Videopoetry Expert Tom Konyves Weighs in on VidLit Finalists

Tom Konyves, "Profile" and "24"

Here is a very special guest blog post from one of Canada's most experienced videopoem producer and theorist. In fact, he coined the term "videopoetry" in 1982.

His excellent Videopoetry: A Manifesto can be read on the Critical Inquiry blog here, or can be downloaded in the original format here

 

VISUAL TEXT IN VIDEOPOETRY: TWO CASE STUDIES

 
 
On October 28, Chris Masson, of litlive.ca, asked me to “take a look at our VidLit finalists and comment on two or three of your favourites… Offer a sort of brief review or commentary/analysis.”
 
Four years ago, when I began researching videopoetry (I prefer the term as one word to indicate that a fusion of text, image and sound has taken place), one of the concerns that I had was how to evaluate works that used text in different ways: some had only text on the screen; some used text as the sound element to accompany the images; some used text superimposed over the images; some presented the poet who voiced the poem in person; others used text with animations that were generated by a computer program. I decided to assign 5 categories for these various forms.
 
It was not surprising but interesting that, among the 10 VidLit finalists, these categories were well represented: of Kinetic Text (only text on the screen), "The Love Song of Roy G. Biv" by Kevin Matthews, is a perfect example; of Sound Text, "Odds and Ends" by Swoon, words & voice by Joseph Harker; of Visual Text, "24" by Susan Cormier and "Profile" by R.W. Perkins; of Performance, "GRAF" by Motion, directed by Eklipz, featuring Zion; "Fingers" by Sandra Alland, performance and poem by Alison Smith; "Miriam's Song" by Shabnam Piryaei and "Christian Confession" by Joel McKerrow; and of Cin(e)poetry, works generated by a computer program, "Inverting the Deer" by Gary Barwin and "Right Side Up" by Ian Keteku, animation by Indie Venture.
 
The two works I would like to discuss are of the Visual Text category: "24" by Susan Cormier and "Profile" by R.W. Perkins.
 
"Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter."
– John Keats
 
Visual Text is, for me, of special significance; in the September, 2011, posting of my essay/treatise “Videopoetry: A Manifesto”, I referred to this category as leading the genre; of the five “methods” to create a videopoem, this category, I suggested, presents the most significant challenge to videopoetry. Within a month of having published the manifesto, I received a response from Nic Sebastian, who had been building an audio poetry anthology containing readings of contemporary poets at Whale Sound (and more recently at pizzicati of hosanna), producing some ‘sound text’ videopoems, and lending her own voice to others’ videopoetry, including Dave Bonta and the prolific Swoon (Marc Neys).
 
On her blog, Very Like A Whale,  she grappled with using visual text vs voiced text. I decided to comment, ‘Visual text was never meant to be voiced.’ In the dialogue that ensued, she posed the question, ‘What *did* you mean when you asserted that visual text is “charged with leading”? Of all the elements that go into videopoetry, why do you think visual text should be pre-eminent?’
 
One of my comments to Sebastian was that ‘there is, at the outset, an inner sense of need/expectation/anxiety for text to appear (displayed or voiced). I never saw it as a choice – it was born as one or the other. When you first looked at it, you instinctively knew whether it was affecting the eye or the ear of the viewer.’
 
She mentions that she’s been ‘engaged with ‘sound’ text almost exclusively for months now. The idea of making a videopoem without voice and with only visual text was therefore appealing.’ She compiles a list comparing the two treatments, referring to the “unfurling” of  sound/sense, to which I replied:
 
‘Visual text is not the replacement of voice in a videopoem; it simply recognizes that the soundtrack has the potential to function as an “independent” catalyst in the integration of text and image. It brings to the videopoem the secret ingredient – from another dimension – simultaneously guiding, shadowing, punctuating and enveloping the “unfurling” of the work.’
 
To the colloquium held by the Zebra Poetry Film Festival this year, I wrote: ‘It is widely accepted that our century is the Age of the Image. Its sheer power to represent and modify our view of the world is almost beyond comprehension. Add to this the supreme, persistent and heretofore dominant instrument of communication and individual expression, our language, our text, displayed or voiced. Then add to these the technological advancements in the manipulation of sound, natural, human, machine, electronic. You would think, you must think, that integrating these three forms of creative expression will produce a new super-art form. Could it be that the works we are witnessing - on the screens at our festivals, on the screens of our Internet - could it be that the precious balance of these potent elements in the cauldron has yet to be found?’
 
Implied in ‘the precious balance of these potent elements’, could it be that the use of voiced text diminishes the potential of the soundtrack? Imagine the thousands of sound “effects” available to the artist; could the soundtrack be more effective by “punctuating” the work than simply delivering the text to the work? By using visual text, by using the “image track” to deliver the text to the work, the soundtrack is released from its traditional function – delivering the narrative, delivering the written poem read aloud.
 
I envisioned the genre of videopoetry as a “super-art form” because of the added element of visual text; without, the genre is a recited poem accompanied by illustrative (or non-illustrative) images, a “filming of a poem”. (While the recited poem succeeds on so many levels – the nuanced, expressive delivery, more often than not, in a deliberate rhythm – the context of the work is limited to the relationship of the images to the words heard, one after another.)
 
The added element of visual text produces a new set of relationships whose “reading” or interpretation enables a more complex poetic experience to emerge, i.e. the relationship of the visual text to the soundtrack as well as the presented image. In the process, visual text assumes a new intermediary function, initially signifying that the work is not the dramatization of the poem.
 
Visual text in videopoems should not be confused with:
·         visual text identifying place and/or time in commercial films, e.g. “London, 1878” or “Two years later
·         visual typography (transforming the shape of the letters to suggest the meaning of the word)
·         visual text which places a printed poem on the screen
·         visual text which displays the voiced text
·         visual text which can be seen simultaneously as the corresponding image on the screen
 
Visual text addresses what I have already proposed as the principal function of a videopoem: ‘to demonstrate the process of thought.’ The most profound difference between visual (displayed) and sound (voiced) text is the silence of visual text.
 
Susan Cormier’s “24”
 
In 2007, T.Paul Ste Marie, a Vancouver poet, painter, actor, impresario and self-proclaimed hipster, AKA SwankHipster on his myspace website, an authentic rockabilly, in-the-fifties style of pompadour and sideburns, long-time host/emcee of Thundering Word Heard at the Café Montmartre – a missionary for passion as the essence of true poetry – died suddenly at the age of 41. Friend Susan Cormier began to assemble a “memory book” that she wished to distribute to a close friend of his and his two mothers – adoptive and birth. The birth mother, Ruth Janes, was not to be found. Hence the videopoem.
 
Couched in a letter, “a letter in a bottle”, the work is a metaphor for the faintest hope sent out not only from the 24th floor of  the artist’s physical space, but also from the artist’s thoughts. Fading up from the black screen, the visual text, “Dear Ruth,” appears in blue, dead centre on the black screen. It continues, sans image,
 
“This is a letter in a bottle.”
“ I need to find you.”
 
With these 3 statements, we are immediately thrust into the paradoxical (direct/indirect) world of what makes poetry in this videopoem: “Dear Ruth”, the direct you of the poem, engages the viewer as the unintended (indirect) recipient of the letter’s content (experiencing the work, the viewer becomes the proxy for “Ruth”); “This is a letter in a bottle. I need to find you” – is direct in its ‘need’ to communicate, yet indirect because of the impossibility of communication (“Ruth” cannot be found). The remainder of the videopoem takes on the form of the thoughts in the ‘bottle’, sent out on a sea of minimal motion video and the unrelenting, repetitious waves of the instrumental soundtrack.
 
The imagery of the videopoem – an appropriated home-movie of the letter’s subject, T.Paul Ste Marie – is presented in high contrast and minimal motion (between 1-5 frames per second). The decision to render T.Paul’s real image in high contrast and minimal motion results in the almost-vanished, barely recognizable reality of the subject, the real transformed into the visual representation of a faint memory; the subject moves noticeably through extreme dark into blinding light. The qualities of a living being – moving about in real time, speaking, laughing, interacting in/occupying a clearly defined, ever-changing physical space – have been reduced to a whimsical flip-book, a novelty item.
 
To represent the subject as a series of near-still frames suggests an emphasis on an unreal time, when the subject is no longer available as flesh-and-blood; his movements are halted (not halting, which would emphasize the subject in real time) as a necessary function of the image in juxtaposition with the text – a balancing act between the speed of text presentation (the speed of thought) and the “fixed” visual referent (the image of T.Paul) as the agent of the evocation, the constant reminder of, and the inspiration for, the work’s context.
 
“Writing begins at the point where speech becomes impossible.”
– Roland Barthes
 
The ‘letter to Ruth’ is presented as short lines of text, positioned to suggest lines of poetry; sometimes a single phrase appears and disappears, quickly followed by another phrase. The entire screen is used as the “page” of the letter. The top left quarter of the screen is almost exclusively reserved for the phrase, “Dear Lady,” as it would appear on paper;  subsequent phrases are placed in the lower right quarter of the screen. Rarely on the same “line”, the words appear and disappear quickly, sometimes emerging above the previous words, sometimes below, to the left, etc. This active positioning of text presses the viewer to not only follow the spatial changes to the text but also to follow the information they are presenting. As a result, the short bursts of text are perceived almost at the ‘speed of thought’, emulating the speed of thought, enabling the viewer to experience the ‘process of thought’. Meanwhile, images of the subject flicker on the screen.
 
As to the information presented in the text, the so-called content (thoughts) of the letter, the process is circular;  10 times we are returned to the phrase, “Dear Lady”, 10 separate attempts to communicate the “meaning” – or at least the intent – of the letter. Time after time, thoughts return to the physical present, the 24th floor, the grieving, the ‘faint hope’ of connecting with the birth mother. Repeated phrases circle about the work, always returning to the state of “disconnect”.
 
If the poetic experience is to be of Truth, the use throughout of the word “disconnected” sums it up, sending the trope of the letter-in-a-bottle back to the beginning (‘Dear Lady’), each time with the faint hope that “this time” the words will succeed. The 10 attempts are destined to fail, we realize, as evidence of the heartache mounts (‘How do you type sorrow / or regret / or desperation’);  thoughts bounce back and forth between the present and the past, between images of the real that was (‘the crowded rooms of applause / that rich purpleblack hairdye’) and the real that exists in the present  disconnected space of the work (‘Please reboot and try again. / Number cannot be completed as dialed’) as well as the unreal (‘I dreamed of him / that as I talked / he laughed loud / as he does’… ‘sometimes I see him / logged into the internet’… in an apartment on the 24th floor / I am sure I am swaying in the breeze / but I can’t feel it.’)
 
There is even an effort to connect the birth mother (‘I don’t know where you are / You could have hands / thin and soft as silk’) to the adoptive mother (‘At the wake / she was gracious / and her skin was dry / and thin like silk’). Thus, hope and despair circle each other; meanwhile images of the subject flicker on the screen.
 
"The existence of music makes it possible for images and words to communicate with each other."                                                                                 – Konrad Steiner
 
The type or genre of soundtrack, aptly titled “1024th Floor”, by Avastar, could be described as electro-pop or even “trance”. Three identical phrases, each three half-notes higher than the last, are repeated; the changes are subtle and always return to the first phrase. The raising of pitch has the effect of raising the intensity of the “narrative” – anticipating some event, action, release, etc. (‘He’s not here / but he could be’)
 
If the text can be interpreted as circular, returning ten times to “Dear Lady,” so is the soundtrack circular, periodically ascending (faint hope) and descending (sorrow, regret). Meanwhile, images of the subject flicker on the screen.
 
If my suggestion that a videopoem should demonstrate the process of thought and simultaneity is a valid one, Susan Cormier’s “24” is an interesting example of how visual text can simulate the circular structure of an inherently impossible form of communication: a letter-in-a-bottle addressed to a specific person, the birth mother of the recently-deceased man, a birth mother who cannot be found. The poetic experience is provided by enabling the viewer to simultaneously “read” the content of the letter and, because of the speed of the phrases appearing on the screen – superimposed over images of T.Paul and an energized soundtrack – to sense and share the desperate and futile desire to connect the “meaning” of T.Paul’s disappearance (death) to the disappearance of the birth mother.
 
Ultimately, the ‘faint hope’ that inspired the work proves no match for the disconnectedness that triumphs as any kind of meaning; seconds from the end, the word “disconnecting” appears on the black screen, pulsates, multiplies and scatters in all directions…
 
Incidentally, Susan Cormier’s “24” is the second version of this videopoem. Her initial attempt was 3 minutes longer. It can be found here.
 
"Profile" by R.W. Perkins
 
There’s no shortage of supplementary information, interpretation and general praise on this unique work by R.W. Perkins. The Atticus Review presents a word-by-word score of the voiced poem. On her blog, VidPoFilm, Brenda Clews writes extensively about this work, including her detailed notes, literally scene by scene. The backstory (or Perkins’ term, genesis) of the work is provided on his website, rw-perkins.com: “A friend had looked over some of my past written works, then started comparing it to my new films. He made an observation; that much of my older written work would be considered stream of consciousness, and that I should try implementing that style in some of my film poems...”
 
As “stream of consciousness” is the literary equivalent of ‘process of thought’, I was immediately intrigued. What can one (not) imagine floating down the stream of consciousness?
 
He goes on to describe the OULIPO-styled, self-imposed constraints to achieve this: “I had 30 minutes to write, then 30 minutes to do a reading.”  In addition, “Both the subject and name of the poem were directly influenced by online social identities, blurbs about one's life creating a narrative of their day.”
 
Brenda Clews endorses the subject/title ‘Profile’: “When I saw it I felt it was a marker of our era. That surely many films of this type will follow, but his was the first. Identity in the twenty-first century is shaped by social media sites. Your life is not contained in your private diaries and photo albums anymore; it's all on-line now. The notion of who we are has never been more global or more revealing. One's Facebook profile updates and photo albums provide many snapshots of a life. R.W. Perkins has captured that sense of a collided life, a life of snapshots and home videos and snatches of writing. It is a fast-paced life. We describe ourselves to each other. There are millions of us. Facebook is approaching 1/7th of the world's population. It is a social media site that is creating a twenty-first [century] sense of self.”
 
The notion of who we are. If ever there was a reason for any form of creative expression… here it is.
 
Perkins’ title sequence immediately establishes what appears to be a signature style: sliding mile-high Helvetica text across split or multiple screens, recalling Heather Haley’s praise for the work as “big, bombastic and sublimely funny”. Watching the video on a 40-foot screen at the Cinémathèque in Vancouver, the oversize text, juxtaposed with extreme close-ups, was a powerful, in-your-face experience.
 
Relating Perkins’ visual text style to his earlier “Under a Man-Made Sun”, a videopoem wherein certain spoken words are accompanied by their visual signs as phonetic spellings of these words, some with their dictionary-style definitions, key words in “Profile” appear bold and tall, variously vertical or horizontal, punctuating the voice with precision. If visual text simply repeating key words heard on the soundtrack appears inessential (consider most car ads on TV), Perkins attempts to avoid this inclination by elaborating on the word: the voiced phrase, “2 sugars, cream…” becomes the visual text, “SUGAR C12H22O11 CREAM”; “I toil through the work day” becomes “LABORIOUS” and “WORKING HARD OR HARDLY WORKING”; “My emotional locomotive” becomes “EMOTIONAL LOCOMOTIVE” plus “’I heard the Denver and Rio Grande LOCOMOTIVES howling off in to the mountains. I wanted to pursue my star further.’ Jack Kerouac”.
 
"The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be – the greater its emotional power and poetic reality."                                                                                       - Pierre Reverdy
 
Using both Sound Text and Visual Text in a videopoem has its challenges; while the idea is to present some semblance of association between the two, the aesthetics of the genre, as I see it, demand a more ambiguous, even oblique association between the elements of sound, image and text. While Reverdy’s axiom is aimed at two images, it makes sense to see the relationship equally applicable between text and image or, in this case, the written text and voiced text.
 
It gets better. The voiced text, “I am amused  at a funny thing that somebody said to me from the night before, but I can’t quite recall the phrasing, or even the subject” becomes associated with the following visual text a few seconds later, “’THE EXISTENCE OF FORGETTING HAS NEVER BEEN PROVED: WE ONLY KNOW THAT SOME THINGS DO NOT COME TO OUR MIND WHEN WE WANT THEM TO’ Friedrich Nietzsche”. Thus the stream of consciousness is presented as associative texts – the author’s thoughts are presented as commingled with related “reads”.
 
The next scene abandons the voice as it shifts to an aisle in a supermarket (scored with a 1950s theme), superimposing: “I AM LOST IN MY HEAD IN THE SUPERMARKET / I AM THINKING OF THE INEVITABLE END OF MY LIFE AND ABOUT SAVING 20 CENTS ON AN OFF BRAND OF YOGHURT THAT I KNOW I WON’T LIKE.” While the substitution of visual text for voiced text in this central scene disrupts the “flow” of the stream of consciousness (we have become familiar with Perkins voice and expect it to continue), it does propel the narrative into its end-game, the vision outside the window of a jogger and a woman with a stroller.
 
The end-game is delivered without the interplay of visual text; Perkins’ rolling voice is juxtaposed with images presented again in split and multiple screens, for the most part illustrating the text. But between the images of clouds and airplanes and joggers and strollers and backyards and a close-up of Perkins’ eyes… there are the words, the words that have slipped from the stream of his consciousness, “as the mother passes, I see the jogger fade into the future… and that the jet airplane overhead is full of self-importance… Profile: I’m awake, I can think, I exist. I can see that today - I am prodigious.”
 
The notion of who we are. If the images we have presented, captured or appropriated, if the words we have written, spoken, overheard, read or tasted, if the sounds we have gathered and wound around our images and words cannot tell, nothing can.
 
– Feb. 1, 2013

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