Address to the Amsterdam ReVersed Poetry Film Festival Symposium, April 4, 2014

Here’s the full transcript of Tom Konyves’ address; see the main site for the video shot by Alex Konyves. Tom gives a very personal introduction to the concept of videopoetry, using examples of his own work as a videopoet to illustrate some of the points he’s long been making as a critic and theorist. I have added just a few links. —Dave

Thank you Yan, Linda, Anne for the opportunity to address the ReVersed Poetry Film Festival Symposium.

I was asked to introduce the genre of videopoetry with my own work.

I won’t be able to talk about the meaning of my videopoems, as it’s always subjective, always in the eye of the beholder. What I can talk about is their structural form and how I came to discover the process of assembling, the strategies I employed, specifically in my early works.

You may not be able to tell, but I wear two hats. The first is for the poet who can mix text, image and sound and design a new condition for the poetic experience. The other is for the observer-critic who reflects on what is being seen and can tell us about these works, how they relate to the world they are presenting as a new world. It is the critic who asks, What makes this work different from a really good printed poem? or Will you always associate the images on the screen with the words you heard or read? and Where is the poetry in this work?

The poet doesn’t care; the poet – videopoet or filmpoet – doesn’t care about definitions, categories, contexts. The poet doesn’t care about terms, whether the genre is spelled as one word or two; the critic, on the other hand, insists that it should be spelled as one word, to indicate that a fusion of the visual, the verbal and the audible has occurred. In addition, the critic insists that the work is poetry, modified by video, not the other way around. For the poet, the basic unit could be any one of the 3 elements available; the critic considers each shot, each uninterrupted image including its visual and audible content as the unit. The critic experiences poetry in the relationships between the elements, identifying the poetry at the intersection of the image, text and sound. The poet shrugs his shoulders. The critic distinguishes the artist as either a filmmaker or a poet; he claims they have different agendas. The poet refuses to be labeled. The critic needs to trace the original sources or precedents for the methods used to combine these art forms of writing, imagemaking and sound. The poet could be working in a vacuum.

In the late 1970s, I was working in a vacuum, writing poetry in Montreal. Videopoetry, as we know it, did not exist. I had no precedents that I could recall. What did exist was one of the first artist-run galleries in Canada, a centre for multi-disciplinary activities. The gallery was called Vehicule Art.

There was an abundance of poetry in Montreal, but very little intermedia experimentation. Poets read from notebooks and sheets of paper; if you had published a book of poetry, you read from a book. The breakthrough for the experimental, the avant-garde, was realized with the sudden introduction of poetry to Vehicule Art. I was fortunate to find myself in a small circle of 7 poets who joined Vehicule as poet-members; we became known as The Vehicule Poets. (I am second from the right, wearing a T-shirt with the words Café Blasé.)

The gallery was a hub of multimedia practice, painting, sculpture and object art, installations, land art, performance art – on the top right you can see Anna Banana and Bill Gaglione re-creating turn of the century futurist performances – the musician Rober Racine playing Erik Satie’s Vexations for 14 hours, Monty Cantsin, leader of the Neoist movement, famous for painting an X between 2 Picassos in the NY Museum of Modern Art with his own blood. There was experimental dance, and video art.

Every discipline jostled for space and time in the gallery. Visual artists collaborated with performance artists and musicians. It became a factory for experimentation, breaking down the boundaries between the arts. It seemed that every discipline except poetry was progressing at a rapid pace; mixed-media, multimedia, intermedia were the buzz words. I guess I became the first in our group to become disillusioned with print-oriented recitals of narrative and lyrical poetry. I was determined to introduce to the poetic experience the postmodern emphasis on fragmented forms, discontinuous narratives, and random-seeming collages of different materials.

I was particularly fascinated by performance art and video art. These two disciplines became the tools I would first use to question the role of the poet at a time when the image, as evidenced by the conceptual treatment of text as image, appeared to dominate contemporary art. If reading and writing were the expressions of poetry, I would investigate these through performance art and video. Influenced by Dada and Surrealism, I produced my first videopoem in 1978, a reading of a fragmented narrative punctuated by the word STOP, as in the form of a typical telegram. The work begins with slides of a stop sign in extreme close ups accompanied by a comical, dadaist circus march I had recorded at an Anthony Braxton concert. Here’s an excerpt of Sympathies of War.

If I was disillusioned by poetry readings, how poetry was traditionally recited, one voice, facing the audience from a podium, I had to create an alternative form. I decided to sit, behind a screen, not facing the camera, but in profile, a silhouette; I enlisted another poet, Endre Farkas, to provide the voice to the STOPS. Alternating the 2 images, the reading and the stops, was a direct reference to – and a simulation of – editing video, creating that visual rhythm that would become the structural basis for this new form of poetry.

A couple of days after, I was inspired to write a postscript to Sympathies of War. Using a simple note pad placed just under the audio level meter of a videotape playback machine, I exploited the real-time performance of writing directly to the screen. Like the stops in Sympathies of War, I kept the familiar structure of alternating image and sound by tearing off pages from the notebook to allow the “mummified” version of the original soundtrack to present itself. It was my first real experiment with visual text and the poetry produced by engaging the viewer with the process of writing. Visual text, the words on the screen, would not only have a semantic value but their very appearance, their erasure, their duration and allocation of space within the frame would provide a rhythmic function to the unraveling of the poem.

I discovered that the presentation of visual text could be so powerful an element that it must be balanced by the image in such a way that one does not dominate the other.

Videopoetry is a hybrid form; it borrows its elements from every art form that is available. It is not simply the illustration of a previously written poem. It could be, but only if the visual and sound treatment turns it inside out so that the original words, the text of the videopoem, are seen (or heard) in an entirely new context, in an entirely new structure. So how does one begin to gather these elements?

After Postscript, I became interested in the role of chance. For example, in the videopoem Yellow Light Blues, I used the I Ching. I threw 3 coins; the hexagram I found was no. 30. I thought it was propitious because it’s a double sign: like the hermetic axiom “as above, so below”, the three lines above are the same as the three lines below. I interpreted this as da-da. I had already decided on the title Yellow Light Blues, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to find this: Six in the second place means: Yellow light. So I divided the work into 6 sections, based on the six places or lines of the I Ching.

One has to be open and prepared for chance events to occur. On a perfect summer day, I decided to bring my equipment to nearby St. Helen’s Island. I found a spot to set up and began searching for an image that in retrospect I would call having a collaborative property, or at least collaborative potential. After about an hour of shooting windsurfers, I found three sailboats floating on the water. It was like a picture postcard. Suddenly I realized that behind the sailboats and a land mass there was a large ship moving across the screen.

In this videopoem, with the help of a chance event, I thought I found what the French writer Isidore Ducasse, also known as Comte de Lautremont described as true beauty: the chance encounter, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella. In the videopoem, I interpreted these 3 incongruous elements as image, text and sound. By juxtaposing my handwriting with the large ship moving through a picturesque postcard accompanied by a French language relaxation tape, I found my dissecting table, my sewing machine, my umbrella.

In the early 80’s Montreal was also the centre of the interminable debate over language laws. The videopoem Quebecause was a response to this debate. As before, I found and recorded a chance event that could be used as a backdrop for this short satirical videopoem.

In 1983, I moved to Vancouver. Here too I wandered the streets searching for images with collaborative properties. Without knowing exactly the purpose, I was drawn to the graffiti on the downtown east side. I began recording them. After a long gestation period, I happened on a musical composition by John Lurie called “You Haunt Me”. It was the perfect fit for the series of graffiti I had shot months before. I assembled the shots as a succession of images, much as I would a succession of lines for a poem. The lines had already been written; I had only to find the right order, the right syntax, you might say. It was a pure found poem. Here’s an excerpt from Sign Language.

Appropriating images, appropriating text, appropriating sound has become an accepted method of artistic creation. One collects and recycles. It’s a way of transforming the meaning of words, images and sounds in order to discover a hidden, perhaps profound relationship between objects that only become revealed when brought into contact with one another, conceptually fused, you could say. In my most recent videopoem, All This Day Is Good For, the snippets of text that appear on the screen were extracted from hundreds of e-mail scam messages; by deletion, omission and syntactical juxtaposition, the context of the original ludicrous promises is subverted for the sake of… poetry.

I am pleased that videopoetry is no longer an art form operating in a vacuum, that venues like the Kriterion motivated by Perdu are beginning to disseminate works because at last there is an audience for innovative videos that challenge our ideas of contemporary poetry. In my 2011 Manifesto, I proposed that new technologies will necessitate a redefinition of the poetic experience; that poetry is no longer the privileged domain of the written or spoken word.

As videopoetry is a hybrid form integrating moving pictures, writing, performance and sound art, we should ask, what differentiates this form from these other art forms; in other words, what is specific to this hybrid genre? Is it any short film that records a poem for its soundtrack? Can any image sequences that do not directly illustrate the words serve the form equally well? And if one finds the perfect poem, why does it need to be presented with images?

Well that concludes my presentation. And what better way to conclude than to leave you with a countdown to whatever may follow. May it be rewarding to you all.

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