Everting language

Kay Rosen‘s most immediate works play with palindromes, graphic alliteration, and homonymy across languages. More complicated pieces fold the lexical, semantic, material and political into each other.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place (2012) and The Forest for the Trees (1990).

Translate her moves into another medium – same use (sic)?






Information and Silence – Anaahata Naad, Cage, Ikeda

John Cages 4’33’’ could be seen as a kind of footnote to the Indian concept of anaahata naad – the primordial silence that must be struck to bring forth music. In playing, this silence is represented by the (unstruck) sound of the tanpura, whose extended bridge detunes the strings as they vibrate, generating a continuous harmonic flux.

White noise also makes a passable impression of silence. In 2010, Ryoji Ikeda played test pattern live at Siobhan Davies Studio in London. As the warm up music faded, a hush descended over the intimate crowd, and then a rising wash of white noise that too faded away as Ikeda arrived on stage. The source? the opening and disposal of a couple of hundred plastic wrappers containing earplugs.

Sometimes the most pertinent information is to be found in footnotes, or in noise.








Categorisation – As Queer as Lichens

If molluscs present a challenge and inspiration for queer theory, then lichens do it alt.better. In ‘Queer Theory for Lichens’, David Andrew Griffiths elaborates a symbiotic view of life that tacks away from the idea of heterosexual reproduction and inheritance as the dominant mechanisms for reproducing life, and starkly questions the concept of the individual that we generally understand as unproblematic. Think ecosystems and colonies, down to microbiomes and viromes. But the individual has been in question from a host of other perspectives too – genes and memes, situated embodied cognition, the death of the author. Griffiths tunes the study of symbiotic lichens to resonate with contemporary issues in sexual politics:
If heteronormativity and sexual reproduction no longer define the frame through which nature is viewed, then this will have an effect on the definition of some social and cultural practices as ‘natural’. This is important politically, as normativity masquerading as nature necessarily supports the conservative status quo and is hostile to non-normativity.

Merlin Sheldrake expresses the non-individuation of lichens beautifully in Entangled Life: Lichens are places where an organism unravels into an ecosystem and where an ecosystem congeals into an organism. They flicker between ‘wholes’ and ‘collections of parts’
And later,
[T]hey are verbs as well as nouns. 

Oblique strategy: Exchange parts of speech



Rhizomatic politics, from a mycophile

More from the fun guy:
The politics of symbiosis have always been fraught. Is nature fundamentally competitive or co-operative? A lot turns on this question. For many, it changes the way we understand ourselves. 
The dominant narrative in the United States and western Europe since the development of evolutionary theory in the late nineteenth century was one of conflict and competition, and it mirrored views of social progress within an industrialist capitalist system. […] Mutualistic relationships, such as those that give rise to lichens, or plants’ relationships with mycorrhizal fungi, were curious exceptions to the rule […] Opposition to this view didn’t fall neatly down East-West lines, Nonetheless the ideas of mutual aid and co-operation in evolution were more prominent in Russia than in western European evolutionary circles. The strongest riposte to the dog-eat-dog vision of ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ came from the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin in his bestselling Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, in 1902. 

Oblique Strategies, Retrospectively

From fun guy Merlin Sheldrake’s new book, Entangled Life:

Among the biggest implications of  [Lynn Margulis’] endosymbiotic theory is that whole suites of abilities have been acquired in a flash, in evolutionary terms, ready-evolved, from organisms that are no one’s parents, nor one’s species, kingdom or even domain. [Joshua] Lederberg demonstrated that bacteria can horizontally acquire genes. The endosymbiotic theory proposed that single-celled organisms had horizontally acquired entire bacteria. Horizontal gene transfer transformed bacterial genomes into cosmopolitan places; endosymbiosis transformed cells into cosmopolitan places.

Oblique strategy #1: swap time and space axes (Lederberg)

Oblique strategy #2: consider a whole as part of a bigger whole (Margulis)




Five Sidelong Glances

  1. A Future Too Late
    At Bill McAlister’s house, entering the kitchen: a moment at the gateway is marked by the Greenwich Time Signal. Synchronised to an atomic clock at the National Physical Laboratory, the pips reach out from the past: an analog radio in the bedroom. Ahead, a digital receiver by the stove repeats the signal, delayed a couple of seconds by the encoding-decoding process. In the future, we will wonder: must we not all have been here, before?
  2. Digital Death is Sterile
    Sam Taylor-Wood’s Still Life (2001) might be more than a Sisyphean video pun beguiled by its technological substrate if it employed VHS (or other medium that decayed smoothly at a humanly-perceptible rate). At the very least, the DVD ought to skip occasionally – else there’s a conceptual glitch. It’s in the Tate Modern, though, so set expectations accordingly.
  3. Measuring the Gallery
    At Belladonna, ICA, 1997: confronted by Anish Kapoor’s highly polished cosmic navel yawning out of the wall, Sue promptly stuck her head in it. the guard became very agitated, pointing to a nearby sign that said ‘Please do not touch’. A war of attrition between human and steel is severely one-sided. But anyway – wasn’t that sign a knowing joke? the work is entirely about boundary. Wasn’t she already touching it by occupying the void it emptied into? or merely by being mirrored in its surface?
  4. The Age of Spiritual Machines
    Having elegantly spattered the surrounding surfaces, Rebecca Horn’s painting machine – in the Bodylandscapes retrospective at the Hayward gallery, 2005 – lay provocatively quiescent. Had it determined that the work was complete, or had it balked at the prospect of a lawsuit from a ‘Prucci’-clad visitor? Ray Kurzweill should know…
  5. Closing the Loop
    5voltcore’s Shockbot Corejulio is a computer-robot-screen assemblage that shorts its own circuits, generating random images until it destroys itself – a relatively closed system running a relatively open process. Its one conceit is that it presents itself as spectacle. Tighten the noose: populate the deserts and oceans with thousands of these automatons, drawing their power from sun and wind and waves, rasterising in the wild. Artificial life’s but a walking shadow, a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.


First published in Ambient Information Systems, eds. Luksch & Patel 2009.



Categorisation – Naming Things

Mathematics is the art of giving the same name to different things.
– Henri Poincaré

… whereas poetry lives through finding different names for the same thing. A whole lot of trouble is stirred up when we assume that our categories are ‘natural’ (substitute: eternal, universal, god-given…). Even the mathematical choices that we make (e.g. the choice of valuation, see this presentation) need not have a ‘natural’ candidate. A particular schema of categories may be significant in the context of a social or political struggle, but once co-opted or undermined, another schema might prove more useful. A toxic argument between some trans rights activisits and some feminists has held up proposed amendments to the UK Gender Recognition Act 2004, including plans to allow humans to choose their legal gender. How would an alternative to the LGBTQI+ schema (or its expanded version, LGBTQQI2SPAA) reframe the debate? Could it reduce polarisation and help anatgonists recognise the ‘real consensus’ that exists on a majority of issues according to David Isaac, departing Chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission?

Venn diagram of Sex and Sexuality by Andrea James / Wikimedia Commons



Now boarding… Parallelism in a time of Pandemic

In a time of ‘social’ (i.e. physical) distancing, frustration with the inefficiency of a typical serial scheme (one-dimensional queueing) relative to a parallel scheme (arrays) threatens to tip over into disorder. Now’s the perfect time to reconsider the prejudices that govern aircraft boarding, for example. Several years ago, Jason Steffen showed that both a parallelised scheme, and a ‘free-for-all’ scramble, were more efficient than the standard row-by-row approach. In a broader context, the ‘free-for-all’ approach is perhaps optimistic, though politically convenient for a government that wants to wash its hands of all responsibility – but parallelism is worth investigating… 



Arts in Time – Photography, Cinema & Lies

Music Dance Theatre Video and Film are arts in time. Artists in those fields who keep this in mind seem to go further than those mainly concerned with psychology or personality.
– Steve Reich, ‘Statement about Time’ in Dance Ink magazine, 1993.

Music Dance Theatre Video and Film… and Photography and Sculpture, we might also add. Paul Virilio’s The Vision Machine (1988, trans. Julie Rose 1994) ) commences with a report of a conversation between Auguste Rodin and Paul Gsell c.1911, in which Rodin describes the photographed body as ‘struck with paralysis. […] People in photographs suddenly seem frozen in mid-air, despite being caught in full swing: this is because every part of their body is reproduced at exactly the same twentieth or fortieth if a second so there is no gradual unfolding of a gesture, as there in art.’ Gsell claims that photography is an ‘unimpeachable mechanical witness’, Rodin counters: ‘It is art that tells the truth and photography that lies. For in reality time does not stand still, and if the artist manages to give the impression that a gesture is being executed over several seconds, their work is certainly much less conventional than the scientific image in which time is abruptly suspended.’

But not only is convention a necessary prequisite for communication – a carefully devised convention permits deep analysis. To research movement and change, physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey invented the technique of ‘chronophotography’ – high-speed serial photography using very fast shutters. By superimposing sequences of still images to create a graph of a process, Marey expanded human vision and understanding by revealing what was too quick for the eye to see. (Sketches above from Marey’s 1885 La méthode graphique).

A different convention yields not analysis but illusion – in the cinema, the viewer synthesizes a rapid succession of still images into movement. ‘Moving pictures’ exploit a phsyiological peculiarity of the human eye and brain – the persistence of vision – to trick us, so persuasively that we forget we’re being had. If the mediation of still photography deceives us as to the nature of reality, chronophotography could be said to partially recoup this loss, while cinema epitomes the lie.



Technique of Art – Reich/Shklovsky

Reich may not have been directly influenced by Shklovsky, but his 1967 work Slow Motion Sound exemplifies Shklovsky’s Technique of Art. In his Writings on Music, Reich notes that the work ‘has remained a concept on paper because it was technologically impossible to realize.’ However, rudimentary time-stretching was possible already in 1966, when J. L. Flanagan and R. M. Golden of Bell Labs invented the phase vocoder (original paper here). Modern time-stretching algorithms combine frequency- and time-domain approaches. For percussive material, the framing of transients continues to poses challenges…