The Surrealists of the early 20th century were known for cutting up and rearranging found literature and compositing new texts from the old, free from the binds of logic and creative suppression. In the 21st century, this technique’s digital counterpart is known as stir fry text, coined and spearheaded by visual poet Jim Andrews. Programmed in DHTML, the pieces are “texts that refuse to sit still,” and rearrange themselves when moused over by the reader. Jim Andrews’s “Correspondence,” made in collaboration with Mary Phillips, Lee Worden, and Talan Memmott, is a particularly interesting example of the technique.
“Correspondence” is presented in the form of an email chain among colleagues, discussing stir fry (“cut-ups”) and, more generally, the value of recombination and isolation in order to better understand a concept. I first read the piece straight through, no mousing-over the text, by clicking on the graphic at the bottom of the page. The chain starts off with a straight question about the reasoning behind cut-up text, “Why would you want to cut things up?”
Andrews mentions William S. Burroughs (an avid “stir fryer” if there ever was one) and his belief that cutting up a text opens the mind to the truth of the language. Other important figures are referenced by the participants (feminist philosopher/sociologist Julia Kristeva, poet Frederick Turner, psychoanalyst Carl Jung, eco-feminist author Susan Griffin), casting their discussion into interdisciplinary waters, with far-reaching implications towards the nature of language and the ways in which we derive meaning from the words we read.
Just as the chain participants discussed, “Correspondence” evolved and took a new shape as I began to mouse-over the text, letting the passages twitch until I was happy with the results – or until I ended up with phrasing that made sense. It was no longer just a correspondence between the four colleagues; I was an active participant, interacting and “corresponding” with the writers and their words.
“Stir frying” the passages, I could see what Burroughs meant when he said that rearranging a work could reveal some secret truths. While I didn’t have any startling revelations about life or the nature of language, I was taken with some of the lovely turns of phrase and unexpected wisdom that sometimes popped up. For example, from Philips’s letter:
“Language, for me, is a medium for exploring the space of possibilities. We need something new. And possibility – that it needs sustenance.”
These are two sentences cut and rearranged from the words of four separate writers, but fit together seamlessly and in a sensible fashion. This speaks not only to the eloquence of the speakers, but the elegance of the code which Andrews wrote.
For me, one of the most telling parts of the work is, strangely enough, the byline at the top of each passage. Like the rest of the text, when moused-over, the attribution changes. In this way, each passage becomes a collaborative effort between every participant and the reader. The original writer of the passage doesn’t matter as much as the finished product, or the product that the reader is content with.
Memmott questions whether there are any works at all that are not, in a way, cut-ups of other pieces. I’m inclined to agree. Everything is borrowed or inspired from something else, whether it be a written work, a rumor or legend, or a spoken conversation. Ideas don’t appear out of thin air in our headspace; they’re taken from a collective experience and reshaped, repurposed. “Correspondence” is a stir fry drawing on a collaborative voice to explain itself, self-evolving to meet the expectations of its reader.