An Introduction to the New Media Art of Thomas Swiss and Motomichi Nakamura

- NMEDIAC Assistant Editor Megan Sapnar

In “Hey Now,” the new media collaboration between Thomas Swiss and Motomichi Nakamura, the sober tone of contemplative words are set inside an animated world of 2-dimensional characters with boing-boing sound effects—a contradiction to say the least, making the images seem almost sympathetic, the words somehow strange. Watching the piece, we’re almost not sure what to make of it. Is it silly, or profound?

Reconciling images, sound, text and motion is paramount in many new media poetry representations. Although this genre is still somewhat new, poetry on the Web has taken off in a relatively short amount of time. In a decade, the Web’s transformation from a purely text-based medium into a multimedia domain of sound, motion, and interactive possibilities has undoubtedly impacted the production and experience of art in many ways. But in the realm of poetry, the technology and distribution potential of the Internet have helped facilitate new opportunities for poets and visual artists to construct the language, narrative and experience of poetry through multiple modalities—resulting in a revival of interest in an art that was generally the domain of an academic subculture.

The widely used umbrella term “new media poetry” (“e-poetry”) is used to refer to various forms of electronic textuality or e-literature that runs a whole gamut of possibilities: spoken word performances broadcast online, video poetry webcasts, “traditional” text-based poetry adapted for the computer screen, hypertext and hypermedia poetry, kinetic poetry, code poetry, machine-based or computer generated poetry, and, more broadly, any poetry published on the Web. The possibilities and categories are exhaustive, and the terminology and critical language to describe this kind of work is new and still quite contested on many grounds. Respondents in the recent Currents survey of e-poets demonstrate just how diverse the field is and how artists and writers working on the Web see their products and purposed in very different ways.[1] The one thing that most agree on is that the field is new and language and aesthetics are still under construction.

Most discussions of new media poetry trace the genre through a trajectory that includes concrete and visual poets of the early to mid twentieth century influenced by surrealism, dadaism, futurism and avante garde or experimental poetics. These roots manifest in the interest many new media poets have in the materiality of language and the relationships between temporality and textuality—new media poems use various software and technology that range from streaming audio and video, to JavaScript, DHTML, VRML, and hypermedia. But perhaps one of the most widely used programs for creating new media poetry and narratives on the Web is Macromedia Flash—the vector-based animation software that was used by Nakamura to create “Hey Now.”

Swiss remarks that this collaboration began by experimenting with the idea of “wrapping” language. Following the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, artists famous for wrapping and surrounding artifacts, buildings, and landmarks with fabric, Swiss and Nakamura were interested in what “wrapped language” might look and sound like. The Christos well known The Pont Neuf Wrapped, Paris 1975-85 draped the famous French bridge in fabric,[2] and was widely regarded as a perceptual experience—wrapping objects hides and reveals the familiar, allowing us to see objects in a new light.

To encounter fabric in a place where it’s least expected undermines the familiarity we come to expect, creating a sense of dislocation that works to open new avenues of perception and awareness.[3] In the case of “Hey Now,” the poem is hidden and revealed through the animated characters, who whisper before exposing each subsequent verse. But perhaps even more intriguing is how viewers experience a conflict between words and images, tone and landscape, that, like wrapped bridges, is unexpected and strange.

The characters who intervene between the poem’s sections are somewhat absurd. Just as we’re taken aback by a 24-mile fence of fabric (in the case of the Christos Running Fence, Sonoma & Marin Counties Coast 1972-76)[4]—the intervention of a pacing man, who when clicked, kicks the head of cartoon figure and whispers like an alien before launching into the next section, catches us by surprise. The possibilities that text, image and sound juxtaposition open for us hint at a similar experience. What is a 24-mile long curtain doing along the coastline? What is a boing-boing sound effect doing in such a reflective poem? As “readers” of new media poems, we are challenged to make sense of the synthesis, an opportunity to broaden our own interpretations, and look critically at how language is shaped by the landscape of new media.






"Hey Now"
- Thomas Swiss and Motomichi Nakamura

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