Sunday, April 28, 2013

the dark would review


The Dark Would
The Dark Would is not a visual poetry anthology. A visual poetry anthology might attempt to show you the state of the art. A visual poetry anthology might lead you by the hand through related historical practices before reaching the present day. A visual poetry anthology would start from the proposition that there is an entity called visual poetry with specific boundaries, however fluid and contested they are.

The Dark Would is 'an anthology of language art'. Art using language as its material. Language using art as its vehicle.

There is a lot in this anthology that I disagree with. There are a lot of gaps in this anthology. This is all as it should be.

My review will be across three posts. This first one will look mainly at the print volume, which I've read right through more than once, and will continue to return to. The second will look in more detail at the Kindle volume which I only recently downloaded, and is over three times the length of the paper volume. I will concentrate mainly on the critical writing and interviews in that volume. The third post will look at everything else I wasn't able to cover in the first two.

Before I get to specifics, the declaration of competing interest. I am featured in both volumes the anthology, and I know the editor and several of the other artists.

The Dark Would is anthology as dialogue.

Several dialogues are contained within The Dark Would. A good way in to many of these is Márton Koppány's cover image The Secret.

The Secret
The Secret is wordless, and in a sense imageless. It consists solely of non-alphabetic characters - three different classes of brackets. Three to the left, then a space in the middle, and then three to the right.

The brackets are not grouped in pairs or nested, so can't immediately be read as something possessing content. The absence of other text or symbols means the brackets could be either linguistic or mathematical, though their order doesn't conform to the normal hierarchy of either context.

Dialogue between art and science. Dialogue between text and non-text.

Where does The Secret sit within contemporary poetic practices? The unconventional use of punctuation and other typographical marks is relatively common within linguistically innovative work, though language is absent here. Nor is it uncommon to see such marks foregrounded in conceptual poetics, though The Secret doesn't appear to be conceptual.

Dialogue between different contemporary poetic practices. Dialogue between expression and conceptual work.

Is The Secret then visual poetry? Perhaps not, all we have are typographical marks without interference. Although space, around and within the piece, is crucial to its meaning in a way that's more characteristic of visual poetry than of text.

Dialogue between text poetry and visual poetry and concrete poetry.

The brackets that make up The Secret seem to occupy an unfixed territory. They are obviously visual, yet not recognisably illustrative - neither representational nor abstract. They have an obvious relation to text, even imply its presence, but there is no text.

Let's imagine that the brackets of The Secret were a picture, what might they be? In his interview for The Verb Philip Davenport, the anthology's editor, likened them to tree trunks. Trees on either side of an opening in The Dark Would/Wood.

For me they had a dual identity. At once prison bars preventing escape and slots in a drain grate allowing things to pass through. I read them more as the latter, as open.

Dialogue between presence and absence. Dialogue between poetry (textual, visual or concrete) and visual art. Dialogue between space and mark. Dialogue between present and possible futures.

The Secret featured in the last Text Festival printed on a large perspex square installed in a train carriage in the Transport Museum. At that scale too the piece worked brilliantly.

Dialogue between poem and site - page, gallery, elsewhere.

For me The Secret manages a fine balancing act. In the television series of The Shock Of The New Robert Hughes said,

'A sign is a command. It's something you take in all at once. It means one thing only […] Pictures are different. They're more complicated. They mean a lot of things, you scan them and their meaning adds up and unfolds. You don't get it all at once.'
The Shock Of The New, Part 8 Culture As Nature [my transcription, any inaccuracies are mine].

The Secret manages to be a cryptic sign, striking and easily recognisable, but at the same time a piece of art that rewards closer looking, becomes more interesting the more you look at it.

Dialogue between poem and poet. Dialogue between poem and poetics. Dialogue between poem and reader.

But let's get into the book a little further. I'm going to look briefly at ten pieces from the paper volume in the order they appear. Some are within the introductory pages. Some form part of series that feature elsewhere in the anthology, later in the print volume, in the virtual volume or in both.

from Smoke Town
The first of these pieces is a diptych, an image and separate text, from Smoke Town by David Austen which appears in the Kindle edition. The image to the left appears to show a bunch of dried flowers, the text to the right reads like the title of a film or pulp novel. Together they might be pages from an old magazine. But the combination of image and text is enigmatic.

There are echoes with other works in the anthology. Rich monochrome photographic images recur: Susan Hiller's First Aid: Homage to Joseph Beuys and The Paragon Case: Homage to Joseph Beuys (in both volumes); Tony Lopez's Homer, Arcadia; Hung Keung's Dao Give Birth to One; Tsang Kin Wah's The Seven Seals; and Sarah Sanders' I USED TO. The last three appear to be documents of two installations and a performance respectively.

Brief enigmatic texts that might be found text, or that echo a familiar, non-poetic context also recur: Erica Baum's untitled pieces (in both volumes); George Widener's Love, Birthday; Fiona Banner's Zero Poem, Sunset; Julian Montague's book-covers; Linus Raudsepp's pieces from The Exorcism of Anastasia Kirilenka; and Lucy Harvest Clark's I'm a Believer.

In any large anthology you'd expect similar strategies and works that appear similar though emerging from different strategies. Moreover none of these pieces seem cut from the same cloth, though most of them hint at intriguing broader worlds outside themeslves.

Wood of Thorns
Eric Zboya's Wood of Thorns is a from a series of pieces across both volumes commissioned for the anthology. The images look as though they might have been created by pencil or brush, though they may have been created on a computer. There is no text evident in Wood of Thorns or the other images. But this is true of other pieces in the anthology.

The images are mostly angular, spiky, almost as though scribbled, though clearly much more controlled. Parts of them resemble feathers, traces of objects in motion, birds, iron filings pulled by a magnet. It's almost like a return to the most basic mark-making.

Then again it might be the result of a conceptual process, rather like derek beaulieu's Flatland, mentioned in my essay for the anthology. Beaulieu also features in both volumes of the anthology - the shape of his piece in the virtual anthology echoing some of Zboya's images.

Lord Byron Died
Photos from Tacita Dean's Lord Byron Died also feature in both volumes. They show details of words carved into stone - some apparently professionally done, others messier and more informal. There is no contextual information in any of the photos.

This is found text, layered text. Text which may have personal significance but little obvious content beyond names and dates.

Star Rats
Tom Raworth's nine word poem is the third piece in the anthology proper. It consists of three sections, each of three lines with a single word. The word 'train' appears in a different place in each section, falling third then second then first.

It is the third piece in the anthology proper that is made of text. Admittedly, Tom Phillips' After Henry James on the previous page appears to be created from welded metal installed in a gallery space. And the way the 22 words are shaped and linked is interesting.

Raworth's piece is much more minimal, and deliberately less expressive. It is also a shaped piece, a thin line of text including the title and section numbers running down the page, and making use of the space around it.

The first piece in the anthology, from Rosmarie Waldrop's Calligraphy, forms a horizontal band across the centre of the page opposite Tom Phillips' almost square piece. Raworth's poem is a vertical band opposite Paula Claire's square Great Crested Newt Sonata.

Already we're being tipped off to look at pieces in relation to the page, to the space around them, and in relation to other pieces.

Great Crested Newt Sonata
Paula Claire's Great Crested Newt Sonata, already mentioned, shows photographic images of the undersides of (we assume) four Great Crested Newts. They have spotted, speckled markings that could be read as ink marks or text.

They also echo things that will appear elsewhere in the anthology. Most notably Nadya Collazo Llorens' Bokeh, which I look at later.

The choice of 'Sonata' in the title is interesting, avoiding the more literal 'sonnet' that the square shape might have led you to. It also calls to mind Kurt Schwitters' early sound poem Ursonate.

Yet again it's an example of found text, though on this occasion found text that is not actually text. In this it's different from the other examples of found (or potentially found) text I've mentioned so far. While they're more about recontextualising texts, this is about the human ability to find patterns and meaning in anything.

Edit 30 April 2013 I had the lovely surprise of hearing from Paula Claire this morning, who asked if I could add the following comments to the blog, which I'm more than happy to do:

'I gave a DVD perf for The Other Room's 4th anniversary that can be found on their website under OR31 with the 3 other poets that evening [link]. Included is my improvisation to the newt signs. I always ask everyone for vocal input in a live event, so it's just me and the newts --you must imagine what a group impro might sound like. I would really like it if you could add this comment as I cannot separate visual from sound.'

As it happened I'd played with the idea of talking about sound in connection with this piece, as I had with the the idea of talking about performance or installations in connection with other pieces. In the end I didn't, in part because the review was taking so long and I didn't want to get distracted by other thoughts.

from Motel Moods
We are back with minimal text for the pages from John M Bennett's Motel Moods. These are prefaced by an extract from an interview which features in the virtual volume, along with further text from Motel Moods.

There's a difference though. In the print volume the text is reproduced from scans or photos of the pages as published in 1980, in the Kindle volume the text is placed within the page as normal. Or to put it another way, without the framing device.

It's interesting that the physical page is used to carry the image of the historical page, where the virtual, non-existent page carries the words alone.

Leaves [detail]
Liz Collini's Leaves, like other examples of her work that I've seen, is broadly speaking quite different from the other work in the anthology.

There are certain echoes of material in the Sarah Sanders piece I mentioned earlier, and there are a number of visual artists who make use of either text expanded to a large scale and placed on the gallery wall, or hand drawn or painted texts using actual fonts. Or at least lettering that resembles type more than it resembles handwriting.

But Collini's pieces do more than this. The text, the way it's drawn, the measurements and tiny marginal commentaries, mean that a piece like Leaves is more than just a single word. A single word, however impressively drawn, at monumental scale just wouldn't be that interesting.

Instead the space is interrupted, contested, the way each letter is drawn is problematised and commented on. From a distance the word appears provisional, incomplete, it bristles with annotations.

Curiously, although this is an area that interests me greatly, Collini's work is the only work I've pulled out because something in it fascinates me that seems to fully engage with three-dimensional space, and fully with questions of scale. Though neither of these is wholly apparent from either the paper or the virtual anthology.

Letter to my mother, Details
Harald Stoffers' Letter to my mother is another complicated visual space. Though here it is more crowded.

A handwritten letter, whose lines don't quite manage to be straight, written across or overwritten by lines like musical staves. But more wavering, more uneven, and not neatly divided into groups of five.

To me the pages look more like drawings than letters. They remind me of painstaking hand-drawn pictures of real and imagined cityscapes that I've seen from different artists across the years.

There are echoes of the piece elsewhere. Crowded handwritten visual spaces. Nick Blinko's untitled piece, and again Sarah Sanders' piece are the obvious immediate comparisons.

Philomena [Exploded House]
Caroline Bergvall's Philomena [Exploded House], a work in progress according to the interview at the launch event at London's Whitechapel Gallery, features across both volumes. The images in the Kindle volume are easier to read, to and give a greater clue as to the process of creation.

Texts are painted over and erased, leaving rough black squares of silence. Except that a mark, even an erasure is never silent.

I'm reminded of an album I have. Keiji Haino and Yoshida Tatsuya's Uhrfasudhasdd features tracks during which silences, complete absences of signal are interposed. Sometimes they function rhythmically, at other times they are a shock. Far more of a shock than the outbursts of noise that also punctuate the record.

Philomena never quite achieves that level of disruptive discomfort. It's hard to see how a static medium like print could achieve that kind of shock, which depends on suddenly confounding expectation.

While it initially seems that there's not much to see, the images do draw you back, trying to see under the erasing ink or paint.

Bokeh
Finally Nadya Collazo Llorens' Bokeh. I already mentioned the family resemblance with Paula Claire's Great Crested Newt Sonata. But the lines of out-of-focus dots also echoes the preceding images from Simon Patterson's Black List.

Where Boekh is black on white, Black List is white text on black. The text here is painted to resemble film credits, but is blurred at the edges so it appears not quite in focus.

Bokeh looks more like pages from a book, and indeed in the Kindle edition appear to actually be pages within a book, just unfocussed and impossible to read in the conventional sense.

The Last Vispo
The Dark Would is not the only collection of visual texts I've read recently. There is also Nico Vassilakis and Crag Hill's The Last Vispo.

On the whole I prefer The Dark Would to The Last Vispo. But The Last Vispo is stronger in two ways.

First, The Last Vispo is in colour throughout. The Dark Would doesn't show this, often very important, element at all.

Second, and for me more importantly, there are only extracts of a handful of essays and interviews in paper volume of The Dark Would*. The Last Vispo in contrast has a large number of essays placed throughout the book. I believe this kind of critical context is crucial. It helps readers with no knowledge of the field orient themselves. And it enables practitioners and others sympathetic to the work to ensure they have a voice in shaping the critical reception to the work.

Thinking back only a little over five years ago, before I had had any contact with any contemporary experimental practice, all I knew of visual poetry or language art was what I had encountered in mainstream textbooks and websites.

That mostly amounted to historical context that concentrated exclusively on text: altar poems, pattern poems, perhaps if the author felt adventurous illuminated manuscripts and calligraphy, especially Islamic. But on occasion it might include dismissive references to concrete poetry that made no attempt to understand the work. Or placed it in a misleading lineage with altar and pattern poems, with a strong suggestion that it was a novelty not worth serious consideration.

Both approaches are insulting and wrong.

As you'd expect neither The Last Vispo nor The Dark Would commit this fault.

Provisional conclusions
Like I said at the start, The Dark Would is not an anthology of visual poetry. The Last Vispo is. Though even there I should note that there's a considerable overlap of contributors and techniques with Andrei Molotiu's (also Fantagraphics published) Abstract Comics.

While I like all these volumes, the two Fantagraphics books feel more like historical documents, or even coffee-table books, easier to buy, flick through and ignore. The Dark Would feels more open, more of a dialogue. It feels like a book you can return to, explore, find new things to try. A book also that you can argue with, that might sometimes echo where you're at, and at other times might be something you need to put away for a while.

It also feels very similar to the Voices anthologies I've frequently mentioned here and elsewhere. Something occasionally a little frightening, yet consistently fascinating.

The Dark Would rewards non-linear reading. Read (or flick) through it once or twice. Then take a piece that interests you, you may find that it echoes another piece, try to find that piece. If that artist has work in the virtual volume have a look at that. Read the biographical notes, which sometimes shed light on how a piece may have been created. If there is an interview with, or essay by that artist have a read.

Sometimes you may be able to remember that an artist has work in the anthology, but not what that work is. Look it up. Sometimes the work in the paper volume is continued in the virtual volume, at other times it looks very different.

Artists are in dialogue with their own work. Artists are in dialogue with each other. This proliferation of dialogue is one of the strongest components of The Dark Would for me. It's one of elements that's going to keep The Dark Would relevant for a long time to come, and make it a mesmerising read for years to come.

For this reason, in some ways its an anthology I wish I didn't have any work in. Not that I'm unhappy with my work, or unhappy to be featured in such an anthology, rather that I wish I could pick it up as someone with no knowledge of language art (or even visual or concrete poetry) and come to all this work as something utterly new. I can't imagine many reading experiences more exciting.

I hope I've indicated some starting points for your own journey through the book. Enjoy.


*I should note that there is a much larger amount of critical and contextual material in the Kindle volume of The Dark Would, a total of forty pieces. While they are in a section of their own, they are interlaced with the art. Where an artist has an essay or is interviewed, there is a link to that piece accompanying their work, and a link back to their work from the interview or essay.


Buy The Dark Would from Knives Forks and Spoons press and when you've done that download the Kindle volume from Apple Pie Editions. Don't worry if you don't have a Kindle, there are free downloadable readers available for other devices. The editor suggests Kindle Previewer, but I've found Kindle for Mac works better on my computer. I'm not sure about compatibility with smugphones, my Android phone has a Kindle reader, but bringing the anthology and the reader together has proved beyond me so far. It's a shame, it'd be nice to be able to carry it with me.

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