The Text Festival begins on Apr 29 at the Bury Art Gallery, just outside of Manchester. The festival features artworks produced by poets, in an effort to showcase a potential encounter between the use of language in poetic practice and the use of language in visual artistry.

Critics have recurrently argued that poetry verges on retinal artwork whenever poets begin to explore genres of “visual poetry,” doing so by generating images of material language to be seen rather than read, accentuating the appearance of linguistic components in a text, usually at the expense of any semantic referent. The festival, of course, features lots of work by practitioners of this form (because it has an enduring legacy of literary beauty in avant-garde literature)—but even though such work often gets exhibited in galleries, it never seems to resonate in the imagination of the market for art (and hence, visual poetry has produced no millionaires, nor has it served to inspire aesthetic movements outside the purview of poetry itself—and in fact, the form often finds its own aesthetic upstaged by the graphic designs of commercial advertisers and commercial typesetters…). The work of visual poetry often gets composed on paper at the intimate, artisanal scale of the page, and even if poets expand the image to monumental scales in an unorthodox medium, nearly all such poets regard their work as a kind of poem to be “hung on the wall,” much like a painting or a billboard. The poet, in effect, misconstrues the gallery as a reading-room without any chairs—a place where the audience no longer contemplates the poem in isolation while seated, but among strangers while arisen (and as Kenneth Goldsmith likes to aver, text fails in the gallery, only because nobody likes to read standing up…).

Derek Beaulieu, for example, is going to be displaying, his work Prose of the Trans-Canada—an exquisite, arabesque poster made entirely out of Letraset (and despite the loveliness of its baroque, fractal detail, I cannot help but wish that this work might be someday displayed at even more gargantuan dimensions, filling large walls with its whirlpools of language). Eric Zboya is also showcasing some of his examples of "hyperspatial" translation (in which he uses a digitized algorithm to translate texts into 3D-inkblots), and again I cannot help but think that these pretty images might become even more immersive, perhaps even more extrusive, if magnified to the scale of a gigantic, pictorial canvas—or better yet, if converted into actualized sculptures, like darkly frozen explosions. I am, in turn, exhibiting Protein 13, the sculptural embodiment of my poem The Xenotext (a poem enciphered as a sequence of amino acids, actually produced in a laboratory by a genetically engineered microbe, capable of "writing" such a poem into its own molecular substrate)—but again, such a table-top sculpture, made out of toy molecules, almost feels like a "maquette" for something even more ambitious in scope and scale (perhaps a protein titanic enough to fill the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern…). I think that such a festival provides a goad for poets to find ways for poetry to inhabit the implausible environment of the gallery.

Protein 13

Consider, for example, the precedent set by an installation like Say Parsley by the poet Caroline Bergvall (and her collaborator Ciarán Maher), whose work has been exhibited in 2010 at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol. Bergvall has obviously been thinking increasingly about the "plausibility" of poetry in a gallery, and her work has begun to constitute a kind of potential alternate to some of the more normal, poetic models for exhibition, since Bergvall seems to be striving to create an “experience” of poetry, more environmental in scale, immersing the audience in the milieu of the "poetic" itself. Say Parsley seems, to me, reminiscent (at least in tone) of artwork created by the likes of Christian Marclay, a musical aesthete, who does not make music at all, so much as create material artworks out of the “trappings” of music, manipulating all the signifiers of “musicality” itself, creating art by modifying musical artifacts, collaging musical notations, reframing musical experience, etc.—recontextualing the very apparatus that sustains the social milieu for the actual, artful medium of sound. Poets trying to adapt their work for a gallery may, likewise, have to create artworks that are not themselves poems, so much as works derived from the "trappings" of poetry, referring to the milieu of the poetic itself, doing so allusively through some aesthetic procedure that translates text into an artful object—one that operates plausibly within the idiom of the gallery-context. I am certainly looking forward to seeing how my peers respond to the challenge of creating something for exhibition at the festival this weekend (and I hope to provide one more entry at Harriet, with some documentation of the experience…).

Originally Published: April 27th, 2011

Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial...