Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Locus Solus - Centenary Edition Auto-Translated by Mark Amerika

In this excerpt from my Schwab "Say Yes!" lecture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I briefly digress into a story about the making of Locus Solus, my auto-translation / remix of Raymond Roussel's novel of the same. Roussel originally published his novel exactly 100 years ago in 1914. My version will come out with Counterpath Press later this year.

"What else am I going to be able to remix?"

For me, that question is not very different from, "What else am I going to make before I definitively unfinish myself?"

That phrase, definitively unfinish, is, of course, taken from Marcel Duchamp's encapsulation of the creative process as it related to his Large Glass, also known in English as The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, a work that was composed between 1915 and 1923. For the past few years, I have been meticulously remixing this source material from this significant work of 20th century art across different media platforms as part of my next large-scale transmedia narrative project, this one entitled Inside the Green Box, a reference to Duchamp’s textual accompaniment to the Large Glass titled The Green Box. At times, Duchamp referred to his Green Box as a book. He also referred to it as an album, one that he configured in conjunction with this elaborate work of art he meta-tagged a delay-in-glass (he also used the phrase delay-in-painting).

According to Duchamp, "one could not 'see' the painting without consulting the various elements found in the green box […] I wanted that album to go with the ‘Glass’, and to be consulted when seeing the ‘Glass’, because as I see it, it must not be ‘looked at’ in the aesthetic sense of the word. One must consult the book, and see the two together."

It's my sense that the Large Glass and its accompanying Green Box are already conjoined into what, today, we would call a kind of transmedia narrative, and my remix, Inside the Green Box, will hopefully be released some time next year. Aspects of my work have recently been released or will soon come out, including my novel-length auto-translation / remix of Raymond Roussel's Locus Solus which, first published in 1914, will soon be marking its 100 year anniversary. My remix of Roussel’s book will be published later this year and was composed by playfully postproducing the original 1914 version using a variety of mediocre online translation programs. Here’s the story behind this auto-translation / remix which I see not so much as a literal translation by any means, but as a work of performance art:

One night in early February of 2012, after an exhausting day at the County court, serving on a jury for a rather seedy, sibling sex abuse case, I distracted myself from the opening day’s events by conducting more research for this Inside the Green Box transmedia narrative I am developing, I came across an interview with Duchamp where he was asked what most influenced him while making the work and he said, "Roussel showed me the way."

Somewhere in the back of my mind I had recalled having read this quote in some other context but had never followed up on it. However, it was at this very moment of (re)discovery, while I was looking for a long distraction since I could not talk to anyone, not even my wife, about the sleazy court case I was now a jury member on, that I decided to pursue the link. In order to get a quick sense of Roussel’s work, I immediately started searching online for any of his work published in English translation. In the same interview quoted above, Duchamp had mentioned Roussel’s other by-now famous work, Impressions d’Afrique, as his primary influence, and that was the one I was looking for. Since I do not speak French, I was hoping to find a readymade PDF already translated into English that I could easily download. As it happens, there was no version of this work that I could find online. However, Locus Solus, the other one of his two most famous works, was available online in French and since I was impatient and wanted to access any Roussel I could get my hands on, I decided I would read this work instead. But there was still the issue I kept denying to myself throughout this entire process, namely that I do not read or understand French, let alone Roussel's version of it. What was I to do? I decided to get an immediate feel for Locus Solus by turning to a few mediocre online translation programs that would auto-translate the first few pages, line-by-line, and see what came up. But since I do not read or understand French, let alone Roussel's version of it, I decided to get an immediate feel for Locus Solus by auto-translating the first few pages, line-by-line, with a set of mediocre online translation programs. (author's note: just recently, an older translation of Locus Solus into English has just become available online - still, it makes no sense for me to read it now and I'll let others conduct a comparative media studies investigation if they so wish).

Needless to say, given Roussel's strange procedural writing style, the auto-translation was full of glitches and illegible strands of narrative thought. When I refer to Roussel's strange compositional methodology, I am referring to some of his personal theoretical writings that he had kept secret until his death and that were posthumously published in the volume How I Wrote Certain of My Books, where he describes his method as follows:

"I chose two similar words. For example billard (billiard) and pillard (looter). Then I added to it words similar but taken in two different directions, and I obtained two almost identical sentences thus. The two sentences found, it was a question of writing a tale which can start with the first and finish by the second. Amplifying the process then, I sought new words reporting itself to the word billiards, always to take them in a different direction than that which was presented first of all, and that provided me each time a creation moreover. The process evolved/moved and I was led to take an unspecified sentence, of which I drew from the images by dislocating it. . .”

Needless to say, my simple late-night plan to use a translation program to better understand Roussel’s writing and why it might have “shown Duchamp the way,” was immediately introduced to a severe obstacle as I tried to make some narrative sense out of the mangled text and mistranslated puns and double entedres that were given to me by the auto-translation program. My intuitive response was to not get frustrated at all but to creatively remix these mangled translations through my own experiential filters as valuable source material that would enable me to remixologically inhabit the spirit of Roussel’s own procedural aesthetic. This is when Roussel's Locus Solus started becoming a mash-up of auto-translation and autobiography or what in META/DATA I refer to as pseudo-autobiography (an always already fictional rendering of experiential data sampled from the practice of everyday life).

That first night, I started to really get into the auto-translation / remix process and decided that I did not want to buy and read any of the out-of-print books that had already attempted to translate Roussel into English, that, instead, I would approach this experience as a work of performance art and, like so many works of performance art, view it as a kind of durational achievement. And so it was, four months later, that I had translated / remixed the entire, mangled French version into what I started referring to as

Locus Solus (An Inappropriate Translation Composed in a 21st Century Manner)

All throughout the auto-translation/remix performance I was well aware of the fact that things were getting lost in the transmission, that the stability of the narrative trajectory, assuming I wanted to maintain a certain amount of stability and even semantic consistency, was going to depend on my ability to remixologically inhabit or even embody the praxis of another artist-medium who initially communicated these messages to us a long time ago (100 years to be exact). This was a creative parameter that actually liberated me from having to feel better about myself as I assumed the role of so-called "translator." Instead, I could approach the whole system as a literary traitor, one who pirates information signals and trades in a performance art practice that imposes their own literary and artistic traits onto the one who is being auto-translated, remixed, inhabited.

So to loop Duchamp back into the mix here today, particularly in reference to what his primary influences were while composing his major transmedia narrative, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, "Roussel showed me the way."