Hyperrhiz 18: Artist statements

How Who Unfolded My Origami Brain? Unfolded

Michael Leong

University at Albany, SUNY


Abstract

This essay details the process of composing the electronic collection of poetry Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, which was published by Fence Digital, a new imprint of Fence Books. By contextualizing my e-book with Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin's ideas of immediacy and hypermediacy, I challenge the facile but enduring opposition between the sensuous materiality of print culture and the supposed dematerialization of digital culture.


Artist Statement

Who Unfolded My Origami Brain? (Fence Digital, 2017) collects 99 fragments, aphorisms, and typographic poems. I created these minimalist texts—which are, by turns, gnomic, rhetorically playful, lyric, and apocalyptic—by painstakingly typesetting and printing them by hand with a Trodat 5253 Self-Inking Custom Stamp, a mechanism that accommodates three and four millimeter rubber type. James Belflower, Fence Digital’s book designer, then remediated the prints to create a visually-striking, hypermaterial page by blending digital and analog textures. He also embedded hypertextual buttons into the bottom of the pages, allowing for multiple pathways of reading.

I began making these hand-stamped prints when I was approached by Container, a purveyor of artists’ books and book-objects, to transform a Rolodex Open Rotary Card File into an aesthetic/literary object. My solution to working with these unconventional materials was to use the Trodat stamp set to make poetic impressions on the small rectangular Rolodex cards. I had been impressed, as it were, with the Chilean writer Matías Celedón’s use of the same Trodat stamp, which he employed to create his hauntingly allegorical novel La filial (Alquimia Ediciones, 2012).1 How might this work with a non-narrative project?, I thought.

With each stamped impression, I could print a brief poetic fragment—up to five or six lines with about two or three words per line. The Trodat 5253, with its 1 ¼" x 2" text plate, seemed the perfect writing implement for the miniature landscape of the 2 ¼" x 4" Rolodex cards. At the same time, it seemed the worst implement possible: a self-inking stamp, the Trodat 5253 is, of course, best suited to imprint not many different texts but many copies of the same text, such as the informational one below:

Figure 1. From Trodat Professional 5253 do-it-yourself (DIY) stamp

Setting the type piece by rubber piece, from right to left, was laborious enough, but to remove the type, clean it, and return it to its 1 ½" x 4" plastic tray only to start the process again was a truly perverse exercise, a deliberate use of a technology against the grain. I had to set the type with a pair of plastic tweezers, which eventually cracked from repeated overuse; unable to find a replacement and unwilling to pay for a new stamp set, I used Gorilla Tape to fix them. But despite these difficulties, I had come to appreciate the glacially slow process of composing, designing, typesetting, and printing which allowed for a maximum amount of meditative deliberation. Unlike quickly firing off a tweet—such as “Despite the constant negative press covfefe” (Qtd. in Flegenheimer) or “Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much longer!” (Qtd. in Osborne) —I had to commit to my text over a certain duration if I wanted to see it materialize. I had also come to appreciate both the micro-texts I had been impelled to generate under multiple physical constraints and the somewhat messily textured letters that the Trodat produced—no doubt a result of my amateur typesetting, tracking, kerning, and printing skills.

Figure 2. Scan of hand-stamped Rolodex card.

I scanned a selection of the Rolodex cards—fig.2 presents a draft or study that didn’t ultimately make it into the book—and worked with Fence Digital to give my hand-stamped impressions a digital afterlife. James Belflower and I decided on using colored pages according to a five-color scheme. I then organized my stamped impressions into five categories according to formal/grammatical properties: the visual and concrete poems were paired with the white/natural color; the questions were paired with the bright brownish orange color; the sentence fragments were paired with the peach/grey color (see fig. 3); imperatives were paired with a dark gray color; and complete sentences were paired with a lighter gray. James added special typographic buttons—sampled from some of the stamped impressions—on the bottom of the page, allowing the reader the option to “read by color”: following the arrow buttons on the bottom of the page allows the reader to jump—either forward or backward—to another similarly colored page. Or, by pressing the middle button, the @ symbol, the reader is sent to a randomly assigned location in the book.

Figure 3. From Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?

According to its editorial statement, Fence Digital, a new imprint of Fence Books, aims to publish “multimedia electronic poetry, fiction, and hybrid texts that reinvest digitization with materiality, treating the screen as a skin” (“About”). It might seem unnecessary now to insist on the material reality of new media artifacts; indeed, as early as 1999, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin reminded us that “media have the same claim to reality as more tangible cultural artifacts; photographs, films, and computer applications are as real as airplanes and buildings” (17). Media are materially efficacious in the social world just as they are materially accessible to the phenomenal senses. Nevertheless, within contemporary poetry studies, critics still fail to acknowledge the material dimensions of electronically generated texts. For example, in the recent monograph Archaeopoetics: Word, Image, History, Mandy Bloomfield analyzes visually innovative poets Susan Howe, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Maggie O’Sullivan, Kamau Brathwaite, and M. NourbeSe Philip, whose work “make[s] a claim for the sensory dimensions of the poetic page” (2016, 36). Bloomfield’s corpus is a fascinating one that surely deserves close scholarly consideration; and her attention to the shape of the signifier is a welcome approach. However, she is mistaken in pitting the “resolutely material, visual compositions” (37) of poetic text against our “dominant cultural practices,” which are, according to Bloomfield, “tend[ing] ever more toward dematerialization” (35). For Bloomfield, new media are to blame for the enervation of sensory experience and the impoverishment of material culture:

In many areas of daily life, [...] the concreteness of things is increasingly displaced by virtualities: the pixels of the computer screen, the storage ‘space’ of the MP3 file, the dematerialized commodities of downloads and the imaginary money form that pays for them, the dislocated interactions of social media. Where is the sensory experience of things and of thingness when the world of objects [...] becomes mediated by such virtual experience? In what does the materiality of the page consist when it is no longer embodied in ink and paper but exists in the pixels of a screen or tablet? (ibid.)

Of course, anyone who has had to dispose of an old computer or has required a VGA adapter to project a document during a presentation or used a touchscreen monitor to click and zoom around a multimedia website has had to deal with the concrete and tactile thingness that makes digital reading and writing possible.2 Bloomfield’s complaints about the electronic mediation of social life are puzzling: do we really want to depend upon the reification of money in paper form to make paying for goods—somehow—more sensate? And don’t Howe’s print books also mediate “the world of objects” as does, say, Stephanie Strickland and Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo’s digital poem slippingglimpse (2007)?

Bloomfield doesn’t consider the “sensory dimensions” of the poetic screen, or the many conceptual and compositional similarities between Howe and a digital poet such as Strickland, because her nostalgic materialism assumes that certain kinds of materiality matter over others.3 Her crude ontological divide between the printed page and the electronic screen runs counter to the design philosophy of James Belflower, who I had asked to reflect on the process of remediating my book for digital consumption. Belflower writes:

One of my goals with digital book design for Fence Digital is to reevaluate the boundary between the virtual nature of digital information and the viscerality of text. So, when designing, I think of the project as a print book, but I’m also considering how digital extratextual qualities (video, image, animation, hyperlinks, etc.) might contribute to its textualization. I design with this process in mind and emphasize the generative moment that occurs when a reader interacts with a digital book as something that happens rather than something that exists. [...] [In Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?] readers travel across the stippled impress of [Leong’s] stamps and the pulpy pages that yearn to be touched. And readers do touch, not only as they push the buttons that transport them randomly through the book, but because the changing page colors make Who Unfolded My Origami Brain? as much a cognitive read as it is a haptic one. Along with the other projects I’ve designed for Fence Digital, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain? opens a space on the shelf for what might be considered a digital book object.

Belflower’s model is at once attuned to the “the viscerality of the text”—the sensory dimensions of the poetic page/screen—as well as to the fact that the haptic experience of text is necessarily interpretive and processural: the digital book is “something that happens rather than something that exists.”4 In other words, the digital book is not just a file to be purchased with imaginary money and downloaded onto an unseen hard drive but an encounter brought about by numerous physical, perceptual, and cognitive processes—from clicking a mouse to viewing an “imagetext” (Mitchell 1994, 95) to subvocalizing a highly alliterative phrase.5

What Belflower grasps (and what Bloomfield misses) is the fact that new media poetry “oscillate[s] between immediacy and hypermediacy, between transparency and opacity” (Bolter and Grusin 1999, 17), which gives a reader a sensory experience of thingness on multiple levels. Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, for example, offers a certain thickness or opacity of language since I tended to highlight the materiality of the signifier through a density of verbal patternings and rhetorical figurations. But the book also offers an immediate perceptual experience of dark ink and its papery substrate—what Belflower is calling the “stippled impress” of the stamps and the “pulpy pages”—even if it effaces, to some extent, the fact that the screen is remediating the more conventionally presented page of printed poetry.

During an email correspondence with me just after Who Unfolded My Origami Brain? was published in July 2017, the poet and artist E.J. McAdams had interestingly described the material immediacy of the inked impressions with the term “shimmering”:

While I was in LA I made a visit to see a small concrete show [“Concrete Poetry: Words and Sounds in Graphic Space”] at the Getty [Research Institute] that was mostly focused on Ian Hamilton Finlay and Augusto de Campos. It was a wonderful show, a kind of greatest hits. But seeing the show and reading your book I feel the stuffy formality of their project in a way I hadn’t before [...] Maybe it is the difference in visual presentation. Your stamped letters almost shimmer compared to their fonts.
Figure 4. “Acrobats,” Ian Hamilton Finlay, 1964. From The Blue and the Brown Poems (New York, 1968). Image from Getty Research Institute.

The “shimmering” visual presentation of Who Unfolded My Origami Brain? depends upon a mix of old and new technologies: the luminosity of the computer screen as a reading interface, Belflower’s “post-production” Photoshopping of stippled foreground on monochromatic background, and my initial recourse to a rudimentary system of letterpressing. The plasticity of the Trodat’s rubber type, among other factors, created a range of inconsistencies in the printed letters, turning the phrases into unique and textured objects to be “looked at” as much as textual signs to be “looked through” for referential content. Too much pressure in printing distorted the type while dirty type produced imperfect transfers. But my wager was that I could redeem the errors and idiosyncrasies in the printing process by conceiving of them as part of an “autographic” signature.6 I wondered—to borrow from the parlance of the visual arts—if there could be such a thing as “gestural” printing or “action” typesetting. In contrast to the standardized type and even spacing of Finlay’s lithographic print Acrobats (see fig. 4 above), Who Unfolded My Origami Brain? lets the viewer more directly apprehend the messy material processes that it took to manually place one letter next to the other. The book’s fragments are minimalist in scale but more “maximalist”—or excessive—in typographical irregularity.

In reading Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, one encounters the immediacy of the signifier’s material features, the mediacy of the morpheme, and the hypermediacy of the e-book’s design and architecture. For Bolter and Grusin, “hypermediacy offers a heterogeneous space, in which representation is conceived of not as a window on to a world, but rather as ‘windowed’ itself—with windows that open on to other representations” (1999, 34). In fig. 5, there is an epigrammatic text—“YOU SAID VOICE / IS THE / EPHEMERAL / FOSSIL / OF THE THROAT”—on a light grey background. The poetic text is immediate for some of the reasons I outlined above. But the overall composition is also hypermediate: the three hyperlinked buttons in the paratextual space at the bottom of the page mimic, even parody, the form and function of the horizontal navigation bar of Adobe Digital Editions.7 This para-/hyper-textual space “remind[s] the viewer of the medium” (Bolter and Grusin 1999, 272) by offering three additional navigational options besides using the two arrows and the sliding thumb of the ADE interface. Given that a reader can choose to go backwards or forwards linearly or use the hyperlinked buttons to either “read by color” or be sent to a randomly assigned page (via the @ button), it is easy to get caught in strange loops and pathways within the 107-page book. Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, then, is a book that one can get “lost in” but not at all in the way that one “gets lost” in a novel by projecting oneself in an immersive, narrativized world.

Figure 5. Screenshot of Who Unfolded My Origami Brain? within the Adobe Digital Editions interface.

The short sentences and fragments of Who Unfolded My Origami Brain? are meant to be combinatorial—potential building blocks for any potential number of more articulated poems. In other words, I imagined Who Unfolded My Origami Brain? to be, à la Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes, a modest poem-making machine. For the launch of the title, which took place on July 16, 2017 in Hudson, NY, I wanted to demonstrate this generativity by treating the book as a suggestive and dynamic score rather than as an autographic object: I prepared for the launch reading a poem called “Dear Balloon Animal,” which I composed by incorporating many of the brief texts of Who Unfolded My Origami Brain? into a larger arrangement. As James Belflower rightly notes, this is a book that “yearn[s] to be touched.” It is also a work that—across the various media forms of codex, Rolodex, computer, and brain—yearns to unfold and to be unfolded.


“Dear Balloon Animal”

      1.
You were ensnared by the lacework of your own articulacy
when some someone 
pushed you down 
   the starsta*r. 
                           The diagnosis: 
disjunctivitis of the third “I.”
      It was quiet
as a fugue in a centrifuge.
It was not a matter of 
too much ballast in the thought balloon 
but of the interim administrators
embalming the clouds. 
They were too busy enjoying their slow-motion extinction
to notice that the mechanical tides
were already Decembering,
that there were satellites falling into the wine-dark sea.
So it was time, once again, to light the long fuse
of silence, 
                   to refuse
the rarefaction of shadows.
It was time
to let in the window
and open the air.

      2.
In spite of the scientific stubbornness of magnets,
there was, over the sill of the syll-
able, a capable bell.

             Sw mm ng thr  gh n g t v  sp c , 
you were lost somewhere
in the unjustified margin
of tomorrow. You were caught
behind the horizon’s tripwire
where
the wisps of cirrus
are comma splices connecting sky to sky.
You said
voice is the ephemeral fossil of the throat,
sound’s memento mori ­–
as if sound could overhear its own surprised
echo.

      3.
Since every blank page was once a palimpsest,
                        there’s
      just
              one
                        word
               to
            a
                 line
to align
           the tension between focus
and inattention:
                just concentrate 
on the concentric circles drifting away.

      4.
Who retrofitted the voice-over?
Who turned down my encephalophone?
Who unfolded my origami brain
and wedged it through the socket
of my burning skull?
But enough about me:
          How’s the weather
on your side of the labyrinth?

      5.
Consider for a moment
the pressure
of that wayward word’s
accumulated postage.

X-ray your alphabet.

      Don’t slurp the surplus value.

It’s better to subtract today 
than to orbit tomorrow.

      6.
Somewhere between neo-incunabular and new,
              the Novum
was curdling in the alphanumerical emulsion
of your consciousness.
That’s what they call
reinventing the rhythms of the day’s algorithmic routines
or, in a word, “autonomy” –
            coming from the Greek root meaning
“I told you so.”

      7.
Don’t take things so quasi-literally:
choosing between
the eye of a needle
and the tongue of a bell
is like trying to unstitch the sun
from its solstice.
Or writing the symbol for infinity
with one petal
longer than the other.
This is to say that “carrying it across” the phosphorescence
is nearly the same as
closing the kerning between you and me.

      8.
If the sentence is narrative’s tenuous umbilical cord,
then scribal corruption is my middle name.

      9.
The way gravity dreams thru its black and white
nights orthogonally
should clarify, once and for all,
that
beyond the grave,
there’s another grave.

So as not to add gruel to the mire, it’s time
to disinter
the integral remnants of interrelation.
Unless, that is, you insist on tending
to your terraria of quicksand.
But beyond this mirror’s brutal algebra,
not even the birds can subpoena the dawn.

      10.
The road from ruins to runes is before us
so accept no apologies for the misplacing,
intentional or not, of
your lorem ipsum.
It must have something to do with
ipseity’s interminable
eclipse.
Or the rigor mortis
of meatspace. In any case,
missing, mute, or next
to noumenal,
the seconds are still relentlessly
typesetting themselves.
And the answer from autumn’s antonym is
and has always been: “Please Wait...”

      11.
 Who called you
“a person or institution whose power
is formal but not real”?

To disturb the blinking cursor’s
sublime indifference,
cover the eyes of the statues
before the sky’s samovar
turns inside out,
before the thunder samples your psalms
of whiplash and syllable scatter.

Remember:
You cannot open a brook
without burning something.
Even though
there will be no one left
to proofread
the final marquee.


Work Samples

Figure 6.
Figure 7.
Figure 8.
Figure 9.
Figure 10.

Notes

  1. For an assessment of the English-language translation of Celedón’s La filial, The Subsidiary (Melville House, 2016), see my “Testing Form: Novels by Alejandro Zambra and Matías Celedón.”
  2. As with Bloomfield, I am not rigorously distinguishing between “thing” and “object” for purposes of this essay. For Bill Brown, following Heidegger, a broken computer or VGA adapter, tools that no longer function, make us “confront the thingness of objects” (2001, 4).
  3. Bloomfield is participating in what Bill Brown has called “the melodrama of besieged materiality” (2010, 26).
  4. Belflower’s view is consonant with N. Katherine Hayles’ call for a more sophisticated account of the materiality of literary texts. Hayles suggests that we “reconceptualize materiality as the interplay between a text’s physical characteristics and its signifying strategies. This definition opens the possibility of considering texts as embodied entities while still maintaining a central focus on interpretation. In this view of materiality, it is not merely an inert collection of physical properties but a dynamic quality that emerges from the interplay between the text as a physical artifact, its conceptual content, and the interpretive activities of readers and writers” (72).
  5. According to W.J.T. Mitchell, “the medium of writing deconstructs the possibility of a pure image or a pure text […] Writing, in its physical, graphic form, is an inseparable suturing of the visual and the verbal, the ‘imagetext’ incarnate” (95).
  6. My use of the term “autographic” alludes to Norman Goodman’s distinction between “autographic” and “allographic” arts. For Goodman, poetry is allographic because it isn’t subject to forgery (as in the case of painting): “The is no such thing as a forgery of Gray’s Elegy. Any accurate copy of the text of a poem or novel is as much the original work as any other.” By contrast, printmaking is autographic because it is “singular in the earliest stage” even if it is a multi-stage and multiple art form that can produce many impressions from a single plate (115). Who Unfolded My Origami Brain? encourages a complex ecology of meaning making that crosses autographic and allographic categories.
  7. Following Philippe Lejeune, Gerard Genette considers paratextual space to be “‘the fringe of the printed text which, in reality, controls the whole reading’” (Genette 1997, 2).

Works Cited

Belflower, James. 2017. Email to author. October 9, 2017.

Bloomfield, Mandy. 2016. Archaeopoetics: Word, Image, History. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. 1999. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Brown, Bill. 2001. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry 28.1: 1-22.

---. 2010. “Introduction: Textual Materialism.” PMLA 125.1: 24-8.

Celedón, Matías. 2016. La filial. 3rd ed. Santiago de Chile: Alquimia Ediciones.

Celedón, Matías. 2016. The Subsidiary. Translated by Samuel Rutter. Brooklyn: Melville House.

Fence Digital. “About.” Accessed October 13, 2017. URL.

Flegenheimer, Matt. 2017. “What’s a ‘Covfefe’? Trump Tweet Unites a Bewildered Nation.” New York Times. Accessed October 13, 2017. URL.

Genette, Gerard. 1997. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Translated by Jane E. Lewin. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Goodman, Norman. 1968. The Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Hayles, N. Katherine. 2004. “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis.” Poetics Today 25.1: 67-90.

Leong, Michael. 2016. “Testing Form: Novels by Alejandro Zambra and Matías Celedón.” Hyperallergic Weekend. Accessed October 15, 2017. URL.

---. 2017. Who Unfolded My Origami Brain? Albany: Fence Digital.

McAdams, E.J. 2017. Email to author. July 25, 2017.

Mitchell, W.J.T. 1994. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Osborne, Samuel. 2017. “Donald Trump Appears to Threaten Regime Change against North Korea: ‘They won’t be around much longer’” Independent. Accessed October 14, 2017. URL.

Strickland, Stephanie and Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo. 2007. slippingglimpse. doi:10.20415/hyp/004.g06. | Artist site.


DOI Permalink

https://doi.org/10.20415/hyp/018.a01