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Partie III : Poésie

Artifice and Medium-Specific Art: Poetry Performance and Film

Geneviève Cohen-Cheminet


L’article présente un objet digital constituée d’une bande-annonce et d’un DVD qui est l’archive filmée numérisée de deux performances-conférences du poète Jerome Rothenberg à la Sorbonne et à l’ENS-LSH Lyon, en Novembre 2005. Le travail de montage entrepris avec la cinéaste Meryem De Lagarde a révélé des processus d’intermédialité (remediation), d’immédiateté et d’hypermédiateté qui reconfigurent la résistance de l’artifice, telle que le Modernisme nous l’a léguée, en une conscience ambiguë de la fascination contemporaine pour l’image. Le montage a enfin soulevé les questions du genre du film poétique, de la fidélité au médium en art et de l’impact de l’art critique.

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1The idea of this 10 mn trailer came up when film artist Meryem De Lagarde and I started editing the eight hour raw footage of the two conferences which poet Jerome Rothenberg gave first at the Sorbonne (November 16, 2005) and then at ENS-LSH in Lyon (November 23, 2005). We thought poetry lovers would enjoy a preview or a foretaste of the DVD film now available:

(Icône de la bande-annonce)

(Icône de la bande-annonce)

Jerome Rothenberg, Double Change n° 2 – Archive filmée de poésie édition bilingue (français / anglais)– 2005-2006 (DVD), durée 1 h 56, collection Motion Method Memory, Edité par Abigail Lang et Dominique Pasqualini, Réalisé par Meryem Delagarde et Présenté par Geneviève Cohen-Cheminet, les Presses du Réel, 2009.
ISBN: 978-2-84066-300-3
EAN: 9782840663003

2This DVD was sponsored in a partnership of Vale (Texte et Critique du Texte, Dirs. Professor Pierre Iselin, Professor Elisabeth Angel-Perez), CATI (Ecole Doctorale IV, Paris IV Sorbonne, Dir. Professor Marie Madeleine Martinet) and CEP (Centre d’Etudes Poétiques ENS-LSH Lyon, Dir. Professor Jean Marie Gleize, and the help of Benoît Auclerc) and with the active support of Service Communication Sorbonne and BIU (Bibliothèque Inter-Universitaire de la Sorbonne). It was later produced and distributed by Presses du Réel. The idea of a DVD originated from a Double Change DVD collection based on poetry readings in Paris which had featured poets whom film artist Meryem De Lagarde first took to filming as raw footage, then edited as experimental poetry films. Editing the uncut strip of film into feature film format with her was an eye-opening experience as it allowed contingent, short-lived poetry performances to be archived and preserved for the benefit of future audiences well outside their native, insular venues and beyond their local time. Poetry could thus state its affirmative potential to create cross-border communities.

3Archiving a poetry performance as feature-length film in DVD format does not merely add a digital garb to an otherwise unchanged film or poetry performance. It takes stock of the contemporary view of reception as reader empowerment. Keeping visual and audio track of a performing poet means shifting partial responsibility for art from poet to audience. For the film artist and poetry reader, it meant producing a reflexive, reflective digital object in line with Jerome Rothenberg’s aesthetics of experimental and avant-garde poetry practices. The DVD and trailer are thus digital artefacts in their own rights and they complete the initial poetry conference project: etymologically, an art-factum joins ars— skill, crafstmanship or worksmanship — and ‘factum, neuter past participle of facere to make’ (Oxford English Dictionary). While Meryem and I worked together for weeks on the DVD in her studio (from January to March 2006), I gradually overcame my diffidence over my lack of professional training as I realised that editing also involved facing issues I was more familiar with: issues of narrative-free or narrative-liberated montage (beginning, ending, perspective, narratorial authority, linearity, chronology, cross cutting, flash cutting, cutaway), issues of intentionality and constructedness (master shots, continuity editing or dynamic cutting, from one take to the next, from one site or one voice-over to the next). Editing the uncut strip of film implied aesthetic choices which we discussed endlessly once raw footage had been downloaded to digital format for computer processing- ie the speed of images vs the speed of the soundtrack; rhythm vs perception; photographic analogic truth vs digital image processing (digital brushstrokes, image correction, retouching, halftoning, color correcting, shading); highlights, graphic effects on surfaces vs dense shadows and depth of focus; transition vs disjunction or juxtaposition; visual tropes and structuring figures (echo, repetition, parallelism, opposition, etc.). All these issues overlap with concerns familiar to poetry readers and open up two fields of inquiry for poetry and film art, mainly the crossover of poetry and digital film, and then the issue of medium-specific art.

The Crossover of Poetry and Digital Film

  • 1  ‘Each new medium is justified because it fills a lack or repairs a fault in its predecessor, becau (...)

4Our collaborative work showed the crossover of poetry and digital film technologies did not outdate earlier sets of aesthetic principles associated with older media (printing, photography, film or audio recording). Here, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s influential concept of re-mediation helps understand how the digital medium does not break with older media forms but re-mediates, refashions, remixes and repurposes them, while being also dialectically affected by them (‘[...] we call the representation of one medium in another remediation, and we will argue that remediation is a defining characteristic of the new digital media.’ Bolter and Grusin 45). What makes their research groundbreaking is the way they describe how digital technologies (the WWWeb, virtual and augmented reality, computer graphics or video games) do not divorce themselves from earlier media but re-mediate their predecessors (printing, perspective painting, analogic photography, TV, film).1Strikingly enough, newer media mature and engage in a ‘double logic’ (2) according to which digital media react to older media forms in a dialectical pattern of borrowing and refashioning, remixing and repurposing (273). Incidentally, this explains why the photorealist or hyperrealist paintings of such visual artists as Ralph Goings, Ben Schonzeit or Richard Estes do not outdate photography but remediate photography (Lebensztejn). This ongoing process of media interaction or cross-fertilization debunks the claim that technological innovation destroys cultural traditions in a linear uphill progression. And this attention to media interaction changed my perception of the DVD and trailer. Set in this larger context of re-mediation or intermediality, they raised anew the issue of representation which I will now look into as it involves notions of artifice and transparency.

5Bolter and Grusin elaborate on two modes of media interaction, ‘immediacy and hypermediacy’. The strategy of remediation they call ‘immediacy’ is defined as

‘[...] a style of visual representation whose goal is to make the viewer forget the presence of the medium (canvas, photographic film, cinema and so on) and believe that he is in the presence of the objects of representation. (272-273) [...] In formal terms, the desire for immediacy is the desire to get beyond the medium to the objects of representation themselves. ‘(83).

6Digital applications can erase the sense of the medium and ‘achieve an immediate (and hence) authentic emotional response’ (53). Such a desire for immediacy and for transparent representation is thwarted by the use of artifice which makes the presence of the medium felt. Artifice would be felt as a violation of the naturality of perception: whatever is said to be artificial is seen as insincerity, useless decorativeness or sluggishness. Bolter and Grusin strikingly note that the desire for immediacy has been fulfilled over the centuries by ever-improving technologies from painting to photography down to digital cameras, and is unlikely to be dropped. That immediacy should clash with Jerome Rothenberg’s poetics will come as no surprise. It is specifically premised on the formalist, anti-realistic stance which Marjorie Perloff terms Radical Artifice. Jerome Rothenberg’s anthologies like Writing Through Translations and Variations, which had just been published at the time of the DVD, or Pre-Faces, like Poetics and Polemics 1980-2005 published in 2008, amply demonstrate how ‘othering’ comes through non-linear experiments, sound poetry, concrete poetry (e.g. Gomringer, Seneca Indian Richard Johnny John), collage or through modified chance operations (e.gGematria or Fourteen Stations). What I had not anticipated before editing the film was that this view of poetic artifice resisting transparency and immediacy would be disrupted by the law of tekhnè, the digital film as milieu, medium and instrument. What unexpectedly surfaced was that the use of digital artifice did not block immediacy but better responded to a need for immediacy.

7The realisation that digital artifice might also be on the side of immediacy surfaced very gradually. Pitting the finally edited images against my experience of the conferences (the anxiety over the presentations, the paperwork involved in planning, coordinating, etc.) forced the awkward realization that I was still struggling with the unsophisticated witness’s desire to create a snug fit between image and experience. I had contradictory hopes: that the DVD would be a documentary and a film poem; that the DVD would find a form specific to film art but empirically congruent with my experience of Jerry Rothenberg’s poetry. I was prepared for artifice as a disruption of the organicist continuum between art and life, but less prepared for the realisation that such artifice claimed to be artistic in a media environment where the distinction between art and non-art has disappeared.

  • 2  Poets House opened in September 2009 and is located on 10 River Terrace in Battery Park City, New (...)

8From the start, Meryem had made frontal, reflexive choices. They were not artifice-oriented decisions in the sense of arty, affectedly artistic effects: for example, there is no background music, no narrative film atmosphere, no graphic arts manipulations and no biographical statement extolling the ‘greatest American living poet’ about to be presented (unlike the 2009 poetry film called Curses and Sermons, based on a poem by Michael McClure, directed by Nic Saunders, winner of the 2008 Berkeley Video Film Festival). Meryem’s style is closer to the Add-Verse Project installation with its stern focus on hands, book, fixed positions and its emphasis on voice utterance, or to the New York Poets House agenda.2 Her micro-decisions when filming and editing reveal an understated experimentation whose effect is not to unsettle viewers but to make them slightly more aware of their visual habits. This is what I call reflexive artifice: an informed practice unobtrusively opening up space for reflective pause. For example, Meryem started the DVD with the critical voice of literary analysis and the intertitles pointing to location and credits, thus foregrounding the text/word interplay. In the introductory takes, she repeatedly filmed Sorbonne students watching the camera watching them while walking along Galerie Gerson or standing in a doorway or listening to Jerry, thus foregrounding the act of gazing and being gazed at, of averting the gaze or gazing back, which is at the heart of performance (or cinema, photography, theater and performance arts, for that matter). Or she placed a critical voice-over expounding poetical issues over images of people walking, standing or working, thus dissociating visual aural perceptions from discourse-based understanding. Another example is the way Meryem shot numerous windows and bookshelves which seemed disconnected from the performance, or filmed the mausoleum-like architecture of the ENS Lyon library, nonetheless echoeing a poet’s concern for the usefulness of printed knowledge (‘we look at the world through printed pages-/dirty panes of glass’ Charles Reznikoff 159). This unobtrusive approach to film art is combined with a sense of social, economic conditions. The way Meryem shot the anonymous glazier repairing an old Sorbonne window, or filmed the antiquated design of the empty Sorbonne main library, or used the close-up of a faceless janitor switching off the lights in our auditorium after clearing away the extra chairs which had been used matter-of-factly by the audience — all these are so many social comments on what makes the enjoyment of art and the production of culture possible. Later in the day, the visual association of poetry performance, culturally considered to be the essence of disinterestedness or engagement, and a red Caisse d’Epargne neon logo lit in the cold November night, is another impish comment which lays bare the concrete condition of poetry in academia and its (ir)relevance to mainstream society.

9Now, there are two possible ways of reading Meryem’s use of visual artifice. One is to consider that artifice belongs in our Modernist inheritance which foregrounds visual or textual elements and joins forces with those artworks which are or were purposefully distinct from easily recognisable forms, transparent communication or expository language. There is a whole tradition of such artworks. In his anthologies or in the collection of essays edited by Charles Bernstein and entitled The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy, Jerry Rothenberg takes great pleasure charting all those artists who in the visual and textual arts valued the cleansing function of artifice which he calls ‘the hygiene of artifice’. His ‘genealogy of the notion of clean sweep necessary to cure poetry and the world’ includes among others,

[... Tristan Tzara’s 1918 Dada Manifesto] - like the blueprint for a hygienic act of deconstruction- he wrote: ‘there is a great negative work of deconstruction to be done. Cleaning. Sweeping. The cleanliness of the individual asserts itself after the state of madness- the aggressive complete madness of a world left in the hands of bandits, who vandalize & destroy centuries.’

  • 3  Complete quote: ‘A line of poetry is a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accu (...)

[Hugo Ball] ‘A line of poetry is a chance to get rid of all the filfth that clings to language, to get rid of language itself. I want the word where it ends and begins. Dada is the heart of words.’ 3

  • 4  Complete quote: ‘My own (moral) program can be briefly stated [...] To write badly is an offense t (...)

[...William Carlos Williams on Gertrude Stein] [ ...] ‘going systematically to work smashing every connotation that words ever had, in order to get them back clean. ’  [... Or in a March 1950 letter to Robert Creeley] ‘Bad art is then that which does not serve in the continual service of cleansing the language of all fixations upon dead, stinking dead usages of the past. Sanitation and hygiene or sanitation that we may have hygienic writing.’ (Bernstein 1990, 2) 4

  • 5  ‘The distinction between poetic and expository language is key here. Exposition, in its effort to (...)

10Poetic language is reclaimed through artifice which sets a limit on the encroachment of the familiar and the clear, and it guards the shrinking domain of the difficult, the unreadable or the non-entertaining. Opaque indirection and non-absorptive resistance are meant to restore what Lyn Hejinian calls ‘palpability to the world which habit and familiarity otherwise obscure.’ in The Language of Inquiry (Hejinian 301).5 Such an understanding of art as art-ifice, which is reminiscent of a Poundian Cleaners Manifesto, is implicit whenever artifice is said to be the necessary condition of poetry (Robert Duncan ‘The function of poetry is to debunk by lucidity’ Bertholf). Artifice is meant to give readers the experience of an ‘enstrangement’, ‘a making strange’, which is the translation of the Russian Formalist notion of ostranenie. This is a prerequisite to the reflexive ‘experience of experiencing’ inherent to poetry (Hejinian 301). Self-conscious, opaque artifice is bent on its own revelation.

11This is where the other diverging reading of visual artifice in a digital environment might step in. Seen from the perspective of the digital medium, artifice is part of yet another strategy of remediation called ‘hypermediacy’: Bolter and Grusin define hypermediacy as ‘[a] style of visual representation whose goal is to remind the viewer of the medium’ (272) by making him/her highly or ‘hyper’ conscious of their act of watching. What makes this notion disturbingly provocative is that hypermediacy is not the polar opposite of immediacy; in fact it toys with our common desire for immediacy by foregrounding the act of seeing. It uses self-referential means for the same end, which is our need for transparent representation, the prerequisite for fuller, satiated enjoyment. The use of hypermediate artifice ‘seek[s] the real by multiplying mediation so as to create a feeling of fullness, a satiety of experience, which can be taken as reality’ (53). Bolter and Grusin do not view self-referential emphasis on the act of representation over the object represented as a rejection of mimesis but as the contemporary form of our fascination with the medium itself (53-54). Self-referential artifice which ceases to be opposed to transparent representation is the flip side of the same coin, so to speak. An example of this hypermediate use of stylistic effect could be the slightly too long shots of the Sorbonne cobblestones which heighten the immediate sense of reality of the film. Such artifice does not lessen or make transparent our sense of the empirical real.

  • 6  Frederic Jameson’s essay combines different elements published as « Post-modernism and Consumer So (...)

12Accepting this view has three consequences. It means that the DVD as digital medium refashions and repurposes the oppositional, adversary legacy of artifice which used to be the cornerstone of Modernism. But digital artifice is no longer limited to this corrective agon. Radical Artifice in the Age of Media points instead to our exacerbated fascination with images in a larger visual culture saturated with past images and past echoes of past Modernist artifice (Marjorie Perloff 1991). Secondly, this theoretical detour through Media and Art Studies also steers clear of a ‘Po-Mo’ topos, the postmodernist view that would hold contemporary experiments in art to be recycled, belated versions of Modernism (‘[...] in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.’ Jameson 1999, 115).6 Hypermediacy sidesteps issues of parody and mimicry which do not account for this ‘aesthetic of ‘interpenetration and nonobstruction’ (Perloff 1991, xiv). Through other channels, hypermediacy confirms Marjorie Perloff‘s prescient analysis when back in 1991 she attibuted to John Cage the understanding,

‘[ ... at least as early as the fifties] that from now on poetry would have to position itself, not vis-à-vis the landscape or the city or this or that political event, but in relation to the media that, like it or not, occupy an increasingly large part of our verbal, visual and acoustic space.’ (xiii)

13Twenty years or so later, artifice as a marker of avant-garde negativity and defiance has been remediated, repurposed and replaced in the digital environment by a contemporary awareness of its domestication and compliance with mainstream media culture. The third consequence is that digital artifice reveals the role of the camera itself as additional agency. As technical instrument, one might think it captures life, light and movement only because of the intervention of the hand or the mind. But it has a performance of its own which reconfigures the world of our ordinary experience and of our experience of art. I do not mean this in the sense of any technological determinism but in the sense of an aesthetic versatility of technology which lies in its ability to address both the demand for the autonomy of artistic experience and the demand that art be like non-art, be like any other experience. Digital artifice allows non-art to be art by de-possessing/re-possessing art.

Medium-Specific Art?

14A last point needs to be made. Beyond the Double Change DVD collections, our collaborative work branched out to the issue of medium-specific art and raised difficult questions which I do not claim to answer but only rephrase: how does one medium-specific artform (film) translate, transfer, or incorporate another medium-specific artform (poetry)? Is artifice medium-specific? Does critical artifice still impact the viewer in our contemporary artistic environment?

15The notion of medium specificity has shaped literary studies in two different ways: one as a formalist endeavor when exclusive attention was given to the linguistic nature of the literary sign (roughly running from the days of Ferdinand de Saussure through High Modernism, New Criticism, Structuralism down to Deconstruction)whose side effect was a more theoretically grounded approach to literature but also a ‘derealization of poetry’ (Bernstein 1995); the other as a material endeavor, when fuller attention was given instead of being repressed to the semantic contribution of the material texts.

There are two domains of poetry too little attended: the sound and the look. That is to say, poetry is too little attended: sounds too quickly converted to words or images, the material space of the page too quickly supplanted by the ideational space of the text (as if MLA really meant "muted language association"). Too often, reading habits enforce a kind of blindness to the particular graphic choices of type, leading, page dimension, and paper, under the regime of a lexical transcendentalism that accords no semantic value to the visual representation of language. (Bernstein 1995)

16Such scholarly works as those of Jerome McGann (Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism in 1993; The Textual Condition in 1991; Radiant Textuality. Literature Since the World Wide Web in 2001) or Johanna Drucker (The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art in 1994; The Century of Artists' Books in 1995; or Figuring the Word, Essays on Books, Writing, and Visual Poetics in 1998) changed the status of texts as material inscription and production, and combined the visual, figural, verbal materiality of language on the printed page. The visual arts (photography, film, painting, sculpture, etc.) have also shared in the same concern for independent, medium-specific language, styles and objects although they never were insulated from textual arts. Their potential combination has been explored ever since ekphrasis was defined as the relation existing between a verbal artwork and a visual artwork. The two major landmarks which shaped the notion of medium specificity are usually traced back to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1766 Laocoon: An Essay Upon the Limits of Painting and Poetry and its condemnation of Horace’s Ut Pictura Poesis (as is painting, so is poetry); and to the various forms of Modernism which enforced the view that each art has a distinctive purpose and independent expressive capabilities which define its uniqueness. In the wake of the Modernist period of experimentations, poetry served both as a model of rejuvenated creativity and a counter-model of text-based medium for those artists committed to image-based artforms (P. Adams Sitney elaborated on poets-film artists associations, ie Stan Brakhage who associated with poets Robert Duncan and Kenneth Rexroth in the 1950s; on Maya Deren whose New York social circle included Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, Anaïs Nin and John Cage; or assemblage artist Joseph Cornell who influenced Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and boxes). Since High Modernism, searching how to be true to one’s medium has been the overarching mission of artists which led to an entangled mesh of contradictory imperatives which philosopher Jacques Rancière cleared up in an illuminating article devoted to photography and appareils. His point is that the notion of medium-specific art was theorized by Modernism along two diverging and possibly incompatible meanings of the word medium. Medium was made to refer both and at the same time to an in-between means to an end (an intermediary that stands between an idea and its concretization); and made to refer to the essence of art, its ultimate end. This I find is illustrated by the OED definition of medium as ‘any raw material or mode of expression used in an artistic or creative activity’.

Dans le mot « médium », on entend d’abord « ce qui se tient entre »: entre une idée et sa réalisation, entre une chose et sa reproduction. Le médium apparaît ainsi comme un intermédiaire, comme le moyen d’une fin ou l’agent d’une opération. Or la théorisation moderniste qui fait de la « fidélité au médium » le principe de l’art renverse la perspective. Ce médium à la spécificité duquel il faut être fidèle n’est plus simplement l’instrument de l’art. Il devient la matérialité propre qui définit son essence. C’est bien le cas dans la définition greenbergienne de la peinture fidèle à son médium propre - la surface bidimensionnelle et le pigment coloré-, et délivrée par là des tâches serviles de la représentation. Le médium n’est plus alors le moyen d’une fin. Il est proprement ce qui prescrit cette fin. (Rancière Revue Appareil 2008)

17The prescriptive law of medium-specificity or faithfulness is thus twofold: it defines the expressive potential of a singular artform (hence its necessary isolation from other artforms) and its ultimate telos (the purpose of art is to escape mimesis and express its medium). In other words, medium-specificity is founded upon a theoretical trap, the notion that a successful artwork fulfills the promise of the medium it used to be created. Jacques Rancière suggests a way out of this conundrum. He begins by reading backward the opposition of medium as neutral means to produce an idea of art, and medium as the defining substance of art; then he defines aesthetic distance as the prerequisite for art efficacy:

[...] l’art est de l’art quand la contrainte du matériau et de l’instrument le délivre de lui-même, le délivre de la volonté de faire de l’art. La séparation de l’art avec la mimésis est alors aussi une séparation de la tekhnè avec elle-même: séparation entre la tekhnè comme exécution d’une idée, mise en œuvre d’un savoir, et la tekhnè comme loi de la matière et de l’instrument, loi de ce qui n’est pas de l’art. (Rancière Revue Appareil 2008)

18Tekhnè is both a neutral instrument servicing whoever wishes to make art, and an autonomous instrument capable of achieving representation which used to be the exclusive realm of the artist. One usually thinks this technical substitution relieves the artist of the will to make art, but Tekhnè does not only allow art to be free of mimesis. It allows mimesis to be free of art, which in turn liberates perception and allows the world of things to be seen outside habitual frames of meaning (« [ce qui ] permet aux choses de se donner à voir, délivrées des codes de la représentation, des rapports codés entre formes visibles et production d’effets de signification. » Rancière Revue Appareil 2008). What I find groundbreaking is that this analysis moves away from a binary tension between medium and art towards a redefinition of medium qua act: as a ternary operation which reconfigures the relationship linking an instrument (the digital or analogic organon), an idea of art, and the creation of a ‘sensible’ milieu in which artistic performance and expression are perceived (sensorium).

  • 7  The online article is the edited transcript in English of a plenary lecture delivered at a 2006 Un (...)

19Medium as act is Jacques Rancières’s decisive contribution to any investigation into artifice, since he establishes a ‘distanced link’ which ties Tekhnè, art and its perception (« le milieu dans lequel les performances d’un dispositif artistique déterminé viennent s’inscrire, mais aussi le milieu que ces performances contribuent elles-mêmes à configurer.»). Tying Tekhnè, art and its surrounding community of ‘transformed sensations’ (Rancière 2006)7 helps read Clement Greenberg’s claim differently. His view that Modernist collage’s literal flatness and abstraction reached pure art also signalled how the production of new artforms linked up with transformed perceptions and experiences in a world where depth and mimetic art had lost their relevance. However, and this has huge political/poetical import, the link between artworks and perceptions is not straight nor continuous. For Jacques Rancière, distance defines ‘the aesthetic regime of art’ which is predicated on a foundational divide between cause and effect, between artistic intention, the physical object created and the community of its viewers. There is no correspondence between artistic poiesis and the forms of aesthetic impact, no determined relationship between ‘poiesis and aisthesis’ (Rancière 2006). This idea cannot but have a sobering effect on the value ascribed to artifice since Modernism.

  • 8  An altered quote from a 1961 essay-manifesto by Allen Ginsberg, When the Mode of the Music Changes (...)
  • 9  Quote attributed to Paul Blackburn in Jerome Rothenberg’s Introduction to Revolution of the Word ( (...)
  • 10  ‘That distance between the pretensions of critical art and its real forms of efficiency could hold (...)

20One of the reasons why Jacques Rancière’s analysis is so powerful is that it challenges the unquestioned view of ‘critical’ artifice that posits the educational/political efficiency of critical art. He challenges the continued relevance of the Modernist wager that When the Mode of Poetry Changes, the Walls of the City Shake;8the wager that the circulation of critical artifice (poetic forms) impact artists as producers and readers as consumers of texts/films. Are the recipients of artworks transformed by The Revolution of the Word? Jacques Rancière doubts that it could usher in a utopian ‘Republic of poets’ 9 because such a poetical-political agenda postulates an unverified continuum between artistic intentions, the art produced, and the community of its recipients. Jacques Rancière faces the hubris of contemporary critical artifice when he reads it against the backcloth of history (the evolution of the arts and of social movements). 10 Seen in our contemporary context of consensus, critical artifice as a political weapon collides with the acknowledgement of aesthetic distance which is more fruitful than a continued belief in aesthetic continuum:

Critical art plugs the gap by defining a straight relation between its aims and its means: its ends would be to provoke an awareness of political situations leading to political mobilization. Its means would be to produce a sensory form of strangeness, a clash of heterogeneous elements prompting a chance in perception. This means that it wants to include the aesthetic break in the representational continuity. (Rancière 2006)

21Read along those lines, the modest no-frills choices of Double Change DVDs make no grand claims for poetical change or political mobilization. Taken as aesthetic objects, they use a representational digital medium without claiming to promote a politically ground-shaking agenda. In this respect, they force us to think through the assumption that only critical artifice is efficient. When viewing Meryem’s frontal mode of filming, the viewer may alternatively feel that there is no border left separating what belongs to the realm of art and what belongs to the realm of everyday life. One may watch these DVDs as art and (or) as non-art. If poetry is indeed an experience of ‘being numerous’ (George Oppen), then these DVDs are exemplary in their ability to maintain the twin pull of art as autonomous experience and art as non-art which de-possesses/re-possesses art for the benefit of future viewers who will stand away from the DVD’s original site or destination, and away from their original community.

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The Oxford English Dictionary. Online Edition, 2009.

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1  ‘Each new medium is justified because it fills a lack or repairs a fault in its predecessor, because it fulfills the unkept promise of an older medium. (Typically, of course, users did not realize that the older medium had failed in its promise until the new one appeared.) The supposed virtue of virtual reality, of videoconferencing and interactive television, and of the World Wide Web is that each of these technologies repairs the inadequacy of the medium or media that it now supersedes. In each case that inadequacy is represented as a lack of immediacy, and this seems to be generally true in the history of remediation. Photography was supposedly more immediate than painting, film than photography, television than film, and now virtual reality fulfills the promise of immediacy and supposedly ends the progression. The rhetoric of remediation favors immediacy and transparency, even though as the medium matures it offers new opportunities for hypermediacy.’(Bolter and Grusin 60)

2  Poets House opened in September 2009 and is located on 10 River Terrace in Battery Park City, New York City. It is a poetry library and literary center.

3  Complete quote: ‘A line of poetry is a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language, as if put there by stockbrokers’hands, hands worn smooth by coins. I want the word where it ends and begins. Dada is the heart of words’

4  Complete quote: ‘My own (moral) program can be briefly stated [...] To write badly is an offense to the state since the government can never be more than the government of the words. [. . . Bad art is ...] that which does not serve in the continual service of cleansing the language of all fixations upon dead, stinking dead, usages of the past.’(William Carlos Williams’ March 3, 1950 letter to Robert Creeley, Rare Books & Special Collections, Washington University). It was taken up again in W.C. Williams’acceptance speech on receiving the National Book Award for Paterson and by Cid Corman in an issue of Origin.

5  ‘The distinction between poetic and expository language is key here. Exposition, in its effort to convey information (which will be by definition, new and unfamiliar to its hearers), must render it in accessible, which is to say familiar, terms. The function of art is to restore palpability to the world which habit and familiarity otherwise obscure; its task is to restore the liveliness of life. Thus it must make the familiar remarkable, noticeable again; it must render the familiar unfamiliar.’(Hejinian 301)

6  Frederic Jameson’s essay combines different elements published as « Post-modernism and Consumer Society » in The Anti-Aesthetic and also as « Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism », in New Left Review 146 (July-August 1984). See Perloff (note 15, 218).

7  The online article is the edited transcript in English of a plenary lecture delivered at a 2006 University of Amsterdam symposium, Aesthetics and Politics: With and Around Jacques Rancière (organized by Sophie Berrebi and Marie-Aude Baronian). Taken up again in French, in an augmented version « Les paradoxes de l’art politique » (Rancière Le spectateur émancipé 2008, 56-92).

8  An altered quote from a 1961 essay-manifesto by Allen Ginsberg, When the Mode of the Music Changes, the Walls of the City Shake. (Allen and Tallman 324-30).

9  Quote attributed to Paul Blackburn in Jerome Rothenberg’s Introduction to Revolution of the Word (xxvii).

10  ‘That distance between the pretensions of critical art and its real forms of efficiency could hold so long as there were patterns of intelligibility and forms of mobilization strong enough to sustain the artistic procedures that were supposed to produce them. When those patterns or forms are eroded by the weakening of political action, the undecidability of the critical procedures appears in full light. [...] those dispositifs keep occupying many of our galleries and museums with a rhetoric assuming that they make us discover the power of the commodity, the reign of the spectacle or the pornography of power. As nobody ignores anything on those topics, the mechanism ends up spinning on itself and capitalizing on that undecidability.’(Rancière 2006)

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Table des illustrations

Titre (Icône de la bande-annonce)
Légende Jerome Rothenberg, Double Change n° 2 – Archive filmée de poésie édition bilingue (français / anglais)– 2005-2006 (DVD), durée 1 h 56, collection Motion Method Memory, Edité par Abigail Lang et Dominique Pasqualini, Réalisé par Meryem Delagarde et Présenté par Geneviève Cohen-Cheminet, les Presses du Réel, 2009.ISBN: 978-2-84066-300-3EAN: 9782840663003
Fichier image/jpeg, 60k
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Geneviève Cohen-Cheminet, « Artifice and Medium-Specific Art: Poetry Performance and Film », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 10 | 2009, mis en ligne le 19 juin 2010, consulté le 26 mai 2019. URL :

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Geneviève Cohen-Cheminet

Université Paris IV Sorbonne

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