Ephemeral radical acts
Bridging the digital and textual in the poetics of Nick Montfort
The rules of language — coding and poetics — occupy our current moment of automated poetics, and Nick Montfort, as a poet and a scholar, a theorist of the future, and an artist, creates the future through his computer-generated poetics, bending the rules of these languages. With multiple dimensions to his wide-ranging and innovative poetic practice, he is the author of over fifteen books of poetry and theory on digital media such as The New Media Reader (2003), Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction (2003), Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (2009), 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 (2010), Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities (2016), and The Future (2017), all from MIT Press. Additional poetry books include The Trulist (Denver: Counterpath, 2017) and #! (pronounced “shebang,” Counterpath, 2014), both computer-generated, book-length poems that push the boundaries of computer programming, code, and poetry. For example, The Trulist was produced “by one-page computer program, with the code included at the end of the book,” while #! includes programming languages such as Python, Ruby, and Perl. Montfort is a professor at MIT, where he teaches courses such as “The Word Made Digital,” “Experimental Writing,” and “Interactive Narrative,” and he directs the Trope Tank, an innovative creative and digital lab.
Alongside traditionally published books, Montfort has developed numerous projects of electronic literature — oftentimes collaborative — such as his reinterpretation of the 1967 electronic literature piece A House of Dust by Alison Knowles and James Tenney. A House of Dust, which combines different lines to produce descriptions of houses, is understood as the first computer-generated poem utilizing the FORTRAN programming language as a significant early generator of poetic text. Montfort’s reinterpretation of A House of Dust, a collaboration with poet and writer Amaranth Borsuk, is available for free online, demonstrating how electronic literature can be accessible and interpretive and regenerate throughout the times. Taking a line from A House of Dust, Montfort publishes the Using Electricity series through Counterpath Press, which features computer-generated books and includes work by poets Allison Parrish, Stephanie Strickland, and others.
Within Nick’s oeuvre, there is a lot of ground an interview can cover, or perhaps cannot cover, given the breadth and depth of his work. There are numerous articles written about his other publications, teaching, and electronic literature. Here, I’m interested in highlighting something less known, something smaller and more ephemeral. While seemingly small in comparison to Nick’s larger body of work, these ephemeral exchanges of poetry that are mailed or passed hand to hand are deeply compelling. It’s this ephemeral publishing practice that further demonstrates the innovative poetics of Nick’s work as a poet and publisher. This poetic practice is embodied in his role as a publisher of poetry, not only of traditional books, but also in ephemeral radical poetic acts that reimagines the present and the future worlds in which we will reside, one print at a time.
The beautiful ephemeral
The avant, experimental, and innovative poetry communities have always been committed to and have utilized forms that are ephemeral — pamphlets, zines, pocket poems, “little” magazines — radical in text and form. Along with his breadth of work as a poet and theorist within traditionally published books with innovative content and process, digital ephemera which is aesthetically published in book form, I’ve been moved by how he fosters tactile poetry, that is, beautiful ephemera, utilizing the textual features of paper, color, and form, and fosters community through his micro press Bad Quarto.
Named after the Shakespearean quarto-sized printed edition, as I learn from Nick, Bad Quarto is Montfort’s micro press that produces work for fun, teaching, and “poetic exchange.” The exchange does happen, for example in the pamphlet, “200 (of 10,000) Apotropaic Variations” by trans digital poet Allison Parrish. Each one has two hundred unique computer-generated magic words, and these are “ready to be cut out and used for protection.” As directed by Parrish herself, the pamphlet, in its interactive and ephemeral nature, cuts open language through computer generation, paper, and as a hex during these challenging times: “This allows each word to be worn on one’s person or to be ingested for protective effect.” This pamphlet, like the other works, can be purchased for a modest price, or by “poetic print exchange” as the site indicates. In addition, Bad Quarto publishes Taper, an online literary magazine. The printing/production of Bad Quarto book objects and other literary matter is done using various systems and equipment. Printing includes hypertext and an Adana eight-five platen press from 1975, all of which you can see online at the site. It is these works, along with his traditionally published books and digital literature, that demonstrate the multiple interventions of Montfort.
I met Nick in 2018 at the School of Poetic Computation Tech Zine Fair, a gathering of like-minded tech makers, artists, and makers dedicated to the art of the zine. While I had read Nick’s writing in digital media prior to our chance meeting, as an admirer of his poetic and theoretical works I was deeply moved by his radical interventions as a publisher and distributor of poetics in multiple forms at the fair. His work existed not only in screens and traditional books, but also in the beautiful ephemera of leaflets, cards, postcards, pamphlets, and what I’d describe as artist books, where the fold is as important as the enjambment of the poem. These works, blending digital and paper, are radical interventions and fugitive publications. The digital is print, as we’ll learn from Montfort, and ephemeral, radical, and fugitive. As are important conversations, never recorded, and the beautiful phrases — only beautiful, as Moten has written, because “no one asked,” beautiful because you’ll never get them back.
Montfort’s work is a formative example of how ephemera — in digital or paper form — brings to question the nature of these forms and offers examples of the possibilities of radical intersections. This interview is a long-ranging conversation that covers his programming and poetics background, among other things. Here we discuss Montfort’s approach to the digital, which is “not divorced from paper,” his thoughts on the “digital/screenic,” his early experience in curation and poetry practices when a graduate student in computer science at Penn, and even train rides as demoscene for creative coding and political building. Montfort’s work is at the intersection of aesthetic poetics and politics of distribution and asks us to redefine what we understand to be poetry, programming, and the fugitive, now and into our futures.
Margaret Rhee: You’ve written numerous books at the intersection of programming and poetics, but you also are doing this incredible publishing work that is ephemeral and builds poetry community. I was just wondering if you could talk about that, like, how did that start and why is that important to you, since you also write, edit, and publish traditional books? And I was wondering if you could just tell me more about Bad Quarto?
Nick Montfort: Sure! Bad Quarto, a sort of “micropress,” is really a wide range of things, some of which are larger-scale projects, some of which are quite minor projects, some of which are fugitive publications of my own work.
Rhee: Fugitive publication!
Montfort: Sure, publishing through unofficial channels. I’ve been trying to develop the Bad Quarto concept further in recent years, beyond just as an outlet for things of mine. Back in 2005 I made a small booklet called Troper/Schematorium and indicated that it was published by “Bad Quarto.” And you know about what the term “quarto” means, one category of sizes of book based on how many times the sheets are folded. Duodecimo, octavo, those are smaller. Folios, just folded once, are larger. There were the cheap quarto editions of Shakespeare published unofficially in his lifetime and then what we call the first folio, published after his death, a fancy expensive edition. For instance, some of these versions, particularly one of Hamlet that’s well-known, are basically pirate versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Somebody, probably the actor who played Marcellus, tried to remember the whole play and wrote this down, transcribed what he remembered of it. And that became what’s known as the bad quarto.
The name is in a sort of DIY spirit, then. I don’t have any problem putting a web page up with my work even if it’s not placed in an online literary magazine. I don’t mind putting it onto my site and sharing it, letting people see it that way. It’s okay for people to self-publish things, as lots and lots of famous and not very famous poets have done. In fact, I put many things up online without even saying they are from “Bad Quarto.”
And then really just about two years ago, I started thinking about Bad Quarto more as something that would be a project involving my collaborations and a project where I would publish work by other people.
Rhee: So this got you started in the community aspects of the press?
Montfort: Exactly. I’ve done some work organizing readings, and two reading series. I’ve organized I suppose about two dozen readings. Some of them in the MACHINE series at the Kelly Writers House. Some of them in my series, Purple Blurb, at MIT. I ran that for several years after joining the faculty here. These have obvious community aspects to them, and there are great things about them. Today’s experience during the pandemic is obviously different. When you have the IRL campus experience at MIT, it’s great to have events, but there are so many events going on. There’s just so much stuff going on. And it’s very hard to get people to come to events. Which is an irony, because you have the great opportunity to, you know, reserve a room for free. You can reserve a classroom, you have good facilities and good spaces for this. But it’s very challenging to get a sizable group of people unless you do something like coordinating your event with a class. If you do that, it changes the whole context and that’s not the type of reading that you find really engages with community outside of an academic framework. So, I ran that series for a while, and while I will still put on an event now and then, the regular series has run its course.
I thought Bad Quarto could do some of the community work that, for instance, Purple Blurb had been doing.
Rhee: And there are other presses like Bad Quarto with their own communities, just like there are other reading series?
Montfort: Definitely, and I’ve taken inspiration from several really impressive projects. Derek Beaulieu and his no press in Banff, Anthony Etherin and his Penteract Press in Shropshire, Joakim Norling and Timglaset in Malmö. There’s a bunch of these, these are just the first that come to mind.
Derek really is into publishing printed matter that isn’t, you know, book books, while Anthony has moved from having a “micropress” of that sort to now publishing books exclusively. This sort of publishing activity can be a way to do offhand projects and connect with different poets — and different readers of poetry.
Rhee: What are the types of objects you’re printing?
Montfort: Right now, actually in print, much smaller-scale publications such as leaflets and cards. While there are these great aspects of connection to community, you know, it’s also just fun for me to print things in various ways. And part of what is interesting to me about Bad Quarto is using a bunch of different machinery and material means of receiving and printing things, ranging from a laser printer and the World Wide Web to the Adana eight-five letterpress machine that I have. I’d say, you know, the challenge for me is really more getting this work out to people rather than getting it printed, or presented digitally. I do send it out and I try to promote our digital project, Taper.
But, you know, for a while I had an actual storefront and even though it was very, very inexpensive to keep that online storefront going, it was still just losing money month by month because there were very, very few people coming to buy stuff. I don’t mind losing some money because Bad Quarto is not meant to be a major profit-making enterprise. I’m not in this to rake in profit, but if I’m going to lose money, whatever I’m doing to lose money had better be an effective way to distribute the work! So online sales were not for me. I’m still open to such sales if people email, but there’s the larger question of how to get work out there. The New York Tech Zine Fair was a great experience where I sold some and exchanged some work. I’d love to have other in-person experiences of this sort, when the public health situation allows it.
In the meantime, it’s nice to exchange work with others doing projects.
Rhee: Yeah, I love the emphasis on community. It’s a real kind of literary community practice, this exchange across borders, and I know Derek’s no press in Canada. So that, yeah, that’s really exciting.
Montfort: It can be costly to send things back and forth internationally.
Rhee: Yeah, definitely. But so special to do so.
Montfort: True, true. And if you’re sending a card or a pamphlet or a zine that counts as a letter, it’s not the same as shipping a bunch of books somewhere for a reading or something.
Speaking of a bunch of books, another context for the Bad Quarto project in my own work is that it relates to my work with the Using Electricity series, a series of computer-generated books published by Counterpath in Denver. Before that, I was cofounder and still am a series editor for the Platform Study series at MIT Press. In both cases I’ve gotten to see projects at early stages and to offer suggestions and advice, but I also particularly enjoy working with our first-time authors. These are larger-scale projects that authors do for both of these series. Getting to be an editor provides me a really wonderful opportunity to be part of the projects and to learn more about how people think about their work as they develop it. And have these conversations and interactions with people who have these really, you know, provocative, stimulating ideas, and compelling ways to develop those and get them out. So that’s something very energizing for me.
So I think of my publishing activity (via Bad Quarto) generally as along the lines of the editorial work that I do with Counterpath and MIT Press, a way of collaborating with authors, learning from them, at some stage of the process.
Using Electricity is a project that is more involved in a lot of ways, thanks to Tim Roberts at Counterpath and his design and production expertise and abilities. We can do certain things through that series which I wouldn’t — it wouldn’t make sense for me to try on my own. I don’t want to try to reproduce the project of Using Electricity myself. But it’s, it’s fun for me to do less formal, less book-like, more offhand sorts of printed matter, different cards and such.
Rhee: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I love the word “offhand,” the fugitive quality of it and the resistant quality of it. And, also, with your series Using Electricity, you’ve published Allison Parrish (Articulations, Counterpath 2018), which is really great!
Montfort: Allison is a giant in computer-generated literature. So it’s an honor for me to be associated with her. And I’m glad also that you know of Allison’s recent piece [the pamphlet “200 (of 10,000) Apotropaic Variations”], the most recent one of the Bad Quarto publications.
Rhee: I love it. It’s so needed right now to ward off all the harm.
Okay, this is really great. And yeah, these are actually addressing some of the questions that I already had. So, um, I guess maybe if we can go back to the question of machines. I mean, because you like a variety of machines like the Commodore 64 but also, as you mentioned, using letterpress and the Adana. You know, I just love this work that you’ve shared with me [Type] by you and Christian [Bök], it’s so beautiful. I’m just like, oh my.
Type (Boston and New York: Bad Quarto, 2018), a collaboration with Nick Montfort and Christian Bök.
Montfort: I’m glad! It was important to me, to begin with, that we compose the poem together. There are the three parts of the poem, and the text there was all composed and finished much earlier than when Type was printed, when Christian was actually at MIT. And we were working together in person, but I was not able to actually typeset some of them. We did typeset the first one, I tried to print it on a Kelsey Excelsior three-by-five that I have. But that machine was just not in good enough shape. The Kelsey Excelsior is what is officially known as a toy press, something for kids to play with to sort of be able to make business cards and things like that. And even with very, very small blocks of type and a reasonable amount of patience I just couldn’t get a good impression on that machine. I actually acquired the Adana then and first put it to use to print Type.
Rhee: Oh, that’s so awesome. Yeah. The quality is just so compelling and so beautiful. Where does the language come from?
Montfort: We started with all of the words in the English language that end with “type” — you know, “all the words” according to a large list — and then just removed the word “type” from the end of them. Like for instance, “daguerreotype” was on our list, so “daguerreo” is in the poem. And you’ll see the word “stereo” in there. A stereotype is a cast-metal plate used in printing, in addition to being a way of generalizing and thinking.
Rhee: That's what’s so moving about it, it’s so layered.
Montfort: That’s one of those things that just falls out because the English language is so layered. And it’s not just the selection of words but the arrangement of them that makes this a sound poem rather than just a catalog, and this is where Christian really brought his expertise.
Rhee: There is this connection to printing in the meaning of each of the words.
Montfort: To printing and to type, yes. That’s why it was not just important, but, I felt like, it was essential to actually letterpress-print the poem. It wasn’t technological fetishism or some type of accident or some type of irrelevant obsession.
Rhee: Oh, no, no. Definitely no.
Montfort: Maybe I’m protesting too much?
Rhee: Ha! But I feel like every work has so many so much dimension and meaning in terms of the form and the connection to form. It’s something I want to delve further into; it reminds me of, like, Viral.
Montfort: Ah yes, the very short palindrome that’s in a test tube. There’s a secret about the way it’s printed.
Rhee: A secret?
Montfort: Yes, I’ll tell you this as, journalistically, as background, but you can’t put it in the interview. People will have to figure it out themselves!
Viral. Anthony Etherin, 2018–2019.
A letterpress-printed palindrome contained in a 14ml polypropylene test tube.
Rhee: Ah! Well, maybe you could say some more about the playfulness of form and especially when you work with paper. Given your extensive work in terms of programming and e-lit, what is it about paper you like? You still work with paper and believe in paper.
Montfort: Well, digital work isn’t divorced from paper.
For instance, every book in the Using Electricity series is a digital book, not only because it’s computer-generated but also because it’s digitally designed and produced and printed. So you just end up with a paper artifact at the end.
So in fact, when I’m talking with my classes, I work to make some close distinctions regarding the digital and the printed (or written). For instance, in my Interactive Narrative class right now we have projects where there’s a critical paper that they’re writing, and they’re supposed to compare what I call a “digital/screenic” work with a print work. I use those types of phrases, even though they are unwieldy. The reason I say “digital/screenic” is because the print book is also digital, you know, if you’re talking about something printed today or anytime recently. So the distinguishing factor is that it’s digital and made for screen presentation. And we’re in an Interactive Narrative class, so I don’t need to bother mentioning that these are both interactive in the sense that the reader or player makes unconventional choices, not just advancing a slide deck or turning pages in the usual way.
I’m interested in the material history of text, leading up to and going through the current, sort of primary digital age. We are in a primary digital age, but it’s not an entirely digital age. So, one thing that’s important to point out is, whether it’s a Commodore 64 or letterpress printing, these are not dead technologies. There are people programming the Commodore 64 right now. There are people doing letterpress printing right now. There’s commercial letterpress printing, if you need things to be commercial. There are people making cartridges for the Commodore 64 for sale.
These are very, very niche media practices, sure. You do letterpress printing for wedding invitations, or something like that, you know, but it still exists as a practice. It hasn’t been eradicated from society. So you could call the Commodore 64 or letterpress printing obsolete. But then you really need to say what you mean by obsolete. Practices like these are not gone, they just aren’t mainstream.
Rhee: I really just appreciate the approach to thinking about digital media alongside many different practices that include paper and other forms of technologies. And the exercise you teach your class, your students is so exciting. Like, that’s such a perfect exercise to do that bridging work.
Montfort: One part of the issue there is that people are often under the impression that digital media is immaterial. That there is no materiality to a web page or an app. Which is completely wrong. But even the term “Web” suggests a shimmering immateriality, something insubstantial. Or consider “cloud.” Or where we get our video games from nowadays: “Steam.” All of these are terms about there not being anything to grab onto, asserting that there is not anything material. We hear this myth of the immaterial digital all the time. But it’s a myth.
And so one of the reasons to look at books in print and printed matter of different sorts is that it’s just obvious that these have materiality. So then when you turn back to digital/screenic work, you can say, okay, these things also have materiality. But what is their materiality? Now that we understand something about what materiality is, let’s swivel our view to something that we thought was immaterial. Now we can say something about it.
Rhee: Definitely. These are such important interventions.
I was wondering if maybe — I mean, I know we’ve talked about this before — you could tell us more about earlier life during your time at Penn and how you started engaging with both poetry and programming?
Montfort: Sure. I was involved with poetry and programming long before my time at Penn. I really was interested in literary art and computing from a very young age, from grade school. I just have been reading From Fingers to Digits, this book by Margaret Boden and Ernest Edmonds, actually rereading it because I have been teaching it.
Ernest Emmons conducted these interviews of a lot of artists working with computer-generated art and he points out that there are some people who talked with him and very, very distinctly described, you know, the moment when they really got into computing and how it transformed their practices as artists. But then a lot of the other people he interviewed had no such moment because they grew up and computing was a given, it was always there. So there wasn’t ever a point when suddenly the computer entered and the existing practices of these artists were transformed. That was the case for me. I didn’t feel like I had a practice as a poet and then suddenly, bang, computing, or vice versa.
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, I was studying for both a liberal arts degree and a computer science degree. After doing those, sometimes I skipped around and did things more in series than in parallel, but I always had a strong interest in not only both literary art and computing, but also their intersection and the way they transform each other.
Rhee: So growing up, you were surrounded by computers at home?
Montfort: Well, I wouldn’t put it that way. I mean, computing was not ubiquitous. There was a specific time when a computer was brought into the house. It was an Epson QX-10, which I was allowed to use, but which my dad purchased for business purposes and tax preparation. It ran CP/M. But I had already used computers at school at that point. At home we had, you know, the Atari 2600, previously known as the Atari Video Computer System, and I had played games at arcades, so I was exposed to computing in that way. And I did get a computer of my own later on.
One of the things that was very different, though, about this era of home computing when I, for instance, had an Apple 2e, and even with regard to the Epson QX-10, is that when you turn this computer on, what happens is that you are invited to program it. It pretty much starts up into BASIC in the case of the Apple 2, and certainly with the Commodore 64. So instead of seeing a graphical user interface, you are offered the most general way to use computation, as a programmer.
You get not only that ability, but that direct invitation. Something that, as Jesper Juul commented to me, may mean that the Commodore 64, for instance, was the last democratic computer. It really provided access in this very overt and welcoming way. Since then computers have become very good at doing many different types of special purpose things. But they are not democratic in that particular way.
Not every computer I interacted with was democratic in this way. The Atari 2600 was not, of course, and the coin-operated video games that I played, which were computers of a sort, didn’t invite you to program them. They were not democratic, but they provided some additional exposure to computing that was playful. In the era of home computing there was also that type of democratic, or open, or welcoming opportunity that has been important to how I think about computers.
In fact, in the early days of the Web, the ability to “view source” and see how other people constructed their web pages, and to copy some of the stuff they did and put that into your web page, was very significant in developing a lot of people’s understanding of computing and their ability to create and do new things.
Rhee: And so by the time you go to Penn, and Penn is pretty well-known for a vibrant poetics and poetry community, what was it like for you there?
Montfort: It was great, in some very surprising ways! The overall image and impression that a lot of people have of Penn is that it’s a very professional type of place, because you have a very well-known business school and you have the law school and the medical school right there on the main campus. So, you know, the, the profile of Penn to a lot of people is more professional and maybe disciplinary. But what I found is that it’s very welcoming and a creative and interdisciplinary place.
Coming there as a computer and information science PhD student, actually being in the engineering school and studying this technical discipline, I was welcomed, not only to the Kelly Writers House to participate there, which was extraordinarily meaningful, but also to Peter Stallybrass and Roger Chartier’s History of Material Text seminar. And to work curating an exhibit at the Van Pelt library. Since I’ve graduated, the ICA has invited me to write in response to the Christopher Knowles exhibit that they had. There are so many opportunities that are open to people across different departments, and people are not really in the silos that you might expect from some professional image or stereotype.
And then, you know, being able to sit in on classes by Charles Bernstein and Bob Perlman was also a major aspect of my, my experience there.
It’s also not at all not insignificant that I was coadvised by a humanist working in narrative theory, Gerald Prince, as well as by Mitch Marcus in computer and information science. And so I got to do a dissertation project that engaged with questions about the science of computation, but also how to model things in narratology.
Rhee: That’s so moving to hear, and it also sounds like it really provided sort of the foundation and grounding of the work you continue to do at MIT. And in your teaching, and in your practice.
Montfort: I mean, well, that was almost an epic catalog that I offered instead of a story, really, as I was trying to describe what my experience was. But there were so many good opportunities. Being able to start the MACHINE reading series and host people in the community sharing things about electronic literature. Doing an exhibit and participating in events at the Slought Foundation, a Penn-affiliated art gallery. So all of this stuff, you know, was great!
Maybe it’s hard to believe alongside all of that, but there was a reason I signed up to do computer science and to actually learn about and do research in that field. This wide range of opportunities was good to have. At the same time, I felt like I wouldn’t be able to learn what I needed to learn in computer science, and to advance as a researcher, outside of the framework of a graduate program. I needed to get a deep understanding of the fundamentals of computing and to press ahead and do some major work that engaged deeply with computing. So being involved across campus was important, but it wasn’t an escape from the computer science program.
Rhee: I think that’s really exciting, just to have such a cross-disciplinary culture. And, your degree in computer science.
Montfort: It’s hard to find out that places are like this. A lot of places advertise these explicitly interdisciplinary degree programs. But if you’re not in the right set of disciplines that are part of the mix there, it won’t work. I think the flexibility Penn offered, while I studied in a disciplinary program, was perfect.
Rhee: So, we talked about what you have printed as Bad Quarto, but the press also has an online magazine.
Montfort: Of course!
Rhee: I’m wondering if you could talk a bit more about Taper, which seems like it is very collaborative and also, you know, fosters community in this exciting way.
Montfort: Taper [an online literary magazine for short computational poems] is really the most important thing that Bad Quarto does, available to everyone on the Web, with a wide range of international authors represented. The heavy lifting of the project is done by an editorial collective. I don’t make the decisions about what stuff gets into the magazine. I’m just the publisher, involved at the last step and available to consult.
We started in Spring 2018. We publish two issues a year — at least, we’ve settled on that. There was one sort of “double issue” that didn’t actually elicit very many submissions. But we’ll publish two issues a year from here on out.
I was on the first issue’s editorial collective. We started without posting an open call, just inviting people associated with my lab/studio at MIT, the Trope Tank, to submit work. Basically we wanted to show that some sort of interesting computational poetry could be made that was very tiny, to provide an example before we posted an open call for issue 2. The first issue’s size limit was 1KB, 1024 bytes.
Rhee: Right, yeah I did see that Kyle, Kyle Booten, and Leonardo Flores edited this most recent issue (5).
Montfort: Yes, with Angela Chang, Judy Heflin, and Milton Läufer. The previous editorial collective invited Kyle and Leo.
Rhee: To join for this issue?
Montfort: Yes. They had contributed previously, several pieces. They were Taper authors already.
So, I’ll tell you a little of the story of Taper.
I’m interested personally in these very small-scale pieces and what can be accomplished with a little bit of computation and not having an emphasis on data, but emphasizing the computing process itself.
To start off, as I mentioned, we didn’t have an open call because we wanted to prove that something like this could be done. We wanted to show people examples of what you could do in very little code. That first issue had the most severe size limit.
That issue has nine poems in it by six of us. We had an exhibit that was up for a very short time in the Trope Tank when it was released. There’s work based on sound, animation, and generated text. Visual and concrete poetry of various sorts. So, that was successful for us and we decided what the framework of this project would be. Every time we launched an issue, we would produce the call for the next issue and say who the editorial collective is going to be to let people know who is going to be making decisions. So we have had a total of five issues right now and the call for 6 is out. We have settled on two kilobytes as the size limit for work and we keep seeing more and more amazing projects within this limit.
So it turned out we tried out a different size, and in Taper 2 we had two-kilobyte works, but in Taper 3 we had three-kilobyte works. And so, sort of like Goldilocks trying out you know the little bear’s bed, and the big bear’s bed, it turns out the one that is just right seems to be two kilobytes. You can do a lot within that limit.
And so that’s what we use for number 4. And number 5, so model is that of the publisher.
So when the editors feel like they’re done with the issue and everything’s good, I take a look at it. And I find that not everything’s good. And I make some final sorts of edits, or ask questions of them and things like that, in the way of sort of, like, just doing, not about content-related things. But more related to copyediting and technical sorts of issues. And then, you know, I host and publicize issues and try to keep things moving from issue to issue.
But the volunteer labor makes this possible. And the editorial collective is what’s behind Taper and it is not, as the name suggests, it is not organized hierarchically. It has undergraduate students and professors, other than me, as part of the group and they work together and make decisions together. And so that’s something that’s important to communicate per project.
I will mention that we have in the latest issue seventeen poems from sixteen poets in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, Nigeria, the UK, and the US. And Mexico is certainly represented. The author who is from Mexico and offered a very intriguing bilingual Mexican work, in Spanish and an indigenous language, is not based there currently. He’s the one in Hong Kong now. In any case we have been really glad to get so many good contributions from around the world.
We’ve been evolving the concept incrementally, and so the process is, you know, a rewarding process. I don’t get to interact with the authors, so I don’t get the same type of stimulation and engagement as when I work with people in the Using Electricity series or do the stuff that I print for the ink-and-paper part of Bad Quarto. The editorial collective does that, and puts in a lot of work as volunteers. They’re the ones who get to be connected to all these authors and work with them on their projects and engage in discussion about this work.
But for instance on this latest issue I did a collaboration, so Taper gave me the opportunity to work with Derek Beaulieu on that.
And I should mention something related to that. I’m not involved in the selection of work. The selection work is done by the editorial collective. The editorial-collected members do submit work themselves sometimes, and then they recuse themselves from discussion when their work is being considered.
Rhee: Mm-hmm. I appreciate this, seeing a lot of big explanation, the explicit openness around that process on the website.
Montfort: And it’s also very important that all of the work that’s published in Taper is licensed as free software, the most permissive free software. So you can take that work and do anything you want with it. You have to keep the copyright message, you know, from the original piece, but you can carve your name in the dashboard, you can make it into your own project, you can do whatever types of customization or remix that you want to do.
That can be hard as a practical matter. Having the size limit means that people tend to compress and their code may end up looking obfuscated, but we (myself and the editorial collective) are thinking about that. I’m working on ways where you can both have the size limit that keeps things under control and keeps a scope manageable, but also if the authors are willing to provide sort of unmodified or expanded code that is simpler to study and reuse, you could have that included as well. So it becomes easier for people to work with and remix if they wanted to.
Rhee: That’s so great.
Can you tell me about Synchrony?
Montfort: So it is a demo party. And a demo party is the type of digital art festival that they have in the demo scene. And this is a type of community. Pretty well-known at this point in Europe, but not as well-known in the US. That originated from software cracking and piracy, mostly in northern Europe in the 1980s. But out of that it became a place where people would make computational art of different sorts as well as music, computer graphics, different types of productions, as they are called in the demoscene. The main fascinating type of production being called a demo. But it’s not a demo in that it doesn’t show how good your skills are, or it doesn’t demonstrate, like, a product. It demonstrates the skill of the programmer and the skill of the musician, the graphic designer putting the work together.
So the demoscene is basically a creative coding community, it’s mostly based on not language, but it’s really based more on audiovisual spectacle. But it’s a context in which people know they have a lot of technical depth, they know a lot about the specifics of how different platforms and computers operate. My own engagement with the demoscene has been bringing poetic practices of mine into a work of the context of the demoscene.
Rhee: How does the demoparty work?
Montefort: It starts in New York City and continues on a train and finishes in Montreal. And so it is an International Festival in a very unusual way in that regard. And we will not have a synchronous festival in January, for obvious reasons, but we hope to have it again when it becomes possible.
From my standpoint, I just felt like, although other demo parties have gone online and had these online manifestations and have had success doing that, for us it just really seemed like the in-person and community aspect was so essential to what Synchrony is. And also, we want to welcome newcomers and people who are not classically involved in the demoscene but who think creative computing is cool. And who want to be involved in a project like this.
Rhee: That’s so inclusive as a practice.
Montfort: To us, and even the idea of this as a type of border transgression and intervention and a project where people feel the bridge, rather than building a wall.
Nick Montfort studies creative computing and develops computational art and poetry. His computer-generated books of poetry include #!, the collaborations 2×6, Autopia, The Truelist, and Golem. His digital projects include the collaborations The Deletionist and Sea and Spar Between. His MIT Press books, collaborative and individual, are: The New Media Reader, Twisty Little Passages, Racing the Beam, 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10, Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities, and The Future. He is a professor of digital media at MIT and lives in New York.
Nick’s new book Golem is published this month and available here.