Interviewed by Steven Wingate
Ian Hatcher creates digital and print literature, but resides in the borderlands of each, where computation and language inform and embrace each other. He collaborated on the digital/print hybrid book Abra: A Living Text (Center for Book Arts, 2015) with Amaranth Borsuk and Kate Durbin, and his solo books include The All-New (Anomalous Press, 2015) and most recently Prosthesis (Poor Claudia, $17.50). I met Ian when our work was exhibited side by side at the International Symposium on Electronic Art in Hong Kong this past May. When I saw him read from Prosthesis, I knew this was a young writer whose career I had to start tracking.
Steven Wingate: Your poems in Prosthesis strike me as actively breaking down human utterance into its component parts—fragments of words, syllables repeated, rhythms uncovered—the way one might do computationally. But instead you’re doing it with the very analog instrument of the human voice. In that way your work invokes software in the body. Could you talk about the relationship between computational operations that can be done on language and the voice-driven ones that you use in this work?
Ian Hatcher: I'm interested in how we coexist with abstract processes that we construct and inhabit. Language is a system flowing through people and other systems in various forms. And now, on top of it, we have all these digital layers of data and correlation and collection and circulation, which feed back and have effects on language. It’s a tangled hierarchy. Prosthesis is about being part of an external system, having it be part of you, but that system still remaining resolutely "other." So a condition of self and other simultaneously, of entanglement. Which is the experience of pervasive digital technology, but also the experience of a lover, or family, or close friends, or even reading or breathing.
I think of fragmentary language as part of a dynamic range of material that evokes systemic alterity and complicity. Software can do insane things like explode and aggregate colossal amounts of data, or repeat the same action every half-second forever tirelessly. But timed repetition is also inherently musical, and people instinctively respond. There's a push-pull with repetitive broken language. It's off-putting and abstract, yet familiar and sensual, especially when articulated by a human voice. It suggests a human entity subjected to an inhuman process, or restrained by it. The effect can be powerful, which is why you hear it so often in electronic music. The paradoxical qualities of broken language resonate with how I feel about technological devices generally, and a lot of the themes I write about, particularly in this book.
SW: Seeing you in performance, it was impossible for me to avoid thinking about the the tradition of sound poetry—particularly the late Canadian poet bpNichol, who in the 1980s was integral not only to sound poetry but to computer poetry. What is your relationship with that tradition? What parts of it do you embrace, and in what ways do you consciously depart from or query it?
IH: I came to the way I write by following a path through music and code and performance art, and not by way of sound poetry as such; to be honest I was mostly unaware of that history until recently. Though it seems obvious now that I'm a sound poet. I love bpNichol's work. Sound poetry, as a tradition, involves a heightened treatment of language as dynamic textural (not just textual) material, and of embodiment and extremity, and all those things are important to me.
One way I think I diverge from that tradition is the way my work is pretty narrowly conceptually focused. The vocal rhythms and textures in my work are designed to evoke digitization in relation to the body, and I use only my live voice to produce them, without effects pedals or any other processing. I've been working lately on switching registers very smoothly, so I can deliver a line in, say, a warm, faintly Southern colloquial accent, and an instant later sound like a speech synthesizer from 1999. Or crossfade those two voices gradually over a stanza, or bend a line so that just a few words have traces of synthetic affect.
For me the writing itself, the text, is the primary element. The rhythms are ultimately in service of semantics, even when I go into noisy territory. I like the wild dynamics of the Four Horsemen, but tend to have a hard time with sound poetry that focuses on texture and timbre to the exclusion of understandability. I do listen to a lot of vocalists who use extended techniques in explicitly musical contexts, though: Meredith Monk, Theo Bleckmann, Pamela Z, Joan La Barbara, Yoko Ono, Sidsel Endresen. Endresen especially was a huge influence on me. What she can do with glottal stops is just amazing.
All that said, I spend a lot of time making crazy sounds in my apartment, trills and stutterings, which probably sound like more traditional sound poetry than what I do on stage. But I usually think of that as research. Or technique, like playing scales.
SW: Can you talk a bit about the history and development of Prosthesis? If I remember correctly from when we talked, it was originally a series of audio poems and not designed for the page. Did you expect it to become a book at some point all along, or was there a point when it became one?
IH: I had no idea at first. I started Prosthesis in grad school. I went to the MFA writing program at Brown expecting to create digital poetry, interactive work for screens. But once I got there I pivoted to sound within a few weeks. In part because I'd been doing freelance coding for a living and was burnt out, but also because there was something about screens I found unsatisfying. It's hard to do experimental writing for screens that people will actually read. People look at it, but don't process it. Whereas with time-based work, you have a lot of control over how it's experienced, the arc and flow, especially when performing live.
Prosthesis came out of trying to figure out what a reversal of my previous approach might look like: what if, instead of putting language into a computer and mediating it with a digital system, I attempted to mediate digital systems with my own body? At the time I was writing music for a dance company, so I was already thinking about physical presence in space producing meaning. And I've always thought a lot, rather psychedelically, about how individual people are collections of others—how our bodies are colonies of bacteria, and our minds are full of fragmentary reflections of others’ experiences, and models of others’ value systems. The notion of the individual self has long seemed like an illusion to me. A useful one to be sure, but one that breaks down more and more the closer you look. So I was thinking about writing and performing from the perspective of a structure of multiplicity, a distributed network, like the internet or even language itself.
Prosthesis was my thesis, with John Cayley as my advisor. There was a 40-minute culminating performance. But I had to turn in a paper version as a requirement for my degree. While compiling that document I started wondering, oh, maybe this thing could be a book? But it took another couple years for a manuscript to come together.
SW: I suspect that moving from audio poems to the page for the materials Prosthesis in wasn’t simple and straightforward.How would you describe that process?
IH: I did have the text already. Even the most abstract pieces had scripts, or scores, that I'd perform from, usually reading from my phone. And some of the poems in the book, like “Gene Study,” never had voice versions at all.
The tricky part was figuring out the book's layout. I wanted the visual experience to do some of the work that my voice does live, and for the pages to be clean and austere, to suggest code without being corny. My editor at Poor Claudia, Travis Meyer, was really great to work with. He's a coder himself, and a graphic designer. We collaborated closely, passing an InDesign file back and forth dozens of times. I kept screwing up the margins and he'd have to repair them. But he was patient and supportive, and understood what I was going for. I'm an extreme tinkerer. I probably spent 20 hours just arranging the text of the longest poem, “The All-New.” If you look closely at that one, lines are subtly spaced out or contracted, so letterforms align from line to line, and the shapes often mirror each other. I wanted the typography itself to impart a feeling of uncanny tension and repetition, even if the reader was never consciously aware.
SW: You were part of the team behind another project that straddles the border between the print and the digital—Abra: A Living Text, a kinetic text iPad app in which lines of poetry mutate, erase, etc. Abra has a life as a both app and physical book—and indeed a combined life, as an iPad can actually become part of the book. How does Abra, in its hybridity, relate to your other work?
IH: Abra was a long collaboration with Amaranth Borsuk and Kate Durbin. They wrote the text and I coded the app, and we all jointly designed the accompanying artist's book, which was printed by the Center for Book and Paper Arts in Chicago. There's definitely resonance with my other work in the sense that Abra explores digital/physical hybridity and multiplicity, and has a sensual dimension. I wanted the app to feel alive, ever-evolving, a black box that could perpetually surprise you, that you'd never fully understand or control. It's a more playful project than most of my work. The app is really a toy, that's how I think of it. A rainbow-hued language sandbox.
At one point we wanted it to incorporate an online database, so if you entered words, other people running the app would see them show up too. And the vocabulary of Abra would evolve and expand over time to incorporate the contributions, and languages, of all its users. But the problem was granting anonymous people the ability to put words in Abra's mouth, and by proxy our own. We didn't want anyone opening up the app and being trolled with racist or homophobic garbage. And we recoiled at the idea of filtering or censoring other people's words. So we let that one go, which is just as well.
Abra is probably the last app I'll ever develop. It was great to work with Amaranth and Kate, who are brilliant, but writing software for iOS is a nightmare.
SW: Your recent performance work has been presented under the title Drone Pilot. What kinds of source material—in language or in thought—are driving you in this particular creative direction? Do you see it turning into a book like Prosthesis?
IH: Drone Pilot extends the themes of Prosthesis into a military context, thinking through complicity with systems of power. I was reading a lot about drone warfare, and thinking about the role of the pilots, who conjoin with drones through this vast apparatus of telepresence, technology, and bureaucracy, in order to kill people in faraway places. Yet the pilots are there just sitting in chairs, staring at screens, getting traumatized in a bizarrely prosaic way. The text of Drone Pilot speaks from a blended subjectivity—the pilot as a person with a life, a narrative character, as well as the pilot as the system, and the system as the pilot. I was also trying to indirectly engage, as an American citizen, with the degree to which I'm complicit with unsavory activities of the state: military interventions, surveillance, systemic cruelty, and so on. I performed the work last summer at an American embassy, which felt strange and oddly cathartic. My own patriotism is largely linked to appreciation for avenues of dissent encoded into American culture. They feel very necessary right now.
A recorded version of Drone Pilot is coming out in early 2017, on vinyl and mp3, through a German label called cOsmOsmOse. I think that will be its final form. Especially now that there are new political horrors to address. I'm working on a pile of material, provisionally titled "Attentions," that focuses on attention itself, its mechanics and ethics, and attention's role as a barometer of power. Maybe that will be the next book.