Thursday, May 5, 2011

Does Size Matter?

For poetry month, Christian Bök wrote a three part discussion of the Text Festival, currently underway in the UK. In his last post, Bök tell us that the curator of the Text Festival:
Tony Trehy observes that, because many practitioners of visual poetry compose their work on computers for publication online, many poets have not considered the aesthetic procedure for display of such work offline, especially when presented within the context of a gallery—and in fact, many contributors have simply submitted their work to him in the form of electronic files for output without stipulating the media for production or the scale for exhibition (as if any page, at any size, might do). I find this fact surprising, given that practitioners of visual poetry often take pride in their concerted attention to the “materiality” of language itself (but then again, such digitization of language may have caused these artists to think that such “materiality” has simply become an afterthought, taking whatever forms or media might be demanded by occasion, once the work leaves the ethereality of the Internet).
This observation caught me a little off guard because I haven’t really spent much time considering the physical size of my visual poetry. Unconsciously, however, I have been operating under a few constraints or assumptions that I think help me respond to the issues that Bök’s post raises.

At first I wondered if this inattention to the size of vispo pieces might have something to do with the relationship of visual poetry to written poetry and traditional books. I think of my own visual work as poetry, and often imagine it presented in book-form rather than in a gallery space. As a result, I assume a sort of rectangular, average book-sized presentation, ordered with one page after another. This is the case for the largest project I’ve undertaken, Tight-Lacing (I swear I’m finishing it this summer, I don’t want to talk about it, anyway…) which is produced on the computer.
An example of a poem from the project. See more online in Matrix, or in Speechless on UBU.

The visual poems are based on Victorian corset advertisements originally published in magazines and newspapers, which in their original form were fairly small. The visual work is also accompanied with written constraint-based poetry, however, which has allowed my to give several public readings of the project. For these readings we projected the poems on large power-point screens, so that the audience could take them in while I read the constraint-based poetry aloud.
Photos taken at fillingStation's 2009 Calgary Blow Out Festival, and at the 2010 August Flywheel Reading Series.

The work has also been presented in a gallery as part of the Edmonton poetry festival, and for this show the poems were printed on a 9 and 1/2X12” sheets and then framed, though I must admit I let the organizers choose the size of the presentation.
I think all three types of presentation work well for this project, the book, the screen, and the framed prints. While I hope to have the final project published in a book, I think creating the images on the computer gives them a certain malleability that makes them more dynamic. They can go from the page to the screen to the gallery without much effort, and allow me to present the work in the most engaging possible way depending on the event. Personally I spend most of my time looking at the project on my computer screen, but I really don’t intend it to be viewed that way, just as I’m sure many artists don’t intend for their work to be shown in the chaos of the studio or workshop where they made it.
Despite not intending Tight-Lacing to be viewed on a computer, some of my current work is intended for the computer screen. Lately I’ve been experimenting with making visual poetry films.

This too is a kind of response to visual poetry as it relates to written poetry and books. Cinema, like traditional writing, moves the audience through time as they experience the piece, something I find books of visual poetry, even though they are in book form, don’t necessarily do. Some visual poets are interested in stripping the characters of their meaning, and the temporality of writing seems to be stripped along with it, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. I’m interested in how stripping meaning away can become an event or an action that the audience participates in, rather than a finished product that they are presented with, hence the movies. While the material I’m filming is fairly small, then exists on my small camera screen, I intend it to be viewed full-screen on a computer, or at least the size of an embedded Vimeo movie.

I think messing with scale in this way works with the project of stripping the meaning away. I have to admit it would be thrilling to see the films on a large screen, but until I produce a substantial, coherent work I probably won’t be pursuing public screenings.

Finally, I also draw, stamp, crochet, or otherwise make visual poems. The size of the crocheted poems was based on the material I was working with—the weight of the yarn and the size of the hook.I intend to make a few more projects like this, using mediums that have been traditionally used in women’s handicrafts, and the size will be determined by what was typically employed by women… an embroidered handkerchief, an average sized cookie, etc. In a vaguely related plug, these are interests I also explore in the following stop-motion movie:
That nebulous project aside, I make most of my visual poetry on 81/2X11 paper, sometimes cut to a 81/2X81/2 square.
This finger-print piece was made on a sheet of printer paper using a pen and my pinkie finger dipped in an ink pad. The scale was therefore determined by the size of my finger.

This is a reflection of the financial constraints that I work under. While now and then I’ll treat myself to some more upscale art supplies, these can be expensive, and, like a lot of students, I don’t have a lot of spare cash.
These poems were each made on better quality 9X12" watercolour paper and drawn using watercolour pencils, but the pencils were actually a gift from my wonderful art-student sister. You can follow her and her photos on twitter.

Poetry lends itself to brokenness, in a lot of ways, which is one of the beautiful things about it (this position is sort of stolen from Audre Lorde’s essay “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Social Difference”). Even if you’re broke and worn to the bone working several jobs, you can still write a haiku on a scrap of receipt paper from the till you operate—you can still find time on your break to pen a short free-verse poem. This is the lovely thing about poetry—while it’s often considered a bourgeois art form, it’s really the most available form of artistic expression. All you need is some sort of writing implement and a surface to scribble on. This holds true for visual poetry as well. While you can make it using lots of time and expensive computer programs or materials, you can also grab a pencil, a sheet of paper, and you’re ready to go.
This piece was made from a piece of paper I already had and a sheet of Letraset I found in my parents' basement.

I’d like to think that working with readily available materials is not a mark of laziness or lack of forethought, but evidence of the democratic availability of visual poetry. So, I think size does matter when it comes to visual poetry. It can matter in terms of making an engaging presentation, or in terms of reflecting the content of the visual poem. Finally, the size of visual poetry can even be a political statement in itself—a refusal to let poverty or the pressures of work and life silence you.
This is from my ongoing project of Hungarian folk-art visual poems.

No comments: