Johannes Heldén Q & A

On 9/17/14, Johannes Heldén gave a multimedia presentation consisting of work from his as-yet untitled new book at the Media Archaeology Lab on the University of Colorado-Boulder campus. After his presentation, he conducted a question and answer session with his audience, which has been transcribed below.

Question: That was very beautiful, thank you for that. Could you talk about the experience of writing poetry in a second language?

Johannes: I don’t write it in English, actually. I make my own sort of… kooky translation from Swedish. So, yeah, it’s… I’m interested in the process of translating it. So, I mean, it’s sort of liberating to me, and maybe alienating as well, because I know it’s not perfect, but it sort of tells me something new, at least. I’m not sure if that makes sense…

Q: Could you talk about the installation? I guess what I’m asking is: you mentioned the set-up and I mean, when I walked in it reminded me of this on-site work at Cornell. I’m just curious what is going on [gestures toward installation].

J: Well, so what’s happening here is that the text that I read, or I read part of it, is presented and connected to one of the computers. Like, each page from this forthcoming book, I made a sort of, I guess free or… how do you say this in English? maybe unclear connection between the page and the computer. There’s a water color, and on top of it, there’s the page, and then there’s a leaf, if you look close. As you follow this sort of five page sequence, you see that this leaf is exposed to entropy, maybe, I’d rather not dismiss them in that way. And that the pages are stack with Plexiglas between them. So for me this is maybe a kind of literal nod to the archaeology bit. I almost wanted to connect the different media to the digital.

Q: These computers are from here? Selected from the [collection]?

J: Yeah, it’s like a… not random, but sort of arbitrary selection which is linear from left to right in how modern they are. And also the leaf on the page is… the linearity is, I was about to say the other way around, like the new leaf in front of the old computer, and the other way around. [pauses] I mean, for me it was really an experiment, trying out this, and it’s maybe a bit… not all over the place, but I was interested in seeing what would happen if I… I usually work in different media, but not as literally as here. So I wanted to try it, in a very concrete way.

Q: Can you talk about the residency experience? You came here… Did you have any idea what you want to do? What was it like being in Boulder, being in this lab; how did it impact what you did?

J: I prepared some. The watercolors I made before, with the idea of trying to link them to the digital, sort of obsolete world. I have to say, overall it’s been a great experience. I like the lab, I like Boulder as well. I wasn’t sure, in the beginning, how to connect them, or how the presentation would be. And I also got started on this simultaneous track of recording the old computers in the lab, because I was fascinated by their sounds. Like the background sound here. This doesn’t really relate to this piece, it’s more like “Maybe I can use this in the future.” So basically, I’ll be working on this and then when I needed a break, or fresh eyes, I recorded the computer. And then I went downtown in Boulder [laughs]. It’s been great, I’m really happy. And thanks so much for inviting me.

Q: You have a lot of references to external work: the Star Trek, and the music. And then also there was a lot of looping, like… self-referential, and that reminded me of the computer process, too. Do you want to say anything more about the external works that you’ve referenced?

J: Sure. I can maybe, like… I don’t think I mentioned this but the pages are excerpts from a forthcoming book that will be printed, it’s like a poetry collection. And, in this work, which for me felt like almost a move away from poetry, even though it’s still poetic prose, I, for some unknown reason it felt good to me to be very clear with what my… like, these fragments of inspirations are to me. And I wanted to show them in the work itself, like the Star Trek and the [Chris] Marker, and [Robert] Smithson, whose been a part of my work for a long time. I guess maybe that’s, how do you say… impolite of me to drag them into my work [laughs]. I’m doing it anyway. So, it feels maybe more personal to me than my previous stuff. Sorry, I don’t think I’m answering your questions [laughs].

Q: I mean, there’s a whole universe of external [works] to reference; what about those ones that you chose…?

J: Oh, yeah. Well, I have themes that keep coming back, like nature, science fiction and the future, a sort of poetic take on entropy inspired by Smithson. These themes I’ve been working with for a long time, so… yeah, like the Star Trek reference? It’s both a reference to the Star Trek TV show, which for me personally is a, how shall I say it… like, a mix of maybe a naïve sort of utopian future but also a great future. Like, no war, exploring space and so on. And still the sound, and also the sound of the actual YouTube piece that people use to fall asleep, or just as an ambience in the room to feel maybe safe? inspired by the TV show. So I was interested in the combination of the digital and personal, and also the way you can use it in your everyday life. Yeah.

Q: I’d like to begin- Star Trek got me, like immediately, the U.S.S. Enterprise. But then at the end it was nice, there was a kind of return at the end, that the future can be kind of imaginable and thinkable

J: That’s actually my prophesy.

Q: Yeah, I didn’t know that. It’s appropriate for a science-fictional theme. But it’s interesting, I was reminded of Neil Gaiman introduces a book by Alfred Bester by writing “Nothing dates harder, faster, or more strangely than the future,” right? And Star Trek is so then, it was so the future, this kind of utopian imperialist fantasy then, but now you look at it and it looks… lizard-suits made out of rubber and everything looks so dated and then we’re in the midst of this kind of… all of this stuff [gestures around the lab]. It’s the future, at one point or another. Right? Like, all of those blinking cursors, and orange clamshells…

J: The toiletseat [laughs]. Yeah, you’re right. It’s a lot of old-fashioned technology, like you said.

Q: Lisa Simpson says, talking about Epcot Center, is what people in 1950 thought 1985 would look like, or something [laughs]. And of course it never looks like that. Because it’s unthinkable or unimaginable.

Q: Could you say something [this] sound versus the other sounds that you heard-

J: In the lab, that I recorded?

Q: You said you recorded different sounds…

J: Yeah, actually this is one of the first sounds I recorded, from that computer [points to Commodore VIC-20], at the time it was standing over there, and when I started recording the computers around here I kept hearing this sort of noise that interrupted my recordings, and I realized that it was the power converter of the VIC-20. When I put my recorder on top of it, the vibrations and the sound became very… I’m not sure if it is to you, but to me this is very musical, or very non-… like, you can’t really predict it. It feels not so static. So, also, I think usually when I do poetry readings I read to one of my animations with a sound backdrop that I make, so I wanted to, I guess, place the texts in another sound that’s not my voice. And also it’s a sort of safe place for me, the sound and my talking.

Q: Is there a particular medium that you find yourself writing with most often to start, and then remediating?

J: A medium?

Q: Yeah, how when you first sit down to start writing a poem, is it on a computer, or, pen and paper? And then, do you rework it within technology, or how does that process work for you?

J: I usually start by hand, when its poetry. When I try to be more cohesive or prose-y, I start on a computer. I mean, writing by hand sort of suits the fragments, the great fragments for me… and then I transfer them to the computer and rework them a lot. So basically I have a lot of huge material that I narrow down.