Sunday, January 3, 2010

Interactive Poems: intersign perspective for experimental poetry, Philadelpho Menezes

Relazione presentata nel Convegno Internazionale della Associazione degli Studi Parola/Immagine, Los Angeles. Ha come fondo del discorso il lavoro di poesia ipermediale dell'autore.

Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (Brazil)

The view that I intend to explore in this paper is that the possibilities opened to poetry by the new technologies of communication may be considered on two levels: (i) the possibilities of interaction with the reader, the most obvious and basic element of NTC, but the one where most theoretical discussion of the novelty of the technologies is concentrated; (ii) the interfaces that NTC imposes inside the communication system, that is, the internal interface between visual, verbal and sound signs of the poem. Despite the fact that my comments are based on poems that I call “intersign poetry”, these questions can be extended over the other communicational fields and products with similar analyses (newspaper, advertisement, encyclopœdic CD-ROMs, dictionaries, etc.). My view is that hypermedia, developed from hypertext, whether in CD-ROMs or in websites, does not come to be used only as an exercise in mechanical interaction with the user, but also to suggest rich ways of mixing different kind of signs, obliging the user to adopt an intellective approach to the exercise of reading. This activity brings the user out of the traditional system of languages, separated into their specific fields, into to an intersemiotic system of communication. If this interface between signs of different languages does not work in a hypermedia construct, NTC is merely reducing the activity of the user to a functional and programmed use of technology and communication. Some might argue that a functional work immediately produces new behaviour patterns and paths to new sensations. This is a predominant trend in contemporary theory of communication since Marshall McLuhan established the concept of medium as a message in itself. Nevertheless, recent theorists of technology have criticised this concept, arguing that without a level of intellective consciousness, it is impossible to establish new ways of relating to machines; without a certain level of reflection, is difficult to know exactly how to exploit the perspectives that the new technogies open up for us.

My analyses dialogue with two importants studies on digital communication published in United States in the 1990s. The first is Hypertext - Th Cconvergence of Contemporary Critical Theory, by George P. Landow, of Brown University (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997 edition). Landow defines hypertext drawing on different theses such as Vannevar Bush’s conception of memex, Jacques Derrida’s deconstructivism, and Roland Barthes’s analysis of the new relationship between text and reader. Technically, for Landow, hypertext can be defined as a technology of texts put into a web that can make clear the intertextuality inherent in literary works. But, by making rapid and explicit the consultation of subtexts, and by increasing the potentiality of nonlinear and decentered contemporary literature, hypertext changes the conception of text and writing, thus transforming the role of the author and the possibilities of literary education. This new ethic of technological texts must be considered even when we go out of textuality and enter hypermedia programmes, a further development of hypertext, where non-verbal (visual and sound) signs are joined. Hypermedia facilitates working with experimental poetry as hypertext does literary works.

The second approach towards technological writing that I intend to consider is that of Richard A. Lanham in his book The Electronic Word (University of Chicago Press, 1994). Lanham analyses the transformation of the internal feature of the sign, its variable and changeable forms, its ways of organising itself according to the principle of collage. Computer graphics provoke “judgments about scale, a new icon/alphabet ratio in textual communication, nonlinear collage and juxtapositional reasoning (...) - all these constitute a new theory of management”. So Lanham deals with the concept of rhetoric, viewed as a dialetical play established in looking AT a surface pattern of communication and THROUGH it.

By the other side, the experimental poetry appears as an already traditional place for mixing different codes in the modern and contemporary poetics. It is useful to understand clearly what is the concept of “experimental poetry” adopted here: it is a kind of poetry, manifested in some styles and movements in the twentieth, whose form is not displayed in verses. So the concept is rooted in two grounds: I. in the visual field, experimental poetry embraces since the spatialization of verbal texts (like the foremost Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés) until poems with printed images (like the italian visive poetry of the 60’s), passing through very well known visual poetics as the chaotic arragments of futurism, the figurative poems of Apollinaire’s calligrammes or the geometric constructivity of the concretism; ii. in the sound field, experimental poetry contains since phonetic ruptures of dada’s poems until the polipoetry concept of Enzo Minarelli’s creation in the 80’s, crossing the inventions of the electroacustic poems of Henri Chopin, the French lettrism of the 50’s, some beatnik kind of discourses, among others.

A privileged place for the discussion of these issues, central to the contemporary poetics and aesthetics, is the digital technology because of its opened use possibilities, either the perspectives that they can still offer to the mix the two trends of experimental poetry in only one space of the communicational. Regarding a new spatial configuration that is no longer the codex form of the book, the poetry inevitably trespasses the limits of the verbal sign itself. Overcoming the unchanging and bidimensional space of the page as a support for the printed word, necessarily the possibilities to work with the isolated verbal sign in an instigating way is, we could say, also overcomed inside these news configuration of space. If the hypertext becomes naturally hypermedia by the inclination to the integration of the languages within the digital technologies, the digital poem also becomes a traffic between signs of different languages that, when well done, could be called “intermedia” - I prefer “intermedia” term to indicate the communication of a poem where a semantic and functional integration between different kind of signs is predominant, requiring a exercise of “composition” by the reader/observer. The “multimedia” term is preferable to designate poetic communications where free accumulation and superposition of many signs install a simple illustrated and didascalic ways of relation between signs. However, poetry, before entering the technological space of communication, had already reached, according to the intersign poetics, the object poems and the sound poems where, respectively, elements sucs as interactivity and immateriality, two totems of the emerging (and yet so fragile) theories of poetics in new media, are achieved. What matters also in the use of these new technologies is the easiness and the encouragement towards integrative realizations between languages where non-verbal signs (sound or images) are not reduced to the role of mere elements of reinforcing the verbal feature.

On the basis of these considerations, I have been trying to develop a concept of “interpoetry”, related to exercises in the field of experimental poetry, first with visual poems, later with sound poems. Interpoetry has two meanings: that of interactivity and that of intersign poetry. The fusion of these two meanings in one poem is the concern of my work in the area of interpoetry. I will start with the older meaning: ‘intersign poetry’ is the name I used fifteen years ago(1) to express the idea of a poetry created by the fusion of verbal and non-verbal signs. At that time, I was concerned with exploring the characteristics of a visual poetry that, produced in the years after the concretist movement, distinguished itself from the tradition of experimental poetry up to the time of concretism: the tradition of making the visual element derive from the verbal element. From the figurative poems of Greek Antiquity to the concrete poetry of the 1950s and 1960s, every type of visual poetry in one form or another exploits the graphic form of the text, the word or the letter, that is, the various visual forms taken by the verbal sign. In some rare cases, when drawings or engravings enter the space of the poem, the visual element acts as an illustration of the text. The idea of intersign poetry was to use visual images (drawings, photos, numbers, or other graphic elements) as compositional components of the poem through formal interrelationship and semantic interpenetration with the verbal sign; from this, the coming to fruition of intersign poem is the function of an exercise in decoding, interpretation, and decifering that the reader/observer must undertake in the light of the montage of visual and verbal signs present in the poem. Thus intersign poetry emerges as a kind of visual poetry which negates past forms of visual poetry.

These questions led me to an idea that has guided my work since: poetry is a specific form of organising signs in a poem (formal fusion plus semantic montage); it is a language. It is neither a problem specific to the verbal code nor a problem of the techniques through which this language is exhibited or transmitted. Hence, when in the first half of the 1990s I began experimenting with the possibilities of sound poetry, I sought to try to introduce these concepts into the field of sounds by producing poems in which non-verbal sounds played, in the sound poem, the role of images in the visual intersign poem: to create formal fusions that produced not only acoustic effects but more especially meanings deciferable through intellectual interpretation(2).

In the second half of 1997, I began producing poems in which sounds, images and words coalesce, in a complex intersemiotic process, in a technological environment which precisely facilitated the simultaneous presence of verbal, visual and acoustic signs: hypermedia programmes. The idea here was to avoid doing what the visual poem up till concretism had always done: make the visual follow on from the verbal. Or what recited poetry always did: illustrate the reading of the text with music or incidental sounds.

But it was also necessary to avoid the equivocal discourse produced by artists who worked with the new technologies: these latter assume that the mere use of new technologies produces new languages, that is, new ways of combining codes. In practice, this does not happen. Technologies like videotext, computer graphics and holography, present new environments in which the signs of the poem are placed; that is, they suggest new ways of organising these images into spacial and temporal structures, different from those of the printed page. But this does not mean to say that the poem automatically takes advantage of these new structures. Technology suggests; it does not impose. And what we see today is a traditional visual poetry ( principally following concretist and futurist forms) reproduced in terms of the new technologies.

Intersign poems are not “experiments of poetic written texts”, but intersigned processes of word, image, sound, movement, varied ways of reading, where the image, the sound and the movement are not simply features of the word. Interpoetry sets out consciously to occupy the structures provided by the new medias, modifying the relationships between image, sound and word within the specific environments which only hypermedia makes possible. There are two levels of structure which may be considered typical of interpoetry:

1. the mode of relating image, sound and word, which gives continuity to the processes operative within visual and sound intersemiotic poetry, establishing the basis of intersign poetry in hypermedia, obeying a certain specific development of the poem within the time and space of hypermedia.

2. Forms of relationship with the reader and the question of interactivity. The intervention of the reader/user amplifies the forms of participation that the avant-gardes had introduced into art, breaking with the classic contemplative role of the reader/observer. The option of multiple paths for the reading of the interpoem gives rise to two circuits of association: a network of connections based on the technological links made available by hypermedia; a network of associations set up between the data of the poem, which refer to eachother, subterranean to the virtual links, and which could be called post-virtual. The suggested links (interpretative associations) thus supplant and subvert the links that are offered (virtual paths). The interpoem thus establishes the primacy of ‘suggestion’ over ‘explanation’, one that characterizes technological art in general. And it underlines the rethorical question put by Lanham: the superficies of technical links, this opened way to be read, keeps our attention AT the communicative features of the poem as a kind of game; the web of suggestions made by virtual (or mental) links requires our reading THROUGH the communicative features up to semantic conections. It could be said that the rethorical structure of reading an interpoem lies and relies upon the oscillation between “explanation” and “suggestion”, “technical links” and “semantic links”.

The intersigned fusion conducts, after all, the creative exercise towards the fusion between the text genres, where the poetry penetrates the field of theory, tale and encyclopedic information. Everything proceeds to the creation of big systems of communicating chambers where the narrative fiction, the game, the poetry, the scientific research, the daily information and the interpersonal contact can be moments of the same productive exercise.The fusion of genres is, furthermore, natural to interpoetry: visual poetry, sound poetry, theoretical text, encyclopœdic information, fiction, lies, games, all are possible paths within the interpoem. Questions are further raised by the perspective of incorporating narrative forms, by the production of works which could be called ‘interprose’ and which could appear as a follow-up to interpoetic work.



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