Translating Angel, 2001

Translating Angel, Engine of Desire. Erotic Love Poems of the Translating Angel.

A set of digital poems first presented as part of’s Open Mouse series, New York City, involving text sources from Andrea Dworkin’s definition of pornography, and from medical abstracts about sexual dysfunction, run repeatedly through translation engines till they break down into poems.

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Video Samples:
Note: The following are three poems from a larger collection. This work is video only, (there is no audio.)
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Project Description:
Digital poetry as a form of literature is pursued through a wide variety of approaches, including in this instance, the use of machine translation to assist in the generation of work.

The translation process may be stated as follows: one, decoding the meaning of the source text, and two, re-encoding this meaning in the target language. Since the 1950’s and even before, people have been searching for a solution that allows machines, in this case computers, to do the job of translation effectively. None the less, problems with living languages such as inherent structural ambiguity, bilingual structural differences, and word-sense disambiguation when a word can have more than one meaning, have remained significant stumbling blocks in the way of this goal.

Today rough machine translation is available to everyone on the web, but it is still only moderately effective. Errors are compounded if the text is run through the translator back and forth repeatedly, and especially if it is translated across a host of languages. This “round-trip translation” method has been used by a number of people for the sake of humor. Most of this work focuses on the preposterous errors that arise and lack of usability, or loss of meaning in the origin texts.

My interest, on the other hand, is in the way meaning continues to cling to words even as text is radically altered through machine transcription. By taking preliminary sources that are dry descriptions of sexual dysfunction or list definitions of what constitutes pornography and running them though this generative process, the academic structure and catalogue nature of the text breaks down. Simultaneously, that which the words refer to opens up, suggesting stories of individuals with questionable secrets struggling with the momentous life issues associated with sex.

Much beauty in poetry derives from the very linguistic anomalies that confound machines in translation, and use of computing to either create poetry all on its own, or to serve as a tool to generate forms for alteration or inspiration, is a growing activity.

The poems in the Translating Angel have been run through a translator many times with experimentation in terms of languages used, order of cycles and number of iterations. This process produced a large series of works from which a small set were chosen. These were then lightly edited, mostly to remove odd characters and certain non English or gibberish words.

The title of the work is a reference to Charles Babbage’s precursor to the computer, the difference engine, and to the classical notion of poetry taking flight.

Digital Vista, 1999

Installation involving a 3D Computer model consisting of a navigable mile-wide virtual cube of visual and textual information.

In the group exhibit BAD SCIENCE, INTERACTIVE INSTALLATIONS AND FABRICATED DIALOGS, presented by mixed mess@ge, in association with The DTW Gallery, New York City

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Project Description:
The title refers both to the look of digitally produced landscape, but also to what’s on the horizon if present trends in our cultural perception of space continue. The work can played with like a big video game you fly around in and explore, but my hope is that for some it may be viewed as a sort of critique of western visualization. It is about the Western historical perception of landscape in the most basic sense.


Digital Vista
Review by Chris Jordan

Digital navigable environment projected on surface of metal tube cube approximately 8′ x 8′ x 8′; two facing surfaces covered and used as digital projection space; pillows, carpet, keyboard and trackball.

Digital Vista is a multifaceted artwork that questions the massive societal movement towards all things virtual. It blurs the boundary between digital and tangible through viewer interaction, both physical and mental. The traditional role of artist-audience is torn down through the collaborative and interactive nature of the installation.

This is a participatory artwork, utilizing the calm stillness of Zen to create a gateway into the virtual experience. The real life space, contained within the square mesh, welcomes you as well as supports you through the virtual experience. Once you are seated and Paul has coached you, like the Zen master, on the controls, you begin the exploration. The first thing you see are three dimensional green lillypad-like extrusions floating on a cyan background. Zooming into these stark structures, you notice gray tombstone-like obelisks on them. Further navigation towards these obelisks reveals simple words and phrases on their surfaces. As you stop and look around these spaces, you begin to notice words combining into more complex thoughts as different obelisks line up in 3 dimensional space. While shifting around these cubes, the combinations change; some disappear, some emerge, positions are altered, and you begin to realize the delightful complexity of this experience.

Your mind soars, dreamlike, while your body rests comfortably within the peacefulness of the cushioned cube. For me it felt like an out of body experience. I zoomed from lillypad to lillypad, creating different motions, rhythms, and phrases out of the objects. It was exciting, thinking of Burrough’s work with audio cutups in the 50’s, conjuring 3D meaning out of the recombination of words. The smooth response of the system allows you to hunker down in a cluster of cubes, and spin around, the words and shapes combining in a blur of meaning, form and phrase fusing into one.

As I became more immersed, the starkness of the environment created a feeling of walking through a graveyard. I then interpreted these tombstones as a memorial to the actual words written on them. Initially the flash and discov- ery of this virtual space gave the Digital Vista meaning, showing humanities moth-like draw to all things bright and shiny. But paradoxically it is a statement on how that flash is eroding society’s connection to not just literature, but the use of words. We see this every day, as more and more people turn on, and tune out. People have been reading less and less, opting instead for the somnambulism of television, and the bang of video games. Digital Vista not only questions that shift in society, but creates a memorial to the casualties in this future atmosphere.

The Dadaist notion of the “Exquisite Cadaver” opened the 20th century with word play exploration as an art form. Now at the close of the century, Paul Clay’s Digital Vista is appropriately representing the use of language or words as the modern Cadaver.

Project Credits:
Digital Vista by Paul Clay
Text: Karen Williams with additional text by Paul Clay and Ed Pastorini.
Early versions of the presentation included contributions by Yuki Takagi, Willyum Delirious, and Jamie Leo.

Radio Name, a kind of loss, 1998

Radio Name, a Kind of Loss or Heartache

An HTML text poem as digital projection, first presented as part of Digital Lion, an evening of computer art at Baktun, New York City.


View low resolution images of the slides (black and white version):


View low resolution images of the slides (color version):


Video Sample:
Note: This work is video only, (there is no audio.)

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Project Description:
On the internet there is a bit of text code named for the physical buttons used on older car radios to select preset stations – when one of the buttons was pressed, other buttons would pop out, leaving the pressed button the only button in the “pushed in” or chosen position.

Sometimes when you are filling out an on-line form you are asked to click on little buttons to indicate a choice between one of several possibilities. These elements within HTML web forms are called Radio Buttons, and if you look at the source code each one is actually only a piece of text and will have a “name” and a “value” ascribed to it.

As I was teaching myself HTML for the first time, and looking for examples of forms to better understand them, I ran across the code for a form which was a long on-line survey for some company that sold vibrators and sex toys. They wanted to understand their customers in order to serve them better.

As I looked at the source code, I was struck by the word “value” which is part of programming language but can relate to money and commerce, can also be used to indicate that which we as human beings care most deeply about, on a fundamental level.

Reading further through the code I felt a sudden overwhelming sense of sadness at the human condition. Not a disgust for the subject of the survey but rather a heightened awareness of the isolation people can suffer from and the genuine emotional needs that bring people together. 

Many elements of the code seemed to be speaking with multiple meanings. Even practical and mundane elements of the survey such as a button at the end for anyone who had accidently made errors, which was labeled “I need to start again” seemed also to reference a lonely soul.

Radio Name, A kind of loss or Heartache is a revealing or a making visible of the original hidden text of the HTML source code for that sex survey, with edits and alterations which both break the code and add to its poetic meaning.

It is presented as a series of slides in either 800×600 pixel resolution on a computer monitor or alternately on a DVD as 640×480 pixel SD video resolution output. It has also been presented in two different iterations, one in color and the other in black text on a white background. In the color version the blue of the text refers to color coding in HTML text editors and the red of the background alludes to the lurid quality of the original survey.