W@r aga1nst the F1lters: Spam as the Inheritor of High Modernism

Octavian Esanu

Reviewed by David Gissen

13 Apr 2015

For some time, I have been cap­ti­vat­ed by a form of writ­ing that has been cap­ti­vat­ing my email inbox.

Dic­tio­nar­ies define spam as intru­sive, inter­net-medi­at­ed adver­tis­ing — a def­i­n­i­tion whose inter­est lies in its sug­ges­tion of how much non-intru­sive adver­tis­ing is already around us. Spam is not like this ambi­ent adver­tis­ing, of course. It is pure intentionality.

It resem­bles those blood­thirsty rain­for­est leech­es with suck­ers at both ends that will get to your blood no mat­ter how safe you might feel beneath lay­ers of pants, socks, and sneak­ers. The locals” know this very well and go around bare­foot or wear­ing only flip-flops. As for spam, no mat­ter what new fil­ters are avail­able on the mar­ket or what new junk-catch­ing rules are invent­ed, it still man­ages to get through and nest in your inbox.

But the issue I would like to get at in this short text is not spam in gen­er­al but its rela­tion to avant-garde poet­ry and art, as well as its impact on con­tem­po­rary poet­ic and artis­tic form. For some time I had noticed that cer­tain spam mes­sages that had man­aged to fool the fil­ters and land in my inbox bore strik­ing resem­blance to the poet­ic and artis­tic tech­niques devel­oped in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry by avant-garde artists and poets of var­i­ous sorts. In their form, orthog­ra­phy (if we can speak of such), and syn­tax, cer­tain spam mes­sages brought to mind the Ital­ian Futur­ists’ parole in lib­ertà and ono­matopoeia, Apollinaire’s Cal­ligrammes, Dada sound poet­ry, irra­tional or tran­sra­tional” Russ­ian zaum, and the con­crete visu­al poet­ry of the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. This sim­i­lar­i­ty was espe­cial­ly strik­ing a few years ago when spam-fil­ter­ing rules were not yet as effi­cient in deny­ing us the per­verse plea­sure of receiv­ing spam. What kind of rela­tion, if any, can be intu­it­ed between the avant-garde rad­i­cal reform­ers of lit­er­a­ture and the arts and the no less rad­i­cal spam­ming tech­niques of today?

The impact of spam on cer­tain con­tem­po­rary arts has been long acknowl­edged. Inter­est­ing­ly enough, though, today the influ­ence of spam is notice­able pri­mar­i­ly in con­tem­po­rary poet­ry and lit­er­a­ture. But the poets — being poets — remain pri­mar­i­ly inter­est­ed in the pho­net­ic, seman­tic, metaphor­i­cal, or syn­tac­tic qual­i­ties of spam and less in its visu­al or graph­ic aspect. For the pur­pose of mak­ing this point more clear, I have appro­pri­at­ed and recon­struct­ed a few avant-garde cal­ligrammes and visu­al poems, replac­ing their orig­i­nal his­tor­i­cal con­tent with con­tem­po­rary spam.

After Francesco Cangiullo, Fumatori, fragment (1914)

Spam has not left as notable a mark on con­tem­po­rary artis­tic prac­tices as it has on con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture and poet­ry. In lit­er­a­ture, it brought about a range of twen­ty first-cen­tu­ry lit­er­ary move­ments,” includ­ing Flarf Poet­ry, Spo­et­ry, Googlism, and Spam Lit. But the rela­tion between spam and con­tem­po­rary poet­ry is not that dif­fer­ent from the rela­tion between tech­nolo­gies like teleg­ra­phy or radio and Futur­ist and Dadaist art and lit­er­a­ture. Like a cen­tu­ry ago, when our avant-garde pre­de­ces­sors looked for inspi­ra­tion to the new tech­nolo­gies of long-dis­tance com­mu­ni­ca­tion, using them to free poet­ic form from the bonds of lit­er­ary con­ven­tions and achieve a much desired mod­ernist lit­er­ari­ness, or a mate­r­i­al as such­ness of lan­guage, the poets of today have been look­ing to bot­mas­ters, sysad­mins, mar­keters, pill mer­chants, hack­ers, and pornog­ra­phers — con­tem­po­rary Don Quixotes, bat­tling spam fil­ters and junk rules incor­po­rat­ed by default in the pref­er­ence pan­els of our email appli­ca­tions. Spam’s visu­al expres­sion and the incor­po­ra­tion of numer­ic orthog­ra­phy is an out­come of this war against the filters.

After Giacomo Balla, Canzone di Maggio (1914)

In oth­er words, the new forms of tex­tu­al­i­ty that accom­pa­ny the tri­umphant march of spam affect­ed con­tem­po­rary poet­ic lan­guage in the same way in which tele­pho­ny, teleg­ra­phy, or radio influ­enced ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry lit­er­a­ture. Spam played a cru­cial role in help­ing bring­ing lit­er­a­ture and poet­ry back where the avant-gardists always want­ed it — to the ambi­gu­i­ties, abus­es, intri­ca­cies, and slip­pages of lan­guage. But this can also be inferred from sim­ply look­ing at the spam itself. All that mal­ware, adware, those worms, bot­nets, tro­jans, and more are like the dig­i­tized and immor­tal­ized souls of Marinet­ti, Kruchenykh, and Bal­la, saved for eter­ni­ty on our hard dri­ves, or in the cloud, and deployed through cre­ative spam­ming tech­niques to sell repli­ca watch­es for rock-bot­tom prices, erec­tile dys­func­tion drugs, cred­it, penis enlarge­ment pills, and var­i­ous sex ser­vices offered by hot Russ­ian girls to all those in whose names the real Marinetti(s), Kruchenykh(s), and Balla(s) once fought to bring about a hap­pi­er tech­no­log­i­cal future.

After Marinetti, Boccioni, Carrá, Russolo, and Piatti, Sintesi futurista della guerra (1914)

The utopi­an dreams of the hap­py machinic future that was to come and free mankind from neces­si­ty — once envi­sioned by futur­ists and con­struc­tivists of var­i­ous sects — seems to have mate­ri­al­ized in the dystopi­an present expe­ri­enced today in the obscen­i­ty of spam mes­sag­ing. Spam car­ries rebar­ba­tive mod­ernist tex­tu­al­i­ty to the mass­es. Vik­tor Shklovsky may have been right when he claimed that artis­tic or lit­er­ary her­itage is passed down not from father to son but from uncle to nephew. Today, spam is that dash­ing nephew who was first to real­ize and take advan­tage of the poten­tial of mod­ernist abus­es and slip­pages of lan­guage. It is the spam­mers who appear today, per­haps, more rad­i­cal than the con­tem­po­rary poets, break­ing norms of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and car­ry­ing, across to a wide seg­ment of the con­sum­ing mass­es, their inci­sive mes­sages. While the Flar­fers and Spam Lit­ter­ers have been cater­ing pri­mar­i­ly to the mem­bers of the Poet­ry Foun­da­tion and the read­ers of Poet­ry mag­a­zine, bor­row­ing from spam tech­niques in order to express their per­son­al­i­ties, spam­mers have fol­lowed close­ly in the foot­steps of the his­tor­i­cal avant-gardists, adopt­ing — with­out being aware of it, of course — the more rad­i­cal prin­ci­ple of aes­thet­ic con­struc­tion. The artists of the 1910s and 1920s buried the sub­jec­tive bour­geois cat­e­go­ry of expres­sion deep under the foun­da­tion of mod­ernist art. The new prin­ci­ple of aes­thet­ic con­struc­tion they pro­posed — the dialec­ti­cal shap­ing of artis­tic and social mate­r­i­al — has re-emerged today in spam, but per­vert­ed, as so many oth­er things passed to us by our hero­ic pre­de­ces­sors. In oth­er words, it is the spam­mer who has become the true inher­i­tor of his­tor­i­cal mod­ernism, the busi­ness-savvy dig­i­tal avant-garde of our late neo-lib­er­al cap­i­tal­ist dig­i­tal present. They have mod­eled new forms of rad­i­cal tex­tu­al­i­ty through con­stant nego­ti­a­tion of con­tra­dic­tions, con­struct­ing and re-con­struct­ing, across and in spite of fil­ters and junk rules devel­oped by Google, Apple or Microsoft, the per­verse desires of the con­tem­po­rary dig­i­tal consumer.

After Eugen Gomringer, Schweigen (1954)


By David Gissen

In addi­tion to the clever acts of appro­pri­a­tion and re-appro­pri­a­tion in Octa­vian Esanu’s essay, he dis­cov­ered that trans­la­tion offers oppor­tu­ni­ties for explor­ing the lim­its and expe­ri­ence of language.

From an instru­men­tal point of view, trans­la­tion increas­es the poten­tial num­ber of read­ers of a spe­cif­ic work across unshared lan­guages and builds new lay­ers of clar­i­ty and mean­ing with­in a work. A more skep­ti­cal opin­ion of trans­la­tion — e.g., Wal­ter Benjamin’s — views it as a process that ulti­mate­ly reveals the way mean­ing end­less­ly escapes and reen­ters lan­guage. The machine” trans­la­tions by fake pill com­pa­nies, explored by Esanu, add to the lat­ter inter­pre­ta­tion but also cre­ate pos­si­bil­i­ties for under­stand­ing the expe­ri­ence of lan­guage in trans­la­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly in our tech­no-lin­guis­tic time.

Esanu’s col­lages and the lan­guage sys­tems they are built upon enable us to expe­ri­ence lan­guage in an inde­ter­mi­nate state. The trans­la­tion of Via­gra into V1@gr@ under­cuts the idea of trans­la­tion as a tool of clar­i­fi­ca­tion but nonethe­less brings it into new realms of pur­pose — in this case bypass­ing the algo­rith­mic gate­keep­ers of email inbox­es. By bring­ing words out of the con­text of con­sumerism and into the realm of art and poet­ry, Esanu enables us to see the par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter of this lan­guage. He enables us to expe­ri­ence some­thing more than its com­mer­cial aspect and to began expe­ri­enc­ing its form. He enables us to occu­py a space of trans­la­tion and read­ing between the leg­i­ble and illeg­i­ble and between human and machine. That space — like the space of appro­pri­a­tion explored in his essay — remains a crit­i­cal aspect of a pos­si­ble van­guard expe­ri­ence of lan­guage, one we might all explore more.



Octa­vian Esanu is cur­rent­ly cura­tor and assis­tant pro­fes­sor on the Fac­ul­ty of Fine Arts and Arts His­to­ry at the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty of Beirut (Lebanon). He research­es and pub­lish­es on issues relat­ed to mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary art in East­ern Europe and the Mid­dle East, as well as their per­cep­tion in the West­ern art his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tion. He has degrees in fine arts from the Ilya Repin School of Arts and inte­ri­or design from the State Insti­tute of Arts, Chisin­au Moldo­va. He also earned a Ph.D. in the Depart­ment of Art, Art His­to­ry, and Visu­al Stud­ies at Duke Uni­ver­si­ty. Esanu was the found­ing direc­tor of the Soros Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Art, Chisin­au, Moldo­va (cur­rent­ly KSA:K Chisin­au), with which he con­tin­ues to col­lab­o­rate, and is part of the edi­to­r­i­al col­lec­tive ART­Mar­gins. In his activ­i­ties, he seeks a com­mon ground between his artis­tic, cura­to­r­i­al and schol­ar­ly inter­ests. Email: oe11@​aub.​edu.​lb

David Gis­sen is a his­to­ri­an, the­o­rist, cura­tor, and crit­ic whose work exam­ines his­to­ries and the­o­ries of archi­tec­ture, land­scapes, envi­ron­ments, and cities. His recent work focus­es on devel­op­ing a nov­el con­cept of nature in archi­tec­tur­al thought and exper­i­men­tal forms of archi­tec­tur­al his­tor­i­cal prac­tice. Gis­sen is the author of Man­hat­tan Atmos­pheres: Archi­tec­ture, the Inte­ri­or Envi­ron­ment, and Urban Cri­sis (Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2014) and Sub­na­ture: Archi­tec­ture’s Oth­er Envi­ron­ments (Prince­ton Archi­tec­tur­al Press, 2009), and he edit­ed of the Ter­ri­to­ry” issue of AD Jour­nal (2010) and Big and Green (Prince­ton Archi­tec­tur­al Press, 2003). His essays have been pub­lished in jour­nals such as AA Files, Cab­i­net, Grey Room, Log, Quaderns, and Thresh­olds, as well as a wide range of mag­a­zines, news­pa­pers, blogs, and books. His cura­to­r­i­al and exper­i­men­tal his­tor­i­cal work has been staged at the Muse­um of the City of New York, the Nation­al Build­ing Muse­um, the Yale Archi­tec­ture Gallery, the Toron­to Free Gallery, and the Cana­di­an Cen­tre for Archi­tec­ture, among oth­er venues. Gis­sen is cur­rent­ly an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Cal­i­for­nia Col­lege of the Arts. Email: dgissen@​cca.​edu