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Aim, Fire, Poetry! Jason Nelson And The New Literature

On the screen I can see some soldiers who are debarking a vessel; they are wading ashore between wooden barriers during constant gunfire. A voice is mimicking the sounds from gun shots and explosions. What I am looking at is a one minute video created by Carlos González Tardón (b. 1982), a Spanish researcher focused on immersion in video games, artificial intelligence and robotics.

The video is a machinima (you can watch at here: http://www.vimeo.com/4835713), a video recorded with help of a videogame. In this case, one of the countless commercial war games you could find in every game shop. The machinima was first presented at the E-Poetry Festival 2009 in Barcelona and the voice we hear is reciting the poem Schtzngrmm by the Austrian poet Ernst Jandls (1925-2000).


The poem’s title Schtzngrmm is a play with the German word “Schützengraben”, which describes the trenches of the World War I. In the poem, Jandls describes the war by mimicking the sounds of gunfires and detonating missiles. Jandls was inspired by the Dada movement and Mary Ellen Scott describes his work in the book
Concrete Poetry: A World View(1968, Indiana University Press) as: “Jandl’s traditional background enabled him to try ‘to combine old and new elements’ in his experimental poems”.

In Tardón‘s video, we can also find this combination; the combination of the new virtual warfare from videogames and Jandls “old” sound-poem from 1966 in a new exciting presentation.

 

 

Carlos Gonzales Tardon‘s video reminds me very much of the American artist Joseph Delappe who, at several occasions (http://www.unr.edu/art/delappe.html), has performed poems reciting in different war games. In War Poetry: Medal of Honor, Allied Assault Online, Delappe read poems by the WW1 poet Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon was a British soldier serving in WW1 but started to write satiric and anti-war poems in which he questioned the madness of the war.


In the same way Delappe has used war videogames to perform anti-war messages: in this case the performance was a reaction against the war in Iraq that started in 2003. But already in 2001, Delappe started to investigate on-line performances when he read Allen Ginsbergs poem Howl from 1955, in the videogame Elite Force Voyager Online. The reading took Delappe six hours to complete.

Artists and poets does not only use existing videogames to recited others poets poem in. Some of them also creates theire own poetic videogames. For example, Canadian Jim Andrews, who is a pioneer in this area, he created in 2001 a videogame called Arteroids (http://www.vispo.com/arteroid), a modification of the old game Asteroids from 1979 by Atari. In the game, you steer a space ship through an asteroid belt, meanwhile you are shooting down asteroids and flying saucers. In Andrews’ shoot-em-up poetry videogame, you are steering a word and by shooting down other words you create a sound poetry. As a player, you interact and create the poem by the simple instructions: aim, fire, poetry!

Another example is the artist Myfawny Ashmore (http://www.myfanwy.ca/), who has made a series called Gameboy Poetry for Nintendo Ds. Ashmore describes her work as “game like poetry that exploit the relationship between the user, the hardware, the physicality of the user and the interface”. In TTC not a Haiku, she combines scrollable TTC map with a poem, and in her work Dear Sirs she includes references to John Cage’s famous poem What you say.


The Australian digital artist and poet Jason Nelson also creates his own poetry videogames. He has made a trilogy with name as: Game, Game, Game And Again Game, I made this. You play this.
We are Enemies and Evidence of everything exploding. The videogame poems are based on traditional platforms games in which Nelson combines texts, pictures and sounds from the different sources from the Internet.

 

 

DigiMag got an interview with Jason Nelson about the inspirations and the ideas behind his breathtaking game poetry.


Mathias Jansson
: What kind of videogames and poetry do you appreciate and inspirer you as an artist?

Jason Nelson: Lately I’ve been fascinated by the strange stories built into cut scenes and introductory movies of 1980s Atari or Nintendo games. The contrast between the relatively simple game play/graphics and the complex animated or image based storylines presented as rewards for defeating tentacled bosses. And while I doubt they were educated in the literary tradition, those who created early game narratives were pioneers. Their attempts to create small worlds and back-stories continue to be the inspiration for movies, games and novels thirty years later.

Additionally, those early games were often messy and dysfunctional with chaotic clashes of sounds and images. Without high powered graphics engines or developed AIs, the creators had to be creative within a limited framework. And so, I often scour the web for emulators and ROMS of any and all games systems. A project over the next year is to crack open ROMS for Space Adventure or Cute Animal platform games. Once inside I want to rewrite the rules or alter/disrupt the graphics. I imagine inserting acerbic poetic texts into Atari tennis games, or adding my own poorly filmed cut scenes into Sega Pirate Quests.


In a more modern vein, I’m always fascinated by how somewhat easy to use software, like Flash or GameMaker, is used to create an intimidating wide range of Indie games. Much of these would be considered outsider art.

 

 

As for poetry, I continually find myself pulling/creating poems from found texts. 19th century engineering journals, old medical documents, strange maps, diagrams of computer systems, which are filled with contemporary poetry. The language of science is often riddled with poetic descriptions or curious stories. Additionally, I create poetry through generative means.


Sometimes I filter movies, radio talk shows, political speeches through speech-to-text software. And because most code that translates sound into words is buggy and inconsistent, or filled with bias and predefined notions of language, the outcome of the filtered are pages of nearly incoherently grammars and word couplings.


Often though, the textual relationships generated are beautiful and can be used to spark poetry within nearly all my creations. And of course, I am a voracious reader and explorer, so any poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction I can find ends up inspiring me in some way.

Creating digital poetry is so multi-linear and dimensional, and contains such a variety of media and poetic intersections that inspiration must come from all directions. As soon as I begin to create a new work, five new works seem to spring from the original idea. Critics often suggest some of my works seem incomplete either in their construction or in meaning. And I would say incompletion and messiness are part of the fabric of digital poetry.

 

 

Mathias Jansson: How do you think Internet, and new media as videogames, have changed and will change how we read and experience poetry in the future?


Jason Nelson:
Video Games are a language, an architecture for relaying ideas, for exploring some artistic / theoretical / poetic / educational / economic (and on and on) notions. The rise of relatively easy to code/create games unattached to profit/corporate directions, has meant game creators could use these architectures to communicate/build pretty and disturbing creatures. While I am overjoyed by the viral spreading my games have encountered, all my odd creations have accomplished is to slightly stretch how these frameworks could be used. Indeed, I am continually surprised by the creativity displayed in the independent gaming community.

And yet, I am equally shocked by how most big budget, platform specific works are, for the most part, un-creative and boring and over rely on fancy graphics. And even how we define “games” are constantly in revision. Maybe the term “game” no longer encapsulated what we create. If you can play/interact/solve/engage/rethink with an artwork, does that make it a game?

As for the future, interactive interfaces might not replace paper/static screen poetry. But, I am confident, interactive works will soon be a critical component of the literary landscape. The Internet, portable devices, game consoles, are the language of Digital Natives. Anyone born after 1990 envision content as interactive and multimedia, and each year after only increases their tendency to visual, spatial and responsive thinking.

Indeed, I’ve already seen signs of a backlash towards interactive poetry, and important signs of its impending dominance. Exactly how the poetry manifests itself will depend on the gadgets and codes developed. But in ten years, poetry will be written with interfaces, images, sounds, movements, databases, interactivity, game components all as vital as poetic texts.

 

 

Mathias Jansson: Can you tell me some about your trilogy of poetic art games: Game, Game and Again Game, I made this. You play this. We are enemies and Evidence of everything exploding?


Jason Nelson:
Most seem them as a trilogy. But I actually view most of my digital poetry creatures as game-like creations. Aside from the platform or top-down game engines, there is a slot-machine that predicts your death, generating a death scenario with each spin. I created a Zombie game, that while a failure in many ways does have the best title ever written (Alarmingly these are not Lovesick Zombies). Other works such as the within-within space of Between Treacherous Objects, the various cube creations, or the more fictional creations of The Bomar Gene or Dreamaphage or Wittenoom, all incorporate some game aspects.


And one of my latest works, Sydney’s Siberia, allows the user to infinitely explore a recombinatory mosaic of poetic tiles. It’s a game of hide and seek with poetry that you can play forever. In addition, I’ve tried and failed with other game artworks, including a space shooter that takes 2 million minutes to play, or a soon to be released game that fills the screen with tombstones and short character bios of those killed during the game. So, while I understand why you might see a trilogy, I’m hoping it’s more of a continually expanding experiment with interactive game-like poetic machines. And what is the difference between a machine and a creature?


Mathias Jansson
: What about the game with the title I made this, you play this, we are enemies?


Jason Nelson:
The title was a direct response to the thousands of emails/forum posts/blog entries about Game, Game, Game And Again Game that either loved it, or venomously hated it. That kind of polarized response, that strong visceral reaction is a great compliment to a creator, but at first the anger and aggression some expressed made me realize that combining two disparate art forms (poetry and games) meant I would ultimately make enemies in both camps. Some poets exclaimed my work wasn’t truly literary and some game makers deemed by creations as easy-to-play artsy wankerism.


So, I created I made this you play this we are enemies using screenshots from many of the sites that promoted/lauded/lambasted my work. My idea was to mark-up or annotate the sites, to place a poetry game within net-based spaces, to combine sketchbook with commentary with absurd exploration. Although I am sure those addicted to the new-new of new media will cry out “same-same is lame-lame”, I am planning to revisit the marked up screenshot poetry game platform. And instead of choosing popular sites, I’ll be targeting relatively unknown portals, like the homepage for an Arboretum in Kansas or a small town museum in Vancouver, Canada or Toy Train collector’s society, to bring digital poetry to local fanaticism.

 

 

Mathias Jansson: Which role has the player/reader in your games, for example in Game, game, game and again game?


Jason Nelson:
Even the simple left/right/up arrow movement of my poetry games allow the reader to take the role of hero. To mentally live, however briefly, within the screen. And to varying degrees, within all my creations the reader/player truly does become the writer. No, I am not giving them complete control, nor am I generating texts from their movements and/or responses/reactions. The creator’s ideas/aesthetic is still strange attractor to all my digital creatures. It’s almost as if I am offering them access to the back of my brain, letting them drive a lumbering hard to steer go-cart through poetic multimedia musings.


Mathias Jansson
: Evidence of everything exploding has a SF-story background about 10 important sheets of paper. Why these 10 papers and what are these levels representing in the game?


Jason Nelson:
History, at least that history we study in school or experience through the media, is defined by seminal moments, is built from the evidence of seemingly important events. For Evidence of everything exploding I determined my own historical moments, signifiers of our contemporary condition. Perhaps it’s best if I take you through all the levels, explaining, for the first time, who I chose the document for each.

One: the title page for an early etymological dictionary. Understanding the origin of language, the inspirations for terminologies is critical for poetic exploration. And the level story is centered on how language is used for dominating culture.


Two: an early Dadaism poster. As you’ve noticed, my work is usually heavily tinged with the surreal. The Dadaist movement, I feel, is the most influential thought movement of the 20
th century. We force logic on what are inherently Alien systems.


Three: the trajectory diagram for NASA’s first Moon landing. An obvious choice, at least on a personal level. As I am enamoured with space travel and amazed at both the skill needed to travel to our nearest satellite, and saddened that for overthirty years we have yet to return.

Four: The Bill Gates Letter to Hobbyists from the Computer Brew Club newsletter.Tthere was a moment when software turned bad, when code became commodity, when a language became copyright. This letter represents that sad change, the beginning of charging for hello.

Five: A 1918 US Gov’t Warning Letter concerning the Spanish Flu pandemic. After the virus seemed unstoppable, there were plans drafted to isolate a small healthy population for the survival of humanity. The result of a multi-million killing virus was for communities to avoid large congregations for the next forty years.

 

 

Six: Copyright infringement notice to writer Neil Gaiman from the producers of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Pure absurdity and a narrow victory for public commentary. What if linking to a website you criticize was illegal.

Seven: a page from James Joyce. His odd confluence of words and ideas and strange inspired me to write, and began to rip fiction from its rusting cage.

Eight: NYC Museum of Modern Art rejection letter to pre-famous Andy Warhol. It’s funny how success and fame alter a critic/curator’s judgement. Personality/perception as conceptual underpinning to marginally interesting art.

Nine: Letter from a very young Fidel Castro praising America and seeking money. Rarely are megalomaniacs driven by anything other than ego. Politics are a malleable investment portfolio and one of oddest long-standing conflicts could have been avoided by a ten dollar investment.

Ten (the last level): the patent for the Pizza Box. Simple, ubiquitous and genius. A cultural symbol that just might outlast all the Face/My/Twit/Googs of the world. We are packaging for the easiest of foods.

 

 

 

http://www.secrettechnology.com/

 

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