That of which we should never have thought

Written for [Relay]: The Glasshouse Request.  [click to download a PDF of the full publication]

The work of ‘virtual-botanist’ and poet Douglas Hyde is unknown in Scotland; in fact his work even tends to be (mis)understood in his native Ireland as being nothing more than, “a convoluted kind of screen-saver art”. Yet a small circle of intellectuals based at University College Dublin think his work might actually be reconstructing the way we understand language. The Glasshouse Request commissioned art critic James Clegg to investigate.

I’m usually commissioned to write short critical reviews of Scottish contemporary art exhibitions – so to be sent to Dublin to track down an enigmatic intellectual and poet was both exciting and slightly daunting. I’d never heard of Douglas Hyde before, I didn’t have a clue what virtual botany could be and I soon learnt that I had to meet him at a studio called The Toxic Waste Dump.

The Toxic Waste Dump turned out to be little more than a glass conservatory stuck on the back of an unremarkable 1960s semi-detached house in a suburban district in South Dublin. Sure, Douglas had stuck a bio-hazard sticker on the window, but when I arrived – and went around the back because I wasn’t getting a response from the front – his wife Judith was obviously baking scones in the adjacent room, waving with flour covered hands. Apart from the sticker the only other quirky features of the conservatory were that all the windows were blocked out with white opaque window film and a faded quote from the French philosopher Henri Bergson stuck on the sliding door:

“In vain we force the living into this or that one of our molds. All the molds crack. They are too narrow, above all too rigid, for what we try to put into them. Our reasoning, so sure of itself among things inert, feels ill at ease on this new ground. It would be difficult to cite a biological discovery due to pure reasoning. And most often, when experience has finally shown us how life goes to work to obtain a certain result, we find its way of working is just that of which we should never have thought.”

By the time I’d first read this I could see that Judith had been joined by Douglas in the kitchen. Douglas is astute, amazingly well read, proficient with technology, subversive and adept at making cutting – but gentle and hilarious – remarks. Yet, absolutely nothing about his appearance gives this away. My first impression was of a kind of bumbling retiree, probably in his mid-60s; he has long loping arms, white woolly hair and wears baggy, ill-fitting black clothes and seemed awkward in general conversation.

In just 30 minutes however, I’m standing with Douglas in the conservatory marvelling at what he does. Perhaps he was just to setting me at ease? He’s now nimbly gliding through various references to art, philosophy and science as we look upon his ‘opus’, The Word Forrest. This amazing piece of bespoke technology – covered by a decorator’s sheet when I entered – is about the size of a table-football table. We’re looking down on to the top, seamlessly constructed from 8 high definition monitors, in to a ‘plantation’ of words. Looking from the true direction, catching the 3-D effect in full, and you have the experience of looking down into a kind of glowing fish tank. Within the tank you see bright passages of text and individual words emerging from organic letter forms.

With my notes and Douglas’ help, here’s an abbreviated explanation of how he thinks about language:

“There are two ways of looking at language that fascinate me: One relates to time and one to consciousness. With these two ways of looking, I think we can escape a lot of the restrictions inherent in the way we understand language.

“When a critic writes about film or video art they always mention time. It’s obvious, but of course they are right to mention it because film is always about time. There are human kinds of time, the time it takes to watch a movie, the time constructed by the narrative (the week or month in which the story unfolds). But in film there can be other expansive notions of time beyond this, it comes when these human-sized kinds of time break down and you are exposed to something else. Douglas Gordan’s 24 Pyscho comes to mind.

“In poetry people often talk about rhyme and meter, it is a performative art. But these are human-scale times; they come from the reader or performer. And people hardly ever talk about time within an academic essay – ever. An artist may slow down or speed up a recorded verse to make it nonsensical. But you see, then, they’re often thought to have stepped outside language and in to art. A writer who makes gibberish marks is – I think it would generally be accepted – a pretty useless writer. This is one clear way we limit our understanding of language – always bloody obsessed with semantics.

“There’s a performance piece by Torsten Lauschmann called Sequencer: Inconsistent Whisper. In the darkness, musicians and power tools are spread out in a line. They are then individually lit at moments when they play, the only visible thing. You are aware of the bigger durational sound, you have impressions in your retina of something gone before, but you only see one thing at a time (mostly). We’re used to groups and orchestras in music, this partitioning is very disconcerting. But this spotlight effect is like the workings of the conscious mind. And language has often been looked at in this spotlighted way: in a singular and sequenced way. What people watching Lauschmann’s engrossing performance know is that there is more going on than the isolated flashes reveal. In the same way, there is more to language. In fact, I’m starting to think most of language happens outside the spotlight.”

The Word Forrest is Douglas’ way of allowing language to ‘be’ at different rates – some of the words, phrases or passages move quickly though the 3-D space before you can really read them. Other words grow large across the whole surface of the ‘tank’ too slowly to ever reveal themselves fully. And it’s all so simultaneous that you became conscious of your mind ‘spotlighting’ bits and capturing brief moments of text. The workings of The Word Forrest remain a mystery to me, but the ‘stuff’ it generates does grow of its own accord: Douglas assures me that he simply ‘planted’ a few ‘seeds’ at first. If I’d seen this two months ago, he promises, it was half empty. The computer that generates this text has ‘biotopic-semantic-understanding’ (When people finally recognise this work, let’s ask Douglas to explain that one) and so can develop new phrases and passages of text depending how previous ‘shoots’ and ‘leaves’ interconnect. “This enclosure”, Douglas told me, “was started with 2 Beat seeds and 1 Haiku bulb”.

Douglas Hyde seems to be doing something genuinely exciting. He’s finding a way to represent language –something we presume is a cultural and constructed thing – in a very different fashion. In Hyde’s ‘virtual botany’ language unexpectedly turns out to be a non-deterministic thing, its working, ‘just that of which we should never have thought’.

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