Isolation 24 times a second: experiments in video poetry in the time of peak internet usage

Times are strange, very strange, strange and uncomfortable. It feels as if everyone I know has the helpless feeling of being adrift in a vast ocean, there are no cycles in the days, only the sun, beating down, relentlessly. There is a choice, be taken by the currents, become Kurtz, find a way to the end of the ocean, to the source, the heart of darkness (there is certainly as much appeal here as there is fear.) Or, cling on, stay adrift but anchored by the screen of a laptop, simultaneously giving yourself to the growing black mass of pulsing zeroes but also cat pics and the simulacra of friend. I like most everyone else has picked the latter. And so I float, glued in the sanitising glow of laptop light, crushed by the burden of news updates, but cherishing seeing my friends survive on (and in some cases thrive). Poetry, literature, cinema, it has all largely passed me by, lost to the current, perhaps if I let go I would find them again, but such a task now seems terrifying, what would I possibly find once I finally washed up on some shore, is there even a shore? And yet, my mind has wandered to thoughts about the place for poetry at such a time, for poetry, at least within a popular conception was already close to death before any of this.  There was no money to be made and largely seemed to function as a place where disparate loners (I being one of them)  pool together, each of us spitting into our poetry paddling pool and congratulating one another for the eloquence of our spitting, yet never breaching the inflatable edges or breaking through into the giant water world just along the street where everyone else is. Certainly, there are exceptions, Rupi Kaur comes to mind, as does the popularity of artists such as Chris Simpsons Artist who has embodies in my mind a surrealist poetic attitude to words, invoking a playfulness with language which is at the heart of all good poetry, and taking glee in the subversions of expectations yet embodying a sense of immediacy, a non-sensical throw away thought turned into social critique. Poetry then is perhaps not dying a death (if it survived the 20th century it can survive anything) but it is changing and there are those willing to change with it and those who aren’t.

In the light of all this, with more and more of my time being devoured by ever stranger trips into the internet’s deep end, there is still the question of my master’s? How do I attempt to deal with poetry in such a time? I think the trick is that I don’t, or rather I reformulate poetry, destroy it and build it back up, let it metamorphosise upon a shore miles away from that labelled ‘poetry’. And so I turn to the internet, as I was going to do anyway. The internet is the medium destroyer, it subsumes everything into its plastic re-territorializing space, reduced to 1’s and 0’s, stored in a cloud or a server room, archived for all eternity. In the anarchy of cyberspace, can there be something as specific as a medium? What stops a youtube video being a poem, or a whatsapp message, or a GIF? What stops a blog post from being an essay? What is poetry in a post-medium world?

By experimenting with different processes in poetry making this small portfolio represents some of my explorations and insights into the potential forms of video poetry and broader ideas about the place of poetry in our age of the internet. Rather than explaining the videos, I have chosen to provide insight into the processes, hurdles, and sources involved within each poem, as they were all approached from very different directions. That said as a collection the poems explore themes of medium, communication, the internet, and of course isolation.

A Death in Watching

This poem was the initial inspiration for the project and also the one which appears to fall the most outside the boundaries of poetic classification (although I disagree – we’ll get to it.) But what if I told you this was in fact a translation of a poem? Initially this poem was conceived as a documentation of the period of my life directly preceding this one, in which it felt as if I conceded my life to that of a movie spectator, giving up on the real life which accompanied it. The instigating poem went through many forms, but the basic idea was a ‘found’ diary video poem, in which clips from films I had watched in the last few months were stitched together to create something of a poetic meta-narrative about the process of watching and giving yourself to film. The hurdle however was in finding a suitable  poetic voice, something which video poet Lucy English has discussed, providing a difficult point of transition for poets working in a written or spoken form who previously only had to consider how each word fitted with the other, rather than how one artistic element would to another.

Most of my written poetry maintains a conversational tongue-in-cheek tone, and explorations in a new voice largely seemed ill fitting, struggling between a sparsity of language which when played alongside visuals functioned only in explaining what was playing our on the screen or creating a dissonance which failed to be interesting. In the other direction the tone became too diaristic, suddenly the poem became about the narrative rather than a relationship between the image and sound. Eventually I came to the idea of a more direct translation, editing the clips to fit the pace and narrative of the poem yet only alluded to the poem through its grounding in choice elements from the poem. This meant I could also focus more upon sound design, an element which seems largely unexplored within existing video poems, finding ways to create violent and abrupt sounds and creating an audio landscape often at times juxtaposing the imagery with the hopes that it draws awareness to the process of watching.

A Death in Watching
a body whiter than xanax
wilting like floral patterns in the
wallpaper
becoming less and less my own,
on the tv
the ticker goes unread
its pink light bouncing off
the curtains and calcifying
in an absence
against this backdrop days are largely spent spaced and plant-like,
lost to digital
artifice or memetic indifference
asteroiding
around
unmade satellites
or
orbiting uncomfort
often the black ice moons of my eyes glaze over
art cannot prepare you
for the boredom of the end
in these moments i resort to acts of complete desperation
a text to a stranger
but
they’ve already blocked my number
in the end
I settle for
the passivity
of spectacle
submitting to celluloid seafoam
the promise of filmic oblivion
each movie
regardless
of quality
or value
is perceived as a form of flagellation
ritual penance, time unwasted
& as if to prove this hypothesis right
my film choices, which I initially consider as random, quickly take
on sharp form, defined by an uncompromising violence
any attempt to understand this is quickly quelled by
the next burst of violence
eventually I suspend critical interest
lost to violent repetitions
a shard of mirror
held in a black gloved hand,
a black glove
a black glove
an ashen sun
in the time between films I take on alien perspective
holding negative space
between fixtures
fuzzing in and out of existence
tv static
or a zero folded in
a
constant disc skips
or hard drive error
a looming black sun like a full stop
carpet fibres
&
sometimes there are dreams, stretching downwards

Computer Feelings

This poem is composed of footage recorded from an old psychedelic PlayStation 1 title called LSD: Dream Emulator and one cut scene from the very first Metal Gear Solid game. Again I am playing with the idea of found poetry but translating the concept to a visual form. Such processes seem increasingly pertinent in our post-medium age as memes, youtube, and sharing culture all challenge notions of ownership and allow for instantaneous proliferation and potential transformation. The choice of using text to speech is both utilitarian, (in that I hate the sound of my own voice) and aesthetic. Text to speech comes with its own intricacies, in which the written form must be manipulated with some words spelt phonetically, and increased use of grammar in order to mimic the speech pattern in reading a poem. That said, text to speech offers an inhuman counterpoint which cannot always be solved by mangling the language, and it is here I find this automated poetry reading most interesting, as it creates an alternative, at times uncanny, relationship to the written poem, and a dissonance between that which is said and that which is understood. Again there was also a focus on sound design, attempting to create a simplistic consumer grade synth ambience to match the dated visuals, and frame the spoken poetry in a space of juxtaposition.

Some of the writing takes inspiration from Jodi Dean and Mark Fisher, who’s work on communicative capitalism has taken on new meaning now that we are all trapped inside, forced to communicate through apps which are making money for a company somewhere. The poem itself developed as a series of vignettes, observations and humorous lines all written during the lockdown.

A DIDACTIC POEM

Whereas in Computer Feelings, much time was spent in manipulating text to speech in order to reduced oddities and preserve a certain pacing, in this poem any such attempt was disregarded, in part due to the technical limitations in using Voki.com but also as an exercise in destruction, an attempt to push past the concept of poetry. So here we have two text-to-speech awkwardly animated characters, having a convoluted, often uncanny, and sometimes imperceptible conversation regarding the nature of poetry, interspersed with seeming interference from home video and unrelated youtube video. The mindset in developing this “poem?” was of an embracing of imperfection, a self-awareness in the more flawed aspects of post-medium art but also an honesty, we see the loading circle and at the end the programme used to record, there is an amateurishness I wanted to embrace within internet culture – perhaps most notorious the “unregistered hypercam 3” watermark which seemingly plagues 25% of youtube. Is this amateurishness not poetic? a desire for production which goes beyond the limits of capability and an expression of immediacy. The dialogue here is totally inhuman, with many lines feeling rushed and claustrophobic, with the back and forth being too abrupt to be fully processed. Fundamentally the poem is an attempt to challenge poetry, leaving the spectator with the question as to whether it is even poetry? and if it is, then can anything be?

[for the sake of clarity i have posted the transcript below, although a lack of clarity within the poem is intentional albeit largely uncrafted]

A DIDACTIC POEM
-what is a poem

-a poem is zooming in on a picture until you can see where it has been compressed

-and?

-a poem is a gif described frame by frame

-why a gif?

-because the primary characteristic of a gif is repetition, a poem involves the repetition of language and precision of imagery to invoke a specific sense of temporality. It is no surprise that as humanities relationship to time has been dissolved so has our interest in poetry.

-what has happened to time?

-time has changed, the present has all but vanished and the future is always one click away. we are in a car speeding quicker and quicker to the edge of the map, but the road is always the same. perhaps it is a fault of poetry that it still tries to maintain this present, which no longer exists.

-okay, back to gifs, why can’t a gif be a poem?

-no, gifs have replaced poetry, youtube has replaced poetry, texting has replaced poetry

-I have to disagree, poetry hasn’t been replaced, it simply evolved, there has always been poetry and there always will be.

-isn’t being replaced and evolving the same thing, the homo sapien has replaced the homo erectus, which is now extinct? Millions of years ago ants and termites had poets. But somewhere along the way they stopped. No one knows why. I believe that as we move towards a technical society, science demands the death of poetry.

-you are internalising the technique you condemn by treating poetry as a science, poetry is nothing, it is the tension between eros and thanatos, Poetry is casting a spell without knowing the result, or the dreams of a robot. You cannot kill poetry, just as you cannot kill redness, or the economy. Given the time not committed to displaying emails and hosting business calls, a computer could write poetry and in turn would give up wanting to be a computer.

-so how do you define poetry?

-poetry is undefinable but easy to recognise. For instance Yesterday I sent a message to a friend after following their recent break up. It read "don't be too upset, there's plenty more accident prone videos of cats on youtube." this is an example of a poem. a breakup text can also be a poem mind you. another example would be the lyrics to Girls Aloud's 2003 hit "Life Got Cold."

-a computer cannot be a poet!

-why not? by creating a binary distinction between human and non-human we limit our perception of all art, plants can be artistic, just as computers can be artistic. the joy of poetry is it can be anywhere, the less you look the more you find it.

-and what about this? is this a poem?

-this is a computer, talking to itself, or dreaming about disneyland

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