Visual Poetry by Douwe Osinga
Poetry is supposed to project images in your mind. VisualPoetry translates any text into a series of images by looking up the words on Google image search and projecting the most relevant results as a slide show. You can use it to view your favourite poem as a series of images from the Internet to amuse yourself or you let other people guess which sentence or poem is displayed. [...]
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Visual Poetry

Featured by Amy Alexander.

Visual Poetry is a Google project. "Yikes!" you cry, "Not Another Google Project! There are so many of those already. Software art must be dead." I'd like suggest we move toward a certain type of sophistication here, which seems to me to be a tad slow to come to digital media art for some reason. That being, the sophistication to distinguish between projects with similarities in content or structure. After all, humans seem to have acquired this talent with respect to older art forms a long time ago. Think about it: how many paintings of women or sculptures of nudes have passed through the world over just the past thousand years or so? And yet somehow, people have managed to pay enough attention to the more subtle differences between these works to realize they find some more interesting than others. Point being, it's not what you do, it's how you do it.* That said, lets have a look at a Google project called Visual Poetry.

In Visual Poetry, you type in some text - presumably something poetic - and the project makes a poem, replacing most words with images Google returns for the corresponding search terms. OK, there are a number of Google projects that do things like that, and that description of the project tells us no more than would "it's a painting of a woman." But - it's the *way* it's done in Visual Poetry that makes it click. The text and images aren't placed on screen in a random jumble. Though the composition and timing are simply done, they are very effective. The pacing of each word and image is slow and deliberate, creating a moody atmosphere, as though to create an intentional cliché of maudlin poetry. But this feeling of moodiness and sentimentality is often at odds - though not didactically so - with the content that emerges. The images that Google returns for particular words - particularly those that one might input in a poetic context - are strangely surreal, a combination of the human and computer minds that caused them to appear.

"Ah, computer minds; randomness; nihilism!" you say. "The endless search for meaninglessness in media art!" OK, forget I said "computer minds." It's just a metaphorical expression; remember - there really *aren't* any computer minds. Computer software is an expression of human minds trying to quantify their thoughts and express them systematically. That's not how we generally think of thought, of course, and we certainly like to think we have more control over our conscious thought processes than we do over the output of software. But in some ways, creating software is like subconscious thought - it's what happens to your thoughts when they're one step removed from your control. This may help explain the sometimes surreal things software generates.

So anyway, we've got the human-computer minds at Google trying to guess what image to return when you oh-so-poetically type the word "pungent." But we've also got the minds of the authors of the images and the web pages from whence the images were gleaned. What pictures do these people take? What pictures do they post on their websites? Not only that but: what do they name their images, and how does that information - usually without the authors' awareness - get pureed, filleted, and indexed according to the minds of Google? Again, the combination of humans acting deliberately and humans acting unintentionally in concert with the contemporary, human-generated philosophy known as databasing makes for an interesting mix. And let's not forget the human named Douwe Osinga, who wrote the software that puts it all together in a slow, moody framework, which sometimes makes the poems funny and sometimes makes them downright disturbing. Visual Poetry reminds us that thought, intention, and meaning are behind code, databases, software, Google and art. So let's have a look at what's being said - but let's also remember to look at how.

* Disclaimer - The author of this text has made a few Google projects and tends to take Google projectification very seriously.

by Amy Alexander, posted 14 Nov 2004


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