the beginning . . .

the islands in the net were fewer, but people and platforms enough
for telepathy far-sight spooky entanglement
seduction of, and over, command line interfaces

it felt lawless
and moreish
wandering into the maw of the feast

in the realm of the Puppet Mistress, 1995

speech acts, sex acts, strange pacts
squirreled away in buffer logs and pasted Pine trails
weaving 1001 nights of Puppet Mistress tales
never on the down-low
was this most splendid DIWO

permission granted,
always, all ways
read write execute
reeds rites hexecutes

I was Alice clasping the little bottle labeled ‘DRINK ME’
becoming-Sufi, heady with some love-like like love emotions
juiced up jouissance
psychosomatic investigations

psi psi psi
ψ ψ ψ
sigh

seeking the difference/s
if any
between a suspected false binary
Virtual — Real — Life

difference
différance
different ants
worker queens snorting lines of flight

‘IRL’ (‘in real life’) prefaced conversations
whereas no-one said ‘IVL’
VL was the norm
so no need for a distinguishing preposition
whereas you needed to go somewhere, in, purposefully,
to get (back) to real life

 

Back to life, back to reality
Back to the here and now yeah
. . .
Back to life, back to the present time,
Back from a fantasy
Soul II Soul 1989

 

I ask Monstrous_Gorgeous (aka t0xic_honey @Lambda) to trawl through my stash of Moologs and MOOmails from my Lambda life, to search for signs of digital affliction. t0x’s forensic gaze (who eirself had been a keen Lambda queercoder back in the day) might be illuminating. GashGirl and her morphs(GenderFuckMeBaby, Madame_de_Clairwill, doll yoko, Rent_Boy, et al) had run amok and amongst simultaneous games, switching genders, personae and communicative registers as easily as children playing ‘let’s pretend‘. The best game was that between Puppet Mistress and her Puppet (aka YourPuppet). Today the language seems quaint, The Difference Engine meets The Pearl, steamy stream punk. All bonnets, bronze and tiny buttons.

Wolf.
Homunculus.
Ghost.
Doll.

It’s a sky-blue sky.
Satellites are out tonight.
Let X=X.
Laurie Anderson 1982

 

does X=X?
or VL = zero?
with RL the one of ones, the one and all,
the only one (of all possible lives)

I think not!

t0x phones me, recounting episodes that I cannot recall, but which are so in-character I have for sure they happened. Like when I punished My Puppet severely for daring to speak with t0x about her in-MOO peep show. Now we can laugh about it, now that the field lies fallow, but at the time I was furious. Living at (on? in?) LambdaMOO did not diminish affect or emotion, but rather it intensified thought, sensation, desire, need.

can we call this addiction?
or obsession?
compulsion maybe?

I chatted this week with Jon Marshall, my anthropologist friend and author of Living on Cybermind (an ethnography of a mailing list), about how it felt more like a habit than an addiction. He talks about personally accumulated habits and socially accumulated habits. Humans are constructed of habits, including the habits that you build up around internet use. We recall the ‘Rape in Cyberspace‘ event at LambdaMOO; ‘that story becomes a myth that guides behaviour’, suggests Jon. My habit would not have led to such intense encounters, if all of us lot had not been sharing a gravitational pull to the glimmering galaxies of spiralspace. My twin talks about habit lying at the junction of nature and nurture, opening up another line for future investigation. Never enough time. Instead I loaf around on Netflix with Terrace House: Boys & Girls in the City.

for me the habit of MOO (Mu) was quickly formed,
and devastating to desert
Ripping through a damaged heart
in the best of daze
circa 1992 93 94 95 96
(=3)
I didn’t leave home
a charming house with a white peach tree, goblin hut
and a dial-up 14,400 modem usurping landline’s phone functionality

for years I burrowed in through a borrowed log-in
J (aka connie_spiros @Lambda) pounds on front door to kick me off
later I jumped onto a free account offered by community provider apana
through its tiny sibling sysx (thank you Scott and Jason)
part of a tribe meshwork of cool sysops animating .net
motivated by the conviction of net access for all
xs4all
excess for real

S (aka Quark @Lambda) told me how depressing it was to leave home at 7.30am seeing me already jacked in, and to find me still in pajamas at dinner time, a sure sign that I hadn’t stepped away from the computer all day.

frequently he’d say ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’
(rhetorical)
5 words yanking me from my fugue
to discover myself pretzeled around the machine
in a position so unnatural it had become natural
to a life lived more and more in a VL that had become my RL

there was a vastness to the generative affective experiences
it felt unstoppable
on par with the most exhilarating love affairs
continual platform jumping
(don’t mind the gaps)
with unseen but deeply imagined companions
haunting me from nautical twilight to nautical twilight

netmonster, 2005

The only platform that came close to the seductiveness of Lambda was Netmonster, a network visualisation engine built by artist coder tinkerer Harwood (aka Graham Harwood). I was fascinated by the code and what it could do. And I adored the constant communication with my bruvv, the one who calls me ‘witch sister’. We hung around on the server, chatting white text on black screen. I made him a self-executing poem in Perl, my one and only attempt to learn some rudiments of that language. Netmonster could be a machine for collaborative writing, for prophesy, a tool for poking around in the machinations of power and capital. I imagined its transformative potential on a magical level, casting silver spanners into the bellyworks of the Beast. As a user I became tangled in search strings questing for the grail of understanding. Without knowing what I was asking, I pushed Harwood to push the code, Perl, to do things it wasn’t designed to do. The machine groaned under the weight of requests, and eventually its interactive functionality was turned off (brutal!), leaving just a beautiful hyperlayered carapace online. The emptiness I felt when the living essence of the project was no longer was comparable to the hole of grief when a lover says it’s over. The spirit of Netmonster had left forever. I was alone again.

clever little tailor, 2017

There’s a few of us chatting around a table in Clever Little Tailor, an affordable bar if you stop after one drink. Around the table S2 (artist/student, early 20s), A (poet/singer/student maybe just grazing 25), and a couple of ancient cyberwitches. We speak about imbuing inanimate objects, a child’s wooden horse, a Persian rug, with magical powers, to speak, to fly. The human tendency to want to create life in things, including things and wings of internet, and this predisposition in turn enlivens and expands us. The topic turns to matters of the heart, and native/natal platforms. Those communicative modes that either we were born into or grew into, the sticky tongue finger techs that we associate with our netted emotional and social lives. We talked about coding and not coding, about the need to live online, and the impulse to desert it. Instant Messaging is for S2 what Internet Relay Chat was for us. We spell out the spell of Command Line Interface in a condensed version of how we uploaded ourselves to the song of the modem, waiting up all night to be able to play, existing betwixt and between multiple time zones. We struggle to find the right words (because the material of this stuff is made of words but is so not about words really) to evoke the deliciousness of what was a relatively uncolonised uncommodified unregulated ineffable space. Even if we hexen rarely use the word ourselves, the neologism (and who could forget Neo!) cyberspace, continues to signify the consensual hallucination of jacking in to the zone. Maybe now it’s more mall than sprawl for us who experienced something more unbounded, but for the next gens the intensities, the desires are equivalent.

17.10.17

forever doll
becoming witch
she opens her mouth
and swallows the world
she opens her mouth
and swallows your word
dissolving like spun sugar
laced with saffron threads
hexe hexe hexe
tiva! tiva! tiva!
naughty naughty naughty
all for naught
and nought for one
zero and one
zeno and won
one on one on one
on and on and on . . .

 

Thank you to old and new friends whose ideas have nourished this text: Virginia Barratt, Alison Coppe, Linda Dement, Teri Hoskin, Jon Marshall, Stuart Maxted, John Tonkin. Big thanks to (bruvv) Graham Harwood for inviting me to play and live inside Netmonster in 2005.


Francesca da Rimini (aka doll yoko, GashGirl, liquid_nation, Fury) is an interdisciplinary artist, poet and essayist. She revels in collaborative projects, joining companions in generating slow art, strange beats and new personae. As co-founder of cyberfeminist group VNS Matrix she contributed to international critiques of gender and technology. The award-winning dollspace deployed the ghost girl doll yoko to lure web wanderers into a pond of dead girls. As GashGirl/Puppet Mistress, she explored the uploaded erotic imagination of strangers at LambdaMOO. More recent performances , collaborations and installations including delighted by the spectacle, hexecutable, songs for skinwalking the drone, hexing the alien, and lips becoming beaks have combined rule-driven poetry, fugue states, spells and prophesies as hexes against Capital.

“Certain subjects compel me – alchemy, folklore/folk law, emancipatory social experiments, the nature of cognition, and states of ‘madness’ and ecstasy. I approach art-making as a hexing, a spell, a witch’s ladder to another realm. To paraphrase anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, a revolutionary act is to behave as if one were free.” da Rimini


Human Readable Messages

Human Readable Messages_[Mezangelle 2003-2011]” is a book published by Traumawien containing almost a decade of Mez Breeze’s “Mezangelle” writings. Mezangelle is hand-crafted text with the aesthetics of computer code or protocols. What marks Mezangelle out is how deep its use of those aesthetics go and how effectively it uses them.

Computer programming languages have their own logic, and it is not captured by holding down the shift key and bashing the top line of the keyboard to add what looks like a cartoon character swearing or random line noise to text. It’s true that programming languages can look incomprehensible to the uninitiated. This Perl code:

y/A-Za-z/a-zA-Z/

will swap the case of lower and upper case English letters. But the conciseness of this notation hides a clear informational structure only in the same way that mathematical or musical notation do.

Likewise the markup language HTML that this article is written in:

<p>looks &quot;<em>gnarly</em>&quot;</p>

and a computer protocol such as email transmission via SMTP:

220 smtp.example.net ESMTP Postfix
EHLO someone.example.org
250-smtp.example.net Hello someone.example.org [192.0.2.201]
250-SIZE 14680064
250-PIPELINING

is incomprehensible without reference to detailed technical documents. But all express clear semantic structures and instructions to the computer systems that have been programmed to understand them.

These notations have been created to express data and concepts in structured ways that are possible for computers to work with. They may look typographically arbitrary but they do involve aesthetic choices and historical precedent. They have associations, they have resonances.

We do not usually see the codes involved in our use of computers and the Internet when they function effectively, but they are always there. When they successfully empower or coerce us they become invisible. In the age of social networking, ecommerce, and mobile devices they are pervasive.

What, then, are we to make of Mezangelle? Human written, but intentionally structured in the style of computer code, it recreates the expressive, communicative underpinnings of software syntax rather than simply its surface aesthetics.

To read Mezangelle is to parse it. Parsing in computer software is the process whereby a computer breaks down textual input into smaller and smaller but more and more closely related chunks of meaningful information. Parsing Mezangelle requires the human reader to group and regroup word fragments into shifting webs of meaning. It takes time to do this, and different textual characters and formatting take different amounts of time, adding rhythm and pacing to the meaning of the text.

The history of literary typography, of mathematical notation, and of programming language design has lent a rich range of often contradictory precedents both to software and to writing that draws on its aesthetics. A dot can mean a fraction or a part of an object. A square bracket can instruct a computer to construct a list in memory, to access an element of an array, or to send a message to an object. As can a colon or two, or various arrows. Hashes can indicate comments, identifier numbers, or other entities.

The raw typographic aesthetics of character glyphs spring from their visual form (smooth, straight, long, slanted), size, and relative visual complexity. A full stop or a vertical bar is simpler than a hash or an ampersand. These factors affect how long it takes to perceive them and the effect they have on the eye as we look across them. The glyph-level and code level visual arrangement of code affects the pacing of our reading, building pace and meter. The more semantic aesthetics of the way these glyphs are used to structure code build on and interact with this. And it affects the relations and meanings that we build as we read the text.

Like computer program code, Mezangelle structures its content in order to communicate to and invoke the resources of its parser. Crucially this is a human parser rather than a software one so those resources are aesthetic and cultural. As well as pacing the experience of the text as spoken performance would, these destabilize and expand its meaning as the attention of critical writing does.

The intrusion of quoted plain English text such as an Alan Sondheim piece or an email from a mailing list that have been the inspiration for an answering piece of Mezangelle serves both to show how different Mezangelle is from written English and how effectively it can be part of a conversation.

Here is a line of Mezangelle (broken by the format of this page):

.. my.time: my time: it _c(wh)or(e)por(ous+h)ate_ _experience____he(u)rtz___.] [end]

Read as code, the underscores mean private data and variables, the square brackets mean list construction, message passing, references to individual elements of data structures. The full stops are decimal fractions or references to data or functions that are parts of larger objects. They do not decorate (in the sense of being frivolous), they evoke.

They also semantically structure and pace, allowing reading and re-reading as poetry. Underscores creates distance, brackets group and shift the meaning of words and fragments of words. Addition signs and colons combine concepts and further disrupt the parsing of language as a flat, linear, structure.

Mezangelle is distinct from much historical code poetry in its structural and semantic mastery of the aesthetics of code. It is distinct from concrete poetry in its semantic, destabilizing, temporal rather than merely structural use of typography.

Mezangelle is net art, it is produced and encountered in the environment of the Internet. Mezangelle lives in blogs and on mailing lists. But it does not die on the printed page, far from it. “Human Readable Messages” is typeset in Donald Knuth’s Computer Modern font, a beautifully spindly artifact of the early days of computer typesetting, with the occasional intrusion of Courier-style monospaced teletype/typewriter fonts. This gives the printed text a digital, online feel retaining a genetic link to the environment it originated in.

Mezangelle surfaces and integrates the hidden aesthetics of computer mediated human activity, setting computing and human language in tension and synthesizing them. It expands the expressive possibilities of text and is a form of realism about the conditions in which human reading is currently flourishing. “Human Readable Messages” provides an ideal opportunity to familiarize ourselves with Mezangelle in the depth that it deserves and rewards.

The text of this review is licenced under the Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 Licence.