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Yvonne Spielmann

Interview with Bill Seaman

Bill Seaman, Passages Sets/One Pulls Pivots at the Tip of the Tongue, 1995 (video)
Bill Seaman, Passages Sets/One Pulls Pivots at the Tip of the Tongue, 1995 (video)
Yvonne Spielmann In taking your interest in linguistics, video, and interactivity as a starting point I would like to talk about the interrelationship between differing media, in particular between image and text and also talk about the question if there is a leading medium and even some sort of hierarchical order albeit the evidently synaesthetic approaches in your work.

Bill Seaman I am very much interested in image/music/text relations, really thinking about those media elements all as linguistic elements — a kind of new way of thinking about linguistics, where sound and image function as language-vehicles. In particular I have been developing an idea I call recombinant poetics. I am very much interested in combinatorial structures where non-hierarchical relations between image, text and sound or music can be explored by someone who is interacting. In particular I am interested in how emergent meaning arises through this interaction. Part of what I try to focus on is making a module or a certain media-element which is already a field of potential meanings. For example I might choose a pun as part of the poetic text so that a whole series of different meanings might arise in different contexts.

Recombinant Poetics

To what extent does it demonstrate a general idea when you deal with existing text and language and rework them in such ways that will intentionally expand inherent meaning of the previous text into a new multiplicity?

Seaman In my Ph.D. dissertation Recombinant Poetics: Emergent Meaning as Examined and Explored Within a Specific Generative Virtual Environment (1) I write about the idea of fields of meaning and taking the idea of linguistics into a new area where the text has a certain kind of meaning force as a field. Also the image has a kind of meaning force as a field and so does the sound. We also bring a history of our relationships with other environments so we might say that our mind-set is also a field. There is a dynamic summing of these forces we are weighing against each other and the meaning arises out of this. For me the relationship is non-hierarchical, there is not a greater weighting of the text over the sound or over the image but they are always in dynamic relation to one another. In my earlier work this was much more screen based but still looking at context, decontextualisation and recontextualisation. Now, I am moving the context out of the screen and really engaging the participant or the viewer/user (I coined the word “vuser”) with the larger environment so that they palpably, become physically aware of their field and how it is related to the other field of the media elements.

Spielmann In the recent piece Red Dice /Dés chiffrés (2000) you enlarge on Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (Dice Thrown Never Will Annul Chance) in an intertextual manner through putting new layers that comment upon and exist in relation to the existing poetic text so that finally the original language expands into your own media experience. (2)  

Seaman The earlier piece Passage Sets/One Pulls Pivots at the Tip of the Tongue was already influenced by Mallarmé’s Dice Thrown Never Will Annul Chance. Mallarmé had made a form of spatial text that for me was one of the first moments where someone could navigate through the text in differing ways, where multiple meanings might arise depending on how they were moving over the surface of this text. I was then commissioned by the National Gallery of Canada to do this piece on Mallarmé’s text, where I developed the idea that Mallarmé’s approach to writing was to his time as my approach to computer-related media as an authored expression is to my time. So a number of the images are industrial machines like the player piano, the mill, the turbine that are in use at his period of time. In particular, there are images of weaving and powerlooms, and of course the powerloom later became the computer. I created a metatext which points at Mallarmé’s text and is a media-poem in its own right so that there are points where other attributes of new media and the idea of recombinant poetics come in. Where in Mallarmé’s poem different words are woven to create the (pun) textile, in mine the weaving gets translated into interactivity which means literally recombining fragments of my text, image and muscial segments in a generative form.

Spielmann I would like to take further the notion of recombination and ask how you can maintain the idea of open structure and generative form when you conceive a videotape. Passage Sets, as well as Red Dice and other works, have a video version that is a work in its own right, but at the same time the video is an integral part of a larger installation where the same material gets surrounded by texts projected onto screen. Moreover, a user’s menu enables the viewer/user to interfere and make changes. Does video hold an intermediary position in relation to a non-linear stage of interactivity in this multimedia context?

Seaman I really think of the video pieces as works that are complete in their own right. The interactive works are focusing on different principles and the video works inform the interactive installations. For example, the linear version of Passage Sets is a thirty minutes tape that has spoken text, music that I have composed and images that I have shot, where there is a suspended, almost hypnotic, kind of linear time. In the installation version one experiences a quite different state for that medium. In general, I am very interested in the notion of context and recontextualisation and how new meanings arise when you explore recontextualisation. I am also interested in words and images that are open in meaning even when they are fixed in a linear manner, because I have built a non-hierarchical structure between image, text, and sound. When one watches these tapes they often shift between the layers. One might come back to the tape and see it a number of times and each time one might take away something different from the experience.

Spielmann I am interested in the use of montage and collage in the two works, Passage Sets and Red Dice, that seem to demonstrate your preoccupation with open-ended structures. Historically this refers to more traditional media such as literature and film, which are linear but in view of this can be regarded as precursors to hypermedia.

Seaman In both pieces, Passage Sets and Passage Sets/One Pulls Pivots at the Tip of the Tongue, the videodisks are set up so that one can play various modules very easily, for example you can play back sections of linear video in different orders. Passage Sets was set up as a navigational poem and the interface was made of one hundred and fifty images with poetic text scattered over the surface of the image. One could navigate through the surface of this poem on one screen and then by selecting a particular “passage” you could trigger video and subsequently hear me speaking that part of the text and also hear music that went along with that section. One could click on the word, which would take you to what I call the “poem generator”: I had literally taken every word from the text and put them into categories. I actually deconstructed the way I wrote the text and then built those categories based on how I wrote the linear text initially, with the idea being that the interactant could shift and generate new poems. Every word in that section was hyper-linked back to the part of the larger text that it had come from. So you could always be reading the surface of the poem on the image or you could move and recontextualise the word and then go to a different context where that word is used. In this way the apparatus leads itself to playing back pieces in a discontinuous form. If we think of the notion of smooth and striated space from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the video represents a smooth space and the interactive installation versions represent striated spaces—yet one informs the other—smooth space becomes striated and striated becomes smooth as discussed by Deleuze and Guattari. (3)

The computer-based installation of Passage Sets would be the striated space, because it is comprised of modular cuts—it plays back specific segments and every time grabs a still frame at the end of the sequence and holds that image on the screen. Red Dice is related—you are driving it with an electronic pen on a Wacom tablet-screen and herein lies a parallel between the writing of Mallarmé and a computer-pen. Unlike these striated interactive spaces, The World Generator/The Engine of Desire explores the smooth navigational space of virtual reality although it also contains elements of striated space in the menu system.

Spielmann What exactly then is the computer’s contribution to achieve “creativity” and to foster what you call “meaning forces”?

Seaman Interestingly the biologist Humberto Maturana says a linguistic event is when there is a mutual ontogenic structural coupling between two people. Maturana provides this definition of the linguistic domain: “The linguistic domain as a domain of orienting behaviour requires at least two interacting organisms with comparable domains of interactions, so that a cooperative system of consensual interactions may be developed in which the emerging conduct of the two organisms is relevant for both. The central feature of human existence is its occurrence in a linguistic cognitive domain. The domain is constitutively social.” (4) Through this interactive structure the technology becomes an extension of my authorship—the ability to communicate through configurations of media-elements as well as inter-authorship with the vuser. My feeling is that not only is the text linguistic, but the whole environment is a linguistic environment,—through my reading of Maturana—a “consensual domain”, (5) where image, text and sound/music are all functioning as linguistic-vehicles. I think that this is a contemporary approach to linguistics in a time of computers when we can cut, copy and paste media-elements and juxtapose them in a spatial manner, catalogue them and operate on them as we see fit. We can also interactively explore the fleeting nature of how meaning shifts as media-elements are recontextualised. All this is brought about through the mutability of the computer and the operative potentials of media-elements, each providing a potential meaning force within this generative computer-based environment.

© 2003 FDL

(1) Seaman, William Curtis. Recombinant poetics : emergent meaning as examined and explored within a specific generative virtual environment, 1999, 321 p. Thesis submitted for a PH.D. at CAiiA : Centre for Advanced Inquiry In the Interactive Art, Newport, Wales, United Kingdom, 1999. Includes a CD-ROM. Available at the CR+D and online:

(2) Stéphane Mallarmé, Un coup de dés, first edited in 1897, but not published until 1914, long after Mallarmé’s death, in the typographical lay-out established by the author. French/English editions: Dice Thrown Never Will Annul Chance, a translation by Brian Coffey of Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, Dublin, Dolmen Press, 1965. The Meaning of Mallarmé, a bilingual edition of his Poésies and Un coup de dés, translated and introduced by Charles Chadwick, Aberdeen, Scottish Cultural Press, 1996 (translation of the poem’s title: A Cast of the Dice Will Never).

(3) “No sooner do we note a simple opposition between two kinds of space than we must indicate a much more complex difference by virtue of which the successive terms of the oppositions fail to coincide entirely. And no sooner have we done that than we must remind ourselves that the two spaces in fact exist only in mixture: smooth space is constantly being translated, traversed into a striated space; striated space is constantly being reversed, returned to a smooth space.” Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Mille Plateaux, engl. A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p. 474.

(4) Humberto Maturana, Biology of Language: The Epistomology of Reality, in: G.A. Miller and E. Lenneberg, eds., Psychology and Biology of Language and Thought: Essays in Honour of Eric Lenneberg, New York, Academic Press, 1978, p. 41, XXIV.

(5) “The various conducts or behaviors are arbitrary because they can have any form as long as they operate as triggering pertubations in the interactions; they are contextual because their participation in the interlocked interactions of the domain is defined only with respect to the interactions that constitute the domain... I shall call the domain of interlocked conducts... a consensual domain.” H. Maturana and F. Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition, Dordrecht/Boston/London: D. Reidel Publishing, Co., 1980.