Galeria AT


wersja polska
Mariusz Pisarski
Robots - for IT technicians - are instructions that take human shape. Poetry - for some poets - is a machine made of words. Cybernetic poetry bounds those two discourses together and provokes the following questions: has poem always been in the domain of cybernetics? And if this is true, what is a poetry then, can we still consider words to be its main building blocks? What is its relation to a sound, an image, or any other medium that enriches the poetic domain?
Digital works of Roman Bromboszcz, Łukasz Podgórni and Tomasz Misiak are not easily approachable at a first glance. One can say these works live their own lives, completely self-sufficient, indifferent to their readers. But once they manage to hook us up during their short lived performances, we start feeling their heartbeat, we can even start experiencing some sort of a pleasure of reading, and the aforementioned questions arise.
The obvious point of reference for the works of Podgórni are dada and futurism. On his website he welcomes us with few self explanatory, though written in gibberish, words “gylyryjyn fytyryz lydywych cybyrstyrcyj”. Roman Bromboszcz and Tomasz Misiak may be indebted in the works of the Fluxus movement, their sonic, animated works can be seen as a form of a performance taking place on the computer screen. Having put them in the broader context, we can easily come to an end with our comparative research. But there is another tradition which might be more crucial, if not central for all three authors.
There is a whole field of literary experiments based on real or virtual machines employed in the construction of meaning. Dubbed the aleatoric, prosthetic, this kind of poetry relies on formal rules and algorithms situated inside or outside the work, and it derives its roots from haiku, classic sestinas, baroque rondos and anagrams. Based on formal constraints and affordances, on random or generative elements were some works of Charles Olsen, William Carlos Williams, Raymond Russel, Harry Mathews (and the members of Oulipo). The most important lesson given by their works leaves us with two things to remember.
Firstly, cybernetic poetry must not be limited to the verbal art. A piece of text, a painting, musical work (John Cage and his aleatoric music) and even a film (algorithmic, prosthetic films by Peter Greenaway) may contain the attributes of a “cyberpoetic” work. In this perspective even an opaque novel like George’s Perec “Life: A User’s Manual” is a cybernetic poem. Secondly, poetry in general, to some extent, has cybernetic elements. Let’s take rhyme as an example. It can lead the creative process in the direction which may have not been intended by the author - a process described by Raymond Russel. By introducing a combinatory element into poetic language which is further induced by generic metric constraints, classic, pre-modern work of poetry becomes a machine. A Muse prescribing verses to a poet is not just a metaphor…
Significant reconsideration of the generic borders between poetry and prose, verbal and non-verbal works is just one surprising aspect of our encounters with cybernetic poetry. But there is more than this. The works in question are not the ones we can see in galleries or on printed pages of books. Because cybernetic poetry transposes creative procedures of its predecessors into digital environment. Its machines are processors - hearts of our personal computers.
“Echem”, “four.values”, “bycie.i.czas”, and “artykulator” by Roman Bromboszcz are mathematical, conceptual small works, close in spirit to the aesthetics of minimalism and Atari games. They can be operated by the user / reader / listener. Sounds and animations are of no less importance here than words. On the other hand, works by Łukasz Podgórni, dubbed “klawikord” (clavichords), stretch within a wide range of examples: from simple manifestos in forms of small graphics to dynamic, animated, interactive audio postcards. Works of both have at least few things in common. The basic unit of perception is not a single verse, group of words, or images. It is time between what we see on the screen and our reaction, the meaning we apply to them.
The unit of perception as experienced by Roland Barthes’ reading of Balzac was measured by a moment when we stop reading a book to take a deeper breath, to think of an aspect of the world we immerse ourselves, or a moment when we are just too tired to read further on. This unspecified, but undoubtedly longer than a sentence unit of reading - lexia - in hypertext fiction of the eighties and nineties had taken a shape of a single screen of text, or a paragraph.
In the works of Bromboszcz and Podgórni lexia is being condensed and - paradoxically - dispersed. If a work of cybernetic poetry is performed for about 40 seconds, there will be just few lexias, they will be shorter, or they can just not happen at all. A victorious reader will be the one who finds his private sem - a single unit of meaning - either by discovering an underlying pattern of the work, of digital artefacts changing its forms on the screen, or by finding anything that can carry a potential meaning. Those meaningful pieces are the prize which is at stake when reading / seeing / interacting with cybernetic poetry. Once we gathered them, we can link them together and build a meaning of a higher level or - if we wish - we can let them stay in this original half-dispersed form. In this case the only lasting trace of the work will be its atmosphere and its taste.
Code-works of Tomasz Misiak are a bit different, though close to Podgórni’s static works. They represent a graphical approach to strategies formulated by a well-known poet Mez: computer code is employed here as an equal and visible carrier of meaning on all levels. Digital slogans and distorted digital backgrounds can be as well treated as an ironic homage to communist slogans that were the only graphical street ads in Polish towns during this era. If Podgórni’s and Bromboszcz works can be regarded as distorted digital postcards, Misiak’s ones are digitally distorted billboards.
In a novel, in a film, or even in a lyrical form of poetry, there is a visible diegetic axis: things that are being told are presented in a linear fashion, one follows another, even analepsis and prolepsis (forwarding or back-warding a story) are variants of linearity. In cybernetic poetry - as claimed by Jean Pierre Balpe - we encounter alepsis which gives us no clues as to where the part we encounter belongs: was it before or after, is of major or minor importance to the emerging structure? Every sentence, animation sequence and sometimes even every word is an autonomic unity. This is a phenomena of holographic principle of digital works or its modularity. Both of these terms describe one of the defining characteristics of new media though we should also remember that it was employed in the strategies of twentieth century avant-garde artists. The works of John Cage were irritating for some critics for the very same reason: for not having definite beginnings, middle points and ends.
Modularity, or holographic principle, change the way of storytelling (if we’re looking for a story at all in art works we come across). It can be similar to picking up words from magician’s hat. But not only. There is another factor at play: the invisible, ticking clock of the mechanism which sets up the rules of the digitally encoded work. Its ability to conditionally link different parts of material, which can cause the work to display its content on the basis of previous input of the viewer, make us feel uncertain. For example, we can see a square on the screen, with nine or sixteen smaller fields. When we hover one of them a word appears or we hear a sound. Let us be systematic, start with the A1 field and finish at D3. After a while it takes, let us presume that our reading has come to an end and let us close the browser. But what if the same algorithm of the same work prompts the least interesting version of a “story” for the most systematic readers and rewards those who randomly, chaotically click on fields of the square? For the artist-programmer this sort of intervention is easy. But its consequences are not. And for the traditional authors they might be hard to accept.
Within these harsh conditions for the narrative in digital environments the smallest part of work must contain undertone and impact of every other and speak in behalf of the elusive wholeness. The potential story - if at all - is being told by the reader and viewer themselves. Of course, the actual examples of some of the works of Podgórni, Bromboszcz and Misiak can be more simpler, but the ability for this kind of redefined narrative is always there. Thus, cybernetic poetry takes part in an unfolding debate, in a higher level narrative, about conditions of modern art, and its narrative competencies.
The tension between the hidden algorithms and visible artifacts, between the narrative potential and the actual reading session might be a reason for extreme critical reception of the works in question. As a poetry they can be considered a mockery, a blasphemy. But such a reception is something we knew from the past. After all, it just relates to the strategies and gestures that make poetry and art show us their different, fascinating, new aspects.
Between the author and the user, especially when the work requires operational input from the latter, lies a pair of interesting, additional communicative levels: the code and its performance, the level of mechanics and the level of presentation. They are bound together by a feedback loop that constantly changes the course of the work, depending on reader’s movements or - if the work wants the reader to be inactive, like in the cinema - by the internal scenario hidden in the code.
Cybernetic poetry is not a work done by computers, nor the work done by robots. It is a domain of cyborgs: authors that support their creative processes with the prosthesis which in this case are computer, its programming languages, its interface, its constraints and affordances. The history of cybertext, especially in its extreme examples of “computer generated works”, demystifies their artificial intelligence. It is always a human that will have the last word and make the computer output more “poetic” or “artistic” where he wishes so. For the programmers computer is not smart or intelligent at all. It’s an idiot whom they teach to pretend that he’s not. For Stephen King, writing his new best-selling novel, computer is just a tool, a silent good servant. For Podgórni, Bromboszcz and Misiak computer is a kind of a Frankenstein’s monster in a spectacle, thrown out on the stage, while the author stands there, behind the scenes or in the audience, listening to the strange voices coming out of the monster, similar to the sounds of the malfunctioning computer main-board... The outcome of the performance is not predictable.
Distortion is one of the keywords for the the wave of Polish poets to the extent that we can call their strategies “poetics of distortion”. And it shouldn’t surprise us. This is how started after all. By using the computer in a way completely different from its original purposes, impractical, and even putting the life of a machine and the health of a user in danger. This aspect is close to performance art. Yet there is another one, which transgresses the protocols of communication and human behaviours in a digital world. This aspect is closer to the art as a critical theory.
Distortional activity of cybernetic poetry is twofold. Graphical works by Podgórni and Misiak, that expose errors and distortions of the interface, often accompanied by equally distorted sounds, can be regarded as a critique of the established codes of behaviour in our daily world wide web routines. On the other hand, they also invite us to reconsider creative processes of a digital artist. Works by Bromboszcz, not accidentally evoke the old, graphical and audio environment of Commodore and Atari computers. Not accidental either is their attempt to collide “natural” poetic language with illegible verses of a computer code. Cybernetic poetry, apart from being a “poetry”, a critical approach to the image and language, is the critique of the very digital medium, on which it parasites.