Friday, November 04, 2011

Christian Bök Reading/Xenotext @ Northwestern

As part of its exhibit Tango with Cows: Book Art of the Russian Avant-Garde, 1910-1917 (September 23-December 11, 2011), the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University hosted "Beyonsense," a reading of early 20th century and contemporary Russian and trans-linguistic sound poetry.  The university's Poetry and Poetics Colloquium and the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures served as co-sponsors, and the event featured poet, translator and Northwestern professor Ilya Kutik, and Christian Bök, a pioneer in the field of conceptual writing and professor at the University of Calgary. Northwestern's contemporary Russian literature scholar Nina Gourianova introduced the reading.

After Nina's brief, crisp and informative walk through the historical moment in which this art blossomed, Ilya and Christian took turns respectively reading the Russian and English translations, mostly by Paul Schmidt--or the aural experiments of what gestured towards and beyond the grasp of both languages--of poems by Alexei Kruchenykh (1886-1969), Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922), Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), and David Burliuk (1882-1967), among others.  A good deal of this poetic art falls under the rubric of zaum (заумь), a portmanteau word coined in 1913 by Kruchenykh from the roots za-, meaning "beyond, behind" and the noun um, meaning "mind, nous," thus giving the new word the connotation of "transsense" or "beyondsense." As both Ilya and Christian expertly delivered them, these sonic experiments gave you the feeling of something thrilling but ultimately elusive, which, I imagine, was the authors' intention.  Ilya noted before many of his readings how famous and well known many of these poems were among Russians, and I tried to think of some equivalent, among experimental poetry, for English speakers, and couldn't find one other than nursery rhymes and some song and rap lyrics. There are few schools, certainly few elementary or secondary ones, where experimental poetry of any sort, let alone this kind, might be taught.

Ball's "Karawane"
Once he'd finished reading the work of others, Ilya recited part of one of his poems, and I'd never heard him read before, so I wish he'd read more. Christian followed with performances of several famous sound poems, including Hugo Ball's (1886-1927) "Karawane" (Caravan), written in 1916, which Ball infamously delivered at the Cabaret Voltaire in a giant metallic lobster suit. (Ball also issued the landmark "Dada Manifesto" that same year, introducing to the public that major early 20th century artistic movement.) Christian then performed some of his own work, including a libretto based in part on his Xenotext project, about which I'll say more below.  He has a real gift for transforming his mouth, throat and body--because to present and perform these poems it requires the whole body--into the kinds of instruments need to present such works, and he did not flag. 

Afterwards one of my colleagues asked Christian if he used a score of some sort, and he said that he did not, though it appeared as though he had assimilated an internal score, based on careful study and practice, of how these works might be presented to an audience. (I thought he might have drawn up a conceptual score, of the sort Morton Feldman or Cornelius Cardew, were known for, but on the pages were the words alone.) Were any of the Russian predecessors invoked to begin the evening listening on some distant plane, I can only imagine they were impressed as those of us in the audience.

Ilya Kutik (l) and Christian Bök performing
Ilya Kutik and Christian Bök performing
Images of famous Russian avant-garde book art
Kasimir Malevich, front and back covers for 2nd edition of Game in Hell, from 1914, by Alexei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov, lithograph with pencil, Collection of Museum of Modern Art. Image of a famous Russian avant-garde book  
Tango with Cows, from 1914 (Vasily Kamensky and Vladimir Burliuk, wallpaper and letterpress, Collection of Getty Research Institute
Scholar Nina Gourianova 
Nina Gourianova, introducting the event

Christian Bök performing, from the Block's Youtube Channel

The next day, Christian spoke to the Poetry and Poetics Colloquium about his Xenotext Experiment, an extraordinary, multiyear effort, in which--and here I am being reductive in the extreme--he inserted a poem that could, with great difficulty, be transformed into genetic code, into a bacterium, such that the bacterium would organically express (translate, as an exact reverse) as opposed to merely carry, the poem, within itself. Thus would be born a self-replicating poem that, if it survived, would continue to self-replicate, as biological material does, ad aeturnam. Among the challenges he has faced are the difficult of writing a poem in English that could not only be translated into the language of proteins but which the proteins could then express as a linguistically coherent poem in the process, and then of designing and folding a protein such that the bacterium would not, as it has done, destroy the poem.  He did engineer the bacterium to bioluminesce (light up) when the expression occurred, and it did, for the time the poem existed; that is as far as things have gotten. 

That he has even reached this marker is remarkable; that he eventually will, with the aid of computers and perhaps an online community of protein folding gamers, solve the problem of finding the most elegant biological arrangement possible, I am sure. As it was, though, I have rarely seen such a daring artistic project laid out so clearly and cogently. Afterwards I asked him about the ethics of authorship in relationship to this project given his founding role with conceptual writing and its disregard for originality, intentionality, and even relevance, and he admitted that once he'd written up a book, anyone could put his or her name to it--but then again, he'd only be writing up a book about the project, while the bacteria themselves would be, if and when things finally do work, writing the poem, from now until forever. Bacteria, do your work!
At the Poetry and Poetics Colloquium workshop for Christian Bök 
Christian Bök giving his talk on his Xenotext Experiment.
Christian Bök explaining his Xenotext project
Christian showing the QR code formed by the proteins

Christian Bök explaining his Xenotext Experiment, from YouTube

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