In the late 1970's Brazil was slowly going through a period of redemocratization, following more than one decade of military dictatorship, torture of political prisoners, and censorship. I became interested in body politics, and found myself reading Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, and Roland Barthes, among others. Having diligently read and studied the work of the most important modern and contemporary Brazilian poets as well as some of the most prominent modern and contemporary American and European poets, I noticed that works that openly expressed what I perceived as political issues related to the human body were absent from Brazilian poetry. I also studied poets of the past such as Catullus, Martial, Aretino, Bocage, Rimbaud, and others, who had celebrated the body free-spiritedly. The poetry I developed after that had strong political overtones and was built on the "forbidden" vocabulary I found absent from the modern and contemporary work I admired. This style focused on semantic content without ornamentation or euphemism. I decided that this poetry would also incorporate other elements considered inferior or unacceptable by critics but which would be empathic with the audience, such as calembours, slang, and humor, and that it would be written specifically for public performances, rather than for book publishing. This work was definitely addressed to the man and the woman on the street. Throughout 1980 and 1981, and part of 1982, I gave weekly performances in public and private spaces, in Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities, with other young poets working along similar lines. During this period I also created graffiti-poems, object-poems, and sticker-poems, which expanded the scope of my performances. The idea of approximating the letter and the human body culminated in poems in which I performed so as to create the letters themselves with my own body. This whole project was documented in its three-year span in varied forms, including books(1), magazines, newspapers, and television and radio coverage.
Although during the first years of the 1980s my attention was centered on the work described above, I would occasionally create visual poems that were not at all related to the programmatic intervention I was carrying out. Because they did not fit into my main activity, however, I set them aside and never published them. My interest for visual poetry continued to increase as my dedication to oral and versified poetry decreased. Between 1982 and 1983 I was very unsatisfied by what I then considered the blind alley of visual poetry. Aware of the multiple directions the genre had taken in the twentieth century I experimented with different media. I created visual poems with a mechanical typewriter; I used collage techniques; I collaborated with professional graphic designers and photographers; I wrote poems with a cadence between prose and verse; I produced animated poems for electronic media, such as electronic signboards and videotext networks. Some of these works I published in an artist's book entitled Escracho, early in 1983. Here is an example of the kind of visual poetry I was writing around 1982:
It was clear to me that one of the main forces behind the rebirth of visual poetry in the twentieth century was the popularization of paper-print technology. So, I concluded that I would have to move beyond the shortcomings of the print medium and try to think my way outside this form. I was no longer interested in creating physical, three-dimensional object-poems, since this form also belonged to the tradition of visual poetry. In other words, I realized that the poetry I wanted to develop would have to jump off the printed page, but could not be embodied in tangible objects. Always with an amateurish interest in Optics, I had read an encyclopedia article on holography published in the early 1970s. I went back to this article, but could not understand how a three-dimensional image could be recorded on a two dimensional surface. The idea seemed fascinating, however. When I saw a hologram for the first time, early in 1983, it became clear that this medium had the potential solution for the aesthetic problems I was struggling to resolve. I then set out to develop a textuality to be modulated by the elusive nature of holographic space which would be experienced with its own rhythms, somewhere between the two-dimensional surface of the page and the solid three-dimensional form of the object. The new poetry I was going to develop would focus more on syntactical issues rather than on semantics. In the following years I became a holographer and subsequently a computer animator. This has enabled me to be in control of the execution of all stages of my work and to learn through my experimentation in the laboratory about the limits and prospects of holographic writing.
I have discussed elsewhere (2) the development of holopoetry from its inception to its current stage. In the next two sections I will proceed to outline holopoetry's general principles and to discuss recent pieces not documented before.
My work in holography can be understood in the context of language art and visual poetry, two genres that explore the fusion of word and image. I create what I call holographic poems, or holopoems, which are essentially holograms and computer holograms that address language both as material and subject matter. I try to create texts which can only signify upon the active perceptual and cognitive engagement on the part of the reader or viewer. This ultimately means that each reader "writes" his or her own texts as he or she looks at the piece. My holopoems don't rest quietly on the surface. When the viewer starts to look for words and their links, the texts will transform themselves, move in three-dimensional space, change in color and meaning, coalesce and disappear. This viewer-activated choreography is as much a part of the signifying process as the transforming verbal and visual elements themselves. If the reader has never seen an actual holopoem, he or she needs only to consider Eliot's (3) words literally, that is, as something that in fact takes place as a visual-poetic phenomenon:
The temporal and rhythmic organization of my texts play an important role in creating this tension between visual language and verbal images. Most of my pieces deal with time as non-linear (i.e., discontinuous) and reversible (i.e., flowing in both directions), in such a way that the viewer/reader can move up or down, back and forth, from left to right, at any speed, and still be able to establish associations between words present in the ephemeral perceptual field.
I strive toward conceiving of new relationships between the appearance-disappearance of signifiers, which constitutes the experience of reading a holographic text, and our perception of the organizing factors of the text. In this sense, visual perception of parametric behavior of the verbal elements heightens awareness of meanings. As readers move they continually shift the focus or center or organizing principle of their experience by looking through dispersed viewing zones. The text they experience stands against the fixity of print, and for the branching of holographic space.
Because of their irreducibility as holographic texts, my poems resist vocalization and paper-print reproduction. Since the perception of the texts changes with viewpoint, they do not posses a single "structure" that can be transposed or transported to and from another medium. The combined use of computers and holography reflects my desire to create experimental texts that move language, and more specifically, written language, beyond the linearity and rigidity that characterize its printed form. I never adapt existing texts to holography. I try to investigate the possibility of creating works that emerge from a genuine holographic syntax.
Astray in Deimos (4), from 1992, explores metamorphosis as its main syntactical agent. Deimos ("terror") is the outer, smaller satellite of Mars. The piece is comprised of two words rendered in wireframe (EERIE and MIST), which are seen through a circle of predominantly yellow light. Surrounding this scene is a web-like landscape made of shattered glass, which partially invades the yellow light circle. The circle may represent Deimos as seen on the sky from the ground, or a crater on the surface, or even a spacecraft window through which one may look down at the spacescape.
As the viewer moves relative to the piece, he or she perceives that each line that renders the graphic configuration of each letter starts to actually move in three-dimensional space. The viewer then perceives that as the lines and points go under an actual topological transformation, they slowly start to reconfigure a different wireframe letter. What was read as an adjective is becoming a noun. I call this semantic interpolation. If the viewer happens to move in the opposite direction, the noun is transformed into the adjective. The shifting of grammatical forms occurs not through syntactical dislocations in a stanza, but through a typographic metamorphosis that takes place outside syntax.
In the process of transformation the intermediary configurations of the letters, which do not form any known words, evoke in nonsemantic fashion meanings that are conceivably intermediary between the two words (EERIE and MIST). The point here is that this metamorphosis allows the text to suggest other meanings beyond the two words located at the extreme poles of the process. The viewer has to read the transformations without trying to extract semantic meaning from the nonsemantic forms. These in-between verbal signs attempt to communicate at the level of abstract visual signs which have no extra-pictorial reality, at the same time that they operate under a specific framework provided by the words at the poles (EERIE and MIST). This can be very difficult at first because it escapes our common expectations about how language operates. For example: if I refer to the colors "black" and "white", I can think of a third term that will clearly define an intermediary color, that is, "gray". This precision becomes impossible, for example, if I refer to the words "knife" and "light". There is no common word that can define an intermediary state or concept between the two nouns. Only in poetry this is conceivable. What I ask readers to do when looking at Astray in Deimos is to read the metamorphosis between EERIE and MIST with the same emphasis they read these two individual words, but without necessarily forcing the intermediary shapes to refer to extra-linguistic qualities or things in the way the two words do.
Astray in Deimos can be interpreted as a spatial haiku of sorts. Its natural subject is the landscape of Deimos, one of the two moons of the red planet. This holopoem is imaginarily written by someone who has visited Deimos, which so far is only known to us through photographs shot by the Mariner and Viking orbiters. The attentive reader will notice that if the word MIST is perceived first, followed by EERIE, a phonetic link between the two words suggests a third one: mystery.
Havoc (5), created in 1992, is composed of 39 words distributed in three panels. The viewer can start reading from left to right or vice-versa, or even start in the center and move in the desired direction. The left panel has fourteen words (NOW, IS, IFS, AND, AIRS, ARE, MIST, BUT, PENS, ARE, THOUGHTS, IF, JAZZ, IS, TOUCH, SO, SPLASH, JUMPS, DRY), the center panel has one word (WHEN), and the right panel has fourteen more words (SHE, IS, HE, IF, FACES, ERASE, SMILES, BUT, THENS, SAY, MEMORIES, ARE, AIRPORTS, LIKE, DROPS, UNDER, MOONS, OF, MAZE).
The verbal material in the left and right panels is organized vertically in three-dimensional space. I used two different type faces in this piece. When a row has two words, one word is written with serif and the other without, creating an alternating visual rhythm. The color of the word(s) in one row is different from the color of the word(s) in the other row, but identical to the color of the following row, and so on. As in most white-light transmission holograms these colors are never stationary, but the relative chromaticity is preserved regardless of the viewpoint of the observer. This color modulation extends the rhythm created by the font selection and helps interweave the words visually.
As the viewer moves relative to these two panels, which are usually seen one at a time, all the words in them twirl simultaneously, as if drowned by a violent vortex. The words lose their graphic stiffness. They stretch, deform and contort themselves. As the words collapse they blend into one another becoming absolutely illegible. They form swirling patterns at the edge of the viewing zone and, if the viewer moves in the opposite direction, they return to their temporary state of rest.
The center panel has a different behavior. An abstract shape morphs into the word (WHEN) which morphs again into an abstract shape, placing the word at the transitory position preserved in other pieces for the nonsemantic in-between shapes. But instead of the smooth metamorphic transition created in Astray in Deimos, for example, the word WHEN goes through a compressed and violent process that generates time-smear. Time-smear occurs when the viewer perceives simultaneously two discrete points in the trajectory of a letter or word separated in time. One point can be the "present" or the "future" in relation to the other and the converse, which is to say that both are suspended in time nonsequentially. This unconventional concept translates itself visually into ever unfolding amalgams of images which are perceived as oscillations by a non-stationary viewer. The abstract shapes and the word are decomposed at the boundary of legibility. Surrounding this shifting scene are semi-curved light forms that change and fluctuate. The convex sides of these wave-like diffused semi-circles face outwards, as if placing now and then the word WHEN in parenthesis.
The title of my next holopoem is Zephyr (6) (1993), which means "a gentle breeze". In this piece a relationship of semantic equivalence is created between word fragments and images seen in transition. It employs particle animation (7) and synthetic water ripples. Particles and ripples are disturbed by an invisible air flow which is imaginarily caused by the reader as he or she moves in front of the piece. As the reader explores the work, verbal and visual elements move and change, making a statement about the fragility of the human condition. The letters in this piece form a word inside another word, one being affirmative (LIFE) and the other seeming to question its assertive character from within (IF). As the viewer moves relative to the piece, it oscillates between preserving these oppositions and solving them by blending the opposite terms.
I used three masters in this piece. The first master contains two letters, L and E, with space between them equivalent to two other letters (I and F, which are absent of this hologram). As the viewer moves relative to the piece, he or she perceives that the letters are made of minute particles, and that these particles fly towards the viewer Ð as if they had been blown in the air. A three-dimensional cloud of particles is formed in space. If the viewer moves in the opposite direction, this cloud flies away from the viewer and reconstructs the letters, as if the viewer had blown them away from him or her with his or her own gaze.
The second master contains the word IF, formed by the two letters extracted from the word LIFE. This word is projected on synthetic water. I disturbed the synthetic liquid surface where the word is projected in order to record visual oscillations of the word. The meaning of doubt raised by the word IF is reinforced by its wavy motion, since the word is perceived as word or abstract pattern depending on the momentary position of the viewer in relation to the holopoem. The word IF is positioned in the perceptual field so as to match the space left in the first master.
Both are integrated into one entity, but they also dissolve into one another. A third master was added, containing stylized images of flames forming a ring around the ripples. Looking at Zephyr, the reader finds buoyant words, as if the particles and the ripples were relying for their movement on the vagaries of air currents and the displacement of small air masses caused by the movement of the viewer himself or herself.
My most recent piece, Maybe then, if only as (1993), is a subjective statement about what I see as the relationship between the elusiveness of language and the unpredictable and turbulent behavior of nature. The piece involved the recording of three separate master holograms which were later overlapped for the recording of the final transfer on a single sheet of film.(8)
The first master contained three words: WHERE, ARE, WE?. The letters in the word WHERE spin and visually dissolve into falling "snow flakes". The words ARE and WE? are underneath WHERE and are skewed as the process described above takes place. These two words are partially covered by the "snow flakes" of WHERE.
The second master contains the following words: HERE, WE, ARE, THERE, INK, INSTANTS, AND, WHY?. These words can only be seen from discrete points of view and were subjected to other animated processes.
The A in ARE spins away from the viewer into holographic space and the other letters move up to suggest WERE. The first four letters in the word INSTANTS slowly disappear leaving ANTS to be perceived at the edge of legibility. The word WHY? is seen flashing at different moments, in different positions, across the space and in jerky fashion, as a sort of a graphic echo. These relationships are suggested when the viewer perceives the words breaking down and reconstructing other words in the immaterial holographic space. The words are perceived only for a brief moment and are interrupted by the presence of other animated words.
The third master was used to record dry branches coming out of the film plane and reaching out to the viewer. The branches were recorded against a background of light generated patterns that subtly evoke the forms of clouds.
I will introduce at this point some remarks about hypertext, because the mobility afforded by this new form is relevant to the rapprochement I will suggest later between holopoetry and hyperpoetry. The term hypertext was created by Theodor Nelson in the 1960s to describe a kind of electronic text, read on a computer screen, that is fundamentally different from print in its nonhierarchical structure. The printed book was a breakthrough in relation to papyrus scrolls and older forms of recording the written word, among other reasons for its mechanical reproducibility, patterned linearity, and random access to information. Similarly, hypertext is a breakthrough in relation to the printed book because it is interactive, calls for nonlinear forms of text construction, and allows the reader to navigate through multiple pathways.
The interactivity that hypertext purports affects in a fundamental way the very notion of text. Quite often in literary and poetic hypertexts, the reader can not only make personal choices in terms of when and where to see what, but can also make changes to the very text he or she is reading. Arguably, one always makes personal choices in the process of reading a book but, with few exceptions, the book is conceived by the author so that the reader starts on the first page and naturally ends on the last page. This linear sequence is not transposed to hypertext, where the verbal material is organized in discrete units linked electronically. Authors conceive of their works so that the reader has many choices along the reading path, transforming the literary work into a more open-ended experience than we are accustomed to. This experience is pushed further when readers are allowed to contribute to the texts. While one is used to making notes directly on a book, what is less common is the ability to delete parts, change letters or words, or add something new to the very text one reads. This ability is at the very core of hypertext. Because the text is represented digitally in the memory of the computer or on a floppy disk, and not as analog physical marks on the surface of a printed page, often authors will allow readers to modify the text and therefore alter it in a variety of ways.
The nonlinearity of hypertext can be stated in two ways. First, one can create a network of linked texts which, in themselves, are traditional linear texts. For educational purposes it might be interesting to create an electronic document that links nonlinearly an important literary work to a variety of analytical essays and scholarly references of names, historical events and places mentioned in the text. The public would read the work in traditional fashion, but would be able to access any other relevant essay or book written about the literary work from any passage in the text. Second, experimental writers can benefit from hypertext by radicalizing its features and generating electronic poems or novels that cannot be experienced as such in print medium. The verbal material in this case has to be organized as a multinodal network and the reader has to make constant decisions about what directions to take in order to move through its interconnections. The very organization of the text as network, the design of which will vary from author to author and from piece to piece, is as important as the individual blocks of verbal material encountered by the reader along the multiple reading paths. Instead of Olson's composition by field(9), "where all the syllables and all the lines must be managed in their relations to each other", and where "a series of tensions are made to hold", we now think of composition by networked fields where tensions spill out and overflow.
If in addition to electronic text an author works with sound and motion pictures, the author extends hypertext to the realm of hypermedia, thus multiplying even more the nodes (or the resources in each node) in a network. From an instructional perspective, it becomes possible not only to inform the reader about a geographical reference in a novel, for example, but to show a short electronic movie about the site. From the perspective of experimental writing, the author gains access to a whole new set of instruments with which to enhance or expand the range of the work. It is true that television already delivers electronic images, sound, and texts to every household, and that videotape rental multiplies the options of the audience. But hypermedia raises new sets of literary problems about the authority of the author, the structure of the work, and the role of the reader. What is equally important, hypermedia might expand the realm of literature as it promises interactive access to very large amounts of data linked in a complex network of nonsequential audiovisual information.
Looking closely at the cultural dimensions of hypertext, it strikes me that in many ways the discontinuous and metamorphic poetry I've been developing since 1983 with holography shares with hypertext, and with the hyperpoetry created by myself and by others, the same interest for the model of the network, for the readerly interactivity, and for the giving up partial textual control on the part of the author. I ask myself, however: if holopoetry promotes a disengagement of the linearity typical of traditional poetry and of the graphic simultaneity of visual poetry, can or should it be considered a kind of hypertext? Holopoetry, which links one letter, 3D graphic fragment, or behavior of a text to myriad others, questions the motionless structure of print-based visual poetry, just as it also questions the authorship and readership created by it.
In 1993 I finished Storms, my first hyperpoem, which can be read on any Macintosh computer. It is organized in vocalic and consonantal bifurcations. To navigate through the poem one is invited to click on a letter at any given time. In some instances, navigation can also take place by clicking outside the word. If the reader does not make a choice, that is, if he or she does not click on a vowel or consonant, or in some instances also on empty space, the reader will remain stationary. When the reader does make any choice, the word on the screen is dissolved and blends into the next word. The poem does not have an ending. This means that one can continue to explore different textual navigation possibilities or quit at anytime by pressing the Command key and the Q key.
After I finished the first draft of this hyperpoem, I noticed that its structure was very similar to the diagrams of sefirotic systems typical of the Kabbalah (see diagram below). This made me realize that I could push it further, by borrowing some links I observed in a particular sefirotic system. Kabbalistic writing and mysticism have always had a formal influence in my work, and this influence has resulted in holopoems such as Abracadabra (1984/85), Lilith (1987/89, with Richard Kostelanetz), Shema (1989), and Multiple(1989). The difference here is that this time there is a remarkable similarity between the actual structure of my hyperpoem, which promotes the branching from one textual unit to another, and the structure of this metaphysical Tree.
Holopoetry explores motion, displacement, and metamorphosis. In my holotexts I employ a syntax of dislocations that continually drive graphemes from their position. In some poems I use only one word, but in my multiword poems each word is a node or point of intersection. No word is the origin or beginning. Even in the single-word pieces that employ some kind of sequence, this sequence is never hierarchical (i.e., linear) and never assumes a fixed beginning or end. Words are axes which radiate linked words that surround them Ð but quite often a word loses graphical integrity and becomes temporarily something else, a sign or an abstract pattern with no extra-linguistic or extra-pictorial reality. This textual drift suggests, ultimately, a view of the word and the world as malleable.
In electronic hypertext, one chooses paths but each locus displays words on a two-dimensional computer screen, which are scanned by the eye in linear fashion, like in print, from top to bottom, from left to right. In holographic texts the reader can't add to the existing elements, at least not yet, but in addition to choosing paths the readers encounter a space where the graphical substance of the verbal material is under constant disturbance, being transformed, morphed, or disintegrated in a new signifying process.
The writer that works with holography or hypertext must give up the idea of the reader as the ideal decoder of the text and must deal with a reader that makes very personal choices in terms of the direction, speed, distance, order, and angle he or she finds suitable to the readerly experience. The writer must create the text taking into account that these decisions, being personal as they are, will generate multiple and differentiated experiences of the text and, most importantly, that all of these occurrences are equally valid textual encounters.
If one is concerned with the development of a new poetry for the digital age, it is important to write visual poetry in a medium different than print, a medium that is fresh and the conventions of which are yet to be invented. To me, holography is such a medium, but I must point out that the use of new media does not constitute, by itself, a standard of quality or of authentic contribution to the repertoire of experimental writing. For example, if someone uses holography simply to reproduce a poem that was fully realized in another form (verse, graphic, etc.), he or she is not creating what I would call a holopoem. A rare example of important international digital poetry was shown in the exhibition "p0es1e digitale dichtkunst"(11), curated by Andr Vallias, in Germany, in 1992.
In Western societies we are all used to electronic texts on television performing the most elaborate pirouettes on the screen. A golfer hits a ball and letters announcing a tournament are scattered on the screen. An electric shaver follows a path made of text about the product, "shaving" the text in the process. Logos fly onscreen to sell the visual identity of large corporations, and so on. The dynamic use of language that we are used to on television promotes most often redundancy, commodification, and banalization. The new generation of poets belongs to the media culture. They breathe television, videotapes, videodiscs, videophones, computers, virtual reality, and holography. In a literary culture still dominated by print, the author of experimental prose or poetry that can only be read in electronic or photonic media will have a hard time reaching the audience (however small this audience might be). Regardless of these problems, or perhaps because of them, it is this generation's challenge to create dynamic electronic and photonic texts that recover the conceptual power and the mysterious beauty of language.
1- See: E. Kac, 24 (Rio de Janeiro: Edies Gang, 1981); Glauco Mattoso, Jornal Dobrabil, (São Paulo: self-published, 1981); Helosa Buarque de Hollanda and Carlos Alberto Messeder Pereira, eds., Poesia Jovem Ð Anos 70 (São Paulo: Editora Abril, 1982); Glauco Mattoso, O que Poesia Marginal (São Paulo: Editora Brasiliense, 1983); E. Kac, Escracho (Rio de Janeiro: self-published, 1983); E. Kac and K. Trindade, eds., Antolorgia (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Codecri, 1984).
2- See: E. Kac, "Holopoetry and Fractal Holopoetry: Digital Holography as an Art Medium", in Holography as an art medium, ed. Louis Brill, Leonardo special issue, Vol. 22, N¼ 3/4, pp. 397-402, Pergamon Press, Oxford (UK), 1989; and "Recent Experiments in Holopoetry and Computer Holopoetry", in Proceedings of the International Symposium on Display Holography, ed. T. H. Jeong, SPIE Vol. 1600, Bellingham, WA, 1991, pp. 229-236.
3- T. S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton", in Collected Poems, 1909-1935, (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1936), p. 219.
4- The holopoem Astray in Deimos is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Holography, in Chicago. I am greatly indebted to Loren Billings for her continuing support.
5- The holopoem Havoc was supported in part by a New Forms Regional Grant, a program administered by Randolph Street Gallery and the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, and funded by the Inter-Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts and The Rockfeller Foundation, with additional support from the Illinois Arts Council and Randolph Street Gallery.
6- The holopoem Zephyr was partially supported by a grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Illinois Arts Council Access Program.
7- Particle systems can be described as a kind of animation technique in which large amounts of very small three-dimensional objects (computer-generated particles) are set to motion simultaneously under a combination of random factors and algorithmic control. Parameters used to animate particles include life span (i.e., for how long do they move), speed, quantity, size, color, starting and ending point, and direction of travel. Once the animation starts, hundreds or thousands of particles move by themselves under constraints set by the artist. There is no need to create key frames or to set motion paths for individual particles.
8- The holopoem Maybe Then, If Only As partially supported by a grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Illinois Arts Council Access Program.
9 - C. Olson, "Projective Verse", in The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1982), p. 252.
10- L. Zukofsky, "A Statement for poetry", in Prepositions (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), p. 20.
11- This group exhibition took place at the Galerie Am Markt, in Annaberg-Buchholz, Germany, from September 12 to October 3, 1992.
Back to Kac Web