Algorritmos: Infopoemas by E. M. de Melo e Castro

"Algorritmos: Infopoemas" (cover) by E. M. de Melo e Castro
Open “Algorritmos: Infopoemas” by E. M. de Melo e Castro

Since 1986, besides videopoetry, E. M. de Melo e Castro worked on a series of experiments with other computer media (suportes informáticos), coined by the author as “infopoesia” [infopoetry], in which he used image editor software. Once more – and this is a fact the analysis by Jorge Luiz Antonio (2001) does not highlight – the prevailing choice of image editors at the expense of word processors reveals the visual affiliation of Castrian poetics. The infopoems’ visual animations acknowledge pixel as the primary unit of meaning, in the perspective of an infopoetic language. Some of the resulting images were published in Finitos Mais Finitos: Ficção/Ficções [Finite Plus Finite: Fiction/Fictions] (1996) and Algorritmos: Infopoemas [Algorythms: Infopoems] (1998), whose initial essay develops “a pixel poetics” and explains the amalgams created in the title. The quest for transgression, which is underlined by the book’s title (1998), is followed by the quest for formal synthesis:

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Computer Poetry by Silvestre Pestana

Open "Computer Poetry" by Silvestre Pestana
Open “Computer Poetry” by Silvestre Pestana

In the 1980s, the world saw the introduction of personal computers (PCs). While the first creative stage of electronic literature took advantage of mainframe computers, only accessible in institutional environments, the context in which Silvestre Pestana created his first computer poems was totally different – a new wave Pedro Barbosa ironically calls “poesia doméstica” [domestic poetry] (1996: 147). With personal computers, Silvestre Pestana programmed in BASIC, first for a Sinclair ZX-81, and then, already with chromatic lighting, for a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, three poems respectively dedicated to Henri Chopin, E. M. de Melo e Castro and Julian Beck, which resulted in the Computer Poetry (1981-83) series. Pestana, a visual artist, writer and performer – who had returned from the exile in Sweden after Portugal’s Carnation Revolution of April 25, 1974 – brought diverse influences put forward with photography, video, performance, and computer media. From his creative production, it should be emphasized the iconic conceptual piece Povo Novo [New People] (1975), which was remediated by the author himself in the referred series of kinetic visual poems, “video-computer-poems” (Pestana 1985: 205) or “infopoems” (Melo e Castro 1988: 57). By operating almost like TV scripts, the series oscillates between recognizable shapes – such as the oval and the larger animated Lettrist shapes, formed by the small-sized words “ovo” (egg), “povo” (people), “novo” (new), “dor” (pain) and “cor” (color) – and the reading interpretation of the words themselves: “ovo,” the unity, but also the potential; “povo,” the collective, the indistinct, the mass; “novo” and “cor/dor.” This play of relations translates the new consciousness, although painful, of a “new people” in a new historic, social and artistic period, one of freedom and action. In an interview, Pestana (2011) claimed having researched more than thirty languages, only to find in Portuguese the possibility of traversing the singular and the plural, the individual and the collective, the past, present and future, by just dislocating a letter: ovo/(p)ovo/(n)ovo.

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Máquinas Pensantes by Pedro Barbosa

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Open “Máquinas Pensantes” by Pedro Barbosa

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.

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A Literatura Cibernética 2 by Pedro Barbosa

Open "A Literatura Cibernética 2" by Pedro Barbosa
Open “A Literatura Cibernética 2” by Pedro Barbosa

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.

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A Literatura Cibernética 1 by Pedro Barbosa

"A Literatura Cibernética 1" (cover) by Pedro Barbosa
Open “A Literatura Cibernética 1” by Pedro Barbosa

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.

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Roda Lume by E. M. de Melo e Castro

Open “Roda Lume” by E. M. de Melo e Castro

E. M. de Melo e Castro has written poetry in different physical media – in the same way as “peso pesado do átomo” [atom’s heavy weight] (Castro 2006) – such as paper, textiles, canvas, wood, metal, stone, plastic, early opting for a dematerialization of word and image, something that became apparent, from the outset, in the pioneering videopoem Roda Lume [Wheel of Fire] (1968). This dematerialization of the artwork was taken as a guideline for the retrospective exhibition “O Caminho do Leve” [The Way to Lightness] (2006) at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, in Porto. Melo e Castro states:

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[Untitled] by Jeremy Hight (Part 1 of ?)

Hight's announcement
Hight’s announcement

On Sunday, February 16, 2014 at 6:45 pm Jeremy Hight announced that he had begun a new series that would be “published” on his timeline and allowed to “float away down its river.” To think of the Facebook timeline as a river is a substantial change in the metaphor Facebook has implemented as an organizing principle for the mass of status updates, photos, and other material people share on this social network. A timeline can be explored with considerably less metaphorical effort than navigating upstream. There are no ancient philosophical pronouncements about never being able to step into the same timeline twice. To think of Facebook as a river is to highlight its endless flow and the irretrievable nature of a moment– correctly so– but that isn’t the only metaphor Hight is activating here. He refers to these posts as “publication,” a word that comes charged with centuries of print history and the circulation of the written word in ways that suggests a modicum of permanence, the slice of immortality beyond the ephemeral moment that Shakespeare wrote about.

The problem is that Facebook posts aren’t ephemeral. They are digital objects stored and backed up in Facebook servers with timestamps and a unique URL, which like Twitter posts, can be embedded into WordPress blogs (as of September 2013). So there is a way to circumvent Hight’s intention of having this narrative exist only on Facebook, and here it is, embedded into this post:

Hmm. Well played, Mr. Hight, well played.

Okay then, let this be a reminder that just because while the entry is published, it isn’t public. Upon closer inspection, I (who have the privilege to be his Facebook friend), noticed that the entries for this narrative are shared only with his friends, so even if you “follow” his entries, he needs to become “friends” with you to grant access to this narrative. Perhaps this is an oversight, since he does post public entries in his timeline (I tested this by following him with a different account). Or perhaps, like Emily Dickinson, who shared her poems with her friends and acquaintances by copying them by hand and mailing them in letters, Hight wishes to share this work with a select audience of people he knows and trusts enough to establish bilateral communication with in Facebook.

The preservationist in me wants to capture these entries and it would be easy to do so, by screen capturing the posts or by cutting and pasting their text into a new document, but as discussed in my series on William Gibson’s vanishing poem Agrippa,  I would only be capturing an aspect of the work by creating different computational objects. Besides, it begs the question: do I have the right to copy his work? Would this act be a violence against Hight’s intentions? I don’t wish to betray our friendship. I could provide links to the entries so fellow Facebook friends can access them, but it would be better to direct people to February 16, 2014 on his Timeline, which would provide a fuller context. Perhaps when it’s over, I’ll ask Hight to download his Facebook Archive and share the data with me, or archive it somehow.

Or perhaps I should enjoy it as it happens, share the experience with fellow friends, and appreciate it more for its “lability.”

You’ll note that I haven’t mentioned what the story is about. That will be the focus of the next entry in this series.

“Galatea” by Emily Short

Open “Galatea” by Emily Short

Galatea” is a piece of interactive fiction with a single non-playing character (NPC) in a single room. The narrative is loosely inspired by the Pygmalion story, for this reason Galatea, dressed in green, stands on a pedestal as part of an exhibit.

“Galatea” is a conversational program, descended from early pieces like ELIZA, that imitates the language of a Rogerian psychotherapist. Notably, the whole concept of “Galatea” makes reference to ELIZA, which was named after the character of Eliza Doolittle in the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. Instead of imitating the language of therapists as ELIZA does, “Galatea” tells a narrative. However, “Galatea” is a multilinear narrative: it does not just tell one story, but many alternative stories that can develop into infinite permutations. “Galatea” was created using the Z-machine, a 1979 virtual machine originally used for the development of adventure games.

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