[iDC] Report on ePoetry 2007, Paris.

Simon Biggs s.biggs at eca.ac.uk
Thu May 24 06:42:50 EDT 2007

Multimedia, multiculturalism, language and the avantgarde
Notes and observations from ePoetry 2007
May 20-23, Universitaire Paris 8
ePoetry is a series of international colloquiums and artist¹s 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 artists¹ 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. Paris¹s 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 World¹s 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 Americans¹ later asked the artists ³would you
consider reversing roles² the male performance artist replied ³if I had a
sexy body then I might be willing to reveal it². 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
³outside². 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
Jeorg Piringer¹s 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 Piringer¹s 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, ³The Inframergence². 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 Rosenberg¹s 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 thie 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 ³Degenerative Page² and
³Regenerative Page². 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. Tisselli¹s 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, Tisselli¹s 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  Cayley¹s ³Imposition², 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 Cayley¹s 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 ³Listening Post² 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 Simanowski¹s 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 Nica¹s. Simanowski¹s final observations
appropriately reflected on how technology will inevitably come to
cannibalise language.
This gave this observer reason to consider the implications of Stanislaw
Lem¹s ³The Futurological Congress², 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
Simon Biggs
Paris/Edinburgh, May 2007

simon at littlepig.org.uk
AIM: simonbiggsuk

Research Professor in Art, Edinburgh College of Art
s.biggs at eca.ac.uk

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