statement: Are avant-garde practices still important to you?
The avant-garde European movements from between around 1912 and the 1960s has provided me with all the education I’ve needed to write, create and make my own work. Guillaume Apollinaire, who invented the terms Surrealism, Cubism, Orphism and Calligramme, is a luminary figure in my creative world. As is James Joyce, whose book Ulysses has had a major impact on my writing, so much so that I wrote a sequel to his masterpiece called Dedalus, which is set the day after Joyce’s novel. In this work I explored how Joyce might have used the internet, social media and digital technology had he been writing his book today.
The avant-garde writers and artists of this period were pioneers for configuring a new kind of relationship between the arts and the modern world; art was no longer something separate from the word around it, but inextricably linked to everyday experience and technological invention. Dadaism, Cubism, Vorticism, Lettrism, Mertz, Futurism, Beats, Fluxism and the concrete poetry movement have all absorbed me at different points in my life, and still provide me with solutions for conundrums I need to resolve in my own work. My focus has most recently been in the area of concrete poetry, having co-organised a visual poetry festival in Munich called Klang Farben Text (Munich 2020). During lockdown, I have returned to my typewriter, clattering out analogue letters onto the page as an antidote to Liverpool’s quiet streets.
The idea for these ‘livetranslations‘ of original German concrete poetry came to me at a visual poetry festival in Munich, in March 2020. I was struggling to read a Bavarian menu and the artist Barrie Tullet leaned over the table and flashed the Google Translate app onto the page: the German text swirled, blurred, then appeared in a creased-up English. I ordered a fine meal. On the last day of the festival I brought two concrete poetry books to take home from the festival and by the time I arrived back in Liverpool my experience with the Google Translate app had converged with concrete poetry into a new idea. I downloaded Google Translate and hovered my phone over the German concrete poems and the app did what it could to translate the texts into English. I took screengrabs of the app as it struggled to translate these minimal, cryptic and often multi-lingual poems into clear English.
These ‘livetranslations’ reveal something that we don’t often get to look at: the live process of translation itself. In this instance the process isn’t in the human mind but in the coded algorithms of Google. And as much as the technology is incredibly advanced, something the avant-gardists of the early 20th Century would have enjoyed pushing to its creative limits, what I enjoy most are the flaws in Google’s technology, its lack of creative intuition. Hover over a fragmented visual poem and Google stares blankly, displaying the same message: ‘aim at text’. Hover over a German poem that doesn’t actually need translating because it is already in English, for example a poem by Ernst Jandl which uses just the word ‘film’, and Google fluctuates, keeping some of the words as ‘film’ but changing others to ‘movie’. Hover over the word ‘weiss’, which means in German both ‘white’ and to ‘know’, and Google gives only one translation – ‘white’ – massively reducing the meaning of the poem.