Object-Oriented Poetry: An Interview with App Artist Seth Carnes

PopMatters talks to Seth Carnes, developer of the art app, Poetics.

In a recent post, I mentioned that I did an informal survey of app artwork currently available for public consumption. One of the first ones that I found was an app called Poetics by the New York-based artist Seth Carnes. Carnes published the first version of the app on the Apple App Store in 2007.

Carnes took time to speak with me via email recently. As I learned, Poetics continues to evolve. What follows is a lightly-edited transcript of our conversation.

The app Poetics started with an installation you did for an exhibition in Lund, Sweden in 2007. Tell us about the original piece, iheart poetics 001.

Back in 2007, I was developing a concept of mutable texts, namely texts that remain alive and editable via human gesture. I met a Swedish curator during a group show at PS1, and she invited me to develop the idea further within a show in Lund.

So this installation was a first test of the concept, using steel plates, fabricated text in the form of large magnets, and time lapse video to document the text morphing through the hands of visitors, across time during the exhibition.

The text of the piece also explores its concept:


silence that speaks

the gentle winds of chaos

breaking the trance of literacy

spiral code whispers

unwritten electric verse

a crack spreading through

concrete rhythms

here lie pictographic ruins

fragmented metaforests

the fall and rise of structure

this augmented reality

is now.

sight isolation

sound incorporation

a transparent spectacle

revealing the primal fabric

a love affair with representation

experience before all

How did the physical installation evolve into the idea to create the app Poetics?

Part of this project explores the transitions between physical and digital media, material and immaterial states, and the experience of living within this flux.

When the first iPhone was announced in early 2007, the same year as the Sweden installation, its gestural touch screen triggered thoughts of a software iteration for the work. So the question was not if but rather when to head in this direction.

My work is pretty process oriented, where the path is destination, and it was clear that in order to look ahead, more work was required using the media and tools of the past, in this case the twentieth century.

So there are a few years in there of artworks, performances and interventions, in the gallery, also the streets and in public that served as a natural progression towards the start of work on the app.

What would you say are the key differences in the two respective media, and how do these differences effect the experience of interacting with the art?

I think the main differences occur in the aura, feeling, and symbolism of experience.

With the physical installation work, there was a sense of truth and faith in the object and experience. Everything was “real”, could be touched and understood as such: the typewriter, stamps, magnet paper, magnet paint, steel. There was a limit in total words bound by the laws of physics, taking place in a defined and known physical space.

This type of work generates a certain aura and feeling in today’s disembodied times — of comfort, knowing, and interaction.

With Poetics, the app retains traces of the physical/analog works while losing others. The only “real” object is the iOS device with the remainder of the experience being programmed virtuality, gesture, and occasional physical outputs.

The interface and text objects maintain some laws of physics but also defy them, or the physics turns on and off, depending on context. Hand gestures activate simulations that combine and recombine a mix of text and image that is infinitely editable.

So the aura and feeling changes, becoming symbolic and abstracted, also more closely touching our digitally mediated lives and production methods.

And the app, as an artwork itself, is massively distributed. The physical installations were seen at most by thousands, while the app is used worldwide across languages and cultures in over 150 countries.

You say the project “explores the concept of infinitely editable, object-oriented poetry”. What do you mean by “object-oriented poetry”?

William Carlos Williams suggested, “A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words.” One could replace words with symbols, symbols with images, and so on, endless permutations of symbolic objects that create, change, or destroy meaning.

Imbue the coded objects with physical characteristics controlled by touch and a poetry in this sense begins to shake up the old order, particularly the linear, fixed era of the printing press. That’s at least a start on object-oriented poetry. Like the app and overall project, it’s a concept in progress.

One of the fascinating aspects of the original physical installation, iheart poetics 001 and its successors, is that the compositions that viewer-participants make are visible to later viewers, who in turn can “edit” the poem, so to speak. The composition is both public and collaborative. Are there plans to do the same with the app?

That would be nice, right? To be continued…

What technical and design challenges did you face building the app, and how did you overcome them?

The main challenge was diving in and balancing the cross-sections of artistic concept, experience design, and user interface. Also finding the right developer, with technical and aesthetic skills to help merge design, concept and code.

Change is a universal constant with software, so as the app develops in both its technology and conceptual realization, there is also the broader, constantly changing ecosystem of Apple’s iOS. It’s an ongoing challenge that’s exciting to tackle.

How did the possibilities and limitations of the medium, iOS, affect the path from original idea to realization of the app?

There are few limits to this medium beyond the fact that almost all experience is mediated by the screen. A main question there: how to more fluidly move content and experience in and out, also beyond the screen? The postcard/mail art functionality of the app is a first example seeking to bridge these gaps.

But the most significant limit for Poetics is funding. It is an expensive, complex, and large-scale project. To get an idea, one can look at the VC dollar numbers dedicated to commercial app startups or in art history at the American land art movement supported by Philippa de Menil and Heiner Friedrich (Dia Foundation).

Long ago, Marshall McLuhan encapsulated this challenge: “Whereas in the past the individual artist, manipulating private and inexpensive materials, was able to shape models of new experience years ahead of the public, today the artist works with expensive public technology, and artist and public merge in a single experience.”

This rings true with Poetics, from its start as affordable, analog and physical installation work, into an app artwork with significant challenges and costs.

Tell us about your relationship with Fractured Atlas.

As a policy the Poetics project does not accept private investment. This is to keep Poetics centered in arts and education, protect the privacy of users, and pave the way for future app artworks.

Fractured Atlas is a nonprofit arts organization in New York City that fiscally sponsors Poetics. This relationship allows the project to accept donations in support of its development with part or all of the donation often being tax deductible.

I hope these types of relationships and support structures evolve and expand for app artists, as it’s a bit of a wasteland these days with the art world far behind the commercial technology, science, and education sectors.

Given the challenges you’ve faced in funding further development of Poetics, what advice would you give to artists looking to create app artworks and to those interested in supporting this growing art form?

If people have interest in the cross-section of app artworks, poetry, and education, they can of course donate to support Poetics at Fractured Atlas.

More broadly, this new app artwork medium needs support in the form of advocates, advisors, financial grants, patron groups, or art organizations. And like we’re doing with this Q&A, writers and publications can begin documenting and exploring the new art form, to expand awareness.

For artists looking to make an app, there’s a wide spectrum of scale and complexity, so the respective skills needed will vary. There’s certainly a need to merge concept, aesthetics, and code. Communication and collaboration skills are key, and the time and energy commitment can be vast.

To fundraise, friends, backers, and patrons of your past work are helpful, as there is likely a through-line that they will understand, that led to a concept to create an app.

The good news is you can do it, and there’s a small but growing community of artists creating this type of work.

Tell us about your work with NYC public schools involving Poetics.

Poetics has been organically picked up to teach in schools, across grades and subjects, also special needs. As it turns out, and this came somewhat as a surprise, the app is well-suited for some key areas of interest in education today, also gaps in learning. I’m beginning to absorb its current and potential uses…

There’s integrated education, which aims to span and connect subjects in the experience of learning, with an example being STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math). Also language acquisition, comprehension, and this area called English Language Arts within the Common Core standards. In the arts, there is of course poetry and photography, perhaps more.

Teachers have suggested it can work in dual language immersion programs, as the app is multilingual. And the non-linear, gestural, and tactile aspect of the app, along with the merger of image and word shows promise with autism and dyslexia.

After a few meetings talking with teachers and organizations, I met with the NY Department of Education, which took an interest in the app’s usage in NYC schools.

This past July, I presented Poetics with them at the NY Tech Meetup, and that month, we also collaborated on an event focused on STEAM education with a range of NYC high school students coming through to Civic Hall.

I’m now looking at ways to further facilitate these educational uses of the app.

I understand you’re organizing a petition to get Apple to add an Art category to the Apple App Store. Why do you think the App Store needs an Art category? And when will the petition be available for signing?

Yes, I’m putting the petition together with Serkan Ozkaya, another NYC artist who created an app artwork called MyMoon, and Paulina Bebecka, who works at Postmasters in Tribeca.

On why an Art category: we believe in the power of human culture, where art plays a central role, and feel this should be reflected in how apps are perceived, defined, and discovered.

With Apple‘s publicity often focused on artists and the act of creation with their technology, it seems a no-brainer to support art in the App Store.

This category could encompass all arts-centered apps. Beyond app artworks like Poetics and MyMoon, there are the major museums like MOMA and the Louvre, startups like Artsy, art guides, galleries, auction houses, and any creative app meant to enable artistic experience.

We’re excited to finish and launch the petition, so people can sign on to support. It should be up in the next week or so.

What are you working on now?

The app is always in flux towards the next version and update, part of the broader plan to fully realize the project vision. And through the recent work with the NY Dept of Edu and an art show at the Garis & Hahn gallery in NYC, I’m developing a custom tumblr tied to the app. More recently, I’ve started developing a new body of work in the studio.