Concrete Poetry Heritage Revisited*

Digital arts are specific practices that emerged in the 1990s and don’t point to a homogeneous context. Net art, interactive video, virtual performances, e-poetry, mobile and locative media processes are some of its formats. It is true that several artistic modalities, such as music and photography, are produced today with digital media however, it is important to underline that we are considering as digital art the works which are not only produced and presented in digital format, but those that make use of its particular attributes like interactive and participatory features, code poetics and programming languages resources, among others, which will be discussed in this essay.

Those remarks are essential to conceptualize what is understood here as digital literature, and specially cyberliterature, considering that the interpenetration between writing and computers became irreversible. However, it imposes three fundamental challenges which demand a rigorous historiographical approach, in order to locate cyberculture, recognizing its links and splits with the concrete poetry tradition; to understand the particularities of the reading context of on-line literature, without swaying to techno-deterministic euphoria, and the comprehension of the poetic unfoldings of new text-production techniques, new writing supports and new writing practices.

Locating cyberculture in relation to Concrete poetry is particularly relevant in the Brazilian case, because of the influence some of its main artificers had, and still have, on the first generation of multimedia poets (as Lenora de Barros, Arnaldo Antunes and Andre Vallias, among others), due their pioneering in incorporating “beyond the page” media, such as videotext, video itself and electronic boards into their writing in a poetically consistent way (Beiguelman 379).

To say that the flirtation with the new reading interfaces and new forms of text production and distribution, like video in the 1980s, keeping and refreshing multimedia manifestations, is part of the history of Brazilian contemporary literature wouldn’t be an exaggeration; this statement, however, deserves some pondering. The risk of relapsing in a linear story, which would explain digital literature from a logic of parenthood and affiliation, is enormous.

It’s true that Concrete poetry discuss, as platform or as mission, the overflowing of the scripture related to the margin of the page before than literature, globally speaking, was definitely “attached” to the monitor. Nevertheless, this need to be carefully analyzed. On one hand, the specificities of the ways through which different poems, conceived for printed media relate to the different interfaces used are erased. On the other hand, we forget that this overflowing of the limits of the text, and its imbrications with other media and formats, is a question central to contemporary literature since the historical vanguards. And that is not restricted by any means to poetry. Cinema had fascinated Modernists in such a way that one can say that some of the most remarkable aspects of works of that period, like Mario de Andrade’s Amar, Verbo Intransitivo [To Love, Intransitive Verb] (1927), and John dos Passos’ USA (trilogy published between 1930 and 1936), are results of the incorporation of the film structures to their respective narrative fabrics.

These brief examples do not intended to show the originality or the pioneering of certain experiments that merged, in the literary sphere, new technologies in the structure of the text. And they are certainly not intended to endorse the belief in a false continuity of the relationship between art and technology that erases innovation in the opacity of the “since always”. Its goal is entirely other: to explain that Concrete Poetry experiences became references because they gave visibility and consistence to the re-framing of the creation and reading processes of our time reprocessing an reinventing trends as well as pointing to new directions in the literature field.

Concretism opened space for new genres of visual poetry like the boxes and posters produced in the 70’s by Edgard Braga (1897-1985) , who not only expanded literary supports but worked, like no other Brazilian poet, poetry beyond phonetics playing with the “rise of language” in order to subvert its borders (Santaella 24-31).

This kind of subversion explains why can we credit Edgard Braga with being a paradigmatic creator for those working today with new dimensions of language and its intersections with non-verbal arts. Intersections that mean implosion, visual guerrilla action and electronic intervention in the work of Waldemar Cordeiro (1927-1971), who, in the 70’s, coined the concept of arteônica (arte + eletrônica; art + electronics) and made pioneering efforts with computers and the arts in 1968, working with Giorgio Moscati, from the Physics Department of the University of São Paulo at that time.
“A Mulher que Não é B.B.” (1971) [“The Woman who is not B.B.] is an expressive example of his challenging approach. It follows his series “Derivadas” (“Derivates”, 1968), a series focused on processes of translation and recreation of photographic materials through digitalization. In that piece, a portrait of a Vietnamese girl was processed in perforated cards resulting in a disturbing image of that period. It relates to politics, anthropology, art, science and mass media, stressing all those tensions by submitting them to a new language system: computer binary code.

Cordeiro advanced notions of appropriation and reinscription processes in creative practices mediated by electronic media. He eroded the borders between visual art, technology and information. If contemporary literature is the art of the spacialization of language temporality, no matter if is verbal or not, his work is representative of this mobilization. It pushed poetics towards a hybrid practice that makes itself through the interpenetration of media and by its interstices.

Nevertheless, the first attempts directly committed to the exploration of new media for literary purposes were made only in the 1980’s in pieces that used videotext and holography. By this time, Eduardo Kac, in Rio de Janeiro, was trying to conceptualize what he called “immaterial textual volumes” and “the perceptual syntax” of “holopoetry”, working simultaneously with the anagram “Olho/Holo” (1983) , his first holographic poem, and its theoretical implications. “Olho/Holo” was presented at the Museum of Modern Art, in Rio de Janeiro, in 1985. The same year, Julio Plaza, with Augusto de Campos, Décio Pignatari, Moisés Baumstein and José Wagner Garcia presented the first results of a collective research project called “Triluz” [“Trilight”], realized and coordinated by Plaza, that aimed to “marry words and images to light”. Presented at the Museum of Image and Sound, in São Paulo, the exhibition showed poetic projects made with holography. One year later, it was expanded and presented at the same place in another exhibition “Idehologia” [“Idehologie”]. Important holographic works were there launched, including “Spacetime/Espazotempo” by Décio Pignatari, a poem that reproduced the DNA model, “Arco-Íris no Ar Curvo” [“Rainbow in Curved Air”] by Plaza, a work in the form of the Moebius Ring, and the internationally known “Poema-bomba” (1983-1997) [“Bomb-poem”] by Augusto de Campos. (Kac, “Holopoetry and Perceptual Syntax”; Beiguelman, 133-134)

In spite of the coincidence of dates and forms, the aims of those projects are totally different. Kac was interested in the hybridism of verbal and mathematics languages and the investigation of the ruptures of this approach with the linear and ideographic literature (1989, 397-402). In what concerns the Concrete poets goals, the incorporation of new media to their production meant the realization of a “wishful thinking”. As Augusto de Campos wrote, in a commentary on the production of the poems in computer graphics that composed Ricardo Araújo’s project Poesia Visual – Vídeo Poesia [Visual Poetry – Videopoetry], “practice has shown that the anticipations of concrete poetry find in the computer a naturally adequate vehicle for its new verbal propositions” (Kac, “Holopoetry and fractal holopoetry: Digital holography as an art medium”; Campos 169).

Philadelpho Menezes opposed vividly that kind of statement, inquiring: “A concrete poem, a form developed in the 50s, even if it has a communion with cybernetic thinking, may still be seen as something new just for the fact that it’s communicated in a new technological medium?” (117).
Through the dangerous choice of thinking the novelty along the lines of the since-always, in Campos’ case, or as something that can only be done by inaugural acts, in Menezes’ approach, one could easily loose focus in the analysis of the executed projects and its historical relevance in the digital literature production. Moreover, this kind of debate hides the particularities of other creative trends that flourished in the same period like Arnaldo Antunes’ Nome (1993) [Name], produced in video, book, and CD. Working with the same ideas in different media he did not only promoted a reflection upon the specificities of each one of these languages as also stimulated us to think about the passages that ran through them and between them.

The poems of Nome pointed to the necessity of thinking not only the changes that the exchange of material artifacts implies in the way we interact with the words, but also in the way they modify the meanings of the words in this mediatic ecology system in which contents are made available to reading in different situations (at the museum, at home or in the street), affecting the poetic perception in a network of meanings that connects and individualizes them.

The richness of the intersemiotic translations effected by Julio Plaza in videotext and in electronic panels, the countless re-compositions of the poems Bomba and Parafísica, by the Augusto and Haroldo de Campos, Eduardo Kac’s videoinstallations and holopoems, Arnaldo Antunes’ videopoems, among others, can not be discussed in merely chronological terms, obeying to a pioneering criterion as an intrinsic value, not even in a self-referent way, circumscribing the work to immanent potentials of their poetics.

The interesting thing about this Brazilian production of the 1980s and the 90s it that it is contemporary, for example, of the video works of the visual poet Richard Kostelanetz, of the countless re-compositions of Jenny Holzer’s truisms with different media (as electronic panels and laser projections made in USA and in many European cities from 1977 to 1997) and of the spatial and tonal interconecctions between word and image that Laurie Anderson’s performances made famous in pieces like Language Is a Virus (first presented in the electronic opera United States I-IV, in 1983, in the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Nova York).

This phenomenon of the spread and multiplication of new literary platforms in the mid 1980s and 90s is far from being typically an Anglo-saxon one. We all know very well today the works of Waldemar Cordeiro, discussed above. Also, it is good to remember that in 1988, Portuguese poet and critic E. M. de Melo e Castro already showed and discussed experiments that explored the relationship between poetry and computer language since the 1970s, like the works of Silvestre Pestana, Pedro Barbosa, and Melo e Castro himself. (233-235)

Very significant of this questioning of the mutations in the text and in the literature mediated and intercepted by new technologies in this period is the videopoem Un Coup de Dés (1992), by Constanze Ruhm, In this video the artist, who was obviously referring to Mallarmé, was not featuring a videographic translation, but as an exploration of the flexibility of interpretations that the different semantic, graphic, syntactic, and words arrangement had caused, taking one of the verses of the poem – “Rien n’aura lieu / que le lieu” – as principle and guiding concept of a writing that is recognizable by the production of reading places, not necessarily new, but different.

Several other projects developed in the 1980s and in the 1990s could be mentioned, and the variety of solutions and problems raised by them is not casual. The period could de defined as a moment when the nexuses between texts, supporting media and interfaces were reconfigured, revalidating the relationship between literature and other art forms, as it is clear in Peter Greenaway’s films, who, in masterpieces like Prospero’s Book (1991) referenced the reality of an aesthetics of transition, aggregation, and migration as paradigms to the contemporary creation.

If the poetry of the Campos brothers, Décio Pignatari and Julio Plaza is directly related to the production of many poets intensely dedicated to multimedia literature since the mid-1980s and 90s, like Andre Vallias, Arnaldo Antunes, Walter Silveira and Lenora de Barros, it is not related to the visual poetry of Philadelpho Menezes, the poetic work of Eduardo Kac and a whole generation dedicated to the explorations of code poetry, such as the young artist José Carlos Silvestre. These poets’ productions, as well as the Concrete group work since the mid 1980s, must be read in a broader international context and not only according to their interpretation of their own works. However, their methods and strategies especially that of translation between different media, allied to their poetic relevance and rigor in the treatment of different interfaces for literary creation are still a reference. That balance between tradition and innovation is, therefore, one of the first challenges in the study of cyberliterature (Beiguelman 129-140).

A comment made by Haroldo de Campos stresses those considerations. Talking about the Concrete movement goals in its beginnings, he said:

In poetry it was imperative to recuperate the revolution started by Mallarmé (“Un Coup des Dés”) and amplified by Pound, Joyce, Stein, Cummings, Apollinaire and other vanguard movements of the first decades. It concerned to continue the knocking down the verbal structures of the contractual discourse, insufficient to embrace the universe of imagination and sensibility. (Campos 8)

As a matter of fact, this is what digital literature, especially in works conceived for the Web, could have as its mission statement: knocking down the verbal structures of contractual discourse and melting different poetics into a hybrid tradition.

*(This article is a work in progress and part of an essay on cyberliterature studies to be published this year. Suggestions are welcome. Please use the comments area below.) Top


Antunes. A. Nome (CD, book, and video) BMG/Ariola, Rio de Janeiro, 1993
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