from typewriters to telematics, media noise in Robert Zend

I’ve recently started working on my next book project, at the moment titled “OTHER NETWORKS,” which will be a history of pre-Internet networks through artists’/writers’ experiments and interventions. My last book, Reading Writing Interfaces, begins and ends with a critique of Google and magic, or sleights-of-hand that disguise how closed our devices are by cleverly diverting our attention to seemingly breathtaking technological feats. And so the roots of “OTHER NETWORKS” come partly from my desire to continue thinking through the political consequences and the historical beginnings of “the Internet” as the technological feat of the late 20th and early 21st centuries which also, as another instance of the user-friendly, disguises the way in which it is a singular, homogenous space of distributed control.

Still, despite the continuity between Reading Writing Interfaces and “OTHER NETWORKS,” I am continually surprised by the way in which thoroughly print-based, analog writers also participated in telematic art/writing experiments (here I’m using ‘telematics’ for the process of long-distance transmission of computer-based information via telecommunications networks). For example, I’ve decided to begin my project by writing on early Canadian art/writing networks for Social Media: History and Poetics, an edited volume by Judy Malloy. Judy kindly directed me to Norman White’s “hearsay” from November 1985, which was a tribute to Canadian poet Robert Zend who had died a few months earlier. The project builds on the following text Zend wrote in 1975:

THE MESSAGE (FOR MARSHALL MCLUHAN)

THE MESSENGER ARRIVED OUT OF BREATH. THE DANCERS STOPPED THEIR  PIROUETTES, THE TORCHES LIGHTING UP THE PALACE WALLS FLICKERED FOR A MOMENT, THE HUBBUB AT THE BANQUET TABLE DIED DOWN, A ROASTED PIG’S NUCKLE FROZE IN MID-AIR IN A NOBLEMAN’S FINGERS, A GENERAL BEHIND THE PILLAR STOPPED FINGERING THE BOSOM OF THE MAID OF HONOUR. “WELL, WHAT IS IT, MAN?” ASKED THE KING, RISING REGALLY FROM HIS CHAIR. “WHERE DID YOU COME FROM? WHO SENT YOU? WHAT IS THE NEWS?” THEN AFTER A MOMENT, “ARE YOU WAITING FOR A REPLY? SPEAK UP MAN!” STILL SHORT OF BREATH, THE MESSENGER PULLED HIMSELF TOGETHER. HE LOOKED THE KING IN THE EYE AND GASPED: “YOUR MAJESTY, I AM NOT WAITING FOR A REPLY BECAUSE THERE IS NO MESSAGE BECAUSE NO ONE SENT ME. I JUST LIKE RUNNING.”

“hearsay” was an event based on the children’s game of “telephone” whereby a message – in this case, the text by Zend – is whispered from person to person and arrives back at its originator, usually hilariously garbled.  Zend’s text was “sent around the world in 24 hours, roughly following the sun, via a global computer network (I. P. Sharp Associates). Each of the eight participating centres was charged with translating the message into a different language before sending it on. The whole process was monitored at Toronto’s A-Space.” The final version, translated into English, arrived in Toronto as the following:

TO   HEAR

MESSENGER: PANTING.

THE DANCERS HAVE BEEN ORDERED TO DANCE, AND BURNING TORCHES WERE PLACED ON THE WALLS.

THE NOISY PARTY BECAME QUIET.

A ROASTING PIG TURNED OVER ON AN OPEN FLAME.

THE KING SAT CALMLY ON HIS FESTIVE CHAIR, HIS HAND ON A WOMAN’S BREAST.

IT APPEARED THAT HE WAS SITTING THROUGH A MARRIAGE CEREMONY.

THE KING ROSE FROM HIS SEAT AND ASKED THE MESSENGER WHAT IS TAKING PLACE AND WHY IS HE THERE? AND HE WANTED AN ANSWER.

THE MESSENGER, STILL PANTING, LOOKED AT THE KING AND REPLIED:
YOUR MAJESTY, THERE IS NO NEED FOR AN ANSWER. AFTER ALL,
NOTHING HAS HAPPENED. NO ONE SENT ME. I RISE ABOVE EVERYTHING.

Now, as it happens, I also just learned from a friend of mine about Zend’s incredible series of “typescapes,” ARBORMUNDI, published in 1982, seven years after writing “THE MESSAGE.” I wish I’d known about all of these works by Zend when I was working on Reading Writing Interfaces, as the third chapter is titled “Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics.” I delve into the era from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s in which poets, working heavily under the influence of McLuhan and before the widespread adoption of the personal computer, often deliberately court the media noise of the typewriter as a way to draw attention to the typewriter-as-interface. Similarly, like the low-level noise in “THE MESSAGE” and the high-level noise in “hearsay,” ARBORMUNDI elevates the noise of typewritten overlays, over-writing, into a delicate art. It’s appropriate, then, that the earliest (and perhaps first in the loose collection) typescape from 1978 is of the Uriburu: “mythological serpent – the symbol of the universe – which constantly renews itself by destroying itself.”

Robert Zend - Arbormundi 2

While the blurb on the back from the Sunday Star celebrates that Zend creates these typescapes with a manual typewriter, “no electronics, computers or glue involved,” he clearly had a McLuhanesque birds’ eye view of the entire, interconnected media-scape of the 70s and 80s, from typewriters to telematics.

Since ARBORMUNDI seems to be quite rare and I’ve only come across some nice images and beautiful close-readings on Camille Martin’s blog, I decided to scan the whole thing – available here and below. Enjoy!

Robert Zend’s ARBORMUNDI, Copyright © Janine Zend, 1982, all rights reserved, reproduced with permission from Janine Zend

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Categories: digital, media poetics, other networks, poetry, Uncategorized

Author:Lori Emerson

I am an Associate Professor of English and Intermedia Arts, Writing, and Performance at the University of Colorado Boulder. I'm the author of Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound and co-editor of the Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media.

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2 Comments on “from typewriters to telematics, media noise in Robert Zend”

  1. April 4, 2014 at 8:57 AM #

    “TYPE SCAPE: A Mystery Story,” in which Robert Zend tells the story of how typescapes came to be, is now available for the first time since 1978. Check out http://www.robertzend.ca/type-scapes-a-mystery-story.html.

  2. April 4, 2014 at 8:59 AM #

    Robert Zend’s “TYPE SCAPE: A Mystery Story,” in which he tells of how the types cape came to be, is now available for the first time since 1978! Have a look at http://www.robertzend.ca/type-scapes-a-mystery-story.html

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