~ remix culture ~

Poetry videos on the web: some preliminary observations

In preparation for a panel discussion at ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival 2014, I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts on “poetry films in the digital world.”

1. When we talk about poetry videos on the web, we’re generally talking about videos shared on YouTube and Vimeo, and to some extent Dailymotion, Blip.tv and a few other places: huge sites that thrive on user-generated content, often monetized through advertising, and available to share and embed anywhere on the web unless the uploader specifies otherwise. Yes, it’s still possible to embed a Quicktime video, but why would anyone want to do that? I have yet to download Quicktime software on the computer I’m using now, and I’ve had it for more than two years. Flash is also rapidly becoming passé as more and more people access the web through devices that don’t use Flash to display audio and video players, but HTML5 — an open, non-proprietary format.

2. Poetry fans often focus on the potential of the web to bring poetry to larger audiences, which I agree is exciting. But just as exciting to me is the way in which the availability and popularity of free video-hosting sites, combined with the proliferation of digital film-making tools online and off, have made it possible for a vastly larger number of people to engage with poetry in a more creative way — to go from being passive consumers to active translators of poems. Because what is the making of a poetry video if not the translation of a poem into a new medium?

3. Not all poetry videos are highly creative, though, and I think it’s important to situate them within the larger context of online communities, cultures and behaviors. Who made this particular video, and for what purpose? What is their intended audience? It can be anyone from a bible study group to a film class to a potential buyer of a new poetry chapbook. So when I talk about online poetry videos, I mean everything — from expertly produced animated poems to experimental films, from masterpieces of video art to simple documentary videos of poetry readings, without ignoring the vast sea of very basic videos, many focused simply on sharing audio of favorite poems, with or without images thrown in to give the listener something to look at. I estimate that this last type accounts for 80-90 percent of the poetry videos on YouTube.

4. Lawrence Lessig distinguishes between a read-only culture of passive consumers and a read/write culture where the relationship between the producer of culture and its consumer is more reciprocal. Far from a new thing, read/write or remix culture is basically the normal way in which poems, songs and stories were created and passed along in pre-industrial societies, before professional poets, musicians and storytellers came to dominate so-called popular culture as well as elite culture, and before copyright laws were drafted to discourage creative remix.

So the web has enabled a remix revolution. But empowering the reader/viewer/listener really begins as soon as websites make it possible for people to leave comments, to share or even embed videos elsewhere, and — most critically of all, perhaps — to have complete control of when, where, and how often they can watch a film or video. Contrast this to the much more passive experience of visiting a cinema or taking in a video-art display in a museum. (Television is kind of a middle ground, with more and more viewers choosing to record programs for watching later, or to use streaming services such as Hulu or Netflix. If only there were a cable TV channel devoted to poetry! But poetry films do make their way onto television from time to time, especially in the UK.)

Watching poetry videos on the web is in some ways more akin to reading a book than to visiting the cinema, inasmuch as one can dip into the video at any point and return to it over and over. The experience is generally solitary… but can also be highly social, thanks especially to the way videos from YouTube and Vimeo can be watched and commented upon right in Facebook and Twitter, without leaving one’s feed. And just as one can take a felt pen or crayon to a book and create a new text through erasure (to say nothing of more drastic collages with scissors), any video on the web can be downloaded and made into something new. I can’t think of any other viewing environment where the raw material of a film is so vulnerable to immediate expropriation.

This vulnerability is inherent to any artifact published on the open web, and as a poet who has chosen to blog drafts of all my poems for more than a decade, it’s something I’ve learned not to fear but to embrace. We poets are vulnerable whenever we create something, and especially whenever we attempt to share it — which is why submitting work to a journal, contest or publisher can be such a debilitating experience. Self-publishing on the web, by contrast, can feel empowering. Sharing poetry is supposed to be a public act, not a private negotiation with omnipotent gatekeepers. And the read/write culture of the web does something else: by letting anyone become an author, it makes authorship less exalted… and also much easier to share the burden of through collaborative partnerships.

5. The poetry film world cannot ignore this culture; too many breath-taking films are emerging from online collaborations, often between poets, film-makers and composers who have never met in person. But the sheer proliferation of poetry videos on the web does present some interesting artistic challenges. Certain styles of poetry videos might become so dominant as to crowd out competing ones, for example. Influenced by music videos, performance poets tend to produce videos in which they are the star. Creators of animated poems often seem to treat the text as a straight-forward narrative screenplay. And countless poetry video-makers on YouTube seem enamored by the Ken Burns effect, ignoring the fact that it’s his masterful soundscapes that let viewers forget they’re watching still images. Serious videopoets should be conscious of the gravitational force such popular approaches can exert if they want to “make it new.”

6. In the larger world of viral videos pullulating with crazed cats and twerking pop singers, video remixing is often satirical and always subversive. What does it mean to use the same language of remix for videos created in response to poems at The Poetry Storehouse? Do poetry video remixers risk subverting the texts in some sense? I would argue they do, but that that’s actually a helpful way of looking at what happens any time a filmmaker decides to bring a poem to the screen. The worst sins are committed by filmmakers who are too respectful, unwilling to go beyond what the text explicitly describes. It’s no accident that some of the most inventive poetry videos are created by the authors of the poems. If they don’t feel reluctant to take the poem in a new direction when adapting it to film, neither should any other filmmaker.

7. Another thing that makes some poets and many publishers uneasy about online poetry videos is their very share-ability. It’s kind of frightening to realize that if you upload a video to YouTube or Vimeo and don’t change the default settings, anyone can post it anywhere. Poets wonder, what if it shows up on some hateful site where people will only mock it? And publishers of online journals wonder how they can claim to have published something themselves if anyone else can grab the embed code and do the same. If a journal can’t claim to have exclusive content, why would anyone visit their site?

This is a real issue, but I think publishers need to ask themselves whether their primary mission is to promote their own brand or to give good work as wide an audience as possible. If the latter, then they should certainly not restrict who can share it. But they can also insist on uploading copies of all videos they publish to their own (branded) account on Vimeo or YouTube. For one thing, that’s free advertising for their website everywhere the video is shared. But more importantly, it helps guarantee that the video will still be there in five or ten years… and suggests what the real value of online journals is now, when we are so overwhelmed by so much ephemera: not primarily to publish — anyone can do that — but to curate and to preserve.

8. The growing popularity of videopoem-making presents its own challenges. I had an interesting exchange on Twitter this morning with the Belgian poetry film-maker Marc Neys (A.K.A. Swoon). He had shared a recent video whose screenshot I recognized immediately. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: I almost used that same Phil Fried Ferris wheel footage in my latest. I thought it looked familiar…

Marc: We’re all fishing in the same pool.

Me: I’m wondering if the popularity of certain stock images poses a risk to online videopoetry, a creeping homogenization, a cliché effect. (I’m thinking not just about stock videos, but also iconic images from newscasts, for example.)

Marc: Let’s hope the really good combinations will survive…

Me: Yes, though survival may have a different meaning in the internet age. Repetition itself is key to keeping something in public consciousness. Whatever doesn’t go viral sinks out of site in the feed.

Marc: Yes indeed.

9. On balance, I think that the rewards of participating in online poetry video communities far out-weigh any potential pitfalls. For one thing, poets and artists get to learn from one another in an often quite intense manner, one that tends to stoke the creative fires of each. Poets in the U.S., accustomed to being ignored by society at large, are usually grateful for any attentive readers, and who reads (or hears) a poem more attentively than someone making a film or audio track out of it? We’re often told that the internet is a great distraction machine destroying our attention spans, but I think that’s true only if one takes a “read-only” approach to it. Read/write culture, remix culture, encourages just the opposite.

10. Another great thing that can happen with any poetry film, but is especially easy to do online, is to make a poem more accessible to audiences unfamiliar with its original language. Poetry film offers the unique possibility of hearing all the music of a poem in its original language while reading a translation in subtitles or closed captioning (easy to add on YouTube or Vimeo) — and with the film-maker’s images and soundtrack as additional bridges or vantage-points.

This might relate to another thing that I think can happen as a consequence of online sharing: reducing or eliminating what I call the socio-cultural intimidation factor. I’m talking about the tendency of many people to feel intimidated in social contexts that may be unfamiliar to them, such as poetry readings, art museums or art-house cinemas, preventing them from seeing or hearing with an open mind. I’m relying on anecdotal evidence based mainly on my own experiences with sharing poetry videos on Facebook, where I have a wide variety of contacts including many who wouldn’t be caught dead at any of the aforementioned types of venues. But it’s not uncommon to elicit positive reactions from such people to a supposedly high-brow videopoem. And I suspect that bilingual poetry videos, especially when artfully made with suggestive, allusive imagery, help us overcome a similar sort of intimidation that hearing an unknown language can otherwise provoke.

11. Poetry videos differ from other videos in the same way that poetry differs from other kinds of writing. It requires a different kind of attention and elicits a different, perhaps more thoughtful, kind of response. YouTube comments, generally speaking, are a cesspool, but for some reason poetry videos tend to be spared. I’ve been publishing poetry, my own and others’, online for a while now, and one thing I’ve noticed is that it doesn’t attract the kind of bloviators who otherwise infest online comment sections and message boards. I helped publish the literary magazine qarrtsiluni for eight years, and despite a fairly large readership, we never had a problem with rude or inappropriate commenters. The same has been true at Moving Poems and my literary blog Via Negativa, which is mostly original writing with very little commentary. Somehow, online poetry seems virtually troll-proof.

12. Returning to the earlier question of how poets and publishers might come to terms with the reality that online videos have no single, canonical location, and can be easily subverted by remix artists, it’s worth remembering that poems in general have always been rather slippery as artifacts. They’re difficult to monetize because they are so easily reproduced, and reproduction in the imagination is what poems are uniquely engineered for. In an oral society, poems are the original ear-worms, the original viral content. Despite what copyright laws may say, once a poem is released into the wild it never comes back to its master. Its only owner is the one who can call it up at will. In the past, this could only mean committing it to memory, but now, with the web and good search engines at our fingertips, we can recall a poem almost as reliably in electronic form. I’m not saying it’s an equivalent experience; there’s no substitute for memorization, just as there’s no substitute for silent reading from a paper book. But I think audio and video allow us to hear, see, “read” and internalize poems in new ways — ways that can elicit a profoundly creative response.

Video artist Elisa Kreisinger warns about the “death of the YouTube mashup”

Anyone who cares about video remix culture — which should include every regular visitor to this site — may want to re-think their use of YouTube in the wake of its decision to formalize its relationship with big media companies. The threat to indie artists whose companies fail to reach an agreement with YouTube has been widely publicized. But an article in The Daily Dot suggests that an entire creative subculture based around YouTube may be in danger as well. If a big media company objects to a mashup, Brooklyn-based video artist Elisa Kreisinger discovered that YouTube now seems quite willing to completely ignore the Fair Use provision of U.S. copyright law and similar, international legal allowances for parody and remixing.

It took 24 hours to create my mashup, but 10 months to get to the bottom of why it was blocked. And even after I discovered why it was blocked, I still could not get it back up. If large content companies have the power to usurp the rule of law for their own purposes and make anything disappear, why bother making mashups?

YouTube was the birthplace of the mashup. And because it is the largest video site on the Internet, it’s important that cultural critiques like remixes and mashups be here for public consumption. But now mine, and so any others that drew from Universal’s library, remain disabled.

YouTube describes itself as “a forum for people to connect, inform, and inspire others across the globe.” But a forum that gives big members extra powers to silence everyone else will never be as vibrant as it should be. To be the forum it aspires to be—that it should be—YouTube needs to stop cutting special deals with big rightsholders like Universal Music Group and start encouraging creativity again. That’s true even if creativity makes Universal Music Group uncomfortable. If YouTube doesn’t get rid of special deals, they threaten to kill the very originality that made the site great in the first place.

Read the full article at The Daily Dot. And remember: videos posted at Vimeo or Dailymotion, for example, can go viral just as easily. Technologically speaking, there’s nothing special about YouTube, and I don’t think it needs to be nearly as dominant as it has become. There are other video-hosting sites that are much more committed to freedom of expression.

Disney owns patent for “video poetry” generator

Last week I received a rather surprising email from videopoetry pioneer Tom Konyves: “I thought you might enjoy this.” The link leads to a Google Patents record, “System and method for video poetry using text based related media, US 20110239099 A1.” Filed in March 2010 and published in September of the following year, the patent describes a semi-automatic, algorithmically guided method for creating videopoems, with an eye to generating viral content and commercial tie-ins. Here’s the abstract:

There is provided a system and method for creating video poetry using text based related media. There is provided a method for creating a video poetry media, the method comprising receiving an ordered list of text phrases selected from a defined plurality of text phrases, presenting a plurality of video clips, wherein each of the plurality of video clips is associated with one or more of the ordered list of text phrases, receiving an ordered list of video clips selected from the plurality of video clips, and generating the video poetry media using the ordered list of video clips. In this manner, the barrier of entry for creating video poetry media is reduced, encouraging increased user participation and the creation of the “viral” effect by sharing video poetry online. Positive publicity for associated brands and media properties and additional channels for commercial promotions are thereby provided.

I have several reactions to this. I’ve never believed that bad poetry threatens good poetry merely by its existence, though it does of course create the need for curation, because in any uncurated space, bad poetry usually drives out the good in a version of Gresham’s Law. Also, it’s not inevitable that machine-generated poetry will be bad. Visit @Pentametron on Twitter if you have doubts about that. The specific method described for generating text and video in the patent application does sound as if it could result in some laughably literal mash-ups, though:

FIG. 2 presents a user interface for selecting text based related media for video poetry, according to one embodiment of the present invention. As shown in display 200 of FIG. 2, the user is invited to select from a variety of text based related media to match to each text phrase selected in FIG. 1. Thus, the user is invited to select from media 1, 2, or 3 for the text phrase “Lilo”, from media 4 or 5 for the text phrase “loves”, and from media 6, 7, or 8 for the text phrase “surf”. For example, media 1 through 3 may show various video clips of the character Lilo, media 4 through 5 may show various video clips related to the concept of “love”, such as hearts or kissing, and media 6 through 8 may show various video clips of surfing or surfboards.

Perhaps a way can be devised to guide creators toward more figurative or suggestive word-image pairings. But there remains the problem of commercial tackiness:

The video poetry may enjoy viral distribution, providing positive publicity for both the user and the original content providers associated with the video content. Additionally, some users may become inspired to create their own video poetry using the easy to use system described herein, further enhancing the viral effect. Furthermore, by optionally inserting promotional elements such as pre-roll advertisements or web links to related products or services, companies can also receive direct monetary benefits as well.

I’m told that the mere fact that Disney has patented this “system and method” doesn’t mean anyone’s actually written the software, or even that anyone seriously intends to. But that fact that they went to all the trouble and expense to file a patent does say something about the growing popularity of online videos as a means for disseminating poetry. It may seem surprising that a corporation would care about something generally considered so economically marginal as poetry, but as we’ve seen with certain TV ads using poets and/or poems over the years, it’s precisely poetry’s non-commercial nature that lends it such coveted authenticity.

There’s a further irony here, in that the Disney corporation through years of lobbying Congress bears unique responsibility for the absurd over-extension of copyright terms in the US (and subsequently around the world). This despite the fact that at least 50 Disney movies were remixes of stories in the public domain. Disney aggressively pursues violators of its own intellectual property, including mash-ups using Disney characters that have been around for decades. They consider this piracy. But the real pirates in a capitalist system are the monopolist corporations themselves. It’s no wonder that they would think of trying to hijack remix culture for their own ends.

A popular means of creative expression is the “video mash-up”, similar to a music video or promotional clip. By creatively mixing and transitioning different video clips together and adding effects or other unique touches, there is potential to create a video that is more than the sum of its parts. By sharing such videos with friends and colleagues online, the videos may enjoy viral popularity and bring increased customer awareness to featured brands and media properties. Users can have fun creating and watching video mash-ups shared online while content providers and brands can enjoy positive publicity.

But here’s the thing. Videopoets could, if we wanted, launch a preemptive strike and co-opt Disney’s patent application. It turns out that, according to the Wikipedia,

In the United States “the text and drawings of a patent are typically not subject to copyright restrictions.”.[1] A patent applicant may obtain copyright protection or mask work protection for the content of their patent application if they include the following notice in their application:[2]

“A portion of the disclosure of this patent document contains material which is subject to (copyright or mask work) protection. The (copyright or mask work) owner has no objection to the facsimile reproduction by anyone of the patent document or the patent disclosure, as it appears in the Patent and Trademark Office patent file or records, but otherwise reserves all (copyright or mask work) rights whatsoever.”

If this copyright notice is not included, then “anyone is free to copy and disseminate the drawings of an issued patent for any purpose.

A discussion among a bunch of legal experts on LinkedIn seems to bear this out.

Needless to say, if anyone does remix lines and phrases from Disney’s video poetry patent application into a found-poetry video, be sure to send me the link. Maybe we can make it go viral!

The Poetry Storehouse aims to connect poets with artists and filmmakers

Just a few weeks old, The Poetry Storehouse, poetrystorehouse.com, is already beginning to live up to its slogan, “great contemporary poems for creative remix.” Everything in the site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial License, and there are also links to off-site collections of work with remix-friendly CC licenses of one variety or another. The site’s editors, led by Nic S., are actively soliciting for submissions of poetry in English, and new material will be added on a weekly basis. The editors tag and categorize the poetry on the site fairly exhaustively in order to maximize its findability.

The Poetry Storehouse is an effort to promote new forms and delivery methods for page-poetry by creating a repository of freely-available high-quality contemporary page-poetry for those multimedia collaborative artists who may sometimes be stymied in their work by copyright and other restrictions. Our main mission is to collect and showcase poem texts and, in some instances, audio recordings of those texts. It is our hope that those texts will serve as inspiration or raw material for other artistic creations in different media.

I’m one of the site’s advisors, along with Marc Neys. My primary agenda is probably pretty obvious: generate more videopoems/filmpoems to share on Moving Poems! But more than that, I strongly believe that poets should be more open to artistic collaboration, and stop viewing a printed book as the ultimate destination for their work. And I think any filmmaker looking for a great short subject should consider bringing a poem to the big or small screen.

I’ve added The Poetry Storehouse to our page of web resources for videopoetry makers in the “Free and Creative Commons-licensed texts and audiopoetry” section. (And while I was updating the page, I also added a new section with links to free online filmmaking tutorials, to make it even easier for poets who want to have a go at envideoing their own or others’ works. Thanks to beginning poetry filmmaker Graham Barnes for the suggestion.)

“We add meaning to culture by remixing it”: Rick Prelinger on the value of preexisting material

Rick Prelinger, creator of the invaluable Prelinger Archive of ephemeral films which so many videopoets have drawn upon, has issued a newly updated and expanded version of his evolving manifesto at Contents magazine: “On the Virtues of Preexisting Material.” (There’s also an interview with Rick and Megan Shaw Prelinger in the same issue.) There are so many good points in this essay, it’s hard to resist the temptation to quote it all. But here are a few passages that stood out for me:

I don’t at all mean to criticize experimentation, but I think we need to experiment harder. Let’s ask more of ourselves rather than asking more of our software. And, while this is really hard when working with appropriated media, I’d suggest that we stop trying so hard to criticize existing media forms, and let them die by themselves. Instead, what might future forms look like? In other words, redeem recycling from a reactive mode and move it into a formative mode. Can we think about recycling as a point of origin?

My partner Megan and I run a research library in San Francisco that we built around our personal book, periodical, and ephemera collections. At some point it got a life of its own and started growing like mushrooms in Mendocino. We joke about how it’s a library full of bad ideas; I characterize it as 98% false consciousness. It’s full of outdated information, extinct procedures, self-serving explanations, ideas that never passed the smell test, and lies. And yet that’s where you find the truth.

Archives promise the possibility of a return to original, unmediated documents. I think this is part of their attraction to artists—the idea that we can touch and appropriate records without also having to inherit the corrupting crust that they’ve accreted over time. This is an Edenic fantasy, but it can also be a productive point of origin.

We add meaning to culture by remixing it. Putting something in a new context helps you see it with new eyes; it’s like bringing your partner home to the parents for the first time, or letting a dog loose to run in the waves.

While not shrinking from remixing the present, let’s enjoy the freedom that comes with working with public domain material. The public domain is the coolest neighborhood on the frontier. Use it or lose it.

Read the whole thing. And if you’d like to get into remixing public-domain and Creative Commons-licensed material to create your own videopoetic works, see our compilation of web resources for videopoem makers.