Culture Machine, Vol 15 (2014)

CM2014 Article: Juan Pablo Anaya

The Electronic Literature of Benjamín Moreno: Affect and Sense Outside the Conventions of the Literary

Interview by Juan Pablo Anaya

Mediating ‘Deeper Into The Machine: The Future Of Electronic Literature’ by Katherine Hayles from vol. 5 (2003) The E-Issue

Culture Machine’s E-Issue (2003) introduced a debate about the effect of new media and electronic technologies in different fields of knowledge and artistic creation, particularly in practices such as literature. The debate explored the possibility of a form of writing that did not merely transfer print aesthetics into an electronic form, but rather produced texts through exploring databases and native digital formats. Benjamín Moreno is a Mexican writer and digital poet whose work realizes part of what the E-Issue proposed to imagine and discuss. He is known mainly for having digitized the voice of the Mexican writer Octavio Paz, working with an archive of recorded readings of the poet. In his public performances Moreno frequently treats the text he projects on a screen as a database whose sonority he processes with electronic devices for non-linear reading. An interesting example of writing with electronic technologies is his concretoons: a collection of videogames which are at the same time a series of digital poems.

Because of his trajectory in digital experimentation I engaged in a conversation with Moreno about his work, which I relate to some of the ideas expounded in Katherine Hayles’ contribution to Culture Machine’s E-Issue. The main idea of ‘Deeper Into The Machine: The Future Of Electronic Literature’ is that writers who work with electronic media tend to go ‘deep’ into the technological devices, to the point where they learn to speak a new digital language. In this sense, following Hayles, electronic literature requires a new critical language that recognizes the specificity of the new medium. It was interesting to talk about Hayles’ essay precisely because part of Benjamin’s work brings us to critical referents which today can said to be old, as they spring from different pre-internet media and signal what Hayles defined as the ‘print-centric assumption’ that claims ‘that a literary work is an abstract verbal construction’. Brazilian concrete poetry, Joan Brossa’s visual and spatial poetry, Ulises Carrión’s experiments with artists’ books and his essay ‘The New Art of Making Books’, are part of a (mainly Latin American) tradition of which Moreno takes not just texts and icons but a way of thinking about literature. What comes to the fore in the encounter with his work is that it does not have to be an absolute priority to learn and write a new digital language, incarnated in and made possible by the machine. It is equally important to explore the possibilities of the machine to pose questions to the literary establishment and expand its conventions. This perspective does not contradict Hayles’s thesis, but it does try to bring back an emphasis on the social dimension of literature in which the technical device, the producer and the reader/receiver are all involved. That is why I wanted to discuss with Moreno the agenda opened by Culture Machine eleven years ago.

J.P.A.: In ‘Deeper into the Machine’, Katherine Hayles claims that media (such as film or the internet) can be seen as forms of ‘collective intelligence’ that explore and invent the possible uses and expressive qualities of a technological device. This collective dimension has been foregrounded by the free software communities that articulate themselves around the GNU/Linux operative system. I would add to this that ‘free access’ to the software and the source code has generated communities of work that are more delocalized, that is, not centred in either a group of programmers in a fixed place or an elite of high-tech consumers. Yet differences in access still matter. What importance did free software have in your self-education as a digital poet when you lived in your hometown, Queretaro? How did that situation change when you arrived to the writing program at the Brown University?

B.M.: My first approach to electronic media was with Flash, which is proprietary software. The role that living in Queretaro played was that the copy of Flash I worked with was obtained in a public market, in a stand of pirate merchandise. From this perspective discovering the free software movement and the tools of open source authorship filled me at first with an enthusiasm that did not come to overflow me in the same way as it happened in a wider sector of the electronic art community, because at the same time I also had a few questions. I identify myself widely with the ideology of the free software movement, but sometimes I have the sense that the holistic view from which Richard Stallman developed its philosophical basis is substituted in the community with a uni-dimensional moral of good vs. bad that seems to be taken from the world of video games: in one side a group of initiated people, on the other the slaves of Bill Gates and the idiots who are impressed with the sparkle of Apple. On the other hand, it sometimes seems to me that in the world of electronic art, the use of free or open source software has established itself as an intrinsic aesthetic category or as the exercise of a radical political position worthy of praise: a guarantee of redemption, something that gives the object auratic qualities that render it immune to criticism, where any level of disagreement is considered a betrayal. But this position may be a product only of my neurosis and my propensity to grumpiness when I perceive that people feel really good about themselves. What is true is that in my development as a programmer for communities of open education, open source tools were the basis for shifting from my first attempt at coding to gaining a clear understanding of what I was doing. In practice the biggest change was at Brown, moving from Pure Data, which is open source, to MAX which is proprietary software. The reason for my having made this move is simple: MAX is the preferred development tool in the department of experimental music where I take most of my lectures. What is true is that my familiarization with MAX is now lager and I prefer it: it is practically the first tool in which I have received a formal instruction. I think that moving to the US has also influenced me in another sense: from the GNU/Linux perspective I am sacrificing my freedom in a way that goes against the community, but I don't care: I prefer to use MAX. To me, this more pragmatic attitude is completely American.

Now, the main goal of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) is to provide software that guarantees the four freedoms of the user. This is a distinction – and an inherent criticism – that enables the FSF to position itself clearly against the privileging of the decentralized and communitarian development which is a characteristic feature of open source initiatives. From the GNU perspective, the collective development of technology is just a medium — or, perhaps better, a possibility that has to do with the exercise of one of its defining freedoms — and not an end in itself. If there is anywhere that I identify the kind of collective intelligence that explores the possible uses and expressive qualities of technological devices it is in the phenomenona that emerge from 4chan or Reddit. It is also worth saying that, in spite of their being politically incorrect —sometimes completely condemnable — they seem to me to be more interesting than a lot of the electronic art that is developed with open source platforms: the people in these communities understand the internet as a medium, but they are inventing new forms of using it, and in this sense they are exploring it as an end in itself too.

J.P.A.: In the notes you published with your audio piece ‘The Great Ones of Spanish Poetry in the Inimitable Style of Octavio Paz’ (2012), you remind the reader that it is almost a century since Marcel Duchamp exhibited a urinal signed as a piece of art. We could say that with this work Duchamp wanted to make evident the social conventions that make a work of art: for example, its being on a gallery signed by an artist. What social conventions inside the realm of poetry were you trying to ‘question and expand’ when you digitized the voice of the Nobel prize winner and central figure in Mexican poetry Octavio Paz, to make him recite the lyrics of romantic ballads, rock songs and norteño music? You also mention two referents that inspired you to make the piece: Charles Bernstein's conference ‘Poetry's Coming Digital Presence’, and what you describe as the ‘critical and comical’ essay by Mario Bojorquez, 'The 100 Worst Mexican Poems by Living Authors’. Could you explain in what senses these worked as triggers and how they influenced the realization of the piece?

B.M.: I am interested in investigating the conventions that define ‘the poetic’ (whatever that means), and distinguishes it from other uses of language. From the practice's most traditional point of view, the localization of those values defining the poetic is so clear that the mere question seems stupid: poetry is about the sublime, tries to be universal, and sets itself outside of time. One of the guarantees that this can be accomplished is the repetition of renowned motifs and forms, which takes us to the idea that ‘the poetic’ has a specific language. To this mixture we need to incorporate also a speaking subject: the exercise of poetry is a search for your own voice, a spiritual purification that works to make you speak the unspeakable. The defence of this position made by Bojorquez in ‘The 100 Worst Poems’ made me question if, maybe, these qualities are actually found in popular songs and not in high culture, which shows an evident decay: products so ethereal that they are almost interchangeable word by word, and which would hardly place themselves in the horizon of ‘the established’. They do not continue a tradition; they end up buried under it. The idea of the piece was to use Octavio Paz's voice (with all that that implied) to search in songs from different popular genres for those values that the more traditional points of view demand from current poetry; songs where some sensibilities identify — sometimes explicitly — poetic qualities. They are vehicle of catharsis, they communicate emotions that would otherwise stay beyond words, they say things that are important in a form that the listener/audience finds beautiful. If my goal had been to ridicule the figure or the work of Octavio Paz then I would have make him sing the Macarena or the Za, za, za. The poems of Paz are there, waiting for readers who approach his work without that uninformed, uncritical and excessive previous acceptance or rejection that is so common in Mexico. In the conference you mention, Bernstein talked, among other things, about some work derived from the Pennsound Studio archive. The idea of working with the recordings of poetry readings came partly from there.

J.P.A.: Your novel Signs of Voluntary Amnesia, published in 2009, ends with a chapter that is not found in the printed book. We read that it is necessary to go to an internet address in order to see the video-poem with which it ends. How did you decide to end your text with a material that was outside of the book, nested on the internet? In what way where the limits you perceived in the printed book a trigger for you to conceive of a possible novel entirely on the internet — project for which you obtained the Jóvenes Creadores (FONCA) grant in 2011 — or to experiment with new reading devices like the ones we see — all from 2013 — in Space Reader, Palaktsch or ‘Ceniza y Sentido’? 

B.M.: The original manuscript of Signs of Voluntary Amnesia ended with a series of images: scans from a photographic album that worked, in the story of the novel, as a tool of communication for a character that starts to forget words. The problem was that the printing process of the publishing house did not allow for a good-quality reproduction of these images. I was thinking about completely deleting the images until I thought of ending the novel with an internet link in which the reader could see them without either increasing the costs, mutilating my own work or compromising the quality of the photographs. Although in the beginning the editor was reluctant to let me do this, in the end he agreed. Initially, the idea was to make a gallery with images, but the exploration of this media opened the door to a whole range of new possibilities of the kind Katherine Hayles talks about in her article: the use of animation, movement, interactivity, sound, etc. More than fighting the limits of the printed book, electronic media were a solution for a specific problem of production; a solution that showed me a universe of possibilities to explore and expand some formal concerns that were developing in my own work as a writer.

The Cristero Novel — which is the project I began with the FONCA grant — did not originate as an online project. More than a solution to printing limitations, it was a reaction to the large amount of historical novels that crowded the bookshops during the bicentennial celebrations of Mexican Independence. My problem with a lot of those novels (in addition to the opportunism they represent) was that they depart from historical research or bibliographical curiosity to construct a possible tale, without caring about the balance between reality and fiction or its position within the official historical narrative. The idea of my project was to create a series of false historical documents — a newspaper, the catalogue of a museum, a record with corridos, a photographic collection, the paraphernalia of a saint (letters, prayers, ex-votos, etc.) and other primary sources of historical research — to explore other formal possibilities of telling a story. It was a really fun process that departed from the process of writing and moved towards other disciplines: I designed and laid out the sections of the newspaper with its advertisements, I manufactured the museum pieces and its photographical register in situ, I composed and recorded a pair of corridos and, in the middle of the process, my interest in electronic media made me abandon the project. Finally, the performance interfaces you mention came up a long time after that — basically, because of the number of invitations to present the concretoons was increasing. I was starting to get bored explaining these pieces, and I always thought the format of a public exhibition was not a good one for the project. The concretoons pieces work when you experience them by yourself, not when you see me interacting with them while I give a talk about why I think they are a poem (and not just a video-game). So I started thinking about pieces where the fact that I was present was necessary. On the other hand, I didn't want to fall into the cliché of a ‘performatic reading’ that is so common to a certain idea of ‘expanded poetry’: reading the same poems but now with music, video, gymnastic tables or juggling clowns. The idea was to create reading processes mediated by technology that allowed me to explore the creation of sense and affect outside the conventions of the literary. There is also a way to use technology in order to deal with a limitation: if I had the abilities that Jaap Blonk or Ricardo Castillo have I would make sound poetry using my body. Because I do not have these abilities I made myself into a musical instrument/prosthesis.

J.P.A.: In a talk you gave for Cristina Rivera Garza's literary workshop you said that nowadays videogames are one of the most effective forms of telling a story. In online videogames with multiple players such as World of Warcraft we have an ‘author’ who gives the first description of a world, and then players/readers, as Bob Stein calls them, write the story while they play the game. This relates to what Hayles calls adentity, a form of subjectivity that is defined in relation to the active participation in an online community. Do you think videogames have an important role to play in renovating the possibilities of narrative? Do you find the way in which, in videogames, the community of players/readers interact between them and with the ‘author’ to write a story interesting for literary experimentation?

B.M.: I think that when the main interest of an author is to tell a story the present offers an unlimited universe of options to materialize that tale in a form more efficient than traditional writing. To write narrative, and what I'm going to say is a very personal opinion, has to do more with the work with language, a language that in the novel and the short story with first line exceptions like Mario Bellatín or Cristina Rivera-Garza — looks really wasted: outdated. That is why I'm interested in videogames: I do believe they offer expressive possibilities that are yet to be discovered. The actual problem is that the products that are generated by the big games industry are part of a dynamic of expansion and conquest that only reflects the state of the dominant economic model. However, I think there are things that are interesting. Bethesda videogames are an excellent example, where the support and the context of the game are used to develop texts that are interesting by themselves. Outside of commercial videogames, in the community of independent developers, there are great examples: limbo, braid, passage, to mention just a few. Now the example you mention of videogames is not well known to me. I’ve tried to play it on occasion but grew bored. Perhaps what you said is possible, that gamers can interact to develop a history in a similar way to the analogical model on which these platforms are based: the paper role game and the dice. From my perspective, my first impression is that much of what it happens in the MOOG is closer to the famous meme of Leeroy Jenkins!

J.P.A.: Your digital poems named concretoons rely on the language and aesthetics of videogames to establish a dialogue with Jorge Luis Borges (in Laberinto Borgeano of 2010) and Nicanor Parra (in Nokianor Parra also from 2010), among others. It gives me the impression that the concept of ‘transcreation’, taken from Brazilian concrete poetry, was central to the conception of these exercises, in which you not only translate but also recreate a poem like ‘Laberinto of Borges’ in the Pacman videogame. Am I right? Do you think the concept of transcreation can be a guide for a dialogue between electronic literature and previous, oral or printed forms of literature? Why use the language of videogames for this dialogue?

B.M.: You are right. The Noigandres group saw translation as an exercise central to their poetic practices. Against the traditional approaches that conceptualize translation as the most faithful interpretation in the sense of one language into another — they propose the notion of transcreation, a critical exercise that changes the focus of attention from sense to the transposition of the material properties of language and the aesthetic information of the original text, freeing this content to be recreated. A synthesis of Oswald De Andrade Textual Cannibalism and Ezra Pound's dictum, transcreation is a historical-linguistic update of poetic forms that allows for the recombination of traditions. A central idea with the concretoons was to translate the poems into the medium of electronic media specifically. That explains the use of interactivity, hyperlinks, generative processes and, of course, videogames. Why videogames? Firstly, because they are a native digital form. Many of the concretoons pieces try to work in two levels: one that is immediate and ludic, where the user/reader has to confront the fact that the words do not act as they are supposed to: they move, jump, and function so as not to let us read but play. They say some things other than what they are suppose to communicate. At the second level these same mechanisms are used to speak about poetry, language, tradition, etc., things that contained within the self-referential dynamic of modern poetry. Videogames have allowed me to attract the interest of a public that would have otherwise never approached anything that conceives itself as a poem. What is true is that at the end maybe the answer to your question is rather simple: I use videogames because I like them. They are an important part of my past and, maybe not as much as I would like, of my present.

J.P.A.: Soon an app based on your piece Space Reader is going to be available for users of iOS and Android. With it, users are going to be able to read, or spell out, the syllables in a text in nonlinear ways, travelling around it with the cursor using a touchscreen. Why did you decide to socialize a tool that would not seem to be of interest for those ordinary users who want to read a text conventionally? Are you interested in letting more artists and writers make use of your device? Do you imagine the artist of the future as someone who designs not just finished works but platforms of interaction which have experimental goals?

B.M.: I ignore whether the Space Reader Mobile is going to be of interest to the ordinary user you propose. I am sure that my work with electronic media is going to be a great disappointment for those people who expect to read a text in the conventional way. Now, I do think that the Space Reader Mobile is much more like the concretoons, as it works with the same principles. At first it could be seen as a piece that expands that project to a new platform: it’s no longer a sketch of processing or flash with which you can interact with a personal computer and you can acquire access to through the internet; but rather an application for mobile devices that stays on your phone. Any further use of the piece, which from my perspective is finished, is something that it is outside both of what I can and what I want to control.