Projected Poetry: From the Medium Specific to the Complex Surface

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

I would like to propose a paper that centers on the specific poetic form of the mesostic. The mesostic not only allows us to reflect on the specific qualities of and differences between print, analog film, and digital born works, but also inspires thinking about complex surfaces picked up by John Cayley and Wardrip-Fruin, among others. My intervention would thus at once make a case for an “old” form of digital literature (the projected poem) and continue emerging debates on the future of textual practices that rely on contemporary developments in computer technology.

FLUXUS related artists such as John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, and Dick Higgins saw in the printed mesostic a way of organizing language that dispenses with grammar and syntax, which rely on linear structuring principles. The printed mesostic, by contrast, is basically organized around a phrase printed vertically on the page, whereby each letter intersects the middle of horizontally distributed lines, although additional, seemingly random rules complicate and enhance its poetic possibilities. I shall analyze more (as well as less) convincing works in this genre.

Paul Sharits’ analog film “Word-Movie” (Fluxfilm 29, 1966) adapts the mesostic, though not without changing the rules of the game. New rules are in fact suggested by exploring the possibilities the new medium has to offer. Adding speed and kinetics at the expense of vertical orientation, the work calls for new reading strategies.

mIEKEL aND’s “Mesostics for Dick Higgins” from 1998 again adapts the mesostic, in this case for Internet based projection on a screen, and again the rules of the game are adjusted so as to highlight the specific qualities of the new medium. And again we need to adjust our reading practices. While the vertical axis is reintroduced, the horizontal lines are now looped and are, more importantly, programmed in such a way that each of the individual words needs to be loaded separately time and again. The rhythm of the work thus depends on the ever so slight variations in loading speed. So while all 11 vertical words initially get replaced all at once after approximately a second, the work soon starts to “break up,” forming 2 halves which change at the pace of a heart beat. Eventually, the lines change at a sufficiently variable pace so as to compose a recombinant poem, relating words from mesostics that were not initially composed as such.

This fluctuation between a given text and a generated one inspired John Cayley to elaborate on the complexity of the textual surface. His reflections again compare contemporary development in digital poetry to predecessors in print (Joan Retallack) and analog film (Saul Bass). Cayley is particularly interested in relating and differentiating on-line and on-screen works (such as his own “Overboard”) to works designed for 3D VR caves (“Lens”). These considerations have been taken to a new dimension by Wardrip-Fruin, as he elaborates on the difficulties of combining narrative strategies with digital projections beyond the screen. Following this line of thought, I will thus suggest that projected poetry has both a past a future worth tracing. (Source: Authors abstract)

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Elias Mikkelsen