page_space Introduction

Braxton Soderman

In a recent issue of the online ezine Poems that Go entitled, “Text, Time, Typography” the editors broach the topic of the newly emerging functioning page but do not carry the emergence to its logical conclusion:

Today’s poet almost certainly can’t help but think about how their poem looks on a page… it’s interesting to see how changing the line length or a stanza break can slightly alter the meaning of the text. But what happens when we take the words out of the poem and the letters out of the words and play with their relation to the page? What happens when the visual form of the poem is as important as the words that make it?

These questions approach the threshold of a divide that is currently appearing within the heart of digital poetics: the division between the text and the page, the words and the field within which these words exist. Unfortunately the editors do not answer these questions. When the future murmured, they had only the silence of suggestion. The page_space collaboration is an attempt to inhabit this divide, to re-visit the bridge between text and page, to experiment, not only with text, but with the container, the mold, into which we pour and type and spit our words. What happens when we take the words out of the poem? Answered through the eyes of history we no longer have a poem, but a simple, empty space. What happens when the visual form of the poem is as important as the words that make it? Then the material elements, the programmed behaviors, the interactivity of the poetic field itself — the functioning of the page_space divorced from text — are given the green light to diverge and evolve according to their own visual and internal logic. Spurred by the engine of the digital this evolution explodes into a mosaic experiment of textual form, a punctuated equilibrium of poetic evolution.

In 1914 Vasilii Kamensky exhibited a set of “ferroconcrete poems” — visual poems that, according to Tim Harte, referenced the dynamic modernist city constructed with reinforced concrete — yet Kamensky’s poems with their words spread across the page or listed in columns, their lines like iron rods stabilizing the field, also referenced the static cement mold, the form which produced the shape of the material within. Ninety years later the materiality of the concrete mold crumbles into the pixellated slush of the digital, a container of malleable ones and zeros, thus presenting the digital poet with a series of tools, tools to manipulate the container of the text and to build new structures in which to house the material memory of our language; tools with which to influence how the text moves, how it functions and behaves, how the words themselves begin to act! Jim Rosenberg: “The field is a real field: an arena. An arena in which acts occur on the text, perhaps in which the text itself acts. Word objects that behave.” Word objects once outlined and inscribed in stone, in clay, in concrete, with ink, now spill into the arena of the pixel. No longer the clay tablets, stone, concrete, no longer canvas or the layered plexiglass of Cage’s poems, no longer metal, no longer even paper itself, but silicon! Silicon which derives from the word “flint” — the spark — to ignite things into motion. The poetic field is — has been! – sparked into motion: the form or container of the text beginning to create itself.

This is exactly what the page_space collaborators were asked to do: create a space without text that would be given to another writer as a space for compositional activities (textual, imagistic, auditory, etc.). How the space behaves and operates — the interactive features “pre-inscribed” into the mechanism of the page — become the particular, idiosyncratic elements of the page_space itself. The writer who receives a particular page must internalize these elements before the writing begins. Bruce Andrews once wrote, “We can think of the textual surface as an instrument panel, the screen as a flat and opaque workspace, given enormous fluidity, activating the user’s body.” The page_space collaborators were asked to create this “instrument panel” and let the writers fill it with text. In this way the usual collaborative process between writer and designer was reversed. No longer does the writer hand a completed text to the designer and let the latter conceive the optimal way to present it, design it, de-sign it by visualizing it; rather, the designer or programmer first creates the visual or mechanistic page_space and then asks the writer contemplate the optimal way to fill it with text, to “sign it,” to inscribe it with a signature! The designer or programmer asserts their influence before the writing; and the writer enjoys the new challenge of confronting the possibilities of a new space: no longer the boring blank, empty space of the paperpage but Jim Andrew’s active Arteroids gamespace, Deena Larsen’s skin of question marks, Pedro Valdeolmillos’ wordpad, Jody Zellen’s web-walker, Jason Nelson’s airy papyrus sheets; no longer the lambent blink of the blank word-processor but Loss Glazier’s restless text-shifter, geniwate’s word blender, Brian Kim Stefan’s toy turned terrorism meter, Simon Biggs’ multi-linguistic translator engine, Nelson’s plus/minus poem expander. Not only “Poems that Go” but “Pages that Go!”

page_space arrives a few years beyond “The Field Project” (1999) [link] where digital writers — including a few of the current page_space collaborators — created a single web-based essay; essentially, each writer created a portion of the essay that was linked together by a visual node system created by Ted Warnell. The essay orbited a discussion of “the poetics of the field” with each contributor creating their own field as they wrote. The page_space project advances to the next logical step. Instead of creating one’s own poetic field or space, the collaborators created a field for someone else; instead of writing about the field and the space of the page, they created them and exchanged them; instead of collaborating on a single large essay, they let the work stand as an experiment in the productive potential of the page itself.

In Jim Andrews “Architecture and the Literary” [link] — his contribution to “The Field Project” — he realizes that “it’s easy to create an object, fill the object with whatever content you want (text, images, sounds, etc) and subsequently change the content however you want. The changes to objects can be triggered by mousing or clicking objects or by some other form of interactivity. This leads to an unusual view of a piece of literary Web art which I want to develop here,” and, he finishes, “more widely in the future.” Our now IS the future of his “future.” The page_space show is a collection of his ruminated “objects.” Sara Roberts’ use of the standing videogame, “Untitled Game, 1998,” becomes an early example of a new page form, the “instrument panel” that “activates the user’s body;” Alexandra Grant’s re-wiring of Michael Joyce’s wiry text becomes a tenuous delicacy where the space becomes text becomes inscribed as shadow on the page of the white-wall; Karolina Sobecka’s piece creates an open-ended page_space which invites the user to “write” the images, and vice-versa, “imagine” the writing, all the while creating a textual database of transient user inscriptions. Indeed, Karolina Sobecka’s and Simon Biggs’ Translator perhaps point toward the movement of the page_space in the future — individual spaces where writing can dwell, where the environment of the page_space “feeds back” into production of the composition, ceaselessly, endlessly. The double use of Jody Zellen’s text in both Deena Larsen and Jason Nelson’s spaces show how effortlessly, though decisively, text moves from one page_space to the next; likewise the two distinct inscriptions of Pedro’s Signal2Noise Pad — “Lines” by Jason Nelson and “Insects” by Lluís Calvo — illustrate the architecture of the page_space clothed with different meaning.

What is a “page_space,” one might still wonder? It is a mannequin that a text dresses; it is a glass that a text fills; it is an arrangement of furniture on which the text rests. The page_space collaboration is both a collection of completed works that function on their own, the product of text and container coming together, but also, we hope, a collection of imaginative places where writing can take place, where writing could/should take place again, over there, where the future is beginning to take (its) place.