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.
Each issue, the editors at Mousse invite a contributor to select a text or a group of texts to be reprinted in the magazine as part of their section “Reprint.” The reprinted work may be an article, a short essay, a piece of narrative, or something else, but the original layout is always kept. The scans are accompanied by a text/introduction by the contributor. I was delighted when they asked me to contribute and enjoyed the selection process enormously. The simple act of choosing a set of things and then writing something that helps to connect them was a productive one for me. My thanks to them for the opportunity, and for making it look great. — RG
Lydia Davis’s compact story “20 Sculptures in One Hour" begins like a word problem from a long-lost math class: "The problem is to see 20 sculptures in one hour." We wait for more, but that is the entirety of the problem, which is a classic half-empty or half-full scenario — though this one comes with a twist, as it must account not only for perception but for the passage of time. Once the problem is stated, Davis’s prose quickly double-backs on itself, repeating the worry that although "An hour seems like a long time" it also seems like "20 sculptures are a lot of sculptures." If anxiety can be described as the reflexive condition of worrying about worrying, then you might know where the first part of Davis’s story is heading.
I love Davis’s story all on its own, but I had the desire to stretch it out, to make it last longer, to parse it more closely, to somehow freeze-frame each sentence in motion, like Muybridge’s famous photographic study of a galloping horse. Muybridge’s images were made at the behest of university founder Leland Stanford in order to prove a supposition by French naturalist and early photographer Étienne-Jules Marey that all four of a horse’s hooves left the ground while galloping. With the help of twelve special cameras, Muybridge captured “movements whose speed exceeded the perception of any painter’s eye,” writes Prof. Friedrich Kittler in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, and proved Marey correct.
By 1882 Marey had developed something better than Muybridge’s cameras for recording bodies in motion. Combining Gatling’s mechanized machine gun with a multi-chambered camera developed for capturing the night sky through a telescope, Marey introduced a “chronophotographic gun” that could fire twelve frames per second. “Shooting” film was born.
The chronophotographic gun was soon aimed at one of Marey’s assistants, Georges Demeny, who produced images of himself speaking common phrases in an attempt to understand the motor functions of the face and mouth in producing speech. He used his simulations to teach deaf and mute patients at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris. The 20 millisecond-long exposures shown here animate Demeny as he speaks a declaration of love, “Je vous aime.”
Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of taking a writing workshop with one of my heroes, Prof. Lewis Hyde. Hyde has an excellent show up right now at the Japan Society called “Oxherding,” and the workshop was presented in connection with that show. The show notes describe the project:
The product of a collaborative meditation by two internationally known artistic visionaries, Max Gimblett and Lewis Hyde, oxherding is based on the Song-Dynasty Chinese “Oxherding Series,” a Zen Buddhist parable of self-discovery comprised of pictures and verse. A contemporary American set of perspectives on this greatly venerated Buddhist text, the exhibition includes six collaborative artist books, a series of 10 sumi ink paintings by Max Gimblett, and 10 poems in Chinese and three English versions translated by Lewis Hyde.
Hyde has shared his translations on his own website here. He explains the process of translating the poems using methods of varying length and correspondence to the original:
Each Oxherding text will appear in three different English versions: a “one word ox” which sticks slavishly to the Chinese (one word per character), a “spare sense ox,” which puts each Chinese syntactic unit into a simple English sentence, and an “American ox” (or “fat American ox”) which takes considerable liberties while trying to be faithful to my intuitions about the meaning of the series.
Though we had not been told in advance about the nature of the workshop, after seeing the show I guessed it would focus on the nuances and challenges of translation, and indeed it did.
There are two types of primary colors: additive and subtractive. The subtractive primaries (CMYK) are made of pigment and become darker when combined, while the additive primaries (RGB) are made of light and become brighter when combined. In this formulation, Yale University Press’s new expanded edition of Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color is distinctly additive, brightening the corners of this influential classic and broadening it to a two-volume slipcased set.
With colored bindings inspired by one of Albers’s lessons, these volumes operate in concordance: one carries the text, the other an expanded set of 145 plates created by the artist and his students. The reworked design brings Interaction of Color closer to its original 1963 edition, which, according to Nicholas Fox Weber, the executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, was a “set of unbound folders […] heavier and larger than anything Yale University Press had ever published.”
Once again more suited to a museum patron’s coffee table than an art student’s backpack, this comprehensive set changes our interaction with Interaction, insisting we clear a space, spread the book of plates beside Albers’s descriptions, and learn the act of seeing color afresh. In lesson after lesson, Albers shows the mutability and pliancy of color as a creative material, how it is changed by the colors surrounding it, by the time we spend looking at it, by its distance from our eye, and by our eye’s own imperfections as a perceptual apparatus.
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.
I’ve just received your last letter and am immediately replying. You’ve asked if I’ve received your last letter and if I intend to reply. If I may, please let me point out that your having sent your last letter makes the letter you previously sent no longer the most recent, and if I reply, as I am now doing, it is not in response to your second-to-last letter. I cannot, therefore, satisfy the requests you’ve made in your last letter.
I don’t know about you, but my life’s imitated Roubaud’s art more than a few times, making “inbox zero” sound less like a productivity strategy and more like a distant Utopian future.
Alec Soth’s “Friday Poem” today was an intriguing one titled “Table of Contents for an Imaginary Book” by the poet Elaine Equi. It spoke to me in a lot of ways, but I found it particularly interesting to think about the poem as a designer. Soth has a few more links to Elaine Equi’s work online, but I also really enjoyed these poems about “objects,” or maybe the ideas or descriptions of objects. Equi’s poem about "Wittgenstein’s Colors" seems to catalog some of the lovely observations Wittgenstein made at the end of his life. More about Equi in this week’s NYT Book Review.
“‘The Cat in the Hat’ is 1,702 words long, but it uses only two hundred and twenty different words. And (as the cat says) that is not all. Geisel put the whole thing into rhymed anapestic dimeter. It was a tour de force, and it killed Dick and Jane.” The New Yorker’s excellent Louis Menand on the evolution of Dr. Seuss’s childhood classic.