Hyperrhiz 03: Reviews
Between Treacherous Objectives
Siena Heights University
Review of a media arts performance by Jason Nelson, Feb. 1 2007.
On February 1st, 2007, I hosted a reading/performance by hypermedia poet and artist Jason Nelson at Siena Heights University. I've long been an admirer of his works (most of which can be found through «www.secrettechnology.com»), but this event added a new dimension to my understanding of his work (and electronic poetry, in general).
For a while now, I have been trying to figure out if there is a critical feature of "hypermedia poetry." Nelson's presentation helped me move closer to an understanding what, if anything, is worthwhile about these novel approaches to an ancient art. Of course, they have whistles and bells. Long before we climbed down from the trees, shed our hair, and moved to the suburbs, we have been fascinated by shiny, noisy things that move. But as a scholar, I still want to know, "So what?"
I should begin by explaining: I use the modifiers "hypermedia," "digital," "electronic," and "new media" interchangeably to describe works like those that Nelson creates. I don't have much invested in any particular prefix, as we can all understand that these terms tend to designate something as "having-to-do-with-a-computer" in its creation, inspiration, reception, dissemination, and/or form. Figuring out which emergent designation we should hang on the work of this poet is not the issue.
The issue, for me, is the residual component: "Poetry." What is poetry? There are a few ways to answer this question. I have labeled these: Solipsism ("Poetry is writing by a poet."), Formalism ("Poetry is language arranged in verses"), Universalism ("Everything is poetry."), Nominalism ("If the writer calls it a poem, then it's a poem.") and Elitism ("Poetry is the refined use of language.") The first three answers are merely attempts to remove human discretion from the evaluation of poetic works by creating universal rules for what constitutes poetic expression. The fourth is a step in the right direction by aligning poetry with human intention. But it is the fifth approach, the Elitist one, that makes the most sense. A poem must embody a heightened form of expression using the basic mode of human communication, language. It doesn't have to be about doomed love or written by someone with an honorary title or published on gilded pages or consumed by people in powdered wigs, but it does have to be "good" (whatever that means), the poet has to try hard, and it has to do something for the audience. In other words, it is refined language. And the test, then, is whether or not a piece of alleged "poetry" stands out in the minds of an audience in relation to other writings.
With these thoughts in mind, I went to see Mr. Nelson perform. Works highlighted in the reading included "Between Treacherous Objects", "This is how you will die", "Pandemic Rooms", and "Uncontrollable Semantics". As Jason noted in his talk, many of his titles have a morbid ring to them. This morbid tone contrasts sharply to Mr. Nelson's upbeat personality, but they reveal a deeper tension that is inherent in his work — a tension which gestures towards the potential of new media poetry.
In "Between Treacherous Objects," for example, users are greeted at the first screen of play with the terms "credit" and "dumpster." Credit, as anyone can tell you, is surely a treacherous thing: It holds out the hope of immediate rewards financed by the anticipation of better times. It is the engine that fuels consumption in an era of declining real wages. It is the currency of choice for global new media transactions. And it is the means by which we are interpellated into the realm of the hyperreal. With credit comes the recognition of a human subject that can gain access to the world of things, and that can be held accountable to the world of things. Its treachery resides in its power as a fictitious entity to impose its own reality.
Dumpsters, on the other hand, are treacherous for another reason. Implied by the dumpster is the "filth" of yesterday. Into the dumpster goes all the things which no longer have use. While we associate dumpsters with stench and putrefaction, most of them are filled with the cast-off items of a throwaway culture. Yesterday's credit card purchases become content for today's dumpsters. With the dumpster comes the spectacle of a society with too much waste, anxious to generate trash, eager to dispose of unrecognized things. Their treachery resides in the wild barbarity of their contents, hence the "biohazard" warnings. The dumpster plays the "bad cop" to credit's "good cop," in the shakedown we call the "new economy."
Although there is surely more to the enigma of the space between these treacherous objects, they offer an insight into the peculiar place of the hypermedia poet. If one accepts the formulation of poetry as an elite expression in which the poet whittles, carves, and warps meanings until he or she creates an intentionally focused piece of singular language, then this is where the treachery comes in. The fine arts have held on to (in spite of postmodern pretensions about "the popular") the culture of prestige which identifies the high end commodity and the low end junk. Given our current system of commodities, there is no point in the practice of the artist without the anticipated satisfaction of discriminating connoisseurs. On a macroscopic level, the development of consumer tastes relies on this perception of prestige. Artists offer the aesthetic refinement that consumers desire. In spite of our egalitarian impulses, the hope is that the poet can make something real and unique, because it reassures us that it is possible to be real and unique.
Hypermedia, on the other hand, offers the hope of "interactivity," or user-supplied content. Curiously like credit cards, hypermedia, on its face, offers the hope for greater agency. (In practice, I suspect that most interactive forms, particularly those preoccupied with commerce, are programmed to lead to a particular conclusion: debt. But the possibility remains for the authentic expression of singular experience.) Hypermedia is an alternate path towards the subjective experience of reality and uniqueness because it allows the individual direct influence over the mediated realm. To choose hypermedia, then, the poet commits him/herself to temptation. The hypermedia poet can betray the hopes of poetry by creating open-ended pieces for users to "create." Or the hypermedia poet can betray the hopes of hypermedia by pretending to be interactive.
But as I watched Nelson's reading and performance and followed up with a lengthy home exploration of his work, I discovered that there is a third option: To allow oneself to remain trapped between these treacherous objectives. The practice, then, becomes one of sacrifice. The hypermedia poet must sacrifice his/her work to the audience. The care of the poet must be evident, as must the freedom of hypermedia. The greater the hypermedia poet, the bigger the sacrifice.
In this light, it is no surprise that a struggle with the very idea of control should appear in the works of one of our best contemporary artists. To return to the works in question ("Between Treacherous Objects," "This is how you will die," "Pandemic Rooms," and "Uncontrollable Semantics"), they all promise to destroy the artist and audience while we experience them.
It might be risky (after all, it's hard to make a living selling hypermedia art). But it seems like a risk worth taking. Perhaps these works bring us closer to the days when art was real — not in a cut-off-your-ear-and-give-it-to-your-sweetheart sort of way — but in the sense that art served a ritual function, and that the artist and his/her society depended on the practice itself to understand fundamental truths of human experience. And so I submit this as a critical insight about an emerging literary field: The hypermedia poet is one who chooses to express truth to an audience that doubts its existence in a language that resists refinement.