Bibliomania, “Bit Rot” and Fetishizing Time

Christian Bök in conversation with Douglas Coupland.

In Bit Rot, a collection of essays and short fiction (and his 16th book), the polymathic Douglas Coupland continues his exploration of time and the future, collection and archiving, and the broad intersections of culture and technology. His art exhibition of the same name opened at Museum Villa Stuck in Munich on September 29 after being on view at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam. It is his second major retrospective in recent years, after Everything Is Anything Is Anywhere Is Everywhere; his art has been exhibited world-wide.

Christian Bök is that rare thing, a celebrity poet; his books include the bestselling, Griffin Prize–winning Eunoia. His artwork, including books fashioned from Lego bricks and Rubik’s Cubes, has been shown in galleries. Since 2002, he has been working on The Xenotext, a “living poem” that, with the help of biologists, he has encoded into the genome of a bacterium. A sculpture of the resulting molecule, Protein 13, was recently on display at Charles Darwin University in Australia, where he teaches.

Coupland and Bök spoke via email from their respective locations in Munich and Darwin.

CB: Your book Bit Rot seems fraught with concerns about the future, eating away at the past, byte by byte, so to speak. Our digital records undergo spontaneous degradation over time, eroding our legacy—and your book returns to this issue of our desire to build bulwarks against these future losses. You seem to express concern about the entropic marching of time into a future that arrives too soon.

DC: Is time itself entropic? That’s an interesting proposition. Maybe it’s the only thing in the universe that isn’t entropic. Everything else disintegrates but it remains the sole constant—although there is new thinking that time also changes over time. It came about after scientists researching a spontaneous nuclear fission event in Gabon began investigating byproducts and the numbers weren’t matching. It’s contested but there might be something to it.

But to get back to human timeframes, yes, the future is no longer the future. It’s right now and the concern is that we are stuck in this new time frame and it’s driving us crazy that we can’t return to a gentler, more narrative time. Unsurprisingly, the only time I’m mentally able to go back to the way time used to feel like 20 years ago is to … read a book. It’s like temporal ecotourism. We look at books as the font of wisdom (or insert some other Enlightenment phrase here) but we also look at them as time machines, a way out of our heads that was never required before. When I go on holidays I read historical biographies set before 1850 because they won’t have machines or technology in them. It’s like temporal ecotourism taken to the max.

And returning to the notion of bit rot, digital information degradation is the shame of the archiving world. Nobody knows how to save any of it for very long. Nobody. I like the image of a single pixel disintegrating, like a one or a zero disintegrating … what would that even look like? And it would be a breach of Claude Shannon’s Information Theory.

CB: Boy, I’d love to see a representation of a single pixel evaporating over time in slo-mo. Why not try to envision it in one of your works?

DC: Oddly, I’m writing these words in Munich, on the Villa Stuck’s floor, where I’ve just begun installing the Bit Rot exhibition. I just had a friend take this picture of me with one of the works in the show, a readymade called “Doink.” A doink is a sphere of anything made of one material. It was given to me as a gift by an actor in a show I was once involved in. He wanted to give me something that I would think of as art, so he gave me the tape ball he made while installing sliding windows in Vancouver condominium towers the summer before his acting gig began. It’s a lovely object, and to me it emotionally evokes the idea of a decaying pixel.

CB: You must know about a project called “The Ghost in the MP3” by Ryan Maguire, who collects bits lost in the computerized compression of a song and then plays them back again in sequence so that you can hear what entropy does to the music. His project shows us what collections of MP3s might sound like, after bit rot erodes our music over time.

DC: Does it sound good or … haunting? Or like noise? Or like background music in old movies with the sound of crackling?

CB: Well, it sounds haunting, kind of like whispers in a conch shell made of copper, somewhere in a museum, collecting dust. My good friend Kenneth Goldsmith has argued that, while digital culture might have turned each of us into a thief, pilfering sounds and videos from the Web, our culture has also turned each of us into an unwitting archivist, who hoards information, with the same kind of abandon as Charles Foster Kane trying to fill the palace of Xanadu with artefacts.

DC: So true. Look at music. Growing up, the assumption was that your musical taste froze forever at the age of 23, and you had a pile of vinyl in the basement that you worshiped forever and your taste never ever, ever, ever changed. It’s now not uncommon for people to have several years’ worth of music and TV stored in a single device.

CB: And of course, Goldsmith hoards terabytes of files, collecting MP3s and MP4s from the history of the avant-garde, posting everything on his project UbuWeb for free. His website has, by accident, become an invaluable scholarly resource for educators (after nearly 20-plus years of such piracy), and the site may in fact represent the greatest of his artworks. His archive really attempts to freeze a century of the avant-garde, putting all of it in one “eternal present” online.

DC: Man, I have so much stuff I could add to

CB: Well, I know that Kenny would also love your new book—and in fact, he has just published a work called Wasting Time on the Internet (based upon a course of the same name, taught by him at the University of Pennsylvania). Kenny’s even published a work called Soliloquy, a transcript of everything said by him over the course of a week (but only his words, not what others have said to him). Most of his projects involve some kind of encounter with the overload of information online. He effectively argues that, when online, we never waste time, because it exists there in abundance, preserving a kind of “continuity” that connects everyone.

DC: I love doing nothing in public … no devices, not even walking—just sitting on a bench. People look at you like you’re dangerous: Why isn’t he doing anything? Call the cops. It also feels like a luxury experience.

This new relationship to time reminds me of Christian Marclay’s The Clock—that was the movie where Marclay essentially went through every film ever made and culled all references to clock time and then built it into a 24-hour film experience that can only be seen in museums during the actual time of day the film describes. The fact that it can only be seen in a museum in real time is so elitist and control-freaky that it’s kind of funny. Marina Abramović is opening a museum in New York State where you have to commit to a minimum six-hour visit and before you can even go into the museum proper, you have to count all of the dried beans in a jar. Same control-freakiness as Marclay, except maybe that is the point—You’re probably not going to experiment with time on your own, so let me help you do it.

CB: Wow, only the most leisured classes with OCD can attend her exhibit…

DC: And look at the recent Oscars: Boyhood, in which a child grows up for real in front of you, and Birdman, all done in a “single take.” As a culture we are starting to fetishize continuity—continuity was something we used to experience, and now we fondly look back on it in the form of an artistic experience.

CB: I’m quite envious of The Clock too—although I was kidding Kenny during a viewing at a museum that if I’d done the project, I would have exhibited only clocks of the same type, either analog displays (with hands) or number displays (with units). In The Clock, Marclay jumps between the two technologies, perhaps because there’s not enough footage in the history of cinema to cover every minute according to my own compulsive constraint. To me, the technology of the clock in the scene said something important about its moment in time (and using only one kind of clock would’ve turned the motif into one of the “timeless” fixtures that recurred amid all the jump-cuts).

DC: Last month I bought a bunch of industrial clocks with analog sweep to cover a wall—including Speedo swim racing clocks. I like the notion of all that analog sweep, the second hands that are slightly unsynchronized. I like that it makes you feel a part of something human and eternal. And I love the fact that even though clocks were initially created to homogenize time and facilitate industry and commerce, they can also take you out of the industrial reality they helped generate.

CB: Cool! I love the Speedo clocks. I remember them from my days as a champion sprinter on my swim team in high school, racing against their sweep hands. Let’s talk about collecting. You note that “collecting” things (including art) does not differ much now from hoarding…

DC: Both reveal the deep percolations of the subconscious.

CB: …and I must confess that I probably suffer from the bibliomania that you describe in the book, collecting premier editions of poetry, surrounding myself with stacks of bookshelves full of avant-garde experiments with language. I joke that my books have become backups for the digital copies (in case of deletion by a solar flare or an EMP pulse).

DC: You’d make a good bookseller. The really good ones are crazy and they don’t want to sell any books to anybody.

CB: You remark in your book that, while you like to collect artwork, members of your family might express some concern behind your back, worried that such hoarding of “art shit” constitutes “a cry for help.” You note that hoarders often stockpile unrequired provisions for the future after the trauma of some loss in the past—but you never mention what kind of art shit you actually have in your own collection.

DC: That’s from George Carlin: My stuff is my stuff, but your stuff is your shit. Much of it was on display in the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art last year and is being reinstalled in Munich as I sit here staring at it all. The collection cleaves into several categories: Death. Image degradation. War. Data storage. Political theatre. It’s collected work with my own work, which taken together depicts my conscious and subconscious universe. But since then the house has filled up again—pieces that came out of deep storage as well as a blast of new works. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it all. If you’re in Toronto, I also have a show at the Daniel Faria Gallery until late October.

CB: Alas I’m in Darwin (a city that actually reminds me of Calgary, except that Darwin is one tenth the size, but with palm trees and oceanfront views. I occasionally post photos of the horizon on Twitter, because the beauty of the cerulean sky against a turquoise sea always reminds me of colour studies in abstract painting.

DC: The Pacific: I grew up beside it and have lived in and around it for five decades and its scope freaks me out every time I fly over it. I do think that Twitter is like turning your life into homework. I kind of go there every so often but it feels like a detention. It’s so interesting to see which people take to which new platforms or technologies. It’s always a surprise. And you have a thing for exo­terrestrial photography. It’s possibly the greatest wonder of our time and everyone yawns. So unfair…

CB: Yeah, I can’t believe that people don’t appreciate photos of outer space with more excitement—I mean, when you look into the sky, you’re looking back into the deep time of the past. Under such circumstances, my friend the poet Bronwyn Lea says: “your eyes are the cockpit of a time machine.”

DC: That’s great.

CB: I collect photos of nebulae (like the Veil Nebula or the Crab Nebula), some of which figure prominently in my best poem, “The Perfect Malware”—and often I lament that poets continue to write about their divorces even though a robot is currently taking pictures of orange ethane lakes on Titan. We can even gaze across a mesa on Mars, as if standing there in person—but poets just ignore access to such sublime imagery from fantastic landscapes that actually exist. I don’t know why.

DC: And Protein 13 is shocking. I want it for the house. (I collect molecules, too.) See if it’s for sale. For real. I’ll buy it. Predicting the folds of protein molecules is one of the great quests of ­mathematics.

CB: Fantastic! You’ll be the first to know when I’m finished. I’m trying to encipher a poem into the DNA of a microbe so that the cell might build this protein in response, but so far I’ve only gotten the construct to function properly in E. coli—when in fact, I’ve promised to make the thing work in an unkillable bacterium capable of surviving in outer space.

DC: I think it’s dawning on people that you can turn any document into an organism of some sort, though to what end I’m unsure—that’s why you’re figuring this out. DNA may end up being the carrier pigeon of the 21st century.

CB: Yeah, I’m striving to write a poem that resists the depredations of bit rot, I guess—but alas, I’ve still got some remaining obstacles to overcome.

DC: You and I have so many commonalities that I’m starting to wonder if we’re maybe isotopes of each other. It’s spooky. How do we not know each other? Maybe Twitter really works.

CB: Well, true, we’ve got a lot of aesthetic interests in common—touchstones like Sol LeWitt, Robert Rauschenberg, etc.—hey, even the music of Kraftwerk. Ha! And you won’t remember (because I barely do)—but we did meet very briefly at a cocktail party in Toronto sometime in the early aughts. We were both pretty tipsy at the time.

DC: I never remember anyone from parties. It’s like guaranteed amnesia. I hate crowds and parties. And I can’t eat food if there are more than four people in the room. My reptile brain turns off my hunger switch.

CB: And let me tell you that the images from your show at the Shanghai Himalaya Museum look enviable — thanks for sending them. I’m especially amazed that, on the very day after the show came down, David Bowie died — and yet your show actually included a cast of David Bowie’s face entitled “The Impossibility of Imagining David Bowie Being Dead.” Talk about an uncanny glitch in time.

 DC: I know. We were all spooked. What a horrible night that was, too. David Bowie was so important to me. . He’s the first celebrity death ever, in which I realized that a part of me went with him. In Munich, the mask goes into a vitrine and it needs to be repositioned so that it doesn’t read as a cheesy fan tribute — not that there’s anything wrong with cheesy fan tributes.

But I work with words out on the periphery of most mainstream worlds and then I discover people like you or Kenneth doing very similar things and yet we’re not close friends or even aware of each other. This strikes me as odd. In the poetry world, are you considered an outlier? I don’t think so—you’re getting awards (*cough cough*) so … I don’t know.

CB: Kenny and I have enjoyed a modicum of celebrity—atypical for most poets, especially in the avant-garde. But probably all poets see themselves as outliers in their own culture, at least to some degree. And poets, like Kenny and me, we often polarize opinion—we’re either celebrated as heroes or denigrated as frauds, depending upon the poetic biases of our audience. I’ve always wanted to broaden the appeal of avant-garde poets, because, hey, I think that we’ve got some of the coolest, funnest ideas about how to engage with the world—but alas, some of our peers, they really do suffer from toxic doses of seriousness.

DC: I’ll take your word for it about the poetry world. In art school, in the early 1980s, I had a job doing paste-up and layout in a space that was beside the now long defunct Vancouver Literary Storefront. My desk was about ten feet away from the podium, which was around a corner, and for years I got to hear three, four, five readings a night, which was a remarkable thing to have experienced. It taught me a lot about the dos and don’ts of public speaking. I respect poetry and understand its importance, but I’m not into it … the way I’m not into country and western music. I just don’t fully get it. I wonder if poetry is a brain pathology like punning or even Tourette’s or something like that.

CB: Well, you wouldn’t be the first to imagine that poets are suffering from a medical ailment.

DC: But we’re supposed to be discussing time. I’m going to add a bunch of slogans from my ongoing slogan project to serve as sourdough starters.

CB: Well, I definitely like your slogan “science fiction is now just fiction”—because for me, the term “science fiction” really does seem like a redundancy. We’re now living in the futurist visions from our childhood (living vicariously on other worlds, using machines that are only getting smarter). I’ve often said that the job of the avant-garde is to make sure that we all show up for the future on time—but what happens when the future just shows up far too early, taking you by surprise, like a driverless car, accelerating by you in the passing lane?

DC: Beautiful image!

CB: I think that most poets of the avant-garde now see themselves as survivors from the shipwreck of a time machine, burnt out in the wrong epoch without much hope of either rescue or return.

DC: Another beautiful image. I’ve always felt like my spaceship crashed and I’m stuck in this place, too. Wait! Get me out! McLuhan said that the only way to stay sane in all of this is pattern recognition: look for patterns anywhere, everywhere. You may not find any but the act of looking will keep you safe from the Maelstrom. Did you read Christopher Dewdney’s Soul of the World? It’s remarkable. Many fresh takes on time and our relation to it. And Jim Gleick has a time-travel book coming out soon, too. Time is in the air.

CB: Yes, I’ve read Soul of the World—and in fact Dewdney is one of my earliest literary mentors, inspiring a lot of my interest in the relationship between science and poetics.

DC: Uncanny.

CB: Time travel has always been my favourite narrative premise. Time travel constitutes one of the greatest artifices in storytelling, because the paradoxes of the motif thematize the “achronic” quality of temporality in fiction. A story can, of course, hop around through time (through flashback or foresight), and the book itself represents a “block universe” into which a reader can intervene at any moment in time.

DC: I had a show of paintings in Shanghai five years ago, and their theme was “messages to someone 100 years in the past or to someone 100 years in the future.” Then I got an email from my dealer saying China had just instituted a ban on creative forms that involved time travel. I thought he was joking and then he sent me a link. We put the show up anyway as the idea that painting could embrace time travel was too lateral for the government to notice. I think the big problem was the importation of ideology from, say, 1965, and blending it with 2010—the government just didn’t want to monitor writing and it was easier to ban it all. But I don’t know—it’s like banning work written in iambic pentameter. It’s silly.

CB: Most stories (especially in cinema) screw up the paradoxes of the trope, however, mostly by failing to follow all the implications of the imagined premises about time travel. My favourite movies from the genre (in order of increasing preference) include: Predestination (by Peter Spierig, et al.); Time Lapse (by Bradley King); Primer (by Shane Carruth); and Timecrimes (by Nacho Vigalondo). They’re all great nightmares.

DC: Primer was my favourite, but they slightly messed up the ending. And I got jealous they were able to film it for $10,000. They had the cheapest sets on earth: a garage and a cardboard box. Curse them.

Okay, back to work here in Germany. You’re seven and a half hours ahead of me. What’s it like in the Future?

CB: Well, in the Future, every poet will be famous for 15 megabytes. (To know the future does not mean that you can prevent it, only that you must live it more than once.) Let me finish with my favourite quote from The Time Machine by H.G. Wells: “‘Patience,’ said I to myself. ‘If you want your machine again, you must leave that sphinx alone.”