Chronicle of an Omission Foretold: The Place of Concrete Poetry in the History of Digital Literature

Visual Poetry pieces by Augusto de Campos
Video Poetry works by Augusto de Campos exhibited during July in São Paulo

Milton Laufer, PhD Student at the Spanish and Portuguese Department.

As a PhD Student in the Spanish and Portuguese Department, my research focuses on the development in Latin America of what is known as digital literature. By this I mean a particular way of thinking about texts which is not constrained by the bounds of the device called “book”, which lays in between many other disciplines, like the visual arts, video art, and computer games. This involves not only a new paradigm, or at least a broader paradigm, in our way of conceptualizing literature, but also a meaningful political dimension, a democratization, in the sense of how cultural goods circulate—including but not limited to the Internet—and, most importantly, how they are produced: in the same fashion espoused by the avant-garde movements, in digital literature the boundaries between the producer and the consumer are blurred, calling into question not only ontological concepts like creator, art-work, and reader, but also legal ideas that have traveled a long and undisputed path, like intellectual property. Though the first two works of digital literature date back to the 1950s (Strachey, 1952 and Lutz, 1959), it was only during the past decade that a field of scholarship focused on this literary form began to emerge. In this time, digital literature has become a vital object of inquiry, not only because its trajectory is difficult to anticipate, but also—and more importantly—because it sheds light on our understanding of literary production in a broader sense.

One of the most iconic works of Brazilian concrete poetry, by Augusto de Campos (exhibited during July in São Paulo).

My research in Brazil was motivated by the fact that Brazilian concrete poetry—an important predecessor of digital literature—has been only superficially mentioned in the texts about this field. Latin America has been in general notably ahead of the curve, both in the development of digital artwork (for instance, the first computer-generated text in Argentina was published by Omar Gancedo in 1966) and in many of the techniques that are nowadays mentioned as the precursors of digital literature: it is almost impossible to think about combinatorial narratives without Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela (Hopscotch), about calligrammes without Oliverio Girondo and Xul Solar or, particularly, to talk about visual poetry without inevitably alluding to poesia concreta brasileira. Even though few of the ideas behind this important movement were new—I refer here to the previously mentioned calligrammes, the carmina figurata of the Renaissance, the micrography in the Jewish tradition, and also immediate predecessors in European Avant Garde like Musique Concrète—it goes without saying that this movement is arguably one of the Latin America’s more original artistic developments. Paradoxically, Brazilian concrete poetry is, in general, mentioned only superficially in the context of digital literature, and never receives as much attention as Stéphane Mallarmé or Guillaume Apollinaire, though it is obvious that Brazilian concrete poetry went beyond Mallarmé’s and Apollinaire’s merely figurative use of text: there is a whole new semantic dimension built upon their use of the materiality of the word.


Casa das Rosas, São Paulo (source: Wikipedia)
Casa das Rosas, São Paulo (image: Wikipedia)

I divided my research into two parts, each one located in one city: the first part took place in São Paulo and the second one (is taking place) in Rio de Janeiro. São Paulo was, between the end of the 1950s and 1969, the center of the development of the Brazilian concrete poetry movement, but Rio de Janeiro was also important. In this post, I will describe only the first part. My weeks in São Paulo were focused on three locations, which at the same time represented three conceptual points: a) the Casa das Rosas, now a public institution which hosts the Haroldo de Campos Archive: the entire library of Haroldo de Campos (who, with his brother Augusto and Décio Pignatari, founded the Brazilian Concrete Poetry movement) and a huge amount of personal documents, such as letters, sketches, manuscripts, etc; b) the 2016 FILE (Electronic Language International Festival) exhibition at Centro Cultural FIESP: arguably, one of the most important digital art exhibitions in the region; c) the exhaustive retrospective exhibition on the work of Augusto de Campos, REVEЯ, that covers more than 65 years of production.

Angella Conte's work at FILE 2016, São Paulo
Angella Conte’s work at FILE 2016, São Paulo

Starting with b), FILE 2016, what I did was to interview the artists and ask them what relation they found between digital literature and Brazilian concrete poetry. The most common answer, as disappointing as it was predictable, and usually by European artists, was they didn’t very much about the Brazilian part of the movement. Despite the fact that, in their defense, this year FILE was not as focused as previous years on digital literature, they shared with one of the most important theoreticians in the area, Roberto Simanowski (for instance, in this paper), a blatant failure in the acknowledgment of a movement that is not actually clear if it started in Europe or in Latin America —for instance, documents seem to prove that actually the very concept Concrete Poetry was coined by Décio Pignatari in the early 1950s.

Haroldo de Campos' letter to Max Bense (Copyrights: Casa das Rosas)
Haroldo de Campos’ letter to Max Bense (Copyrights: Casa das Rosas)

The lack of satisfactory answers to my questions about the link between digital literature and Concrete brazilian poetry contrasted with information that derives from part of the material in Casa das Rosas, which is being incorporated to the archive’s catalogue: the correspondence between Haroldo de Campos —the most intellectual of the three founders— and Max Bense. Max Bense was a German mathematician and philosopher of aesthetics who is not only considered the theoretical father of digital literature as a feasible project but who also directly collaborated with Theo Lutz in the latter’s 1959 work, Stochastische Texte, considered by most people to be the first piece of electronic literature: sentences created using software that combined fragments of Franz Kafka’s The Castle on a ZUSE Z 22 framework. Despite the fact Bense and Haroldo de Campos met (Bense actually organized the first Brazilian concrete poetry exhibitions in Europe) and maintained an open dialogue, the content of those exchanges wasn’t accessible until last year. In the Casa de Rosas there are around 200 letters (typewritten, handwritten, telegrams, faxes and, in a minor percentage, printed e-mails) from Haroldo to Max Bense or to Elisabeth Walther-Bense, Max’s wife. Though unfortunately the letters from Max Bense are not in the archive, this exchange —mostly in French— shows how profound their friendship and their projects were: collective exhibitions, translations, anthologies, magazine issues, and more. Although I cannot share anything precise from this material now, because the legal processes of this new part of the archive are still going on (this is why I am showing just low quality photos I took), this finding is without any doubt a very important key in the reconstruction of the historical and conceptual links between Brazilian concrete poetry and digital poetry.

Augusto de Campos' video-poetry.
Augusto de Campos’ video-poetry.

Finally, c), the Augusto de Campos retrospective shows the artistic progression of the most visual of the three founders. Even though some of the “interactive” works of Augusto are accessible through his website, the exhibition does a great job of explaining in a visual way how naturally this gradual evolution took place, from the first poems on paintings-like canvases to video poetry during the 1980s (with audio in most cases, often with the inimitable voice of Caetano Veloso) to similar pieces after the 2000s, but in smaller presentation and with the integration of user interaction.

Augusto de Campos' sketches of 3D books
Augusto de Campos’ sketches of 3D books

Because of this temporal disposition of the works, when walking through the exhibition it becomes pretty clear how constitutively strong the relationship between digital literature and Brazilian concrete poetry really is, not only as an almost immediate predecessor but mainly because the chronological use of new technologies over the years shows that the very project of concrete poetry wasn’t “digital poetry” at the beginning only because the historical contingency that computers were not  yet accessible to the public when the movement started.

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