Class Thread on Movable Text (Week 2, Prompt 2)

The Gutenberg revolution, as you all know, is based on the technology of movable type, that is to say, pieces of metal bearing numerous shapes that can be arranged variously in order to produce passages of text. As critics have observed, though, the movement (in terms of the type itself) occurs entirely in the preparation of the manuscript. Once the type is set, its movement comes to a halt (and indeed, critics argue, this has been a very good thing–the reader would likely be perturbed if upon opening up a book its type immediately wobbled, migrated, or fell out).

As you have seen this week, many practitioners of electronic literature are fascinated by the computer’s ability to make moving letters or words part of the reading experience. Indeed, one might count movement as one of the preoccupations of electronic literature generally.

In your comments, please choose TWO works and discuss how you see movement factoring into what these explore and/or accomplish (or at least aim to accomplish as you understand them). By discussing two works, you’ll have a point of comparison in your analysis. You may choose to focus primarily on one, mentioning the other to elucidate specific points.

Questions to consider: What happens to the letters and words once they are set in motion? How do they reflect on shape? How does space (a precondition of movement, of course) affect the work of letterforms or words and phrases? How do electronic texts reflect on what letters and words (whether on their own or in sentences) mean through the introduction of movement?

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  1. I have chosen to compare Birds Singing Other Birds’ Song and Dan Weber’s Argument (part of the Strings collection).

    In Birds Singing Other Birds’ Song, the letters/phrases all create a shape of a bird on flight. The shape of the bird is then set into motion. Some letters fly together to form the shape, the bird may grow larger or move across the screen. Its wings may flap. Each bird is also accompanied with an audio version of the text. In this text, the shape and motion of the letters all add meaning to the words that would not exist otherwise. For example, Bird #3’s text merely reads something like, “Chip-it Click-Cluck” which does not hold any meaning without the addition of the shape of the words. Even the audio is rendered meaningless without the text shape. This pushes the boundaries of what we considered words to mean. A cookie-cutter definition (and one I have always relied on) is just the literal meaning of the word—found in any dictionary and agreed upon/used universally in all forms of literature. However, Mencia shows that this is not always the case when movement is introduced into poetry.

    In Argument, the string undulates into the word “Yes,” and “No.” The undulation mimics the conversation that normally exists in an argument (the back-and-forth, continuous/cyclic nature of disagreement). The motion could also be hinting at how arguments are rarely black and white in nature (that is, there is rarely a completely “right” party and a completely “wrong” party. However, the meaning can be possibly discerned without the motion, especially with the addition of the title. In this piece, it seems that the motion only adds to the meaning of the poem—whereas the Birds piece fails to have any meaning without the motion.

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  2. I’ll be considering Michel and Vis’ “Ah” and Mencia’s “Birds Singing Other Birds’ Songs.”

    My response to Q1 this week already touched, albeit briefly, on why I think motion is important to the reading of these texts. In that response, I said something to the effect of motion introduces an element of timing that limits the reader’s interaction with a piece of text. “Ah” is a really good example of this, specifically because the motion of each line of text is different. The two different speeds generate two different timings, and to attempt to read the text, you basically have to wait for moments of synchronicity. The piece is only “coherent” when the two involved motions connect for fleeting seconds and a few words at a time become sensible. This is shaken up a little when the lines diverge, the motions no longer overlaying conflicting words atop each other. There, the motion is more illustrative than it is limiting.

    And it’s exactly that idea of motion as illustrative rather than limiting that I find useful in addressing “Birds Singing Other Birds’ Songs.” I only just slightly disagree with Tory on her comment that “Chip-it Click Cluck” holds no meaning without its shape. Onomatopoeia is meaningful by context and by association… the very title of this piece suggests that if I, as a reader, knew more about bird songs, I should be able to read that and understand what bird it rightly belongs to. The shape of the birds is, then, meant to contradict what I, as the bird-knowledgeable reader, would have expected–the wrong bird shape singing the right bird’s song. The motion, however, contributes neither to the meaning of the onomatopoeia nor to the meaning of the bird shape. If we’re really going far with the idea that this is a piece meant only for expert bird watchers, you might argue that the motion of the birds in flight is essential to identifying them, and thus would contribute to identifying the bird as wrong for the song it sings; but, frankly, the motion in this text is basic enough that I doubt it helps with the identification problem. Instead, the motion here is meant to add, as Hayles put it, “dynamism” and just that.

    “Ah” then seems closer to actually drawing meaning out of motion when dealing with text, whereas “Birds Singing Other Birds’ Songs” seems to use motion not for textual meaning but more for the reader’s experience. That said, I’m not sure whether either approach is better, per se. Dynamism can be just as essential as coherence in poetics.

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  3. Perhaps the most visually dynamic works are Mencia’s “Birds Singing Other Birds Songs” and the “Strings” collection by Weber.

    Both of these pieces of e-lit are rather organic in their form. Mencia is able to shape words and letters into the forms of birds. She is also able to simulate movement of the forms (flight or otherwise) by shifting the characters, something only feasible through the use of digital manipulation. She sets these figures in motion on a sky themed background to simulate flying. The letters themselves are nigh indiscernible and certainly not forming coherent words but rather representing the sounds that accompany the flash animation. The concept of a bird, therefore, is visually represented rather than through words, although moving text is still the medium. Mencia essentially uses letters as colorblocks to paint pictures of birds flying, birds exploding, or birds being created out of nothing.

    “Strings”, on the other hand, uses one organic line to express different thoughts. In the first two Strings, Arguments 1 and 2, the idea of a conversation is created because there are never two words on the screen at the same time. This simulates an ebb and flow of conversation: yes, no, yes, no. In Argument 2, the upper half of the word “maybe” can be seen. Perhaps it is my own biased interpretation of it, but I imagined a subdued, almost embarrassed “maybe” coming from the individual who had been arguing “yes”. The speed of the text movement is also indicative of volume or passion, perhaps. In Argument 1, a single piece of string transforms into yes/no, creating a smooth feeling, while Argument 2 has each words flying in and out of the panel, creating a feeling of impatience. Weber consistently uses the speed of his visual texts to create emotion in this manner, from flirting to hahaha.

    With the introduction of movement to text, artists are able to further stimulate the audience in ways that printed text and still text is unable to do. Movement can convey emotion, as does color, size/thickness of the word/letter, and any number of other visual variables. However, this movement makes me hesitate to call these pieces “literature” rather than visual art. In normal conversation, the majority of understanding and perception is derived from nonverbal cues between two individuals. Movement such as foot tapping, blinking, nose twitching, etc, inform much more in terms of overall communication than the words do. As such, I believe that the visual impact of movement is far greater than the visual impact of a still word. It becomes less about the text, I think, and more about the visual impact of the movement.

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    • I intend to compare Michel and Vis’ “Ah” with Waber’s “flirt” and “flirt (cntd)” from the strings collection.
      “Ah” is, according to the artist statement, about the flowing, stream-of-conscious nature of time. This was evident in the poem before I ever read the poets’ thoughts. The flow of the letters out of time with a normal reading process immediately felt disjointed but still fluidly connected- much like the musings of a showering thinker. Interestingly, the poem called to mind the popular sub-reddit r/showerthoughts, which catalogs the seemingly genius epiphanies that come to us in the shower. The movement of this text created that sense of epiphany in a way a printed text couldn’t.Forcing the reader to double back, skip ahead, and blend together the letters of text was the chief way Michel and Vis created meaning in this piece. This gives me the sense that kinetic poetry does something different with the text by altering the speed at which we read it and the space it exists in moment-to-moment. The sense of movement from a straight line to the divided, twisty line was still smooth, something which would be harder to accomplish if the text were not constantly scrolling across the piece.
      Waber’s work, on the other hand, gets its meaning from ignoring the usual straight line of text altogether, creating instead a moving, organic string that feels like a living thing in its ability to enter and exit the field of vision second by second. In “flirt” and “flirt (cntd)”, Waber gives his letters a charmingly human personality with their kinetic function. In the first poem, the string changes from “no” to a shy “maybe” just before disappearing off the screen. In the second, the word “yes” bounces and zooms in and out of the screen, barely legible (only in pieces) until the end. Such movement around the space creates a sense of text as object (or even as creature) rather than as text. In this, Waber separates himself more than Michel and Vis from conventional poetry, as the words seem like animations that are text rather than text that has been animated. That’s the best way I can think to express the difference: here, the text is fulfilling an somewhat different function. With this, Waber manages to create a strong impression of being flirted with with only a few words.

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  4. Today’s objects of consideration shall be Michel and Vis’ “Ah” and Dan Waber’s “poidog” (from his ‘Strings’ collection).

    Like many other comments have pointed out, ‘Ah’ relies on the different rates of traversal of the syllables to deliver its artistic message. The negative space that surrounds the syllables focuses the user’s attention on the marching wordlets as they move from right to left, and the meaning of the piece is derived from the movement of those wordlets. They overlap into gibberish, morph clauses, and invert meaning of their own accord, occasionally presenting a cohesive thought only to watch it bend in on itself, become its opposite, and implode into so many black lines. The continual motion of ‘Ah’ is used to allow the stream of consciousness to flow and change over time, allowing new ideas and happen-stances to develop for the user to experience.

    On the other hand, ‘poidog’ uses its constant motion to form an aesthetically pleasing, cognitively complete loop. It is a simple piece, with a single line bending and twisting on itself to form words, with another line darting in and out to assist as needed – ‘words are like strings that I pull out of my mouth’, over and over again. Rather than making the reader squint and continually reassess the content in front of them, it simply needs a bit of attention upfront to keep up with the shifting cursive lines. The movement of the piece strengthens the poetic imagery conjured up by the single line of verse, making the movement implied by the words synesthetic while we watch those very words move before our eyes. While ‘Ah’ uses movement to make something new each time it is viewed, ‘poidog’ uses movement to enhance something we only need to see once to understand.

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  5. My response will focus on Maria Mencia’s, Birds Singing Other Birds’ Song and Michel and Dirk Vis’, Ah (a shower song).

    In “Ah” the words flow in a steady stream of overlapping letters and haphazardly placed syllables. To me, this piece wouldn’t be the same without the intentional disregard (how’s that for confusing) for word placement. It is meant to conjure up an image of carefree singing, in my opinion, and aimless murmuring, much in the way many of us sing in the shower. With the sound of water to drown out our voice, how many of us are guilty of singing nonsense o humming lyrics and replacing words to a song with our own, more nonsensical versions? The image in my mind is one of Tom Bombadill from The Fellowship of The Ring as he hops through the glens and meadows of his hold and sings nonsensical tunes to his heart’s content. Without movement, this same level of immersion couldn’t have been accomplished.

    On the other hand, I think Birds Singing Other Birds’ Song is the exact opposite. The same feeling could absolutely have been achieved without movement in my opinion. A claim many of my peers may disagree with, but here is what I mean by that: in Birds, the image of swooping doves and tweeting fowl is already evoked by the audio. When I closed my eyes and pressed the “play” button, I saw in my mind’s eye, exactly the same thing as what was being displayed on the screen. The only difference, is that the birds were comprised of words in the poem, rather than lines. Which, in my honest and dissenting opinion, was meaningless insofar as movement was concerned. It was essentially a concrete poem with audio. This left me with an impression of redundancy, but not necessarily in an unpleasant fashion.

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  6. I will be comparing Maria Mencia’s “Birds Singing Other Birds’ Songs” and a snippet of Dan Weber’s “Strings,” particularly “arms.” These were fascinating to me, especially seeing the transition from “first-generation” Apple IIe-generated poems to a newer age where words form shapes and lines form words.

    As I said in my response to last week’s question, I would categorize Huth and bpNichols’ poems as “kinetic.” However, in Mencia’s and Weber’s poems, movement truly constitutes the entire physical form, if it could be referred to as such. In “Birds Singing Other Birds’ Songs,” Mencia adds not only a moving background, but also moving text, color, and sound. The birds are composed of different elements; one bird’s body is formed by the sounds that it makes and another bird spits out the sounds that it makes. For this particular piece, sound is a key point to understanding the piece as it makes no sense without it. The birds “articulate” the sounds that they make, but it is sometimes difficult to read the words on the bird fast enough. Even if it is easily readable, it seems nonsensical without sound.

    Though similar to Mencia’s work, Weber’s “Strings” truly showcases how technology created so many options for kinetic text. Before, authors would animate words, but Weber animates a string to form those words. The one continuous line forms the words for the poem, but it also forms an image that helps interpret the poem. Sounds plays no role in this piece, but the sheer delight that I felt when I first read it made this one of my overall favorites so far. “Birds Singing Other Birds’ Songs” is visually attractive in terms of how the birds is formed and moves, but it also barrages you with a cacophony of sound. “arms” is fluid and captivates you with its elegance.

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  7. I chose First Screening by bpNichol and arms from Dan Waber’s Strings collection. These were two of the works that I found to be most meaningful. While they weren’t necessarily the most fun to watch as far as the words in movement, I felt like they were actually closer to what I view as poetry. Many of these works made me question what poetry actually is but that’s a whole different issue. For example, while viewing Birds Singing Other Birds’ Songs, I was bored and not very amused. In my opinion it held little value as poetry and put too much emphasis on the kinetic aspect. What I liked about arms from Strings, was that is was simple but in it’s simplicity it used the movement part perfectly to portray and idea. It says “Your arms (circle) me.” When I viewed this I read it as “Your arms around me.” I think the use of the moving circle shape here instead of the word is a really effective example of how kinetic poetry can evoke feelings rather than just be a cool thing flashing on the screen. While First Screening seems like it jumps around to different topics often, there’s still something about the whole piece that seems very cohesive. There’s a feeling I get from watching it all together that I can’t quite put my finger on but it evokes a kind of nostalgic feeling of loss. I love the use of very short phrases that move in a way that just pulls more meaning out of them like the, “Sat down to write you this poem” segment. Another short phrase that uses movement effectively is “This is the sentence the wind blew here” as it flounces across the screen.

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