By Roberto Simanowski
As I announce in my blog posting (November 13, 2005), I asked my students to compare the original poem and the abridged version applied in the installation. Some noted, "the modified version stripped the poem of its sexual/sensual innuendo" and considered this "a sanitation", which suppresses the body that the installation seems to liberate. Thus, it seems "Text Rain" is self-contradicting. Is this the result of questionable regard to the feelings of a perhaps very young audience, as one students suspected?
Given the text used regardless its original version, some of my students did still see a contradiction between the text and the installation. There is a restriction of interaction with the letters, which does not match the line "limbs' loosening of syntax" at all. The user is not able to move letters horizontally and to rearrange them to new words. Does the installation fall behind its own promise? Is there a conceptual reason for such constraint?
Text Rain can be seen in the tradition of concrete poetry for it pays attention to the way letters are presented. Appolinaire's poem Rain (Il Pleut) form 1916, in which the letters are arranges on the page like falling raindrops, comes to mind. In digital media, the extra- linguistic aspect of text is not limited to space but includes time and interaction. This allows the audience an intense immersion into the piece, or to put it this way: the immersion shifts from the eyes, which normally contact the text, to the entire body, which now is surrounded by text, and it shifts from the mind, were the text normally ends up, to the page or screen, were the body now ends up. "Text Rain" certainly establishes a newrelationship between text and body in contrast to the traditional act of encountering letters. However, does the text still play a role on the linguistic level, do the letters only land on the spectator's body or do they also end up in her mind?
While my students and I could only speculate why the interaction in "Text Rain" is limited, we all agreed that the text used in the installation becomes part of it and must be taken into consideration. This text speaks about body movement, which turns body parts into verbs. The according lines read:
At your turning, each part
of my body turns to verb.
We realized two ways to read the installation as translation of such notion or rather the poem as a description of the interaction between user and poem: 1. The movement of the user's body turns the bodies of letters into words. In this case the "you" of the poem is the user and the "I" of the poem is the poem itself. 2. The user is the first person whose body is turned into words by the falling letters in the sense that the user's action creates a specific expression.
Either way the text is not only a visual object stripped of its linguistic meaning but also acts as a signifying system. This becomes clear at least after the text has been read, which may not be accomplished during the interaction with it but afterwards when the user has looked up the original text (announced in the exhibition's credit) or the version used in the installation (provided in the "Text Rain" documentation online).
Beyond the obvious relationship between texts and bodies in the poem and its importance for the interaction between people and letters in the installation, there may be another connection between poem and installation hidden in the last two lines discernable if one understand the last two line as the guiding theme of the poem: "and yet turn to nothing: / It's just talk". The poem can indeed be understood as a conversation, which does not aim at a specific result but enjoys the conversation as such (and more so in the abridged version by Camille Utterback). One could argue this notion is even encouraged with the reference to the loss of syntax, i.e. of the foundation to create meaningful sentences turning into a clear message.
Such talk turning to nothing, i.e. turning not to a linguistic message achieved from this talk, is exactly what the user does in her interaction with the letters in the installation. The letters are liberated from their representational function; they present themselves as independent artefacts within a dialog with the users. The have left language behind them and turned into a sculpture or rather into music (as the medium or material, which is only concerned with its own presentation). One of my students called it a "Dadaistic paradise" alluding to the Dadaistic sound and concrete poetry.
This dialog is nurtured by the fact that there are words formed by the letters. On the other hand, this dialog ? as my students and participants at the Wayland Seminar have reported ? neither provides the possibility to read the entire poem nor does it trigger the intention to do so. The observed and reported reaction of the users is a joyful play with letters rather than a serious attempt to decipher the entire text in order to distil the poetic message (as Camille admitted herself in the lecture at Brown: She does not believe that people really read the entire text). And thosewho favour playing with the text over reading it behave more accordingly to the message of this text than those trying to turn this interaction into a readable message.
However, this cognition is only possible with the knowledge of the entire text. The extra-linguistic layer of meaning in the installation does not reveal before the linguisticlayer has been realised. To put it this way: Only if one knows the message of the poem used in the installation one understands that the message of the installation is not to look for the message of the poem.
Since the text itself is not provided in the installation, users have to look it up on their own. This causes a delay in the process of perception; it is completed at a different place at a later time and requires further actions to do so. There are good reasons to believe that most users will not go and look up the poem. It is debatable whether this is to be held against the artist or rather against the (impatient, lazy) user.
There are more examples with such 'afterwards assignments'. Simon Biggs' text generator "Great Wall of China" (http://hosted.simonbiggs.easynet.co.uk/wall) provides syntactically correct but semantically meaningless sentences out of the English translation of Kafka's story "Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer". This can be received as an interesting application of software. However, who pays attention to the text used may see a deeper connection between the forlornness of the hermeneutic undertaking in Biggs's piece and the non-appearance of the messenger (Hermes) in Kafka's story.
David Small's "The Illuminated Manuscript" (www.davidsmall.com) presents text in an unusual, astonishing manner. It runs from one side to the other, it overwrites itself like a palimpsest, or it circles around on a transparent 3 D tube. The audience of Documenta 11 where the piece was exhibited obviously enjoyed its playful character. However, if one looks up the texts used — among them American Declaration of Human Rights, Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech, Martin Luther King's letter from the Birmingham jail, Georg W. Bush's Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American Peoplefrom September 20, 2001 — one realizes that the texts used are a collection of writings on the subject of freedom, a collection so to speak of respectful texts. This nature of the texts certainly adds a deeper meaning to the undermining of the text's authority the interaction within the installation fosters.
In all these cases knowing the text used gives the artwork a deeper meaning. The perception of the artwork depends on the audience's level of knowledge and commitment. One may further discuss this fact with regard to the concept of 'double coding' known from postmodern writing such as Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose".
The interplay of the linguistic and non-linguistic side of the text in "Text Rain" reminds of concrete poetry such as Eugen Gomringer's "Schweigen" (Silence) from 1954, where the word silence is presented three times in a row, in a block of five rows. In the middle of the middle row, the word "silence" is absent. There is a gap, an abyss of real silence. The meaning of this gap, which only can be seen because of the special arrangement of the word, cannot be understood without readingthe word. In both, "Schweigen" and "Text Rain" the specific arrangement of the text responds to the linguistic meaning of the text. With traditional criteria, one may consider this a perfect oneness of content and form. "Schweigen" would not work this way with other words (take "tongue" or "Peace"). Does "Text Rain" work with a different text?
Camille Utterback has changed the text for a "Text Rain" version for the Phaeno Museum in Wolfsburg, Germany, in which kids and their parents and adults interested can experiment more than 250 scientific phenomena with the aim to surprise then and to wake up the explorer in them. Camille has customized "Text Rain" for this museum since she did not like the idea of translating the poem. She is now applying German phrases such as "Regenbogen" (rainbow — metaphor for luck), "im Regen stehen" (standing in the rain — to be forgotten), "Tropfen auf heißem Stein" (drop on a hot stone — little help for big problems), which still refer to rain and may carry the title of "Text Rain" but, as was complained in our discussion, diminishes the work and turns the conceptually complex art piece into a tool. Thus, Edrex' blog posting reveals its truth in an unexpected way: "In fact, one of the concerns of a select group of artists is that their work not be 'too much fun,' lest it become a work that belongs in a children's science museum, a space regarded with much disdain."
But what if the artist does not see the connection between text and installation the way promoted here? What if the announced complex interplay of the linguistic and non-linguistic side of the text only exist in our interpretation? Would this interpretation still be valid as a 'deconstructive reading', that seeks to find in the text or artwork what the author did not try to say (or tried not to say)? Could we claim to have revealed the hidden, neglected, suppressed message of the artwork? This leads to the discussion to what extent established methods in literary (and visual) studies can be applied to the new field of digital art. This discussion is not limited to "Text Rain".
However, this example of digital art would be a good place to start. And the claim to reveal the suppressed would even be backed up by the way the artist came to the text. In an interview Camille says:
Text Rain was originally developed to be part of a performance Romy was creating based loosely around the disintegration of memory (Abacus Parts). He was exploring what happens to memory and language as one's body start to decay — perhaps as the result of disease or aging. We were prototyping the piece at NYU and as we watched people engage with early versions of the installation, however, it was clear that to the people the piece was enormously playful. Again and again we saw people creating meaning from the falling letters, rather than read them as falling apart. While the words that fall are lines of a poem, people find their own meaning and words within the poem. They start developing scenarios about words they do catch, or even 'catch' words within or between other words (catching some letters from one word and some from another). Romy and I view the poem 'Talk You' by Evan Zimroth, as integral to the piece, as she plays with some of the same slippages between linguistic and physical modes that the installation does. My favorite fragment from the poem is 'We are synonyms for limbs loosening of syntax'.
Because of the fact that people created meaning from the falling letters instead of reading them as falling apart, Camille and her partner Romy Achituv decided not to use the installation in the performance about the disintegration of memory. I think they could have. Even with people creating single words, as discussed above this does not lead to an understanding of the poem. It is still 'just talk' turning to nothing, a talk without past and future, a talk for talk's sake, for the very moment of talking, which may be exactly what a talk with somebody having Alzheimer's disease is about.