As If She Wrote It for Software to Overhear
Our 37th guest on Experimental Israel represents a departure from our usual focus on sound art and sound artists. Hadas, a poet, who because of his unique approach towards poetry, finds, more often than not, he has an opener discourse with contemporary musicians than with poets. My own meeting with Hadas’ work raised in me the question whether the nature of his work indeed deems him a poet, or perhaps he actually is a sound artist. When confronting Hadas with this question I was given what he refers to as his staple response: “I am a poet, a programmer, and a media artist. Poet, because that’s what I do; programmer, so that people take me seriously; and media artist, because there’s no funding in poetry”. Disregarding the financial benefits, Hadas actually finds that the affiliation with computer based artists, and indeed media artists seems more like home to him due to the experimental nature of his work.
Hadas writes what he refers to as “non expressive poetry” – namely, a poetry that doesn’t parade an immediate expression of subjective feelings. Yet, when asked to place himself on a historical trajectory, he immediately recognizes himself within the modernist stance, and more so, as a continuation of the avant-garde movement. Hadas describes the utilisation of two main poetic tools he makes use of: procedures, and appropriation. Writing poetry from within a procedural stance, and indeed through the appropriation of materials from other platforms (art, internet, media or other found materials) links Hadas quite seamlessly to the experimental works of the New York school, and even more so, to philosophical notions relating to post-modernism. This also, in many ways, puts a non-definitive answer to the question whether Hadas is a run-of-the-mill poet or a sound artist. And the answer is that he is possibly, in different instances, both. However, personally, Hadas claims a more robust and indeed skilful link to the art of poetry, which he exemplifies through a lovely story associated with the French painter, Edgar Degas, and the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé: Degas is said to have written to his friend, Mallarmé, saying that he has great ideas for poems, but when it comes down to producing them they simply don’t turn out right. Mallarmé’s response to Degas was that poems are not made of ideas, but rather of words. And indeed, it is words that are at the forefront of his Hadas’ work.
In terms of biographical notes, Hadas relays his own past and discloses the story of a child prodigy who was, albeit as a form of play, already programming computers at the age of 5. Into his teens, Hadas, like many others teenagers, started writing poetry, but claims that his was a very standard poetry. Later, Hadas will enrol into math and computer studies at the univerity, and this before the huge hype that will follow regarding computer usage at large, and hence immediately computer studies as well. But throughout these years he had forsaken writing altogether, until he came across a poem by Israeli poet Dan Pagis. Pagis is not in any way identified with process works nor indeed with computer-based or algorithmic poetry. But in one of his poems, the first line is an appropriation of an idea from Italian Renaissance artist, Michelangelo: “Every block of stone has a sculpture inside it”. More than bringing to mind images of Michelangelo’s haunting unfinished sculptures, it was actually Pagis’ treatment of this borrowed statement that caught Hadas’ eye. Pagis continues to re-write the notion of that statement in 6 different iterations. This immediately struck Hadas, the programmer, as a sort of refactoring, and strengthened a hidden resolve within him to start using the computer and programming as a means of creating new poetry.
It is perhaps pertinent to describe one of Hadas’ works, so that one could better understand his artistic process. In his recent book, “Code”, Hadas appropriates the entire text from the Pentateuch (the first five books of the old testament). He then passes the same text through a generator that he himself had programmed, which extracts from the original text all of the Haiku structures. Taking the Haiku structure (5 syllables – 7 syllables – 5 syllables) and superimposing it on to the first sentence of the bible, would disclose a suitable structure as soon as we reach the second word of text: “The beginning when God created the heavens and the earth the earth”. But Hadas did more than simply devise an idea and apply a process to the appropriated text, but rather experimented with his code so as to give him the best type of results within the framework he himself had created. And indeed, those who are not baffled by the technical aspect, the process employed, the appropriation of text and the experimental approach, are confronted with a text they know quite well, or at least to some extent, but structured in a manner that paints the entire story, its focal points and its meanings in a different light. For instance, the first stanza, due to the superimposition of the Haiku structure to the original text, and due to the denotation of gender on verbs in the Hebrew language, creates an ambiguous situation where one could potentially read the gender specification of God as female. Hence, already in the first stanza of the work, we have a reactionary statement that serves as reasoning for the entire effort.
Once we have grown accustomed to a commingling of words and computing, it is perhaps not too surprising to see Hadas dabbling in installation, and more particularly in robotics. “Frankie the Robot” is a co creation of Hadas’, in which Frankie is a female robot acting as interviewer of her transient human subjects – this in attempts to “learn” from the subjects what it means to be human. Hadas describes Frankie as a “reverse Turing Test”, where it is not the computer asked to exhibit intelligent behaviour, but rather humans are asked to mimic machine-learning paths in order to teach Frankie what it means to be human. But here too, it is words that are at the forefront, as it is with words that the subjects “feed” Frankie, and indeed with words that she replies. And here too, the stimulus was another Israeli poet – in this instance David Avidan, a huge influence on Hadas. Avidan, whose poetry could certainly be described as modern, but in no ways as experimental as that of Hadas’, published a poem that was a consequence of a conversation he had recorded with one of the first historical iterations of a “chatbot”. The controversial outcome was contested by poets at large, as there was fear of tampering on behalf of Avidan. Years later, using the same chatbot, feeding it the same lines, Hadas would discover that there was no tampering whatsoever, and that it was in fact Avidan who was the first to see a potential in this kind of artistic process.
Throughout my entire conversation with Hadas, the question of borders and boundaries was at the top of my mind. I couldn’t help but notice that not only with Hadas, but also with many of my other guests, there is a tendency to cross beyond artistic and stylistic borders – a tendency that, more often than not, allows conservative artists to write off many of these works as irrelevant to the trait. Hadas confronts this issue with a quote from Kenneth Goldstone, whom he refers to as the foremost poet of our time: “Most of the avant-garde is a consequence of a discontent on behalf of the practitioner with their practice”, which explains why there is so much border crossing. Noting that Goldstone is also the managing director of UbuWeb gives this statement much credit and validation. However, Hadas continues this train of thought and reminds us that not all crossing of boundaries in the 21st century is experimental: “Avant-garde artists of the 20s had ample skill. Hence it is important to look at other boundary-breakers and ask what their skill set is”. This stance immediately places Hadas in an interesting artistic stance: on one side he questions the historic hegemony of poetry and art at large. On the other, he sees himself continuing a trajectory that includes, no doubt, problematic protagonists, but rather than obliterating their memory, Hadas suggest a similar solution to that suggested by our former guest, Ayelet Lerman, when the topic there was the female narrative: Hadas simply asks us to imagine more than one future as far as art is concerned, and so enables a look at our mutual past from within separate and yet equal narratives, and not only one.
Thus, with his supposed experimental approach and new poetry, Hadas suggest an idea of an artist that wouldn’t seem out of context for any practitioner throughout history: “We should promote works that contain a wide degree of freedom. Yet at the same time an unquestionable amount of skill”. Hadas recognizes his forte in computing as such skill, and hence, reacts quite strongly against programming commissions he receives on occasion: “if a work consists of computing as a main skill, then the same skill could very well shape the aesthetic characteristics of the work, and thus cannot be left to an outsider, but should be the work of the artist her/himself”.
Hadas ends our session in the studio with his own artistic contribution for our series. He decided to take a poem written originally by Gertrude Stein for her friend Pablo Picasso. In fact, it was a reaction of Stein’s to the cubist painting Picasso had just painted of her, and as a retort, Stein attempted to depict Picasso in a “cubist poem”. Hadas takes Stein’s original “If I Told Him” into his own realm of algorithms and devises a program that will listen to each one of the lines written by Stein as read out by Hadas. The program then responds with numerous possible suggestions of what it might have heard. Immediately following the original sentence, Hadas writes all of the computer’s suggestions down, and in this manner gives us his own poem entitled “As If She Wrote It for Software to Overhear“. Yet by doing so Hadas also reacts to the original act of call and response in Stein’s own work. And further more, Hadas recognizes something in the original style of the work as mechanistic, and decides to allow the machine into this process, as if it were its rightful place to start with.
For more information about Eran Hadas, please visit his website