Karenina.it - Poetry in Phatic Function

(Background: Jason Nelson)





Richard Kostelanetz


As a sensitive person, the artist first observes the world around
him. In his mind he makes conjectures, conceptualizes images
or forms, and then translates his vision into a cognitive,
positive thought. This image is then transferred to some
medium. ... To effectively translate ideas, one must develop
an understanding of the capabilities and limitations of the
medium in which one works, and develop skill with the use of
 one's tools.--Fred Unterseher, et al., Holography Handbook

For more than a decade now, the principal theme of my artistic activity has
been working with language and literary forms in media other than small
printed pages. I have, instead, produced drawings, large graphics,
audiotapes, videotapes, films, photographic sequences and even proposals for
public art, all containing words and/or literary structures such as narrative
(as in photographic sequences). Among my purposes has been the discovery of
alternative possibilities for organizing words and then for "publishing" my
writing, which is to say to do in these media what could not be done in
print. Behind the last thought is my assumption that in transcending the
printed page is one future for Literature. Even though I consider myself less
interested in expressing a particular vision or in exploiting an
idiosyncratic "look" than in exploring these media for literary experiment,
the results invariably reflected earlier poetic ideas of mine, if not
particular poems.
  Since I had no official training in any of these media, most of this work
was produced during residencies at professional installations--at radio
stations, electronic music studios, video production facilities and film
schools; it was produced in collaboration with technicians professional in
these media. My customary way of working involves defining first the nature
of the new medium, then the particular potentialities available at the host
installation and finally the tastes and competences of my technicians. Once
these factors are in mind, I generally favor the technically most optimal
possibilities. For instance, in my very first residency, at WXXI-FM in
Rochester, NY, in 1975, I was introduced to an eight-track tape recorder,
which had just been installed there and had never been used. The machine
itself inspired me to produce an eight-voice realization of a text of mine.
When we discovered that one track of this new machine appeared to be dead, I
coined my motto for such visits: "I'm the visiting artist; I'm here to test
your machinery (or "your technicians")."
  Though I remember clearly the first laser I ever saw, in 1967 at Bell
Laboratories in New Jersey, my recollections of holography are hazier,
probably because little impressed me until a decade later, when I saw a
rotating cylindrical (360-degree) white-light transmission hologram. As the
three-dimensional image suspended within the cylinder was continually
revealing the other side of itself, the impression here was not just
photographic, like too many other holograms I had seen; this was a
three-dimensional representation in time that could not be grasped in a
single viewing. The cylindrical hologram differed as well from a panoramic
photograph, where the camera spins around an axis, rather than, as in the
hologram, focusing upon the axis. The second advance in my holographic awe
came a few years later, when I saw three-dimensional imagery extend not back
from the visible plate, as in most holograms (and three-dimensional
photography before them), but forward to points between the plate and the
viewer's eye. Finally, I continue to remain impressed by the medium's basic
mystery to implant in lucite "a strange pattern that has the capacity to play
back an image under certain conditions."
  With the first discovery in mind, I produced in 1978, during a residency at
the Cabin Creek Center in New York, my first hologram, On Holography, a
rotating cylinder with five syntactically circular statements that pass
endlessly before the viewer's eyes. In each of the statements, the words were
about holography, and the ends were tied to each other to make a continuous
1.) ...holos = complete; gram = message;...
2.) ...representation in depth = hologram...
3.) ...the hologram creates a world of incorporeal activity that exists only
4.) ...the illusion not only of depth but of equal focus to all distances are
characteristics particular to holography which creates...
5.) ...by capturing on photosensitive material the amplitude, the wave-length
and, most important, the phases of light reflected off an object a hologram
reconstructs a three-dimensional image...
Both in form and in their self-referential subject, these syntactically
circular statements about holography echoed the four circles of the visual
poem-manifesto introducing my first collection of visual poems, Visual
Language (1970), in which:
 ...the poetry of life copies...
 ...artistry belies argument dupes...
 ...art creates worlds made entirely from...
 ...the truth of fiction is the power of artifice is...
(or, better yet, reproduce the original poem)
One difference between the circles of this poem and the hologram is that
whereas the language of "Manifestoes" must be read at angles that some of us
find uncomfortable--upside down or sideways--the circular statements of the
hologram could be entirely horizontal. Similarly, whereas the printed poem is
best read from a location perpendicular to the face of it, the circular
hologram lacks fixed perspective, which is to say that it is equally legible
from every side of its stationary base. It became clear to me that, to the
presentation of language, holography offers advantages unavailable on a flat
printed page.
(Illustrate On Holography)
  Once On Holography was realized, I discovered two problems. The first and
most obvious was that I had hardly utilized the medium's capabilities for
creating the illusion of depth. Instead, the words appeared to emerge from
behind an invisible door on the right and then pass across the face of the
cylinder to disappear behind another invisible door, now on the left. While
shorter statements, higher within the hologram, do appear to lie further back
in space, few would notice that, because of the second, more complicated
perceptual problem that must be described in fuller detail.
  I thought initially of stacking the statements into a single pyramid, with
the shortest one on top and the longest one at the bottom; but to fill the
cylinder with only a single rotating image struck me as clumsy (and
unholographic). Were the words at the bottom level of a single pyramid to
move across the viewer's eyes at a legible speed, the upper levels would have
been boringly slow; conversely, to key the motion of words to an upper level
would have necessitated making the bottom levels illegibly fast. I decided
instead that each line should revolve independently, in the ratios of
1:2:3:4, so that statement # 4 (twenty words) would be seen twice for every
rotation made by # 5 (twenty-nine words), and then have # 3 (twelve words) be
seen thrice, and # 2 and # 1 (each four words) be seen four times during each
rotation of the cylinder. (This was realized by having each circle of words
filmed individually on a drum to exactly equal lengths. However, the film of
# 4 was step-printed to omit alternate frames, and then reprinted to equal
the length of # 5. The film of # 3 was step-printed to omit two of every
three frames, and then triplicated; the single film of # 2 and # 1 to omit
three of every four frames, and then quadruplicated. The four films were then
superimposed to make a single continuous film that was then anamorphically
compressed into vertical slivers that comprise the holographic film that
lines the inside surface of the exhibition cylinder. The imagery on this film
becomes apparent only when illuminated from below by a single-filament
  While this restructuring of the holographic representation of five
statements was conceptually very clever, the inadvertent result was a
remarkably unclever illusion (no, delusion). Instead of moving before the
viewer's eyes at different speeds, the five rows appear to move roughly in
unison. (29 is roughly equal to 2 times 20 and 3 times 12.) That means that
viewers initially perceive all five lines as belonging to a single rotating
pyramid, all contrary to fact! Now, of course, if the viewer examined this
closely, he or she would realize that a four-word statement could not
possibly rotate at the same frontal speed as a twenty-nine-word statement.
Likewise, if the viewer made vertical comparisons among the lines, he or she
would notice that whenever the word "holos" appeared in the top (first) line,
a sequence of four different words would appear directly below it in the
bottom (fifth) line. However, few viewers would "read" On Holography that
closely, in part because the tradition of photographic holograms accustoms
them to a more painterly kind of looking. Instead, this hologram offers
visual-verbal experience that must be appreciated in time and is, in that
respect, perceptually closer to film or, of course, literature.
(illustrate with sequence of photos of "holos" in different relationships)
  When On Holography was initially exhibited in a crowded group show, I
noticed that it could scarcely compete with the pseudo-photographs whose
images were quickly recognized, whose ideas were readily grasped. On
Holography not only required more patience literally to be "seen," it posed
perceptual problems that were not immediately apparent. To make its presence
more competitive in the gallery, I decided to add a multitrack audiotape
accompaniment of five voices reciting the same five lines of words repeatedly
and simultaneously at a rate roughly matching the rotational speed of the
hologram, so that viewers could hear in five-voice unison the same words they
see simultaneously in five-line unison. If nothing else, they could hear that
"hologram = representation in depth" occurred far more often than the longest
statement; and I figured perhaps that aural-verbal perception could generate
questions about visual-verbal perception. When On Holography has been shown
along with other work of mine, as in a traveling exhibition Wordsand (1978-),
the audiotape remained an option. (My collaborators in producing On
Holography were Hart Perry and Neal Lubetzky; the audiotape was made in
collaboration with Charlie Morrow.)

 On the most basic level, you don't look at a hologram--you look into it. A
holographic image can project in front of the plate (a real image), in back
of the plate (a virtual image), or it can straddle the plate (an image
plane).--Rosemary H. Jackson, "Through the Looking Glass" (1976)
  To make a second hologram in 1985, I first had to win another residency
competition, this sponsored by the Dennis Gabor Laboratory at the Museum of
Holography for "artists who have had limited or no experience in making
holograms, yet have a strong body of work in a different medium." An
invitation in hand, I decided to work more with the medium's awesome
capability for generating literal three-dimensional experience. Since
holography transcends three-dimensional photography in allowing the viewer to
look literally around and behind a foreground image, my first notion was to
put words behind other words, thus requiring the viewer to move his or her
body up and down, if not from side to side, to find back words that would
complement the front words; for one of my aims was realizing an unfamiliar
kind of reading indigenous to holography. (The trade epithet is "laser
limbo," which differs only in degree from the normal physical activity for
reading--turning the page.) I also thought of working with letters whose
parts (lines) evolved out of each other, so that, say, as you moved to the
left, the left-hand vertical line of an "E" would become the right-hand
vertical line of an "H" while the middle horizontal lines would flow into
each other. One difference between the Gabor Laboratory and Cabin Creek was
that the former had only pure holography, where original images were shot
directly with laser light; there was no intermediate transfer onto film.
  However, the same holographer who gave me that vision of words behind
words, Dan Schweitzer, also showed me how images could be projected forward
to rootless points between the viewer's eye and the hologram's plate and then
how the side parts of this forward-image could be made to fall outside the
viewing field. In a subsequent conversation, the holographer Scott Lloyd gave
me the structure of a two-sided plate, with different images on each side.
Necessarily illuminated from behind, this would become a transmission
hologram, in contrast to a reflection hologram that is illuminated from the
front. Moreover, In requiring illumination from both sides, my two-sided
image would create the illusion, utterly false, that the lamps illuminate the
otherwise clear glass facing them, rather than the plates behind them. When I
came to work with Fred Unterseher, the co-author of the standard Holography
Handbook (1982), we decided to put each set of words on four planes. Here, as
in other media work, I was dependent upon professionals to tell me what the
machinery could do.
  Once I had in my mind this last form of two sets of words on four planes
apiece, the question became how best to fill it with language. In recent
visual poems, I had been using the form of constellations of individual words
that relate to each other in various ways; and that seemed appropriate here.
Which collections of words would be most appropriate? I thought in terms of
antitheses such as "love/hate" or "good/evil" or "white-black," but my biases
toward symmetries found such plus-minus combinations wanting. If one side
were more sympathetic than the other, in prejudicial ways, I could have made
of this unbalance a hologram in which the imagery on the-plus side came
forward, while the other (minus-side) retreated.
  Though I might later use that out-in form, I chose instead to project both
sides forward with an antithesis of equal value: Warm and Cold. Upon those
pegs I wrote thirty-five pairs of words of roughly equal length:
Summer/Winter, Chaud/Froid, Char/Numb, Love/Hate, Devil/Ghoul;
Flammable/Fri|gorific, Eat/Diet, Febrile/Niveous, Mead/Beer, Home/Jail,
Incandesce/Glaciate, Pussy/Putty, Calid/Gelid, Head/Feet, Bonfire/Icecube;
Punctual/Dilatory, Ecstasy/Stasis, Palm/Pine, Reverberate/Evaporate,
Conflagra|tion/Congelation, Erect/Supine, Sultry/Boreal, Knife/Spoon,
Sanguinary/Sanguinity, Leap/Dive, Ginger/Yogust, Bubbly/Sleepy, Right/Left,
Patrimony/Parsimony, Demagogue/Poli|tician, Independence/Subordination,
Seethe/Shiver, Scramble/Leisure, Affect|ion/Obedience, Antinomies/Congruences.
While I wanted through words alone to make one side feel warmer/colder than
the other, I also wanted to use striking words in unfamiliar relationships.
The next idea was to typeset each pair in a typeface unique to it, so that
each word, in addition to contributing to its field, could be connected to a
word in the opposite field, not only in terms of antithetical meaning but
similar typeface. In sequence the four levels on each side looked like this:
  I figured that since the last twenty pairs were verbally the most
interesting (and less obvious), they should go to the back plane; the next
ten pairs should go on the next plane from the back; on the third plane
forward should go the first five pairs; and on the front plane, as far
forward as possible, should go "warm" and "cold." Another idea was that each
of the two front words would be so large, and so far forward, they would
never be entirely visible--parts would fall outside the viewing field. Thus,
if the viewer deciphered the letter "A," he or she would be prompted to move
to the left to find the "W" and to the right to find the "R" and "M." Another
preliminary calculation was to make black letters on an illuminated field,
which would make a shadowgram (that visually echoed the photograms of my
artistic hero Moholy-Nagy).
  To realize the sort of forward projection I wanted, it was necessary to
make a hologram of a hologram. This technique required locating an "image
plane," which would be the level with the greatest illumination. Confronting
the question of where to place it, Unterseher favored the second levels, each
with five words; I insisted that it go to the back plane, as those words
required the most illumination for legibility (in part because they had to be
visible behind other words), but also because within my structure of verbal
values I could allow for the forward planes being increasingly less
illuminated (and less legible). One risk of putting images behind each other
is losing the back row, but one advantage that words have over abstract
imagery, say, is that recognition of a few letters prompts the viewer to find
the rest of the word (and thus move beyond an immediate perception). A second
problem involved the thickness of the front letters, which were initially set
boldface four inches high with scarce space between them. Since we feared
that even with less illumination they would block out the back planes, we
decided to rescreen those letters at 40 % benday dots. However, when that
turned out to lack presense, Samuel R. Delany, to whom Antitheses is
dedicated, proposed increasing their visibility with stips of black tape
along the letters' edges (and actually sat down and started taping!).
  One inadvertent result is that the words on the three front planes have a
peculiar visual-verbal status. As holographic space differs from photographic
and few viewers are accustomed to perceiving objects floating unattached in
space (illustrating the holographic truth that visualized objects exist only
in the eye), these words are not immediately seen. (Indeed, some people
discover much faster than others that words are sharing their space, so to
speak; and a few people won't discover it until a guide physically positions
their head in an appropriate place.) For each plane forward, the letters lose
density, their thick bold lines becoming vaporous (an effect that must be
seen to be believed). My sense is that words partially dematerialized have a
status I have yet to understand. Clearly they require more time to be "read,"
while they individually lose semantic presence (and thus become more
dependent upon others in the field for their communicative value). I also
wonder how many will recognize that every word in one field has a typographic
mate on this other side, for this cross-referencing over space also
transcends photographic perception.
  The two very front words, which are poetically the least interesting, are
perceived initially as lines that flash into the visual field and the eyes
move from side to side. Simply to decipher the individual letters of "warm"
and "cold," the viewer must move his or her eyes and head, refocusing away
from the image plane and then following those flashing lines until they
reveal more letters. (And in the course of such movement discovering yet
other letters, no more than two of which are visible at any time.)
  The fear, of course, is that viewers expecting pseudo-photographs will
never examine these lines; perhaps Antitheses has turned out to be as
difficult as its predecessor. Another result of such extreme dimensionality
is a holographic image that cannot be still-photographed adequately, because
cameras are designed to focus upon a particular level, especially in such
darkness. It would be more effective, but less feasible, to film it through a
succession of focus-changes. Perhaps such nonphotographability (sic) should
be considered a sign of holographic integrity.
  For me as a writer, the principal peril of holography involves set-up time.
If a writer is accustomed, as I am, to having an idea and then realizing it
immediately in words, the painstaking procedures of holography can seem
tedious. The laser, once turned on, takes time to warm up; the plates must be
appropriately positioned. In making a shot, the laser beam must be split into
precise ratios and then routed over a table in the most precise ways.
Exposure meters must check that the entire plane is equally illuminated,
etc., etc. Simply preparing a shot can take an entire evening; and then as
soon as all the parts are appropriately callibrated, the system is subjected
to an episode unique to holography--at least fifteen minutes by itself with
all doors closed to make sure that all ambient vibrations die down, simply
because anything that moves only slightly will show up on the recording plate
as a black hole. The shutter is switched from another room. And then we did
test shots with horizontal fractions of plates before risking a full-sized
  If I had come to dislike shooting film (as distinct from editing) for
requisite set-up times that are too long for my literary temperament,
holography tested my patience yet more. Taking several times longer,
holographic preparation is tolerable, to be frank, if and only if the
worktable conversation is good or the technician allows the writer to go off
and read. Otherwise, no art known to me has posed so much mind-boggling
challenge to me, precisely because it demands so much of my verbal, esthetic
and technical experience.
  Finally, because I chose to make a state-of-the-art image that is best
illuminated by a laser installed in a precise way, I lessened the work's
possible "distribution," to use that publishing term. Even to install it in
my home is a project requiring a professional consultant. Nonetheless, it
would be possible to make a reflection version that, while reducing the
forward depth projection, could go onto walls or even, more appropriate for
me, on the front and back covers of a book's worth of constellation poems.
  Within the context of my poetry, I think Antitheses the best of the
constellations, in part because in three dimensions, with the spatial
experience of language, I can better realize my earlier poetic idea of
complementary words within a single visual frame, as well as my general
purposes of reading in unfamiliar ways and doing with new media what could
not be done in print. One way that this complements and yet surpasses On
Holography lies in revealing the medium's capacities for unusual
verbal-visual experience.


Richard Kostelanetz