I began my previous post by quoting the conclusion of a recent article which stated that ‘Electronic poetry in Romanian is still to be invented’. It seems to me that the careful formulation of this sentence implies a very subtle yet significant distinction between ‘E-poetry in Romanian’ and ‘Romanian e-poetry’, which can be easily applied to any other literary field since the adjective of nationality functions as a variable. The first phrase serves to emphasize a fact that is almost lost in the second one (which has become the standard formulation in ‘geographical’ classifications of [e–] literature), namely the major role of language in delimiting national artistic areas. It is, therefore, in accordance with the strict linguistic criterion that Romanian e-poetry is declared to be nonexistent. What exists, nevertheless, according to the same article, is a handful of artists of Romanian origin who have abandoned their native language as a means of artistic expression and who have affiliated themselves to various international groups.
In fact, this existential debate does nothing more than transfer in the field of e-literature the highly disputed and far from settled issue in literary history concerning the claims that different national literatures lay on the work of bilingual authors – of those who at a certain moment and for various reasons changed both country and language. In other words, assuming that ‘x’ stands for a particular adjective of nationality, the general question runs like this: Is literature written by an x-author in a different language still x-literature? As the quoted example shows, the usual answer is negative.
The question that immediately follows opens to debate the relevance of this view in the case of e-literature, especially since even its standard definition treats language as secondary. (According to the definition offered by the Electronic Literature Organization, an electronic literary production is a ‘work with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer’; K. Hayles, Electronic Literature, U of Notre Dame, 2008, 3).
Thus stated, the debate touches upon an unsolved dissimilarity between the definitions of print versus electronic literature from the point of view of the way in which the two of them position themselves with respect to language. While print literature is basically defined as a particular – and even as the most appropriate and complex – use of language: the aesthetic one, e-literature justifies its novelty not in terms of language but first and foremost in terms of its medial manipulation (even if for similar aesthetic purposes). Watching the text’s behaviour under various technical and programming constraints takes precedence over the minute exploration of its stylistic subtleties.
Instead of focusing exclusively on producing meaning by all means, the electronic text, once aware of its peculiarities – most of all of its instability – takes one step back and begins to play not only with meaning, but also with its own legibility. To quantify all the resulting variables would be difficult, but enumerating a few examples will suffice. When the text’s display time ignores the receiver’s reading speed, when the access to the whole body of text is limited either as a result of programming constraints or due to its exceeding quantity, when the text is reduced to a minimum or when it is a ‘recycled’ version of the ordinary usage of language, it is not a comprehensive but rather a conceptual approach that is demanded from the reader. Instead of making an effort to understand the text itself, the reader is supposed to analyse the strategies by means of which that particular interpretation is arrived at and to meditate upon the implications of the impossibility to put into practice the acquired reading or sense-producing habits. In such cases the language of communication hardly matters as long as the receiver is familiar enough with it to be able to recognize the actual aims of the e-text. There is no ineffable or untranslatable meaning that is lost in passing from one language to another or in preferring one language to another for the obvious reason of its wider accessibility simply because ‘meaning’ no longer resides in language (only) but (mostly) in the mechanisms of its production and manipulation.
Therefore, a phrase like ‘E-poetry in x-language’ might be too restrictive when used to refer to e-literature as it seems to reactivate the Romantic view on language which is a correlate of the idea of national literature still in use today. In this view, language is the incarnation of the spirit of a people, a change of language consequently involving the adoption of a different frame of mind as well. Literary studies still function on the basis of this premise which has been internalized to such an extent that it does no longer have to be overtly stated. While this seems to work well with print literature, the case might not be the same when it comes to e-literature, where the second phrase – ‘x e-poetry’ – in which the adjective of nationality points to a more permissive yet less precise categorization relying on a perspective which does not favour language only, might be preferable despite its imprecision and the fact that even in this diluted form some Romantic reminiscences surreptitiously return as well.
This extensive comment on a matter of labeling was meant to serve as an introduction to the presentation of a few works belonging to the Romanian group kinema-ikon, whose digital productions provide very good illustrations of the above mentioned issues. Thus, if one decides to follow the stricter, that is linguistic, criterion, the fact that these productions are representative of Romanian e-literature would be hard to prove indeed as the majority of kinema-ikon works resort to other languages than Romanian – mainly English and French. The reasons for this choice are obvious enough and they are either contextual – many of these works were presented at different international festivals – or more general – the need to address a larger public and to ease the contact with fellow artists from other countries. Nothing to do with the stylistic specificity of a certain language then. That is why applying this criterion might prove misleading in the final run as the reduction it operates overlooks the numerous cases in which the hard-core point of such productions is no longer a matter of what is said or written and how, but of exploring alternative expressive means. In fact, in a very peculiar manner, such works create an interesting balance between the two forms of employing the community-circumscribing term, in this case ‘Romanian’ and ‘in Romanian’. But the introduction has grown into a quite independent meditation which does not cover but partially the key aspects of some of the works I intended to put forth as examples. This makes it necessary to reserve them for a future separate installment under a different heading.
Next to The Knight from the Carpathians and Randevuul, Ready Media is one of the most important works produced by kinema-ikon during its mixed-media or transition stage (1990-1993) and the first to use a digital programme, consequently receiving the ‘official’ title of ‘digital work number 0’. It was publicly presented at the third annual exhibition – entitled MEdiA CULPA – of the Soros Centre for Contemporary Art in Bucharest in 1995. The work does not survive in its initial form on the DVD anthology that accompanies the anniversary catalogue issued in 2005. Ready Media was the result of collective work and initially consisted, on the one hand, in a video rendering of a selection of pieces of news broadcast by the national television and, on the other hand, in a CD-rom collection of ironic-iconic comments on TV cliches displayed on a computer monitor facing the TV screen. A series of posters representing green horses formed the background of this installation. One additional element of the initial presentation was a bottle of ‘Tzuika by Turtz’.
In its digitally reconfigured version the work was given an interactive form. The screen is divided into three vertical sections. The central part can be seen as the summary of the exhibition: at the top there is a short filmic sequence of the video and computer screens facing each other against the background of a wall covered in posters of green horses. A simple click activates immediately underneath the immaterial counterpart of the bottle of ‘Tzuika by Turtz’ which is placed over the figure of a broadcaster, very familiar to the Romanian audience of the 80s-90s. Each of the two lateral sections is further divided into three frames standing for different pieces of news that illustrate the two major (and probably solely) mass-media topics: ‘actiune’ (action) and ‘pasiune’ (passion). Depending on the ‘reader’s’ actions, these frames alternatively display the corresponding words and images.
The message of this work is quite explicit. The title pretty much says it all: as opposed to the avant-garde ready-made, which consisted in elevating a common object from a utilitarian to an artistic level, what ready-media does is to reduce ideas to ready bits of information, which require no further processing, and feed them into the public.
The linguistic component of this work is minimal: apart from the title, it is actually represented by three words and a phrase. The critical commentary on the adverse effects of media is implicit in the particular images chosen to exemplify these very few words. For instance, the word ‘action’ is illustrated by a series of images depicting scenes and instruments of torture.
However, the most ironic ‘comment’ is provided precisely by the image of the wall covered in posters of green horses – a visual and literal representation (inescapable for a Romanian public but which would be lost for a foreign audience) of a very common idiomatic expression in Romanian used as a synonym for ‘hallucinating’ or ‘taking unreal things for facts’ and always employed in a derisive manner: ‘to see green horses on the wall’. This is an instance when the use of a phrase like ‘e-literature in x-language’ becomes justified as the presence of those posters, which represent one of the main components of this work, and the comments they involve are of significant consequence for the overall meaning and would be totally overlooked or seem devoid of purpose in the absence of proper familiarity with the idiomatic structure of the Romanian language. What is also striking is the fact that the authors opted not for a linguistic, but for a pictorial rendering of the idiom, increasing that way the distance between its original form and its possible translations. For instance, the approximate English equivalent – ‘to chase a wild goose’ – despite a certain similarity, does not help identify the reference. At the same time, such techniques succeed in making more effective their criticism of the media’s false claims of objectivity. In other words (or images) what this works says is that what you ‘see’ on the TV screen is nothing more than ‘green horses on the wall’.
Nevertheless, such instances are rare. In most cases the chosen language has very little to do with an express intention to exploit its particular stylistic subtleties, therefore its use neither enhances nor diminishes the artistic effects of a certain piece. The range of examples is vast but I will limit the selection to two of the most typical situations: the use of minimal and predominantly informative linguistic structures (as in, for instance, mother nature. father knowledge) and the hybridization of language (as in Word for Word).
Mother nature. father knowledge, produced by Linda Barkasz and Sergiu Sas in collaboration with Mihai Salajan and Rares Moldovan, is one of the five works which form the Vertigo project (2005) inspired by sub-culture and counter-culture movements. This project is an illustration of the ‘kf-art’ practised by a group of young artists from Arad (in a special Café_Club + alternative space for contemporary art) whom kinema-ikon met in 2004 and with whom they started a collaborative project. Out of the five pieces this is the closest to a literary model, albeit a popular one. It is a narrative that follows closely the tradition of SF stories and movies. The usual topics of SF productions or, more specifically, of what is nowadays called ‘cyberfiction’ can be easily identified: the myth of the perfect technological society: ‘cyber-utopia’; the destruction of the myth: ‘cyber-utopia … failure’, ‘rebellion of the guardian cyber-angels’; the confrontation of races: ‘the Great Divide of the human race … The Watchers and The Disembodied Voices’; the model inhabitant and product of this society: ‘born from the sea of information’ and the change he goes though once he realizes that what he believed to be the (one and only) World is just a monad inside a larger sphere: ‘raised by artificial creatures’, ‘erased memory’, ‘disconnected from the netsphere’, ‘ran to the locked door that I knew was now wide open’, ‘escape … cyberspace … damnation’; the melange of theological and technological elements characteristic of this genre; the antithetic presentation of the feminine character: ‘born from a lotus flower’; the final ‘connection’ between the two main characters. Last but not least, the first five chapters of this work – each named after one of the five senses – suggest a sort of initiation process – ‘the quest changes you forever’ – consisting in the (re)humanization of the informational being that has escaped its ‘cyber’-prison. So much for the ‘cliches’ of the work.
On the other hand, this mainly inferred and reconstructed scenario is prevented from becoming completely linear, explicit (and even valid) precisely by the way in which the linguistic structures are employed. As the above examples show, the text is minimal and broken. There are hardly any coherent sentences. The regular intervention of ellipses between keywords and phrases induces doubts as to the way in which they should be connected. Thus, ‘cyber-utopia … failure’ can be read according to the common pattern as ‘the failure of cyber-utopia’ but the lack of explicit syntactic connection between the two words leaves space for opposite and equally justified interpretations. Similarly, in ‘escape … cyberspace … damnation’ the connections multiply proportionally and the structure can be read either, most commonly, as ‘to escape cyberspace damnation’ or as ‘to escape cyberspace is damnation’ or even as ‘to escape in cyberspace from damnation’ and so on. Despite their scarcity and simplicity, these fragmented words and phrases can generate complex and different scenarios depending on the linking patterns supplied by the reader. The disconnected character of the text is mirrored by its manner of appearing on the screen: chunks of words flash up unexpectedly, in no particular order, as the mouse pointer hovers over the moving picture on the screen.
The same contrast between ‘recycled’ and subversive elements is noticeable in the case of the visual support of the work. The background consists in a series of photos depicting a Romanian cityscape, which is partially ‘conquered’ by a sort of spidery infestation agent that also clings to the main characters in a parasitical manner. However, the two ‘realities’ never really fuse. The contrast between the photographed images and the superimposed network drawings is so striking that it never enables the sort of ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ that such stories strongly require.
The second example is a poem by Andreea Bencsik published in Intermedia 12 (1997), the magazine issued by kinema-ikon during the third stage of its evolution – the digital stage proper (since 1994 onwards) – called ‘hypermedia’. The theme of the poem is the contrast between the overt and apparently unambiguous meaning of the most commonly used phrases of everyday language and the incommunicable actual matters that frequently lurk behind them: ‘Sometimes words have true meaning behind / inside word’. This is visually illustrated by the blurred words which overshadow the clearly written and outspoken phrases and which carry the actual meanings: ‘Ce mai faci?’ ‘Bine’ ‘Sufar’ (‘How are you?’ ‘Fine’ [overtly said]; ‘I'm hurt’ [covertly thought]); ‘What a cold weather’ ‘Yes, this is a cold day’ [overtly]; ‘What a stupid remark’ [covertly]. Even if the poem resorts to both English and Romanian phrases, the employment of the two languages is meant to illustrate a universal situation.
Finally, there is a third class of works in which the relevance of the linguistic origin is progressively reduced to zero as a result of the distortions to which the text is subjected. For instance, Mitzi Kapture’s La fusillade (part of the collective project entitled Commedia del Multimedia, 1997) presents an OCR scan of a recognizable French text but distorted to such a degree that its perception cannot be called ‘reading’ proper. In an even more radical manner, another work of the Vertigo project, signed by Ivan Tolan, presents the reader not with a text but, as the title explicitly informs us, with ‘hyper junk’.
To sum up, in the digital realm classifications such as ‘e-literature in x-language’ or ‘x e-literature’ actually serve to measure the oscillating relevance of the linguistic component of such works and they have limited relevance themselves. There is thus the first circle of the ‘e-works’ whose choice of an ‘x-language’ really influences the overall meaning. (The only member of the kinema-ikon group who actually produced one volume of e-poems in Romanian is Romulus Bucur. But his extensive contribution to the kinema-ikon workshop deserves a separate treatment.) There is then a second category of works – ‘the x e-works’ – whose choice of one language or another has no direct or major effect on meaning. Beyond this second circle, one discovers the vast area of hybrid and illegible ‘textualities’ where meaning is no longer a matter of ‘natural’ linguistic structures and where the use of the term ‘literature’ seems to be only metaphorical.
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