This talk was given at the Tishman Auditorium, The New School as part of the event “Project Projects Project Projector,” sponsored by AIGA/NY. As a prompt, Adam, Prem and I were asked to speak about how our passions informed our practice. My comments about “computational poetics” (for lack of a better phrase!) follow below.
I want to start with this familiar image of Google auto-complete. It’s interesting how the web is a kind of machine for generating and organizing text — you put text in, you get more text out. And there are algorithms that structure the text output, so when you make a search, you expect something specific to happen as a result.
Here’s a website we made last year for an exhibition at Harvard that takes its name from Dante’s famous epic poem — it has a different kind of search bar.
You input text, but the field doesn’t behave as you’d expect — rather than searching the site, it searches the entire web. And rather than behaving consistently, its behavior changes, cycling through a series of searches from Google Images…
…to an Italian translation of your search phrase.
This isn’t anything new — machines have always changed the behavior of text, and the creation of a new tool often alters the usage of an existing one.
One of the most important things I’ve ever read about typography is Paul Elliman’s essay “My Typographies.” Here’s the sparkling gem of it that I’m so fond of quoting to my students:
Writing gives the impression of things. Conversely, things can give the impression of writing.
Beautifully put. In the essay that follows, Elliman dances among several examples of things that give the impression of writing, each of which is connected powerfully to our own origins and the rhythms of life on this planet. He reads the types of clouds in the sky, looks at constellations and signals sent to outer space through the Arecibo Message, unpacks the passing of Uruk tokens, scans the Talmud, finds our flickering digital beginnings in ASCII text and LED watches, then turns to alphabetic codes, GPS messages, and more. Perhaps his most intuitive example, though, is the alphabet of DNA, on which he quotes genetics professor Steve Jones:
It has a vocabulary (the genes themselves), a grammar (the way in which the inherited information is arranged), and a literature (the thousands of instructions needed to make a human being). The language is based on the DNA molecule, the famous double helix; the icon of the 20th century. It has a simple alphabet, not 26 letters, but just four, the four different DNA bases, A, C, G, and T for short.
And now, via Kottke, we learn of Christian Bök, who will encrypt a poem on a particularly resilient bacteria called Deinococcus radiodurans. As Wired describes Bök’s process, part of the appeal of doing this (apart from seeing if it Can Be Done) seems to be about constraint:
Bök will have to choose his ciphers carefully, as his poem chemically ordains the sequence of amino acids that the bacteria will create in response. There are 8 trillion possible combinations, but depressingly few of them yield useful two-way vocabularies.
In many ways, Bök’s project reminds me of Emmett Williams’s work — Sweethearts, of course, but also his lesser-known IBM poem, which uses a technique called “expansion by alphabet,” a process I intend to write more about in the future. However, for the time being, let me just say that no sooner had I found a computational method for collecting Williams Words then I found out that Williams himself had been experimenting with computational verse using this form. Williams is always one step ahead — beautiful. More on the IBM poem here and here.
In another great post from the Walker’s design blog, Chad Kloepfer writes about the Great Bear Pamphlets, published by Dick Higgins, founder of Something Else Press. Something Else was the original publisher of Emmett Williams’s Sweethearts, Daniel Spoerri’s An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, Claes Oldenburg’s Store Days, Dieter Roth’s 246 Little Clouds, and much more. The Great Bear Pamphlets were recently republished by the wonderful organization Primary Information and distributed by D.A.P.
Above: Cover and spreads from Emmet Williams’s booklength poem Sweethearts, published by Hansjörg Mayer (1967).
Kaolin Fire created an online Williams Word Generator for 10 letters or less, and Todd L. has helped me created a PERL-based generator that runs locally on my computer for longer words. Because of this, I now have a complete word list for the 11-letter word “sweethearts,” the engine of Williams’s famous poem. It beats every other 11-letter word I’ve tried both in quality of words and in quantity. There are subjects (she, he, we), great nouns (art, heart, tea, sea, wart), and verbs in singular and plural forms (eats, hears, wears). Williams was absolutely a master at work.
The complete list follows after the jump.
Wow. Within a few hours of posting Spraypaint and an open call for a Williams Word Generator, I have been pleasantly surprised by the response. Jason Kottke was kind enough to post Spraypaint on the wonderful Kottke.org and I awoke to dozens of supportive emails this morning. Hektor himself wrote in to say he’d like to paint the poem sometime, and, best of all, Kaolin of GUD Magazine quickly created a working Williams Word Generator for words of eight letters or less. Hopefully it will be able to do longer words in the future, but for now, it’s a great start. Once again, Internet: well done. Well done. Update: Kaolin has his generator working for ten letters now.
I’ve written two Williams Poems before. “Spraypaint” is my third. I have shown it here in stencil; Williams often used stencils in his work, most prominently in his poem “THE VOY AGE.” In my dreams, “Spraypaint” would be applied using Jürg Lehni’s Hektor in performance. (Hektor is a device I think Williams would’ve really liked.) I have also shown the poem here in two panels, which is another device I have adopted from Williams himself. The poem reads, “A saint I ain’t. I rap in sin. I rain in print. I pray in rap. I rant in pain. An ant I ain’t. I paint.”
OPEN CALL FOR A WILLIAMS WORD GENERATOR. I’ve just posted a new Williams Poem called “Spraypaint,” and to go with that I wanted to issue an open call for a little web application I’m unofficially dubbing the “Williams Word Generator.” A Williams Word Generator is essentially a widget or applet that would allow someone (say, me) to type a word into a text box and then scan that word’s letters in sequence for other possible words. The letters have to be used in sequence and cannot be used more than once (for an example, see “Spraypaint”). Would this be difficult to do? Email me and let me know!
I’ve been thinking about Emmett Williams a lot lately, even more since coming back from Amsterdam with a copy of his poem Sweethearts in hand. I’ve been thinking about the kind of verse that crops up in Sweethearts, where the word and its letters in their order become an engine to generate this whole world, and it saddens me that Williams was the only one exploring this particular form as deeply as he was. Like the sestina or the pantoum, two other highly structural and underused poetic forms, Williams’s form generates a tone and type of poetry all its own. I’ve explored the form just a bit already in a poem called Wastebasket. This is a longer and I think more successful attempt, written at the request of a friend doing a collaborative project whose submissions are acquired by way of a gift circle among contributors. When the circle turned toward me, I found myself looking at a short, silent film of a man standing on a windy bridge in the snow. I was asked to use the film in my response. Doing this poem was such an intense and quietly rewarding experience, and I hope to make many more of them as time goes on. I would like to see Williams’s form alive and flourishing, even in just a small way. The poem reads: “No owls as we wake now. As flakes fake snow, we fake OKs. So now we owe. Lakes soak. Oaks flake. No snow owls. No snow as we wake.” —RG
My friend Cindy Heller, wonderful designer of Bidoun magazine and a building mate here at 195 Chrystie Street is doing a great project called Wanderbag. Wanderbag is “a collaborative art project through which artists and small businesses promote greater environmental responsibility.” Cindy’s asked a handful of friends, artists, and other inspiring folks to design the fronts of cotton tote bags so we’ve got a fashionable way to use the same bag to go from bookstore to grocery store and back again.
My contribution is an homage to the groundbreaking Concrete poet and Fluxus chronicler Emmett Williams, who passed away this February as Cindy had started asking for submissions. My WASTEBASKET poem (above) works in almost exactly the same way as Emmett’s famous poem SWEETHEARTS (the introduction to which was written by none other than Richard Hamilton.).
My poem reads, “weak webs / a teak base / seas east west / wake bake / take wastebasket.” For further reading on Williams’s work, try starting with this interview from Hans Ulrich Obrist. Designers may also find it interesting that one of his poems comes up prominently at the end of this interview with Experimental Jetset [PDF]. Williams’s work has been very influential for me, and I’m sure for many more. He will be missed.
Wanderbags, Cindy tells me, will be available early next year. Stay tuned.