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Grab Bag/Kitsch Mag

Razor Smile 1-2 and papertiger 3 reviewed by Sam Redlark

Publishing electronically does have its advantages. The range of media that can be put onto a disk or website opens up worlds of possibilities beyond simple text and pictures. Furthermore the problem of limited space, which bedevils the print format, is no longer an issue. It is possible to store more information on a CDROM than many independent print magazines manage to publish in their entire lifetime; but this volume and variety can sometimes flourish at the expense of editorial focus.

Issue One of Razor Smile – a print magazine with an emphasis on chaos magick (sic), philosophy and anti-capitalist politics - comes bundled with a CDROM that really throws the kitchen sink at you. “You can find a number of things on this disk if you look for them, but they are all freely available from the net anyway so you could already know about them,” says editor Matt Lee. He's absolutely correct, but Razor Smile is still very hard work. Accessing the disk involves poking around in the CDROM drive, clicking on files at random without really knowing what's on the other end. Although the contents of the disk are thematically linked to the magazine – the occult, philosophy and the politics of resistance all figure - there is very little in the way of context or explanation, and occasionally (for example when a photograph of 'Dave' appears in a folder of anti-capitalist artwork) the selections are truly baffling.

Typical of the random nature of the CDROM is the E Books folder, which gathers together an eclectic mix of texts, all of which run in Acrobat Viewer. It's like searching through a musty old second hand bookshop where no effort has been made to organise the stock. A mammoth 324 page volume called The Cyphernomicon sits alongside a collection of poetry by Lewis LaCook, Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, a piece of automatic writing by Austin Osman Spare and Volume 7 of The Warwick University Journal of Philosophy.

The most coherent part of the disk is given over to Fotamecus – a collection of files that forensically dissect the making of a film which documents an occult ritual, aimed at disrupting the flow of linear time. The film trailer, with its robed figures and sombre chanting, is an impressively eerie piece of cinematography and clever editing, particularly unsettling if you view it before reading the background material.

Digging through Razor Smile does occasionally bring some unexpected gems to the surface. Spheres of Chaos is a good approximation of what the arcade game Asteroids might look like, if played under the influence of hallucinogens. It begins innocuously enough with grey spheres floating pregnantly across space, but soon the screen is awash with overlapping coloured vortices, radiating outwards in different patterns, and weird geometric shapes that give off discordant sounds like metal wind chimes when you shoot them.

Given the lack of focus in the compilation and organisation of the material, it's tempting to view the contents of this CDROM as a bundle of extras, subsidiary to the print magazine - a dumping ground for dedicated readers to trawl through at their leisure, rather than an electronic extension of Razor Smile. Even so, the poor layout of the disk makes investigating its contents a wearying experience.

Issue 2 manages an improvement, the CDROM being devoted almost entirely to the work of the artist Alan Sondheim. Files open up in Internet Explorer and there is a tree-style index of links. Sondheim works across a broad range of media, including photography, film, music, poetry, psychology and philosophy; but his work is at its strongest when he brings different forms together in his multimedia art.

New Media is often fixated with offering the viewer choices, but in several of the pieces here Sondheim wrests control from the reader and, in doing so, gives rise to more subtle forms of interactivity. In "collocation-of-stars", blocks of text appear at the top of different coloured screens that change every few seconds. The sentences that you do manage to read before the screen changes connect with those on the following page and form odd configurations in the mind.

Sondheim generally manages to create pleasing and interesting abstract work even when his artistic intentions remain ambiguous. In "ride-me", text scrolls in a loop across two narrow boxes, one above the other. Occasionally the writing in the boxes achieves an off-kilter symmetry – “I was born Alan and I will die Alan” says one, while the other reads “I was born Jennifer and I will die Jennifer.” “Wink the moans!” says one. “Blink the bones!” replies the other. The whole thing reads like the internal dialogue of a couple whose inner thoughts have synchronised after years of cohabitation.

"the shrIne" owes its disturbing quality to a heavily treated voice that sounds as though it's coming from the other side of a wall. As the speaker carries on a one-sided dialogue, the words muffled and lacking definition, text scrolls up behind a small red square in the centre of the screen, which shrinks back slightly when the mouse pointer is placed over it. During the piece the square begins to furtively separate into two, forming a ghost image, and the speaker’s voice is suddenly raised, as if in anger.

papertiger is the polar opposite of Razor Smile, as far as production values are concerned. Issue 3 of this electronic poetry journal plumbs new depths of kitsch in its design. The retro opening-title sequence culminates in a photograph of a cat rising up from the bottom of the frame, superimposed over a three-bar rainbow that alternates between bright and pastel colours, and fires off pink hearts that fade as they spread out across the screen. The tiger ornament in the grass, which forms the photo backdrop to the main index, looks like it's been purchased from a yard sale. Cats' heads and plastic animals function as menu icons.

The editors have wisely organised a large quantity of diverse material into a magazine format, leading with three features, highlighting the work of Gig Ryan and Ted Nielson, and presenting a showcase of American poets, compiled by Michael Rothenberg. The remainder of the disk is given over to an assortment of text, audio, video, flash and photographical pieces, all of it organised into dedicated sections, with short biographies of the contributors. The format is incredibly polite and reader oriented. Songs and audio poetry are switched off by default and won't play until you click on the audio icon. If you leave an interview half read, and then revisit it later, the position of the text is the same as when you left it.

Of the features, Gig Ryan presents selected poems, culled from her six publications, and sound files from her band Driving Past. Ryan's beguiling poetry serves up the occasional strong image (“The sky’s navy river tips over the car-light stars”) but otherwise prods you vaguely in a particular direction before leaving you in a turmoil of minor feelings, like there's something important lingering in the back of your mind, that you're on the verge of forgetting.

Ted Nielson's poetic wordplay incorporates a mixture of music lyrics and lines from films, all of it slightly altered and blended with his own train of thought.

Michael Rothenberg, as contributing editor, offers USA snapshot – a photo gallery of American poets showcasing a small selection of their work. “These are just poets/people who somehow reflect my psyche and speak to my concerns right now,” he says in his introduction. There is a broad variety in the poems on offer, ranging from the introspective to the absurd and surreal. In Terri Carrion's "when i was in love", a woman searches the washed-up detritus on the sea shore, looking for something lost from her tired relationship, bringing home clawless crabs, gull bones and syringes in the hope of stirring a memory in her partner.

Brendan Lorber's "a werewolf in tupperware" – a poem about family division – stacks sentences unevenly on top of each other, the verse occasionally splitting into two and going off on different tangents.

John Brandi's meditative poems quietly reflect on Vietnam at the end of the 20th century, and find a sense of closure in the people, decades after the end of the war. An American and a Vietnamese guide, who lost her father during the conflict, visit a shrine to the goddess of mercy. A market along Hang Quat Street, Ha noi, becomes charged with magic realism, the goods and services on offer - “Jars of chocolate the colour of white jade, turtles with wings, horses with beaks” - taking on almost mythical qualities.

Sifting through the rest of papertiger turns up interesting works such as Johanna Featherstone's audio poem "tokyo metro". Here the English text on the screen is juxtaposed with the shock of hearing the poem read out in Japanese(?), the clipped sentences coming to a halt before you expect them to, the poem, like the “palm sized grannies” who “ fold into bows”, somehow condensed when spoken in another language.

Buried in a showreel of Komninos Zervos's cyberpoetry, much of it exploring the onomatopoeic and caligramatic qualities of words, there is a tremendously powerful piece titled "Childhood In Richmond" - a poem in which he recalls his early days in his parents' fish shop. Black and white photographs melt onto the screen, the images blistering in a single colour, until they look like negatives. Flies crawl across the pictures and a flat fish drifts lazily across the screen, gently rising and falling on an invisible current, as Komninos recalls the shop. It was his family’s livelihood, but it attracted vermin and drunks from the pubs and soiled the hopes and dreams of his parents. The speed at which the images come and go accentuates the tugging quality of the narrative, giving the impression that you are being pulled fast forward through his childhood, and the poem ends with Komninos remembering how his father would take out his frustrations on his customers and how he would often see his mother crying alone in the corner.

Jason Nelson submits some interesting pieces of Flash work. "nine attempts to clone a poem: seven" arranges six lines of a poem around a horizontal axis which rotates towards or away from the reader depending on the position of the cursor and gives the screen a sense of depth.

"This will be the end of you: play 4: within, within" also explores depth, mimicking a computer generated map of the universe. A clutter of objects fills a grey screen – numbered sentences, black and grey discs and ellipses, straight lines, an open book with pages full of scrawled handwriting - some in the foreground, others far away in the distance. Holding down the mouse button accelerates you into the screen, passing the visible objects and towards the other ghostlike images beyond. Eventually, having passed a Victorian advertisement for women's underwear, a final sentence and a red ellipse stretched vertically, the piece reaches its end.

Reading papertiger chronologically will eventually lead you to the essay "In defence of contemporary Australian poetry", in which Liam Ferney attempts to repel charges of elitism and inaccessibility brought by a writer from The Weekend Australian. It's one of those storms in a teacup that occasionally blows over small pockets of the literary world and makes few ripples outside of it.

In fact, like a strange science experiment where the existence of some invisible particle is inferred from the behaviour of other particles around it, much of the poetry here, Australian or otherwise, skirts around a mood or a feeling, giving only the barest outline of its subject. It's an acquired taste, and, like a lot of the material compiled on papertiger and Razor Smile, to fully appreciate it requires some magnanimity and open-mindedness on the part of the reader.

© Sam Redlark July 2004

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