translating the past 05.14.2007, 9:34 AM
posted by dan visel
At a certain point in college, I started doing all my word processing using Adobe FrameMaker. I won't go into why I did this – I was indulging any number of idiosyncrasies then, many of them similarly unreasonable – but I did, and I kept using FrameMaker for most of my writing for a couple of years. Even in the happiest of times, there weren't many people who used FrameMaker; in 2001, Adobe decided to cut their losses and stop supporting the Mac version of FrameMaker, which only ran in Classic mode anyway. I now have an Intel Mac that won't run my old copy of FrameMaker; I now have a couple hundred pages of text in files with the extension ".fm" that I can't read any more. Could I convert these to some modern format? Sure, given time and an old Mac. Is it worth it? Probably not: I'm pretty sure there's nothing interesting in there. But I'm still loathe to delete the files. They're a part, however minor, of a personal archive.
This is a familiar narrative when it comes to electronic media. The Institute has a room full of Voyager CD-ROMs which we have to fire up an old iBook to use, to say nothing of the complete collection of Criterion laser discs. I have a copy of Chris Marker's CD-ROM Immemory which I can no longer play; a catalogue of a show on Futurism that an enterprising Italian museum put out on CD-ROM similarly no longer works. Unlike my FrameMaker documents, these were interesting products, which it would be nice to look at from time to time. Unfortunately, the relentless pace of technology has eliminated that choice.
Which brings me to the poet bpNichol, and what Jim Andrews's site vispo.com has done for him. Born Barrie Phillip Nichol, bpNichol played an enormous part in the explosion of concrete and sound poetry in the 1960s. While he's not particularly well known in the U.S., he was a fairly major figure in the Canadian poetry world, roughly analogous to the place of Ian Hamilton Finlay in Scotland. Nichol took poetry into a wide range of places it hadn't been before; in 1983, he took it to the Apple IIe. Using the BASIC language, Nichol programmed poetry that took advantage of the dynamic new "page" offered by the computer screen. This wasn't the first intersection of the computer and poetry - as far back as 1968, Dick Higgins wrote a FORTRAN program to randomize the lines in his Book of Love & War & Death - but it was certainly one of the first attempts to take advantage of this new form of text. Nichol distributed the text – a dozen poems – on a hundred 5.25'' floppy disks, calling the collection First Screening.
Looking at the poems in any version, there's a sweetness to the work that's immediately winning, whatever you think of concrete poetry or digital literature. Apple BASIC seems cartoonishly primitive from our distance, but Nichol took his medium and did as much as he could with it. Vispo.com's preservation effort is to be applauded as exemplary digital archiving.
But some questions do arise: does a work like this, defined so precisely around a particular time and environment, make sense now? Certainly it's important historically, but can we really imagine that we're seeing the work as Nichol intended it to be seen? In his printed introduction included with the original disks, Nichol speaks to this problem:
As ever, new technology opens up new formal problems, and the problems of babel raise themselves all over again in the field of computer languages and operating systems. Thus the fact that this disk is only available in an Applesoft Basic version (the only language I know at the moment) precisely because translation is involved in moving it out further. But that inherent problem doesn't take away from the fact that computers & computer languages also open up new ways of expressing old contents, of revivifying them. One is in a position to make it new.
Vispo.com's work is quite obviously a labor of love. But it does raise a lot of questions: if Nichol's work wasn't so well-loved, would anyone have bothered preserving it like this? Part of the reason that Nichol's work can be revived is that he left his code open. Given the media he was working in, he didn't have that much of a choice; indeed, he makes it part of the work. If he hadn't – and this is certainly the case with a great deal of work contemporary to his – the possibilities of translation would have been severely limited. And a bigger question: if vispo.com's work is to herald a new era of resurrecting past electronic work, as bpNichol might have imagined that his work was to herald a new era of electronic poetry, where will the translators come from?
Jim Andrews on May 14, 2007 3:32 PM:
Thanks, Dan, for checking out the First Screening project and writing about it. You say:
They've made Nichol's program available in four forms: image files of the original disk that can be run with an Apple II emulator, with the original source should you want to type in the program yourself
You don't have to type in the program yourself, actually. The emulators run the original source code without you having to retype anything.
You also say:
And a bigger question: if vispo.com's work is to herald a new era of resurrecting past electronic work, as bpNichol might have imagined that his work was to herald a new era of electronic poetry, where will the translators come from?
Part of the motivation, for me, of doing the project was to show that it is indeed possible to do a good job of recovering old work and presenting it publicly on the Web. I don't know if this "heralds a new era of resurrecting past electronic work", but it may help dispell a seemingly widespread fallacy that such recovery is simply impossible.
You ask "Where will the translators come from?". Well, they have to have some competence concerning digital poetry and digital archives. So they're probably digital writers of some sort. Poet-programmers. Or poets who aren't really programmers but are experienced with digital archives. Or other types of digital writers. The group which did the recovery of First Screening is fairly diverse in background. The preservation of the old work is in the hands of the current artists, basically.
By the way, if we hadn't had access to the source code, we could still have created a simulation of the piece. Having access to the source code made the simulation easier to create and more accurate.
William Carlos Williams said "A poem is a machine made out of words." Part of the meaning of it is that once you put something out there, it has its own 'life'--and 'death'. Electronic literature will be like 'regular' literature in this regard.
Thanks again for checking out vispo.com/bp and writing about it.
dan visel on May 19, 2007 12:11 PM:
There was an op-ed in the Washington Post on Wednesday about this, mentioning the US government's efforts: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/15/AR2007051501873.html.