New Media and the Written Word at the 1989-2009 WRO Biennales



Words, books, wordplay and multidirectional narrative are all part of contemporary visual arts. The graphics formed by letters in concrete poetry, the importance of written addenda in Fluxus’s art, the materiality and non-materiality of books in light of new technologies and story-telling traditions translated into new media all emphasize the close relationship between perception and the visuality of the written word.

Media art has been actively exploring all manner of different uses for the written word in the digital era, as well as the new physical, semantic and philosophical dimensions of writing as a part of the digital communications environment.

Over the years WRO has presented the work of many artists focussing on new narrative techniques and new approaches to the use of writing in contemporary art, including interaction between the text and the viewer/reader. Wojciech Bruszewski, who started working with computers and his own software in the 1980s is one of the first. His performance Romantica: Concert for Two Computers [Romantica. Koncert na dwa komputery] at the 1989 WRO Festival was an improvisation combining sequences from Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude with fragments of the invocation to Adam Mickiewicz’s epic poem Pan Tadeusz. Romantica was the first Polish work of art to use digital voice synthesis, as well as the first to utilize the computer’s interactive and generative potential for verbal creativity. A year earlier Bruszewski, in collaboration with Wolf Kahlen, had launched Radio Ruine der Künste; for five years nonstop the station broadcast The Infinite Talk, a conversation about infinity randomly compiled by a computer from a bank of quotes from the writings of renowned philosophers (Plato, Schoppenhauer, Russell and many others). The Infinite Talk was also presented at a WRO festival, in the form of an installation. Bruszewski further developed his creative use of words in The Poetic Machine [Maszyna poetycka] (1991) and Sonnets [Sonety] (1992-93), which used Bruszewski’s own software to combine random processes with generative linguistics. His Wrocław Sonnets [Sonety wrocławskie] (1993) demonstrated his program’s finesse in analyzing the complexities of the classic structure of a sonnet and then generating formally perfect examples. During a 1993 WRO exhibition at Wrocław’s National Museum, an Amiga computer composed sonnets, displayed them on its monitor, recited them in a synthesized voice, arranged their graphic layout using Bruszewski’s Polish adaptation of the TeX typesetting program, and printed them out. Bruszewski later issued the printed sonnets in a bound volume.

Most WRO Biennales have included video works, performances and installations by artists inspired by the relationship between words and images. The grand prize in the 1993 WRO competition was awarded to the video Tractatus by the Hungarian artists Péter Forgasc and Tibor Szemzö: a hypnotic philosophical piece in seven parts in which both the audio and visual layers include excerpts from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s writings.

In A Simple Case of Vision (1993), the US artist Irit Batsry uses a quote from Buckminster Fuller about perceptions of reality as both the basis for and the object of sophisticated visual explorations. In Videovoid: The Text – a video work that won the grand prize in the 1997 WRO competition – David Larcher (UK) carries out complex multilevel image-and-wordplay inspired by Lacanian theory, exploring the relationship between the ego and diverse signs and symbols.

During the WRO 95 Biennale Douglas Davis (USA), creator of numerous media art classics, presented his internet project The World’s First Collaborative Sentence: a sentence Davis started in 1994 for anyone to continue any way they like, except for ending it; the program doesn’t allow end punctuation. By 2000, over 200,000 people had contributed to the sentence, which is now considered a classic of net art. It can be seen on the Whitney Museum’s website:

The Other Book [Inna Książka] exhibition that was held during the 2005 WRO Biennale presented works featuring writing as part of the current digital environment as well as books that are full of content even though they are devoid of printed words.
In his interactive installation The Surprising Spiral (1991), Ken Feingold (USA) pays tribute to Jorge Luis Borges and Octavio Paz, combining video disks, screens, computer graphics, sound and writing to create a labyrinth in which viewers can look for a goal or just enjoy the various paths. An old tome with a hole running through it, at the bottom of which is a replica of a human hand, is the work’s main interface: Viewers touch the hand to activate a stream of images on a nearby screen. Next to this book is a copy of Paz’s The Monkey Grammarian, with an imprint of lips on the cover and a faint ray of light between them; touching the book activates a voice that reads it. With our hands on one of these books/interfaces we are surrounded by image and sound; when we break the contact the images fade away and the voices fall silent.

The interactive environment created by Masaki Fujihata (Japan) in his installation Beyond Pages (1995) is a small room containing a desk and a chair. A virtual picture book is projected onto the desk; a viewer’s touches activates images – a stone, an apple, a door, a lightswitch – and Japanese kanji and kana fall on the pages of the virtual book in its virtual binding. The objects and symbols come to life and emit sounds: a flawless imitation of the sound of the kanji and kana being written, while a voice pronounces selected syllables. The stone and the apple roll around on the page; the lightswitch turns on a lamp with a paper shade standing on the desk next to the book. A door projected in actual size on the wall of the room opens and a naked child bursts briefly into the room, laughing and romping around. The illuminated manuscript reveals page after page of digital content, more direct than a metaphor, more subtle than an allegory: the book as a source of light and causative power.

In the interactive installation Text Rain (1999) by Romy Achituv and Camille Utterback (USA), viewers/readers stand or move in front of a large screen on which they see their own black-and-white images with colorful letters falling on them like snowflakes. The letters react to the participants’ movements; they lands on their heads and shoulders; they can be caught, thrown, bounced and dropped. It’s writing that we read with our entire bodies. Through movement and collaboration with other participants we can arrange it into a poem on the subject of the ties between language and the body.

The evolution of writing from visual representations is depicted in the Tombe installations by Robert Cahen (France). In Tombe (1997) a silent large-format video projection presents a series of 26 toys floating and falling in slow motion; in the version from 2000, Tombe (avec les mots), these items have been replaced by words floating downward, within a picture frame, against an endless blue void ofelectronic pixels. The words are brief flashes of articulation on a background of nothingness: existence in the face of endless transcience.

Ira Marom, an Israeli artist working in Germany, situates the same issue – the transcience of the moment in which a flash of articulation appears – between the image and the sound of a word. At the 2007 WRO Biennale Marom created a work in which words were imprinted in a layer of sand on the diaphragms of huge speakers.
Pronouncing a word caused the speakers to vibrate, shifting the sand and destroying the writing: The spoken word destroys the written word. These audiovisual battles were preserved as looped video sequences that were shown on lectern-style screens that viewers walked among. As they walk, instead of reassurances of the lasting value of literature, they find words in an antagonistic confrontation with themselves.

In The Interactive Book of Changes, shown in the 2007 WRO Biennale competition, Jing Zhou (USA) created a digital transcription of the I Ching on a network communications platform, replacing the linearity of the book form with a circular layout surrounding a digital yin/yang symbol. This not only changes the way the text is read, but also creates a new way to experience synchronicity.