Say What Again: Avant-Garde As Software (video)

Gertrude Stein once observed that the first time someone makes something, it’s ugly and no one likes it. The second time someone makes the same thing, it’s pretty and everyone can like it. I’ve often taken Stein’s aphorism as a commentary about how the forms of the 20th-century avant-gardes, which were once so far outside of the mainstream of culture, have become smoothly functioning components of the vast digital machines that we use to sell things to each other.

In 2007, Jarratt Moody, then a student at the Savannah College of Art & Design, made “Say What Again” for a class on time based-typography taught by Professor Duff Yong. For a long time, it circulated around various video sites under the title “,” which I actually like better than “Say What Again,” because it sums up the nature of the entire clip without referring explicitly to its content.

Whatever you call it, this clip is the epitome of the phenomena that Lev Manovich describes in his essay “Avant-Garde As Software” namely, that software “codifies and naturalizes” the techniques of early twentieth-century innovators in Italian and Russian Futurism, Merz, Dada and the other avant-gardes.

“Say What Again'”s evocation of mayhem through letters in motion positions it as a direct descendant of Filippo Tomasso Marinetti‘s “parole in liberta” (words in freedom). What Marinetti was after was a form of literature that accurately conveyed the enthusiasm of the day for emerging forms of electrical and mechanical technology. In his 1912, “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature,” Marinetti writes: “One must destroy syntax and scatter one’s nouns at random” and “one should deliberately confound the object with the image that it evokes” accomplishing this goal by varying tones to avoid a “tedious unity” – using symbols instead of letters, employing a multitude of typefaces and sizes, non-rectilinear layout and so on.

In “Geometric and Mechanical Splendor and the numerical Sensibility,” he writes that, “The words-in-freedom, in this continuous effort to express with the greatest force and profundity, naturally transform themselves into self-illustrations, by means of free, expressive orthography and typography.” Nearly a hundred years before “Say What Again,” the sensibility that could have produced it was already in place.

The avant-gardes, of course, made films of their own, some of them typographic. Marcel Duchamp‘s “Anemic Cinema,” wildly innovative in a time of wild innovation, is an analog ancestor of dynamic typography. Given the technological limits of the day, most of the films of the avant-garde were quite short, so there’s a certain formal similarity between them and many of the clips on the Internet, which tend to be brief in order to minimize the limitations of streaming media. But the similarities go beyond duration to describe a particular kind of cultural moment.

Like the typography of Italian Futurism, “Say What Again” emphasizes the dynamism and violence of the culture that produced it through the placement and size of typographic elements. What’s more, the choice of particular typefaces also conveys meaning because of the previous uses of that face as well as its general shape and outline. Linotype Mistral, now inseparable from its appearance on the cover of NWA’s definitive gangster rap album Straight Outta Compton, connotes violence even without animation and accompanying blood spatter.

The slab serif face that the bulk of the video is set in is some version of Rudolph Wolf’s Memphis Bold or Extrabold. Created in 1930, “Memphis” refers to the city in Egypt, not the one in Tennessee – not because Egyptian writing systems look anything like these characters. When these characters were first developed for use in advertising at the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon had just invaded Egypt, and a vogue for all things Egyptian spread across Europe. Calling a new typeface “Egyptian” at such a moment was, above all, good marketing.

Shih-Tien Yang, an authority on Egyptian faces, reports an anecdote about Napoleon using square-serif characters on large signs in combination with soldiers using telescopes to relay messages over long distances. Maybe.

In any event, a canny typographer named Robert Fanning, whose Fann Street Foundry specialized in the development of display faces, dubbed the big blocky letters “Egyptian” (they had previously been marked at “Antique” by Robert Figgins in 1815). What does all this have to do with Marsellus Wallace? Well, like the soundtrack says, both are big and both are black — in typography, “black” indicates a weight of type that has heavier and thicker strokes than a bold face. Those who wish to can ruminate on the pharaonic power Wallace wields throughout the film as well.

The SCAD typography students’ work, and this clip in particular, have spawned something of a dynamic typography craze. Look at Moody’s online portfolio or Google “dynamic typography” and you’ll start seeing some very successful commercial work almost immediately. There’s nothing inherently “revolutionary” about any form; as the dynamic typography of Italian Futurism was once absorbed into Fascism, it’s now become part of late capital’s visual vocabulary. The Ford “Crazy Smart” commercial for the F-150, with voiceover by Denis Leary, brings things full circle, returning dynamic typography to Futurism’s obsession with the automobile as the nexus of mechanical speed and power:

What’s fascinating to me is that the production, circulation and consumption of this clip and others like it takes place without any real reference to the century of typographic innovation that preceded it. I suppose that this is how the “new” is always created – by locating buried nuggets of potentiality that were betrayed by the actual events of the past, then polishing them up for all to see.

Status Update: “Literature for the Focus-Challenged”

Brian J. Davis wrote a great piece on status update in the Globe Books section online:

Status update: ‘Emily Brontë and her Playstation are overly friendly these days’

Facebook’s status update bar may be its most popular, enduring and influential feature (given the rise of Twitter’s real time fixes for the focus-challenged). For writers Darren Wershler and Bill Kennedy, status updates are also poetry. Or, rather, it becomes poetry after the RRS feeds of thousands of Facebook users have been harvested, shorn of the user names and attached to the names of dead poets or writers.

Wershler and Kennedy’s site performs that task with each visit, thereby creating an alternate universe where the famous and the obscure are alive, well and reveling in the banal. Thus, Samuel Johnson’s “socks keep falling down. Day after day, sock after sock. WHY?!?!” and “Ted Hughes is not a number! I am a free man!” Should you become fascinated by the fact that Kingsley Amis is “watching Serenity for the second time,” each dead writer’s name has its own RSS feed.

Some of you may note that Wershler and Kennedy are the same digital hooligans behind the poetry-generating website and book Apostrophe. does the idea of generated poetry one better by working on several levels simultaneously. First, and most important, it’s flat out funny and endlessly readable. Yet dig deeper and Wershler and Kennedy’s cheeky appropriation of Facebook’s purposefully “neutral” look also reminds us that Facebook is wholesale appropriating your information for all manner of data-harvesting, 140 characters at a time. By attaching the name of a writer to effectively anonymous lines, lessens the bite of social networking economics.

If I can paraphrase an old radical slogan, “Users! One more step to be creators.”

Reposted with permission of Brian J. Davis. Featured image by ~!.

Found Poetry from Ubuweb

On January 9, 2009, Mercer Union launched “Street Poets & Visionaries: Selections from the UbuWeb Collection” to a packed house. The text that I wrote for the catalogue of this collection of found poetry follows, as does a link to a Flickr set of images of the event.

The quality of mind in the radio telescope is its will to select.
— Christopher Dewdney, “Parasite Maintenance” {{1}}

What are the outer limits of appropriation?

Digital culture is obsessed with this question, from both an aesthetic and a legal perspective. On the one hand is an entire century of artistic practices that gleefully encourage the copying and recirculation of cultural materials, from Delta blues and Dada to Flarf and mashups. On the other hand is an increasingly restrictive legal climate, which, as Siva Vaidhyanathan has argued at length, is entirely incapable of dealing effectively with “emerging communication technologies, techniques and aesthetics” {{2}}.

One response to this deadlock between the aesthetics of appropriation in a digital milieu and the legal forces that would constrain them is an increase in bandwidth. In his ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound claims that “artists are the antennae of the race” {{3}}, but in a digital milieu, a set of rabbit ears will no longer suffice. For Christopher Dewdney, contemporary artistic sensibility is analogous to the functioning of a satellite dish. From such a perspective, artists are devices for the accumulation and concentration of data, cool and dispassionate. The quality of the objects and texts that they produce depends on “the will to select.” Thus, the individual’s ability to sort and process the ambient signals that constantly bombard all of us is what constitutes contemporary criteria for a successful artistic career.

As Craig Dworkin has noted elsewhere, self-declared “Word Processor” Kenneth Goldsmith‘s personal oeuvre falls squarely into this tradition of technologized, high-volume appropriation {{4}}. This is especially true of recent works such as Day and the American trilogy (The Weather, Traffic and Sports), all of which duplicate huge swaths of copyrighted texts and performances with studied Warholian indifference. In this context, even Goldsmith’s curatorial work on the decade-old UbuWeb, the world’s largest digital archive of avant-garde sound recordings, concrete poetry, video, outsider art and related critical materials, is arguably part of the practice of appropriation art — perhaps even Goldsmith’s greatest work.

Goldsmith normally proceeds by identifying a neglected (because mundane, or, in Goldsmith’s terms, “boring”) site of cultural discourse, such as an average edition of The New York Times (Day), or an entire weekend’s worth of radio traffic reports (Traffic). He then transcribes that discourse meticulously, reconfigures the resulting digital manuscript as a book, and attaches his name to it. Though such projects have been common in the art world since the heyday of Conceptualism, they are relatively new in the world of poetry. By porting an established practice for aesthetic production from one field of cultural endeavour (gallery art) to another (poetry), Goldsmith has simultaneously constructed himself a career and staged an intervention which has changed the stakes of contemporary writing.

And yet. The texts and objects in “Street Poets & Visionaries: Selections from the UbuWeb Collection” occupy a privileged position, one that at first glance seems utterly counterintuitive in the context of the rest of Goldsmith’s oeuvre. The digitized versions of this material used to appear on UbuWeb under the heading “Found + Insane”; Goldsmith’s text on the website notes that “we’ve redesigned and renamed it Outsiders, reflecting broader cultural trends toward the legitimization of Outsider work,” reflecting a remarkable degree of cultural sensitivity from someone whose public persona is often gleefully abrasive and provocative {{5}}. Moreover, when exhibiting this work, Goldsmith never directly attaches his name to it, preferring the relative anonymity of “UbuWeb” and the curatorial first-person plural.

The greatest difference between these materials and all of Goldsmith’s recent work is that he circulates them without “denuding” them — this is Goldsmith’s term for the process of stripping away “the normative external signifiers that tend to give as much meaning to an artwork as the contents of the artwork
itself,” such as font size, lineation, accompanying illustrations, and so on {{6}}. In gallery shows such as this one, the original objects themselves are displayed, even though for Goldsmith, the normal practice would be to discard originals after digitization like so many empt}}y husks.

Part of the value of these objects is their stubborn materiality. Yes, the content itself is important, and Goldsmith sometimes performs these works as part of his own undifferentiated output, but there is also something here that resolutely resists digitization: the crackle of ancient Letraset, photocopier noise, fragments of yellowing Scotch tape, the trace of a hand wielding a Sharpie. These works, I would argue, are the secret truth of Kenneth Goldsmith’s practice: something small and sacred that makes his great, sprawling, transformative profanities possible.

[[1]] Dewdney, Christopher. “Parasite Maintenance.” Alter Sublime. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1980. 73-92.[[1]]

[[2]] Vaidhyanathan, Siva. Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Threatens Creativity. New York: New York University Press, 2001. 133.[[2]]

[[3]] Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. New York: New Directions, 1960. 73.[[3]]

[[4]] Dworkin, Craig. “The Imaginary Solution.” Contemporary Literature XLVIII.1: 29-60. 34.[[4]]

[[5]]Goldsmith, Kenneth. “Outsiders.” Accessed 9 December 2008.[[5]]

[[6]]Goldsmith, Kenneth. “The Bride Stripped Bare: Nude Media and The Dematerialization of Tony Curtis.” Accessed 9 December 2008. 4.[[6]]

Street Poets & Visionaries launch photoset