Browsing History: a StAnza 2017 Digital Project & 2018 Poetry Object
The post of Digital Poet in Residence brings into focus the spaces a festival operates in, suggesting there are dimensions to experiencing it other than the physical. It acknowledges that contemporary operations – and the making of poetry cannot be an exception – take place in a hybrid physical/digital environment. The poet occupying this role could be anywhere, engaging with audiences at the festival’s physical location and those following it from a distance through a shared virtual space.
The contemporary physical/digital dichotomy is a prevalent condition, and a familiar conundrum, creating solutions as well as problems. I’m interested in our toggling between physical and online personas, and contemporary language use as influenced by digital media; in how reading becomes a creative act; and, as our communication has become far more text- and gesture-based over the past 25 years, how this aspect can be / is manipulated. Given the vast amounts of literature (with and without a capital L) instantly available to us, and our everyday writing & editing tools, our current technological environment has helped mature the appropriative into a valid form of art making. A new understanding of artistic ownership is beginning to emerge, slowly, challenging received ideas of copyright and content use, which will take time to crystallise into a new orthodoxy.
The concept behind Browsing History, the project I undertook as StAnza 2017 Digital Poet in Residence, was based on appropriative compositional strategies in an attempt to produce an oblique poetic documentary of the festival through my concurrent online behaviour. Over its five days I made 16 poems in real time, using text and image from my personal browsing history as I went along. Enhancing the residency’s performative aspect were two hour-long sessions during which my computer was hooked to a screen in the foyer of the Byre Theatre, where those present could watch me in the act of composing these poems.
Of course I visited more than 16 web pages over five days: but the process of composition relied on identifying the poetic potential in the material I encountered and – it’s crucial to emphasise – instinctively and immediately producing a poem through selecting, copy-pasting, re-framing and re-aligning text from each of the pages identified. As the internet is a strongly visual medium, I wanted to imbue the poems with a visual quality: to do so I used images excised from the same webpage the text was found on. I decided in most cases to refuse easy identification between text and image, so my process involved manipulating each image to a dimension and position that seemed right before setting it as a faded wallpaper background to complete each poem.
In line with the physical/digital dichotomy of the residency, I produced roughly half of the pieces while at home in Dublin, and the rest after arriving in St Andrews midway through the festival period. My location, in addition to being an influence on my browsing behaviour through my physical conversations and concerns, was also a factor in the digital dimension: this happened through the inevitable monitoring of my online activities by various programmes whose algorithms fed suggestions back to me in the margins of my screen. The implicit comment on surveillance was a conscious element in my decision to mine my own digital behaviour – my awareness that I was doing so mirroring our understanding that our data is being gathered by a host of actors, even though to various degrees we tend to ignore this. In an effort to contaminate my browsing with external, unanticipated factors, I put out a call for people to send me links to things they found interesting over those five days.
Looking at the results a year on, I note that certain concerns looming large in March 2017 have remained so in early 2018 (eg Trump, the refugee crisis) even if altered in focus or intensity; some news stories were particular to that period (eg Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes, email security) but continue to cast a shadow; others could have been viewed at any time, and still others have faded from my memory to the extent that I struggle to distinguish what gave rise to the poems. What remains, I hope, is a poetic attention to language and image that prompts a memory or an extrapolation in the mind of each new reader.
Today, on the first anniversary of the start of my residency, these 16 poems are being released as a set of postcards by the innovative Manchester-based publisher of poetry objects zimZalla. Extending the life of the poems beyond their initial installation speaks directly to the documentary concept behind the residency, and I’d like to thank Tom Jenks of zimZalla for making it happen. I’m also keen to thank Eleanor Livingstone for suggesting the digital residency to me in the first place and for going along with the idea for this project from the beginning (when even I wasn’t entirely sure how it would play out!) and to Annie Rutherford for her attention in ensuring the residency ran smoothly and that what I was making went on display immediately around the Byre Theatre.