McKenzie Wark on Sun, 12 Mar 2000 07:52:24 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] Bill Seaman's Red Dice


Bill Seaman's multimedia poetics in Adelaide
McKenzie Wark
Sunday, 12 March 2000

Writers' Week at the Adelaide Festival is a bit like The Big 
Day Out for the bookish. Instead of rock bands cranking up 
the volume, there's writers, doing unintentional parodies 
of their greatest moments, trying to communicate in the 
heat and hubbub, the PA distorting every gesture.

Retreating to the cool and quiet of the Contemporary Art 
Centre, out in Adelaide's parkland suburbs, I was surprised 
to find a moment of pensive and quivering literature. 
Literature, yes, literature -- the one thing that writers' 
festivals pursue to the point of extinction, was alive and 
well and breathing, in the shadows of an art gallery.

A work like Manet's Olympia is now a commonplace in 
visual culture, but comparable and contemporary works of 
literature still occupy the margins. So perhaps its no 
surprise that the art gallery should play host to Manet's 
contemporary, Stephane Mallarme. 

"All thought utters dice thrown", writes Mallarme, in his 
late work, The Dice Thrown Will Never Annul Chance. 
The fleeting, passing, trajectory of thought, lighting that 
reveals in its passing the emptiness of the sky -- this was 
Mallarme's sole interest as a poet. 

Bill Seaman's homage to Mallarme, Red Dice, is installed as 
a video installation at the Contemporary Art Centre until 
26th March. Seaman complements Mallarme's poem with 
video, audio and poetry of his own. If Mallarme's poetry is a 
machine for making pure nothingness, Seaman's is a 
machine that doubles Mallarme's and explores the 
machinery of meaning making itself.

Mallarme was conscious of the means of production of 
sense within which his work moved. What is the place of 
the book in the age of the newspaper? "The newspaper is 
the sea; literature flows into it at will." On the other hand. 
books "form in miniature a tomb for our souls." In the folds 
of its pages can be hidden the one thing the tidal press of 
newsprint cannot abide -- silence. 

In an era where most novels read like rather dull 
newspapers and where newspapers are daily novels, 
perhaps there's something to be said for stepping outside 
the tent. What one sees at the writers' festival is the extent 
to which writing and journalism prop each other up and 
present a unified product line to the consumer, one 
dedicated to the prevention of literature. 

Mallarme grasped what a book alone could do: step into rich 
silence and slow time. 'The Dice Thrown' exploits the white 
space of the page, dropping words and phrases like jazz 
notes across the white wave of the page, seemingly at 
random. Space and word interact, forming a network of 
possible lines along which sense can flow or be caught. 

A line from the poem might read like this: "An insinuation 
merely in the silence, rolled up in irony, or the mystery 
flung down (howled out) in some neighbouring whirlpool 
of hilarity and horror, hovers about the gulf, without 
strewing it nor fleeing, and of it cradles the virginal trace." 
Or it may not. 

Mallarme grounds postwar understandings of the 
indeterminacy of language -- that great ocean of possibilities 
of the word that conventions of writing limit, even repress, 
in the name of clarity. He is crucial to postwar French 
poetics. Julia Kristeva and Jacques Derrida write about him 
with as much enthusiasm as did Paul Valery or Paul 
Claudel before them. 

But Seaman takes Mallarme in yet another direction. He is 
not interested in the endless extension of this linguistic 
understanding of meaning, in which all the world is an 
endless text. "We must not see every media production as a 
text", he writes. Rather, he wants to look at how different 
media create different, and often non-linguistic, meaning. 
His is a media poetics, not one limited to writing. 

Postwar poetics took the basic diagram of communication 
and pointed out that the code mattered more than the 
sender and receiver in the transmission of meaning. 
Seaman looks at the diagram again and says its not the 
sender, or the receiver, or the code that needs attention, but 
the vector. The means by which meaning moves is as 
interesting as the way it encoded. 

When Mallarme draws attention to the white space of the 
page, he is not only saying that this silent whiteness is part 
of the code, he is also saying that the page is a vector, a 
means of getting meaning from one place to another, or one 
time to another. Living at a time when the production of 
pages was becoming industrialised, Mallarme knew only too 
well that writing was becoming a different process. The 
mass production of newsprint has consequences for the 

Seaman's video for Red Dice shows, with a shocking, 
astonishing beauty, the kind of machine age technology that 
shaped the awareness of Mallarme. Seaman's images are of 
spinning and weaving machines. These are not just an 
industrial parallel to the technologies of print, they point 
toward something more. 

The loom is the first computer. Seaman's video shows the 
punched tape that programs the patterns of the loom. As an 
artist of the computer era, Seaman doubles Mallarme's 
poem with images that both concord with the moment in 
which Mallarme wrote, but which also connect that 
moment to the present. If Mallarme wrote for the 
machinery of the typesetter, Seaman makes poetry for 

Or rather, where Mallarme saw the typesetting machine as 
already a poetics, Seaman sees multimedia as already a 
poetics. Machines are always already equipped with a the 
potential to make sense of things and things of sense. 

"Each soul is a melody which must be picked up again, and 
the flute or the viola of everyone exists for that." In line 
with this Mallarmean ethics, Seaman repeats phrases from 
Mallarme's poem and adds his own. His isn't a 
representation or reflection on Mallarme, so much as an 
addition or extension. If writing is "some gesture, vehement 
and lost", perhaps it is not lost for ever. The void is 
meaning's refrain.

Perhaps its not surprising that Mallarme's writing should be 
so at odds with, and peripheral to, that of a writers' festival. 
As he wrote: "The pure work implies the disappearance of 
the poet as speaker, yielding his initiative to words, which 
are mobilised by the shock of their difference; they light up 
with reciprocal reflections like a virtual stream of fireworks 
over jewels, restoring perceptible breath to the former lyric 
impulse, or the enthusiastic personal directing of the 

What calls for celebration, for festival, is not writers, but 
writing, not literary celebrities, but language, not the 
consumption of books but the transformation of meaning. 
Writers' festivals have become a routine part of the culture, 
but at the expense of marginalising literature. They are a 
way of accommodating the reading classes to consumerism, 
celebrity, commodity -- all the things the bookishly inclined 
feign to despise. 

And yet, every now and then, something of aesthetic 
significance happens on the fringes, as if by accident, the roll 
of the dice. Just throwing a writers' festival cannot abolish 
writing -- although they always come close. 

McKenzie Wark lectures in media studies at Macquarie 


"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
 -- McKenzie Wark 

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