HOLOPOETRY AND BEYOND

by Eduardo Kac

 

1. Defining a holopoem

A holographic poem, or holopoem, is a poem conceived, made and displayed holographically. This means, first of all, that such a poem is organized non-linearly in an immaterial three-dimensional space and that even as the reader or viewer observes it, it changes and gives rise to new meanings. Thus as the viewer reads the poem in space - that is, moves relative to the hologram-he or she constantly modifies the structure of the text. A holopoem is a spatiotemporal event: it evokes thought processes, and not their result.

A holopoem is not a poem composed in lines of verse and made into a hologram, nor is it a concrete or visual poem adapted to holography. The sequential structure of a line of verse corresponds to linear thinking, whereas the simultaneous structure of a concrete or visual poem corresponds to ideographic thinking. The poem written in lines, printed on paper, reinforces the linearity of poetic discourse, whereas the visual poem sets words free on the page. Like poetry in lines, visual poetry has a long ancestry, which runs from Simias of Rhodes, through the Baroque poets, to Modernists such as Marinetti, Kamensky, Tzara, Cummings and Apollinaire, and most recently to the experimental poets of the 1960s and 1970s.

Following in this tradition, while at the same time opening up a new path, holopoetry began in 1983 by freeing words from the page. It was important back then, as it still is today, that the holopoem can be duplicated in large quantities and that it calls for silent reading. As distinguished from visual poetry, it seeks to express the discontinuity of thought; in other words, the perception of a holopoem takes place neither linearly nor simultaneously but rather through fragments seen by the observer according to decisions he or she makes, depending on the observer’s position relative to the poem. Perception in space of colors, volumes, degrees of transparency, changes in form, relative positions of letters and words, and the appearance and disappearance of forms is inseparable from the syntactic and semantic perception of the text. The instability of color has poetic function and the visual mutability of letters extends them beyond the verbal domain. 1

If we compare the elements of language with the basic concepts of Euclidean geometry, as Bense [1] has done in the analysis of visual texts, we may think of letters as points, words and sentences as lines, and visual texts as planes. Thus, letters would have dimension 0; sentences, dimension 1; and visual texts, dimension 2. By extension, one might conclude too quickly, holopoems, which free the text from the page and project it into space, would have dimension 3.

But holopoems are actually quadri-dimensional because they integrate dinamically the three dimensions of space wuth the added dimension of time. This is not the subjective time of the reader found in traditional texts, but a perceived time expressed in the holopoem itself. One does not need to look very far to realize that in fact any hologram (not only holopoems) can have dimensions other than 3, for fractal geometry tells us that there are dimensions in between those numbered with whole numbers, and we have software tools for creating images with fractional dimensions. Fractals teach us to accept the fraction, the passage from one dimension to the next, as a new value in its own right. In this context, Euclidean geometry becomes a part of fractal geometry, since dimension 2 is in between dimensions 1.9 and 2.1, for instance. Holofractals, therefore, can have dimensions other than 3.

In mathematics, being a fractal means roughly being between a given dimension and the next higher or lower one. In art, being a fractal may mean, by analogy, being between the verbal and the visual dimension of the sign. Taking Bense’s analogy a step further, we can conceive of a language - moving and changing in space-time - that would consist of this passage from the verbal code (the word) to the visual code (the image) and vice-versa. The poetic experience is enriched when the viewer or reader sees a work that continually oscillates between text and image.

It is very important to emphasize that not all texts recorded on holographic film are holopoems. It is technically possible, for example, to record a symbolist sonnet on a hologram. Such a sonnet does not become a holopoem simply because it is displayed on holographic film. What defines a holopoem is not the fact that a given text is recorded on holographic film. What matters is the creation of new syntaxes, mobility, non-linearity, interactivity, fluidity, discontinuity, and dynamic behavior only possible in holographic space-time. It must be said that, in the future, even genuine holopoems might not be recorded on holographic film, since digital recording of holograms will become available. Holograms will also one day be scriptable. When that happens, new possibilities will emerge, and holopoetry will lead to other, newer areas of poetic experimentation.

 

2. Fundamentals of Holopoetics

Poetry is an art that uses words as its raw material. Visual poetry enriched the word, giving it physicality on the surface of the paper and extending this physicality to other materials, as in the case of poems made with wood, Plexiglas, glass and metal.

Holopoetry belongs to the tradition of experimental poetry, but it treats the word as an immaterial form, that is, as a sign that can change or dissolve into thin air, breaking its formal stiffness. Freed from the page and freed from other palpable materials, the word invades the reader’s space and forces him or her to read it in a dynamic way; the reader must move around the text and find meanings and connections the words establish with each other in empty space. Thus, a holopoem must be read in a broken fashion, in an irregular and discontinuous movement, and it will change as it is viewed from different perspectives. a

When one reads a conventional text or looks at the world around one, slightly different images are perceived by each eye. But in the reading of a book, newspaper or printed poem, this perceptual process is not evident, nor does it affect what is being read in any fundamental way: what the left eye sees is virtually the same as what the right eye sees. In the case of a holopoem, however, the reading is a synthesis of the two different inputs received by the eyes and is therefore something more complex and intense. This is where the concept of ‘binocular reading’ comes in: we are constantly changing the way we mentally ‘edit’ the text, based on the different inputs taken in during the different fixations of each eye on the letters in space.

The linguistic relation that produces meaning - syntax - is constantly changing because of the reader’s perceptual activity. The holopoem’s ‘perceptual syntax’ is conceived so as to create a mobile signifying system and thus extend its expressive power to encompass time, since the words are not fixed upon a surface but rather float in space.

Holotexts 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. 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.

Language plays a fundamental role in the constitution of our experiential world. To question the structure of language is to investigate how realities are constructed. Holopoems define a linguistic experience that takes place outside syntax and conceptualize instability as a key signifying agent. They blur the frontier between words and images and create an animated syntax that stretches words beyond their meaning in ordinary discourse. Holopoems undermine fixed states (i.e., words charged visually or images enriched verbally) and create a constant oscillation between them.

The temporal and rhythmic organization of holotexts play an important role in creating this tension between visual language and verbal images. Most of the holopoems I created between 1983 and 1993 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.

Holopoetry promotes 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, holopoems 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 create works that develop a genuine holographic syntax.

 

3. Theoretical issues in holopoetry and the readerly experience

Twentieth century visual poetry evolved having the printed page as its basic structuring agent, as a support upon which ink is laid to form the verbal composition. As a physical surface where the poem is inscribed, the white on the page gained meaning and in most cases contrasted as silence with the verbal inscriptions that often resonated as representations of sounds. Once printed, the verbal sign is fixed on the surface and its signification is bound by the rigidity of the page, very much like a line drawn on a canvas. The comparison with painting is not accidental, because both modern poetry and modern art searched for the specificity of their materials simultaneously, leading to non-narrative poetry and non-figurative art. As modern painting moved away from representation becoming abstract, modern poetry moved away from the linear becoming fragmented. Some poets tried to give a new direction to the ancient "figurative poem" ( i.e., a poem in the shape of an object), but this tendency is a minor part of modern and contemporary literary experiments. Even in Apollinaire’s oeuvre, shaped words not always signify straightforwardly the subjects of the shapes they were molded into, creating an ideogrammatic tension between the symbolic [verbal] and the iconic [visual].

Among the linguistic conventions of the West is the left-to-right orientation of the reading process, which is an arbitrary representation of the linear chain of spoken language. This is valid also for the two-dimensional page, which inherited the norm and is read from left to right and from top to bottom. In a sense, the reading from top to bottom follows an ordinary perception of reality, which is regulated by the action of gravity upon elements. A sequence of pages in a book is conventionally read from left to right as well, resembling the chain formed by sequences of words in a sentence. It is impossible not to take into account the limits imposed upon poetic creation by the physical properties of the visual space the poet works with. The poets’ challenge is exactly to disregard conventions and to create new codes, moving language beyond the redundant, the verbose and the ordinary. Modern visual poets distributed words freely on the page, or created self-referential structures, sometimes with permutational reading possibilities between the words in the fixed structure. They printed fragments of words, enhancing their visual nature, or made the word an image in itself, always within the perimeter of the immutable page, or the tangible boundaries of firm and stable three-dimensional materials. The immutability and stability of two-dimensional and three-dimensional surfaces conditioned the signifying spectrum of visual poetry thus far.

In a reaction against fixed structures, holographic poetry creates a space where the linguistic ordering factor of surfaces is disregarded in favor of an irregular fluctuation of signs that can never be grasped at once by the reader. This turbulent space, with bifurcations which can take on an indefinite number of rhythms, allows for the creation of what I call textual instability. By textual instability I mean precisely the condition according to which a text does not preserve a single visual structure in time as it is read by the viewer, producing different and transitory verbal configurations in response to the beholder’s perceptual exploration. The differences between the holopoem and other kinds of experimental poetry are marked by a set of characteristics that work together to destabilize the text, to plunge it into its specificity as written [text] as opposed to graphic representation [of speech], to create a syntax based on fleeting transformations and discrete leaps. 2

As Derrida has suggested, [2] no text can be fully controlled by its author, to whom its inherent contradictions and collateral meanings inevitably escape. The precise positioning of [apparently stable] words on the [inanimate] surface of the page gives author and reader the illusion of control, of mastery and command of the text (and often of the exterior reality it refers to). Holographic poetry tries to exhibit the impossibility of an absolute textual structure; it attempts to create verbal patterns with disturbances that magnify small changes in meaning according to the perceptual inquiry of the reader. For example: a syntactical structure can be created in which one could see twenty or more words occupying the same space without overlapping; a word could also transform itself into another word/shape or vanish momentarily. Letters can collapse and reconstruct themselves or move to form other words in a time-reversal transition. These and all other latent expressive possibilities of holopoetry are unique to its grammar and they are only possible in part because its space, as I create it, is an oscillatory field of diffracting light as opposed to the tangible surfaces of pages and objects. The white on the page which once represented silence is removed and what remains is empty space, an absence of (printing) support which has no primary symbolic value. The vacuous gaps between words and letters do not represent positively absence of sound, because the photonic inscriptions don’t stand essentially for its presence. We are in the domain 3of spatiotemporal writing, four- dimensional writing, where spatial gaps don’t point to anything except for the potential presence of graphemes. The voids are not to be "seen", unlike the white on the page. They are, to take Derrida’s words literally, [3] an interplay of absence and presence.

Needless to say, for the written word AIRPLANE, for example, to refer to [to mean] the vehicle that transports people and objects by air, it must belong to the proper textual and cultural contexts and its letters must be perceived by our senses in the proper sequence. The word that results from the sequence of letters must remain visually constant. In visual poetry, the verbal sign has been subjected to a number of graphicbtreatments that contributed to extend the meaning of words beyond their conventional associations. But once a printed word is sliced, fragmented and/or incorporated into a collage, it cannot escape the immutability of the final composition. c

The dissolution of the solidity of the poetic space, which makes the discontinuous syntax of holopoetry possible, also affects the signifying units of the poem, i.e., the word and the letter. One of the elements of holopoetry, which nevertheless does not necessarily appear in all holographic texts, is what I call fluid sign. It is essentially a verbal sign that changes its overall visual configuration in time, therefore escaping the constancy of meaning a printed sign would have as described above. Fluid signs are time-reversible, which means that the transformations can flow from pole to pole as the beholder wishes, and they can also become smaller compositional units in much larger texts, in which each fluid sign will be connected to other fluid signs through discontinuous syntaxes.

Fluid signs create a new kind of verbal unit, in which a sign is not either one thing or another thing. A fluid sign is perceptually relative. For two or more viewers reading together from distinct perspectives it can be different things at one time; for a non-stationary reader it can reverse itself and change uninterruptedly between as many poles as featured in the text. d

Fluid signs can also operate metamorphoses between a word and an abstract shape, or between a word and a scene or object. When this happens, both poles reciprocally alter each others’ meanings. A transfiguration takes place and it produces in-between meanings that are dynamic and as important in holopoetry as the meanings produced momentarily at the poles. The meanings of in-between configurations can not be substituted by a verbal description, like the word AIRPLANE can be substituted in the proper context by its definition [i.e., "the vehicle that transports people and objects by air"]. Neither can they be replaced by a synonym or a specific word, as gray suggests a specific intermediary position or meaning between black and white.

In holopoetry transient clusters of letters or ephemeral shapes that lay between a word and an image aim to dynamically stretch the poetic imagination and suggest meanings, ideas and feelings that are not possible to convey by traditional means. Holopoetry establishes a syntax of disruptive events; an animated language that evades and deflects interpretation. Holopoetry is not possible without propagating light as the medium for interactive reading/writing. In holopoetry, texts are signifying networks animated by motion scripting and discontinuous word apparitions.

 

4. Writing holopoems

From 1983 to 1987 I pushed the limits of optical holography, writing poems that for the first time introduced in the field of poetics compositional elements such as pseudoscopy, discontinuity, luminous dissolution, three-dimensional juxtaposition, spatial compression, integral animation, color instability, and digital synthesis of impossible spaces. The body of work I developed during this phase was shown in solo and group exhibitions. As a consequence of my search for a turbulent space that is prone to mutability, I began experimenting in 1987 with a new kind of text I call digital holopoetry. Because I write digital holopoems in a process of stereoscopic synthesis, as opposed to the method of optical recording I used for most of my other holopoems, they allow me to manipulate each element of the text with more precision.

The writings techniques I have developed allow me write texts in which the viewer, just by looking at words and letters, dislocates them from their position in a space zone. The unsettling choreography of my previous texts gains a new motion factor in addition to the "quantum leaps" and the optical fusions that occurred before between two or more zones in space. I can now write pieces in which the reader perceives animated fragmentations and actual metamorphosis within a single zone, or I can incorporate these and other new possibilities into hybrid poems that integrate the optical and the digital. With digital holopoems I extend the solubility of the sign to the verbal particles of written language, the letters themselves, widening the gamut of rhythms and significations of the text.

My writing process can be outlined as follows:

  • Generation and manipulation with digital tools of the elements of the text on the simulated space of the computer "world" by means of a raster or vector-based software (this step could also be referred to as the modeling stage).

  • Study and previous decomposition of the multiple visual configurations the text will eventually have.

  • Rendering of the letters and words, i.e., assignment of shades and textures to the surface of the models (texture maps can be invented at will and shadows can be avoided in situations where they would necessarily exist if we were dealing with tangible models).

  • Interpolation, i.e., creation of the animated sequences, which are now stored as a single file on the memory of the computer (this stage could also be referred to as "motion scripting").

  • Exportation of the file to an animation software and editing of the sequences (including post-manipulation of the elements of the text).

  • Frame-accurate sequential recording on film of the individual scenes, which correspond to discrete moments of the text (this can also be done with an LCD screen).

  • Sequential recording of the individual scenes on a laser hologram. 4

  • Final holographic synthesis achieved by transferring the information stored on the laser hologram to a second hologram, now visible in white light. [4]

In this process, film is used only as a temporary storage medium (due to its high resolution). It is intrinsic to the method of film the projection in theaters of one and only one frame at a time. All frames are projected in the same space, one at a time, in a rapid succession. The audience perceives exactly the same frame with both eyes. In three-dimensional film, two frames are projected in the same space at one time. Both frames correspond exactly to the same moment, but from discrete points of view. The audience perceives one frame with one eye, and the other frame with the other eye, thus forming a stereoscopic image. In holopoetry, all frames occupy the same space, all at the same time, and are not projected but suspended in the same space. They are only perceived if the viewer moves relative to the hologram. Frames can correspond to: 1- the same frozen moment or three-dimensional space as seen from different points of view; 2- different moments of an action; 3- completely different images corresponding to disparate spatiotemporal references. These possibilities create new reading and writing strategies.

The writer that works with holography 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.

 

5. Holopoetry and the future of experimental poetics

Holopoetry defines a new domain of poetic exploration where the text is written with the malleable medium of light, where the word is free from surface constraints, where textuality is signifiers in motion. In a holopoem, the verbal phenomenon cannot be dissociated from the spatiotemporal environment of the optical and synthetic hologram.

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 call a holopoem.

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, video, videophones, computers, virtual reality, CDs, CD-ROMs, telepresence, holography, and the Internet. In a literary culture still dominated by print, the author of experimental poetry that can only be read in electronic or photonic media will encounter many problems in trying to reach 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.

 

 

Notes

[1] - Max Bense. "Textos Visuais", in Pequena Estética (São Paulo: Perspectiva, 1975) pp. 176-177.

[2] - Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, p.58, The John Hopkins University Press, translated by G. C. Spivak, Baltimore and London, 1976. Derrida states that the writer "writes in a language and in a logic whose proper system, laws, and life his discourse by definition cannot dominate absolutely. He uses them only by letting himself, after a fashion and up to a point, be governed by the system. And the reading must always aim at a certain relationship, unperceived by the writer, between what he commands and what he does not command of the patterns of the language that he uses".

[3] - Jacques Derrida, Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, The Structuralist Controversy; The Languages of Criticism and The Sciences of Man, R. Macksey and E. Donato, ed., p.64, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1982. Derrida: "Freeplay is always an interplay of absence and presence, but if it is to be radically conceived, freeplay must be conceived of before the alternative of presence or absence beginning with the possibility of freeplay and not the other way around."

[4] - See: IV Whitman, Holopoetry: The New Frontier of Language - An Interview with Eduardo Kac, in Display Holography (Fifth International Symposium), Tung H. Jeong, Editor, Proc. SPIE 2333, pp. 138-145 (1995). For more information, see: Kac, E., Holopoetry and Fractal Holopoetry, Leonardo, Vol. 22, No. ¾, 1989, pp. 397-402; Recent Experiments in Holopoetry and Computer Holopoetry, Display Holography (Fourth International Symposium), Tung H. Jeong, Editor, Proc. SPIE 1600, pp. 229-236 (1991); Holopoetry, Hypertext, Hyperpoetry, Holographic Imaging and Materials, Tung H. Jeong, Editor, Proc. SPIE 2043, 72-81 (1993).

 


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