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Wrestling with Angels


Internet Text and Multimedia Pieces, $20

by Alan Sondheim

reviewed by Edward Picot

Alan Sondheim has been publishing his work on the Web every day, virtually since it was launched. It's nothing uncommon for new media artists to publish their thoughts on a daily or almost-daily basis; but they usually do so in the form of a blog on a personal website, whereas Sondheim's postings appear simultaneously in a number of e-mail discussion-groups: WebArtery, Wryting, Cybermind, Poetics and arc.hive. Often these postings are pure text: poems, prose-poems, cut-ups, comments about what he's reading at the moment, descriptions of his personal life, densely-reasoned philosophy and enraged analyses of US politics. At other times they contain links to external files, such as quicktime movies or .jpg images. Here is a recent example:

From: Alan Sondheim

Date: Sun Mar 6, 2005 8:26 am

Subject: order clash

order clash

order crash

Sondheim uses a number of different media, but writing is at the core of his work, and whatever else he may or may not produce in a given period, he always continues to bring out at least a couple of texts a day. He has been doing this since 1994, during which period he estimates that he has missed "maybe a month altogether", and as a result of this discipline his "Internet Text", which he describes as "an extended meditation on cyberspace", currently runs to "around 150 files, or 15,000 printed pages". Most of these texts can be read by themselves, but they do tend to form sequences, chains and cycles. He has certain recurring themes (or "fuzzy thematics", as he calls them): for example sexuality, physicality, cyber-sexuality, cyber-physicality, cyber-identity, politics, philosophy, religion and spirituality. He also has certain recurring motifs, techniques and styles, such as cut-ups , "found" material, avatars, reprocessed images, mannekin-style animations, and dance videos featuring his longtime collaborator Foofwah d'Immobilite. As one becomes familiar with his work these cycles of meaning and cross-connections between one piece and another become more and more apparent, with the result that one becomes less inclined to think of any given piece as self-sufficient, and more inclined to regard it as part of a much larger whole. Sondheim himself clearly thinks of his work in these terms:
...readers may not be aware of the continuity among them [the texts]. The writing may appear fragmented, created piecemeal, splintered from a non-existent whole. On my end, the whole is evident...
DVD contents imageHe makes very little effort to "package" or "present" his work in any conventional way. The Sampler DVD comes in a plain black case with a small printed label stuck on the front. There is no labelling at all on the disc itself. It doesn't run automatically when you put it in your DVD drive; no contents-page appears; instead, you have to browse the contents of the disc and open a folder called "Sampler", whereupon you are confronted with a big list of files in alphabetical order - .txt files, .jpg files, .mov files, .gif files and so forth. The only way to find out what is in these files is to open them one by one; and after you have done so, if you want to relocate a particular image or a particular text, you will have to use either your memory or the facilities on your own computer - the DVD itself doesn't offer any help. One senses that there are two reasons for this lack of user-friendliness. Firstly, Sondheim is simply too busy producing new work to spend a lot of time thinking up attractive and engaging ways of packaging his back catalogue. Secondly, he would probably regard any form of packaging as a falsification.

But although he may seem inconsiderate of his audience in some respects, his self-publication method actually makes him more approachable than many new media artists. Digital art on the Web is often presented in the form of large single packages which demand big investments of time and attention from their wreaders before they will yield anything in return. Sondheim's work, arriving as it does in small daily doses which gradually build into something huge, affects its audience incrementally, in the same way that dripping water affects a stone. He says that he didn't adopt this strategy deliberately - "It seemed natural, because I've always written daily... it's the way I write" - but the fact is that it works very well on the Web; and from this point of view, the Sampler DVD, which presents us with a great deal of his output all at once, is better suited to an audience already familiar with his oeuvre than to those coming across it for the first time.

Even to those who know and admire his work, some of the material on the DVD will be hard going:

I... find that film has the obvious possibility of representing a maternal imaginary by the very virtue of a darkened room... This certainly opens the way for screen memories (were such to exist) as well as an uncanny ontology/epistemology. Brechtian alienation in contrast occurs within a grounded Euclidean and somewhat mechanized space - re. the deus ex machina operative in his plays, something entirely different. ["film.txt"]
- but it is impossible to browse these files for long without coming across something of interest. Here is a short poem from "ZZ.txt":

Elegy, Impossible Mourning

I am not in Perth.

I have never been in Perth.

No one awaits me in Perth.

She has never arrived in Perth.

She has never been awaited.

She has never been to Perth.

She is not in Perth.

He has never departed Perth.

He has never been awaited.

He has never been in Perth.

He is not in Perth.

You, who are in Perth, do not await me.

You, who have been to Perth, do not await her.

You, who have been in Perth, do not await him.

This is a minor piece, but it displays several distinctive features of Sondheim's style. Firstly, there is the oddness, the unpredictability - why choose Perth? What's especially sad about not being in Perth, never having been to Perth, or never having been awaited in Perth? The answer is "nothing". The poem isn't actually about Perth as such: it uses the place-name as a hook on which to hang a series of variations. Partly as a result of this method, there is an ambiguity of tone which is also characteristic of Sondheim. The title of the piece - "Elegy, Impossible Mourning" - encourages us to expect sadness, and the first three lines certainly seem to strike a note of regret and loneliness -

I am not in Perth.

I have never been in Perth.

No one awaits me in Perth.

- but as the poem unfolds, we begin to wonder if it's serious or tongue-in-cheek. After all, the world must be full of people who have never been to Perth and will never go there. Is this any particular cause for mourning? Is the poem making fun of Perth? Is it making fun of regret? The ambiguity of tone is heightened by the use of formal, slightly antiquated, slightly over-the-top language - "Elegy, Impossible Mourning" and "You, who are in Perth, do not await me".

On closer examination, one begins to notice the structure of the poem - how it builds a pattern out of repetition and variation. It starts with a stanza of three lines, followed by two stanzas of four, and a concluding stanza of three. The first stanza consists of statements in the first person, the second and third of statements in the third person, and the fourth of imperatives in the second person (but the line-endings of the last stanza recuperate the "me", "her" and "him" of the earlier sections). All the lines are end-stopped, and every line is a simple sentence. Furthermore the same verbs are used over and over again:

I have never been in Perth.

She has never been to Perth.

He has never been in Perth.

You, who have been to Perth...

The more closely one looks at the poem, the more central its use of repetition and variation seems to be, not only to its style but also to its meaning and purpose. What really interests Sondheim, one comes to feel, is exploring the variations of meaning which are available to us when we wish to describe our relationships with a particular place: are we there now? have we ever been there? have we ever been awaited there? have we ever departed from there?

Roofdance imageThe dance and animation pieces on this DVD show much the same concern with variation and repetition, with process, and with exploring a set of possibilities. In "" we see the dancer Foofwah d'Immobilite dancing on a flat rooftop next to a metallic ventilation duct, in what looks like early morning sunshine. He starts out fully clothed but ends up naked: the movie is shot in sections, and in each section he has discarded another item of his clothing. Presumably this is at least partly because the dancing makes him hot: it certainly looks like strenuous exercise. He stands on one foot, kneels, lies flat, arches himself backwards, stretches and twists his arms and legs and contorts his body with almost superhuman flexibility and strength. Pauses, slow graceful gestures and yoga-like balancing-postures alternate with bursts of frantic writhing and thrashing, as if he were flailing at clouds of biting insects. There is no obvious rhythm to the dance and - apart from the incremental shedding of his clothes - there is also no narrative to it. It doesn't seem to be trying to convey a story or a particular emotional state, and it doesn't seem to work its way to a climax: it runs through a set of variations, then stops.

There are striking similarities between this and "", a digital animation which shows a hairless, expressionless female mannekin twisting (or being twisted) into all kinds of unnatural positions. Her dance mat is an old book, peeling at the corners, set on a blue background of Arabic-looking plant-fronds curled into geometric spirals. Her dancing partner is a skeleton, the limbs of which are mixed and embedded into her own, so that at times it looks as if her own skeleton is escaping through her skin. You can read all sorts of symbolism into this - physicality, sexuality and mortality - and there is certainly an element of danse macabre to it - but the rhythm and style of the female mannekin's movements, passages of frantic contortion alternating with passages of almost-total stillness, are very similar to Foofwah's dance on the roof.

To say that Sondheim is primarily concerned with sets of variations would be to oversimplify him. His work is too prolific and various to be explained by any single formula. Nevertheless, his interest in grammar and structure, repetition and variation, is clearly an important clue to his method - for one thing, it helps to explain how he has managed to produce so much work at such a consistently high rate over such a long period of time. It also helps to explain his interest in underlying structures. There are moments of pure observation in his work - movie-glimpses of city streets by night, people on a beach, cargo ships in the Panama canal, waves running across the surface of the ocean and so forth - but on the whole he seems more drawn to concepts than to appearances and sensations. And not merely drawn to them: his engagement with ideas sometimes amounts to a pitched battle: he wrestles with them like Jacob wrestling with the angel:

Spatial visualization for the platonic solids at the least is highly underdeveloped, as anyone trying to construct the division of spaces by planar extension soon realizes... Four-space is worse... After a while... what results is a form of internal twisting of the mind...

When I was focusing on the problem of the octahedron... I kept trying to picture a certain configuration (which I still can't), realizing there was a _trick_ involved which still eludes me. I was not able to sleep as a result; the stress was enormous, worse than anything physical...


Oddly enough for someone who writes every day, Sondheim is not a natural diarist: in "DIARY2.TXT" he notes with characteristic honesty that "Rereading all this stuff, I realize how selfish and boring I am...; this diary doesn't compare with Pepys' for example..." This is because he either doesn't notice or doesn't record certain types of everyday occurrence - occurrences of the "today I was woken up by my next door neighbour arguing with his wife" variety. His life is the life of ideas, and his art is always pushing beyond the details of mundane existence to the metaphysical, and beyond the metaphysical to the eschatological. Nowhere is this more apparent than in "cancer.txt", a collection of texts written in 1999-2000 while his mother was dying. It contains some of his most beautiful, moving and harrowing work:
in the truth of god the cancer enters the lung, from the truth of god the cancer hovers, now, as if it were forever Tue Oct 5 22:14:54 EDT 1999 abandoned by god, the cancer thins towards ready exculpation, as if it were gone, as if angels rejoiced, singing the home of abandoned cancer, the purity of organs constituted
or this:

the walk before the last walk

the second meal before the last meal

the third laugh before the last laugh

the night before the last night

the second day before the last day

the third laugh before the last laugh

the walk after the last walk

the second meal after the last meal

the third laugh after the last laugh

the night after the last night

the second day after the last day

the third laugh after the last laugh

the shadow of a man near a three o'clock store

the sound of a child running near her school

- but there is very little in the way of everyday detail, about visits to the hospital, what his mother looked like, what her ward was like, what he said to her or what she said to him; so much so that when a snatch of such detail comes it seems extraordinarily powerful:
My mother was dying in the hospice; I went in through the doors, found myself unable to proceed. There was fluorescent light, world of red and chrome.
Macabre imageElsewhere in "cancer.txt", Sondheim himself puts his finger on the reason he is writing in this way: his consciousness of "imminent death" is driving him to attempt, "in every phrase or sentence or paragraph, a recuperation and resonance - as if the phrase or sentence or paragraph will be the last." But as a matter of fact this state of urgency is present everywhere in his art, not just in "cancer.txt", although it reaches one of its peaks there. As he notes a little later in the same passage, "one's project is always open-ended and on the verge of failure" - a line which nicely captures his mixed feelings about his own work - the sense that he is involved in an urgent and important "project", but that the project is "open-ended", with no definite goal or finishing-line in sight, and may collapse under its own weight at any moment.

We should be grateful that he has managed to stagger this far. Alan Sondheim is a kind of new media Bach - the formidable technical powers, the interest in variations, the creative drive, the restless experimentation - and his best work shows a Bach-like combination of mathematical precision and emotional intensity.

© Edward Picot, March 2005

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