new texts for a new media
From the Editor
artist and writer
specializing in content
for new media
What are the textures of today's digital
Visual-Kinetic Poetries in Context
by William Marsh
Artist, writer, publisher
opens with a brief look at recent poetics
His work examines new developments in Web
poetries in relation to the international
Visual-Concrete poetry movement of
the 1950's and 60's.
Why are sentences from an elementary school primer
being displayed in this way?
Words in Space
by David Knoebel
Artist and writer
explores the simultaneity and discontinuity
His work demonstrates possibilities for
composing words in spaces real and
As an example,
"See Spot run.
Run, Spot, run!"
Since these are
we can concentrate
on the effect of
various formal strategies.
The Meeting of Image and Text
by Christy Sheffield Sanford
Artist and writer
Christy Sheffield Sanford
examines use of image and text in the new
Her work looks at how the two complement
and balance each other; how they can
co-exist and maintain integrity without
reducing to illustration or
is an artist and writer specializing in content for new
media. His visual and literary works are found in real
and cyberspace art galleries, and in print, digital, and
Web publications. Ted lives and works in Canada.
A Brief Look at Visual-Kinetic Poetries in Context
are the textures of today's digital poetries? Or to put
it another way, how do we define the material conditions
of screen space? Until recently, poetry as a literary art
has been a page art, meaning its textures (its feel and
appearances, its arrangements) have been strictly aligned
with the physical surfaces on which it has appeared
namely, for most Western readers at least, the printed
page and the paper book. "Screen space" implies
a quasi-new location for the activity of poetry. What
qualifies recent innovations in digital-based poetry,
however, are its allegiances (implicit and explicit) to the
page or ink-based poetries from which it has evolved.
Digital poetry exists at the intersection historically,
aesthetically of page and screen. A closer look at the
nature of this intersection might help contextualize
...one of the exciting attributes of poetry today is that
page work and screen work not only fail to exclude each other
but in fact inform each other's developing gestures.
But first it should be made clear that the space of the
screen (in this case the computer screen) is also a time
of performance. One appeal of composing electronically
is the opportunity it presents to write dynamically
and to create a dynamic writing. Even the lexicon of recent
scripting languages suggests a relationship between
"objects" (words and images) and the
"events" and "behaviors" by which static
objects become dynamic. Things happen on the screen that
quite simply do not happen on the page. It also helps,
therefore, to consider how a seemingly static object such
as page text stands in relation to the potentially kinetic
surfaces of screen text. Generally speaking, all readings
are kinetic in the sense that a reader must move through a
text in time, but the time of this reading serves
metaphorically in traditional poetry to recall or anticipate
the time of recitation. Screen eventuality invites a new
kind of interaction with text by which "space is not
just a notation, at best a stand-in for time" but
rather a "structural unit" of composition
(Higgins 33). Similarly, time and its emissaries
motion, event, behavior enter in as structural
devices in the new screen writing.
Nonetheless, it is precisely the "plasticity of form"
(Brereton) that often distinguishes a digital poetry. As
Michael Joyce phrases it, "[p]rint stays itself;
electronic text replaces itself. If with the book we are
always printing always opening another text unreasonably
composed of the same gestures with electronic text we
are always painting, each screen unreasonably washing away what
was and replacing it with itself" (186). The appeal to
"painting" as the analogue for screen composition
in my opinion marks one of the chief difficulties of writing
about this subject particularly, that such analogies
don't hold in relation to an art form so strictly aligned with
the hard and soft technologies it employs. At best we get the
"feel" for digital space as reminiscent of the
physical (atomic) spaces our bodies inhabit but this
reminiscence only begins to define (and perhaps distracts
from a clearer sense of) the material conditions of digital
poetry. Joyce seems aware of this apparent deferral:
"The eye never rests upon it [e-text], though we are
apt to feel the finger can touch it. The feel for electronic
text is constant and plastic, the transubstantiated smear
that, like Silly Putty, gives way to liquid or, like a
painter's acrylics, forms into still encapsulated
As Kurt Brereton writes, "the poem has shifted from
bricolage to morphosis," in other words from a flat
constructed surface to a "a virtual field unfolding in
time." Of course, a comprehensive aesthetics allows for
both instances, and one of the exciting attributes of poetry
today is that page work and screen work not only fail to
exclude each other but in fact inform each other's developing
gestures. The bricoleur and the morpher work together in
either or both domains, and the tendency toward performative
movement that we see in electronic poetry implies more
generally an aesthetic motility by which the potential or
capability for movement is always present, in page or screen
As an intermedial art, digital poetry cannot specifically
delineate its borders or its modi operandi without risking
closure, so problems in defining its textures and material
effects on a reader/viewer are therefore unavoidable
and even essential to its project. Nonetheless, it might
help to define current experiments in digital poetry in
relation to earlier movements in poetry and visual art
particularly, for the purpose of this brief overview, in
relation to the international Visual-Concrete poetry
movement of the 1950's and 60's. In the statements and
manifestos of these writers we find a discourse often
strikingly similar to that currently underway among the
practitioners of digital or Web-based poetics. Working
with the space of the page as a visual medium for word
sculpture, several of these writers set out in the
"static" domain of print to affect
"kinetic" patternings serving in many ways as
prototypes for current digital installations.
The Brazilian Noigandres group [c. 1950-60], for example,
which included Dιcio Pignatari and Haroldo and Augusto de
Campos, practiced in their concrete texts what they termed
a "space-time isomorphism, which creates
movement" (in Solt, 13). On the page they found a
"tension of things-words in space-time,"
a "[d]ynamic structure," and a "multiplicity
of concomitant movements" (in Solt, 72). In Europe,
French poet Pierre Garnier defined poetry as "transmitted
energy," turning "from art to action, from
recitation to constellation, from phrase to structure, from
song to the center of energy" (in Solt,
34/79).ii In both form and function, Emmett
Williams' flip-book "SWEETHEARTS" anticipates
contemporary uses of digital animation, in that its sections
"can be animated by flipping the pages fast enough to
achieve a primitive cinematic effect[;]
the words and the
kinetic visual metaphors work hand in hand to express what
the poem is all about" (in Solt 51). Miekal And's
animated, Web-based poem "after emmett"
alludes overtly both to the legacy of Visual-Concrete
poetry in today's digital word arts and to the
"flip-book" structure of computer-based GIF
animation. Each screen of And's installation yields nine
cells (in a 3x3 square) with each cell housing a letter
cycling frenetically through a series of font variations.
The hand-operated flip-book is thus transported
to the automatic realm of digitized image animation.
Williams' flip-book (and by extension Miekal And's
animation) offers an example of what Mary Ellen Solt has
characterized as the third type (in addition to
"visual" and "sound") of concrete poetry,
i.e., "kinetic (moving in a visual succession)" (7).
The term 'kinetic' enjoys a long history in relation to the
artsiii, particularly and most recently as it was
used in the heyday of the Kinetic Art movement of the 50's
and 60's. As Frank Popper explains in Origins and Development
of Kinetic Art (1968), kinetic art "covers all two or
three-dimensional works in actual movement, including
machines, mobiles and projections, whether controlled or
uncontrolled; it also covers works in virtual movement, that
is to say, in which the spectator's eye responds quite clearly
to the physical stimuli" (95).
Some early examples of Visual-Concrete poetry
demonstrate the second, "virtual" movement
described above. While there is no literal movement on
the page, Valoch's "Homage to Ladislav Novαk"
clearly attempts to "stimulate" the spectator's
eye in its careful arrangement of letters in this
case, the letter 'l' to affect a more fluid visual
experience (Figure 1).
Pierre and Ilse Garnier's "Text for a Building"
(Figure 2) playfully alludes to its cinematic borrowings
while variantly placed letters of the word "cinema"
create a streaming or cascading effect on the page.
In computer space, the potential for "actual"
movement increases, as evidenced in Miekal And's
GIF-animated "after emmett" as well as
HTML, streaming video, Shockwave and Shockwave Flash, and
many other tools for generating movement on the screen.
Kenneth Goldsmith and Clem Paulson's "fidget,"
[http://stadiumweb.com/fidget/] for example, uses Java
applet coding (as well as sound files) to create an
extraordinary blend of text and "liquid" morphing,
with user-guided mouse clicks and drags teasing subtle
changes in the direction and saturation of screen
Visual-Kinetic poetries in the space-time of digital
codification convey both a continuation and an acceleration
of traditional activities
Visual-Kinetic poetries in the space-time of digital
codification convey both a continuation and an acceleration
of traditional activities most notably the
Visual-Concrete poetry and Kinetic Art movements of
the 1950's and 60's.iv In defining its current
parameters, it helps to regard these early models as both
guideposts and launch pads for future experimentation. If
poetry operates in adhesion to and in violation of these
histories, then part of understanding it lies in careful
examination of the kinds of materials (pages and screens)
used by poets then and poets now. The textures of today's
digital poetries therefore lie in the cross-weaves of
virtual page movement and actual screen kinetics.
Brereton, Kurt. CyberPoetics of Typography
(22 February, 1999).
Higgins, Dick, Horizons: The Poetics and Theory of The
Intermedia. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University
Joyce, Michael. Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. Ann
Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995.
Olson, Charles. Selected Writings. Ed. Robert
Creeley. New York: New Directions, 1966.
Popper, Frank. Origins and development of Kinetic Art.
Trans. Stephen Bann. New York: New York Graphic Society,
Solt, Mary Ellen, ed. Concrete Poetry: A World View.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.
i I discuss "motility" in relation to
page and screen poetics more thoroughly in "Exposing
the Nerve: Notes on Memory, Hypertext & Poetry"
(Witz 5.2). A hypertext version of this essay can be
accessed at (http://bmarsh.dtai.com/Works/essays/hypertext/expos/exposing.html)
ii American poet Charles Olson, in his pivotal
"Projective Verse" essay of 1950, employed a
similar terminology in defining the poem as a
"high-energy construct" and a
"high-energy discharge" (Olson, 47). In
positing the "kinetics of the thing" in relation
to energy and speed, Olson's method of "open field"
composition could be said to foreground contemporary
practices for which animation, streaming video and dynamic
or cascading objects offer real-time instantiations of
the high-energy construct.
iii For a longer discussion of this history,
see Chapter 5 of Frank Popper's Origins and Development of
iv Note should also be made of VisKin poetry's
several other informants film, broadcast and
performance art in particular, but also the video and
holographic poetry experiments of Brazilian poet Eduardo
Kac. See the latter's "Key Concepts of Holopoetry"
[online at http://www.altx.com/ebr/ebr5/kac.htm]
in which Kac outlines a poetics of holographic poetry, the
key terms of which are widely applicable to more recent
computer arts. While here I have chosen to stress VisKin's
origins in Visual-Concrete poetry, its debts to
these other art forms are clearly worth further
is a member of the Associate Faculty, Department of Writing
and Communications, School of Arts and Sciences, National
University, San Diego. He is editor and publisher of
PaperBrainPress, specializing in poetry chapbooks and
limited-edition micropress titles.
Words in Space
0. Words in space
We live among words.
They appear, for the most part, on a continuous surface,
such as a sheet of paper or the screen of a computer. These
words are meant to be read sequentially and in a predetermined
order. Other words, however, appear all around us. They inhabit
billboards and flashy sneakers. They litter the bottoms of
oceans, and they hover above our heads during summer days at
the beach. We experience these words as part of the jumble of
everyday events that are both simultaneous and discontinuous.
They seem unlikely to yield anything that is useful or
beautiful. Serious writing, we think, must be done on the
page. We overlook the possibility of composing with words
1. Words that stay in front of us
1.1 Ink on paper
Text remains fixed on the page. We move our hands and
our eyes to read. This movement is articulated
in several ways. We move through a book by hand,
turning pages repeatedly. Pages are hinged at the spine
of a book. The hinged page is a plane that
rotates through space. As the page approaches a right
angle with respect to our field of vision, the text
becomes foreshortened. We hardly notice these events, but they
keep us connected, if only subliminally, to the
world around us.
In the West, we begin reading at the upper left of
the page. We move our eyes to the right across
a line of text, then back and down to the
beginning of the next line. This repetition continues
down the page to the bottom, when the eyes shift
up and begin again at the top of the next
page. Within each line of text, we discover the
detail of the work: the words, their sounds, and their
patterns of syllable stress.
There are other ways to read. Words are continuously present
on the page. We can choose where to start and
how to proceed. We can go back over the
words. We can read them in any order. We can
read clusters of words. Advertisements and poetry often
present unusual arrangements of words that invite us to
explore different ways of reading.
1.2 Phosphor under glass
Text may also be fixed on a computer screen. In
such a case, the screen is roughly equivalent to
the page, and the reader proceeds through the work
by moving from screen to screen. Hypertext offers the
choice of branching off through links embedded within
each screen of text. While the reader can move at
will through the text, the movement is initiated
by pressing a key or a mouse button. New
text replaces old text upon the plane of the
screen. The experience of turning a page, of rotating
a hinged plane through space, is lost.
Text on a screen is more commonly read by scrolling.
The screen becomes an opening through which we see a
part of the text flowing by, much as we see
only a part of the road before us when we
drive. Its beginning and end are out of sight.
We rely on some representation of the text or
the highway, i.e., a progress bar or a
road map, to keep track of where we are in
relation to the whole. With a book, it's a
simple matter of noting where the bookmark stands in
relation to the front and back covers.
Still another way of reading involves individual words, or
clusters of words, which appear at intervals at
the same place on a screen. In contrast to
the previous examples, almost no movement is
required to read when text is presented this
way. The reader simply gazes at one spot on the
screen as the words flash by. Used frequently in
television commercials, this technique complements the
general passivity induced by television programming.
2. Words that pass us by
The words discussed so far have at least one thing
in common: they remain in front of us as we
read. In contrast, when we drive down the street,
we are surrounded by words that pass us by.
Driving home, we encounter the same signs we saw
on the way to work, in reverse order. Trips around
town, to the gas station, the supermarket, or
the post office, reveal additional orderings of the
same set of signs. The words become part of other
events in our field of vision. They are no longer
bound to a single continuous surface or to a
However, the words are rarely part of an overall composition.
One exception is directional signage such as that
found on interstate highways and at airports.
Although there are no physical connections among
them, the signs comprise a network whose overall design
determines each individual sign's wording, format, and
placement. Structure is implied, and the traveler
proceeds with the expectation that similar signs will
be found where they're needed.
The sequential Burma Shave verses also constitute such a
network. Spread out along several hundred yards of roadside,
the series is conceived as a whole. Each sign
is similar to the others in size, placement, and
lettering. The signs are roughly equidistant. Unlike directional
signs, however, the entire set of Burma Shave signs
is meant to be remembered. Unable to see all
the words at once, the reader collects them in
memory and reconstructs the piece later. While these signs
have a primary commercial intent, they have made a
cultural impression that goes beyond their original
purpose. They raise the possibility of other, perhaps
As an example, consider the following sentences:
"See Spot run. Run, Spot, run!" Since these are familiar
sentences, we can concentrate on the effect of
various formal strategies. Imagine the words printed singly on
a series of billboards along a highway. On
seeing the first sign, we might experience puzzlement
about its seeming lack of commercial intent. Having seen
the remaining signs, we may still be puzzled,
and, in addition, feel an odd sense of dislocation.
Why are sentences from an elementary school primer
being displayed in this way? The words have been
enlarged, but we expect this on billboards. The
sentences, however, have become several hundred yards long,
though each consists of only three words. Our experience
of such a sentence is considerably different
from that of the same sentence printed in a
book that can be held in the hand.
The integrity of the sentence has been challenged.
It no longer exists on a continuous plane. Other
events occur within its boundaries as we read. By
opening the sentence in this way, we allow those
events to alter its meaning. Seen separately, each
word takes on more importance. How do we maintain
the coherence of the work? See. Spot. Run. What
will keep the piece from falling apart and disappearing
into its environment? We can take a cue from
directional signage and the Burma Shave verses. Visual consistency
is the key. Even nonsyntactic work will cohere in
the landscape if it is consistent in its
use of visual elements such as color, size, and
A further difficulty becomes apparent when we consider
the development of these pieces. How do we duplicate
the cycles of inspiration and revision that are
so important in making art? This is a common
problem faced by installation artists who work on a
One solution is to model interactions of text and
multidimensional space on a computer. We can
complete cycles of revision that are impossible
even with scale models. In fact, these computer models
can become ends in themselves. Virtual Reality Modeling
Language, or VRML, enables us to create deep pages
that reveal different relationships among words from different
points of view. We can probe clusters of text
arrayed like galaxies in the cosmos, and we can
program other events to occur among the words we choose.
We have seen that words
can be composed in space as well as on the printed page or
computer screen. These words can achieve coherence across
great distances through consistent use of graphic elements.
Our readings may be altered by other events occurring among
the words. The act of reading combines with the sensation
of movement. Gaps of time and space between words become
significant. They give artists an opportunity to examine
the experience of discontinuous simultaneity that has
become an important part of our lives.
is an artist and writer. He has shown his incandescent light
installations at galleries in the United States and Europe.
His current projects include Web, video, and billboard
The Meeting of Image and Text
Christy Sheffield Sanford
the most part, I create my experimental Web work, as probably
many others do, in a state of divine naivetι. I don't think of
threatening the future of literature or of usurping the
cognitive role of text. Only recently when visited by a
literary pundit, who reported back, "I prefer more
text," did I realize the piece he had viewed contained
little text. Yet, it was, to my mind, a visual poem.
I received early exposure and training in fine arts
and graphics from my parents who were painters and
commercial artists. My minor in college was art. When
I began to seriously write, I gave up visual art,
except for mail art to friends. Over time, visual
art crept into my fiction and poetry. "Raisin
Bread" was a turning point. This fictional work
features Xeroxed pieces of raisin bread and manipulated
images containing text. I have always regarded text as
graphically interesting and language as something to
be visually enjoyed. Typography and spatial interplay
with figure ground seem fundamental. I see both
language and imagery as rooted in efforts to
" R a i s i n B r e a d "
In his essay, "Disturbing History: New Technologies
in Context," Karl Young states: "The main
course of writing in western civilization has been
towards ease of assimilation.
transition was from signs with intrinsic pictorial
and symbolic value to characters that recorded speech.
There are expressive potentials in the graphic and
etymological components of written Chinese that simply
don't exist in the Roman alphabet." Some of the
loss in pictorial quality has perhaps been re-registered
in colorful sayings, slang and oral mnemonics.
In my Web work, I take pride in not illustrating; yet a
recent meditation in my Light-Water series features
a photo of a palm frond referred to in the text. The
frond image is as much a statement on calligraphy as it
is on the metaphoric association described in the text.
For example, I mention hair and the image looks
hair-like. I love images that proclaim multiple
lines of connection with the text subordinate
from one perspective but from another, superior. The
frond image forces attention into the realm of hidden
messages, the writing on the wall, or in this case,
the writing on the sidewalk. The cursive quality of
the blades is like someone writing an overwrought and
passionate love letter.
Young notes, "The pre-Columbian writing
systems of central Mexico. ... (as distinct from the
Mayan systems to the south) were iconographic
that is, they were based on common icons instead of
spoken languages, so that people who spoke different
languages could read them." Just as with film,
in which we developed a cinematic shorthand
close up, quick cut and fade now on the Web,
we are accumulating a common set of icons. The icon
blankets every desktop, every piece of software. Much
of that sense of the iconic, I find, permeates my Web
Richard Lanham wrote that "electronic writing
brings with it a complete renegotiation of the
alphabet/icon ratio upon which print-based
thought is built." Pictures and sounds are resuming
a higher importance in cognition. In ekphrasis, one
describes in writing the characteristics of something
visual. Some argue, that increasingly in the computer
medium, images explain text. Thus the logic goes that
this causes a crisis in rhetoric, because traditionally
words have been the locus of control.
Visual poetry has been kept out of mainstream
education and the canon. The rigid compartmentalization
of genres is a relatively recent 20th century
phenomenon. Visual poetry has largely been treated as a
novelty, a charming aberration. Apollinaire's visual
experiments might inspire an exercise but not a career.
For one intimate with this form, combining image and
text is not shocking.
Some visual poets dive into the Web, others find it
lacking. Joel Lipman has a riveting performance. He
reads one of his poems that has been stamped onto a
page from a very old book. Then he crumbles it before
the audience's eyes. This dramatizes the fragility of
the book and the temporal experience of
seeing-hearing a poem. The ephemeral nature of
a poem's reading, its essence, has crumbled to dust
before your eyes. If you don't remember it, too bad.
On the Web, something can vanish, be erased, but it
can't have that tactile quality of paper in hand.
Recently in creating a piece called "Gender and
the Web: Couched in Ideas," I used hidden layers.
In this dynamic HTML work, the viewer touches an image
and an enormous rollover appears. This is a flamingo
pink, clearly worded paragraph. I consider this text
as image. By the same token, I think an image can be
quite literary. Here I do not refer to illustration
but rather to calligraphic markings, iconic scratches,
messages left in a pre-literate society. This is
not to say primitive. I think vision can be quite
sophisticated and certainly less hampered by
The appearance of the hidden layer has another
characteristic that is at once maddening and fascinating.
This type of rollover oscillates. It reminds me of
Katherine Hayles' discussion of fluctuating reality:
"Information technologies create what I will call
flickering signifiers, characterized by their tendency
toward unexpected metamorphoses, attenuations, and
dispersions. Flickering signifiers signal an important
shift in the plate tectonics of language." And in
this seismic event, one can, with DHTML, see subconscious
revelations, alternative viewpoints and glossed
With dynamic HTML, page choreography does not depend on
linking. I am interested in expressing the deeper emotions
and also in creating mood and setting. How these can
succeed on the Web is one of my problems. The link has,
I believe, been over-emphasized. I feel "Red
Mona," my first Web piece, which has no links, was
more conceptually hypertextual than many heavily linked
pieces. Nothing I have read suggests a link should lead
to another HTML page or be accompanied by a sense of
jumping. Unfortunately, this is how hypertext has been
reduced. Ideally hypertext points out lines of
connection, options, inclusions that enlarge the work
In Olia Lialina's highly witty "Agatha
Appears," cut out figures converse with strips
of dialogue that appear as the viewer approaches the
characters with the cursor. The bodies and clothes are
splashed with text digital lingo discourse. This
use of image and text turns the whole notion of visual
ascendancy upside down. How could that be, one might
ask, if the imprint of the medium is so deep. The image
has been penetrated, mind is all over the body. The
excitement, the energy, is indeed in the hands of those
combining image and text. This is the mountain to
In working on a series of Light-Water meditations,
I have again perused one of my favorite books, Mira
Calligraphiae Monumenta, a 16th century
illuminated manuscript. In an introductory essay, Lee
Hendrix describes a pitched battle for supremacy between
two disciplines. Hoefnagel, the illuminator, refused to
imitate the narrative passages so eloquently laid out
some fifteen years earlier by Bocskay. Indeed, Hoefnagel
invaded the calligraphy and imitated the words with his
plant and animal imagery. Something I like much better
is Hendrix's description of a "response" by
the illuminator. It is that interplay, that sense of
responsiveness of one art form to another, that I find
essential, aesthetically satisfying, and advanced.
Georg Bocskay and Joris Hoefnagel, Mira Calligraphiae
Monumenta, (Copy of a 16th century manuscript), J.
Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, CA, 1992.
N. Katherine Hayles. "Virtual Bodies and Flickering
Signifiers" which appeared in October Magazine and
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, October 66, Boston,
MA, Fall, 1993.
Richard Lanham. "Digital Rhetoric and the Digital
Arts" Essay in The Electronic Word: Democracy,
Technology, and the Arts, University of Chicago Press,
Chicago, IL, 1993.
Olia Lialina. "Agatha Appears"
Karl Young. "Disturbing History: New Technologies
in Context," Raven 32, Freedom Press, 1996. Also
at "Light and Dust" archive of contemporary poetry,
fiction, and criticism
Christy Sheffield Sanford
is a Web-specific artist and writer. In 1998, her work
"NoPink" was awarded The Well's prize for the
Best Hyperlinked Work on the Web. Christy was recently
selected as Trent-Nottingham University's trAce