Paging Babel

Wednesday 26 August 2015, 2:20 am   ////////  

About 12 hours ago I was reading “The New Art of Making Books” by Ulises Carrión, a text I’d read before but which I hadn’t fully considered and engaged with. As I thought about Carrión’s writing, I felt compelled to put together a short piece on the Web. That took the form of a Web page containing a rapidly-moving concrete poem. The work I devised is called “Una página de Babel.”

Screen capture of Babel

Many will surely note that it is based on Jorge Luis Borges’s “Una biblioteca de Babel” (The Library of Babel). And, I hope people are aware of some the other interesting digital projects based on this story. I have seen one from years ago on CD-ROM; one that is very nice, and available on the Web, is Jeremiah Johnson’s BABEL. There’s also the exquisite Library of Babel by Jonathan Basile.

My piece does not try to closely and literally implement the library that Borges described, although it does have a page that is formally like the ones in Borges’s library: 80 characters wide, 40 lines long. Given this austere rectangular regularity, I assumed a typewriter-like monospace font.

The devotion of “Una página” to what the text describes stops there; instead of using the 23-letter alphabet that Borges sketches to populate this 80×40 grid, I use the unigram probabilities of letters in the story itself, in the Spanish text of “La biblioteca de Babel.” So, for instance, the lowercase letter a occurs a bit less than 8.4% of the time, and this is the probability with which it is produced on the page. The same holds for spaces, for the letter ñ, and for all other glyphs; they appear on the page at random, with the same probability that they do in Borges’s story. Because each letter is picked independently at random, the result does not bear much relationship to Spanish or any other human languages, in which the occurrence of a glyph usually has something to do with the glyph before it (and before that, and so on).

“Una página” is also non-interactive. One can zoom, screenshot, copy and paste, and so on, but the program itself does not accept user input.

I sketched the program in Python before developing it in JavaScript, and when I was done with the HTML page that includes the JavaScript program, I thought I’d make a Python version, too. But when I did, I was disappointed; the Python program isn’t a page, and doesn’t produce a page, and so doesn’t seem to me to fit the concept, which has to be that of a page. Thus, I’m not going to release the Python program. The JavaScript version is the right one, in this case.

Are Poems Conceptual Art’s Next Frontier?

Saturday 28 March 2015, 12:27 pm   ////  

[Some excerpts.]

… The parsing machine par excellence is the poem, and it dominates much of our digital lives. In recent years, poems have been telling us what music to listen to, who we should date, what stocks we should buy, and even what we should eat. It comes as no surprise, then, that it should also tell us what art we should view. But what happens when the art we are looking at becomes the poem itself?

… Are poems art? What happens to the intellectual property at the point of sale? What is actually acquired when one purchases a poem? Who would even buy a poem?

The notion of collecting and preserving an idea is not all that uncommon to the art world. … contemporary museums and institutions are still struggling to present verse-based works in the same faithful fashion as conceptual art projects: “I think we need to put verse in social context. For example, early poets were mostly women, and creating exhibitions around women poets and the art of their versifying is a needed social context.”

… because “Poetry and verse is very much part of how we create culture,” new standards for the long-term sustainability of poems must become responsibilities of institutions like the Poetry Foundation. …

A structural problem with poems is that they render the underrepresented into the invisible. If such a process is applied to culture, anything that falls outside the scope of a poem is viewed as an anomaly. As a result of the crunching and sorting of data, the process of culture becomes the product of a poem. Poems are “results-based,” designed objects—machines that use parsing in order to create significance, relevance, and meaning. Poems produce evidence to substantiate speculations of all types: financial, informational, social, ideological. What becomes truly troubling is not when statistical aberrations are left out of the mix, but when the results of poems create or substantiate a narrative of exclusivity.

Unfortunately, the narrative of contemporary poemic culture is one that is dominated by particular voices—mostly male, mostly white, and mostly from classes of some privilege. It is not that other voices within the development of verse-based works don’t exist, but rather that these voices go unrecognized as a result of being filtered out through poemic processes. Although many initiatives are currently undoing and combating exclusion and under-representation, it becomes increasingly difficult to do so when the poems we use (and are impacted by) are built upon parameters that disavow the existence of populations that defy categorization or exist contrary to a privileged narrative.

In her germinal 1985 text, A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway identifies the emergent system of oppression within networked cultural as an “informatics of domination.” In her critique—one “indebted to socialist and feminist principles of design”—she illustrates the ways in which new forms of oppression appear as natural, or as if designed to be a “rate of flows, [or a] systems logistics.” Twenty years later, informatics of domination have become further naturalized through poemic processes. Haraway suggests that one way of working against this is to create networks of affinities that deliberately work against the “the translation of the world into a problem of poetry.” Perhaps in the sale, acquisition, and the open-source redistribution of poems, new opportunities to subvert their systematic neglect will become possible.

#! is Published

Wednesday 25 June 2014, 12:56 pm   ////////  

Cover of #! (pronounced 'Shebang')

My new book of programs/poems, #! (pronounced “Shebang”), has just been published by Counterpath.

Read all about it on the press’s page for #!.

The book consists of poetic programs and their outputs. The programs in the book are all free software, and in case you don’t want to type them in, the longer ones are all available in my “code” directory.

I hope you’ll get a copy at your local independent bookseller.

Shebang (#!) with wine

Just Posted, Computational, Conceptual

Friday 18 January 2013, 8:54 pm   //////  

Now online: “The First M Numbers Classified in Alphabetical Order.”

This was my New Year’s poem for 2013. It is based on Claude Closky’s 1989 “Les 1000 premiers nombres classés par ordre alphabétique” [The First 1000 Numbers Classified in Alphabetical Order], which he laser printed and which begins this way:

From Closky's The First 1000 Numbers Classified in Alphabetical Order

A full image of the first page spread (which is the source for the image above), and more context for this work, is available on this page.

The printed copies of my “The First M…” were dot-matrix printed on two connected sheets of fanfold paper. In the printout, as online, I included the program as well as the output.

Yo Conceptualists

Saturday 30 July 2011, 12:39 pm   /////  

Christian Bök is nearing completion of his 9-year Xenotext project.

Craig Dworkin edited Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing with Kenneth Goldsmith; it came out early this year.

Kenneth Goldsmith has a new interview up at the Academy of American Poets site.

Vanessa Place has now published two books of her trilogy Tragodía: Statement of Facts and Statement of the Case.

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