In 1967, when computers and film were still in their infancy, Stan Vanderbeek and Kenneth Knowlton created some of the first digital literature. “Poem Field” is a poem, a computer-generated piece of literature, and, all at once, a film. In 2015, the work is available for viewing on Youtube at in the AT&T digital archives. “Poem Field” was created on Knowlton’s BEFLIX computer language on an IBM 7094 computer (AT&T Archive). The poem is situated within a larger body of work; it exits within a series of eight poems created at the same time. VanDerBeek collaborated with Knowlton at Bell Labs, which let artists work with computer scientists to experiment with technology and computer science.
The film begins with a distorted string sound, maybe a violin or cello. Then a red screen emerges with the word “LIFE” scrawled in unstable, shifting digital letters. Suddenly, the colors turn and cymbals crash. Drums and the cello continue with distorted, disjunctive sounds and a myriad of colors shape shift and morph before the viewer’s eyes. “LIFE LIKE” – the poem reads. Then, we are fully immersed in experimental jazz, fluctuating colors, changing backgrounds and a strange conglomerate of sensations. More words come, and slowly, over the six minutes of video, we are able to read the poem in a linear fashion. Single words and small phrases come frame after frame. The complete text of the poem is provided on the following page.
The challenge with digital poetry projects like this is that there is more than one aspect of the project to explicate. Should we have a close reading of the text, or should we speak about the aesthetics of the visual component? Or, we could concentrate on the technical skills that it took to create the project. What about the music? Should we speak about the author(s) or computer programmer(s) and their larger body of work? The challenge in reviewing a project like this is that we cannot isolate one aspect and ignore the rest because they exist in relation to one another and their importance is only found in how they exist in conversation.
Perhaps what’s more important is the experimental nature of the project itself. Fueled by the opportunity for artists and computer scientists to work together at Bell Labs, VanDerBeek and Knowlton saw the potential for the transformative relationship between art and technology. VanDerBeek was a visual artist trained at the Cooper Union and Black Mountain College. He had worked with Buckminster Fuller and John Cage before collaborating Knowlton. Knowlton worked at Bell Labs in the Computer Techniques Research Dept. from 1962-1982. He has 10 U.S. Patents and eventually developed different methods for computer graphics and interactive techniques. Like Georg Nees, Frieder Nake, and A. Mchael Noll, who created graphic art and algorithm-based visual art in the 60’s, and are considered pioneers in computer art, VanDerBeek and Knowlton knew computers would inevitably contribute to publishing, poetry and literature. They became pioneers in the field of digital publishing alongside Theo Lutz and Konrad Zuse, who in 1959 created the “stochastic texts,” the first computer-generated poem (although the projects are quite different in their conceptual aims – Zuse was concerned with using the computer to generate poetry and Vanderbeek wanted to use the computer to present poetry in a way that did not require the static page).
In evaluating the project in 2015, the unstable, distorted presentation of the film is similar to today’s “glitch-art,” where glitches are built in to bring attention to the medium. “Poem Field,” because of its primitive nature in terms of programming, could stand today as a piece of glitch art. With the random noise/jazz accompanying the image and text, the whole project aims to convey distortion and dissonance. The whole project seems like a glitch in today’s digital landscape – our cell phones can produce better videos – but in truth it required both artistic and technical mastery to accomplish in the 60’s.
The only negative aspect of this project, I feel, is the text, which exists as a secondary thought – as a placeholder. I think the whole project could have been more effective if the poem would have commented on life in relation to the mechanisms and technology that intercede in and influence our daily decisions. The poem is, rather, an existential quandary. Yes, the text says that life is disjunctive and these disjunctive pieces seem to give it meaning, but the whole project, in my opinion, could have been a commentary (a self-reflexive commentary) on the nature of technology and its relationship to the meaning of our lives. I think the early pioneers of digital poetry maybe did not consider just how influential the digital turn would be on publishing, or, on a larger scale, in our lives.