“Smooth Second Bastard” by Jason Edward Lewis

Screen capture from “Smooth Second Bastard” by Jason Edward Lewis. Background with multiple colors and shades: orange, cream, blue and red. An “e” takes most of the left space. Text: “you/ from/ here?/ betwl  x/ bastard,/ smooth”.
Open “Smooth Second Bastard” by Jason Edward Lewis

This poem is the fourth in the P.o.E.M.M. (Poem for Excitable [Mobile] Media) series, which explores iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch) as a creative platform for poetic expression. Each work investigates meaningful interactions with this environment, such as arranging texts on the screen space for readers to discover with touch and dragging gestures (“Speak”), using multitouch capability to pull out a line of poetry from a text cloud (“Know”), and combining the latter with tapping gestures to provoke words out of moving objects (“Migration”). This latest work engages the iOS environment as a market— an important aspect of artistic production.

The first three apps have been available free and unlimited in the Apple Store, but the Bastard app is priced at $10 and in a limited and numbered edition of 100. This aligns the work with the printmaking tradition, which discovered early on that the more copies produced of a print the more distributed its market value became— and that by limiting, numbering, and signing the number of copies they could re-imbue the mechanically reproduced object with what Walter Benjamin famously called “aura.” How does one create aura in an age of digital reproduction, when the creation of copies of digital objects is accelerated exponentially and people are used to getting them for free? Douglas Davis famously updated and critiqued Benjamin’s essay in 1995, claiming that the aura resides “not in the thing itself but in the originality of the moment when we see, hear, read, repeat, revise.” Over 70 years after Benjamin and almost two decades after Davis, Apple has created a set of devices for publication of born-digital objects and a marketplace for legal and protected distribution of the same. Jason Lewis isn’t the first to distribute free or sell e-poetry in iOS, but he is the first to explore a higher priced limited edition model in this environment. Interestingly enough, this model further aligns e-literature with the art world rather than with the literary world in which value is assigned through copyright and edition rather than in the creation of unique or limited objects that circulate in gallery spaces and exhibitions.

“Smooth Second Bastard” is certainly a hybrid, a poetic creation in which language becomes art. Touching the screen prompts the appearance of a white line of text just above one’s finger or stylus, which can be read a voice (or voices) that interpellates the implied addressee (presumably Lewis himself). When the reader stops touching the device, all but one of the words in the line float off screen. The remaining word is assigned a color and gently floats semi-randomly on the screen as it increases in size. As the reader continues to read lines, any words in excess of three fall apart, leaving behind a letter that grows in size at a faster rate with a newly assigned color, becoming part of a multicolored painterly background. Touching the screen on two locations divides the line in a way that allows you to invert each half, multiplying the reading possibilities in the fruitful tradition of the cut-up. It is a poem that by writing, design, and distribution bridges worlds of art, literature, race, ethnicity, printing, electronic publishing, text, image, writer, artist, programmer, and reader.

I suggest you get this poem while you can, because it is both an event and a rare limited edition of a born-digital object. It has aura.

Featured in ELO 2013: Chercher le Texte Virtual Gallery

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