An Action Movie (for NW) (2015)

[published as an afterword to Nathan Walker’s Action Score Generator, published by ifpthenq books, Manchester, 2015.]

 

An Action Movie (for NW): reading time code action

Mark Leahy

 

reading

The slogans pass by the reader, and they change at a pace that means they can be read, but it is quicker than this reader might choose. There’s not quite enough time to mark rotate grind the options of what each banner might ‘mean’, or how you might ‘do’ them. Reading this screen has parallels with listening to speech or music, or with watching a film. The sound or image material slips past, rolls on without the option to rewind.[1]

placards between ears roll by observer

What is it to speak chant whisper a name to hold sing explain these six-word objects planks bags? Naming them will touch on their similarity to or affinity with other forms I know – newspaper headlines, flag slogans, t-shirt statements, postcard captions. These forms each pull behind them strings of context and intention, and push towards their audience, their crowd in particular ways. The sense of event is below behind within the words, as the sets collect tighten carry a performance, and play out a game. Reading here is being present at the event of the words appearing, and witnessing the playing out of the rules for the performance.[2]

jacket under coat undo after entrance

The material fact of writing inscribes the possibility of review or ‘backward scanning’. With print material, a reader can go back on the line, against the flow, upstream, to brush to dig to play again some detail or fact or name. This flow of generated text resists the reviewable aspect of print. Repetition of form, and repetition within the content, facilitates and encourages a ‘forward scan’ as the reader expects or looks forward to the reappearance of a word or structure.[3]

picture in head throw into sky

Every now and then, I have the urge to click on the back button to see again a frame I feel has sped past, or the one that is there when I open the player. This urge may be something I have learnt in an environment where I am with a screen, with a computer-based interface. The generator rolls unrelentingly onwards, a film scrolling through sprockets. There is no back button, I can’t click to see that one that’s just gone.

ribbons beneath parts suspend against back

 

action

As they slip by quite quickly, the word events happen in the moment, in the mind, and without revision or review. Responding to the six-word strings as instructions for action I bring to mind an image or a construction of ‘how to do this’, an imagining of my acting out this instruction, following this order. Here is an intersection of image, speech and writing; the onscreen material passes me as spoken words might do, but is in the form of displayed text. This text does not remain stable, it happens as I read, in a text film, an action movie.

book against eye scribble towards body

An action (as a functional term) can be extrapolated across digital, linguistic and performative modes. It has both continuous and discreet qualities, each banner is ‘an action’, and ‘action’ is generated by the passing text(s). The title, ‘action score generator’, names the engine, the machine that is at work; what are evident on screen are the action scores, scores that are being or have just been generated. The machinery is the code processing the verbal material, which is hidden, held in waiting until selected, until called forth for output. This awareness on the part of the reader, this sensing of the generator in action, acting, removes the pressure to act on the scores, to carry out the instructions. The pressure to perform an imagined future or possible, external, other act, is suspended; focus is brought to the action occurring on screen. Reading is an action.

sponge onto forehead erase after curb

The appearance and disappearance of text is a visual kinetic present activity. Kinesis in the sequence of frames or flashes of text, mirrors the impression of movement generated by celluloid film or in stop-motion animation. Text appears to my sight and it goes, it is replaced by something else, those words go, others appear. Each six-word set captions an absent picture, an image that holds an action in suspense, as an icon. The score generator becomes an image machine, making pictures in my mind of actions, actions that are slipping past while gelling momentarily into a scene, a sight, a doing. They are displaced like a flipbook or a News TV screen’s scrolling updates. The question of the survival of the performance action beyond its being done is performed in the sequence of discrete text frames.[4]

photos over fingers scatter behind window

The ‘generator’ is immediate (without this thing running nothing will be happening) and remote (it is automated, distant from the output, or behind the scenes), as an electricity power station is remote from and linked to the kettle boiling in my kitchen.

water with fire light into houses

Generation produces actions, potential actions, possible actions, future actions, generation of generations, with many or most or all of the actions remaining un-enacted, un-done for readers, and in their not being done or having been done or being done in their being read having generations of further actions and doings.[5]

roses with toes stretch into ocean

 

code

Generation describes the software tool that is at work, generating the action scores, working out a set of instructions, following a sequence of commands in order to compose sequences of words each one of which ‘is’ an action score. It is impersonal, machinic, behind the scenes, happening in code that is not presented on the surface. This generation is automatic, relentless, beyond the reader’s control, beyond intervention. It is also profligate, generous, excessive as it churns out texts almost too fast to take in, too fast to process, more than I can manage.

The flow smears over my gums and down my beard into my seat as I try to inhale all that scatters towards me.

The generator (code) itself is a score. It is a set of instructions for a sequence of actions to be carried out. Within it, it has embedded scores that govern parts of the larger activity and output (how the text displays, how it is presented on the screen, the specific instructions for different browsers).

microphone in mouth sing under orchestra

Layers of instruction, of scoring in the Java script function as a set of rules, a set of instructions that operate on a set of sets of words. The material they operate on, that they manage or manipulate is verbal, grouped by type, sorted already on to some level of organisation, selected from a much larger possible corpus by the artist. This selection process is key hammer bucket scissors to the kind of results posted. It sets a limit on the permutations; it sets a tone or a range gallery audience courtyard.

While having the potential to produce hundreds of different distinct outputs, the variation is limited by the initial filling of these corpora ear ears eye toes arm, these stocks of material. As material, the words are moved about, drawn like lots or slips from a database. This set of sets of words has been chosen, descriptions of performance actions have been filtered and sifted by parts of speech collect split fold scatter.[6]

Selection of objects and the manipulation of material happen ‘behind’ the screen, in the running of the script. Selection and manipulation also happen as a reader imagines, or considers the possibility of, the actions proposed by the scores, prompted by each sequence of words.

pen in mouth put on box

The everyday or familiar nature of the majority of the words appearing on the screen, their ordinary relations of noun to preposition to verb, and their isolation from context, foreground writing as a mode of collage. The accident of the given form of a found word is joined with openness to chance sequences, and draws into the mix echoes of newspaper headlines and advertising slogans and protest-marchers’ banners. Context is suspended in the assembly of the units in a new, collaged relation. The quality of the ‘material’ in the collage practices has been shifted into a different (displaced) (mediated) materiality at the level of the code and the display.[7]

glitter on swan hang in sky

 

time

The state of before and after is raised as a question. In the absence of other information, the reader may respond to these six-word headlines as prompts or proposals for something that will happen, that can happen, that could happen. The reader is conscious of the text’s existence ‘before’. It is already there as words curtains scissors plants in waiting, it is there ‘before’ I read it, before my eyes split touch stretch it. At the same time, the generation of this text, of each iteration, each six-word combination is occurring ‘live’, ‘now’ as I open, as I rub, as I play. The action score is of and for this event that I watch and read on screen, the time of the event is in the present, ongoing as the screen reloads, recharges and cuts folds holds a new body of text.[8]

This sequence of afters, or replacements and displacements, has a temporal shape, it happens in time, on this site, this screen, this window wall sky. The text shots cannot be returned, undone. The pace is such that where an action might be conceived or conceivable it rests at the point of an image. There is not time for the reader to conceive a slow durational unfolding sequence of activity. The before, the now and the to come happen as instances, in order, and linked by the reader seeing and reading them, but the links remain brittle, and may not be sustained beyond another frame.

The structuring and generating rules have been set up (and the corpus of elements chosen) not to produce a series of six-word lists, or random jumbles, mere selections from some pool. The organisation of the sets by part of speech, and their arrangement in a string, follows from grammatical expectations and suggests particular relations between the parts. So does the inevitable and unavoidable sequence, from top to bottom, from left to right. This is the order of reading. It is difficult to resist these reading norms due to the pace at which the strings pass, and though the strings may split in their display (into two sets of three words each, or into pairs), the reading order is supported.[9]

carabiner below beard mouth below bench

If the six words fall into two phrase-blocks, there is a temporal relation of before and after, of first and second. However, the temporal markers we might expect from a narrative are missing (or hidden). Verbs (when the reader is certain that this word is a verb) are in the infinitive or a present tense indicative, so giving little sense of a relation to past and future, or to the person involved in the activity. The preponderance of prepositions gives some temporal information, and as a number of these prepositions can operate both spatially and temporally (outside, at, after, …) relations in space and time are placed written held thrown. Prepositions, including ‘to’ ‘by’ and ‘on’, can be combined with verbs suggesting extended variations in reading the spatial and temporal content of the six-word phrases.

stick to step stop after house

The elements of the different bodies of words from which the components of the six-word strings are drawn have characteristics of their given part of speech. They also come to have some genre sense as they associate with each other in the mind of the reader as instances of the group being selected from. In the case of the last word of the string – word six – the instances suggest some context or location or place or site for the action. The range of words within this set proposes a particular understanding of how, where, to whom, and or why an action might ‘take place’. Similarly, the set of verbs may guide the primary sense of what is ‘being done’.

microphone by gums shout at crowds

As I read or encounter or watch the appearance of each six-word unit, I recognise them as singular, as isolated. Each appearance displaces the previous example, in a continuous string of equivalences. The frames are equivalent at the level of structure, as instances in the ongoing process, as outcomes of the software process, and as actions that are by or of or from the artist. Each ‘action score’ offers a multiplicity of possible interpretations, and in the moment of watching and reading this multiplicity is limited by the emergence of a new string with a new infinity of possible responses. The scores display in a suspension between concepts of doing in the reader’s reading and seeing them, in the possibilities of their being carried out, and the possibility of their being repeated (indefinitely).[10]

typewriter into bucket listen outside room

 

reading time

This material on screen, these words, have a status as visual images (something to be seen), as text (something to be read) and as instruction (something to be done). This status is volatile and shifting, and while in one moment I notice a particular distribution of the blocks of letters (as each in a set of six longer words occupies one line), this may be followed by a two- or three-line set. The flicker and jump from one frame to another can be more or less dramatic, with bits that appear stable when every now and again the ‘same’ word appears in the ‘same’ position. In recognising this ‘same’, some of what I recognise is the shape of that word, and some of it is the sound, and some is the reference. The word or letter groups are noticed at an iconic level, where the ‘same’ image repeats, or where the arrangement of the six-word units recurs. This ‘sameness’ differs from the ‘sameness’ that I recognise in seeing a recurrence of parts of the body, or an association of locations, of sites. In this recognition, some taxonomic grouping is occurring so that a non-visual relation or connection is coming into my awareness. My ‘reading’ then slips between these different modes.[11]

tongue inside ear repeat onto gallery

I see shapes of word blocks, I see groups of letter shapes, and I see ‘movement’ between the ‘frames’ in a sort of animation. I recognise terms that recur, and over a longer reading or watching, I come to notice more of these. But, as the strings slip by quickly, only immediately recurring terms become strongly noted, so a word appearing in two successive strings is identified, where another word may be noticed as having appeared on numerous occasions but without the reader being able to point to precisely when or where.

nails into piercing pierce into hole

As an animation the changing text on screen has visual qualities, of spatial matching or shadow or fade, and these might echo poetic or verbal qualities of rhyme and assonance. Where a word repeats in a similar position, or as a word replaces another on the screen there are possibilities for comparison and for memory. Along with the rhythm of the slide or frame changes, these additional temporal and visual aspects extend the reading of the six-word strings beyond being verbal instructions in the present.

rope in hands knot with audience

 

action code

As I watch and read I ask what is acting, and what is being acted on, within these frames and potentials for action. The verbs link body parts or body related things (clothing, accessories, objects) to locations or places or sites. The body parts are related to objects (things and places) by prepositions, and the verbal relations are modified by another set of prepositions. These things, these objects function to prompt an action. Their being there with the potential to be operated on or acted upon or moved or changed situates them as props, and links them to tools or toys.[12]

tambourine inside pants drop onto car

In its combination of limited components that are organised in a set grammatical relation, each of these scores has something of the visual or sight gag. There feels to be a basic contradiction in this as a sight gag is defined as depending on action rather than speech, and all I am given here are words. Yet it is as if in merely listing the ingredients and the main actions for a scenario the reader is left room to imagine the consequences. In slapstick, a particular combination of elements (the chair, the bucket, the lemon, the plank … ) may need to come into assembly, into conjunction, in order that the drop, the throw, the scatter can happen. These scores proposing interactions or encounters of a body with an inanimate object in a scene or at a site whisper ghosts of silent cinema.[13]

soap below shoe strangle between door

And the words go by quickly, certainly I can’t carry out what they suggest, another set of six appears before I have processed the one before me. I can quickly read, recognise, internally sound, parse the words, but they don’t give me time for them to set into a clear command or to form into a stable image of an action. There’s always more, and each one is enough, as another intertitle flickers past in this silent text action movie.

socks on bath inhale beside shops

 

references

Angel, Maria and Anna Gibbs (2010) ‘Memory and Motion: The Body in Electronic Writing’, in Jörgen Schäfer and Peter Gendolla, eds. Beyond the Screen: Transformations of Literary Structures, Interfaces and Genres. Bielefeld: Transcript (Media Upheavals series, volume 44), 123-135

Camera/Action: Performance and Photography, Oct 15 — Dec 23, 2004, MOCP, Columbia College, Chicago at http://www.mocp.org/exhibitions/2004/10/cameraaction-performance-and-photography.php

Cayley, John (2006) ‘Time Code Language: New Media Poetics and Programmed Signification’ in Adelaide Morris and Thomas Swiss, eds. New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 307-333

Duran, Nicholas D. et al (2007) ‘Using temporal cohesion to predict temporal coherence in narrative and expository texts’, Behavior Research Methods, 39(2), 212-223

Eskelinen, Markku (2004) ‘Towards Computer Game Studies’, Electronic Book Review; http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/firstperson/anticolonial accessed: 09 / 09 / 2014

Ferris, Sharmila Pixy (2002) ‘Writing Electronically: The Effects of Computers on Traditional Writing’, Journal of Electronic Publishing, 8(1) http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/3336451.0008.104 accessed: 08 / 09 / 2014

Friedman, Ken; Owen Smith and Lauren Sawchyn eds. (2002), ‘Fluxus Performance Workbook’ (a digital supplement to) Performance Research 7(3) ‘On Fluxus’, London: Routledge / Taylor & Francis

Harren, Natilee (2012) La cédille qui ne finit pas: Robert Filliou, George Brecht, and Fluxus in Villefranche (deregulation version), Art & Education, http://www.artandeducation.net/paper/la-cedille-qui-ne-finit-pas-robert-filliou-george-brecht-and-fluxus-in-villefranche/ accessed: 08 / 09 / 2014

Kotz, Liz (2001) ‘Post-Cagean Aesthetics and the “Event” Score’, October 95, 54-89, Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/779200  accessed: 24/09/2013

Manovich, Lev (2001) The Language of New Media, Cambridge, MA: MIT

McCaffery, Steve (2000) ‘Writing as a General Economy’, North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973 – 1986, New York: Roof Books, 201-221

Rosenberg, Jim (1993). The Word the Play Attaching at a Wide Interval. Leonardo, 26(3), 259-260.

Rosenberg, Jim (1993) ‘The Word the Play Attaching at a Wide Interval’ ; http://www.well.com/user/jer/twtp.html, accessed: 08 / 09 / 2014

Stephens, Paul, (2012) ‘From the Personal to the Proprietary: Conceptual Writing’s Critique of Metadata’, Digital Humanities Quarterly, 6(2), http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/6/2/000124/000124.html accessed: 11/11/ 2013

Snow, Michael (1982) So Is This, available online: http://www.ubu.com/film/snow_so.html

Testa, Bart (2002) ‘Screen Words: Early Film and Avant-Garde Film in the House of the Word’, Symposion: Early Cinema and the Avant-Garde, http://www.sixpackfilm.com/archive/veranstaltung/festivals/earlycinema/symposion/symposion_testa.html#1 accessed: 11 / 11/ 2013

Trahair, L.(2002). ‘Short-circuiting the Dialectic: Narrative and Slapstick in the Cinema of Buster Keaton’. Narrative 10(3), 307-325.

Vanderborg, Susan, (2011) ‘Transformations of the Poetry Book as General Economy: Darren Wershler-Henry’s the tapeworm foundry’, Contemporary Literature, 52(1), 146-174

Wershler-Henry, Darren, (2000) the tapeworm foundry andor the dangerous prevalence of imagination. Toronto: Anansi

notes

[1] One of Ken Friedman’s scores reads: ‘Mandatory Happening: You will decide to read or not read this instruction. Having made your decision, the happening is over.’ (Ken Friedman, 1966, ‘Fluxus Performance Workbook’, p 41) Friedman is a key member of the group of artists who have worked under the banner of Fluxus. His work with scores and instructions utilises and refers to musical and performance conventions, and operates with absurdities of language, objects or action. In ‘Mandatory Happening’ the impossibility of unreading and imperative voice of a score generate an absurd (in)action.

[2] Eskelinen (2004) developing a distinction between aspects of narrative theory and theories of games, articulates a difference of event and time in the two modes. “A sequence of events enacted constitutes a drama, a sequence of events taking place a performance, a sequence of events recounted a narrative, and perhaps a sequence of events produced by manipulating equipment and following formal rules constitutes a game. […] In games, the dominant temporal relation is the one between user time and event time and not the narrative one between story time and discourse time.”

[3] See Ferris (2002) who discusses reading writing following from the work of Walter J. Ong who described writing as a fixing of the oral in a material artefact. Ferris considers how electronic writing facilitates fluid modes of backward scanning, and other states of active reading. The matter of materiality is also addressed in Angel and Gibbs (2010) where reading is considered as a gestural activity in time and engaging physical memory.

[4] This intersection of performance action and its perpetuation or living-on in a still and privileged image is explored in the exhibition Camera/Action (2004) which included iconic performance images by Valie Export, and Vito Acconci, among others. One of Hayley Newman’s Connotations series was included. Newman’s photographs in this series raise questions around the truth status of the photographic moment in performance art, and its value as document and as archive. As certain performance works exist ‘only’ as a score, so others may ‘survive’ only as an image.

[5] Darren Wershler-Henry’s ‘the tapeworm foundry’ (2000) is a continuous looping linking text of possible and potential performances and actions. Vanderborg (2011), referring to Georges Bataille and Steve McCaffery, situates Wershler-Henry’s book in a poetics of excess and a general economy, in opposition to or critical of restricted neo-liberal cultural-economic models. The general economy “will engender neither uses nor exchanges but eruptions without purpose within structures of restraint” (McCaffery, 203). The book as foundry, like ASG, is another (re)production model.

[6] This sense of making and writing as an assembly of available elements, selected from a taxonomised body of material is examined by Paul Stephens (2012). This draws on ‘database logic’ of Lev Manovich (2001) and the body of practice that may be gathered at the intersection of ‘conceptual poetry’ and ‘database aesthetics’. From Manovich’s work in The Language of New Media (2001) might be drawn an opposition between narrative and database logic. The activity of the ASG constructs word strings structured through a set of operations on a database. The grammatical rules and word-to-word sequences put in place the possibility of narrative readings of these.

[7] One model of collage poetics is Robert Filliou’s ‘suspense poems’ or ‘object poems’. The poems were constructed of wooden sections which could be linked to each other by means of small metal hooks, and suspended on a wall. “The suspense poem is a signifying chain through which meaning oscillates, unwilling to settle—is suspended, we should say—a phenomenon further emphasized by its openness to rearrangement.” (Harren, 2012) Filliou’s ’object poems’ included in their physical make-up combinatory ’rules’, such as the direction of the hooks, that determined to some extent which word might link to which, and what way up they could be suspended.

[8] For one expansion on these ideas of time and event in reading (on screen and off), see Cayley (2006). One of the artists whose work Cayley discusses is Jim Rosenberg. Rosenberg’s short text ‘The Word the Play Attaching at a Wide Interval’ explores a practice of poetry treating words as material for and in combination. “ […] a fixed set of words, composed in advance of the poem where the word is atomic, a moveable catalysis object (sign stuff dissolved, a resonance token indivisible but with valence): […]The reaching for the word becomes nearly physical, as if pulling it from its place on a signboard. Make the word new by putting it outside, bringing it inside again as super-word, then putting it outside again: […]a flow cycle reaction arena, a self-sustaining word process …” (Rosenberg, 1993).

[9] There is an iconicity assumption that underpins the reading of actions as occurring in the sequence they are read (there is an assumed match between order and occurrence). There is a learnt habit that influences the order in which the words on screen are read, and for the reader then to assume that order refers to or reflects a temporal sequence. See (Duran et al, 2007, 215).

[10] In an essay that explores the ‘event score’ in work by George Brecht, La Monte Young and others associated with Fluxus, Liz Kotz positions these works in relation to music and art practice of the early 1960s. The status of the event as a singularity, a response to a score or an interpretation of instructions in a specific moment is considered against, or in opposition to, the repetition and difference of instances of performance. “The singularity of the event does not preclude its repeatability, but in fact permits it.” (Kotz, 2001, p. 79)

[11] This experience of reading may be compared to the experience of watching (or reading) Michael Snow’s So Is This (1982), where a self-referential discussion of the film being watched is presented word by word on screen. In white on black the words are adjusted to fill the screen space, adding another layer of movement to the flash from frame to frame. “[T]he pacing of the film finds us sometimes staring at a single word for long periods, or looking at short words looming large in comparison to long words, which look small. Often that short word is “This.” Snow forces us to look, then, by suspending our sentences in mid air. What visual variations there are still suffice to emphasize that these are pictures of words blown up from type and remade into light. This is what we look at. This is what we also read.” (Testa, 2002).

[12] In her discussion of the Fluxus ‘event score’, Liz Kotz quotes George Maciunas as describing these works as “gag-like”, “it’s like a gag” (Kotz, 82). For Maciunas this derives in part from the ‘monomorphism’ of a Fluxus work, its simplicity, the ordinary nature of its components, the focus on the materials (text or objects) (Kotz, 83).

[13] The work of Buster Keaton could be seen to exemplify this manipulation of objects on at around above beside the body to generate a sequence of initiation and effect, with an outcome that exhausts itself in the event. The ‘gag’ functions excessively, extraneous to a narrative onward drive, looping and folding in a present of stand up, trip, fall down. See Trahair (2002) for a discussion of Keaton’s work that places it at an intersection of narrative and slapstick, deliberately working with a sustained tension between a general and a restricted economy. As in Steve McCaffery’s development of Bataille’s ideas, the general and restricted economies do not exclude or wholly displace each other. They remain in a “complex interaction” (McCaffery, 203).