New Media and Narrative: Videopoetry and its Combination
of Challenge to and Co-existence with Lyrical Tradition
essay by Finn Harvor,
Assistant Professor/ Hankuk University of Foreign Studies
When discussing videopoetry, it is important to remind ourselves of what poetry is: it is an artistic form based on words – specifically, lyrical language. The Oxford online dictionary defines it as “Literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature”, and the Merriam-Webster defines it as
“writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm”.
These quotes may seem as if they are stating such obvious concepts that they are almost unnecessary. But it is the literary foundation of poetry – its essential characteristic of being an artform expressed through written and spoken language – that is key both to understanding the phenomenon of videopoetry, and also to understanding some of the debates that are likely to surround it. This paper will return to these points somewhat later.
This paper will give a brief overview of videopoetry as an emerging form, but it will also allude to some of these
rather thorny practical and theoretical problems that are resulting from technological and social-cultural change.
At the same time, the advent of videopoetry is, if one thinks about the dual histories of technology and culture, inevitable. Thinkers from Marshal McLuhan to Jean Baudrillard have written extensively on the degree to which culture and technology are intertwined. And since we live, as the cliché has it, in a digital age, we are obliged to acknowledge that we are surrounded by “new media”, and it will affect many aspects of culture. Why shouldn’t literature be strongly affected in this way as well? More to the point, why shouldn’t literature evolve as a result of new media, and develop into hybrid forms that combine language and image? Insisting that only the text is poetic, and that only printed poetic forms are real representatives of the essence of poetry is both, one could argue, short sighted and rather Euro-centric; after all, the combination of word and image has a much stronger tradition in Asia than it does in the West. As a Westerner, I have been struck by this many times. But this did not really sink in for me on a conscious level until my wife and I visited an extensive exhibit at the Yongsan National Museum about the work of Kang Se-whang [강세황] and his contemporaries. Historically in Asia, the forms of poetry and painting have merged seamlessly through the medium of ink painting. Analogously, in both East and West, the forms of lyric writing and music have merged – in traditional forms such as folk music, opera and pansori, and, very obviously, in popular forms of music by songwriters who also have reputations as poets (Bak In-hee [박인희], Leonard Cohen, and Bruce Springsteen.)
But of course, digital technology and new media also represent something else to literature: they represent both opportunity and threat. Opportunity because all technologies that can be adapted to creative projects constitute opportunity. And threat, because – well, one need look no farther than a cafe, subway train, or bus to see how many people these days are glued to their digital devices. As a wide-spread social phenomenon, this change in behavior began in earnest around 2008, with the introduction of smart phones. It existed before with MP3 players, etc., but not to the same degree. The result has been devastating for the publishing industry. In the US, publishing companies have been successful in maintaining their profitability by increasing profit margins on e-books (McIlroy). But this pattern has not been global. And if book publishing is to go through another agonizing paroxysm of instability, bankruptcy, and very low sales for authors, then how can literature continue as a culturally central enterprise? Posting work (including poetry) online is fine. But how will poets survive?
This paper will give a brief overview of videopoetry as an emerging form, but it will also allude to some of these rather thorny practical and theoretical problems that are resulting from technological and social-cultural change. Since space is limited, I will only give an overview of these issues. But I hope that what is here will be of interest and lead to further discussion.
Poetry, it hardly needs saying, is one of the oldest artistic forms in existence. It has been created not only for centuries but millennia. And film-making, it also hardly needs saying, is one of the newest, going back a little over a century, with the advent of video (rather than film) going back to the post-World War Two period.
Combining video and poetry is a development that occurred naturally, and rather un-self-consciously. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, it was possible to encounter TV programs in which a poet read his or her work. This work could have been canonical, or it could have been contemporary, such as a broadcast of the Michele Lalonde Quebec-nationalist poem “Speak White” on Radio Canada in early 1970 [Lalonde]. But this, too, did not constitute videopoetry as a distinct form of poetry/video hybrid.
This hybridization began in the the late 1970s/early 1980s. Tom Konyves, a poet and artist working in Montreal, began utilizing video cameras in order to record poems (Konyves, YouTube [manifesto]). On a technical level, these were rather simple experiments. And furthermore, because there were no festivals devoted specifically to this new artistic form, the experiments were screened at galleries, or not at all.
Beginning in the 1970s and, particularly, the 1980s, video art was a powerful force in parallel galleries and other venues specializing in contemporary art. However, video art, which was influenced by – and, in many respects, ran parallel to – the development of experimental film, was not focused on poetry. It was a much more visual medium. The work of filmmakers of influential experimental filmmakers of the time like Stan Brakhage and Bruce Elder, was either highly visual with little or no accompanying text (Brakhage), or with a text that was so over-layered with experiments in sound multi-screens that it was difficult to treat the text in the coherent, two dimensional form it had on the page (Elder). Videopoetry, lacking its own festivals, and therefore its own self-conscious community, somewhat languished. (However, utilizing video as a means of film-making did not: it gained very substantial power within popular culture in the form of music videos. This last genre of movie-making might, at first glance, seem utterly separate from experimental work. But it had its effect, too.)
This is not to say that experiments with poetry languished: there were plenty of those, both in terms of printed work and a form that was termed “spoken word” that revolved around events termed “poetry slams”. Poetry slams were events where poets read their work on stage, frequently in a very emotional, theatrical manner – somewhat akin to hip-hop. This development was significant in poetry. On the surface, it did not seem to have much connection to videopoetry. However, as these slams grew in popularity, it became natural enough to videotape them. This idea – that poetry was something that could be videotaped and archived as a visual/verbal medium, rather than exclusively printed on the page – ultimately had an effect on the re-emergence of videopoetry in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as festivals devoted specifically to videopoetry such as Visible Verse in Canada and Zebra in Germany began to establish themselves, and a community of video-makers who were interested in adapting poems emerged, along with a smaller number of poets who wanted to make movies of their own work (this latter grouping deserves its own essay, really, since significant evolutions are still happening with this type of creation). As critic/poet Dave Bonta remarks, videopoetry is “a hybrid genre” (Bonta, Mainstreaming).
And as Konyves remarks in more detail:
Attributing the variety of designations to the novelty of a genre in its early stages of development, I returned to the word I had used 30 years earlier to describe my multimedia work…. [While viewing] the non-verbal films that bore traces of the purists… I came across a notable exception: Jerrold Levinson’s 1984 essay, Hybrid Art Forms, in which he identifies three “varieties” of hybrid art forms, “which can be labeled juxtaposition (or addition), synthesis (or fusion), and transformation (or alteration).” While all three ‘varieties’ can be distinguished in hybrid art works that use combinations of text, image and sound, transformation best describes the form of videopoem examined in the Manifesto and further developed here. My response was: Videopoetry is one word; it is not separated or hyphenated. As one word, it indicates that a fusion of the visual, the verbal and the audible has occurred, resulting in a new, different form of poetic experience. [Konyves, Manifesto]
There are two observations I would like to emphasize at this point: first, that experimental filmmaking had its own deliberately, self-consciously “non-verbal” forms (the work of Brakhage in particular comes to mind here, but earlier work – such as the animation experiments of Norman McLaren – also fits); and that Konyves feels the need (with, possibly, a certain amount of defensiveness) to underline that videopoetry is, yes, a hybrid, but that it has also become its own arena – its own world — of visual/literary creation. These observations of Konyves – especially the latter – are ones I will return to shortly.
The experimental filmmaking of the 1960s and 70s mentioned above also had an effect on the development of video poetry, as the aesthetic experiments of filmmakers such as Brakhage, Elder, Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, etc., influenced the aesthetic of movie-makers such as Marc Neys in Belgium, Marie Craven and Jutta Pryor in Australia, and Martha McCollough in the United States. And the visually powerful, theatrical imagery of music videos found its way into the work of video poetry directors such as Eduardo Yaguë.
As video poetry began to develop its own body of work, and as new festivals at which to screen this work established themselves, a very important development occurred at the level of technology: that was the introduction in 2008 of DSLR cameras that could shoot high definition (HD) images, along with computers that were powerful enough to process these images, and software that was sophisticated enough to edit this data into an aesthetically pleasing and interesting result.
Several strands started to converge: that of the traditional of avant-gardist experimental cinema, the growing popularity of spoken word and poetry slams, the pop cultural influence of music videos, the institutional support of video poetry festivals, and the development of affordable technology that allowed filmmakers on tight budgets to create movies that were aesthetically “whole”, and, in this regard, successful examples of hybridization. And along with these trends was an increase in experimental animation that – like music videos – borrowed from popular culture yet was also self-consciously poetic. As theorist and experimental filmmaker Steve Reinke has pointed out, animation may be a defining characteristic of experimental movie-making in the 21st Century. Citing the work of film theorist Villem Flusser, Reinke remarks that drawing, unlike shooting images with a camera, side-steps the “indexical” quality of film-making, and therefore some of the theoretical presuppositions that mainstream film trades in without serious philosophical thought (Reinke). (Animation, by interesting coincidence, has proved popular in videopoetry, with movies such as a collaboration between poet Mab Jones and animator Lauren Orme entitled “Millionaire”; animation, for whatever set of reasons, has proven popular at videopoetry festivals, and because these festivals are hard to get into yet essential for building one’s artistic reputation, and therefore will continue, I think, to be a key ingredient of videopoems to come.)
Yet, despite this flowering of artistic activity and institutional approbation, one needs to ask some elementary questions of videopoetry as a form: is it poetry in the “true” sense – that is, does it focus on language? Or is it primarily the manifestation of the “seduction of the visual”?
For theorists like Reinke, the debate of the future of experimental film is one of narrative strategies, and how these are shaped by visual-image-making technologies; the “indexical” camera which shoots, as Paul Levinson describes it, “a literal energy configuration from the real world” (that is, which bases its images on light traveling through a lens onto a photo-sensitive medium), and the art of drawing and animating, which can free the filmmaker from the surface of perceived reality. Reinke is fond of citing the example of Emile Cohl’s Fantasmagorie – an early exercise in cartoon-style animating in which objects change shape and magically transform before the viewer’s eyes. Cohl’s work is much more in line with that of Walt Disney than Stan Brakhage, and Reinke, himself an avant-gardist filmmaker, can more sensibly be grouped with the latter. But for Reinke, Cohl’s work holds a potential for experimental filmmaking in the 21st Century, in part because animated images help one escape the “seduction of the (indexical) camera” (Reinke, 14).
Given that the camera-as-it-is yields images and footage of film/video that are so powerful that they must be countered with fully articulated theory, we might ask in an analogous fashion: what happens to the text? What happens to words? If videopoetry is, à la Konyves, a hybrid of the visual and the verbal, do the two elements exist in balanced harmony? Or does one tend to overwhelm the other, and create a sort of mini-hegemony in its world of new media, so that the visual swamps the verbal the way a tidal wave washes over a low-lying house?
There is no settled answer to these questions, and I do not raise them to presume I can can answer them. However, it is worth noting that as videopoetry becomes more culturally recognized and successful, the sheer weight of power of capital begins to exert itself on the kinds of videopoems that receive attention. Critic/poet Dave Bonta has remarked:
As poetry films and videos enter the cultural mainstream, they are being put to a variety of political and commercial uses. But this growing relevance brings into sharper relief questions that have always dogged them, given how difficult and expensive it can be to produce them: Who gets to make videopoems and poetry films? Whose stories get told? Whose creative license is at stake?
Exhibit A: a recent, widely circulated poetry video about the plight of refugees featuring no actual refugee poets or speakers.
Most coverage led with variations on this headline from The Guardian: “Cate Blanchett leads celebrities in UN video poem for refugees.”
For Bonta, this particular videopoem was, along with some others made with celebrities, proof that videopoetry has arrived in the mainstream. But this, then, raises questions: if experimental cinema is, at its root, a form of “counter cinema”, then how can it also be mainstream? (The term counter-cinema here defined as: “the plethora of genres of movies which stand in opposition to the mainstream formalistic and ideological domination of Hollywood cinema” [Filmtheory]).
Second, if videopoetry can be embraced by (absorbed into) mainstream aesthetics, does this not also suggest that its textual element – the poem – can be placed at risk? One already finds a rather heavy-handed employment of music in videopoetry; are these above all poems in movie form? Or are they music videos?
The most logical conclusion is that, at this point in its development, the ideas of counter-cinema are not intrinsic to videopoetry. Since it has “arrived” and is attracting the involvement of celebrities and, consequently, large production budgets, the claim that videopoetry might make to being counter-cultural becomes diluted. Therefore, is it just as fair to say videopoetry’s future course will be mainstream as to say it will be counter-cinematic?
What videopoetry requires as a form is a clearly thought-out literary/aesthetic ideology. But to have this, it also needs to prove that is a fundamentally literary form. And it is here that the merging of visual media with text needs careful thinking, not just cheer-leading.
Recall that when Barthes was developing his theories of photography, especially his idea of the punctum – that special moment when the image resonates within us in a profound way (“that accident which pricks, bruises me.” [Barthes]) – he was accused of sentimentalizing photography’s seductive power. The photograph may be, as its sterner critics claim, a superficial medium. But no one claims it is a powerless one. How, then, are we to maintain a balance, and protect the videopoetry that is poetry? On a practical level, one needs to foreground the poem – ideally, the text – in a videopoem. As well, what is required is not only a network of festivals but also a body of criticism.
What videopoetry requires as a form is a clearly thought-out literary/aesthetic ideology. But to have this, it also needs
to prove that it is fundamentally literary form. And it is here that the merging of visual media with text needs careful
thinking, not just cheer-leading.
One of the telling characteristics of the videopoems that do win attention from the festivals is their heavy utilization of photo-digital layering: split-screen, double-layering, and keying (knitting two live images together). Why all this visual hyper-activity? Is it really called for by the poem? Or is it on occasion somewhat gimmicky – a visual trick one does because sophisticated software like Final Cut Pro allows one to? Lev Manovich has pointed out about keying that it creates a hybrid reality. But why have this in the first place? Does it not risk detracting from the poem? Adorno was prescient in this regard: “[T]the culture industry has developed in conjunction with the predominance of the effect, the tangible performance, the technical detail, over the work, which once carried the idea and was liquidated with it.” [Adorno, Horkheimer, Enlightenment, 99]
And it is worth keeping in mind that while festivals and prizes for videopoems have their place, they do have a similar effect as festivals and prizes for text-only literature: they create a lottery-like atmosphere that is wonderful for the winners, but unfair to other talented artists who are overlooked.
I do not raise these issues in a scolding fashion; some music videos have artistic worth. But from point of view of genre classification, the issues need to be thought out. It is likely that we need to think a little more rigorously about the concept of authorship; that is, the question of what it means to create a literary artifact, whether it be in prose or lyrical form. Poetry, after all, was spoken-lyrical or calligraphic-lyrical long before it was print-lyrical; it is not the printed page which holds a unique claim on “pure” poetic creation. Yet, because collaborations between film-makers and writers often lead to an overwhelming amount of credit being lent to the film-maker (think of how things work in feature film-making, where the screenwriter is often near-invisible), it may be that we need even more specific forms than the rather loosely defined category of videopoetry. Genre categorization can seem niggling; sometimes a multiplicity of terms leads to confusion. Yet at the same time, the creation of new genres whose terms are clearly defined leads to a general improvement in criticism, since powerful forces such as access to great capital or facility with the “seduction of the visual” at the expense of the verbal can water down the poetic qualities of hybridized new media forms. Therefore, it may be that we need forms that are hybridized insofar as they employ many media but are the work, above all, of the poet; that is, a movie in which the author of the poem is also, directly and clearly, the author of the “new media” creation. In this way, poetry can retain its position of importance. More: recognizing there are several discrete genres of videopoetry allows critical/curatorial systems to accommodate videopoems that are either “more” visual or “more” verbal/textual, and allow them to co-exist rather vie in uneasy competition. Finally, thinking systematically allows for named hybridization with other new media forms; a personal documentary that is based mainly on one belletristic writer’s text but also incorporates archival material (letters) and poetic language can be treated as a form linked to videopoetry. (I am thinking here of “The Hill” by Angela France, whose performance was filmed and edited by Helen Dewbery.) In this way, videopoetry can exist as an umbrella term, with several discrete sub-genres, and also allow for new forms to link with it and be hyphenated or named afresh, and incorporate, for example, prose, documentary, and poetry while not confusing the basic idea of videopoems.
It is likely that we need to think a little more rigorously about the concept of authorship;
that is, the question of what it means to create a literary artifact, whether it be in prose or lyrical form.
Finally, it may have struck some readers that the focus has been on videopoetry production in North America and Europe. Where does Asia movie production and poetry fit into this? Again, this is a complicated question I cannot answer in such a brief paper. However, a few points are worth making: the first is, as all the attendees of this conference know, Asia has a particularly rich history of poetry. Moreover, it has a history of combining the textual and the visual in calligraphic ink paintings that is far, far more varied and advanced than that which exists in the West. This is true throughout northeast Asia, and Korea alone has a remarkable body of work to its credit. As well, since the 1960s and 70s, South Korean cinema has developed to the point where it is producing, in the words of Martin Scorcese, “some of the best movies in the world”. And new poets keep creating work all the time that is often experimental. Yet, at this point in time, the videopoetry “scene” is not particularly active in South Korea, and this is probably because of the factor mentioned earlier: the necessity of institutions – such as (but not limited to) videopoetry festivals – in order to provide a “safe space” in which this kind of work can evolve. As I remark above, festivals have their place. But they themselves have pitfalls. One of the great benefits of the “post-digital” world we live in (more accurately thought of as “hyper-digital”), is the ease with which online art can be accessed. Why not simply pay more careful critical attention to work that is there?
Asia has a particularly rich history of poetry. Moreover, it has a history of combining the textual and the visual
in calligraphic ink paintings that is far, far more varied and advanced than that which exists in the West.
In other words, all the elements are there: a rich historical tradition, plenty of contemporary activity, and an internationally recognized movie industry that produces shorts as well as features. I think it is therefore only a matter of time before videopoetry also establishes itself in the Korean arts. As some of the theoretical issues surrounding the creation of videopoetry are debated, there will most likely be a noticeable increase in creative activity.
[The author would like to thank the Association for the Study of Comparative World Literature (Korea) for publishing an earlier version of this paper]
 I wrote the presentation version of this paper just before Bob Dylan won his Nobel Prize in literature. Since then, the degree of passion that has been aroused surrounding this award has been both remarkable and revealing – for it shows how much institutional forms of literary production think differently than the culture at large does. I should emphasize that I do not think the issue here is one of “mass culture” versus high culture; Dylan’s work was not mass – he barely qualifies as a pop culture audience, since many people do not like his voice or understand his lyrics.
Finn Harvor is an artist, writer, musician and filmmaker living in South Korea. He is published in a large number of literary journals, and presented at conferences in Oxford, Liverpool, Bath, Berlin, Dubrovnik, Osaka, Seoul, and Youngju. Finn’s artwork and film has been shown in Canada, Cuba, the US, U.K., South Korea, and Greece.