MIX 2019: Experiential Storytelling – poetry film meets profiling and the panoptic gaze
MIX 2019: Experiential Storytelling
the personal and political voice of poetry film meets
digital media authenticity, profiling, and the panoptic gaze
Sarah Tremlett, FRSA, MPhil, SWIP
Poetry Filmmaker, Writer/Artist, Researcher, co-director of Liberated Words
Digital media is coming in from the cold. It is setting aside its sorcery, its coded ‘bells and whistles’ grand media installations, and using its powers to listen to human voices, telling their own stories. Fortuitously, the reduced size, single-space MIX 2019 conference (1st–2nd July) fostered a rare conversation between poetry filmmakers (who already have a central place in this quest), media artists, coders, novelists and researchers, surprisingly telling of converging themes from different angles.
This year the conference was also back in its original site (2012), the grand mansion, Corsham Court, home to the Methuen family, with an impressive vista-powered estate designed by English landscape architect Capability Brown. However, the contrast between the setting, the central, beamed ‘barn’ location (and screeching peacocks) and the hot off the press technology before us, seemed perfectly natural. Perhaps the powerful historical, visual and audible presence of our out of the ordinary real environment held its own against the power of the virtual environments and their immersive capabilities. Equally the marriage of technology with historical narratives, and how to narrate them, played a recurring part in many of the presentations.
Selbstverbesserung (self-improvement), Jörg Piringer (2015).
In a world now familiar with online identity reconstruction through ‘cat fishing’ and ‘jacking’ the authenticity of the ‘I’ and the ‘real’ kept reoccurring, whether through immersive or experiential (virtual or augmented) narrative form or collective storytelling, and candidly often through commercial motives (data mining the analytics of personal profiles) and marketing terms such as ‘onboarding’. I can see how money might be made this way; but equally, as Guy Gadney (known for storytelling powered by artificial intelligence with Charisma .ai, and games developer To Play For) observed: ‘Monoliths try to recreate us inside their machines’. And this battle between the self online, as expanding the personal, or simply opening it up for plunder and exploitation, lies at the heart of the debate today. As Josie Barnard (Middlesex University) said of tweeting: ‘Where does your personal life end?’ What are the ethics of memoirs relating personal details, when writers must ‘provide such filters themselves’ and lawyers no longer check information?
Yet whether a reader of a book or a mobile phone (locative environmental experience), or experiencing an agential VR or augmented reality narrative ‘situation’, or in a theatre watching a poetry film, or even enjoying the co-presence with actors of being part of personalized storytelling, at MIX 2019 it seems narratives were concerned to tell or generate live authentic stories. Perhaps this isn’t surprising since, as Guy Gadney noted: ‘Humans view the world through the language of stories’ in all our interactions. But some interactions have a bias: the type of human walking the streets wholly absorbed in their mobile device without fear can be identified as strong, confident, and usually male.
‘Mixers’ could have begun the conference with two workshops: ‘The Productive (and Happy) Academic Writer (Bec Evans, Prolifiko and Chris Smith) or ‘Short and Drawn Out: Collaborative Augmented Reality Drawing’ (Kim Plowright). Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Graduate College Professor John Strachan gave a warm and comprehensive address. As many as 170 Bath Spa University PhD students are based at Corsham Court; and, as the original home of Bath Academy of Art, they possess a sizeable modernist collection; whilst leading British artists such as abstract landscape painter Howard Hodgkin (1932–2017) taught there.
The ethics of storytelling began the day – how can we write about stories ‘outside our area of expertise’ (Nikesh Shukla)? Australian Donna Hancox (Associate Director of the Creative Lab at Queensland University of Technology) expanded on avoiding the depersonalizing role of technology in running community experiential storytelling projects. She noted empathetic approaches are needed when working with vulnerable groups, and seeking authentic voices. The presence of a microphone on a table can cause complete mistrust. It was particularly revealing and touching to note that women in prison missed sounds from their home environments more than anything; especially bird song. She noted that the personal is so important in counteracting disinformation, and changing systems; and that we need to learn from one another on a human level.
Re-Mixing Reality – Fiction in Real-World Situations
The ethics of residencies where fictional characters perform in a real-world narrative or museum collection ‘tricking the public without malice’ (Kit Green) was discussed by Stella Wisdom, of The British Library. Poet, performer and novelist Rosie Garland (University of Manchester) writes allegorical, fantastical novels set in the past, with characters who are similar to real life. She told us about her residency at the John Rylands Library – having a lived experience onsite – and deliberately writing in the first person, not to be ventriloquized.
Jillian Abbott’s (City University of New York) themindfulmouth Instagram project on mindfulness, memory and food, is rich with an Australian’s take (keen eye) on living in the US (and its cultural differences). It includes everything from journalistic information on subjects like Community Supported Agriculture to Easter traditions. Followers click on a food image and find a short narrative, and then comment. However, in recounting her childhood she says she worried about being inauthentic; or being a writer, manipulating followers in a professional way. She wondered if she had redefined her mother (whose cooking replaced affection) for example. ‘Yearning for something, but not want it; something that maybe never existed.’ Gillian noted that home for her was landscape and place. The blueberries of Maine left her disconnected, being alien to her Australian roots. As Rachel Genn (Manchester Metropolitan University) noted: ‘history is not shapely’ quoting Hilary Mantel (www.theparisreview.org, no. 226). As writers, we cannot iterate the same event as it happened. Telling or retelling requires a (or multiple) narrative trajectory(ies).
The Real Heightened: Site-Specific
Sound and locative media artist Duncan Speakman (UWE Bristol) began by telling us about the organ in Halberstadt, Germany, where composer and artist John Cage’s (1912–1992) composition ‘As Slow as Possible’ will sound for 639 years. Speakman introduced the Only Expansion project, an augmented walk ‘that remixes the immediate sound environment of the audience and combines it with field recordings from remote locations’ accompanied by evocative music. Comprised of a guidebook and noise-cancelling headphones with binaural mikes on the outside (the sound from which is fed through bespoke mobile devices before being fed back to the headphones), you can also respond to prompts in a location: ‘Find something that has been on this earth longer than you’. Ultimately you are within a blended, timeless, augmented personalized experience.
Similarly, the commercial Fantasia Express (in conjunction with Virgin trains), presented by Alastair Eilbeck (Liverpool University), uses locative media, mixed reality and a prototype mobile application to deliver interactive augmented reality storytelling content to train passengers; including noting historical events that have happened on the journey. Not wholly philanthropic, this is also a method to deliver Digital Out of Home (DOOH) marketing content (an area which is expanding in relation to marketing through video screen technology).
In stark contrast my family history novel Tree (about my family’s working relationship to land and place) encompasses research combining personal and public facts (gathered over 25 years), geopoetic field notes and poetry films; and is an ‘old school’ approach, but geared towards online access as well as print. In my presentation, I read from a chapter, and showed Paper River (2019) www.sarahtremlett.com about my great grandfather’s paper mill in Devon that I visited, re-experiencing events that happened there during the First World War – as both public and personalized history.
In utilizing historical information about a single individual, Lisa Gee (Kings College, London) and Michael Kowalski (The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge) spoke about HayleyWorld a digital biography (platform and player interface) of essayist, poet and amateur doctor William Hayley (1745–1820). Here, (perhaps to bring it to life) Gee felt she needed to change the original text to the first person. Equally she noted ‘You can’t set out a person’s life as it is lived, because it gets boring in the last third’.
On a much broader (and clearly financially remunerative) scale, Nicole Basaraba (Trinity College, Dublin) spoke about remixed transmedia for non-fiction genres, specifically online tourist and cultural heritage sites across multiple platforms. These offer opportunities for data mining, remixing (scraping) and producing multimodal often marginal proto-stories (fragments of stories) reverse engineered into narrative under a single ‘mothership’, where you choose the narrative you want to explore as an interactive web doc.
Rachel Genn’s (Manchester Metropolitan University) work began in neuroscience, but she expands upon her research findings in creative and often absurdist ways. Also concerned with the past and its effect on the present, her project on regret entailed a gallery installation entitled the ‘National Facility for the Regulation of Regret’ (2015) and another centred on a ‘Regret-o-Tron’ (2016). This was ‘a reinvention of digital psychological testing ostensibly uncovering an individual’s propensity to regret’. She is currently working on VR/binaural storytelling (WHISPERS) in development with Human Studio, Sheffield.
Freja Gyldenstrom presented the historical development of engaging immersively and interactively with stories since the 1960s (although she noted that immersion in historical storytelling began as early as pagan rituals). Beginning with ‘the author dies tragically in France’ in 1967 and tabletop fantasy role playing game Dungeons and Dragons, she moved through the 80s, past the Matrix, to the 00s–10s. ‘Retrofuturism and the Real Virtual Reality’ sitting alongside augmented reality games and social media narratives.
Through combining ethics with VR and avatar generation, in ‘The Inclusive Forest’ project, Italian Enrica Lovaglio Costello (Cal Poly and UCSB) demonstrated how she uses multimedia, and interactive experimentation with personal data such as biometrics, pulse rate etc. to investigate how to identify stigma and bias in society. ‘The participants of the art-based VR experience first explore a surreal digital forest, then collaborate through stories, which demand quick associations and decisions, while we collect their biometric data and time of reactions. This project’s innovation resides in the unique combination of a game-like, non-threatening, artistic VR experience … with exploring emotions such as compassion and empathy.’ She notes: ‘We are watched and judged which is important in our lives’.
It’s Your Story(ies): How do you want it (them) delivered?
David Millard and Callum Spawforth (both University of Southampton) discussed story making with multiple players. Multiplayer Interactive Narrative Experiences (MINEs) and the platform StoryMINE offer opportunities for multiple players to experience distinct narratives (multiplayer differentiability) whilst their actions influence the storylines of both themselves and others (inter-player agency). Intriguingly, this also allows two readers to co-create a historical past and affect decisions through shared agency.
Richard A. Carter (University of Roehampton) and Jenna Ng (University of York) spoke on Wayfaring in Time – the Ambient Storytelling of Wandering Games, inspired by work conducted as part of the Ambient Literature project. They discussed the way that narrative construction changes when emerging from virtual environments and ambient storytelling; where ‘evoking time’ is dominant, as well as ‘becoming, transience, rhythms, moods and reflective wandering’. How can such narratives be compared with the three-act structure of traditional storytelling based on conflict and resolution? Such questions are also very familiar to poetry filmmakers.
Sarah Ciston (University of Southern California) gave us a performance presentation that explored how our bodies and our data merge with technologies. How much are we, as both author and audience, becoming or made by the machines that produce us; where does the personal end? She demonstrated writing with self-tracking data recording her body, and ‘ladymouth: Anti-Social-Media Art as Research’ – a chatbot that ‘tries to explain feminism to misogynists on Reddit’. In this way, the chatbot ‘I’ is part social warrior, using one stage removal to expose the mental processes behind the politics of abuse. ‘The chatbot responds with quotations from feminist theorists and then logs its conversations’ which Ciston incorporates into writing, performance, and video art’. Ciston aims to reveal the risks online for anyone ‘perceived as female, queer, non-binary or trans, not white, or otherwise ‘other’’.
R. Lyle Skains (Bangor University) wasn’t able to attend, but her presentation focused on utilizing digital ebooks for the purposes of writing and designing hypertext fiction. She is specifically interested in how to gain remuneration for the work, particularly when examining the commercial ebook market largely controlled by Amazon.com.
Matt Hayler (University of Birmingham) drew on Kate Pullinger’s Breathe and Duncan Speakman’s It Must Have Been Dark By Then, (from the AHRC-funded Ambient Literature project) to explore how Ambient Literature entangles the reader with texts, tools, technologies, and with flows of time between histories and the present. The storyworld and real world blur, but also indicate the importance of narratives of identity and place in the real world.
For a VR artist working in Hollywood, Sunny Teich (Victoria University of Wellington) who interestingly ‘never makes things in real time’, told us Hollywood directors make the assumption that ‘photorealism equals believability’. In VR story telling she seeks to overcome a clunky tension between technology and story, between immersion and interactivity, and obtain what she calls deeper presence – closer to authentic experience.
Aste Amundsen is a Fellow of Immersion with the South West Creative Technology Network and creator of theatrical storytelling for live, personalized, immersive experiences such as The Apocalypse Gameshow. She described her impressive start-up – Computer Aided Theatre – which ‘builds a platform for data-augmenting live, actor-to-audience interaction and innovates human-centred interaction design’. Data gathering, or profiling-for-personalization is central to this and she has worked with clients across the cultural, retail, and festival markets. ‘Have you got what it takes to be a protagonist?’
Post-dramatic theatrical practitioner Professor Sandra Gattenhof and Nathan Sibthorpe (both Queensland University of Technology) discussed Crunch Time (2018) a ‘transmedia dinner’ project by Counterpilot using medial interfaces, about the discomfort of Democracy in 2016, with Trump, Brexit, and the rise of the silent majority. Moving beyond token engagement with audiences, this work is a performative dinner party designed to model the processes of democracy.
‘Seated around a projector-mapped dining table, participant diners use interactive tools to vote for every ingredient used in an elaborate meal. Viewed via live-feed video from a nearby kitchen, a guest chef prepares real food in response to demand.’ Gattenhof noted whereas old theatre is didactic with a script, post-dramatic theatre has a text and suspension of ascribed meanings (maybe many potential outcomes), but importantly where the audience have co-presence, or an ‘energy exchange’ as part of the work.
Breathe, Kate Pullinger.
Appropriately, at the very heart of locating the contemporary ‘I’ within narratives lies MIX co-director Professor Kate Pullinger’s (Bath Spa University) seminal Breathe – a ghost narrative for young adults as a ‘browser-based book made for mobile phones’. Breathe centres on the story of Flo, who talks to ghosts, and particularly her dead mother Clara. Activated through Wi-Fi, the narrative alters according to the reader’s location. Through picking up personal information that becomes part of the story (i.e. place, weather, time, even ‘seeing your bedroom’), the ghosts uncannily ‘haunt’ the reader in the same way that Flo is haunted; providing an unsettling panoptic gaze. This is achieved through APIs – application programming interfaces – published by Visual Editions with Google Creative Lab and in association with the Ambient Literature research project. Here the standard concept of ghost story meets individual environments, profiling and data gathering. A story tailored to the self, and providing a different experience for each reader.
Ultimately, on a cautionary note, whilst Google’s methods of gathering and sharing data might be applicable (or similar) to many in these presentations, Guy Gadney also warned that Google has been allegedly scanning over 25,000,000 in-copyright titles, without applying for copyright. Apparently, the Authors Guild took them to court (which lasted seven years), with a final undisclosed settlement. Becoming visible in ‘wild west’ (Barnard) cyberspace is not an innocent exchange, it is a bargain. The joy of being authentic enables us to tailor extraordinary narrative experiences, but there are also far greater consequences than we can ever predict.
Thomas Zandegiacomo del Bel
It was a very special to see Thomas Zandegiacomo del Bel (artistic director of long-running ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival) in the UK at MIX. He gave a talk and also curated a screening of European poetry films, alongside British poetry films selected by Lucy English (available for viewing throughout the conference). In introducing ZEBRA he noted that ‘the first ZEBRA in 2002 received over 600 competition entries from 35 countries, and now receives 1200 from over 90 countries’. He went on to give a brief overview of the history of poetry film: ‘directors such as Germain Dulac (1882–1942) or Man Ray (1890–1976) used the non-narrative structures of the poems by Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) or Robert Desnos (1900–1945) in their films to create impressive images and experimental films’. And he pointed out that: ‘L’Invitation au Voyage (1927) by Dulac is a timeless interpretation of Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’’. Zandegiacomo del Bel also emphasized the importance of Ukranian-born American experimental filmmaker Maya Deren (1917–1961) in developing the avant-garde in America in the 1940s and 1950s. He then presented a selection of poets and filmmakers with different approaches to narrative in poetry film.
Award-winning British animation director Tim Webb is a senior tutor on the animation programme at the Royal College of Art, and his poetry film 15th February (1995) with poem by Peter Reading, won the first main prize at ZEBRA 2002. Webb describes the poem which mixes stop-frame, live action and drawn animation as: ‘Love gone wrong in 294 cuts. Symbolism and sadism meet live action and stop motion in this tale of rhythmic rejection and its aftermath’. The poem, by Peter Reading, reproduces the loss of coherent sentence structure that we feel when emotionally overwhelmed, or with a ‘lyrical ego’ thwarted. Zandegiacomo del Bel noted Webb matched ‘the torrent of words with a quick change of images’ which accelerate into nonsense towards the end, accompanied by time-lapse ‘to respond to the leaps of the poem’. It was clear how the obsessive ego in the verbal narrative was reflected in Webb’s visuals. ‘Tim Webb responds with a subjective camera. Just as the perception of the lyrical ego shifts in the poem, so too do the images in the film change’. Equally Webb uses more and more animations ‘until the real world has disappeared’. Zandegiacomo del Bel further explained that Reading’s book Diplopic means ‘pertaining to double vision. Every subject is treated from two sides. The funny and the ghastly are symbiotic’. This film truly conveys the dark side of infatuation.
Dutch filmmaker Taatske Pieterson was the winner of the ZEBRA prize for Experimental Film Poetry in 2006, for the film One Person/Lucy. Taken from the poem ‘One Person’ by Pieterson, it centres on the actress Lucy Gold. The spoken text in the short film is based on historical facts, worldwide statistics and personal statements collected from the internet. She manipulates representation to create ‘images of an event that never actually occurred’. Zandegiacomo del Bel noted that her film ‘reproduces the rhythm and content of the poem in a very sophisticated editing sequence and with technical gimmicks. She changes from a close-up to long shots; zooming in and out quickly … sometimes only patterns are recognizable (which become symbols). The person or the victim disappears and becomes just a number. The volume of the film increases to the same extent, so that the spoken word sounds like a drumbeat.’ He noted that the text-on-screen is a ‘poem of numbers’ where people who have lost their lives are mentioned, but it ‘becomes clear they do not touch us’ being an anonymous mass.
Alice Lyons and Orla Mc Hardy
Orla Mc Hardy (who spends her time between Ireland and the USA) is a freelance animation director with a background in fine art. Alice Lyons is a poet born in the USA and living in Ireland, with an interest in bringing poetry to new contexts and media. Zandegiacomo del Bel discussed their animated poetry
film The Polish Language (2009) including poetry by Lyons with fragments of poems by Tadeusz Różewicz (1921–2014), Zbigniew Herbert (1924–1998) and Wisława Szymborska (1923–2012). The poetry film ‘pays homage to the revitalization of poetry in the Polish language in the 20th century. Using hand-drawn, stop-motion, time-lapse and computer techniques, the poem unfolds onscreen, with typography as a key visual element. Its visual style is loosely based on underground publications in Poland in the 1970s and 1980s, known as “Bibuła”. A chorus of voices sampling poems in Polish, woven together with original music by London-based sound designer Justin Spooner, combine to create a powerful score’ (Poetryfilmkanal, 2015). This animation plays with different typographies, which are accompanied by a voiceover and music. Zandegiacomo del Bel notes that, similar to Pieterson and Reading, Lyons plays with language – the Polish language. He said ‘she brings this language closer to the reader using very beautiful metaphors’:
A poultice of sliced onions on the throat
may help you speak it.
Cats are known to rub up against its sibilance.
Crush a cherry and a beet to arrive at its colour:
If that fails to convince, make a soup.
Norwegian filmmaker, animator and designer Kristian Pedersen has produced animated poetry films in collaboration with the small press Gasspedal, publishers Gyldendal, and the National Library. Kristian was awarded the Goethe Institute’s Film Prize at ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival in 2014. Zandegiacomo del Bel noted that his animations are partly reminiscent of works by German-American Oskar Fischinger (1900–67) and his ‘absolute films’, Rudi Klemm (1904–55), Lotte Reiniger (1899–1981), and others; as well as the play of pure forms, colours and shapes of Hans Richter’s (1888–1976) Rhythmus 21 (1921). Pedersen likes ‘how animation may convey or illustrate while maintaining some space for a reading experience’.
Zandegiacomo del Bel discussed the poetry film The Pipes (Pipene in Norwegian) with poem by celebrated Norwegian poet Øyvind Rimbereid, where the title means both organ pipes but also chimneys. Pedersen notes ‘Pipene is an ode to the industrial and cultural history of Stavanger, a city that thrived for a century on the canning industry before it shifted to the oil industry’. Pedersen’s films are often minimal, and visually restrained. Here delicate, pale square shapes and cubes (apparently referring to labels) create a humorous dance, alongside pipe sounds. Pedersen states of his minimal ‘non-representative visuals’ or ‘subtle abstractions’: ‘To introduce a visual and animated language, should sometimes be taken in gentle steps, to avoid suffocating the film. Too many levels of expression in one place can fill in all the blank spaces so nothing is left for the imagination’ (Naschert, 2015).
I attended Pedersen’s talk and exhibition at ZEBRA 2014, where Rimbereid also gave a reading of organ poems. This was movingly accompanied by an old silent-film organ, situated in what was then ZEBRA’s home location –The Babylon Cinema in Berlin.
Zandegiacomo del Bel observed that ‘Pedersen establishes a connection between the content of the poem, the atmosphere and the type of reading by relating the colours and forms to the harmonium sounds’. For me this is very evident when the line ‘a faint, but tense tone from the trap string’ is balanced visually with long lateral shapes that reverberate into the distance.
Zandegiacomo del Bel then presented the New Zealand filmmaker, designer and playwright Welby Ings. Each of his films deals with traumatic and socially marginal issues, often reflecting homosexuality, children and dark, small town psyches.
Boy (2004) is an unusual story of a young male prostitute in a New Zealand village who struggles to expose the truth behind a fatal accident. Munted (2011) is a story about an accusation of paedophilia and its terrible consequences. Sparrow (2016) is the lyrical story of a small boy who believes he can fly. However, his life is overshadowed by discovering the truth behind the legend of his grandfather who died a hero in World War Two.
Boy is set around a gay rent boy who exposes the truth about the death of a girl in a hit and run accident. Without dialogue, Ings makes palpable the harsh, brutal, claustrophobic chauvinism and sexual violence of a small town in New Zealand, but includes occasional interjections from his poem ‘Flightless Angels’. ‘In the silence of my childhood there were angels’. The poetic text appears at random moments in small, poignant phrases ‘my mother died of …’ and the film also includes the New Zealand language of ‘bogspeak’ (or parley) used when cruising for sex in public toilets.
Ings is highly visually literate, and uniquely doesn’t write scripts first, but produces numerous drawings which then contextualize the drama and characters within a certain type of atmosphere and texture. Framing and colour feature, alongside a soundscape that switches from background sounds to almost music video narrative. As Thomas said this is ‘intensified storytelling’; where we seem to move from memorable framed image to memorable framed image in slow and concentrated vignettes, encapsulating dramatic points in the narrative. Symbolic images of friendship and strength include strange dolls which signify as ‘rejected pieces of other people’s lives’ – things ‘bound by tradition and silence’.
Like Boy, Erlking (2015) by Swiss animator Georges Schwizgebel from the poem Erlkönig by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) is also without dialogue and centres on a young child’s point of view as he is carried by his father, riding through the forest. He thinks he sees the King of the Fairies who, with a huge mask-like moon face is both fascinating and frightening at the same time. The fabular scenario is entirely expressed through naive, coloured animations directly painted onto the film stock. These are combined with a sophisticated ‘drone’s eye view’ to add a lyrical rhythm to the horse and rider. The dream-like setting and illustrative looseness of the imagery are counterpointed with music composed by Franz Schubert and rewritten by Franz Liszt as a solo piano version. Zandegiacomo del Bel noted: ‘With skilful effects like morphing, the animation flows like the music. The result is an extremely harmonious flow of image and sound’.
Belgian visual artist and filmmaker Jan Peeters and Belgian poet Paul Bogaert have collaborated on a number of highly experimental films. In Peeters’ ‘iconotextual’ works, he ‘merges typographic texts and moving images (with emphasis on filmic images) to form visual-textual unities of content, which cannot be categorized as either pure image or pure text. He does this without focusing necessarily on certain implicit elements of mainstream film, such as narration, acting or characters’. Zandegiacomo del Bel said: ‘Paul Bogaert and Jan Peeters work with very unconventional narrative structures. The poems sometimes appear as a dialogue between fishes, sometimes as a Power Point lecture. Thus, they break the superordinate narrative strand, so that the viewer has to orientate himself again and again in the text. This is what makes their films so unique’.
He screened the humorous, succinct, text-based Disaster Movie whose content sums up the genre in just three consecutive words, with arrows: LIES – CONFLICT – CATASTROPHY followed by a blue wash effect that takes us back to the beginning again, to be repeated over and over. Through contesting narrative forms Peeters and Bogaert create humour out of narrative itself. I would say that this video poem is a text-based metanarrative on narrative construction. In other words, the narrative of this video poem is metanarrative!
Moving poetry forward in terms of advancing the possibilities of concrete text itself are Norwegian Ottar Ormstad and Jörg Piringer from Austria. Ottar Ormstad is known for his digital conceptual abstract works with text (demonstrating aspects of Goldsmith’s ‘uncreative writing’), usually premiered in venues devoted to literature in programmable media (digital or electronic literature). Ormstad says of his way of creating telefonkatalogdiktet (the phone-book poem) from a book of concrete poetry (Samlaget, 2006): ‘When reading (!) the phonebook of Oslo, I had picked out more than a thousand family names on a very subjective, poetic basis. By ordering them after numbers of letters and syllables, I have created different structures and pictures. This was possible by the use of the font New Courier that gives all letters the same space on the line (monospace), just like old typewriters did. Courier was designed for IBM in 1955, and released without copyright’ (Ormstad, 2017). The video poem Ottaras: Bråten (2018) based on the phonebook poem, was also part of the continuous poetry film screening (see on).
Zandegiacomo del Bel introduced Ottaras: Long Rong Song (2015) (based on Ormstad’s Audition book, with Herald Gothic font) and working with Russian composer Taras Mashtalir and Russian director Alexander Vojjov. Here, sound-based language poetry seems to be somehow connected to the shapes on screen, however the subjective is absent. Ormstad reads a cycle of five poems, made of four letters of an artificial language system which he created, where meaning may or may not be apparent. In
contrast YellowFlowerPower (2017) which uses text as ‘a letter carpet‘ of different (untranslated) song titles and slogans from the 1960s, is clearly a more personalized narrative. Collaborating with artist Margarida Paiva, his subjective approach is further enhanced by photographs, for example of sculptures by Gustav Vigeland, images of flowers, or his photo of Mick Jagger. It begins in Paris 1968, without sound, then water, then a jaunty extemporized piano with yellow flowers and finally the soundtrack becomes more abstract and complex.
Viennese media artist Jörg Piringer’s workhttps://joerg.piringer.net/ is at the forefront of combining poetry with social media and interactive systems. His ‘insta visual poetry’ for Instagram comprises 30 animated Instagram visual poetry videos featuring animated letters without sound. His Tiny Poems bring concrete minimal poetry to mobile devices like Apple Watch, iPhone and iPad. ‘The pieces are optimized for the screen of the Apple Watch and show short and dynamic texts for the wrist. The poems reflect time and vanity, and change constantly according to continuously passing time’. His work brings poetry back to the world of media, but for the individual. In i/mine/my/me Piringer has taken our obsession with the ‘self’ to the extreme. Zandegiacomo del Bel elaborated: ‘collecting information over a period of one month about his own thinking, communicating in the extended electronic living data space … On the surface the project is about him and his movements in the virtual and real world, but at the same time trends like quantified self, big data, self-improvement and social networks are made transparent and tangible. He is only the anchor point; the narrative of his biography is replaced by the narrative’.
Selbstverbesserung (self-improvement), Jörg Piringer (2015)
Piringer’s work tractatus infinitus VR is a poetic, audio-visual hallucination inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus logico-philophicus in virtual reality. ‘Fly through the acoustic and visual echoes of the literary traces of Wittgenstein’s logic terms, philosophy and typographic landscape … listen to the eerie soundscape that surrounds them. This app is best viewed with Google Cardboard and other 3D mobile virtual reality headsets’ (Piringer). In mnasir (2015) each letter ‘represents and manipulates a live recorded sound snippet of Piringer’s voice. It is visual noise poetry improvisation’ (Piringer) where letters fly back and forth, as if the frame of the image is solid, and the language is both concrete and abstract. In ‘mnasir’ I feel it is as if the letters themselves (along with the buzzing and whirring of a fractured soundscape) are trying to make sense, and just cannot arrange themselves in the correct order. We are waiting for meaning, even chance meaning to happen; and of course, we end with the letter ‘I’ on its own, but repeated over and over.
Whilst Piringer’s work is often highly humorous, observing the ridiculous ways we conduct our lives, he exposes serious questions regarding our cyberspace monoliths: ‘Who controls and regulates the algorithms that control the internet services? … Which political and social attitudes are coded by the choice of source texts for self-learning programmes? Can there even be objective algorithms?’
Zandegiacomo del Bel summed up: ‘Poetry films do not have uniform narrative structures. With each new technology, filmmakers and artists respond differently to the written word. They take up the forms of modern poetry and transform them into moving images. The filmmakers respond to the renunciation of rhymes and verses or the use of ‘unlyric’ language elements (technical language, everyday language), condensed language (neologisms)’. Or ‘the combination of concrete and abstract elements or coded language and new visual language (metaphors) with cinematic elements and the mixing of genres: animation, feature film, experimental film and documentary film; or with new technical elements such as morphing or digital effects. Modern poetry tries to achieve maximum impact with a minimum of linguistic material. This is also often the case for poetry films, which achieve maximum effect with a minimum of visual material.’
When asked where he thought poetry film would go next, Zandegiacomo del Bel ventured that artists such as Ormstad or Piringer were moving more towards the interactive and media installation, or 360-degree filmmaking. He also noted that the genre would never be exhausted or saturated, there would always be room for new forms and variety.
Poetry Film Panel
Typographic designer Jane Glennie, who is known for flicker-based poetry films, presented her work with the genre, describing her practice and noting historical films by American experimental filmmakers Tony Conrad – The Flicker (1966) and Paul Sharits’ – Word Movie (1966). The flicker technique depends on hundreds of still images or photographs that become a very fast sequence of discrete images (25 per second). For example, her forty-second Blue Flash Flash (2017) – a poem to be read in one breath, by British poet Julia Bird (about the moment a child learns the word ‘Octopus’), utilized 625 images in its intense and brief delivery. Such condensed impact and novelty, both by poet and filmmaker meant Lucy English and I judged it a finalist in Poole Poetry Film competition.
Films discussed included Being and Being Empty (2018) – 37 seconds; Moss with poem by Natalie
Whittaker – 1:12; Glitter (2018) 1:23 (on being both a glittery dreamer and being yourself attuned to reality) co-written with Lucy English for The Book of Hours; and also Letter to Anyone who is Listening (2019) 1:19, screened as part of the British poetry film screening (see on). Glennie thinks that in non-flicker films there is often ‘too much visual potency’ and as a result we aren’t ‘listening to the text’. She also says that viewers can’t quite tell the meaning in flicker films, and are subconsciously (or subliminally) approaching images more conceptually, like we do text on a page. She thinks the technique is so successful because she has created ‘a fusion of text and meaning that video poetry strives for’.
Mary McDonald, Natasha Boskic, Mohamad Kebbewar
Canadian multimedia artist Mary McDonald, Serbian-born poet Natasha Boskic and Syrian poet Mohamad Kebbewar have been working together on a poetry film and AR project On the Margin of
History (2019) that expresses thoughts about the similar horrific war-torn fates of Syria and Serbia. It begins with shadows on a wall, the initially ‘normal’ background sounds of a bell and traffic, and then a sudden interjection of gunfire. Kebbewar ‘On the margin of history, time is over for my generation / Play no more, think no more’ … The wall begins to peel like turning a page in history; and still, fragmented images and photographs that twist and turn float steadily across the screen, carrying the memories of lives with them. Boskic ‘It started with a boring evening after basketball practice, but turned into a dark sky with shiny orange balloons / all TV channels merged into a single message, our country is in a state of war’.
Then the poets’ words alternate, as if fusing together in the pain and suffering: Boskic ‘How long do we need to stay here?’ Kebbewar ‘One more bomb blast throughout the city …’ We are made to see from the horrifying point of view of the victims. Boskic ‘There is no language to explain the logic of how that man in the plane can see us as dots and x’s on his map’… ‘holding two little hands in mine with sweaty palms’. Gradually text echoes individual spoken words, such as ‘peace’. Through oral and visual symbolism, such as the use of layering, time lapse, double exposure and hyper lapse, the film generates metaphors of fracture, destruction and loss. This project is also available as an AR exhibit consisting of ‘a mosaic of stills. When viewed with the AR app on a smartphone, the stills become short video clips from the video poem. These fragments explore the surreal experience of displacement’. As Mary says, ‘you stop the progression of the film to hold on to one moment’. This concept ratifies the sense that in a war zone, you must constantly be aware that each moment could be your last.
British poet Chaucer Cameron (Poetry Film Live) spoke about the Wild Whispers (2018) project, based on her poem ‘Frog on water’ with 12 poetry films in ten languages. Centred on ideas of connection and disconnection, adaptation, translation and mutability of form, the poem effectively combines loss of both an environment but also innocent childhood. Chaucer showed the first, sublime version by Helen Dewbery including an instant Polaroid camera. She noted that sometimes the translations became too long, but she had to let it grow through organic development.
In the version made in New Mexico, filmmaker and editor Sabina England – a deaf Bihari/South Asian American included Navajo and American sign language alongside English. She made a parallel between the plight of Native Americans and the plight of all refugees today. The final film in the collection was Dave Bonta’s (Moving Poems) erasure-based Sea Change – removing words as a metaphor for the sea eroding the low-lying coastal regions of the USA. For me this final poetry film is like a moving version of the visual ocean-referencing poem ‘Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard’ (1897) by the French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé.
I gave the next presentation on Paper River (2019) www.sarahtremlett.com reading a chapter from Tree (a geopoetic ‘novel’) about my family’s working relationship to place, comprising factual research, poetic field notes and screening a poetry film. This particular film is about events that happened at my great grandfather’s paper mill during World War One and is part of 25 year’s research into family history, as mentioned earlier. I include further details on this project in the British Poetry Film screening later on.
Poetry Film Screening
European Poetry Films
It feels as if Thomas Zandegiacomo del Bel deliberately chose studies of human emotion in the first four films for the separate screening. Firstly, we are presented with our deepest fears, followed by concrete visual text humour, then gentle line drawings and fractured, surreal figures expressing in different ways the human as part of our surroundings.
Die Angst des Wolfs vor dem Wolf (The Wolf Fearing the Wolf) (2014) is a film by German photographer and cinematographer Juliane Jaschnow and German poet Stefan Petermann. ‘Blood-red light is flickering. A howling in the void. The past becomes an armour. No matter which side you take: you only lose with staying who you are’. In a short, but heightened space of time, a sense of dislocation and disturbance in the darkness is punctuated at unpredictable moments with a half-formed flash of a red face or body. The resulting images remind me of Francis Bacon’s (1909–92) raw portraits, except with the increased tension of the close or imagined unknown; and a low, visceral, soundscape, like a raised heartbeat. Significantly, the poet begins speaking once the flash images have ended, generating a palpable sense of having just experienced them.
Selbstverbesserung (self-improvement), Jörg Piringer (2015) is a very funny text-based video from the media poet Jörg Piringer about exercise and improving the body. ’15 fat burning foods with negative calories’; ‘I swear I will improve myself. Good better best.’ Letters float around the screen, then form a silhouette of white letters against a black background of a man doing knee bend exercises: up and down, up and down. In this image, I can see reflections of a similar technique (using positive and negatives of a crowd) in Combat de Boxe (Boxing Combat) (1927) by Belgian film director Charles Dekeukeleire (1905–71) and poet Paul Werrie (1901–74).
It is the strained, repetitive beat of his recitations to improve, made in time with the knee-bends, that creates the humour. The relentlessness self-willing: ‘I have the power’, as letters float across the screen, symbols of otherness, of the life that is playing with him, demanding more and more that he keep up with it. We sense that an invisible authority is watching (‘panopticon’ gaze, Bentham c. 1791). Ultimately the word ‘I’ becomes a meaningless repetition, a stuck record, that disappears in a sea of letters. For me, this film conveys so clearly both the cyberpsychology of control, whilst also mimicking self-help books such as the early and strangely appropriate Psycho-Cybernetics (1960) by Maxwell Maltz.
In Leerstelle (Vacancy) (2016) by German animator Urte Zintler and poem by Hilde Domin, the joint forces of movement and stillness become a central metaphor in the problematic search for ‘home’: ‘One must be able to move but also be still as a tree: as the trees have rooted themselves in the ground, as we stand fixed, despite the landscape pulls away.’ Line drawings of everyday life are multiplied over and over as faces and shapes make new vibrating patterns. It is as if we are all connected lines that interweave, and ultimately, like the animation, become particles that float in never-ending rhythms.
Leerstelle (Vacancy) was followed by a more surreal and visually fractured way of examining the moving body – Marchant Grenu (Walking Grainy) (2013)
This poetry film by inspiring French artist and inventor Francois Vogel combines a distorted, experimental lens, paired with Belgian poet and painter Henri Michaux’s (1899–1984) poem with inner vision-like properties. The result is an absurdist, distended ‘hall of mirrors’ image, which makes kaleidoscopic patterns of streets and the human body. Despite the visual difference from Leerstelle in both cases, the body becomes part of the patterning of our environment, losing the androcentric, myopic eye, and defined object/subject boundaries.
The screening now turns to abstract ‘landscape’ and one of the most minimal, animated poetry filmmakers – Norwegian Kristian Pedersen (see earlier poetry film The Pipes). In the poetry film Norangsdalen (2010) (from the eponymous poem by Norwegian poet Erlend O. Nodtvedt) about a landslide damming a river in Norangsdalen and flooding a farm and forest, the visuals are surprisingly reflective and abstracted. Pedersen’s familiar ‘bouncing’ boxes of coloured, pale blue and green squares (and spheres) shift to make different patterns, symbolizing the unstoppable change of landscape: ‘but grass can swim’.
(No) We, I, Myself and Them? (2017) is from the poem ‘Massacre’ by Chinese author, reporter and critic of the Communist regime Liao Yiw. With film by German digital media artist Christin Bolewski the narrative explores the relationship between the individual and the political landscape. Beginning with ‘floating particles’ coming towards the viewer, it uses contemporary and historical documentary footage recorded at Tianamen Square. As multiple screens appear (indicating intense surveillance) it is clear some of the images were filmed secretly on a mobile phone, adding another layer of unsettling meaning. The person holding the camera had placed themselves at risk of countermanding the authorities. Overall the film makes us think about state control and human rights, and couldn’t have been screened at a more appropriate time with recent events in Hong Kong.
The final film is Bråten (2018) based on Ottar Ormstad’s ‘telefonkatalogdiktet’ (the phone book poem). ‘Bråten’ means a ‘farm that was originally forest cultivated by burning’, and in this video poem all the names from one page in the book are recited that end with the term. With video by Russian media artist Yan Kalnberzin and soundscape by Russian composer Taras Mashtalir, text plays games across the screen, fanning into radiating circles, with a sun-like / burning halo effect, expanding way beyond the confines of the line. Devastated landscape becomes charred remains becomes toponymic name – taxonomic evolution. The voice is deep and slow, and, in some ways, it seductively updates the links between the oral and visually concrete in the first video poem by EM de Melo e Castro Roda Lume (1968).
British Poetry Films – selection by Lucy English
The Girl and The Moon (2018) by poetry filmmaker and environmental scientist Lucia Sellars is a ‘reflective piece about the menstrual cycle’. The moon is a metaphor for menstruating; and the film’s visuals are an oneiric sway, with golden, hazy colouring, where a continually whirling Dervish in slow motion, also acts as a symbol of life’s continuing cycles. She says she had eaten something white, and the moon hid in her belly: ‘I caught myself tapping a rhythm with the tip of my foot, when suddenly I started to dance, like the Whirling Dervishes’.
What is most noticeable about this film is that Sellars’ gentle, almost tentative voice, combines grounded, everyday events (apples by the bed) with mystical transcendence. The moon was in her belly and she was covered in fog. ‘My hand unfolded like a butterfly, oh I thought the moon has melted …’ To write a poem about menstruation and not mention blood directly, but to channel it through the beauty of the moon (and its own monthly cycles), creates a mythic feminine, in an almost romantic and celebratory way. As an allegorical tale drawn from an ancient link through time, this is a real feat in a world that seems to have lost its sense of mystery and enigma (see also Doyali Islam’s ‘Letter to Anyone who is Listening’). The only mention of blood occurs talking to a boy: ‘You were thirteen then and had just tasted the blood of your first fight’, and the only mention of red, is in the apple by the bed, which in the morning has a bite out of it.
Whilst The Girl and The Moon deals with mythic, organic time for women and its continuing cycles, the following film brings us back into a race against time that is running out, for humanity and the environment. Time and The Two-Year-Old’s Hands (2015) is the second work in The Arctica Triptych, a result of artist Stevie Ronnie’s residency in the High Arctic. Directed by Alastair Cook with sound by Luca Nascuiti, arctic footage was provided by Michael Eckblad. Lucy English and I gave this film first prize at Newlyn Film Festival, 2019 and deservedly so. The film literally and physically combines and connects the fragility of childhood with the fragility of the planet. Using Super 8, found footage of a young girl – by a house, on a lawn blowing bubbles – an iceberg flashes into view and we hear Ronnie’s strong Newcastle accent: ‘What is now wide will become narrow as the known limps into a past like damp sand into an hour glass’.
In the smallness and matter-of-factness of Ronnie’s statements the vastness of our global situation becomes apparent. The whole film is a meditation on time – if time is not a line, he says could it be ‘simply as complex as his daughter’s two-year-old hands’. We return to the original child, the editing fracturing and re-assessing, subtly indicating that we are now looking back with hindsight. The girl now will be an adult; and whereas time hung over her as a child, like the iceberg, it is now moving too fast. We and society are accelerating innocence and childhood itself, as we accelerate the destruction of our environment. Whereas it would be easy to remonstrate our condition through film, this work in its simplicity almost drowns us in pathos.
Liminal (2019) by Isle of Man poet and videopoet Janet Lees takes a different approach to nature and the sea and its lyric, hypnotic, psychogeographic effects. The film begins with a strong attention to sound – a blipping and what sounds like a muffled roar of a jet engine – that is counterpointed with slow, sensuous imagery. This is followed by anthemic music which, including guitar and drum beat, is an unconventional choice, counterpointed yet again with shadows and lyric phrases such ‘salted moonlight gets under my skin’. The whole composition is a brave, creative statement both about and embodying (through sound/image relations) liminal states, and it works. Towards the end the music dominates as we gaze at swirling shapes; showing how sound itself, shifts in and out of our attention. The ‘I’ finds itself transported: ‘I rock’ ‘I lap’ ‘I lull’ ‘the sea in me’.
Never Say Never Say Never (2017) with poem by Patrick Errington and film by Adele Myers, focuses on a couple’s last moments together, told through dance, movement, light, and text. Set in studio-lit, semi-darkness – which Adele established in Birdfall (2014), an eloquent, spare language unfolds between the body movements, the lighting and the concise statements of the poet: ‘Here we are. Here where the page ends’ demonstrating the mature, sublime vision of the filmmaker and her knowledge of both lighting and dance itself.
Letter to Anyone Who is Listening (2019) from the poem by Toronto-based Doyali Islam has been reinterpreted by artist and poetry filmmaker Jane Glennie (see Poetry Film Panel) using thousands of still photographs that produce flicker images, almost subliminally impressing themselves on our retinas. The poem asks how we can exist in a world full of beauty and yet such pain where we can feel despairing and helpless, requiring resilience. ‘Some days all I wish is to be reborn into a strong body’. Glennie’s use of the tinny, other-worldly voice, sets us with a narrator who feels detached and observing, particularly with the underwater imagery and bubbling sounds. Here Islam’s ‘I’ (losing a sense of volition) seeks to be reborn as kelp, which would simply sway, surviving on nutrients from ‘the turbulence of your questions’. It is interesting to compare Glennie’s interpretation with Penguin’s beautifully designed printed version, which centres the lines, seemingly uncontained by margins. Stanzas lie parallel to each other, like butterflies, with strong horizontal space around the text.
Work (2018) is from a poem by Anna Woodford with animation and film by Kate Sweeney. As Anna’s poem begins: ‘These are the things I never wrote about’ she places us directly and poignantly in the incidental but preserved memories of human-related aspects of an office experience. To complement a space that determines both a harnessed self and one that secretly dreams, Kate has taken the ‘official’ symbol of non-personal space – the Post-it note –as a way to display animated drawings of office life; yet the Post-its are also a window of escape for our personal imaginations. Here, we can dream of landscapes, seashores, birds; even as the slow, wistful and tedious ‘muzak’ soundtrack draws us inexorably back. This film succeeds so well in giving us recognizable moments that we have all experienced: those interminably long, dark working days where we are creatively absent, our real identities on hold.
Muirburn (2019) based on Yvonne Reddick’s powerfully read poem is a poetry film by leading Dutch poetry filmmaker Helmie Stil. At first about carrying her father’s ashes, then fire, then a dream, Reddick delivers the narrative with a visceral energy and sets us in a timeless place of ritual, family memories and deep earth connection. Stil has taken elemental natural forms and given them a heightened, more mystical quality. The symbolic use of the slow-blinking eye and the reflections of branches in the pupil, followed by smoke, bracken and bark are contrasted with a relentless, intensifying voice, striding towards its outcome. Stil’s fine attention to production verisimilitude is demonstrated in the authenticity of the seemingly rustic father’s hand that holds the match ‘I remember the sulphur hiss of the match’.
wikiHow To Find Things You Have Lost (2019) is by Theresa Lola, the Young People’s Laureate for London, and relates to her grandfather’s loss of memory ‘touching on faith and loss’, and given counterpointed poignancy with Wiki’s prosaic, numerated tips on how to find a lost object. The poetry film is by Helen Dewbery and Chaucer Cameron of Poetry Film Live/ www.elephantsfootprint.com (see also the Poetry Film Panel). With close-up shots of the protagonist – a family in a garden, watering plants – we look back at them as they stare into the lens at us, sometimes just out of focus, or with a hazy periphery. It is as if we are seeing them through the grandfather’s eyes, with indistinct recollection. The soundtrack, by Colin Heaney holds a repetitive, weighted inevitability, reflecting the poet’s observation that death can only be delayed not stopped. The powerful poem is from Lola’s debut full-length poetry collection In Search of Equilibrium (Nine Arches Press, 2019).
My poetry film Paper River (2019) www.sarahtremlett.com is a chapter including research, field notes, poetry and poetry film from Tree, a geopoetic and mythopoetic haibun ‘novel’ centred on different aspects of my family’s working connection to the land and place through time. I began researching my family history around 25 years ago, motivated to find some sense of belonging and identity. It is divided into time periods and different countries. Each film has had a commissioned composer chosen for that subject. In this case, the evocative soundscape is by Jeffrey Boehm. In terms of experiential storytelling, researching family history is not only about discovering unknown facts but place itself; to actually visit sites, and touch and experience them. When I trained as an arts journalist I would select, photograph and write features about artists in their own environment. Also, in this particular chapter I had the chance to bring the personal side of ‘public’ history to the fore; showing how human characteristics and circumstance, (often unknown to historians) lie behind historical facts.
The single-room conference ‘barn’ enabled different practitioners to expand their knowledge of the diverse current approaches to narrative and experiential storytelling. It seems clear that augmented, virtual, locative, interactive, social and multimedia ways of story making may be less about telling stories today and more about creating, co-creating or discovering them (often with variable time constraints); whilst those of us making poetry films traditionally recount and encapsulate (and often combine) narrative forms in a brief, heightened, fixed duration of time. However, artists at MIX are now crossing and combining poetry film with other digital realities such as AR (Mary McDonald), or the old-school ‘novel’ (myself); whilst leading text-based, code savvy media artists such as Jörg Piringer are straddling all genres, platforms and devices. Regardless of approach, the prevalence of the personal (whether as data profile, historical research, political status or for authentic voice and well-being) rose to the surface, in all the presentations. The (human) art of storytelling, and the centrality of the subject in poetry filmmaking, now seem to be able to sit comfortably alongside twenty-first century systems of story making. Watch this cyberspace.
With grateful thanks to Professor Kate Pullinger, Lucy English, Dr Amy Spencer and Helen Goodman. For further information see the artists’ websites and http://mixconference.org