Article in Caracteres Vol. 6, No.1


I’m very happy that the full-length, original English version of a text I wrote about illegibility has been included in the new issue of Caracteres, a digital humanities peer-reviewed journal. Caracteres is edited in Salamanca, Spain, and publishes articles in various languages. Aside from texts about gaming, data visualization, and digital archives, this issue includes a research dossier by a group of Czech linguists. The PDF version of Caracteres Vol. 6, No. 1 can be downloaded here, and the browser-based version of my text is here.


Diaspora as “written” by Reverse OCR, a Twitter bot by Darius Kazemi. I mention this in my article 🙂

Notes on the Poetics of Erasure

hablemos en blanco
hablemos perdiendo los signos

repitamos el primer y último acto
de ser devueltos
en la cópula mínima
del polvo
en la luz

Hanni Ossott

On a visit to the 2016 Prix Canson show at New York’s Drawing Center, I came across the work of finalist Bethany Collins. She presented two series addressing the obliteration of the written word. The first consisted of practically illegible paragraphs, printed on paper, then torn and shredded except for certain isolated words; the other, a set of loose pages from the Southern Review, in which she had blacked out parts of the text (sometimes all of it) with ink. This confluence of literary and graphic subtraction, framed within a visual art exhibition, led me for the first time to interrogate the operation of erasing as an aesthetics and a poetics.


Art history is full of erasure, blurring and coating of diverse nature: we know about petroglyphs obliterated by the elements or the neglect of humans, texts carved in stone eroded by the wind, papyrus faded by water. We have seen x-rays of paintings that reveal hidden drawings, discarded and coated. There are also intentional erasure strategies that seek to add meaning while subtracting content from an image or text, and take the image or palimpsest to be as a sculpted stone; through these erasures, artists dialogue, criticize, abolish. Finally, we deal with the complication of the notion of “erasing” in the electronic realm –deletions that happen in closed spaces and open spaces within themselves–, and the use of erasure as a creative strategy in digital art.

It could be said that the “primary” erasure is that produced by the passage of time and the incidence of nature. Many of the texts from Antiquity that survive to this day contain blank spaces (usually denoted with brackets in transcripts) caused by stains, missing pieces, and wear. The text is thus “half-accessed,” and yet both translator and reader are able to interpret the whole of its meaning and its poetics. For instance, this fragment of a poem by Sappho discovered in 2014:

They whose fortune the king of Olympus wishes
Now to turn from trouble
to (…) are blessed
and lucky beyond compare.

As for us, if Larichus should (…) his head
And at some point become a man,
Then from full many a despair
Would we be swiftly freed.

(Transtlation by Tim Whitmarsh, published by The Guardian)

Researcher and poet Travis Macdonald argues that blank spaces in ancient documents have their own weight within the text: “We read  into them history’s tumult.” Depending on their position in the verse, the punctuation that influences them, the words that precede them, etc., these spaces can lend themselves to a greater or lesser degree of speculation, allowing the reader to participate in the construction of the meaning of the text. This is a good starting point to delve into the poetics of erasure.

In his essay “A Brief History of Erasure Poetics”, Macdonald proposes a continuity between the erasures of Sappho and the work of Armand Schwerner. In 1968, the American writer published the first part of his magnum opus, The Tablets: poems presented as archaeological finds, transcribed by a “scholar/translator” and with the following legend: “(….)” represents untranslatable passages, “+++” stands for missing text, (?) provide variant readings, and “[]” indicate “sections supplied by the scholar/translator.” Schwerner simulated the onslaught of time on a text (of his authorship) attributed to an imaginary society, the meaning of which is presented as doubly opaque. On the one hand, the translator frequently “doubts” his own reconstructions and presents multiple meanings for the same word –which complicates and broadens the meaning of texts. He also eventually intervenes to question the authenticity of a certain tablet. On the other hand, the supposed physical deterioration of the tablets generates absences and, in general, calls into question the veracity of the structures that are introduced. Similar to The Tablets, though with obvious structural differences, is the work of Jackson Mac Low, an American poet and composer affiliated to the Fluxus movement. Between 1953-1954, Mac Low created a “found” poetry experiment with passages from the Bible,  titled 5 Biblical Poems. The title of each poem contains a series of numbers that indicate the number of “events” in each line. Each event, Travis Macdonald explains, is a word or a mark of “/ ____ /,” indicating a silence of the duration that the reader chooses. While Schwerner arbitrarily modified his text, Mac Low used dice to decide how many “events” would occur on each line. We deal with two kinds of “organizing criteria” for erasure: a continuous one, which simulates climate and time, and a discrete one, more attached to the conventional meaning of algorithmic. In both cases, the association of erasure and wear with the antique –millenary tablets, Biblical verses– is evident: the text is rendered inaccessible either by its physical conditions or by its mysterious origin.

Mac Low recommended that readers be guided by their own heart rate to determine how quickly to perform the poem (a biological algorithm). Since the text was created with the explicit purpose of being read aloud, it could be said that here absence is a functional element: the blank spaces fulfill an interpretive function or, rather, serve as a sort of musical notation, as they represent a measure of time and, according to Macdonald, “the physical silence imposed by the poet.”



Another pioneer of subtractive poetry is Ronald Johnson, whose work Radio Os (1977) is a careful erasure of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Inspired by the musical voids in Lukas Foss’s Baroque Variations, Johnson impulsively bought a copy of Milton’s Poetic Work and began to cross out entire lines. The result is a “poem-by-excision” from Paradise Lost, which can be interpreted either as a derivative of the original or as an original product (and practice). Some, like Anderson himself, say that this is not a mere revision of a text but the creation of something original: Paradise Lost is the space in which Johnson sought to generate a meaning of his own (always in dialogue with the base text); therefore, Radi Os, as an independent text, does not belong to Milton. Travis Macdonald characterizes the excision process involved in Radi Os as that of a sculptor: “Johnson approaches a preexisting work with the knife of a sculptor and carefully grazes its surface, which gives rise to a strong relief.” In his view, the resulting work belongs to both writers or to none, since both the spatial disposition of the text and the vocabulary are by Milton, while the “voids” and the meaning of the text are by Johnson. In this case, erasure is a strategy to generate a “friction” (in Macdonald’s words) between aesthetics and expressions.

A fourth practitioner of erasure poetry (though his work is also painterly) is British writer Tom Phillips, who in 1966 set out to intervene a second-hand book from start to finish, employing techniques such as collage, painting and trimming. Phillips used a forgotten Victorian novel entitled A Human Document, by W.H. Mallock, and called his own work A Humument. Since its alteration began, A Humument has gone through innumerable transformations and has been edited in at least 30 versions. Phillips draws on the text, hides it, mutilates it, highlights it, blurs the line between illustration and type. His selections of words are sometimes arbitrary, sometimes determined by self-imposed algorithms; this renders the experience of reading the novel fragmentary.


Continue reading “Notes on the Poetics of Erasure”

Corina Lipavsky and the expresiveness of the error

This is an article/review about researcher and artist Corina Lipavsky’s found footage work. The Spanish version has been published in my column at the ONG Blog 🙂. I interviewed Corina after stumbling across her work online, and it was very satisfying to find some coincidences in our lines of research and interests. She holds a Masters degree in Digital Studies and develops a teaching practice as well.

Corina Lipavksy is a Venezuelan multimedia artist and image researcher based in Bogotá. Her practice involves digital art, animation, performance, installation, and sound art. Through each of these media she develops investigations on the notion of “poor image,” defined by Hito Steyerl in her essay “In Defense of the Poor Image” (2009). According to Steyerl, the poor image is a “copy in movement,” a highly “shareable” and malleable digital file that loses quality as it circulates through networks and is downloaded and uploaded, even remixed or modified. These poor images, for instance, constitute the global system of digital piracy, but also function as expressive and democratizing vehicles of visual culture. However, beyond their social or economic value, Lipavsky is interested in their aesthetics –the visible traces of their degradation.

from Cor-rupt © Corina Lipavsky

Lipavsky also explores what she calls “the aesthetics of the error,” which is not necessarily the same as the aesthetics of the poor image. While the poor image is degraded a result of the “organic” process of corruption that occurs over cycles of decoding, the “error” lies precisely in the encoding/decoding of the file –for instance, a reading error might cause an operation to be interrupted. In visual terms, the “error” is usually associated with the glitch: aberrant lines, characters that stack up, corrupted colors, frozen motion, misshapen textures, and any other element that distorts an image to some degree. Glitch art, on the other hand, is the practice of employing these aesthetics of graphic error (the “domesticated glitch” in the words of Rosa Menkman) as a means of expression, through the intentional corruption of a code or manipulation of a device.


Few digital processes are perfect and we often encounter disruptions in our use of electronic devices, but we do not perceive those “everyday” errors as symbolic or critical elements. However, glitch art inscribes the technical error within the scope of the work of art: an intentional mistake that is intended to generate a reflection, either on the materiality of the digital image or on a more abstract notion to which reference is made through error. One might say, then, that the “problem” of glitch art arises when distinguishing between a technical failure and an error with semiotic charge.

By employing the glitch in her artistic practice, Lipavsky refers to and reflects on the specific processes of digital media. This discourse is enhanced by her interest in the use of archival and found footage, which she claims to work with since 2005. Her current practice involves illustrations and photographs found through Google searches, as well as stills extracted from classical films that she intervenes and deteriorates.

The Nostalgia series (2014), for example, is a selection of images from iconic films that takes its title from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia. The result of Lipavsky’s interventions are repetitive patterns, horizontal lines, and color blocks. The original palette of each frame shifts completely after this aesthetic reconfiguration, while recognizable figures are duplicated and cut. The image, which in its original state might be evocative and romantic, becomes a violent and corrupt memory.


Continue reading “Corina Lipavsky and the expresiveness of the error”