Intermedia Workshop Notes 1999-2003

Matthew T. Butler
Intermedia Workshop notes
University of Iowa

Intermedia Writing explores language from a visual arts perspective. It examines the relationship between word and image as well as word as image. It asks, “How can we write with video, with paint, with our bodies? How does language function in the artist’s studio?” Intermedia Writing is not literature or poetry but rather a practice with it’s roots in conceptual art and theory. It is writing between media and across genres. Intermedia Writing is the process of cutting, computing, caring for, constraining, and creating words in art. It is the realm of thought experimenters, code poets, instructionists, dadaists, and information artists.

I discovered in my first year of graduate school at the Intermedia Workshop that a conceptual question many of the workshop artists were trying to answer was about the nature of transformation, especially when dealing with the body. Quite a few artists then were using their bodies as their primary art material, an idea inherited from the performance artists of the 1970’s. This idea of “body transformation” was discussed frequently, especially in relation to Hans Breder’s lectures on liminality and the historical roots of Ana Mendieta’s performances. Coming to Intermedia with an interest in linguistics and library science, I wanted to know how intermedia, as a framework, might deal with corpus linguistics. How will intermedia transform the body of text?

Using the study of intermedia art, I wanted to find the analogous processes involved with intermedia writing. Experimental writing, especially using chance operation, was certainly nothing new. But I wondered if there was a more abstract way to describe how intermedia writing works, to give a formalized interface for those wishing to use it.

One method used frequently in implementing body transformation was ritual. Several performance pieces in the workshop relied on the properties of ritualized human action to interrogate memory and even change consciousness. I began studying the relationship between ritual and algorithm. I also started an investigation into whether neuro-linguistic programming could serve as an effective translation between human ritual and computer algorithms.

Another frequent topic of conversation at the intermedia workshop was objectification, specifically the ethical implications of transforming a body into an object. This was a conceptual stumbling block for me since I was using an object-oriented metaphor in much of my work. A Body as an art-object but not as an Object proved challenging to consider at times. Art objects (and therefore bodies) share so many properties with more generalized Objects, but it turns out a Body can toggle these properties.

An instance of a Body (a person) can exist as an Object with both a defined value and an undefined value. A person with a defined value may un-define their value at will. Similarly, a person with an undefined value may also define a value for themselves when they so choose. This event updates before the Other is able to perceive the process taking place, effectively making an instance of a Body both exist and not-exist simultaneously. This helps explain the more supernatural ideas floating around the intermedia workshop.

Applying this research to the transformation of the body of text, I soon discovered the cyclical nature of intermedia writing. Intermedia writing is often about reading one’s internal monologue. And after reading enough internal scripts, you quickly learn that some experiences cannot be described using words — and are therefore infinite. The intermedia writing model is thus based on this infinite life cycle. The idea of ‘infinite regress’ described by Duchamp, or recursive functions in computer programming, and the ouroboros – the symbol of a serpent swallowing its own tail – common in alchemy and an archetypical element in Jung’s vision of the psyche, were all tropes used to explain similar cycles. Because the cycle is endless and infinite, it was not bound by time. The central goal of this entire writing system was to describe a process of accessing the timeless using time-based media.