‘Vibrographs and Vertigos: Kinetic Poetry in the Subliminal Age’

Ferris, N. (Assessor)

Activity: Academic talk or presentation typesInvited talk


Invited talk delivered as part of the Edinburgh Futures in Progress seminar, convened by Dr Beatrice Alex

‘Voluptas Amor Pulchritudo’ – three tall rods stand apart in a line, one amber, one red and one burgundy, against a backdrop of printed lettering of identical hues. Each stand is encircled by rings of letters that horizontally spell out their respective appellations, set in independent spin by motors affixed to the stands, achieving an indivisible unity between expression and movement.

Ken Cox’s machine poem, as one of the earliest experiments in a mechanistically enhanced literature, was selected for inclusion in the seminal 1968 exhibition ‘Cybernetic Serendipity’, shown at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and which toured throughout the United States in 1969. This show marked the first time that a British institution explored and demonstrated the relationships between new technology and creativity – featuring computer animation, kinetic poetry, cybernetic environments, whimsical robotics, computer composed and played music. Situated alongside Cox’s machine poem was the theorist and inventor Gordon Pask’s ‘Colloquy of Mobiles’, an installation composed of a number of suspended mechanical and responsive devices, such as mirrors, coloured panels, light beams, and electronic sensors. Pask’s piece, like many others in the exhibition, placed an emphasis on collaboration with the spectator, where movement not only signaled a reaction to physical presence but also formed the basis of a conversation.

Both works ask the same question, even though they emerge from different disciplines: how might the machine communicate with or on behalf of man? What new conversations are made possible? By the early 1960s, the literary form in Britain had drawn into its orbit questions of computation, information theory, semiotics, subliminal advertising and space travel. Such dynamic interplay between theory and practice heralded a vital move in the twentieth-century courtship between language and technology, giving rise to what Guy Brett called ‘one of the twentieth century’s great unknowns’, a language of movement. This paper will explore how a number of kinetic literary forms built in the 1960s – by Liliane Lijn, Kenelm Cox, and Dom Sylvester Houédard – demanded a new readership and animated the divisions that exist between what we see, what we perceive and what we think we know. How might literature mesmerise? And to what end?
Period11 Dec 2019
Held atEdinburgh Futures Institute, United Kingdom
Degree of RecognitionRegional