On Mark Sutherland’s Code X (Part Two)

The material of technology—the hardware—that each performer uses to engage with Code X becomes emblematic of the variant and variable reading practices provoked by the work. Obviously, there is a marked difference between Code X’s appearance in the Scratch exhibit and the way that I use it with my personal computer at home. But, there is also a significant difference in my playing of the piece on my PC desktop with a sizable monitor over high-quality computer speakers and my playing of the same piece (even pressing the same letters in the same order) over my much smaller MacBook Air 11.5” through earbuds. Despite Dutton’s earlier insistence on the immateriality of the virtual world through which we engage with Code X, his essay nonetheless places a good deal of significance of the tools through which we experience the work. He writes that it is “With these tools [that the performer] enters a vocoverbovisual CD-ROM environment, where he [sic] may play an intricate, non-competitive, temporally liberated (because theoretically perpetual), phonic, patterned, linguistic game—or simply witness the game being played by the machine in exponentially varied, non-repetitive random mode” (np).

At this juncture, it is necessary to speak for a moment about this randomized mode that Code X will revert to if left inactive. The information page on the web-based version explains the random mode quite clearly. Sutherland writes, “If the computer keyboard is untouched for 30 seconds Code X will begin to operate in random automated-mode. Code X will replicate interactivity producing sound and visual poems until the keyboard is touched and the interactive program is re-engaged” (np). The fact that the poem reverts to an automated mode suggests, on one level, that perhaps the individual performer isn’t as central to this work as I have suggested throughout this case study. If the activity of the performer can be and is performed by an automated algorithmic function that continues indefinitely and does not repeat itself, then this demonstrates that our engagement with the work as performers is still integrative, but it’s not really interventionary insofar as we do not alter the text. The terminus of the full paragraph and the automated function suggests a “truth” or a “fact” of the text that is initially hidden from the viewer. Nonetheless, for Dutton “the text remains, for the most part, tantalizingly imminent. It can be viewed in its entirety by an undisclosed method that can be gradually arrived at, and kept on screen with another trick that has to be discovered. … In any case, it is neither directive nor didactic” (np). While we might argue that the fact that there is the implicit endpoint of the full paragraph that results after the “exhaustive” (alphabetical) use of the work, it is important to realize that this paragraph can never be formed by leaving Code X on random automated mode. The automated function reveals letters too slowly—and this cannot be changed because the work is presented in uneditable Flash—and thus letters fade into the black background before every letter is revealed. Unlike the individual performer, the random automated function of Code X will never reveal the paragraph in full and can only be achieved by an individual knowingly typing each letter of the alphabet at least once in a short enough time-span.


This final paragraph, then, is telling. Here, the performer is presented and addressed, though in the third person and is interestingly gendered female. Just as in the title, as Dutton points out in the observations I quoted earlier, the word “ode” is revealed as red text in “code” with the letter “C” remaining in white, almost every word of the final paragraph uses the differentiation of red and white to reveal words within words. In what can only inaccurately be called the first sentence of the paragraph, because there is no punctuation throughout, a number of words within words are revealed. Sutherland writes, “while staring at the computer the abecedarian catalogued every key,” an obviously self-referential statement of the paragraph itself which contains every letter of the alphabet and is a kind of catalogue of all potential buttons to be pressed, sounds to be initiated, and letters to be arranged on the screen. It is also obviously self-referential for Sutherland as the producer of the text who also “star[es] at the computer” while coding the word, though this reading is discouraged by the feminine gendering of the pronouns throughout. This opening is also clearly self-referential for the performer who reveals this paragraph, producing the alphabetic work and performing the act of “catalogu[ing] by pressing the keys themself.

The red words within other words that are revealed in this paragraph gesture towards the multiple readings and permutations that are individual-specific and are contained within the arbitrary “whole” of this final paragraph. The performer is invited into this multiplicitous and radically free postanarchist reading practice by way of the “hi” salutation hidden within the first word “while.” Here a reader is addressed and invited as one might be in a colloquial conversation, altering the poetic address to the reader (as one might see in an ode) slightly. Then the reader is invited to see hidden words within the words of the paragraph: the “tar” in “starting”; the “he” in “the”; the “put” in “computer”; and, my personal favourite, the “cedar” in “abecedarian.” While the final paragraph in full makes more or less cohesive semantic sense, despite the occasional disjunctive poetics or awkward syntax, the red words contained within other words do not unite to form semantic sense in any way. That same first sentence only in red would read “hi tar he put he cedar cat log eve.” Despite the suggestions of arriving finally at “form and meaning” in the quotation from this paragraph that I used earlier, these words-within-words suggest the arbitrariness and inadequacy of the sense at which we have arrived. This final paragraph instead positions the creative engagement of its performers as standing at the crossroads of sense and nonsense, a temporary autonomous zone where any permutation of these letters can and should be used, but any permutation would result in the same outcome: the dissolution of those larger structures that typically govern meaning-making and reading processes.

Rather than cohesion and closed narrative, this final paragraph presents itself as “the husk of a paragraph” that reveals not narrative but rather “the fossilised body of an involuted codex.” This final image, of the codex form curled in on itself, warped at the edges, and fossilized from disuse and disinterest, presents the born-digital, integrative work as a radical new format. The “vo,” then, that is hidden within “involuted” leaves us with a new form in obsolesced, obscure language: “vo” can be used both abbreviation of “volume” used for parts of print texts in a longer series and as an adverb it served as an archaic abbreviation of “voce,” as in publishing, “under the word or heading” with an obviously etymological root in the Latin vōce, the ablative of vox or voice (Oxford English Dictionary). “Involution” reveals its indebtedness to the codex even as it obsolesces it; it reveals the incoherence and piecemeal nature of the semantic “whole” and the uneasy relationship between aural and written language.


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