Becoming full-time web artist
Interview with Jim Andrews

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2. concrete/visual poetry

dd: Your website is called vispo.com for visual poetry. It contains works which explore how the aesthetics of concrete poetry can be extended when features of digital media are employed. What can concrete poetry gain from digital media?

JA: I prefer the term 'visual poetry' to 'concrete poetry' because 'concrete poetry' has more historical specificity than 'visual poetry', I mean 'concrete' to me refers to a certain period of visual poetry and a certain often mimetic approach to the work. The term 'visual poetry' has some historical baggage too, I'm sure. I'd thought when I bought the domain vispo.com that it was my own term, but the term 'vispo' preceded my use of it, not surprisingly. I expect that the term was used frequently by the sorts of visual poets published on Karl Young's site Light & Dust, which is a great archive of pre-Web avant garde visual poetry.

dd: Let me jump in here and just explain why I prefer the term 'concrete poetry'. I am using Klaus Peter Dencker's terminology in this instance. Dencker's distinction was based on the observation that visual poetry creates a type of montage of letters and images whereas concrete poetry draws attention to the material qualities of the language: graphic forms of letters, font, size, color, constellation on the page and to each other. It is visual since one has to see it. The message would be lost hearing it in the radio. I find this to be a useful and appropriate distinction, since with visual poetry the intermedial aspect lies in the product itself, whereas with concrete poetry the distinction is found in the act of perception. That's why I consider your pieces Seattle Drift, Enigma n or Arteroids more in the tradition of concrete than of visual poetry. But as Dencker acknowledges: concrete poetry is often used synonymously with visual poetry. His essay was released in German in 1997 and has appeared in English on Karl Young's Light & Dust ("From Concrete to Visual Poetry, with a Glance into the Electronic Future") With respect to the glance into the Electronic Future, Dencker unfortunately fails to discuss the how concrete poetry benefits when letters can move and react to reader inputs.

JA: I just read the Dencker essay. That's one of the pleasures of doing interviews via email. Thanks for the link. Very interesting and well done, a valuable look into history and the future/present. However, he says at one point that concrete poetry is not mimetic. Perhaps he meant ' not mimetic' in some other sense than the one I'm thinking of. But I do find much concrete poetry rather simply mimetic in the sense that the meaning of the word is often mimed in the shape of the word or the shape is otherwise quite closely related to the meaning of the word. Not all of it is that simple, of course. But those "postulates of concrete poetry--to be simple, understandable, communicative, essential, and exact" Dencker mentions, along with "the idea of a universal [concrete] common poetry" did make too often for a simple-minded mimeticism that restricts much concrete in its range of thought and feeling. Nonetheless, as you point out, concrete gives off a strong sense of the materiality of language and, yes, that is something I appreciate about concrete.

In any case, visual poetry or concrete poetry and the Web--they go together extremely well, don't they. They involve awareness of media, and the Web is multi in that regard, and very visual--in a way that is too expensive in print to be practiced by you and me. Also, the monitor can handle many more colors than the printing process. Not necessarily all at once!--visual artists ask if I have taken too much acid--yet they often have a painterly sense rather than a sense of color for the monitor. The monitor is a very special and unusual visual display, appreciated correctly. It's color range is unparalleled but its resolution is not as fine as in print. It needn't appear pixelated but you need to know what you're doing to avoid pixelation--I have never been of the 'rectilinear' school of net.art, though there is some fine work in that style. I like curves too much.

Even before the Web, visual poets often worked in various media, and those who did/do sound poetry often resort/ed to visual poetry for various fairly obvious reasons. I like to refer to the words of Apollinaire on this matter. In 1917, in his essay L'Esprit Nouveau et les Poetès, said:

Typographical artifices worked out with great audacity have the advantage of bringing to life a visual lyricism which was almost unknown before our age. These artifices can still go much further and achieve the synthesis of the arts, of music, painting, and literature ... One should not be astonished if, with only the means they have now at their disposal, they set themselves to preparing this new art (vaster than the plain art of words) in which, like conductors of an orchestra of unbelievable scope they will have at their disposal the entire world, its noises and its appearances, the thought and language of man, song, dance, all the arts and all the artifices, still more mirages than Morgane could summon up on the hill of Gibel, with which to compose the visible and unfolded book of the future.... Even if it is true that there is nothing new under the sun, the new spirit does not refrain from discovering new profundities in all this that is not new under the sun. Good sense is its guide, and this guide leads it into corners, if not new, at least unknown. But is there nothing new under the sun? It remains to be seen.

So working in several media simultaneously is not new to visual poetry. What is new is the way they can be combined with programming, and the resulting interactivity, and the types of interrelations between media and arts. Also, everything that is digital is 'just' a string of binary digits, in a sense, and so transformations of objects and even media types are beyond the surreal, well into voodoo. I suppose this is commonly called the 'hyperreal,' which predates the digital. I remember hearing that term applied to some of Jean Paul Curtay's sound compositions, for instance, in the eighties, and yes they were highly transformative in the invisibility of sound. Not psychadelic, but hypereal. Transformation in one style or another is often crucial to art. It is as though the styles of transformation in an art somehow carry much of the grammar of the world views.

Also, you know, there has long been a fine tradition in the avant garde of publishing one's own work and partaking of the communications network that exists in the avant garde outside of institutional conduits. The Web strengthens and broadens this network. Which is obviously important to you also at dichtung-digital.

dd: Indeed, digital media provides a new means of aesthetic expression, and the Web allows for this activity to occur independently within a new network. In this instance one would probably be best to dismiss what Foucault referred to as the internal and external police of discourse. But back to aesthetics. Let's talk about "Arteroids", a "literary computer game for the Web" that allows players to shoot words. How does "Arteroids" work and what is the deeper meaning behind it?

JA: After I did Nio there were various things I wanted to explore in more interactive audio work. The game. Keyboard control. And I want to make language and image more integral to the work, and maybe some sort of narrative or other human event-oriented progression to complement the progression of song and composition and visual art composition, because I think that interactive audio can be a fab alternative to the music video as well as bring about new forms of music. And I wanted to learn how to save info to the player's computer so that I could save their compositions to disk. Also, collision detection is the basis of some forms of generative music you may have seen on the Web.

Arteroids 1.0 does most of these things, but there's no audio! Yet. I hope to add more levels of play to it. I put in about six months on 1.0, but six months of dev with a one-man-team doesn't go so far in making a good computer game for the Web. 

One of the things I learned is that when you look at the code of a 'shoot em up,' there is nothing inherently 'shoot-em-up' about the code. Instead, it deals with collision detection and message passing between objects. So that there are many possibilities in the code beyond the typically homicidal 'shoot and destroy' paradigm that shoot-em-ups display.  

Part of my aspiration with Arteroids is to find the gems on the other side of the 'shoot-em-up' over the course of several levels. A kind of evolution from the shoot-em-up toward something more significant than shooting and beating the clock. But that's what I want to do in the future. What is it now? 

Well, when I've sent out notices about Arteroids, I've said that it is a literary computer game for the Web and that it requires some coordination and a desire to create and destroy texts. Canto One (level 1) I think of as the battle of poetry against itself and the forces of dullness.  

I wanted to try to take poetry in a direction that I hadn't seen before, and make the game nicely playable, fast moving. Most arty computer games you encounter on the Web are in slow motion and they don't play well as computer games. The artists are forced by their lack of programming skills to stress the conceptual because the game aspect just isn't there either in terms of speed of play or usually game design.  

dd: This is an interesting aspect and provokes the question as to whether or not this assumption can be reversed: Does a plethora of programming skills greatly reduce the need for attention to conceptual detail? 

JA: Is that a polite way of saying programmers usually suck at art? Yeah, they do. To answer your question, though, it could if you wanted it to, I suppose, or didn't know any better. But that isn't my aspiration. 

If you meet the computer game on its own turf, it will give you some resistance. Just as the visual and interactive in web.art can easily overwhelm language to the point where one doesn't care to read the text, so too computer games will vie for attention to their interactivity and the game, and possibly overwhelm the language or whatever else one might want attention drawn toward. That's partly why I put the text editor in Canto Two (level 2), to focus attention on the language dynamics of the piece. 

Still, when you are actually playing, I'm not sure how many people read the texts. It is an interesting challenge, I hope, to do so, to read in such a way, to understand the conflicts set up in the texts and not just conflicts but the idea that here we're dealing with the word and what is inside the word, the word cracked open, the word exploded, the outer word and the inner word.

And though the green and blue texts are separate, they stream together perhaps into a new text, however you read it.

dd: New text which, since the letters do not form to words, denies any meaning. The clash of poetry (at least at level 1 where the word poetry is fighting the word poetry) leaves behind letters pertinent only in their graphic form and constellation on the page. 

JA: I was thinking of the way you can read the blue and green texts together before they explode. After they explode, you can read them partially (the letters are in the same order, only arranged in circles) but it might cost you your life. Allow me to dedicate the game to those who would prefer to die but play on to see what will happen next. 

Still, in future levels I would like to make the reading experience more integral to the game play, ie, you have to read it to progress in the game, and so on. Yet to come! 

dd: So, it would turn from an action game into an adventure game where one needs to pick up passwords in order to proceed? 

JA: I'm not sure yet. In any case, one would not want to reduce it to riddle but permit mystery to find its place in the game. 

Design is, in part, about understanding what draws the eye's attention first (and second...). There are similar issues associated with activities (game play 'vs' reading etc) that involve not only the eye. When possible, it is best not to totally resist the medium but to push it to its fullest and find/create mystery within the dynamics opened by the medium rather than attempt to impose one's preconceptions.  

I find writers often speak about resisting the nature of the medium, and certainly it's a good thing to have one's own purposes and ends and 'voice'. Yet there are certain types of resistance that are counter-productive, that stop you from working with the poetential energies of media. There's been a value judgement on the energies of the media as being thoughtless or undesirable whereas maybe they're simply unexplored and offer possibilities that we aren't 'reading' right. There's a certain amount of fear and ignorance involved in decisions not to go there at all, not to see how the energy of the media can be bended. 

What I'm getting at is that to integrate reading and text more integrally, maybe I need to get deeper into the game and the action, not step back from it as a bookish person. You can see that idea at work so far in Arteroids in that I've been trying to work toward something that is eminently playable, though I don't think it's there yet.

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