I have spent the last week in Manchester and Bury preparing for the 3rd bi-annual Text Festival at the Bury Art Gallery. Curator and writer Tony Trehy has pulled out all the stops for what he claims will be the final iteration of the internationally acclaimed festival (barring any potential touring exhibitions currently in negotiation).
The festival includes participants from around the globe, gathered in a variety of exhibition spaces both within the Bury Art Gallery and throughout Bury. I won’t discuss every artwork in the exhibition but there are highlights (including Trehy’s curation) which deserve special comment.
The Festival’s central exhibition opens with a brief arrangement of contemporary Japanese visual poetry from the collection of Josef Lischinger. Lischinger is the world’s premiere collector of Asian visual poetry and is the author of Japanese Visual Poetry II (Ritter Verlag). Viewers access visual poetry through a discussion of the graphic and artistic possibilities of Japanese ideograms that prompts them to approach the exhibition with a consideration of both the physical appearance of language and its semantic content. The exhibition then presents a series of silkscreen prints by Eugen Gomringer which superimpose English vowels over Japanese characters, transitioning the gallery discussion from ideograms into a vocabulary of English characters, superimposition and the possibilities of the graphicism of text.
The initial salon is the “Wonder Room” which includes an array of international visual poems. The exhibition is unconventionally hung (to say the least) with pieces arranged at both floor and ceiling level and—most controversially—overlapping each other. Meant to overwhelm the viewer with the cacophony of international directions in visual poetics (and give the viewer a crash course for the typographically unorthodox), the room also reveals a major issue in contemporary visual poetry: visual poetry today suffers from a lack of scale and a lack of editorial acumen. Trehy was inundated with digital submissions that did not consider the size of reproduction beyond the size of the computer screen. Poets submitted their work without digitally preparing it for printing and often omitted printing directions, which left the curator with the task of determining the printing threshold as the point at which the artwork became unacceptably pixellated. Too many visual poets are myopic in their output. They compose work on the screen without considering the size or scale of their final product and the work suffers from that lack of foresight. Poets should compose with an eye for both the page and the gallery, for both the reader and the viewer. A central concern in visual poetry is the materiality of language; this aesthetic concern must be coupled with an eye for the materiality of the artwork itself.
From the problematic din of the “Wonder Rooms,” the Text Festival presents three salons of work that more successfully investigates the poetic possibilities of the gallery. Christian Bök’s Xenotext Project presents a 7000-piece table-top maquette of the atomic structure of the poem written for implantation in the DNA of the microscopic extremophile Deinococcus radiodurans. The piece is augmented by the DNA poem (and the RNA reply), and is an exceptional example of the possibilities of visual poetry when it challenges the restrictions of the page.
Another highlight of the exhibition is Pavel Büchler’s “Studio Schwitters.” This monumental installation consists of dozens of antiquated military PA megaphones programmed to perform Kurt Schwitter’s Ursonata at their lowest collective volume. The megaphones are swerved from the Orwellian broadcast of state-sponsored directives to transmission of a text-to-speech computerized reproduction of Schwitter’s epic sound poem. Büchler has recently created an installation piece for a gallery in London that uses decommissioned speakers from the world’s largest stadium (the 220,000 seat Strahov Stadium in Prague) to broadcast the sound of a single bumblebee’s flight. Büchler eschews audio fidelity (which is beyond the capabilities of such monstrous antiquated equipment) in favour of a subtle and delicate misappropriation of technology in the service of ephemeral pastoral beauty.
Shezad Dawood’s work was also an under-discussed highlight of the exhibition. Ron Silliman used neon to construct the sentence “Poetry has been Bury, Bury good to me” —which will be on permanent exhibition in the Bury Tram Station—a construction that reflects poorly on his previous work by trading on his avant-garde reputation to submit a terrible pun. Dawood’s neon pieces, on the other hand, are a series of plinths that represent the epithets attached to Allah’s name in the Koran. On display was “The Majestic” which entwines the eponymous phrase in neon Arabic into the thorned branches of sage bush tumbleweed. The sage bush is native to Texas (not unlike a previous US president), and the epithet is barely readable though the bush’s branched confusion.
While many of those same poets who submitted work digitally without an eye for the scale and dimensions of the gallery walls also sent work in such vast numbers that they overwhelmed the curator and his staff. Trehy categorizes this impulse as “the urge to over-production” but I believe is indicative of visual poets lacking both confidence and a critical vocabulary for their chosen métier. This lack of criticality not only restricts the discourse around visual poetry but also prevents visual poetry from successfully negotiating the transition into gallery exhibitions. Christian Bök on the Harriet blog anticipates the effect the 2011 Text Festival will have on the audience. I am just as curious to see what the effect will be on the poets themselves.
I plan to continue the post with a discussion of the Text Festival’s performances and some of the other events and conversations I had in Manchester and Bury and later in York and Coxwold…