" ... when I think of langu(im)age, I think of a synthesis of the arts that fulfills Apollinaire's prophecy."

Jim Andrews

" ... It is possible to extend Apollinaire's remarks and predict that along with the synthesis he mentions will arise an international network of Web artists operating in much the same spirit as the Mail Artists but in larger numbers, enjoying the support and participation of an international audience toward whatsoever is delightful, beautiful, true, good, and just."

language and image as objects in a field

by Jim Andrews

Digital langu(im)age on the Web? What? Why? How did it ever come to this? I'll begin with mundane contributing factors, then eyeball them, flap, and see what happens.

The screen is ugly and harsh, and using a computer is a lot of work. Text and nothing but text is hard to read on a computer monitor, no matter how thoughtful the layout. Graphical diversity together with text breaks up the linear scanning, is easier on the eyes, and allows the reader to read in several directions.

Graphics programs such as PhotoShop, CorelDraw and PhotoPaint, Flash, Xres, Freehand, 3D Studio, 3D Extreme, 3D Dream, Authorware, Director, DreamWeaver, Word, Premiere, etc. are out there, do not require rocket science to use, and are great toys that most people like to play with, given the opportunity. Of course, harumph, they're very serious toys.


And these programs deal graphically with text. Text as graphic. Text as object. Text as object no different from a graphical object. You create objects in these programs, and the way you create and manipulate objects remains the same whether the object is textual, graphical, sonic, procedural ('neath textually directive) or otherwise.

Blue Moon

Programming tools like Java, HTML, DHTML, Javascript, Vbscript, Delphi, Visual Basic, ASP etc. exist and allow for the creation of documents that synthesize electronic media, print, and applications, that alter our notions of what reading and writing are, and our notion of 'publication' generally. And these programming tools deal with text as easily as they do images, make little distinction between text and other objects in the same paradigmatic way as the graphical and textual software tools make little distinction.

Any text is like that. But each object might have various properties in addition to its usual appearance and meaning and place amid other words. My piece Seattle Drift is an example of such a text. When you click the text that says "Do the text", the words in the poem eventually drift independently off the screen. Each word has its own behavior, its own partially random path of drifting off the screen. Each word is a kind of little language widget, langwidget.


On a deeper level, attempts at artificial intelligence that deal with natural language treat words as langwidgets or agents of literary design. A word as a 'class,' in the object-oriented programming paradigm sense of 'class,' is a body of code that has properties (such as its spelling and phonemic formation) and methods (or actions) at its disposal. For instance, a word might survey a bunch of other words proposed for a sentence and judge whether it likes the company and where it might fit in to the sentence, and decide the terms on which it will include itself in the sentence. Where there are conflicts, a judge must be set up to arbitrate and hand down the final sentences according to the 'laws' it recognizes.

The 'laws' that the judge-editor recognizes would serve the server entrusted with responding in whatever fashion was at hand. What is the desired tone? What is the desired meaning? What role does the sentence play in the larger context of the conversation or essay, etc.? Yes, the judge and the server would be objects too.

An object is an instantiation of a class. For instance, there could be a class of words called 'verbs'. The class 'verbs' cannot be instantiated; only classes that are derived from the class of 'verbs' can be instantiated, i.e., only words that are 'verbs' can be instantiated. When a class is instantiated (i.e., the word is used in a sentence) the word is an object. But you must also be able to use the word "verbs", which is distinct from the class of 'verbs'. Actually, the word "verbs" is an instantiation of the class 'nouns'. It so happens that the word "noun" is a 'noun,' i.e., derives from the class of 'nouns' or inherits the basic properties and methods of the class of 'nouns,' but that is coincidental.

Man of Letters

I don't want to go on at great length in this formulation and fill a book. It is more fun and less work to merely point out the relation of the object-oriented paradigm to the phenomenon of langu(im)age. Both words and graphics are objects, are very similar, though not entirely the same in the properties and methods they share when it comes to creating them and manipulating them in contemporary software. You can move both around, size them, color them, program them, etc. They all have some sort of 'neath text or levels of 'neath text.


So is langu(im)age simply a consequence of the contemporary programming paradigms, which will probably change?

Yes and no...

It is combinatorial of all the media computers place at our disposal, is synthetic of all the previously existing electronic media and also can combine text and...anything that can be digitized. Consequently, its primary inheritance and shapes are from previously existing arts, not from contemporary programming paradigms. The paradigms that are used to make the software that is used to create the art shapes the tools we use to create the art. This is not a small thing because although language itself is a tool, language draws a magic circle around the realm of the thinkable. Tools are not merely accessories we manipulate to our ends, but shape and circumscribe the range of our directions and expressions.

Moreover, the aspiration has some history. In 1917, the French poet Apollinaire, in his great essay L'Esprit Nouveau et les Poetès, said:
Typographical artifices worked out with great audacity have the advantage of bringing to life a visual lyricism which was almost unknown before our age. These artifices can still go much further and achieve the synthesis of the arts, of music, painting, and literature ... One should not be astonished if, with only the means they have now at their disposal, they set themselves to preparing this new art (vaster than the plain art of words) in which, like conductors of an orchestra of unbelievable scope they will have at their disposal the entire world, its noises and its appearances, the thought and language of man, song, dance, all the arts and all the artifices, still more mirages than Morgane could summon up on the hill of Gibel, with which to compose the visible and unfolded book of the future.... Even if it is true that there is nothing new under the sun, the new spirit does not refrain from discovering new profundities in all this that is not new under the sun. Good sense is its guide, and this guide leads it into corners, if not new, at least unknown. But is there nothing new under the sun? It remains to be seen.
Apollinaire made some wonderful visual poems. This passage is one of my favorites of his work because of its prescient nature concerning Web art and its spirit of adventure, its intrepid exaltation, and that it should be said by a poet, a poet of fine and soaring aspiration. So when I think of langu(im)age, I think of a synthesis of the arts that fulfills Apollinaire's prophecy.

In addition to Apollinaire, there have been many fine visual and sound poets who have expressed their passion through all the dimensions of language, the written, vocal, visual, etc. So the road is not entirely unpaved, did not simply materialize out of the digital. The dancing baby is a manifestation of dance in the new media. Once a medium has some interesting digital work done in it, the art is not far from other such arts. Suck it into PhotoShop or Premiere etc. and have at it.

Who then is the author? Who really cares except the one expecting the cheque in the mail? Let him whine and fret about intellectual property rights. The important thing is not who writes or makes it, but that extraordinary work be done. We own very little, owe those who have gone before very much. Pythagoreans attributed all work to 'himself', Pythagoras, ipse dixit, he said it (apparently he never wrote a thing). So did many of Warhol's friends ('Here's a great idea that nobody has done. Why don't you do it and I'll sign it?') We entered a phase of combinatorial inter-textuality long ago. The Web and anything digital or copyable perpetuates it.



One of the other things I find promising is a shattering of the icy borders between art and science. Currently, the artistic technologies available often call out not just for a diversity of artistic approaches and media, but for creative knowledge of programming and mathematics. As the technology progresses, this latter element becomes less necessary, i.e., the software becomes more 'intuitive.' But the edge always is wider with it than without it. To be able to exploit the computational nature of the machine is useful to the art.

So you get an odd breed of cat doing digital art: artistic people with knowledge of and appreciation for mathematics and programming.

The separation between art and science is not just a matter of temperament but also of disagreement concerning who and what should be served; the whole culture and pursuit of science has been completely implicated in serving all the wrong masters, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Too often science truly has been a culture of horrid, cold-blooded manipulation of quantities at the painful expense of the living. Science cannot function with humanity if it is divorced from involvement in the arts. We know that the arts are not necessarily humanizing. This has been a horrific lesson to learn, and we surely have learned it big-time this century. Yet while this is true, when humanistic concerns are utterly without important involvement in the sciences, we are more surely doomed than otherwise. Power without wisdom, without love, without concern. A machine out of human control. Totally object-oriented, as it were.


Another of the reasons for langu(im)age relates to the international dimension of communication on the Web, and can be glimpsed in relation to an important predecessor of Web art: Mail Art. The parallels between the two are interesting: both involve an experimental aspect of language, image, and multiple media; both involve close communication between makers of the art, though the larger audience is more easily included via Web art; both are interesting alternatives or supplements to more traditional means of expression and distribution; both have no need to be approved within traditional publishing conduits before they are distributed; both are relatively available to participate in with relative affordability; both are quite widely international in their scope and audience, and offer maker and audience alike knowledge of and solidarity with the actions and spirit of a global, participatory art.

In "The Options of Mail Art," the Uruguayan visual poet and Mail Artist Clemente Padin has said:
...Mail Art, intended as a full expression of humanity, is distorted to the point that it can only be spoken of as a historical or autonomous discourse, like an entity floating in space....It is necessary that we recover Mail Art from these tendencies and return it to its communicative efficacy.
The Web is a natural progression from Mail Art in spirit and media. And Padin, who has been an important figure in Mail Art for thirty years, is bringing his art and thoughtful essays on politics, art, and communications to the Web, which will enrich and inform younger Web artists in not only the history and spirit of the art but many of the issues that arise.

Excellent Web sites that deal with langu(im)age typically receive an atypically international audience because langu(im)age, via its pictorial nature, partially transcends language barriers, but also because the content and spirit of the work is often relevant beyond language and political borders and actively seeks out international dialogue and exchange.

Langu(im)age is about strong communication across borders of many types be they political, linguistic, or artistic. In a sense, then, there will be continuity, if not in the actual look and feel of the work, then in the spirit of a global, literary synthesis of the arts intended, as Padin says, "as a full expression of humanity".

It is possible to extend Apollinaire's remarks and predict that along with the synthesis he mentions will arise an international network of Web artists operating in much the same spirit of border crossing as the Mail Artists but in larger numbers, enjoying the support and participation of an international audience toward whatsoever is delightful, beautiful, true, good, and just.

This could arise rather gracefully given the artistic and international nature of the Web and a frequent desire on the part of networkers of all sorts to do artistic work of consequence in the world.


We have passed through Futurism and mistaken idolatry of the machine. We have passed through the counter-reaction against the machine--and the accompanying divorce of art and science. We no longer dream of a time not so far off when machines liberate us from labour and serve us as slaves and increase our leisure many times over.

Instead, we negotiate our involvement with/in the machine, negotiate its intrusions and enhancements and debilitations of our humanity. We understand that technology becomes as familiar and as much a part of us as our glasses. Or as the astronomer's glasses that allow her to squint at the beginning of time. Or the physicist's that allow him to blink at the atomic. These extensions of ourselves can be as remote and chilling as the ability to kill with the touch of a button thousands of miles from the victims. How do we extend our humanity to these new proportions?

Picture yourself. What do you see? Is it your body you see and your face or do you imagine also a third eye that sees into atoms and yourself, the great universe and into the eye of others? And are your hands capable of touching the body of your beloved and the web of night? I wear glasses; when I look at myself in the mirror the glint of metal and the reflection off the glass is part of who I am.

Langu(im)age extends our notions of literacy and the literary into this new public sphere of computer mediated communications in the fullness of our imagination and spirit.


Jim Andrews's VISPO Web site is the primary site for his writing/graphical/programming work as a poet and essayist. His writing and audio writing have been published in magazines such as Quarry (Kingston), Torque (York), Mental Radio (Toronto/Victoria) and EAR (New York). He organized and hosted the lively Mocambopo literary venue in Victoria Canada before moving to Seattle. He also produced and hosted the literary radio program FINE LINES and, later, ?FRAME? that was heard across Canada for six years, and published the magazine And Yet. His visual poetry will be showing through September 1998 at The Globe Cafe in Seattle, known widely for its visual poetry.