Research Creation/Critical Media

Reflecting on ‘A Chording to Chance’

On Friday night April 7th, Stephen Trothen and I exhibited our project, “A Chording to Chance” at the Critical Media Lab‘s XDM Exhibition. The project’s description can be read in my last post or under Research Creation on this site. But “A Chording to Chance” can be briefly described as a participatory project that invited participants to translate Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de Dés” into “dotsies” font, a font designed by Craig Muth to “optimize” the screen. Whereas Mallarmé’s poem experimented with the page, Muth’s font experimented with reading on the digital screen. So, “A Chording a Chance” playfully combines these two experimentations with page and screen.

But rather than have participants type out on a keyboard, Stephen and I used a “chorder keyboard” that we designed to work with and map the dotsies font. Below is the chorder keyboard (left is more or less put together; right is the keyboard disassembled):

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And here is the the dotsies mapped out on our instructional pamphlet:

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To put it one way, the chorder keyboard sequentially moved through the alphabet using a finger patten. “A” is thumb, “B” is Index, “C” is Middle, “D” is Ring, “E” is Pinky, “F” is Thumb+Index, “G” is Index+Middle, “H” is Middle+Ring,” and so on. We liked to have delete to be all five at once to kinda communicate the frustration when making a mistake. In order for people to see what they were translating, we projected a split screen: one in regular english font; the other in dotsies. Here’s the set up we had for the night (top) and split screen version of the final product of the night (bottom):

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But participants were allowed to make mistakes; the project, after all, was all up to chance. And, in the spirit of the original poem, participants could type into the next section (you can see that one line starts to cross into the dotsies section). Letting participants complete the project (rather than having us type out the poem in dotsies) was us taking a chance, rolling the dice, and seeing what we could get. It was a delight to see some people revel in their mistakes, having fun with the chorder keyboard and liking the visualization of the dotsies font, even though, if translated, was full of typos. Other participants strived for perfection: typing and editing, typing and editing over and over again. You could say we really encouraged a close and sllooooooww reading of the text. Whether participants strived for perfection or whether they let the mistakes be, participants experienced what Maurice Blanchot calls Mallarmé’s experience:

“Language has within itself the moment that hides it. It has within itself, through this power to hide itself, the force by which mediation (that which destroys immediacy) seems to have the spontaneity, the freshness, and the innocence of the origin” (Blanchot, “Mallarmé’s Experience,”40-1)

The chorder keyboard, in conjunction with the split screen fonts, was crucial in forcing attention to the mediation of language and destroying the immediacy of language. As a result, the typos and neologisms that appeared (re)introduced a spontaneity and freshness to the poem.

Overall, it was fantastic to have so many participate and have fun with the project. By the end of the night, the chorder keyboard was accidentally broken and the final word of the night was “concealing.” It was fitting, Stephen and I thought, that the project, very much about revealing the mediation of language, concealed itself by the end of the night.

And so here is the final product:

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Research Creation/Critical Media

A Chording to Chance

This Friday April 6th, Stephen Trothen and I will be showcasing our latest collaboration at the annual XDM exhibition. This year, Stephen and I have decided to take on Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de Dés.” The exhibition runs from 6-9pm, but we hope to showcase the project on this website. Here’s the description of our project:

“Language has within itself the moment that hides it. It has within itself, through this power to hide itself, the force by which mediation (that which destroys immediacy) seems to have the spontaneity, the freshness, and the innocence of the origin.”  – Blanchot, “Mallarmé’s Experience,” Space of Literature 40-1.

Stéphane Mallarmé’s 1897 poem, “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” or “A throw of the dice will never abolish chance” is notorious for its experimentation with typography and graphical layout, sprawling back and forth across pages and varying in fonts and font size. The poem defamiliarizes language use, exposing the mediation of language, and challenges the limits of how poetry can look by cascading down the page and spilling over and across margins. A largely influential poem, it has inspired a visual artistic tradition of translations that explore or highlight the layout and form of the poem while suppressing its content (See Marcel Broodthaer’s “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” (1969) to Eric Zboya’s At the Heart of a Shipwreck (2013) and Derek Beulieu’s “Tattered Sails” (2018) and “Un Coup de Des” (2017)). Our work, entitled “A Chording to Chance” builds upon this tradition of transforming and translating Mallarmé’s poem but within a digital context that attempts to highlight the visual aspects of the poem while maintaining semantic meaning in a way that (potentially) both distorts and enhances meaning through translation into a digital typeface.  

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“A Chording to Chance” makes use of an original chorder keyboard that has been designed to work with the “Dotsie” font, a font designed by Craig Muth in 2012 to save space and optimize typeface for digital screens by rendering letters into blacked-out strips and, consequently, words into pixelated icons for faster reading time and a condensed use of the page. During exhibition, participants will be asked to use the keyboard to translate the poem into Dotsies. Our project plays with Mallarmé’s experientation with the page and Muth’s experimental optimization of the screen. As well, by having participants use a keyboard that is mapped directly to the visual output – e.g. a letter that requires two pixelated blocks is typed with a simultaneous press of the first two keys on the keyboard, etc – invites them to reflect on how interface design choices can overtake, or perhaps supersede, understanding in the act of transcribing. Moreover, participants’ interaction in constructing the poem will hit the “wall” of language’s mediation; no longer “immediate,” the veil of language’s mediation is lifted as participants work through writing the poem. Participants will not be instructed where to begin translation, but a marker will be placed in the book where the last participant finished. The end-product (after the exhibition closes) will be posted online, as well as a translation of the Dotsies poem back into English.

In this way, the intended understanding of the text, as well the rendered output, will be left to chance and placed in the hands of the translators.