First Screening
video poems
by bpNichol
in the window of
Annual Reportt
First Screening is a series of "computer-poems" by Canadian poet, writer and editor Barrie Phillip Nichol, also known as bpNichol.

The piece is one of the first of its kind to fuse the tradition of Concrete Poetry with the possibilities of the emerging computer technologies of its time. It is created on the The Apple II (stylized as Apple ][), one of the first highly successful mass-produced microcomputer products which was released in 1977.

First Screening is shown at Annual Reportt at the courtesey of the Swedish online-gallery, to whom we are very grateful.

bpNichol (30 September 1944 – 25 September 1988, born in Vancouver, British Columbia), was one of Canada’s most important poets. In his lifetime he wrote concrete poetry, novels, short fiction, musical scores, computer texts and scripts for the muppet-based children’s show Fraggle Rock. bpNichol died in Toronto, Ontario on September 25, 1988.

The following is an essay by Berlin based, Canadian artist Alex Turgeon conserning First Screening:

I remember the first computer that was brought into my house. I must have been somewhere between the ages of six and seven, as I recall this occurring in the first house I can remember living in. The computer was of fashionable beige or a warm grey with a large blown glass monitor. This infantile technology seemed to operate as more of a decoration than as a fully functional piece of equipment, but somehow defined my single mother’s household as essentially modern. During the computer’s short existence in the basement turned wreck room, I had given my hand at trying to comprehend this beast under the stairs. Firstly, my mother would type a short command into the matrix, which would subsequently provide me the ability to process words across the infinite space of the screen. Free from the interfaces of operating systems, rudimentary orange characters appeared floating on the surface of a black abyss: a, b, c, d, and a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y populate the blank space before me as I punched the protruding keys. Gibberish on the edge of the fathomless void which made up the negative space around the typeface. A space only actualized when the random letters and numbers were pushed into and out of the temporal rift stored in the shadowy depths of the computer. Free of time and place. Without the ability to save or replicate any of my random compositions, or to ultimately understand my goal with this technology, my relationship to this computer lasted very briefly. Eventually focusing my screen time on more in depth adventures provided by video game consoles.

It takes a unique perspective to look into the expanse of the unknown and to have the ability to see endless possibilities rather than pure nothingness. To take the mechanics of a medium and forge it into a material for creative outlet requires an interest in upending convention. Within the work of Canadian poet bpNichol there is an attention and sensitivity to the structure of language. His work challenges how we perceive and comprehend the visual and auditory construction of words and their purpose. Repetition and rhyme allow for the flow of meaning to extend from one word to another causing the listener, reader, or both, to develop thematic interpretations as the lines of definitions become blurred together.

In First Screening, published by his own imprint Underwhich Editions in 1984, bpNichol takes on early forms of technology to create animated poetic compositions. These works explore the structure of both written and digital language, while simultaneously discovering the potential possibilities that reside within the seemingly dark abyss of a primordial computer. First Screening is a poetry edition originally designed for the Apple IIe computers, an upgraded version of the original Apple II, and a pioneer in the field mass market computing as the first commercially successful personal computer. The Apple II was continually produced and on the market from its launch in 1977 until Apple ceased production of this model 1993. The accessibility and portability of these computers allowed for a community of users to develop. These original users were offered the ability to both balance their cheque books and simultaneously explore The Oregon Trail on the same device, and in doing so became a new viably digital public.

In a printed insert accompanying the edition, bpNichol states that “computers & computer languages also open up new ways of expressing old contents, of revivifying them. One is in a position to make it new.” Through First Screening the poet employs older static ideas of concrete poetry and expands them with technology. Adding a new dimension beyond the surface of the page or screen, this work takes into account the poetics and materiality of its construction: “the off-screen programming moves from brute stumbling to some more elegant solutions, a record of the process of programming, the process of composition...”.

With this new technology accessible on a consumer market, the process of publishing digital poetry became more localised, allowing for publishers, like bpNichol, to distribute digital works at the vanguard of digital publishing. Previous poets who employed digital technologies, such as Stan Vanderbeek and his experiments at the AT&T labs during the 1960’s, required elaborate equipment and precise installation to experience early digital renderings and animations. bpNichol understood the new consumer platform and produced this pioneering digital work by taking a democratic position towards distribution, making it available for the personal computer. The original version of First Screening was published on 5 ¼” floppy disks in a numbered and signed edition of 100, therefore essentially producing one of the first ebooks of poetry before the concept of this format would have ever be conceived.

During the time of my first computer, my mother was working as a secretary at a local university. I rightfully assumed this impossible calculator was more a creature “for work” as my mother put it, and subsequently left it be finding no solace in the strict confines its orange text on a black screen. In the end, this formidable beast lasted only a brief time in the lexicon of my childhood, and only physically present until my family moved house shortly thereafter. In doing so we caught up with the rest of society, who were already invested in operating Windows 95.

As technology evolved past the Applesoft Basic programming language that bpNichol employed for First Screening, the archivability of this early digital work came into question. How can we reconcile our digital past in the wake of our exponential future? As technology progresses, how can we archive these early forms of computing while the adaptability of technology is so geared to new aspirations, discarding the past in its wake? Fortunately now we are able to experience this work, or collection of works, through detailed archival process. A daisy chain of transferring the files from one operating system to the next, taking over three years to complete, brought First Screening back to life for the twenty-first century. Although the experience of the work has changed from the floppy disk to, for this exhibition, an embedded video, the sensitivity of the computers’ construction and the construction of language still resonates with the artist’s unique sensibility.

I realise now it was within the computer screen’s particular depth of black space where the true potential of the technology existed. Not so much within the short commands or tax calculations that the device was intended to be used for. The work of bpNichol explores the poetic capabilities of programming by employing the principles of the medium for his own artistic endeavours. He initiates a poetic future set against the backdrop of the blown glass monitor, to stare into the black expanse and visualize its potential for creativity rather than alienation. bpNichol offers a unique observation into the fathomless potential of the abyss, and proposes a newly forged digital, and distributable, future for poetry.


Annual Reportt
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