Michael Anthony Ricciardi – The Exquisite Cosmonaut – Towards a Collaborative Poetics in Space – 2004

Arts & Sciences educator, performance poet, and multi-media artist/curator, USA

First publication workshop Space: Science, Technology and the Arts in collaboration with ESA/ESTEC, 2004

They should have sent a poet.” –From the novel Contact, by Carl Sagan

So, what was Carl talking about? Perhaps, confronted with the immense and stunning beauty of the cosmos, and compelled to describe or express this experience, scientific language alone just doesn’t cut it. For however abstract or intellectually complex our descriptions and representations may be, there is yet a profound and continuous emotional experience connected with the [long-term] scientific exploration of space.

Although astro-physicists, space engineers, and cosmo/astronauts alike may think in terms of science and mathematics–can even communicate vast and complex knowledge in the form of equations and technical information–they still find the need to communicate this knowledge through language. Scientists still find the need to visualize their understanding, and hence the need for metaphor and imagery in scientific writings, especially those geared for a wider, educated audience. Verbal and textual metaphor is the stock in trade of the poet. Poetic expression is a bridge between the intellect and the emotional self. Poetry is capable of expressing [simultaneously] both complex understanding and profound emotionality. The poet does not so rigidly separate thinking and feeling. Science teaches us how to think about space and time, not how to feel about it.

Unconsciously, we are all poets, or engaged in poetics, every moment, in the sense that we are ‘making’ [the meaning of poietes] reality, through myriad sensorial and cognitive/sub-cognitive processes, constructing a world. Indeed the sheer act of being is a poetic experience. Reciprocally, we make and are made by existence. When we consciously see this, we can participate in this existential poetics. Its expressions are endless.

Encountering the Unexpected

As we continue our explorations of the cosmos, does anyone doubt that there will be surprises? Our universe has had 13 billion years to evolve its macro-scale features and its sub-quantum logic. Astronomers and astro-physicists have only recently verified the existence of varied sized black holes in our own galaxy. What marvels await us beyond that star cluster, or upon some distant moon? And when that moment comes again, when the science has not caught up to the perception, to the experience, how will language serve us in our descriptive imperatives? The momentous perception, the profound experience, will have made its mark on the psyche before its proper [or conscious] significance–in relation to what is known, in relation to the self and its awareness–is understood. If ‘Language is the sin qua non of that experience we call mind’ [The Tree Of Knowledge, Maturana/Varela], then poetry is its ‘lingua franca’…’poiesis‘: making. As we speak and write, so we do build. And wheresoever our human destiny takes us, poetry, in some form, will go with us.

A Space Station Is a Space Habitat

The ISS Alpha is not merely an orbiting laboratory [how many earth scientists do you know that have spent 128 days in the lab?], but a home in space. As such, it must also satisfy/fulfill all those human needs that we associate with a ‘living space’, including the human needs for transcendence, beauty, enjoyment, and inspiration. Thus does this paper assert: the right of people everywhere to seek inspiration, that is, to participate in the poetics of being.

Astronauts/Cosmonauts as extensions of human curiosity

‘I wanted to be a spaceman / that’s what I wanted to be / But now that I am a spaceman / Nobody cares about me…’

In Understanding Media ~ The Extensions of Man, culture guru Marshall McLuhan posits all media and technology as ‘extensions of our senses’. This makes intuitive sense. And so we may take this theory and extrapolate it to space exploration, that is, that our space probes, telescopes, satellites–and especially for our purposes, astronauts–are like-wise extensions of our senses. But even more than this, when we reflect on the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of things, we realize that the cosmonaut is an embodiment of a fundamental human trait: curiosity, the drive to know. Perhaps this helps elucidate that profound connection we have with those who risk so much to explore space, which is to say, the future.

In this sense then, astronauts can be viewed as “remote sensors” or extensions of human perception, intellectual striving, and, in the context of our search for life beyond earth, a deep, psychological longing. Indeed, the sheer state of being in space is an extraordinary human experience. We do in fact care greatly about our space explorers; we want to know. Through our astronauts, we all participate in the exploration of space, and through a ‘collaborative poetics’ we all can share in the creative expression of this experience.

In The Unexpected Universe Anthropologist and science literati Loren Eiseley wrote: “Spider thoughts in a spider universe–sensitive to raindrop and moth flutter, nothing beyond. What is it we are a part of that we do not see?” This is a wonderfully apt and poetic observation. And if Walt Whitman was alive to ponder it, I sense he would respond with his poetry…my words go after what my eyes cannot see, with the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds, and volumes of worlds…

And that is it, really. Poetry is an aid to human imagination. It gives us the means to describe what is not yet known, not yet ‘in view’. When what is hidden is suddenly revealed, we are surprised. This is as true for a poem as for a pulsar. So, in considering the place of poetry in space exploration, and in light of Whitman’s tongue twirling, what are we more ‘a part of’, that is yet beyond our [normal] senses, than the cosmos itself?

Unexpected Affinities

In attempting to understand how an astronaut might feel about poetry, or whether astronauts or cosmonauts actually wrote poetry, I commenced with a ‘google’ search on ‘Poetry By Astronauts’…and got thirty thousand pages [that’s 300,000 sites] of links of poetry FOR the astronauts, or with astronaut themes; many of these memorializing the Challenger and Columbia disasters…some touchingly naïve or woefully unskilled, others more learned, and more artful. Some possessed that rare combination of qualities that make for excellence, that is, deeply moving poetry. But whichever, I beheld a vast poetic outpouring of grief and loss and renewed hope. We may not answer here the question of the role of poetry in space, or space in poetry, but there is abundant evidence of a profound connection between the poetic soul and the habitation and exploration of space. Poets have a special [perhaps transcendent] affinity for astronauts. We earth-dwellers hear of their doings from time to time amidst the daily deluge of war, injustice, and tragedy…and suddenly, there they are again…cosmonauts walking in space, astronauts repairing a defective panel [repairs remind us that where ever we go, we will always be doing maintenance] …and we are reminded of both how far we’ve come, how far we’ve yet to go, and we rededicate our earthly, human hopes/dreams to those brave men and women who do not simply dream, but who physically engage the actualization of this dream.

Beyond solitude / Beyond cool

Though traditionally held to be a solitary endeavor, poetry–be it spoken or written–can be a powerful and effective means of bringing people closer and enabling a sense of shared purpose and understanding. Thus this paper focuses on collaborative poetics–poetry created not in isolation, but in nearly continuous communication.

Also, collaborative poetics in an orbital environment, or between space and earth environments, needs to be more than simply something ‘cool’; some slick new configuration of technologies or the latest-greatest display interface [though these do have a place]. We can propose myriad ideas and uses of technology for poetry in earth orbit, but ultimately, we must decide what all this fancy, literary ‘techno-ism’ is doing… what we are doing. Are we doing this just to see if we can, merely to say that we did it? Yes, there is some value in doing something for the sheer joy of doing it. John Cage has said, “The greatest purpose is to have no purpose”. But how can we propose collaborative poetry [a time-consuming, technically challenging endeavor] for the ‘purpose of no purpose’? And what then is the purpose, value, and meaning of such poetics? If it is to be ‘omni-inter-accommodative’ to the astronauts and their environment, if it is to offer the possibility of shared, creative work, and at the same time, be a source of, and a means for, granting insight and/or the revealing of purpose and meaning, then it has potentially great value in my view.

Supposedly, we have the technology to laser project onto the moon, and laser write on the atmosphere [ionosphere]. And one could argue, that the day is nigh when such technology will be exploited for commercial purposes [visualize this: as the sun-clipse unfolds, a slow fade-in of gigantic text condenses amidst the purple, pink, and gold vapors: Try New & Improved PO-EX…]. And so, we should therefore preempt commercial use with artful use, though this is likely to be as controversial as the commercial use. This ‘art first’ viewpoint may have some validity, but again, I must always ask: what is the purpose of such a use–to do something radically, technologically new [“I did it first”]? To make a really impressive addition to one’s resume? And then, there are the ‘political’ concerns: whose poetry? What language, what form, and what content? The moon and sky belong to no one, to everyone. Space art must strive always to balance the personal with the universal.

A Cautionary Note On ‘Other People’s Poetry’

In The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adam’s outrageous take on space exploration [and exploitation], we are given the cautionary example of “Vogon poetry”—an alien poetry so vile and offensive that anyone unlucky enough to hear it is immediately convulsed with nausea and/or the sudden impulse to commit suicide. In considering the creation/displaying of ‘other people’s poetry’, I like to remind my self of this fictional poetic form, and so, espouse collaborative works which have multiple authorship, and are, at least interesting [in terms of process and contributing thought], if not of ‘stellar’ quality. Collaborative poetry does not guarantee quality poetry, but, due to its collective nature, it is often profoundly revelatory, and nearly always, great fun.

Poetic form & the forms of poetry

Spoken Word & ‘Sound Poetry’

The oldest form of poetic expression [In the beginning there was the Word, or ‘logos’] with an immediacy that can seldom be ignored, spoken word is a distinct mode of poietes from that of its written/symbolic and visual cousins. ‘Sound Poetry’ is yet another sub-genre of Spoken Word, for it must be spoken [or made from spoken material], but it need not be subject to semantic analysis and syntactic rules. In either case, poetry that is heard is perfectly compatible with poetry that is seen–though combining them greatly ‘complexifies’ the work. Many modern ‘sound poets’ act as ‘audio archeologists’, in that the hunt and collect bits of verbal flotsam and esoterica and even nonsense. When I recall some ‘great moment in space’, I often hear snippets of audio–those halting, radio filtered utterances by astronauts in action. Barring any audio communication that is somehow ‘classified’, allowing earth artists to access/monitor and/or appropriate some of this audio would be a valuable resource for many artists working with sound, as well as film and video artists.

The advent of the Digital Audio recording, duplication, and transference, though a troubling issue for the recording industry, has been an unprecedented boon to audiophiles, musicians, sound artists, and poets.

Textual / Written Poetry

Putting aside talk of new technology for a moment, there is nothing to stop astronauts from bringing along their own favorite collection of poems, in each respective native tongue. Writing poetry has, and will remain, a source of solace to individuals, wherever they may be. For those who may not write, read, or listen to poetry, but may none-the-less be ‘open’ to some form of poetic expression, collaborative poetics can be a fascinating and truly fun way to engage such an open mind. Collective poem-making projects and collaborations have, in fact, been transpiring for many decades, perhaps centuries, although mostly ‘underground’ or shared only amongst small, interested groups. Collaborative poetics between astronauts, scientists, and poet-artists would, conversely, be a global endeavor [at least potentially].

Visual, Concrete, & ‘Spatialist’ Poetry

What is ‘visual poetry’? ‘Vispo’, or concrete poetry, is an amalgamation of verbal and visual meaning. Regarding this so-called concrete poetry, Claus Bremer wrote: “It yields a process of discovery…concrete poetry says formally what it means to say, or means to say what its form says. Its form is its meaning, its meaning, its form.”…where semantic meaning is altered/augmented by visual form, where the form of text creates a ‘conceptual bridge’ to the intentionality of letters/words. It can be as simple as a written poem about a house, with the entire text of the poem taking the shape of a house [spatialist poetry], to something far more abstract/complex and ‘free-form’, suggesting a multiplicity of visual and verbal affinities. The early Surrealists experimented a great deal with visual poetics, but its roots go back through the work of Lewis Carroll and the authors of Medieval, ‘illuminated’ manuscripts, to the ancient Asian character [pictogram], considered to be the mother of all vispo, with its ‘rootedness’ in representation s of ‘real’ phenomena.

Cine-Poetry & Video Poetry

These two forms are, on the one hand, a bridge between old and new forms of visual poetry and, on the other, emerging genres in their own right. While there were a few examples of cine [film based] poetry and video poetry dating back to the 1960’s and ’70’s–for example The EAT [Experiments in Art and Technology] group’s work and E.M. de Melo e Castro’s video poems–these genres really began to blossom in the mid 1980’s and more so in the 1990’s, where we now see International Video Poetry Festivals from Milan to Vancouver, B.C. Cine/video poetry seeks to express that ‘marriage of image and language’ within the constraints [and possibilities] of the moving-image medium. Many of these works are the results of collaborations between artists and poets [and composers], such as the award winning electronic cine-poems of George Aguilar, which are actually computer animated works with [moving] image, text, and sound.

One collaborative scenario could be an astronaut who does visual art via computer working with a poet-astronomer. An astronaut could also videotape and/or provide video of a given angle/perspective from space to a video-poet on earth. Alternatively, a media artist/poet could mentor the astronauts in the composition of a poem [or according to a set of rules, i.e., a game] with the foreknowledge that the poetry would be used in the prospective video poem.

Cyber Text / Cyber Poetry

The written word, in the digital age, has become dynamic: variable, kinetic, interactive, and almost endlessly ‘inter-textual’ [referencing/linking to other textual material]. Much of this new poetry is multi-media. It is text + sound + image + motion simultaneously. It can be autopoietic [self activating, developing] or inter-grammatic [requiring interaction to unfold], such as a hyper-poem which is ‘read’ or revealed by successive hyper-linkings of text. These hyper-poems can also unfold in a non-linear fashion such that rarely do two people have the same reading experience of the poem. Some are seemingly endless in their structural unfolding. New media poet-theorist John Cayley refers to these types of ‘cyber-texts’ as ergodic–in that some ‘work’ must be effected to reveal the poem and its intended meaning/purpose. Some of these cyber poems transcend any comparable poetic experience, such as the psychoanalytic, interactive, murder-mystery-poem ‘Clues‘ by Robert Kendall, or the marvelously intricate, interactive works by MEZ [Mary Ann Breeze], Duc Thuan, and Talan Memmott, and many others. These cyber poetry works offer users deeply engaging examples of the vast possibilities of new/hyper media poetics. Many of these works are ‘experientially’ available on the Internet, but could also be stored on discs or a hard drive on board the ISS ALPHA, to avoid ‘web dependence’, where their intricacies can be explored at the leisure of its occupants.

Of Old & New Media

Just as Einstein acknowledged ‘standing on Isaac Newton’s shoulders’ in his theoretical development, so too new media rests firmly upon the shoulders of its three, more ancient and ‘analog’ cousins. As performance/cyber poet Komninos Zervos asserts: “Digital technologies have begun to affect the activity of creating poetry. This development does not threaten to supplant poetry in its written, oral, and other senses. Rather, it holds the potential to accentuate and extend its capabilities.” The essential ingredients of poem making are the same, but the technological tools and media for expressing poetic thought have been radically altered.

New media poetry has an advantage over other forms of art in that it can be visual, verbal [textual or aural], kinetic, interactive, and adaptive all at once. The levels of meaning generation/comprehension are multiple. In terms of artistic modality, functionality, and aesthetic expression, ‘cyber’ and new media poetry closely approach Bucky Fuller’s Synergetics ideal of ‘omni-inter-accommodation’.

New media & techno-poetics: convergence & inter-accommodation

As language theorist Kurt Brereton writes, “the poem has shifted from bricolage to morphosis“…[the poem is now] “…a virtual field unfolding in time.” In the early days of experimental computing, a great deal of earnest debate swirled around the impact/importance of the computer on/for poetry, as well as the idea that “computer poetry” was simply concerned with writing computer programs that generated poetry, or a simulacrum of poetic style/structure [with a semi-random content]. These tended to focus on ‘constructionist’ formulae–logical algorithms that could mimic poetic consciousness–and were solely expressed as text. The new media explosion has infused techno-poetry with a multi-media, participatory, and kinesthetic potential.

As software media applications [e.g., FLASH] became more available, and as Web display/interactive meta-programming codes like HTML [now XML, etc] and JavaScript fell into use by fledgling computer artists, a phenomenon akin to the ‘Cambrian explosion’ in early life-forms occurred. So-called hyper-media art spread quickly throughout the www [as is its nature]–and from the very beginning of this vast creative contagion, poets of every kind were there ‘in the thick of things’ exploring, experimenting, and exhibiting this techno-poetic convergence of forms.

In general, the creation and displaying of poetry via machine–and especially a computer or chip–has been referred to as techno-poetry. This includes a spectrum of uses, devices, and media–from Jackson MacLow’s early aleatoric [chance based], ‘diastic’, and logarithmic poem programs and the first video poems [from Brazil and Argentina!], to the use of holography and interactive user interfaces in word-art installations.

To return to R. Buckminster Fuller’s theoretical vision, and given the nature of new media and techno-poetry, it can be asserted a new poetic aesthetic: Future poetry will be omni-inter-accommodative, or will not be. That is [in keeping with ‘Bucky speak’], all data, all media, inter-transformably and interactively available as poetic source material for modification, appropriation, and expression through a multiplicity of interfaces adapted to all human habitations.

Adaptive Display Interfaces

Currently, I am deeply enamored with the ultra-thin [3 human-hairs thick] and ultra flexible display screens being developed by E-ink, which are currently near perfecting of text display. I believe that these flexible display interfaces will come to play an important role in all visual art aboard the ISS. These ultra-flat screens {hereafter: UFS} can be sized, shaped, and ‘molded’ to accommodated the spatial and architectural demands of the space station modules. A separate, dedicated external drive can provide the software and programs needed for playing of electronic poems, video poems, and interactive visual poems, or the down stream display of a library of such works, which possesses both an ‘automatic’ mode and a selective mode. When these can be combined with touch-control technology [another hair thickness?], I predict an ‘explosion’ in applications and creative/functional usage.


First, let us begin this section with the basic definitions of the acronyms to be used: MUD: Multi-User Domain/Dimension, MOO: MUD Object Oriented, MUSE: Multi-User Simulated Environment, MUVE: Multi-User Virtual Environment [typically 3D/interactive], WOO: Web-MOO, a MOO that has been put on, and can be accessed from, the Web, WTP: WOO Transaction Protocol. All of these multi-user system types allow remote users to contribute and interact with a shared [cyber/virtual] space. All utilize an OOP language [a combination of C++ and LISP]. For our purposes, it is the WOO that is most useful. MUDs and MOOs are exclusively text-based interfaces. The WOO runs by a WTP [WOO Transaction Protocol] that permits the incorporation of audio and graphics. The WOO satisfies two criteria for our collaborative poetry experiments: it is a Web based MOO, and has multi-media potential. A specific WOO can be set up for each separate poetic experiment [see next section], or, a single, multi-modal WOO could be designed and hosted/web mastered by an arts non-profit [or several], for example. Access would be made available only to the registered uses of the dedicated WOO [the ‘ALPHA-POEM-EARTH WOO’]. The APEWOO can be an effective and expansive collaborative space. Continuous connection to the Web is not absolutely required for [near] ‘real time’ interaction. Ideally, a continuous web connection would be desired but since there are more earth-dwellers than cosmo/astronauts, the ISS ALPHA need only contribute to the APEWOO once per cycle to maintain the collaborative activity necessary to preserve the perception of ‘real time’ exchange [of course, as space habitats move further out into space, transmission delays will become greater].

Clearly, any collaborative art between earth and space inhabitants will require reliable communication in some form, in some mutually accessible ‘space’. Alternately, in terms of astronaut/cosmonaut collaborative art, a MOO, MUSE, or MUVE can be created and stored on-board the ISS for creative/recreational use by its inhabitants. The following section will detail a possible form and content for such a MUSE or MUVE.

The Dynamic Visual Poetry Landscape System [DVPLS]

The DVPLS–an original integration of Speech Recognition, Virtual Environment, and 3D CGI–was designed to be a new multi-user/modal interface for creating visual poetry. DVPLS is fundamentally a fusion of three forms of poetry: spoken, written, and visual. Combining open-source Inventor [3D graphic language] and Dragon speech software, the DVPLS [co-designed by Peter Oppenheimer and M. Ricciardi] can be effected in any ‘virtual environment’, including, of course, the computer screen or ‘cyber space’. The system can also be stored on a server and accessed through a WOO–assuming that some type of consistent web-streaming of audio and/or visual content from the ISS to earth is possible, permitting a DVPLS collaboration between astronauts and earth-dwellers. For example, an astronaut engaged in a space walk can have his voice communication selectively filtered into the speech program [through a radio-linked direct ‘in’ or wi-fi audio ‘transceiver’], where upon, it can then be modified by one or more persons accessing the DVPLS WOO.

Alternatively, collaboration may be more practical between occupants of the ISS [with one person speaking, another modifying the text/imagery/environment], with this ‘experiment’ being then made available to earth poets/artists for further modification or appropriation, or simply exhibition. This would mean installing DVPLS on board the ISS and well as some training [speech profile, user controls, etc], although the learning curve is fairly short. The English speech recognition program can also be substituted with other languages, such as Russian [whose Cyrillic language/alphabet holds intriguing visual-poetic potentials], or, the two languages can both be stored on the system. Ideally, multiple language versions would be available. The system has its own roster of fonts, but can also accommodate custom fonts [even the Greek alphabet, and ‘wing dings’] which, once selected, can become the designated speech-to-text display. It is also possible that two speakers can work the speech recognition program simultaneously, although this requires much coordination–a ‘collaborative verbal dance’–to be effectively accomplished.

The DVPLS currently has an ever-expanding data bank of ‘key word’ images, which appear in the interface/environment when/if spoken. However, the system is also designed to generate a random image after a period of time elapses. The random displaying of images, as well as the mis-translations of the speech program, provide for an environment where “happy accidents” are possible. Indeed, this is one area of design in which Oppenheimer and I were in complete accord: the system should be a tad “messy”–capable always of that synchronistic/serendipitous event that keeps poetry surprising.

Although probably less practical in the short term [and due to space constraints on board the ISS], constructing an actual environment [such as a ‘cave’, or black box theatre] could be accomplished. This would necessarily be a multi-use/purpose ‘event’ space. A far more practical approach would be the use of VR goggles and the creation of a MUVE. A virtual landscape can be constructed from any visual source [using the ‘panoramic stitching’ technique], such as the surface of Mars, and a user can speak a poem of any length, and it will appear in the virtual landscape, where it can be further modified and manipulated [towards the creation of dynamic visual poetry]. Such a MUSE or MUVE could easily be designed and installed–enabling some rather unique virtual encounters [I can foresee ‘poetry battles’ evolving therein]. Seeing one’s “speech become text become visual poem” in a virtual/simulated environment completely re-contextualizes human poetic speech, and re-casts the virtual environment as a dynamic playground for visual poetry. Here, a new significance to words and imagery may be generated by the fusion of both in a ‘visual poetry landscape’.

Again, visual poetry, being a fusion of image and language, of verbal and visual meaning, creates the possibility of far more complex [and composite] poetic expression. I fantasize that perhaps on that day when alien-human contact is [verifiably] made, and the problems of language mode/content/interface become apparent [and critical], visual poetry will come to the foreground and be claimed as the preferred form of communicative behavior.

Meta-Poetics & Heuristics ~ ‘Poetic Context’

By ‘meta-poetic’ [or meta-poietic] it is meant that which is ‘about’ the creation of poetry; what permits the construction and comprehension of poetry. Techno-poetry, insofar as it must begin with programmed grammar/syntax rules–enabled through a specific code [a ‘meta-language’], can be accurately viewed as heuristic. Broadly, all collaborative poetries are heuristics, in that through said collaboration, participants can discover that larger sphere of poetic creation and expression including the ‘mechanisms’ [both conceptual and technological] that make poetry “happen”. To recapitulate Bremer’s definition: it yields a process of discovery. From a technological view, how successful the heuristic is depends largely on the control interface used. The elegance and effectiveness of interface design shapes both the experience [of the user] and the outcome of the heuristic, techno-poetic process.

Poetic Context by Phillip Reay is one such interface. Through its elegantly ‘simple’ program features, PC ‘teaches’ any user how to create [collaborative/additive] poetry, while it simultaneously converts all text to speech–speaking the poem back to you as it is added to by each user. A multitude of playback voices can be chosen, as well as a melodic structure for speech playback. The interface is a touch-control LCD screen that offers a pre-selected vocabulary and the option of full self-selection of letters and words. The speech program will speak back any word[s] created, including foreign words. Poetic Context could be easily installed in a space habitat [using the E-ink UFSs or LCDs] and serve as a ‘poetic log’ of cosmonaut/astronaut verbal impulses, thoughts, and word play. The program is designed to continue looping through the entirety of text until added to anew. An echo of Jackson Mac Low’s ‘aleatoric’ poetry programs, PC is far more engaging and modern in that it is interactive/participatory. Poetic Context joyously exploits the mechanization [the meta-poetica] of the additive poetic process, and at the same time, seems to take on a collective consciousness [an illusion perhaps aided by the voice program], comprised of all the textual contributors. In terms of a collaborative poetics, this installation approaches a state of being that is, as James Joyce wrote in Finnegan’s Wake’: the soul of every elses’ body rolled into its ol’ sole self’.


Towards a collaborative poetics: a series of poetic experiments

‘Exquisite Corpse’, Textonic, Additive, & Collage Poetry

An ‘exquisite corpse’ poem is a type of textonic [shared authorship], ‘blind’ [or semi-blind] work, written or drawn, that due to its constrained structure yet purposefully random nature, becomes a deeply compelling/revealing thing; strange juxtapositions emerge and collective/reflective awareness is enabled. Above all, they are fun, in the most enriching sense of that word. Most of the following ‘experiments’ draw upon the essential concept of the ‘Exquisite Corpse’, hereafter referred to as the ‘Exquisite Cosmonaut’, for alliterative purposes, and to signify a new frontier in the poetic exploration of the cosmos.

In my correspondence with New York based, new media poet Jennifer Ley, I pitched the idea of a ‘collaborative poetics in space’ and the use of the ISS in this collaborative process. Citing influences/inspirations from Jules Verne and ‘cyber-punk’ author William Gibson, to Hubbell telescope images of Jupiter/Shoemaker-Levy 9, Ley envisions ISS ALPHA as an “orbit based poetic focal point” for poetic projection. Ley describes an “additive language symphony” created by author/authors at land-based points of artistic origin located along ALPHA’s orbit, “beaming a build-as-you-go poetic construct to the station, which is then beamed back to the next land base, added to, beamed up again…cumulative for one earth orbit”. The experiment “will eventually wrap the Earth in a dense poetic, multi-lingual fabric”. Although Ley left open the ‘material’ of this ‘fabric’–audible, visual, textual, or combination–I found her conceptualization in concordance/resonance with my own thoughts on the subject, as well as ideas expressed to me by Peter Oppenheimer and Phillip Reay. The idea of using the ISS as a poetic “focal point” or relay station, with astronauts periodically contributing to its growth and transmission, is a fertile one, and offers many possible permutations. But who sees or hears this “language symphony”? How/where do they see/hear it? There is great inequity in access to techno-media. Therefore, I recommend exploring any and all display/broadcast possibilities–whether radio, television, the Internet, or even some public theatre [with a satellite up-link!], so that all peoples have a chance to experience the work, if not contribute to its creation [a possibility could be the use of text messaging, Web-enabled cell phones, such that, at a given time, folks in virtually any setting could contribute to the poem’s growth].

The Collective / Additive ‘Sound Poem’

All communication forms are potential source materials for modern poetic process. Astronaut speech communication can be ‘re-contextualized’ through selective filters/programs [e.g., the first and last words spoken in a given time frame’, orbit cycle, etc], An earth poet/programmer could construct a program that probed for every sentence beginning with the phrase “I am”, or, every question asked during ISS operations [this could also be done through selective ‘manual’ editing], then recording all speech following this declaration for a given sample time, and continuing this process regularly or randomly over the course of one or more orbits. This is similar to the approach that artist Ben Ruben used in his mesmerizing, live-Internet-audio-sampling installation Listening Post [2002]. When played back, the piece becomes what is known in poetry circles as a ‘list poem’ [with a traditional repetition device], but one spoken by the actual astronauts/cosmonauts as they perform their experiments and daily ISS tasks. In this example, astronauts participate in the collaborative process, though passively.

An intriguing possibility [compatible with Jennifer Ley’s vision] is a continuously reconstructed audio stream [supplied my the actual audio link between ALPHA and Earth] which could appear in a WOO interface [as text, audio file, and/or acoustic wave display], accessible by both astronauts and earth poets, each able [through a simple audio program] to add to/reconstruct the audio stream. Astronauts would hear their “space speak” and mission communications transformed, as do the poets on the ground, creating a collaged ‘sound poem’. Astronaut audio has a strange appeal to earth artists and space fans. As Peter Oppenheimer has said to me, “space speak is surely different from earth speak.” An ‘astronaut narrative’ can emerge from the modified data flow, revealing new language patterns.

Audio communication can be ‘streamed’ to a web site [web-cast via satellite down-link, or, from earth-based mission control] where it can be accessed by poets on earth with Internet capabilities. Audio can be cut up/stored on the site as sound files [discreet ‘chunks’]. Poets can record their own file, and using a simple audio editing/mixing software, can integrate/reconstruct the audio stream with his/her own poetry or edit the audio and store it on the site. Audio can be streamed back to ALPHA where astronauts can again access these files [or perhaps one continuous audio stream] and alter/reconstruct/augment them before re-sending the audio stream back. This is similar to the ‘collaborative symphony’, web-based music events that emerged in the mid 1990’s. Though the originating stream, or ‘seed’, comes from ALPHA, thence afterwards both ALPHA occupants and WOO participants become generators and filters of the audio stream. When all that is going on is more than can be said by one; when the meaning of experience is manifold, coherency of [a single, dominant] thought is subsumed by the global coherence of the existing, and self-reconstructing/perpetuating audio stream.

The Greatest Show Off Earth

Granting what Reay describes as “a small display, but a huge audience”, a projected image onto the ISS exterior, which would be video streamed to the Internet [ISS camera to satellite down-link], where a UI program [using FLASH and/or Pearle Scripts] and/or WOO system, permits earth-dwellers to write/speak a poem [and select imagery] which would then be up-linked to the ISS server, and projected again/anew onto the ISS. The visual is accompanied by a voice-synthesized audio stream comprised of, or composed from, an “international voice” or ‘group mind’, thus also combining the audio and visual modes of poetry. This would be a continuous media streaming [real time or near real time updated] between astronauts and earth-dwellers. Web users could listen to the audio playback of the text, as they watched–via one of the ISS external cameras–the visual display unfold on the exterior of the space station. This continuously changing, orbital ‘video poem’ could also be viewed passively or non-interactively via the Web, a PDA, a dedicated cable channel, or a sufficiently powerful telescope.

The Exquisite Cosmonaut Hyper-Poem

Seldom read the same twice, an intricately woven collaborative hyper-poem can be effected via a relatively simple program mediated through a WOO [and even contributed to via cell phone/PDA]. A cosmonaut ‘seeds’ the poem by typing [or perhaps speaking] a phrase, line or short poem, where upon one word or short phrase is randomly selected by the program to become a hyper link to a new ‘page’ or space [the program also randomly places the randomly selected word/text on each new page/space]. This new space is presented to a new user who can view [or hear] only the randomly selected word or textual segment/unit. In picking up the thread, the suggestion, the second user enters text [a thirty word limit is a useful/practical limit] inspired or derived somehow from the presented text, where upon the program randomly selects a word, designates it as a hyper link, and the new word/phrase is presented to a third user, and so on. If coded to an image data bank [like the DVPLS], the program can also select key images [or random ones] which then become the visual fields to the words. After a given number of hyper-links [or say one orbit cycle] the hyper-poem would revert back to the ISS occupants, who would then create a new seed, or continue the psychological/textual thread if they chose.

Satellite of (Love) Poetry Or the ‘Last Exit to Earth’ Open Mic

The emergence of publicly accessible T-1 cable technology [around 1997-98] allowed for two remote groups/users to communicate and observe each other near ‘simultaneously’. Videophone and tele-conferencing technologies allow for the same possibility [even multi-loci exchanges, also T-2, 3 cable systems]. Web-streaming of live video and audio has also made this possibility far more realizable and affordable for more people and would be the most likely system utilized for this purpose. I can envision a poetic exchange with astronauts and earth-dwellers utilizing some variant of these technologies. The ‘event’ would be an ‘open mic’ or poetry reading in which astronauts ‘synched up’ with the earth event via a two-way web-streaming system. The earth event would begin at a specific time/place so that, at a designated time, transmission from the space station to the reading, and from the reading to the ISS, is effected. One can imagine the open mic host saying: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, live from the International Space Station Alpha, our next poet on the open mic is….” The reading, which could involve one or more ISS occupants, would last as long as there was poetry to read/share, but limited of course by the orbit cycle. Also, there may be a significant time delay. However doable, this would require accessing the necessary hardware [satellite relay system if using satellite ‘bouncing’, or, access to any ‘down stream source/server that was routing the transmission].

The tricky part in holding such an event is in delineating and providing a mode of communication/transmission that a] facilitates astronauts communication (audio-visual) to earth, and, b] one that earth-dwellers can access relatively easily. Alternately, an academic or organizational partnering [such as a public television station] may facilitate such an historic ‘happening’, in the likely event that the hardware/technology is not affordable to those who typically run, or attend, poetry ‘open mics’. There is cost involved in all such experiments. Donated time/use of equipment might need to be procured.

One caution: limits would have to be set on the number of [sequential] users per cycle [complete ISS orbit] as well as the total number of cycles. There would need to be a global lottery or sign-up process that assigned each potential contributor a number in a sequence, which, if not engaged at the right time, skips to the next user in the sequence [the same selection process and program would be necessary for the two previously described collaborative experiments]. The method of Earth/Internet transmission will determine the nature and extent of participation in the poem. The poem, when ‘finished’, could then be stored and displayed on the WWW as content for a dedicated site for all such collaborative works.

A Final Note: Poetry and Profit

Obviously, the artistic value in such experiments needs to be acknowledged and advocated by those with the means. Poets, like all artists, often must rely on sponsorship and/or patronage to actualize their creative endeavors and visions. There is, of course, the possibility of some type of commercial value in all of this [such as web host registration fees, publication of results/post event re-broadcast rights], but there is no guarantee. The motive for a collaborative poetics in space must be the love of creative experimentation; the acknowledgement of: the right of people everywhere to seek inspiration, which is to say, to participate in the poetics of being. If the deciding criterion for bringing such experiments to fruition is profit and/or commercial outcome, then the likelihood of actualization is diminished. Poetry can partake of commerce, but its creation/expression must never subordinate to commerce.

{The author would like to express his gratitude to Jim & Mary McPartlan, Louis & Cynthia Ricciardi, John Ricciardi, Peter Oppenheimer, George Aguilar and The National Poetry Assoc. for helping to make his attendance at the 7th Workshop On Space and the Arts possible.}

© Michael Anthony Ricciardi & Leonardo/Olats, mai 2004, republished 2023.