Constellation Nanni Balestrini


Nanni Balestrini (1935-2019)

In 1961, the Italian division of IBM invited a number of linguists and artists to experiment with its computers. Nanni Balestrini, a young writer already famous for his visual poems made of newspapers clippings, composed a text by combining quotations from other authors using an algorithm he wrote together with the computer programmer Alberto Nobis. It was one the first attempts to produce electronic poetry in history, the first being the one by the German computer scientist Theo Lutz who, in 1959, wrote the text programme “Stochastiche Text” for the ZUSE Z22 computer. Operating an IBM 7070 mainframe computer, Balestrini obtained 3002 combinations/poems, printed on a 63-meter-long sheet. The best among the 3002 poems was titled “Tape Mark I,” after the first electronic computer ever invented, the Harvard Mark I, produced by IBM and Harvard University between 1937 and 1944. The poem was published in an Italian literary magazine, and presented in 1968 at the London exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity, dedicated to computer art. After this first experiment, Balestrini kept working on computer-generated literature and went on to write the novel Tristano. Here, too, the computer was capable of creating innumerable permutations of the material Balestrini selected. However, only one among the many possible versions was published in 1966. That changed in 2007 when, thanks to digital printing, the author was finally able to publish all the possible versions, each a unique copy, resulting from the combination of its fundamental parts.  Technology had finally caught up with Balestrini’s artistic imagination.  

Almanacco Letterario Bompiani 1962

Collaborations between Italian artists, computer scientists, and tech companies in the 1960s were many and productive. A perfect example is the 1962 issue of the literary magazine Almanacco Letterario Bompiani, which was dedicated in its entirety to “The applications of electronic calculators to moral sciences and literature”. The issue presented a number of experiments in computer art and digital humanities, along with more a technical section on the mathematical principle of computer science, and a selection of literary texts dealing with robots and Artificial Intelligence. All the experiments were made possible by two tech companies, Olivetti and IBM Italia. which made their computers available and offered the necessary tech support. Balestrini’s computer-generated poem “Tape Mark I” was born as part of these experiments. Other contributors were Bruno Munari and Enzo Mari, with their experiments in programmed art, and the cyberneticist Silvio Ceccato, who presented his project for an automatic translator.

Umberto Eco reader of Balestrini

It is impossible to talk about digital media and technologies in Italian culture without mentioning Umberto Eco. The first scholar in Italy to elevate pop culture and mass media to the level of academic subject, Eco was also extremely interested in cybernetics and computer culture. In his famous book The Open Work (1962), for example, he engages with notions of information science and quotes cyberneticians like Norbert Wiener and Claude Shannon. Balestrini’s experiments with computer-generated literature fascinated Eco, who considered “Tape Mark I” to be a perfect example of ‘open work.’ What matters in Balestrini’s experiment, Eco explained, is not the quality of the one poem published: Balestrini could have written an equally good one without the help of the computer. What matters, Eco maintains, is the total of 3000 text combinations that the computer produced: “The work consists in its variations, or better, in its variability. The electronic brain attempted to create an open work”. Such level of ‘openness’ (or variability) can be only obtained by an electronic brain.

Cybernetic Serendipity

One of the first important event dedicated to computer art was the international exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity, held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts of London in 1968. In the introduction to the exhibition’s catalogue the organizer, Jasia Reichardt, explains how the idea for the event came from the study in computer aesthetics conducted by the German philosopher Max Bense, a pivotal figure in the field. The exhibition was organized into three sections: computer-generated graphics, films, music, poems; cybernetic machines and robots as work of art; machines demonstrating how computers work. Unlike other similar events, Cybernetic Serendipity featured a high number of computer scientists and programmers, some collaborating with artists, many who were themselves the artists. Many electronics and computer companies also took part to the exhibition: IBM, Bell, Siemens, Sandia Corporation, Calcomp. Balestrini participated with his “Tape Mark I”, which the Scottish poet and translator Edwin George Morgan translated into English for the occasion.

Women who coded

Sadly, but not surprisingly, not many women featured in events dedicated to computer art (see Maps). Two contributed to the section of Cybernetic Serendipity dedicated to computer-generated texts—the linguist Margaret Masterman, the founder of The Cambridge Language Research Unit, dedicated to computational linguistics and machine translation, and the American visual artist Alison Knowles, a founding member of the Fluxus movement. Masterman wrote a program capable of dividing a continuous text into verses corresponding to the rhythmic divisions, as they would be perceived by a human speaker. Knowles, similar to Balestrini, experimented with combinatory logic and, in collaboration with computer scientist James Tanney, created a collection of computer-generated poems. Having set up four categories (materials, situations, lightning, and inhabitants) and assigned a number of words to each category, she input the data into the computer, which randomly combined them and thus composed the poetic texts.

Gordon Pask and his mating machines

If a computer writing lyrical poems might sound weird, what about a machine looking for sexual chemistry? This was the idea shaping the group of robots presented by the cybernetician Gordon Pask at the exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity. The installation, bearing the fascinating name of The colloquy of mobiles, was described by Pask as an “aesthetically potent environment” composed of male and female “mobiles” (robots). Each mobile moves independently until a connection – a “colloquy” – is established between a male and a female machine. This happened when the beam of light projected by a male robot was captured and reflected back by the mirror of a female robot, thereby allowing the mobiles to establish communication. Visitors too, provided with mirrors or flashlights, could engage with the mobiles. Pask’s installation was one of the most fascinating of the entire exhibition. On February 2020, Paul Pangaro and TJ McLeish presented their replica of Pask’s mobiles at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Eugenio Carmi’s Carm-O-Matic

Together with Nanni Balestrini and Pietro Grossi, a third Italian artist featured in the exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity: the abstract painter Eugenio Carmi, who presented his art machine Carm-O-Matic. Carmi started working on it in 1966 with the technical support of the Italian company Olivetti. An explanation of the workings of Carm-O-Matic was provided by Umberto Eco in a text for the exhibition catalogue. The machine was an image generator: it had a wheel with a series of simple images painted on it, spinning at 1500 revolutions per minute. The wheel was also lit with a stroboscopic light. After watching the spinning wheel for a while, thanks to the stroboscopic lighting, the single images built-up on the viewer’s retina and started superimposing, hence creating new, more complex images. Like a sort of hallucination, but a cybernetic one. The Carm-O-Matic was also responsive to sounds in the environment, which effected the random function of the wheel.

When Burroughs owned a computer company

Upon hearing the name of William Burroughs, one thinks of the American poet, the Beat Generation writer of literary masterpieces of the like of Junkie, Naked Lunch, and The Soft Machine. However, there is another William Burroughs who has a place in history: the writer’s homonymous grandfather. A man of science, in 1885 William Burroughs patented a “calculating machine” meant for clerical work, especially in bank institution. To sell his invention, he founded the Burroughs Corporation, which ended up becoming one the four largest American manufacturers of main frame computers in the 1960s. When Burroughs (the writer) graduated from college, his parents sold the rights to his grandfather’s invention and their shares in the family corporation. With the money, they set up a fund that allowed Burroughs to pursue his writing career without having to worry about finding a job. In 1985, he published a collection of essays titled The Adding Machine, a clear reference to his grandfather’s invention.

The Gospel according to Brion Gysin

Balestrini’s attempt at computer-generated poetry was undoubtedly a pioneering experiment. However, he was not the first one to entrust literary composition to a machine. In 1958, the British poet Brion Gysin started working on a series of forty-three “permutation poems”, with the help of computer programmer Ian Sommerville. The first text of the series, “Am I that I am,” was presented in 1960 at a BBC radio programme. In the poem, Gysin directly reference the book of Genesis, in which God says “I am that I am”, as a way of playing with the idea of the computer being a divine entity. While there is no evidence that Balestrini knew about Gysin’s experiment, many relevant similarities connect the work of the two artists: Gysin, William Burroughs’ long-time friend and collaborator, was, much like Balestrini, devoted to cut-up technique and visual poetry and indebted to surrealist tradition. Both saw computer-generated poetry as another way of experimenting with visual and combinatory elements. In this case, however, it was the machine that was responsible for piecing together the fragments of the collage.

Dreamachine: cybernetics and psychedelic culture

In 1961-62, together with his fellow writer Brion Gysin and his partner and computer scientist Ian Sommerville, William Burroughs developed the hallucination inducing Dreamachine, a cylinder with slits cut in the sides and a suspended light bulb at its centre, rotating at seventy-eight revolutions per minute. The idea came to them after having read the studies conducted by the cyberneticist William Walter Grey on stroboscopic lights and brain wave in his book The Living Brain (1953). Like in Carmi’s Carm-O-Matic, cybernetics, randomisation, and psychedelic effects came together to create a fascinating machine. Burroughs even considered the possibility for their Dreamachine to entirely replace drugs, as its hallucinatory power was apparently so strong. Years later, Burroughs was accused by American Christian groups of being morally responsible for Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s suicide as they claimed it was provoked by the Dreamachine’s hallucinations.

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