On Mark Sutherland’s Code X (Part One)

In W. Mark Sutherland’s Code X (2002), a born-digital sound poetry machine that allows users to create their own sound poetry performances, a similar line is drawn between the work and a history of sound poetry, performance and installation art, and, to an extent, also concrete poetics. Despite the fact that, at its heart, Code X is a fairly simplistic digital game, it marks a point of convergence between many art forms and poses the question of how the digital medium allows for greater audience intervention. As Paul Dutton, a central figure in Canadian sound poetry, says of Code X in a brochure for Sutherland’s Scratch exhibit at the Koffler Gallery in 2002 (archived on Sutherland’s webpage), the work “fuses poetry, music, and visual art” (np) to reveal the tenuous boundaries between these art forms.

Code X served as a part of Sutherland’s Scratch exhibit, where the program was installed on a computer and projected onto the wall of the gallery. Viewers of the exhibit were encourage to interact with the program, choosing letters or writing words by typing on the keys, which caused the letter to appear on the projection in seemingly random spaces. Pressing a letter also started a ten second recording of Sutherland’s sound poetry pertaining to that letter, which played on a loop as long as the letter continued to be pressed. In addition to this appearance, Code X was also produced as a CD-ROM by Toronto’s Coach House Press. As Kate Eichhorn writes in her chapter on Canadian digital poetics for the Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature, Code X appeared at a time when Coach House was working towards adapting its largely print-based publication history to an increasingly digital audience. As part of an initiative led by Canadian poet and web developer Damian Lopes to archive and digitize Coach House’s frontline; while some of these online text were merely digitized versions of their print-book counterparts, others, like Code X, were circulated as distinct born digital (or at least radically different) digital works (Eichhorn 520). Unsurprisingly, the CD-ROM of Code X published by Coach House has long gone out of print; when contacted, Coach House didn’t even think they had a single copy in their offices for me to view. As the compact disc became an increasingly impractical, unreliable, and uncommon way to disseminate digital works, Sutherland and Coach House “launched [Code X] as an interactive website in 2009 (accessible through the Coach House Books Online Archives)” (Eichhorn 520). Coach House’s archived access to the work online is now a dead link, and the only way to actually use the work is to either download the program or play it through a browser on Sutherland’s webpage, www.wmarksutherland.com.

Despite some obvious differences in the way the work is received, the version of Code X designed for personal and private use functions in the same way as its installation counterpart. Code X, the packaging for the original CD-ROM boasts, turns its “readers” into collaborators on a transmedial sound poem and concrete poem by turning their computer keyboards into sound poetry producing machines. Each key places a typewriter-font collection dispersed letters on the screen while at the same time queuing an audio track of Sutherland’s vocal performance of the letter. The visual appearance of the work, a black screen with white and red Courier-typefaced text, bears no small resemblance to Andrews’s work in “Seattle Drift” and other similar pieces. It also demonstrates a clear link to the features of early concrete and typewriter poetics of writers like Nichol and, perhaps more so, Steve McCafferey. In many ways, the visual appearance of Code X recalls McCafferey’s seminal Carnival panels. This indebtedness to highly visual forms of poetry gets matched, in Code X, with the common vernaculars of sound poetry’s major players like Kurt Schwitters, and especially their interpretation by the Canadian sound poetry collective The Four Horsemen.

In the same way that critics insisted on drawing the parallels between “Seattle Drift” and the history of concrete poetry that led to it, the very few studies of Code X, none of which are academic studies, has really focused on the literary and artistic influences seen in Sutherland’s work. For example, in the aforementioned brochure essay, Dutton devotes a lot of the space of his essay to looking at the ways that Code X “announces some of Sutherland’s major influences: Dadaism (especially Kurt Schwitters and Raoul Hausmann), Fluxus (with more than a touch of Emmett Williams), and such late-twentieth-century unaffiliated intermedia-ists as, for one, bpNichol” (np). For Dutton, what is important about drawing these lines of influence is not situating Sutherland’s work into a history of cultural production, but rather using these influences as jumping-off-points to talk about the features of Sutherland’s work that he adapts from these other artists: “an openness, a sense of play, and a determined earnestness in the establishment and practice of a vital, sensuously, and intellectually integrative approach to creative expression” (np). It is that point of integration that makes Code X such a unique contribution to Canadian digital poetics, extending Andrews’s invitation to readers in “Seattle Drift” to encourage readers not to engage with digital poetics, but to create some art of their own.

In Code X, the “readers” become engagers, players, or “performers” who make some interesting agential choices in the text. In the information page that accompanies the web-based version of Code X, Sutherland specifically uses the term “performers” to describe the audience of his work, signaling both a similar approach to audience as Jackson Mac Low (described in chapter one) and an understanding of the text as subsumed by, or at least less important than, the audience to which it is addressed. On this information page, Sutherland points to the fact that Code X is a sandbox in which its audience can play and produce theoretically infinite permutations of the work’s performance, but is at the same a fairly closed, limited system. The performance of Code X will, of course, look and sound different depending on who is interacting with it, what letters they choose, with what speed or pattern they type, what hardware is used to engage with the piece (in terms of appearance and sound), how long it is used, and whether or not the work is left to lapse into its “random” mode, which I will discuss more fully further down. But, as long as the performer types each letter of the alphabet at some point during a session, the result is the same appearance of Sutherland’s pre-written paragraph. As the information page tells us, “Code X is housed within a self-referential paragraph containing every letter of the alphabet.” Moreover, while the order, overlap, and frequency of the sounds may vary, each letter typed will play the same “10 second phonetic improvisation” that Sutherland recorded for each separate letter. These two elements of the work—the paragraph and the recorded sounds—do not change. Instead, “By typing words or selecting letters on the computer keyboard the performer can create visual poems and sound poems coding, decoding, mashing and jamming the Code X’s paragraph” (Sutherland, “Information,” np).

What is important here is that while the role of the audience here is agential, interactive, integrative, and free in so many ways, only the process differs while the ultimate outcome remains fundamentally constant. In engaging with or “performing” Code X, we as the audience do seem to alter the text—the way it sounds, the way it looks—but only slightly. The voices and visuals produced by our interaction are predetermined, and though they look random when only a few letters are activated, these letters ultimately form a pre-written textual “whole.” What’s more, the “self-referential” paragraph that is ostensibly the work’s conclusion speaks of the reading process of the digital text as leading to the end goal of making adequate and substantial meaning from the text at hand (or cursor). It reads in part: “reading was a road a car a mnemonic mechanism driving towards form and meaning.” Positioning form and meaning as the logical conclusions of the reading process, only revealed once the whole gamut of the alphabet is typed through, suggests that

Nonetheless, Code X is pretty actively working to resist the limitations of print-based literature and the book form in general, as signalled by the work’s title. By breaking down the word “codex” into “code x,” Sutherland reveals the digital potentials that were always already contained within the materiality of print-based works. Firstly, as nearly every historian of digital poetics or media archaeologist argues, born-digital poetics has a long and useful history in print literature. Its predecessors were writers like Raymond Queneau and bpNichol who manipulated the codex form to resist the closure, transparency, and immateriality that is the inherited mythology of the print book. The packaging and paratext of the physical CD-ROM distributed by Coach House plays even more on this title and its relationship to a history of print-based literary production. Dutton’s essay argues that the manipulation of the word “codex” is only the first layer of play in this title, and that it “indicate[s] more than just an anonymous code, a riddle to be solved” (np). Hidden in this title is also a positioning of this work both within and against a long history of poetry’s complex and culturally determined relationship to its audience. Dutton writes:

The last three letters of ‘code’ are in red, drawing our attention to the poetic intent: an ode—‘a lyric poem,’ the Canadian Oxford Dictionary informs us, ‘usually in the form of an address, in varied or irregular metre.’ Not exactly what Sutherland has here, but close enough for intermedia. And further, we learn, an ode is ‘historically, a poem meant to be sung’—a relevant point given the quasi-musical effect of Sutherland’s sound-poetry rendering of the letters of Code X. (np)

While Code X bears very little resemblance to the history of lyric poetry, and the ode in particular, in form or content, what unites these two disparate forms is their insistence on directly and clearly addressing their respective audiences. Importantly, Dutton goes on to connect this relationship between Code X’s digital interactivity and the ode form. He writes that “There is in this a dual irony, since the text in question is Sutherland’s own, rather than a legacy from antiquity, and the form is CD-ROM, a modern variant of the book, as attested to by its component parts being called ‘pages’” (np).

There is, of course, a major problem in arguing that the CD-ROM—and by this Dutton means basically the digital text—is a mere “modern variant” of the book form. To argue this is to fundamentally miss some of the important questions Code X raises about new media practices in artistic and cultural production. “Codex,” after all, is a term that makes clear the relationship between a text and its material context. “Codex” is, the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, from the Latin cōdex, which is itself a later Latin spelling of caudex, meaning the trunk of a tree, but also a wooden tablet, a book, or significantly a code of laws. Moreover, as N. Katherine Hayles writes in Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, insisting on viewing digital projects like Code X through or even as a necessary result of print culture does a great disservice to new media and to the questions new media works pose about materiality and text. She writes that “To see electronic literature only through the lens of print is, in a significant sense, not to see it at all” (3).

As a necessary result of viewing the digital as merely a representation or an extension of print culture, Dutton makes the dangerous misstep of viewing the born-digital work as immaterial, ephemeral, and intangible. He writes of Code X that “the work occurs not in the tangible world of materiality, but the virtual one of digital representation. The mode of interaction is not arrived at through a confrontation of conventional proprieties, but by the now familiar, even ubiquitous, and somehow oddly comforting vehicle of the computer keyboard and mouse” (np). Clearly, these two juxtaposed sentences in Dutton’s essay, that appear linked by causality, actually betray each other. Of course, Code X is very tangible. In its various forms and permutations that rely so heavily on various different and multiple pieces of technological hardware, it expresses its reliance on materiality more than most print-based works. In the second sentence of this quotation, Dutton betrays the so-called immateriality of the virtual “world” from which Code X emerges. The material, physical hardware of the keyboard (and to a lesser extent the mouse) is integral not only to the works itself, but also to the ways that the performer engages with the piece. Without the physical manipulation of the text by pressing keys on the keyboard, Code X would only function in its random mode and would be missing the major, integrative element of its significance. It is easy to see the virtual as immaterial, as cloud based, but of course it never is; all screens are pixels, all hardware a complex interplay of metals and polymers, and so on. Let us not forget, too, the physical, bodily demands of engaging with digital media which require interaction much more than codex. After all, the word “digital”—as we are apt to forget—has its etymological roots in the body, coming from the classical Latin term digitālis, meaning “the measuring a finger’s breadth” and later, in post-classical Latin, more generally meaning “of or relating to the finger” (Oxford English Dictionary).

What’s more, there is a politics behind the disassociation of the digital program from the hardware designed to run such program. As Friedrich Kittler’s seminal essay, “There is No Software,” argues, “because software does not exist as a machine-independent faculty, software as a commercial or American medium insists on its status as property all the more” (151). Insisting on the separation between the physical hardware of computing and the various software we use in these computational processes allows for the copyright, commodification, and “property” status of the programming language as separate and independent from the hardware on which we use it. Rather than viewing software as separate from, or a consequence of, hardware, Kittler insists on “the virtual undecidability between software” arguing that “there are good grounds to assume the indispensability and, consequently, the priority of hardware in general” (152).


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