A Rumination on Visual Text in Videopoetry by Tom Konyves

by Tom Konyves

“The capacity of a textual element to enter into several contextual structures and to take on different meaning in each context is one of the most profound properties of the artistic text.”
– Juri Lotman

Such is the intrinsic value of videopoetry that whenever we encounter what purports to be a videopoem, our attitude is to expect a greater or lesser form of a “poetic” experience. In my view, whether the work presents its text as words on the screen, a voice-over, or recited on-camera by the poet/narrator, whether the image is captured by the artist’s camera as found in the world or as artificially designed with predetermined locations, sets, props, actors, etc., as excerpted from a pre-existent recording or corrected and remodeled from its original look and framing, the “greater or lesser value” of the experience is contingent on how we respond to and interpret 3 aspects or qualities of the work: the artist’s selection, modification and juxtaposition of the work’s verbal, visual and audible elements.

In videopoetry’s category of Visual Text, for example, we may be satisfied to discover a poem or some sequence of words we recognize and/or enjoy for its own sake, notwithstanding (a) the look, positioning, motion or any other modification to its appearance as text on the screen or (b) any aesthetic properties that the images or soundtrack that accompany the original text may or may not have. In this example, the experience of recognition and familiarity with the verbal element would have a “lesser value” than, say, an encounter with visual text in a videopoem in which not only do we recognize and/or enjoy the text for its own sake but are pleased to discover that modifications to the appearance of the text are perceived to have augmented its original meaning; and even more so if the image or sound elements have been either modified or, by their provocative juxtaposition, present an unusual or unanticipated context which, upon reflection, further expands the original text’s meaning.

A fitting introduction to an example of Visual Text in videopoetry is Alejandro Thornton’s 2014 silent, minimalist, prototypical “concrete poem”, simply titled O.   As it opens without any titles or credits, we observe two things practically simultaneously: what appears to be a large, white, capitalized letter O stands superimposed over the center of an image of a level, open, featureless landscape passing off-screen to our right (the camera is fixed on the view from the passenger’s window of a car). For 18 seconds, we watch the landscape rush past us, behind the large O. From this point forward, the entire frame of the image behind the O begins a slow 360° rotation, eventually returning to its original state before the screen fades to black.

As the selection of the verbal element appears to be representing multiple, ambiguous meanings (the word O, the letter O, the vowel sound of O, an O shape, an expression of an emotion, a graphic representation of some concept like unity, harmony, return, etc.), we can either suspend judgment on the quality of the artist’s selection of text and move on to responding to the modification in the work or accept the ambiguity of the text as having a positive or negative effect on our experience up to this point. The selection of the visual element – a wide-angle view of a common, unexceptional landscape occupies the bottom half of the frame, while a cloudy sky fills the top half – also displays minimal content. Similarly, there is a visual ambiguity in its presentation – a landscape (not) in motion recorded by a camera in motion (in fact, not in motion – perceived from a moving car).

While the verbal element, represented by O, remains unmodified in any way throughout the work, the moving image of the backlying landscape is rotated 360°. This modification should enable us to experience the ambiguous word-image relationship – a static O and a moving landscape – in a spatial context and therefore interpret O as a shape first, and the effect of rotation as a self-referential meaning ascribed to the entire work. (By contrast, it is the visual text in Brandon Downing’s 2009 Zindagi Ke Safar Mein that is modified when its presentation as “mere” subtitles is undermined by the deliberate homophonic mis-translation of a great Hindi song of longing; or John M Bennett’s 2008 Four Short Pieces that features Bennett’s declamatory-style reading of nonsense words that appear synchronously on the screen; both present modifications to challenge our TV-trained expectations for interpreting visual text, dissolving original, or at least originally presumed meanings.)

Finally, there is the juxtaposition of text to image; O, therefore, is a demonstration of a figure-ground relationship in which the letter/shape O is the figure and the ground is… well, the ground (and the cloud-filled sky, and all in motion) of the image. In addition, the ground not only provides the best context for interpreting the meaning of the figure of the text (whose shape it reflects by its rotation) but also demonstrates the contrasted functions: image is from the world, of the world, predetermined and framed just-so or captured by chance from the environment with the function of bringing attention to and expanding the meaning of visual text in such a way that it completes its inherent incompleteness; it functions also as a device of closure, providing the context that leads to a poetic experience of “greater or lesser value”, depending on selection, modification, etc.

Nowhere is the juxtapositive function of the image more striking than in videopoems that feature a “single-take”; what appears in the frame, the content, automatically provides the context we will need to interpret the displayed text and, by extension, the entire work. My experience of O was enhanced by the recognition that the image element of the work, a found image, captured by chance from the environment, connects the visual text with the external world as the artist perceived it at that spontaneous moment; it is a recorded passage of a particular time in a particular space and, as such, it appropriates a “slice” of the world against which could be written the internal world of thoughts.

These found by chance images of the world appeared to Harlene Weijs in “1 new msg, to Nick Carbo in “Mon Pere”, to Sarah Tremlett in “Some Everybodies”, to Janet Lees in “Hours of Darkness”, to Eric Cassar inCane”, and many others (including myself); a reminder that whether its structure appears complex or simple, the interplay of text and image in a videopoem is serious play. That our technology has granted Dick Higgins’ “ongoing human wish to combine the visual and literary impulses…” is no longer in doubt; what remains is not only the continuing development of our ability to identify and discern between poetic experiences of “greater or lesser value” but also our understanding of the ideologies underlying the works that will be claimed to have succeeded “… to tie together the experience of these two areas into an aesthetic whole.


 A Rumination on Visual Text in Videopoetry is reproduced here by permission of Tom Konyves