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e-poets RFM joint presentation

Tale of Two Topologies: A conversation about creating a community of the spoken word.
by Kurt Heintz and Barbara Steinberg


We have been doing some groundbreaking work at Radio Free Monterey. In an alliance with e-poets.net, our live-streaming network opened their point-to-point videoconferencing network to the internet. And so this web poster is a conversation between Kurt Heintz, Director of e-poets.net, and me -- about webcasting, video, poetry, and creating a community of the spoken word.

RFM and e-poets networks

The Video Clips:
First Contact: Kurt and James

First Poem: Tyehimba Jess

Second Poem: Tara Betts

Third Poem: Kurt Heintz

Fourth Poem: Tyehimba Jess

Fifth Poem: Tara Betts

The Conversation

From Kurt Heintz:
In 1993, when I was introduced to videoconferencing for the purpose of sharing performance poetry, there was no clear picture of how it would evolve. At that time, "media poetry" as I appreciated it meant working with video on stage, in a mode akin to Laurie Anderson's or Robert Ashley's. And I enjoyed that. After a computer workstation, a video editing suite was home for me. The Internet was struggling for visibility in the public eye, and open to only those few tech-heads who were permitted to play there.

I saw my first pictures and sounds from poets far away through a black-and-white Panasonic videophone that year. Still pictures, where you had to press a button to freeze and send low-resolution video, and where you often had to wait for the picture to finish building on the screen before you could speak again. That was how it was done. My teacher, herself a protege of the Electronic Cafe International (Santa Monica, California) taught some of her craft to me that way. In time, we were able to send up to a whopping three half-res NTSC frames per minute.

Since 1993, of course, everything has blown wide open. When the Internet went "on" in the public's mind, my whole poetic landscape toggled from marginality into main-stage existence. I published websites featuring some of Chicago's poetry history, and these begat invitations to Europe to collaborate with poets there, which begat videoconferences with them from Chicago, which begat the search for better two-way A/V technologies, which begat some unsatisfactory trials with inappropriate Internet technologies.

It was sort of a biblical cascade of affairs. CU-SeeMe and like programs had the promise of opening up the world, lending two-way access to poets and other performing writers wherever the web reached. But getting these programs to work as promised was another matter. (This remains an issue even now, in 2000.) Such experiences begat my reversion to using videophones. With videophones, at least, when the call went through, it really went through. On the Internet, it would sometimes, and paying audiences wouldn't go for that.

Our vehicle was the stage. Chicago poetry then, as now, had a strong bond with theater. My community before being "wired" had very traditional definitions among friends and fellow artists in Chicago. We worked and met face-to-face. We performed on a single stage before a single audience. We insinuated media (usually video, but we had experiences with using computers in live performance, too) into these performances to amplify or create new literary-theatrical experiences for our audiences. So when I found I could create portals into whole new cities where other audiences and artists would gather, my impulse was to build this into our theatrical paradigm, too. Our fourth wall was simply transported 2000 miles instead of 20 inches. So videophones defined the topology of my new electronic community. One of the anthems of that early time was "Communication begets community." Building a network meant simply to build a group of affiliated sites where point-to-point communications were the sole necessity. And this worked.

When I was in Telepoetics, a first-generation network for telepresent performance poetry, the community grew to nearly thirty sites. The problem was that the community required fairly constant contact to sustain. We were high on ideals, but there was no consistent technology to keep us together. Among the sites, about 7 had one very obscure kind of videophone, 6 or so tried using CU-SeeMe with varying degrees of success, another handful tried RealVideo with mixed results (mostly failing over modem-based lines), and other smaller sects used iVisit, PowWow, or NetMeeting. Perhaps a third of the sites had no means to 2-way video at all, which further diluted Telepoetics' sense of community.

The hardware didn't communicate with the software, and the software didn't communicate between applications. Further, the climate obliged me to adapt to the technology of the sender; as an event producer, I felt like the fellow in Terry Gilliam's movie "Brazil," where answering a phone call meant trying to figure out which telephone system to use, all while the phone was ringing. Telepoetics expressed higher hopes, but devolved into a babel of incongruous technologies. 1998 videophones were superior in all regards to 1993 videophones. They used a standard called H.324. H.324's digital compression of video and sound gave us color, two-way motion video, and two-way sound where we previously had only still black and white video or sound but not both. I took the leap. A few members of Telepoetics followed suit and some new partners joined, and so the e-poets network was born. This community was smaller but predicated on a common mode of communication, and upon technical competence.

Telepresent "wannabees" were excluded. As a result, our work since 1998 has sustained itself, our skills are improving, and our community is stronger.

When I founded the e-poets network, I put some institutions in place. The first, of course, was the H.324 communication standard. I did not require it to be our only means of communication in live events, but that it would be our foundation technology, a common denominator for efficacy in two-way video and sound. As newer modes of communication came around, we could grow upward from H.324. The cultural ramifications of H.324 were deeply considered. H.324 gear is compact and travels easily. It works wherever there is electricity and a plain telephone line, and requires little further investment by the user/artist to get effective results. Before the term "Digital Divide" was spoken, I was coscious of the problem and bent on not letting it alienate artists and their cultures from the network. H.324's cost effectiveness and simplicity spoke well for it. Another institution was a listserv, to keep us connected between events and to assist the membership in producing events or soliciting for partner sites. Yet another was more behavioral than technological. Telepoetics almost totally lacked investment among sites. The community was feral and laissez-faire, and so it degraded easily. I went out and bought videophones and gave them to the sites to jump-start the network, and so ensure our means of communication. This was not cheap, but it did the job. It also set an example for the community, that we mentor each other. At least two sites asked how they could repay me for their videophones, but I encouraged them to procure new ones for themselves or for their own partners to propagate the network further. At last, e-poets could establish itself as a community of writers where encounter mattered and it, not the technology, was the focus of our work.

The topology of our network remained one-to-one, or many-to-many, as it has been said, too. That was what videophone users did: they called each other in two-party dialogues, but users couldn't enjoy a multiparty call with them. This imposed some structure on our relationships which, after the relative chaos of Telepoetics, was comforting for some. But it also meant our videophone audience was narrow, namely only those artists and audiences lucky enough to assemble for a live connection. Don't misunderstand this point. Good things happened in these situations, such as dialog and interactions between cultures which, I found, lended meaning, context, and a sense of discovery to the work. People do react to the poetry in real time, and the performing poet hears that. S/he may comment, then the audience may comment in return, and so the communion builds. People can be nonverbal with each other, too, since this is live video. A gesture, a shrug, a flip, a wave... all of these suddenly become valid annotations to the text if not outright carriers of a poet's aesthetic. These experiences denote and connote culture. Since I built out the technology for the audience in a theater, the public didn't need anything more than the time and interest to come and participate in this. We were able to answer accessibility issues, but only as long as one could get to the theater where we worked.

While our topology was sufficient, it was arguably incomplete. Locally, our community still had the limitations of direct contact carrying over from theater and literary circles. We were not exclusionary to audiences by intent, but as a product of our process. In the summer of 1999, Christy Sheffield-Sanford discovered e-poets.net, joined our listserv, and instigated a vigorous thread about the virtues of RealVideo. I must say that the debate was heated, and one of our associates put a rather mean spin on the debate with Christy over the legitimacy of using RealVideo for anything we did.

(I wasn't happy about this, as I admired Christy for her initiative.) There was clear resistance to using RealVideo. e-poets.net was founded on dialog, i.e. shared interactions between sites, and RealVideo has the wrong topology for that, one-to-many. It has genuine epistemological drawbacks which affect the art. For one, the quality of the attention was no longer accessible. In a live audience, we can see and react to the audience's mood, but this was not so with RealVideo broadcasting. RealVideo also obliged at least one site to get a server and software to do it right. I didn't have that kind of money or expertise, and neither did any of the other sites. That's how it is, generally, among poets.

We didn't anticipate that Christy would introduce us to Radio Free Monterey, and to you, Barbara. When the introduction came, it was pleasant if still riddled with a bit of that argumentive quality I mentioned above. But it was healthy debate, and I respected and enjoyed that. I could see that webcasting was a good thing. It clearly drew audiences toward the work by putting the interaction into plain view on the web. I was honored and flattered when you accepted my poetry videos (in today's language: "Legacy Software") for webcasting on RFM. It really opened my eyes to the potential of reaching broader audiences.

I was also impressed that you had a way to complete the circuit between audience and artist by mitigating some of the bad epistemology I mentioned above. Your chat system allowed anyone to become part of an active audience, to express their opinion in real time, and so impinge upon a presentation in a structured way. I appreciated this very much because, having tried iVisit for a Cambridge-Chicago co-production, I discovered to my shock that exhibitionists kept joining our channel and filling our screen with home-grown video porn. Now, I have nothing against nudity or erotic content online, but it was very inappropriate for our production. It was a needless and annoying distraction. (Cambridge were spared this trauma since our window from Chicago filled the only monitor the audience saw. They never knew how many surreptitious windows we had to close by force back here.) In RFM's chat, the conversation is free, but it's separate from the video. People can't bomb the show by doing something profane in the chat. This has a positive effect on the artists by lending them feedback from their audience. It has a positive effect on the audience by including them in the process, something television does not do which is nonetheless key to e-poets' aesthetic. Your chat-with-video scheme, along with your demonstrated appreciation for new poetry and performance, made it clear that RFM could be a great, new e-poets.net site.

Now that we've worked out our basic bridge between H.324 and Real (which I confess is probably simpler than most people think), we've assimilated the best of both community's topologies. e-poets sites can still connect one-to-one among each other, but can also broadcast one-to-many. It's an free choice. Each mode has virtues that artists appreciate, and each offers cultural horizons which lend distinct new shapes to our sense of community. Some of our sites have felt a new sense of power and freedom knowing that they are not limited to strict point-to-point connections. By tieing into RFM, they feel they can do more presentations and so spawn new connections from their cultures into others.

RFM's open weekly broadcast schedule is much easier for e-poets network sites to coordinate. Performances don't need to languish in solitude for lack of an available partner, but can be shared widely. Whereas before we had to gather the collective efforts of two sites in a link-up each time, RFM's open production schedule means we can pick an evening and put something online. It also means the burden of originating programming is lightened on RFM. e-poets.net is content-rich and venue-poor. RFM gains ingress to traditional communities across North America by direct videophone link, and translates that connection into an experience spread across the entire web community. RFM is amplified to be more of a national presence by this effect. People in cities other than Monterey can link to them and see a bit of themselves. I foresee great things now that we're a hybrid network. I've argued in favor of the art over the technology from the beginning, and continue to do so. The tech is necessarily in service to the art. But in the past, people naturally thought that we were doing webcasts when we weren't. I always had to correct them, tell them that we were seen only in the single other city where the production was taking place. Artists and audiences alike seemed a bit disappointed by this because, I believe, they innately knew the medium's potential and inevitability. With RFM's union in the e-poets network, I can live up to that attractive cachet of technology which the public expected of me, namely a global topology of community. I don't have to disappoint any more. So perhaps that is the best gift, to be able to put aside the qualms about the technology in a much more mature manner. From here onward, it's all refinement.

Kurt Heintz
e-poets network, Chicago

From Barbara Steinberg:
Radio Free Monterey was first designed to bring an audience to someone who shut himself away from life owing to mental illness. Can online community cross the line between insanity and sanity? Could a community audience make someone tossed away by society understood, and therefore give his life and other rejected lives value?

The answer was yes, but then came the money needed to run the network and the dark inner lives of the people for whom this project was the only creative vehicle they ever encountered.

RFM is a partnership between an installation and interactive design. In the installation, audio and video streams are split. Audio goes through a nanocompressor and both streams meet in an SVHS VCR, which records. Then the feed goes to the encoding server, then to a hub that combines all the computers, then to a router, and out to the internet. The justaposition of functions -- recording, encoding, hub, router and out -- stay as a master design no matter what the installation might do. The only difference between making it a web-cast radio station / virtual community or giving it another business application would be in the peripherals you'd put in the audio and video mixers.

In the interaction, the user calls up their Real Player and a chat room on their computer screen, chats to the characters they see and hear, and makes our DJs respond to them. We built a community with this format powered by human energy.

Kurt Heintz suggested we get a video phone and add it to our list of peripherals. With that and our video mixer, we were able to split the screen and show a poet in Chicago, Ill. and a DJ in Monterey, CA, at the same time. Then we combined our split screen with people in the chat room, who came from all over the United States and Canada. It was magic. It happens the third Thursday of every month.

Yes, we are all excited. We love the fact that we can bring different voices to the web, but the world is a tough place. This project will never have the consistency and personality to make it in the business world. Therefore it will never make a dime. It stands as an anachronism, a rebellion against a society that values people a certain way, a protest to the social order.

There is a price to pay for such a statement.

I pay the bills with a job. That job takes most of my energy away from RFM. I took the installation design and am building a live online training center for my company. RFM finally found its business application far away from the content that first gave it life. For your interest, here are the diagrams, cost structure, and interactive design of this business proposal. You would be welcome to send me email on what your reaction is to seeing RFM's network design used for community in our video clips and seeing the same design used to save on travel costs in a business.

I have always said that to build a community you have to be willing to be the voice in the dark and still sing. But after one of our DJs threw his keys on the floor because RFM became too personal for him and his emotions got violent; even during wonderful triumphs like combining a split screen of poets, DJs, and chatters together in conversation; and when I log into the chatroom after a 10-hour day at work so tired I cannot see, I wonder if I still have the strength to endure through the story.

Yes, doing original work is worth it, but it's not easy.

Barbara Steinberg
co-founder RFM