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“I walk and I enhance things” is a line from the chapbook, “picking figs in the ˚̥̞̞̽̽ͯ garden while my world eats Itself,” by Katie Rose Pipkin. I asked Pipkin if that particular, uncanny line was written by her or the software. She responded whimsically and honestly, “I don’t know.” It was a ‘collaboration.’ Her initial poems became a source for various bots (software application that runs automated tasks) and machine learning algorithms to generate a vast amount of new material. The software altered the poems and integrated the generated material into them to the point that made them indistinguishable from one another. She then edited a selection into a chapbook edition of 100 bringing her digital collaboration into the physical world..  

Pipkin’s project is an example of digital poetry, poems that incorporate computer software and data into their creation and presentation. By asking, ‘What is digital about poems created through such a process?’ we can also explore, “What’s poetic about digital technology?”  

Before exploring the meaning of digital poetics further, it’s important to ask, “What is poetry?” With a quick search on the Internet I discovered, that according to a 3rd grade text book, poetry is saying a lot with very little. Although it’s oversimplified to say that’s all there is to poetry, there’s something revealing in that description. A poem may sometimes include little information, but it can still express emotions in great magnitude through the expressive qualities of words and to bring psychological impact to the readers. Often it’s also what is not said in a poem, the space between words, that creates room for the imagination.

The word Digital is often used as shorthand for Digital Technology. It operates in zeros and ones. The Digital is prevalent in our everyday life, and it’s difficult to imagine writing and sharing text without it. Perhaps a question to ask is not  “How to write a poem with the Digital?” but “Is it possible to write poems without the Digital?”

Digital poetry, poetry written with code, and poetry written like code, can be appreciated in the context of the constrained writings of the Oulipo, a collective of French experimental writers active around 1960s. The Oulipo group’s name literally means “Workshop of potential literature”, they explored the potential of writing new kind of poems and literature through extensive use of constraints. This playful approach also share similarities to games and instructions by artists involved in the Fluxus movement. The Fluxus artists created open-ended prompts that played with the material nature of language and structure for poetic exploration.  

Code is the language of the Digital technologies including software, hardware, network and infrastructure. Although code is embedded in every aspect of technology in our daily life, it’s  mostly invisible and very foreign to most of us. When we try learn to program for the first time, code might feel like poems by aliens.

Code {poems} by Ishac Bertran is an investigation of the aesthetics of code as language. He held an open call for submissions from coders and poets, with the requirement that poems be less than 0.5Kb and compile. He worked with a group of editors to edit and publish a book of the code poems. The writings read like both poetry and code. Poems, like code, operate at many levels of abstraction with metaphor and syntax.

Code {poems} is a tangible outcome of Digital poems’s transfer into the physical world. The chapbook was printed in Impremta Badia in Barcelona which was founded in 1888. Code, which is often considered to be formless, was offset printed on the pages and then bound. This process gave a material presence to code. Although Digital is often confused the the virtual, they are not synonyms. Virtual means something is very close to being something without actually being it. Digital, on the other hand, is a method of representing quantity in zero and one. While Digital information can represent virtual information, Digital technologies take up actual space. For example, I’m typing this essay on a computer, the text file occupies a tiny space on both my personal computer and a data center somewhere else.

The Digital technology enables seamless user experience. Most of the times when we are communicating with computers, even when we are writing code, we are working above layers of abstraction. The abstraction is an important concept in computing, it’s a way that a simple set of logical system can be repeated to create a higher level machine. Abstraction is necessary because it’s not practical to work directly with zeros and ones, or High and Low electronic signal with the computer.  Digital technology products are made to hide its inner workings, to provide convenience experience for the user.

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My project Handmade Computer is a 4-Bit computer. The contemporary smartphones have 64- Bit Chips, which means they can process 16 times more information at the same time than the Handmade Computer. It’s also only partially automatic, it needs a human operator to function. It’s also Turing-incomplete. Turing-completeness is a conceptual foundation of general purpose computers which we use commonly, it’s a system that can perform any calculation that any other programmable computer is capable of. Handmade Computer has no operating system or software, instead it’s a lot of Logic gates chips that wired on a circuit board. The chips each perform specific Boolean logic operations, such as AND or NAND, and some of them have higher level function like Adder, Memory and Comparator.

Handmade Computer is like the great-grandmother of CPU (Central Processing Unit) which is the brain of a computer. Making the Handmade Computer was a painstakingly journey, taking months of breadboarding with Integrated Circuit chips, resistors, transistors, soldering and wire-wrapping, an antiquated technique of creating circuits by very thin wires. It’s an absurdly irrational and time-consuming way to make a computer that can only operate 4-Bit. However, it’s how some of the early electronic computers were made. I made the Handmade Computer by following historic documents from the 1940s to the 70s, learning about different social and political conditions, like the wars and industrial corporations, that influenced the way  modern computer are made.   

Making the Handmade Computer  was a chance to reimagine an alternative path of the computer’s development. What If the computers were never mass produced, what kind of computers would we be making on our own? What kind of poems will we be writing with it? The core of the computer is the computer architecture, the structures to process information. Code is writing the set of instructions for a specific tasks to be repeated within the structure.  

On the poetry’s mobility

Poetry is words at play. Inventive expressions are created by use and sometimes misuse of the grammar and other rules within the language. The poet has the freedom to decide how the poem is created and reader also has the freedom to interpret it on their own. Interesting questions arise when we think about the authorship and the craft of the poems like “picking figs in the ˚̥̞̞̽̽ͯ garden while my world eats Itself” which I mentioned at the beginning of the essay. Generative poems are a subgenre of electronic literature, where the significant portion of the poem is created by a set of rules, algorithms and databases.

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Everyword by Allison Parrish is an example of a server-side script that tweets out a single word at a time. Is the poem the single word that appears on twitter over eight years or is it the server-side code she wrote to generate the work? Could it be both? Everyword is an example of poetry’s mobility enhanced by the Digital (computation)’s power to distribute the words over the network.

Version control is a data management capability to keep track of changes in code. Github.com is a popular service for version control, which keeps track of the smallest changes in the code and also makes it efficient for many coders to work on a same software together. It can also compare one version of code to another, make the conflicts visible when there’s a diversion and also merging two versions of code to one. Each commit, a kind of snapshot of the code in a specific moment, is accompanied by a message that describes changes made to the current code. Since code is essentially made of text and numbers, version control enables writing over different sense of time, where you can go back to the past version or fast forward to the latest version of the text.

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Version Controlled Poetry is a collaborative project I started in 2015 that invites other poets and coders to edit and submit poems on Github. I wrote a poem “Poetry is Patience. Struggle to stay useless and effective” and invited others to collaborate.  Mushon Zer-Aviv, an artist based in Tel Aviv, Israel, commited the edits on the poem like the following:

“Poetry

is
Patience.

Struggle

to keep effectively useless.”

His commit message was “Made the poem more effectively useless.” Hiroaki Yamane, an SFPC alum who works as a programmer in San Francisco, wrote JavaScript code mirroring the whole poem. Ramsey Nasser, an artist and teacher at SFPC, committed a new poem in Arabic, with commit message “My ink is black don’t ask me to draw rainbow.” For each version of poems committed on the repository, I wrote them on pieces of paper. I took pictures of the poems on a paper and  uploaded them to the repository. Kyle McDonald, an artist in New York, then encrypted his poem in the raw file of the photos of the poems and invited anyone to decode it.  

This project’s extensive use of version control for artistic purpose was appropriation of the tools that are designed for technological industry. It’s also an experiment in non-linear writing over a network, managing textual data over hyper efficient time and geography.  

Then, what happens when a celebrity like Katy Perry shares some rhymes of her own to her 80+ million followers on twitter?

Twas the night before #ThePrismaticWorldTour

when all through Belfast,

not a creature was stirring

not even one Katycat.

The exact number of people who read the poem and what percentage of her twitter followers actually read it, is difficult to estimate. However, it’s unarguable that the poem was read by great number of people in the short amount of time. The poem’s information disseminated over the social media through retweets and mentions. This mode of information dispersion, which was not possible before the Internet, has become the preconditions of the Digital communication.

Errantic poetry

The Digital technology has become an integral part of our communication with one another. The Digital environment, like the Internet is the place where new poems are written. These new preconditions for writing inspire some ideas like these:

What is a poem that feverishly rewrite itself?

What is a poem with a limited life span that self destructs?

What is a language that’s only complete with interpretation or with translation?

and furthermore,

What is the language that’s estranged from speech and sound?

My interest with the embodiment of language is inspired by my past collaboration with Christine Sun Kim, an artist who primarily works with sound and drawing. She’s profoundly deaf from birth and communicates primarily through American Sign Language.  We exchange correspondence over few years and create collaborative projects and performances, such as 99 Objects on Incomplete Text #6 “E”at the Whitney Museum of American Art. We usually communicate via laptop or smartphone. However, after experiencing difficulty communicating during a performance, she encouraged me to learn to sign.

Sign language is a visual language foremost. It’s a way of communicating by using body, face and movement. Learning American Sign Language inspired me about the languages that exist outside of common textual and sound forms. I also learned sign language is not only for the deaf people, but also hearing people as well. Sign language is the means of delivery and the meaning at the same time, similar to how code can be the execution (program) and the source (data) at the same time.

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This parallel is the point of departure for Errantic Poetry, a new body of work that investigates the adventurous and possibly mischievous wandering of words in the realm of poetics.   

 

 


 

These are some of the works that inspired me to be part of School for poetic computation (SFPC). School for poetic computation is a hybrid of school, residency and research group. I cofounded the school in 2013 to continue the research for the intersection of art, technology and literature. To this date, we have about 100 alumni from around the world. Our classes focus on code, hardware and theory. 

Earlier version of this writing was presented at Digital Poetics Roundtable at CUNY Graduate Center in 2.5.2016

Thanks to Becca D. Moore

Digital poetics | 2016 | Writing