This short article written by the staff writers of the satirical newspaper The Onion, was published in response to a mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon on October 1, 2015. Published on the same day of the event, the brief article appears in the News in Brief portion of the online newspaper, by itself an ironic counterpoint to what made headlines and got live coverage in other news media sites. The article’s placement and brevity are only the beginning of the irony, which deepens as it offers some basic factual details about the shooting, a vox populi quote in which someone expresses sadness and powerlessness to make any change, and some statistical data on how regularly this happens in the United States of America. All by itself, the article satirizes those who cannot conceive of gun control as an option while using irony to encourage Americans to take action.
But that is only a portion of a larger rhetorical strategy based on computational logic.
Radikal Karaoke, by Argentine author Belén Gache, is an online piece combining text, still and moving images, sound files and user-activated effects. In this work, the reader-user is invited to read out loud poems composed of fragments of political discourses, at the same time as activating a series of videos and special effects. Gache describes Radikal Karaoke as a ‘conjunto de poesías que se apropian de la retórica de la propaganda política’ [‘collection of poems that appropriate the rhetoric of political propaganda’], but the notion here of ‘poetry collection’ is not in the conventional sense of a printed text that brings together several individual poems under into one volume. Instead, the ‘conjunto’ refers to the very creative process of the poetry itself, since the poems are composed of the re-mixing and re-combinations of found texts.
Belén Gache is one of the leading authors of experimental fiction in the Hispanic world, and has published to date a variety of literary works, both print and electronic, that engage in experimental practice. Her oeuvre is frequently characterized by an intertextual play with pre-existing literary genres, authors and texts, set in a creative dynamic with digital technologies, and Radikal Karaoke is no exception.
Radikal Karaoke opens on an interactive interface that displays, in the main part of the screen, a video in black and white which shows rows of spectators, applauding, set on a continuous loop and speeded up. Beneath the video lies the control panel of the work, consisting of firstly a row of buttons each identified with letters, and, beneath these, the lines of text we are invited to read.
In this work the user has to take on an active role in the execution of the poetry, both through our reading of the text out loud (as in karaoke), and through the activation of the visual poetry of this work. The visual poetry is created by the reader-user as s/he presses the various keys of the control panel, some of which produce modifications in the video in the main screen, changing its colour or speed, and others change the video file completely, and replace it with a new moving image.
Gache’s insistence on the ‘retórica de la propaganda política’ clearly indicates that her poetic endeavour has an ideological stance, and she encourages us to deconstruct the empty discourses of political rhetoric by means of parody, and through the shock contrast of sound, image and text. The videos function as a sort of meta-poetic commentary that makes us question the text that we read out, and interrogate political rhetoric, the powers of large corporations, and the indiscriminate consumption of social media.
But it is, perhaps, the very last button of Gache’s control panel –button V7 – which turns out to be the most shocking and disturbing for the reader-user. For, after having passed through a series of videos showing slaves, aliens, and cybernetic entities in thrall to the neoliberal system, the final button shows us… well, try it out for yourself, and see how you are implicated in this video.
Eveline, fragmentos de una respuesta[Eveline, Fragments of a Reply] (2004) is a hypertext narrative by Argentine author Marina Zerbarini. It takes its inspiration from two short stories by James Joyce – ‘Eveline’, and ‘A Painful Case’ (1914) – which Zerbarini uses as a springboard for creating a multimedia narrative that brings together photographic images, videos, animations and sound files. Marina Zerbarini, is a leading digital artist from Argentina who has worked across several media, including photography, painting, objects and installation art for some decades, and whose electronic works include some that fall into the e-lit category, whilst others are more properly net art. She created this work in Macromedia Flash, using the ActionScript programming language. Each time we open Eveline, fragmentos de una respuesta different interfaces are loaded, these ranging from bleached-out images of sheets, to extreme close-up photographs of part of a human face or hand, with the image pixelated such that the individual pixels are visible. The cursor takes the form of a butterfly, and, by clicking on buttons that appear across the various interfaces, we activate different content files, including images, excerpts of text, and sound files (these latter containing excerpts mostly of electronic or orchestral music).
The chronological order of the files is not pre-set, and instead, the reader has to piece together the story from multiple stimuli, as s/he reads disparate blocks of lexia, views images, watches videos, and listens to sounds. The two source texts which are the inspiration for this work provide clues as to its possible interpretation. In Joyce’s original short stories, endings are unexpected, and questions left unanswered; in Zerbarini’s narrative, this sense of uncertainty, and of searching for meaning, is re-enacted procedurally, as the reader has to undertake a journey through these multiple sources to piece together the narrative. But more than just a re-telling of Joyce, Zerbarini’s narrative invites us to explore the nature of hypertext narrative and our embodied relationship to it as reader. The foregrounding of the human body through the extreme close-ups means that we have to think through our own affective relationship to the work as we navigate it. And yet… through the overt pixelation, Zerbarini makes us question our own status as human. Is it perhaps our possible transformation into cyborgs as we engage with electronic literature that Zerbarini is encouraging us to reflect upon here?
Barbosa’s theoretical-practical trilogy closes with Máquinas Pensantes: Aforismos Gerados por Computador [Thinking Machines: Computer-Generated Aphorisms] (1988), as it can be understood as the third volume of A Literatura Cibernética. Here, the author presents a long series of literary aphorisms, in which the generation of texts is said to be “computer-assisted” (Computer-Assisted Literature) in BASIC language. The “A” series (Re-text program) deals with combinatorial “re-textualizações” [re-textualizations] (1988: 59) of a fragment (“matrix-text”) by Nietzsche and the “B” series (Acaso program), which had been partially published in the Jornal de Notícias (1984), draws upon the conceptual model created by Melo e Castro’s poem “Tudo Pode Ser Dito Num Poema” [Everything Can Be Said in a Poem], included in Álea e Vazio [Chance and Void] (1971). Melo e Castro himself would write an early review on the aphorisms, in the Colóquio Letras (1986) literary magazine, revealing Barbosa’s outputs as undeniable literary productions. Finally, the “C” series (Afor-A and Afor-B programs) comprises reformulations of traditional Portuguese aphorisms, which result in new interpretations, sometimes ironic, sometimes surreal.
One of the most important features of these three volumes is the highlight given to computer code – showing the importance of programming for Pedro Barbosa – inasmuch as in the end section of each volume the author publishes all the source codes, which today becomes a rich and open archaeological finding, insofar it documents the coding practice and it enables further critical and creative analysis.
In A Literatura Cibernética 2: Um Sintetizador de Narrativas [Cybernetic Literature 2: A Narrative Synthesizer] (1980), Pedro Barbosa advocates the same analytical perspective of literary machines, which he had begun in the first volume. Influenced by Max Bense and Abraham Moles, the author develops the idea of “artificial text,” which would be later challenged by E. M. de Melo e Castro (1987), in the sense that Castro’s transmedia stance considers that all texts, produced over time with the aid of various technological tools, are always artificial.
Note from the Publisher: Herberto Helder passed away on Monday, March 23, 2015. To honor his poetic legacy, we wish to celebrate one of his works with this entry by Álvaro Seiça.
Herberto Helder is one of the most consistent and innovative Portuguese poets of the second half of the 20th century. Even if his later œuvre has been marked by a traditional experimentalist reworking of crafted language, whose poiesis engages with a very idiosyncratic vocabulary, one should not forget Helder’s eclectic trajectory. Having been influenced by, among other movements, Surrealism and international avant-garde experimentalism, Herberto Helder was, firstly together with António Aragão (1964), and secondly with Aragão and E. M. de Melo e Castro (1966), the editor of two important anthologies or cadernos (chapbooks), Poesia Experimental 1 [Experimental Poetry 1] and Poesia Experimental 2 [Experimental Poetry 2]. Both these anthologies opened up most of the major pathways of literary and artistic experimentalism in the 1960s, from which the PO.EX (Experimental POetry) movement emerged. Several genres, formal and thematic threads were originally tried out in these two anthologies and further work of the movement, namely concrete and visual poetry, ‘film poetry,’ sound poetry, ‘object-poetry,’ ‘poetic action’ and happening. As Helder points out in the first editorial (“Introdução”) of the cadernos:
Pedro Barbosa’s pioneering work introduced computer-generated literature (CGL) in Portugal in 1975. Having worked with Abraham A. Moles at the University of Strasbourg, Barbosa published three theoretical-practical volumes of his programming experiences with the FORTRAN and BASIC languages. These volumes deal with combinatorics and randomness, developing algorithms able to ally computing and literary production, bearing in mind a perspective of computational text theory.
According to the author, A Literatura Cibernética 1: Autopoemas Gerados por Computador [Cybernetic Literature 1: Computer-Generated Autopoems] is an “esboço de uma teoria, toda uma prática, dois métodos e dois programas, que irão facultar a qualquer leitor, interessado e imaginoso, a confecção de poemas automáticos à razão de 5200 versos por hora: no espaço intraorgânico de qualquer computador!” [outline of a theory, an entire practice, two methods and two programs, which will provide any interested and imaginative reader with the possibility of making automatic poems at the rate of 5200 verses per hour: in the intraorganic space of any computer!] (1977: 8) These “auto-texts,” or “computer-generated autopoems,” hitherto open up a new field of literary theory in the Portuguese context – the direct junction of literature and computation, of writer and programmer. Barbosa’s autopoems were programmed in FORTRAN, ALGOL and NEAT during 1975-76 (Permuta program, Iserve subprogram, and Texal program, Aletor subprogram), using an Elliot/NCR 4130 (a machine introduced in the 1960s in the UK), in collaboration with Azevedo Machado, engineer at the Laboratório de Cálculo Automático [Laboratory of Automatic Calculus] (LACA), at the Faculty of Sciences from the University of Porto.
In A Literatura Cibernética 1, Barbosa compiled a selection of textual outcomes generated with his programs: the permutational poems and the random poems. On the one hand, the permutational poems include “Poema de Computador” [Computer Poem], “25 de Novembro” [November 25], “Verão” [Summer], “Silêncios” [Silences], “Cansaço das Palavras” [The Weariness of Words] and the subtitled poems “trovas electrónicas” [electronic ballads], “Porto” and “Aveiro” (8! = 40,320 permutations, 576 verses, running time: 6’ 54’’), exchanging the morphemes “na” (in), “da” (of), “sem” (without), “uma” (a/the) and the lexemes “água” (water), “ria” (estuary/river), “tristeza” (sadness) and “alegria” (happiness). Aveiro, a city famous for its water channels, is portrayed with the opposites “sadness/happiness” and “water/river,” to the extent that the noun “ria,” when a verb, means “laughed,” giving rise to its opposite, “mágoa” (sorrow), through the rhymed interplay with “água” (water). On the other hand, the random poems appropriate, remix and rewrite poems by other poets. Here, one finds the “Transformação” [Transformation] series, with “Camões e As Voltas que o Computador (lhe) Dá” [Camões and the Turns the Computer Gives (It)], which rewrites a Renaissance text (“classic”) with several random transformations of Luís de Camões’s Os Lusíadas [The Lusiads] (1572), and “É Preciso Dizer…” [One Needs to Say…], an appropriation and re-creation of Mário Cesariny’s surrealist poem (“contemporary”) “Exercício Espiritual” [Spiritual Exercise] (1956), in which Barbosa extends the ironic and surrealist practice of the initial lexicon of nouns.
What surfaces from the resulting versions of the poems, in addition to the achieved syntactic accuracy and the meticulous encoding work, is a luminous mark of criticism, irony and parody, both to the current state of the official literary canon, and, above all, to the climate of oppression and fear (“medo”) inflicted by the long dictatorship, which was still being felt. Conversely, questioning the perpetuation of a political, social and cultural lie (“mentira”) was the likely path to be renewed by the recent establishment of the Portuguese democracy – history (“história”) as continuity and revolution (“revolução”) in the confrontation between human and machine.
This trio of bots by Mark Sample present riffs on three of the most famous poems of the early Twentieth Century: William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This Is Just to Say,” and Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” The bots generate new versions of the poems by randomly altering most of the open word classes while keeping the basic syntax, meter and lineation intact, tweeting a new mutation once every two hours (though at the time of writing @DependsUponBot has been inactive since December 2014, for reasons unknown —editor’s note: it has now resumed operations). To my mind, the pleasure of these bots’ tweets lies in the discrepancy between the familiarity of the syntactical structure and the limit-case absurdity of the randomly generated content. For example, the sublime juxtaposition Pound presents the reader –
Slightly modifying the “cut-up” technique of Dadaist and Modernist writers in her digital work, “Blue Hyacinth,” Pauline Masurel encourages her readers not to destroy the original four poems, but rather jumble them together, stir them up, and weave them in a way that shares in the creative process of generating an individualized text. By presenting “Blue Hyacinth” as a stir-fry work (using Jim Andrews’ “Stir Fry Texts” framework) that allows readers to reflect on the original poems, Masurel is changing the author-reader relationship. Masurel ensures that readers become extensions of herself by encouraging readers to manipulate her writings and fashion a text that becomes less a traditional example of poetry and more a collaborative piece shared between individual reader and writer. With “Blue Hyacinth,” Masurel crafts a space where traditional print culture roles fade and are replaced by their mutable digital counterparts. Never once just a reader or an author, those that encounter “Blue Hyacinth” are able to exercise a semblance of autonomy that is novel to texts within the digital medium.