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.

1 thought on “A Chording to Chance”

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