In digital ether

W. Mark Sutherland in correspondence with Dani Spinosa

Note: In W. Mark Sutherland’s Code X (2002), a born-digital sound poetry machine that allows users to create their own sound poetry performances, a line is drawn between the work and a history of sound poetry, performance art, and concrete poetics. Code X is a fairly simplistic digital game that marks a point of convergence between many art forms and asks how the digital medium allows for greater audience participation. As Paul Dutton writes of Code X in a brochure for Sutherland’s Scratch exhibit at the Koffler Gallery in 2002 (archived on Sutherland’s webpage), the work “fuses poetry, music, and visual art” to reveal the tenuous boundaries between these art forms. As a part of Scratch, the program was installed on a computer and projected onto a wall of the gallery. Viewers were encouraged to interact with the program by typing letters or writing words, causing each letter to appear seemingly at random. Typing a letter also started a ten second recording of Sutherland’s sound poetry which played on a loop as long as the letter continued to be pressed. In addition to this appearance, Code X was also produced as a CD-ROM by Coach House Press. Code X appeared at a time when Coach House was adapting its largely print-based catalogue to an increasingly digital audience. As the compact disc became an impractical, unreliable, and irregular way to disseminate digital works, Sutherland and Coach House made Code X available as an interactive website in 2009. Coach House’s archived access to the work online is now a dead link; to use Code X today, you must either download the program or play it through a browser on Sutherland’s webpage.

Code X, the packaging for the original CD-ROM boasts, turns its “readers” into collaborators producing a transmedial sound and concrete poem by turning each “performer’s” computer keyboard into a sound poetry machine. Each key places a typewriter-font collection of letters on the screen while at the same time queuing an audio track. The visual appearance of the work, a black screen with white and red Courier-typefaced text, demonstrates a clear link to the early concrete and typewriter poetics of writers like bpNichol and Steve McCafferey. This indebtedness to highly visual forms of poetry is matched with the vernaculars of sound poetry’s major players, like Kurt Schwitters and the Four Horsemen. As the literary influences of Code X demonstrate, the work is clearly a part of a larger and distinctly Canadian tradition of literary and aural avant-garde practices, even as the author works to reject these means of categorization. Other trademark Canadian born-digital poetic projects, like Darren Wershler’s Nicholodeonline, David Clark’s “88 Constellations for Wittgenstein,” Ted Warnell’s codeworks, and even bpNichol’s First Screening: Computer Poems, all engage in similar digital expansions of the visual and occasionally aural tendencies of Canadian avant-garde poetics. Sutherland’s Code X continues to be a landmark work of born-digital poetics, paving the way for other ergodic interventions in new media poetics, like Jason Lewis and Bruno Nadeau’s P.o.E.M.M. Cycle or David Jhave Johnson’s Big Data Poetry.

This interview was conducted over an email exchange between Sutherland and Spinosa throughout December 2016 and January 2017. The questions and responses were written, rewritten, edited, and altered based on what else was being written and thought about. That is, of course, the nature of digital writing. — Dani Spinosa

Dani Spinosa: Because your work deliberately resists categorization and genre, this is a bit of an unfair question. But, I am curious how you will answer it. Is Code X a poem? Or, do the users create their own poems with Code X?

W. Mark Sutherland: The answer is both. Code X is an interactive language act, an electronic poetic experience always in a state of becoming rather than being.

Spinosa: So, if Code X is both process and product, both tool and poem, then how does this differ from print-based work? I am thinking here of procedural work like John Cage’s writing-through method, Jackson Mac Low’s diastic method, and so forth. Are those both process and product in the same way as Code X, or is there something uniquely procedural about the digital form?

Sutherland: There are similarities between Code X and Cage and Mac Low’s methods, but there is a very important difference between print-based works and contemporary digital forms. With something like Code X, the reader/viewer/listener/performer is actually a reader/writer/collaborator by participating directly in a process to create the poem(s). The writer/artist, on the other hand, shapes the conditions for this collaboration and is therefore equal parts poet and programmer — the text is code while the code might not necessarily be the text. 

Spinosa: How important is the “paragraph” in Code X?

Sutherland: The Code X paragraph is cheekily self-referential and literally tongue-in-cheek. The challenge was to find the right/write balance of technological playfulness and graphic flexibility using literary conceits (prose and poetry) and subcategories and genres such as visual poetry/sound poetry (text and orality). Code X is thus a collision of various codes, cryptograms, and willed synesthesia — an integrated intermedia form where the eye of the ear and the ear of the eye meet.

Spinosa: I find it interesting that it is the final paragraph that brings you to a discussion of orality and synaesthesia in Code X because the way letters and sounds interact in the work makes it impossible for the program to “read” this paragraph aloud. The sound poetry that is initiated by the pressing of letter keys is not combinatorial (that is, the letter sounds do not and cannot combine here to make words, let alone paragraphs). Can you speak to the difference between these two approaches to letters? 

Sutherland: Here are two quotes that influence much of my poetry:“Thought is made in the mouth”(Tristan Tzara) and“It is not the word that is the original material of poetry, rather the letter”(Kurt Schwitters). Essentially, Code X creates the conditions in which the reader/viewer/listener/performer or the machine/computer for that matter can produce thousands of different sound and visual poems. Further, the reader/viewer/listener/performer can also spell any word they like, although that word will be recoded and shaped within the grid of the paragraph and program. 

Spinosa: In the information page of Code X you refer to the person engaging with the program as a “performer.” The name for this person who interacts with new media works is always a tricky one. Why did you decide to use “performer” (as opposed to, say, user, player, reader, or another like term)? What is it about Code X that renders its audience as a performer?

Sutherland: “Performer” is a synonym for “player,” but I think the word “player” more aptly describes a person interacting with the HTML version of Code X in 2016. Initially Code X (CD-ROM, 2000/01) was created as a public performance vehicle for gallery installation and concerts. Hence the use of the term “performer” since one could in fact, and with some practice, develop a mechanically nuanced skill manipulating the keyboard and mouse. Like most artists, I struggle under the tyranny of semantics when describing my work. But whether we call them “players” or “performers,” Code X is designed to offer choices to people, including the option to simply do nothing and let the program’s algorithm operate Code X in automated mode. 

Spinosa: How different is Code X when used on an individual’s personal computer from when it was used as an installation in Scratch?

Sutherland: On a personal computer Code X becomes an intimate experience, more introspective and bookish. The Code X gallery installation is a monumental public spectacle. The wall projection is approximately 14' in height and the audio component is significantly louder than most PCs. The gallery installation is a shared public experience where a “language act” is performed in a formal space saturated with conflicting sociopolitical and economic tension. 

Spinosa: What are those tensions? Can you speak more to how the gallery space is fraught with political tension in a way that the private PC is not? 

Sutherland: Artists. Audience. Capital. Consumption. Critics. Culture. Curators. Dealers. Economics. Ethics. Exclusion. Hierarchy. History. Inclusion. Identity. Ideology. Marginalization. Market. Money. Patrons. Politics. Power. Society. Tradition. … 

Spinosa: Can you speak for a moment to the political or ethical connotations of Code X? What is political about having an audience of performers?

Sutherland: Giving people a choice, even a digitally constrained choice, is a political act intended to short-circuit authorial hegemony and the dominant political economy. 

Spinosa: I love this idea, but I wonder if I am compromising this approach by interviewing you — as an author — about this work. This goes back to a question I often have about experimental poetics. I write often about work that challenges authorial hegemony, but I still must speak to, and about, literal authors, actual people. How do you feel about this tension, between you as an individual and your authorship as disrupted and disruptive? 

Sutherland: As Rimbaud said, “Je est un autre” (I am an other). “I” is a cultural construct while the “other” is my multiple selves. Primarily, my intermedial practice is based on borderblur augmented with elements of conceptual and structural art. Much of my work should be considered as “finally unfinished” (Duchamp). It’s for others to build upon or destroy. For me, “I” is always in flux.

Spinosa: Many people point to the lines of influence when discussing Code X. Critics have identified the importance of John Cage, Kurt Schwitters, Raoul Hausmann, Emmett Williams, Jaap Blonk, bpNichol, Steve McCaffery, the Four Horseman, and others on this work. Why do you think critics are so interested in mapping this line of influence? Is there anyone you would like to add to that list?

Sutherland: Over the past thirty-five years it’s been my good fortune to meet, exhibit, and share the stage with some of the seminal avant-artists of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. I believe that one of my responsibilities, as an artist, is to maintain a dialogue between tradition, history, and contemporary culture. I therefore often reuse forms and/or generate content for my intermedia works like a DJ, by sampling, mashing, and mixing the works of other artists past and present. Why? In an age of collective cultural amnesia, I think that one of the roles of an artist is to constantly stimulate contemporary discourse by reinvigorating radical ideas from the past. Historically, concrete poetry, fluxus, conceptual art, avant-garde cinema, sound art, and minimalist music influence my aesthetics. My “lines of influence” are far too lengthy to mention… at the moment I’m revisiting the work of La Monte Young and the late Tony Conrad while exploring the possibilities of creating one-word and two-word poems as electronic drones.

Spinosa: Though many of these lines of influence are in movements or genres that have embraced digital tools and methods, none of them are explicitly digital. Who are your digital influences, if any?

Sutherland: Friedrich W. Block, Loss Pequeño Glazier, Lawrence Upton, Darren Wershler, Eduardo Kac, Jörg Piringer, Mark Amerika, Bill Seaman, John Cayley, and many, many more.

Spinosa: I am interested in how you feel about the piece now. It has been nearly two decades (!) since you first conceptualized the project. How has it changed with technology and new media art since then?

Sutherland: Surprisingly, I think Code X stands the test of time conceptually and technologically. It still “transforms your computer into a sound poetry organ whether you like it or not”(Darren Wershler, Coach House Books editor, 2000). I updated the program in 2009 and it continues to operate as intended. Although having said that, I suspect that Code X is due for an advanced diagnostic in the near future.

Spinosa: What is the feeling you get, as a producer, to know that the people who engage with this work produce art pieces that you will never hear or see or know about?

Sutherland: I find it wonderfully inspiring that others take my work and play with it, build on it or even destroy it. Beginning in the late ’80s many of my visual poems, sound poems, and videopoems have been sampled, mixed, hacked, or mashed by other poet/artist/musicians and DJ/VJs. I actively encourage these acts of artistic vandalism and larceny.

Spinosa: But you do get to see (some, most of?) these remixes? For the vast majority of the engagements with Code X, you have no idea what is produced and those products aren’t really savable. Would you be curious to see readers’/performers’ products, or does that defeat the purpose? On that, would you consider adapting the program to make it able to record users’ outputs, or does that conflict with the ephemerality and “becoming” of the work that you spoke about earlier?

Sutherland: Yes, I do get to see and hear some of the remixes of my work on paper, CD, DVD, YouTube rips, etc., but I also like the fact that Code X is evanescent, only existing in digital ether. It might be fun to build a new website dedicated to Code X with a platform “able to record users’ outputs”… certainly something to consider.

Spinosa: Code X was Coach House’s first standalone, born-digital publication. Can you speak a bit about what it was like to produce new media art at that time?

Sutherland: I started working with various forms of new media — computers and digital recording and video equipment — in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In those days there was a distinct feeling of being a real pioneer creating new forms and genres like videopoetry and e-poetry. It was an exciting time when the inchoate state of new media seemed to encompass limitless possibilities for making new poems with no history, tradition, or aesthetics to reject or reflect upon. Of course it was also very frustrating, as “e-work” was dismissed and ignored by many cultural gatekeepers who seem to have lost the spirit of risk and experimentation.

Spinosa: Is digital work still ignored in the poetic community? In other words, do you see a trend towards the largely print-based poetic community engaging with or at least accepting digital work, or do you think that the loss of those feelings of inchoate genres and pioneering works has left electronic literatures under-produced, under-theorized, and so on?

Sutherland: Yes, no, and yes. Things change, slowly, very slowly in the print-based poetic community and the academy.

Spinosa: Can you speak a bit about the role of the digital in the production and circulation of art of all kinds in a Canadian context? Does the poetry community specifically think differently about digital potentials than in other artist communities (visual art, sound and music, performance, and so on)?

Sutherland: In 1959 Brion Gysin stated, “Writing is fifty years behind painting.” In 2016 I would say, “Painting is now fifty years behind intermedia digital-art forms.” Where does that statement place the poetry community? (Note: The preceding statements are intended as critiques of “official culture,” neither a hierarchy nor valorization of one form of art over another). For me, all disciplinary borders are blurring, if not actually collapsing. I believe that digital platforms have altered language (new ways of reading, writing, seeing, etc.), and in turn, the relationship between literacy and orality — text versus speech, sight over sound, sound over sight, and the bipolarity of the ear/eye. Which sense is currently in the ascendancy? Walter J. Ong points to the development of secondary orality as a by-product of literacy and new media, while others now suggest that we have entered a postliterate age — YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat, Reddit, Twitter, etc. are new forms of tribal orality. Digital culture seems to synthesize this bipolar conflict in a collision of video, audio, and text. Ostensibly, technological advances in new modes of communication and media suggest that we are rapidly evolving towards a transhuman or even a post-human future — oraliteracy, litorality, intermedia, borderblur.

Spinosa: Is Code X posthuman, then? Or better, does it encourage a posthuman readership/performership? How does the posthumanity suggested by Code X differ from the kind of posthumanity suggested by, say, your work in “Time Signatures of György Ligeti”?

Sutherland: I consider my statements about literacy, digital media, post-humanity, etc. as playful McLuhanesque probes — thoughts, ideas, and musings drifting through my consciousness. They were initiated as responses to a series of questions from Julian Cowley for an article in the Wire in 2014. I consider both Code X and “Time Signatures for György Ligeti” as nascent digital forms. Initially Code X appears to be a more technically developed digital form than “Time Signatures for György Ligeti.” “Time Signatures for György Ligeti” began as a dialogue with Ligeti’s speculative score Poèm Symphonique but then was transformed into “Time Signatures .01” and “Time Signatures .02.” Both “Time Signatures .01” and “Time Signatures .02” are extremely sophisticated digital sonotexts. All sonic material for “Time Signatures .01” was generated by the metrics of a single digital metronome while “Time Signatures .02” features found sounds, digital metronomes morphed by digitally treated waveforms, processed noise and granular synthesis.

Spinosa: You live and work in Canada, but most of your more recent performances and exhibits have been in Europe. What is your relationship to the Canadian artistic community? Is that just a border that gets blurred, or is there something useful about national literatures/national arts for you? Is there a difference between a “Canadian” community of artists, which is so large and diverse it is hard to theorize, and, say, a Toronto community, where issues like access to space, to funding, to community, and even things like physical proximity or shared quotidian experiences come into play?

Sutherland: Actually, I’ve been exhibiting, performing, publishing, recording, and screening my working in Europe since the mid-1980s. It’s been a fifty-fifty split between Europe and North America for thirty years now. I consider myself an international intermedia artist, poet, and musician. My home and studio are located in Toronto, Canada, but I’m not really engaged in “national literatures/national arts.” I am however, concerned for my Canadian friends, colleagues, and their respective communities facing challenging cultural conditions in the city of Toronto just as my concerns are extended to my friends and colleagues in Berlin, Barcelona, London, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City.

Spinosa: Some of your performance/installation work involves translating poetry or other artistic pieces into numbers/mathematics (the corks in “Le Bateau Ivre,” the metronomes in “Time Signatures”). What is the relationship between math and art, for you?

Sutherland: My background as a musician might be the initial source of my interest in time and mathematics. For example my definition of sound poetry: sound poetry explores the sonic potentialities of language and different manifestations of human utterance with the exactness of literature plus the time manipulation of music. Mathematics is the underlying structural basis for all codes and patterns including music, permutational and combinatory poetry, etc. Further, I believe that language is a code, not bound by matter. It can be transmitted by any medium — letters, Morse code, flag signs, zero and ones, even corks.

Spinosa: There was always an interest in the numerical and the mathematical in print-based poetry (thinking back again to Cage, of course, but also Mallarmé, Joyce, and so many others). What happens when that print-based form moves to the digital that is undergirded by binary, formatted by code? Does the relationship between art and math change in the digital? That’s the point at which a real convergence occurs.

Sutherland: In some respects, Code X is a crude attempt to address the very questions you ask. Code formatting the binary in a grid, poetry found somewhere between zero and one.