Category Archives: concrete

translating the past

At a certain point in college, I started doing all my word processing using Adobe FrameMaker. I won’t go into why I did this – I was indulging any number of idiosyncrasies then, many of them similarly unreasonable – but I did, and I kept using FrameMaker for most of my writing for a couple of years. Even in the happiest of times, there weren’t many people who used FrameMaker; in 2001, Adobe decided to cut their losses and stop supporting the Mac version of FrameMaker, which only ran in Classic mode anyway. I now have an Intel Mac that won’t run my old copy of FrameMaker; I now have a couple hundred pages of text in files with the extension “.fm” that I can’t read any more. Could I convert these to some modern format? Sure, given time and an old Mac. Is it worth it? Probably not: I’m pretty sure there’s nothing interesting in there. But I’m still loathe to delete the files. They’re a part, however minor, of a personal archive.
This is a familiar narrative when it comes to electronic media. The Institute has a room full of Voyager CD-ROMs which we have to fire up an old iBook to use, to say nothing of the complete collection of Criterion laser discs. I have a copy of Chris Marker’s CD-ROM Immemory which I can no longer play; a catalogue of a show on Futurism that an enterprising Italian museum put out on CD-ROM similarly no longer works. Unlike my FrameMaker documents, these were interesting products, which it would be nice to look at from time to time. Unfortunately, the relentless pace of technology has eliminated that choice.
bpNichol is excited to see you!Which brings me to the poet bpNichol, and what Jim Andrews’s site has done for him. Born Barrie Phillip Nichol, bpNichol played an enormous part in the explosion of concrete and sound poetry in the 1960s. While he’s not particularly well known in the U.S., he was a fairly major figure in the Canadian poetry world, roughly analogous to the place of Ian Hamilton Finlay in Scotland. Nichol took poetry into a wide range of places it hadn’t been before; in 1983, he took it to the Apple IIe. Using the BASIC language, Nichol programmed poetry that took advantage of the dynamic new “page” offered by the computer screen. This wasn’t the first intersection of the computer and poetry – as far back as 1968, Dick Higgins wrote a FORTRAN program to randomize the lines in his Book of Love & War & Death – but it was certainly one of the first attempts to take advantage of this new form of text. Nichol distributed the text – a dozen poems – on a hundred 5.25” floppy disks, calling the collection First Screening.
bpNichol died in 1988, about the time the Apple IIe became obsolete; four years later, a HyperCard version of the program was constructed. HyperCard’s more or less obsolete now. In 2004, Jim Andrews, Geof Huth, Lionel Kerns, Marko Niemi, and Dan Waber began a three-year process of making First Screening available to modern readers; their results are up at They’ve made Nichol’s program available in four forms: image files of the original disk that can be run with an Apple II emulator, with the original source should you want to type in the program yourself; the HyperCard version that was made in 1992; a QuickTime movie of the emulated version playing; and a JavaScript implementation of the original program. They also provide abundant and well thought out criticism and context for what Nichol did.
Looking at the poems in any version, there’s a sweetness to the work that’s immediately winning, whatever you think of concrete poetry or digital literature. Apple BASIC seems cartoonishly primitive from our distance, but Nichol took his medium and did as much as he could with it.’s preservation effort is to be applauded as exemplary digital archiving.
But some questions do arise: does a work like this, defined so precisely around a particular time and environment, make sense now? Certainly it’s important historically, but can we really imagine that we’re seeing the work as Nichol intended it to be seen? In his printed introduction included with the original disks, Nichol speaks to this problem:

As ever, new technology opens up new formal problems, and the problems of babel raise themselves all over again in the field of computer languages and operating systems. Thus the fact that this disk is only available in an Applesoft Basic version (the only language I know at the moment) precisely because translation is involved in moving it out further. But that inherent problem doesn’t take away from the fact that computers & computer languages also open up new ways of expressing old contents, of revivifying them. One is in a position to make it new.

disk sleeve from original edition of first screeningNichol’s invocation of translation seems apropos:’s versions of First Screening might best be thought of as translations from a language no longer spoken. Translation of poetry is the art of failing gracefully: there are a lot of different ways to do it, and in each way something different is lost. The QuickTime version accurately shows the poems as they appeared on the original computer, but video introduces flickering discrepancies because of the frame rate. With the Javascript version, our eyes aren’t drawn to the craggy bitmapped letters (in a way that eyes looking at an Apple monitor in 1983 would not have been), but there’s no way to interact with the code in the way Nichol suggests because the code is different.’s work is quite obviously a labor of love. But it does raise a lot of questions: if Nichol’s work wasn’t so well-loved, would anyone have bothered preserving it like this? Part of the reason that Nichol’s work can be revived is that he left his code open. Given the media he was working in, he didn’t have that much of a choice; indeed, he makes it part of the work. If he hadn’t – and this is certainly the case with a great deal of work contemporary to his – the possibilities of translation would have been severely limited. And a bigger question: if’s work is to herald a new era of resurrecting past electronic work, as bpNichol might have imagined that his work was to herald a new era of electronic poetry, where will the translators come from?

multimedia vs intermedia

Dick Higgins performing Danger Music No. 17
One of the odd things that strikes me about so much writing about technology is the seeming assumption that technology (and the ideas associated with it) arise from some sort of cultural vacuum. It’s an odd myopia, if not an intellectual arrogance, and it results in a widespream failure to notice many connections that should be obvious. One such connection is that between the work of many of the conceptual artists of the 1960s and continuing attempts to sort out what it means to read when books don’t need to be limited to text & illustrations. (This, of course, is a primary concern of the Institute.)

Lately I’ve been delving through the work of Dick Higgins (1938–1998), a self-described “polyartist” who might be most easily situated by declaring him to be a student of John Cage and part of the Fluxus group of artists. This doesn’t quite do him justice: Higgins’s work bounced back and forth between genres of the avant-garde, from music composition (in the rather frightening photo above, he’s performing his Danger Music No. 17, which instructs the performer to scream as loudly as possible for as long as possible) to visual poetry to street theatre. He supported himself by working as a printer: the first of several publishing ventures was the Something Else Press, which he ran from 1963 to 1974, publishing a variety of works by artists and poets as well as critical writing.

Click to see a larger version of Dick Higgins poetry intermedia poster“Betweenness” might be taken as the defining quality of his work, and this betweenness is what interests me. Higgins recognized this – he was perhaps as strong a critic as an artist – and in 1964, he coined the term “intermedia” to describe what he & his fellow Fluxus artists were doing: going between media, taking aspects from established forms to create new ones. An example of this might be visual, or concrete poetry, of which that of Jackson Mac Low or Ian Hamilton Finlay – both of whom Higgins published – might be taken as representative. Visual poetry exists as an intermediate form between poetry and graphic design, taking on aspects of both. This is elaborated (in an apposite form) in his poster on poetry & its intermedia; click on the thumbnail to the right to see a (much) larger version with legible type.

Higgins certainly did not imagine he was the first to use the idea of intermedia; he traced the word itself back to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had used it in the same sense in 1812. The concept has similarities to Richard Wagner’s idea of opera as Gesamkunstwerk, the “total artwork”, combining theatre and music. But Higgins suggested that the roots of the idea could be found in the sixteenth century, in Giordano Bruno’s On the Composition of Signs and Images, which he translated into English and annotated. And though it might be an old idea, a quote from a text about intermedia that he wrote in 1965 (available online at the always reliable Ubuweb) suggests parallels between the avant-garde world Higgins was working in forty years ago and our concern at the Institute, the way the book seems to be changing in the electronic world:

Much of the best work being produced today seems to fall between media. This is no accident. The concept of the separation between media arose in the Renaissance. The idea that a painting is made of paint on canvas or that a sculpture should not be painted seems characteristic of the kind of social thought–categorizing and dividing society into nobility with its various subdivisions, untitled gentry, artisans, serfs and landless workers–which we call the feudal conception of the Great Chain of Being. This essentially mechanistic approach continued to be relevant throughout the first two industrial revolutions, just concluded, and into the present era of automation, which constitutes, in fact, a third industrial revolution.

Higgins isn’t explicitly mentioning the print revolution started by Gutenberg or the corresponding changes in how reading is increasingly moving from the page to the screen, but that doesn’t seem like an enormous leap to make. A chart he made in 1995 diagrams the interactions between various sorts of intermedia:


Note the question marks – Higgins knew there was terrain yet to be mapped out, and an interview suggests that he imagined that the genre-mixing facilitated by the computer might be able to fill in those spaces.

“Multimedia” is something that comes up all the time when we’re talking about what computers do to reading. The concept is simple: you take a book & you add pictures and sound clips and movies. To me it’s always suggested an assemblage of different kinds of media with a rubber band – the computer program or the webpage – around them, an assemblage that usually doesn’t work as a whole because the elements comprising it are too disparate. Higgins’s intermedia is a more appealing idea: something that falls in between forms is more likely to bear scrutiny as a unified object than a collection of objects. The simple equation text + pictures (the simplest and most common way we think about multimedia) is less interesting to me than a unified whole that falls between text and pictures. When you have text + pictures, it’s all too easy to criticize the text and pictures separately: this picture compared to all other possible pictures invariably suffered, just as this text compared to all other possible texts must suffer. Put in other terms, it’s a design failure.

A note added to the essay quoted above in 1981 more explicitly presents the ways in which intermedia can be a useful tool for approaching new work:

It is today, as it was in 1965, a useful way to approach some new work; one asks oneself, “what that I know does this new work lie between?” But it is more useful at the outset of a critical process than at the later stages of it. Perhaps I did not see that at the time, but it is clear to me now. Perhaps, in all the excitement of what was, for me, a discovery, I overvalued it. I do not wish to compensate with a second error of judgment and to undervalue it now. But it would seem that to proceed further in the understanding of any given work, one must look elsewhere–to all the aspects of a work and not just to its formal origins, and at the horizons which the work implies, to find an appropriate hermeneutic process for seeing the whole of the work in my own relation to it.

The last sentence bears no small relevance to new media criticism: while a video game might be kind of like a film or kind of like a book, it’s not simply the sum of its parts. This might be seen as the difference between thinking about terms of multimedia and in terms of intermedia. We might use it as a guideline for thinking about the book to come, which isn’t a simple replacement for the printed book, but a new form entirely. While we can think about the future book as incorporating existing pieces – text, film, pictures, sound – we will only really be able to appreciate these objects when we find a way to look at them as a whole.

An addendum: “Intermedia” got picked up as the name of a hypertext project out of Brown started in 1985 that Ted Nelson, among others, was involved with. It’s hard to tell whether it was thus named because of familiarity with Higgins’s work, but I suspect not: these two threads, the technologic and the artistic, seem to be running in parallel. But this isn’t necessarily, as is commonly suuposed, because the artists weren’t interested in technical possibilities. Higgins’s Book of Love & Death & War, published in 1972, might merit a chapter in the history of books & computers: a book-length aleatory poem, he notes in his preface that one of its cantos was composed with the help of a FORTRAN IV program that he wrote to randomize its lines. (Canto One of the poem is online at Ubuweb; this is not, however, the computer-generated part of the work.)

And another addendum: something else to take from Higgins might be his resistance to commodification. Because his work fell between the crevices of recognized forms, it couldn’t easily be marketed: how would you go about selling his metadramas, for example? It does, however, appear perfectly suited for the web & perhaps this resistance to commodification is apropos right now, in the midst of furious debates about whether information wants to be free or not. “The word,” notes Higgins in one of his Aphorisms for a Rainy Day in the poster above, “is not dead, it is merely changing its skin.”