De la matérialité du sens | esse arts + opinions

De la matérialité du sens

Ce texte est publié en français dans le no 43 de la revue ESSE
Pronunciation: "i-m&-’tir-E-&l Function: adjective Etymology: Middle
English immateriel, from Middle French, from Late Latin immaterialis, from
Latin in- + Late Latin materialis material Date: 14th century
1 : not consisting of matter : INCORPOREAL
2 : of no substantial consequence : UNIMPORTANT

Net-art is expanding exponentially. Are these objects? Material or immaterial? Where are they located? On a server? on a CPU? In a waveform? Evidently, the micro-alignments on a silicon chip are inaccessible to direct human perception. Since digital reality is a realm accessible only through the interpretive abilities of computers or electron-microscopes, is it immaterial? Is materiality dependent upon tactility? As metabolism-based creatures, we trust what we can touch. My feeling is that net-art constitutes a material medium; it is not any more immaterial than video, film or photography. It is a visual/sonic representation of reality that relies upon the interpretive powers of a device. In actuality, the internet is a massive coagulation of corporate power and sturdy hardware: eminently materialistic. Nevertheless, there are numerous subtle deep-seated questions concerning immateriality evoked at the confluence of literature and net-art. The nature of the word is changing; its solidity destabilized; its fluidity enhanced; its new metamorphic identities shimmering as they coalesce...

The ability of software to manipulate, mutilate and animate text is provoking a quantum evolution in the way human beings read and write. At a daily level, on TV, video, film and computer screens everywhere, the latest brand names, movie titles, logos and sound bites fade-in and fly toward us, vividly surrounded by flocks of pulsating imploring adjectives. Putting aside all ethical or aesthetic considerations, these computer-generated word-spasms are utilizing the technical seeds of a new potent tool of literary praxis: software-generated mobile-dynamic-text...text that arises from nowhere and disappears again.

"In digital environments, it is now normal for words to mutate into other words, flow along pre-defined or random pathways, modulate in size and colour, overlap, fade, spin, fold, roll, shake, bump, respond to touch, react to noise, be born from nothing, live in a frenzy of other words, and die. Profound significations develop as words are animated in ways that humans associate visually with living organisms."1 This excerpt from an introduction to my digital exhibit, NomadLingo Ñonline at the net-art Gallery "Year Zero One" curated by Michael Alstad (Ñ constitutes my own rudimentary axiom for building poetry in a digital environment. Normally the tactile solidity of a word as a single object with a known definiton is sacrosanct. There exists a materiality of meaning. For example, the word "chat". Anyone who has ever touched a cat knows what the word means. But if the word is on-screen and begins to fluctuate and becomes "char" , cascades quickly through a stream of other words while flying among more words which are also morphing, then what does this suggest about the solidity of the meanings we have come to associate with our cat? Does this word "chat" and our friendly cat relate? They do in this sense: the word "chat" can now leap across the screen, or be frightened by the word "chien", it can grow, it can hiss. So, is it an object? An animal? Maybe it is for now only an ephemeral emulation of an animal, a construct without a definitive graspable conventionally solid form.

Words in these environments are no longer concrete objects that can be defined in static terms; they are dynamic modalities, data-streams interpreted by interfaces; ephemeral clouds of ricocheting linguistic molecules reassembled into subjective synaptic syntactical knots; flocks of morphemes, clusters of phonemes Ñhyperplane matrixes with bifurcating tendrils of symbolic integrity.

Art work that incorporates these techniques is growing rapidly (but is still prey to the old statistical reality that poetry is about 2% of the the textbook market which is 2% of the magazine market etc....). Because this work is often unlinked, scattered and invisible to some search engines, I will provide the following quick list of related sites. A strong mainstream example can be found at edited by Ingrid Ankerson & Megan Sapnar, two online dynamic-text poets dealing with quotidian themes ranging from the domestic (doing the dishes) to the romantic (cruising a small town street as a teenager). Their site is a gallery of diverse international dynamic-text work updated quarterly with an emphasis on slow textural and spoken-word-based files. A visual feast of subtle and gently ironic essay-style pieces can be found at Robert Brochu’s small inspired experimental site is at Also engaging is the polemical spoken-word-based incantation of "Schism" by WangZen ( From the subtle-flicker video designed by net-celebrity Hillman Curtis to accompany the poem "Sky" by Christina Manning ( to the primary-school class who sing a ritournelle with a simple animation (, the range of styles utilizing this software is already reflective of a living diversity.

Within Québec, there is a growing field of venues and work for digital art. – a Montréal-based site founded in August 1999 by Brad Todd, Valérie Lamontagne and Andrew Brouse – is currently curating a net-art show for December 2001. La Chambre Blanche in Québec City offers residencies to artists interested in production of art for the web. The current issue of the online-magazine Chair et Métal published by poet/professor Ollivier Dyens is online at featuring work by myself and Yannick B. Gélinas who "in the fall of 2000, published a collection of poetry titled, "Mordre" accompanied by a CD-Rom of interactive poetry, "Parenthèse." This particular type of interactive poetry published with a book of paper-poetry is a first in Québec within the field of literature." (from her bio). Extracts of Gélinas’ work (online at combine a bilingual text, soundtrack and graphics which subvert the notion of viewer control. An image of a body partially (but never completely) revealed by mouse roll-overs, its materiality is dissected into blocks which make it seem unreal – while the words, rooted in bodily experience, speak of an ambiguous anguish arising from passion. Paradoxically, emotion, immaterial in its essence, is made tangible through a skillfull utilization of digital tools.

In the canonical Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan succinctly traced the origin of the novel to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. Five hundred years later we live surrounded and inundated by the legacy of Gutenberg’s technical innovation: an avalanche of novels, magazines, textbooks, pamphlets, and brochures. An obvious contemporary re-application of McLuhan’s idea suggests that due to the technological innovations arising from binary-data, a new (and unpredictable) literary form will inevitably arise to redefine our relation to language. By expanding the capabilities and potential trajectories of language, the silicon chip (in conjunction with text-manipulation software whose potency is synergistically increasing each year) is provoking a paradigmatic leap in cultural praxis. The materiality of the paper-book is slowly being subsumed by the apparently immaterial digital-screen. As with any transition, the new communicative technology is both embraced and rejected. Some oral poets in the middle ages, probably found the new printed-press books to be less solid and less important than the vast generous orations of old. Yet oral history has faded in importance, and mainstream culture continues to follow the path of least resistance; every technological innovation has a lifespan. Major changes in communicative technology provoke a turbulent expansion of conceptual paradigms: what was considered impossible, inconsequential and immaterial, is ingested and reincorporated within the contemporary collective body of culture.

Since there are statistics which suggest the rate of technological change is accelerating rapidly, it seems inevitable that our definitions of materiality will expand equally rapidly; humans will increasingly collectively colonize regions currently known as "immaterial". As Ray Kurzweil speculates in The Age of Spiritual Machines2, if the intelligence of computers continues to grow at the current exponential rate, they will soon equal and exceed the strength of human brains. Our current notions of material reality are delimited and defined by our biological sensory parameters. We see vibrations of light within a specific visible spectrum; we hear waveforms within a small bandwidth; we use touch to navigate through a macroscopic world generated by enormous emptiness and intangible energies. At the same time, ineffable ideas arise from nowhere and have a great impact on our lives. As the next generations of computers are more-effectively synthesized with the human nervous system, the human range of normally-perceptible sensory-reality will expand. Maybe we will be capable of digitally representing the unlimited boundaries of fluctuating and interacting meanings in an interactive cluster of words. Maybe these nebulous clouds will become as common as the newspaper; poets will release poems that drift like fog along the sidewalks. Think of how swiftly we have become conditioned to the invisible permeation of the air with hundreds of tv channels. Imagine what will happen when we become capable of receiving those channels directly through neural shunts. It is a field of study already being researched by renowned performance artist Stelarc.

The focus of a great deal of the net-art emerging now is conceptually related to issues of technological transparency, provoking quick elusive leaps of logic in the viewer as they are reintroduced to the "actuality," the tight byte-by-byte reality of the code and the enormous supportive infrastructure that underlies these seemingly ephemeral creations. An example of this is the enigmatic I/O/D at, an alternative art-browser application which in the words of one of its programmers is to provoke awareness of "actual, rather than virtual, reconfigurations of ways of seeing, knowing and doing." Or net-celebrity Mark Napier’s Feed (progeny of the infamous Shredder) at the current SFMoMA online show which rips apart URLs and spits out colourful data; a cybernetic descendant of Kurt Schwitters.

These are essentially works which challenge all notions of immateriality associated with net-art. They posit an object-oriented attitude3, one which negates the conventional transparency of function to reveal the entrails of the mechanistic source. At the same time, they are paradoxically demonstrating how completely and radically the interpretive capabilities of computer-code can entropically mutate images of our own vulnerable and brief existences – existences increasingly drenched in the semaphores of new media. "Jet-Set Download" by Brief Belief Studios, (a work featured on is a complex minimalist knit of text, icons and video highlighting antiseptic environments, techno-sexuality and economic crashes; basically our recognition that the idealism of technology that arose in the 1950’s and 1960’s has not resulted in any apparent eradication of inequity, injustice or human cruelty. We are just equipped with more sophisticated tools to document our reptilean nature.

Half of the code is zeros. Half of the code is ones. The ancient ontological dynamic between emptiness and unity takes root in binary soil. And between the epistemology of absolutes, exists the fluctuating normal realm of life itself: matter seeking meaning and making matter while being mostly made from vast voids where electrons swirl. Cybernetic artistic practice must still struggle with notions of corporality. The & tags in HTML nest side by side with the . The flying words that touch each other briefly on a computer screen, composed and arising from an incredibly vast collective network of intelligence and technology, are only an ephemeral output of pixelated light sculpted by a human pysche; their presence both a testament to our identity as objects and the immateriality of everything. Ñ except you, this piece of paper, the words on it, your breath, your thoughts....

The NomadLingo exhibit conclusion can be found at (As with many of the works referred to in this article it requires the Flash 5 plug-in)
Ray Kurzweil was the principal developer of the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first CCD flat-bed scanner, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large vocabulary speech recognition. He has also developed a computer program which writes poetry in styles that it learns
Programming utilizes ’object-oriented’ languages, where ’objects’ are often modulating arrays or matrixes of data which generate a macroscopic experience.

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