Not a case of words: Textual Environments and Multimateriality in Between Page and Screen

Not a case of words: Textual Environments and Multimateriality in Between Page and Screen

by
Élika Ortega
2017-01-01

In this essay, Ortega departs from Ulises Carrión’s notion of book as a “spatio-temporal entity” which goes beyond verbal language, in order to demonstrate how hybrid works (or “textual environments”) such as Amaranth Borsuk’s Between Page and Screen (2012) may create “new genres and material and poetic expressiveness.” By drawing on Rita Raley’s “TXTual practice,” Ortega also demonstrates how the “material dynamics” displayed by these works decisively contributes to the generation of meaning.

A book is a sequence of spaces.

Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment-a book is also a sequence of moments…

A book is a space-time sequence.

- Ulises Carrión. The New Art of Making Books

Ulises Carrión, A Comparative Media Theorist

On the verge of becoming a canonical figure in Mexican literature amidst the larger context of the Latin American literary scene of the second half of the 20th century, Ulises Carrión broke apart from the mainstream of literary production. Having written two novels published in the early 1970s and relocated in Europe, Carrión began a creative transformation that would last until his death in 1989 and saw him produce concrete, visual and sound poetry, artist’s books, and mail and video art. Crucially, Carrión wrote a number of theoretical pieces, the most important of which is, perhaps, The New Art of Making Books (1975) published originally in Spanish in the Mexican journal Plural, and almost simultaneously in English in Kontexts in Amsterdam under his own press Other Books and So. 

In The New Art, Carrión sustained that books exist “as objects in an exterior reality, subject to concrete conditions of perception, existence, exchange, consumption, use, etc.” (48).All of the references to Ulises Carrión’s works are my translations from the Spanish, and taken from the 2012 collection The New Art of Making Books. For him, a book needed to be created and read as a spatio-temporal entity in which language was complementary to the object, a part of a structure, in the process of creating meaning and, crucially, specific reading conditions. Carrión theorizations resonate closely with early 21st century debates over the future of the book in the networked world, the intricately creative overlaps between print and digital media, or approaches like Comparative Textual Media studies. Further, his theorizations exhibit an analogous concern with the malleable boundaries of the book as expressive medium embedded in a larger media ecology. For Carrión, not only writers but also objects, readers, and dynamics of exchange play a decisive part in an intersubjective process of communication that reminds us of Katherine Hayles’ notion of interplay. 

Four decades after the publication of Carrión’s New Art, as we struggle to strip down the conflicting relationship between print and the digital, his central theory that “the book, regarded as autonomous space-time sequences offers an alternative to all existent literary genres” (47) resonate in contemporary explorations of creative and critical intersections of print and digital textual media. Carrión’s diction in The New Art, in which he opposes the “old art” to “new art”, reveals a sense of dissatisfaction with the literary tradition he had been embedded in, and a rejection of the book as textual technology too familiar to be meaningful. Additionally, Carrión railed against the mainstream literary production embedded in the trade publishing world and the conventional literary circuits of his time which he saw as the “old art.” Through a series of provocative propositions like, “A novel, by a writer of genius or by an unknown author, is a book where nothing happens” (42), Carrión sought to underscore the need to think about the book as object conducive to the creation and, indeed, producer of literary meaning parallel to text.  In contrast to the “old art,” Carrión understood new art books as “structures,” media systems capable of producing meaning beyond language. As a result of conceptualizing the (literary) book as a medium meaningful on its own, he also saw the processes of distribution and perception of various sign systems as fundamental components configuring specific reading conditions of individual works. 

Carrión’s radical theorizations, not surprisingly, have been interpreted as anti-literary and may have cost him the central place in literary theory and media he deserves. However, even when they are expressed in such a radical antagonism, his new art sought to both break apart and simultaneously re-engage with the book as a textual medium so as to relocate and take advantage of its expressive, aesthetic, and literary potential. In his later writings, “Bookworks Revisited” (1980) and “We Have Won! Haven’t We?” (1983) Carrión would adopt the term bookwork to refine his initial conceptualizations of “new art books” and distinguish them from artist books. A bookwork, for Carrión, needed to have the look and function of an ordinary book” (126) in order to engage with and respond to the larger mainstream book industry, an acknowledgment of the familiarity of the object outside of galleries and museums. 

Carrion’s notions have been characterized by Heriberto Yépez as “not a textual conceptualism, but a conceptualism of the whole structure of the book” (22). Decades later, similar notions have been put forward in regards to interface in electronic literature–one that resonates very closely is Jason Nelson’s. A digital poem’s interface, Nelson says is “an engine, an architecture that structurally, thematically, cultural surrounds the poem, holds the poem, shelters and nurtures and indeed conceives (procreation digitally) the poem” (n/p). Without disagreeing with Yépez or Nelson, I further want to extract from Carrión’s work his vision and advocacy for the emergence of forms of poetic expressiveness which, even when grounded on the book medium (or the interface in the digital ambit), surpass it to become another object or medium.

As it seeks to collapse the divide between the various material media making up a literary work, here I propose to relocate Carrión’s theorizations within Comparative Textual Media studies. An analogous ongoing collapse of media divides has been shown by Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman when they state: “The theoretical ‘othering’ dyad of books and computer screens is about to be displaced (or perhaps supplemented) by other theoretical binaries that have different issues at stake and yield different results” (2). The impossibility to sustain this dyad has been theorized, played with, and explored in works like Stephanie Strickland’s Vniverse (2011), Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s Between Page and Screen (2012), Nick Montfort’s #! (2014), and Jacob Garbe and Aaron Reed’s Ice-Bound (2015). Each of these is crucially anchored on book objects and draws from a distributed configuration that includes a variety of electronic devices, which, in turn, entails a multiplicity of media and interface configurations or, in Carrión’s terms, structures. For Davin Heckman, works like these display not only a “mere desire to present work in a new format, and bring the poetic impulse to bear upon the very system of representation within which they are situated…[but] that questions of time, space, networks, images, sound, code, platform, interface, etc. are considered within the author’s semiotic toolkit” (par 9). Consequently, these textual practices foster various possible forms of textual engagement in terms of production, distribution, and consumption: their specific reading conditions.

In their radical specificity creative works that rely on various print or digital media for their poetic, material, or narrative construction pose a critical challenge. Works like Strickland’s, Borsuk and Bouse’s, Montfort’s, and Garbe and Reed’s are so uniquely imagined and crafted that they seem to embed within them the specific critical framework to be theorized. In that sense, they too demand a tailored reading: a look into how their text is media and how their media is text. In the following paragraphs, I take Carrión’s theorizations as the basis to put forward the notion of textual environment, a type of textual media that emerges out of a multimaterial configuration and which is becoming increasingly more common in electronic literature. Though I intend to draw parallels between the works mentioned above, as a case study, I read Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s Between Page and Screen (BPaS) next to Carrión’s ideas on the old and new art as the basis to inquire what new genres and material and poetic expressiveness are being brought about by works like these. Further, building upon Rita Raley’s “TXTual practice,” I argue that the emergence of a textual environment relies on the reader’s enactment of it, i.e. on the actual, physical bringing together of the various media objects that alters their individual communication protocols. By creating a textual media work that I characterize as a textual environment, Borsuk and Bouse rehearse the material dynamics that make media objects generators of meaning in electronic literature works. 

Textual Environment

In “TXTual Practice,” her study of public interactive text installations, Rita Raley articulates a notion of text as “the whole of the event, its physical, logical, and conceptual architecture; the enactment and experience; its temporal structures; and associated social and juridical protocols” (2013: 21). Even though Raley’s conceptualization of TXTual Practice comes from large scale, social, and collaborative textual events like Text Rain, Urban Diary, and City Speak, the general framework of text as event, enactment, and experience offers a productive basis to think about smaller scale and even individual textual events like the one created in Between Page and Screen. As I examine in detail below, the spatial and temporal configuration required to read BPaS cannot be reduced to the processes unfolding in a single device or interface and is, borrowing Raley’s words, an “expanded textual practice” (8). Therefore, I argue that a textual environment is an instance of said expanded practice; one that emerges out of a particular multimaterial configuration. Multimateriality should be understood as the bringing together of different media and/or interfaces that guide specific reading conditions, and which cannot be broken down into its individual components without crippling the textual configuration of the work. Over the basis of its multimateriality, a textual environment produces a layered reading experience as each medium invites its own reading practice. The specific reading conditions created by a textual environment is the sum of them all.

Textual environments are embedded within a larger media ecology straightforwardly characterized by the “interactions of communications media, technology, technique, and processes with human feeling, thought, value, and behavior” (Nystrom n/p). Nonetheless, a textual environment has a delineated context that draws from the larger media ecology of its protocols, but pushes away conventional uses of media, or in Davin Heckman’s words “the defaults,” to operate under its own logic and aesthetics. Ultimately, a textual environment produces its own meaning-making logic. Carrión’s revolutionary theorizations about the book and the page intuit the larger ecology as it considers the conditions of perception, existence, exchange, consumption, and use. They also showcase his grasp of literary works as media and objects as part of a literary text. For Carrión, “communication… occurs in a concrete, real, physical space” and further “space is an element of this communication. Space modifies this communication. Space imposes its own laws on this communication” (46-7). Building up on this, a textual environment is configured or brought together into a space where the reader is confronted with specific, unfamiliar uses of familiar media objects. In that way, the contours of a textual environment modify the “protocols” and “structures of communication,” as Lisa Gitelman calls them in Always Already New (2006), of each material media component. Nevertheless, as an emergent phenomenon, the configuration of a textual environment is provisional and so are its enactment and its experience. Further, in Carrión’s thinking, “the introduction of space in poetry (or rather of poetry in space) is an enormous occurrence of incalculable literary consequences” like the creation of concrete and visual poetry that manifests “how language acquired a spacial reality from the moment writing was invented” (46). In a textual environment, like BPaS and the other examples mentioned above, the space created by the multiplicity of media reveals and collapses the writing systems of each into an emerging single one.

Multimateriality in Between Page and Screen

Between Page and Screen is, according to its authors - Borsuk, a poet and book artist, and Bouse, a Web developer - “an augmented reality book of poems” (“Between Page And Screen” n/p). Such a succinct description barely suggests the conceptual complexities underlying the work: “a hybrid reading practice that is not just about using multiple media but also about bridging and blending them” (Pressman 6). At the same time, this way of describing it signals the series of elements that will allow for multiple interpretations and takes on the project, and subtly points to its material and textual layers. Briefly, augmented reality (AR) is the superimposition of computer generated or virtual objects onto real world objects (Azuma 1997: 355). The epistemological binary between virtual and real world implicit in this notion of AR is too complex to be dealt with here, however, I want to point out how, in the context of BPaS, it signals the merging of the digital and the print by means of the AR engine’s mediation. Indeed, for Ronald Azuma “ideally, [in AR] it would appear to the user that the virtual and real objects coexisted in the same space” (356). Interestingly, as integral components in the configuration of BPaS, these elements do and must co-exist. The specific mention to augmented reality in the description of BPaS thus pinpoints the layering and fusion of multiple objects with distinct materialities in the single space of the work, or as I argue, a textual environment.

Still lacking thorough critical analysis, many first impressions of BPaS have come in two types of book reviews: those that see BPaS as a progression in the debates of the death of the book, and those who see in it much more nuanced material, poetic, and theoretical dimensions. Buzz Pool, for example, declared it “a reading revolution” (2012: n/p) and hailed it as the ‘salvation’ of the print book and the pop-up book. This kind of approach highlights BPaS’ qualities as a book first and foremost, a critical take still very much embedded in an oppositional rationale of electronic and print book. Alternatively, BPaS has been thought of as experimental poetry and artist book placing it in the tradition of concrete and visual poetry, and electronic literature. Ander Monson, for example, makes a hybrid argument highlighting the experimental aspects of BPaS as well as granting it a potential to ‘advance’ the debate on the future of the book: “This book…makes us work…and it’s hard not to see in this one future for the book: not obsolescence for one or the other, but a fused existence” (14). Similarly, María Andrea Giovine characterizes it as “not just a revolution for visual poetry or for concrete poetry, but also for conceptual art, cyberliterature and iconotextuality in general” (n/p). More recently, in “Reading (Between) Machine,” Jessica Pressman produced a more thorough reading of BPaS in which she highlights the book’s architecture as a reading-writing machine. An array of characterizations like this is indicative of the difficulties of abstracting on how many levels BPaS works due to its complex material configuration. Still, up until now, views on BPaS have remained partial visions that have yet to examine in detail the tight interconnections among the different material components and the various reading enactments this work produces.

Even though BPaS is presented by its authors as a book first and foremost, the connections between its different material components, and the way they illuminate and complement each other defy such characterization. In order to test the ways in which the media components of BPaS resists ordering, I propose to think about it in speculative scenarios stripping them down individually and observing how they come together in some of its possible permutations. Thus, one way of describing BPaS could be as a print book meant to be read through a webcam on a website on a computer screen. We can turn around this description and say it is a website with an application that reads markers or QR codes printed on a book through a webcam. A third option is to say that it is an AR engine embedded in a website for reading a book. Other possibilities could highlight the QR codes, the webcam, the verbal poems, etc. This exercise not only shows how interlinked the different components of BPaS are and how, in their interconnectedness, their apparent discrete materiality is fundamentally undermined; but also provides a particular media context to look at it. How we organize the tight connections of BPaS media components may depend on how each particular reader comes across them - a part of the enactment experience - even as a first encounter. Put differently, a first approach to each medium may reveal or hide the presence of other media. Further, the rhetoric that is used to describe it, in each way, carries specific associated media protocols: as a published print book, as a website, as a piece of software, as poems, as hardware.

The expectations each medium provokes in the readers as well as the conventions (the defaults) linked to them waver according to what we get our hands on first and are even more radically transformed once all the media come together. The environment presented by BPaS alters the structures of communication, borrowing Lisa Gitelman’s words again, of its particular media components. It is precisely because a straightforward ordering of BPaS media and a thorough split of its components cannot be done that I propose to look at it as an emergent textual environment made up of book, hardware, and Web conventions for its configuration. Therefore, none of its media components remains a discrete, unaffected entity but facets of the textual environment. Building upon Gitelman’s elaboration of media as “socially realized structures of communication, where structures include both technological forms and their associated protocols, and where communication is a cultural practice ” (7), I argue that BPaS, through its multimateriality, reformulates the structures and displaces the protocols and the cultural practices of each of its components turning them into a particularized environment.

As a print codex format, BPaS turns around a set of familiar conventions: there is no text except for the editorial apparatus - title, credits, edition, and instructions -, there are no page numbers, and pages are printed on the right hand side only. In addition to this, as can be seen in Figure 1, in lieu of having words printed on the pages, a series of geometric patterns can be observed but not read. Indeed, the book is mostly blank space. This way, although the book format seems the familiar and conventional component of BPaS, as a matter of fact, as a codex, its configuration is quite odd. The initial impossibility of reading the book removes many, if not most, of its protocols in the sense that Gitelman posits. The capacity to read it through a website on a computer screen, furthermore, transfers the book’s conventions onto another medium where other protocols operate. The material configuration of BPaS, as Giovine and Monson have pointed out, situates it closer to an artist book - or one of Carrión’s bookworks - meant to be observed or appreciated poetically and aesthetically, than to a paperback read page by page and word by word. Still, some conventions remain, like the flipping of pages, a first and last page, and a sequentially ordered series of poems. Conversely, the lack of words in the book sets off a renewed curiosity about what is printed in its pages: references, editorial details like typeface use and printing location, acknowledgements and legal statements - the information that oftentimes escapes the attention of most readers. For Carrión, these conventions were “extremely original and beautiful inventions” that go unnoticed in the old art due to saturation and overuse (43). In BPaS, the necessary inclusion of the editorial apparatus, too, signals the extent to which the work is embedded in and in tension with the print publishing world. It could even be argued that it is the inescapable presence of the editorial apparatus that anchors BPaS to its book-ness rather than the general material configuration of the project. Craig Dworkin in No Medium proposes that when books “cannot be read in the conventional sense, word by word, and page by page, [they] can still be read as a book, as a cultural object, according to the material specific of its format” (15). Nevertheless, BPaS can hardly be read as a book; its extended materiality defies such an approximation..

 

Figure 1. One of the QR codes in Between Page and Screen

Still, when thinking about the editorial apparatus of BPaS it is important to offer the historical background of the project, and keep in mind that the edition available for purchase is indeed the second edition. A letterpress first edition of only twelve copies preceded it, and its editorial and material aspects were rather different:

Between Page and Screen was printed in an edition of 12 on a Vandercook proof press at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, California. The book was digitally set in URW Grotesk and hand-printed from photopolymer plates on Rives BFK paper. The three-dimensional poems were set in Helvetica Bold, using theVectorVision library. The binding is Keith Smith’s Butterfly, which is also known as Yamato Toji and Double Span-Span Span-Span. (“Letterpress” n/p)

At an extremely small print run, BPaS’ first edition held more qualities of an artist’s book, specifically its almost uniquely handcrafted objectual properties:

Between Page and Screen is a hand-bound and letterpress-printed book[…] This sixteen-poem chapbook contains no text, only stark black-and-white geometric shapes and a web address leading to this site, where the reader follows instructions to display the book on his or her webcam. Our software detects the square markers in the book and displays corresponding word animations mapped to the surface of the page. Because the animations move with the book, they appear to inhabit “real” three-dimensional space—a kind of digital pop-up book. (“Letterpress” n/p)

The textual environment configuration we see in the second edition was already in place, but it can be argued that as an artist’s book BPaS carried fewer book protocols and expectations - as it lied on a logic of experimentation and limited circulation - than as a trade book, however odd it still is. The trade edition produced by Los Angeles’ Siglio Press incorporates into the project the protocols associated with the publishing industry. Embedded in the publishing industry and precisely because it maintains the look and functionality of an ordinary book, the trade edition of BPaS exists in tension with mainstream trade books (Carrión’s “old art” books) and simultaneously underscores the project’s uniqueness within its broader context. As a consequence, and following Carrión’s theorization, BPaS acquires a deeper critical dimension in regards to trade textual media production than its letterpress twin could ever do. Additionally, it is a both an outcome and an advocate of the shifting publication models that have made possible works like BPaS, as well as the aforementioned Vniverse, Ice-Bound, and others.

The website, and more generally, the networked computer necessary to interact with BPaS, might seem a lot less surprising - an arguable consequence of how networked computers are conventionally  imagined as repositories and portals for all sorts of media, experimentation, and content. Situated in the world of the Web, BPaS’ website, like the trade edition, enters the broader context that links Borsuk and Bouse’s work to social media sites, Web electronic literary pieces, shopping sites, etc., while still maintaining its unique qualities. At first look, the website of BPaS (betweenpageandscreen.com) has the usual elements of a book’s website: a homepage, an “about” page, a “preview”, a “where to buy” page, a contact link, among others. The differences come in the “Read” and “Help” pages, both of which deal with the augmented reality software that “unlocks” the poems, and “conjure[s] the written word” (“Between Page And Screen” n/p). Easily viewed as a tool and even a service, this facet of the website stands out not as a marketing and promotional aid to a print or electronic book - as is common for book websites - but as a part of its textual material configuration and its poetics. The website is, indeed, fundamental to the specific reading conditions of BPaS.

For many, the website and the AR engine might have a functional status, to reveal the poems “hidden” in the QR codes, but when seen as material components of the project, their functionality and procedural unfolding is full of meaningful implications. One of them is making evident for the reader the catalogue of media components in the work: the fact that BPaS cannot be read in or with a single device. When readers have the book in their hands and are sitting in front of a computer, on the “Read” page they find a series of messages that asks them to gather the inventory of material components shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. The “Read” page in BPaS website

A set of instructions also makes up the “Help” page and lists “What you need: 1. A copy of the book or a preview marker. 2. A webcam” (“Help” n/p). In both the instructions and the list of necessary media, Borsuk and Bouse streamline the reading process, arguably to achieve the surprising and fascinating effect of reading BPaS for the first time. In so doing, they obscure the fact that a website has already been accessed through a networked computer that is already in front of the reader. Similarly, by being already on the website, the underlying Internet infrastructure that is being put to use goes unacknowledged, taken for granted by the reader and the instructions. An analogous though distinct set of procedural instructions can be found in Reed and Garbe’s Ice-Bound. There a fictional character in the AR application asks readers to show him the print Compendium so that he can gain access to it and read it. The instructions, thus, become part of fiction and, in so doing, the AR software and its functioning are even more thickly covered behind the face and the will of a fictional “intelligence” than they are in BPaS. Even when obscured, the unfolding reading process in BPaS underscores the way in which “media mediate and alter physical activity, what we do with our bodies in acts of mediation” (Angel and Gibbs par 6). The process might not be overtly part of the poetics of Borsuk and Bouse’s work as it is on Reed and Garbe’s but, in its omission, it is also prone to drawing attention to its physical components and dynamics.

Increasingly, it becomes evident that BPaS profits from a dynamic of hiding and revealing for the surprising appearance of the poems out of the QR codes. By shrouding the media components in BPaS and their extended infrastructure in the streamlined instructions, Borsuk and Bouse build up a very subtle second layer of the work’s hiding and revealing poetics. In this sense, the poetic effect of BPaS at the level of the verbal poems is suggestive of how even when hidden at first sight, media components and their reading are being put to use. Lori Emerson has identified an analogous process as an obscuring of the hardware through the software and an obscuring of the software through the interface (2). Following Emerson, in BPaS we see several layers of hiding and revealing: the poems in the QR codes, the AR application through the screen, the computer and the operational Internet connection behind the website. Each one of this parallels a layer of reading. I will come back to this below.

The prompt messages and the instructions are signposts indicating how to proceed in the unfamiliar textual environment of BPaS, and in that sense establish a clear route for the enactment of its reading: a deliberately constructed environment and a set of procedural actions resulting in the reader’s provisional ability to read the poems. To a certain extent the script, the instructions, laid out for the reader sets up the environment with a rather clear set of rules and an ultimate goal: to unlock the words and be able to read the poems. This script might seem to imply that the hidden and revealed contents of the print book are the most important aspect of the project, “the book’s actual content” as Pressman calls them in her review of BPaS (6). I wish to contest this. Considering the huge effort readers have to put into accessing the poems in comparison to the conventional book or online reading protocols, not to mention the exceptional work of the authors in designing all aspects of BPaS, privileging them over the rich variety of interactions emerging from the textual environment and the work’s complex material instances would only provide a limited exploration of the work and partial theorizations of its aesthetics. A work like BPaS that so brazenly exposes its code facets, just like Montfort’s #!, require a critical examination that highlights the poetic, imaginative dimensions of the code.

In order to approach BPaS in this way I wish to return to Carrión’s theorizations on the creation of specific reading conditions aside from content that are embedded provisionally in the time and space of its occurrence, “the words of the new book are there not to transmit certain mental images with a certain intention. They are there to form, together with other signs, a space-time sequence that we identify with the name ‘book’ ” (50-1). Building upon this, I propose to move our critical attention away from the focus on the content of the poems, and instead toward the very process of configuring and reading BPaS as a textual environment that emerges in a given time and space and in a very particular manner. It might seem unfair to forget about the “love affair between two characters, P and S” (“Between Page And Screen” n/p), but doing so allows me to look at the specific reading conditions created in BPaS, and propose that the main aesthetic as well as theoretical exploration of the project lies in the layered reading experience much more so than in the verbal poems themselves.

Specific Reading Conditions

Perhaps one of the most controversial statements Carrión proposed in his New Art is how “in order to read the old art, knowing the alphabet is enough. In order to read the new art one must apprehend the book as a structure, identify its elements and understand their function” (59). This function must attend to both the conventional or default uses of the work’s material elements and its particular aesthetic ones. The instructions and the list of media necessary to read BPaS stand out as only the first step in the configuration of the textual environment. In this process, it would also appear that the textual environment in BPaS places the reader at the center of its configuration. As can be seen when reading the work (Figure 3), the reader even seems to be that which exists between the page and screen. Ander Monson has argued that BPaS works like mirror script, and that it “requires reflection, asks us to see ourselves holding the page” (14). However, the specific reading conditions of BPaS parallels the dynamic of hiding and revealing that pervades the work by obscuring the prefatory set up of the textual environment which includes not only several layers of machine and human reading but also draws on the uncomfortableness of the textual environment and the opacity of the QR codes.

Depending on the particularities of the computer and the webcam at hand, the task of holding the book up to the camera goes from awkward to inconvenient. As can be seen in Figure 3, the reader must resort to an unconventional physical handling of the book to read the unlocked text, for example, over the edges of the print book. In contrast, in the press pictures, Borsuk and Bouse are shown easily displaying the QR codes to a built-in webcam in a slanted laptop computer screen resting on a stand. Hard to consider a design problem on the part of the authors, the awkwardness of the reading experience at a physical level underscores the material configuration of the project too; emphasizes its process of mediation, and the eccentric enactment of the reading experience. It is also at this level, depending on each reader’s hardware - her material components - that enactments of the experience might vary. Regardless of what an individual reading experience might end up being, it is in this lack of comfort that the reader becomes aware of her efforts and of the material configuration of BPaS.

Figure 3. Screenshot of a reader on the BPaS screen holding the book 

In this physical process, it also becomes increasingly evident to the reader that she facilitates, sets, and indeed is part of the environment of the production of the text. In a way, BPaS reveals the reader to herself as part of the text. The enactment, however, goes beyond that superficial first effect. By the time the reader is able to read the words revealed by the AR engine, the application has already carried out a prefatory machine reading process. This initial reading process is also a crucial part of the textual environment. The reader is not just holding the book in her hands: to a large extent she is bridging the gap between facets of the code split in the various media components. As a consequence, the reader mediates the mechanical production of the work too: the flesh and blood reader is setting the conditions for the machine reading to happen, receives the outcome, and re-engages with it.

Even when in BPaS, the confluence of machine and human reading is radically evident, it is, to different degrees, a condition of all electronic literature. In “Deeper into the Machine” (2003), reading Talan Memmott’s ‘Translucidity’ and MEZ’s Mezangelle, Katherine Hayles notes that “natural and machine languages mingle in the production of electronic literature. While the user parses words, the machine reads code” (par 3). The intricate multimateriality of BPaS and, indeed, the mediation of the reader to facilitate the machine reading process, rehearses this mingling of machine and human languages and evidences the fact that “every act of reading electronic literature…takes place within a distributed cognitive system that includes both human and non-human actors” (par 42). Additionally, the configuration of BPaS incorporates yet another layer to this distributed cognitive system: another instance of reading. The specific reading conditions created by BPaS go beyond the user parsing the words and the computer reading the codes, and has the user reading the codes as well. John Cayley, in his review of Montfort’s #!, has identified a similar point where “both programs and samples of generated, virtual language…gain focus and subject themselves to human reading” (par 4). Back to BPaS, while the QR codes remain software triggers and thus somewhat opaque to human parsing, they too become visual signposts that can be read iconically (humanly), for example, to recognize what poem will be the output of which page. The iconicity of the QR codes makes it possible to further link Borsuk and Bouse’s work, and by extension Montfort’s, to Carrión’s theories. “The new art,” Carrión states, “uses any manifestation of language, since the author has no other intention than to test the language’s ability to mean something” (56). Further, in reading #!, Cayley also asks whether “the ontology of language [is] bound up with cultural practices that are specifically human” (par 15). We read the QR codes - part of the computational language in Borsuk and Bouse’s work - as an anticipation of its outcome, which is always the same. That is, there is a direct relation of the codes (as non-linguistic instances) and their poetic output - their ability to mean something - both linguistically and visually. Thus, the iconic layer of reading BPaS embedded in the QR codes test the extent to which flesh and blood readers can read and assign meaning (potential or delayed meaning) to any code, including machine readable codes. “The New Art [says Carrión] appeals to the ability every man has to understand and create signs and systems of signs” (61). Because they point to different material facets in BPaS, the QR codes are, thus, instances of non-figurative language that further emphasize the structure and configuration of the textual environment. Carrion’s systems of signs can too be taken to think about the textual environment at large that has been created by Borsuk and Bouse and is re-created every time it is read.

In BPaS, both the flesh and blood reader as well as the AR software work as readers as well as writers, since at different moments each one produces and consumes distinct instances of the textual environment. These gestures, or new textual behaviors that literally involve the hand and the sense of touch, according to Angel and Gibbs, produce a new ontology that collapses the input and output of reading-writing (par 13). The reader’s gesture, the process of configuring the text of BPaS from its components assigns meaning to the enacted experience beyond the verbal meaning of the poems, the running of the code, and even the iconic reading of the QR codes. The poetic effect of BPaS is deposited in the very processes taking place as the textual environment is configured in all its possible or necessary reading layers. This includes Gibbs and Angel’s “gesture,” and Carrión’s reading as the sequential perception of a book’s structure and the understanding of its elements’ function (59-60). Reading letters and/or code is not exclusive to either machine or flesh and blood reader. In this sense, even though at first the reader seems to stand at the forefront of the textual environment, when the whole process is examined, she loses her protagonism. Similarly, the initial opacity of the codex, the streamlining of the instructions, and the need to activate the AR software are meaningful in themselves. By delaying and displacing the spatial and temporal configuration of the text, BPaS highlights its fluidity among media since, in fact, book, webcam, screen, website, software cannot be separated if the textual environment is to emerge. It follows that each component is a prototextual instantiation waiting to be realized only in the re-creation of the whole textual environment - “the activity of the book itself and its readers’ actions” (9), as put by Dworkin in his study of blank works. Although every time the configuration of the BPaS environment will yield a stable though contingent text from a largely scripted process, it is the effect of it happening that more crucially characterizes the project.   

As Raley emphasizes in her TXTual practice theorizations, aside from the material particularities, we should not lose sight of the importance of the “social systems in which the object or thing is embedded, the myriad of ways in which they are used and experienced” (12-13). As I have argued above, the reading of BPaS as a textual environment leaves no material medium untouched: as a published book, as a website, as software. In doing so BPaS lays bare the media moment of its creation (both as the media ecology that fosters its characteristics and as the specific material and environmental configuration of the work) and forces a reproduction of those conditions in its reading. Because BPaS is an emergent artifactual environment - not a discrete object -, it emphasizes the proliferation of (poetic) media, their flux, and their intricate connections; it is, in other words, ‘another’ in-between object or textual phenomenon. The betweenness that crosses the whole of BPaS manifests not just the work’s embeddedness in its current context, but also how as a poetic media object it becomes part of that very context and gives it shape. 

Dworkin argues that “no single medium can be apprehended in isolation…media (always necessarily multiple) only become legible in social contexts because they are not things, but rather activities: commercial, communicative, and always interpretive” (28). The layered reading processes in BPaS underscore that multiplicity by breaking apart and scattering the usually more neatly packaged of each of its material media and the ways we conventionally engage with them. In so doing, there is an interrogation not just of the already tired oppositional dyad of book and screen, but also an inquiry into the machinic and human processes that bind them together and, at times, fuse them into a new thing. The protocols and structures of communications usually assigned to each reader and each medium are displaced. The reading behaviour, the gestures forced by this work pull apart in Heckman’s words “the defaults of the means of poetic production” (par 9). In that way, BPaS creates a protocol of communication on its own complex poetic structure that is physical, logical, conceptual, verbal, iconic: its unique enactment in Raley’s words, or its specific reading conditions in Carrión’s, and further, as a unique emergent artifact. It can even be argued that in its complex multimateriality, BPaS questions its own place as an artist book, as a work of electronic literature, as software, or as visual poetry embedded in each one’s larger media context. 

In conclusion, and still following Heckman, Borsuk and Bouse “develop bundles of significance, generate connotations, cultivate forms, and create microcosms of experience” (par 9). BPaS is extremely successful at highlighting the increasing instability of the notion of book and of electronic literary genres. By creating a media artifact that I have characterized as a textual environment, Borsuk and Bouse not only belie the divide between print and digital, textual and visual, concrete and virtual; they also instantiate a new art, “not a case of words.” Carrión’s temporal and spatial situatedness of his new art and its enactment grounded on a given work’s specific reading conditions provide an extremely fruitful framework to theorize an increasingly large body of works hinging on and surpassing the print-digital divide. Carrión’s point mentioned earlier that the existence of a book in the exterior reality is determined by the condition of exchange and consumption is further useful to suggest that the enactment and reading experience must be incorporated into theoretical analyses. Indeed, beyond the repeatable script that leads the material configuration of a BPaS, it is the individual enactments of the work that open the way to a multitude of reading experiences. BPaS rehearses its place as an object by being embedded in the publishing industry as much as in the online world, in the poetry and electronic literature realm as much as in the software development one. This material configuration, along with it the many media protocols and communication structures it touches, evidences the diverse layers of reading and mediation that depend on all of the actors - human and object, individual and social - that stand out in the creation of new and unique items in our complex media ecology.  

An earlier version of this article in Spanish is included in the proceedings of the Ages of the Book International Conference 2014. 

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