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The Young Turtle Asymmetries at WRT: Writer Response Theory




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And now for something a little less digital….

Following on the recommendation of Mary Flanagan, I recently finished reading “The Young Turtle Asymmetries,” a performance poem in five parts, composed by Jackson Mac Low and published 1970.

“The Young Turtle Asymmetries” is a layer-cake of multimedia dependence and constraint. The origin of the text is found poetry - the reprinting of a photo caption from a 1967 article in Natural History titled “100 Turtle Eggs”. That text has been placed on five cards in five visual arrangements or “asymmetries.”

Mac Low calls the method of creating those arrangement a “through-acrostic chance generation,” a process whereby a set of rules are seeded by the first word of the caption (“Young”) and driven by the letters of the text. The mode of the resulting arrangements is phonetic, with blank spaces indicating pauses and extended phonetic spellings to indicate prolonged vocalizations.

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Accompanying the five “asymmetries” is the “Introduction,” an essay providing background on the creation of the piece, instructions on interpreting the marks orally, and “Performance Parameters,” in particular instructing that the five cards must be read out loud simultaneously by five attentive performers. The ideal performance involves five readings with five recombinations of voices. The essay and cards are printed on a single sheet of 12“ x 15” paper, perforated for separation.

By way of illustration, the sheet is accompanied by an LP recording of a performance (which I haven’t heard, as the online audio is currently unavailable). Cards, essay, and LP were packaged up with 12 other items in the Fall 1970 issue of Aspen: “the multimedia magazine in a box” - which deserves discussion in its own right once I’ve had a chance to investigate the complete online archive (1965-1971).

While looking over the materials, in particular the “Introduction,” it is easy to see the strong connection between two kinds of art, one involving the formal specification of a performance (direction for performance art) and the other involving the formal specification of an interactive experience (code for software art). Of course, specification can mean many different things. Mac Low encourages variation within certain bounds - bounds he sets by requiring us to estimate the average time it takes to read a group of letters, a minimum reasonable volume to be heard, etc. Like contemporary HTML tags such as emphasis and strong (which don’t specify a point size or font treatment), Mac Low’s invocation of syncopated sheet music without score or time is intentional markup - and he asks that we make use of our sensibilities in executing this particular artistic effect.

100 Turtle Eggs, by Archie Carr, p. 51, Natural History, Vol. Lxxvi, No. 7 (Aug.-Sept. 1967: American Museum of Natural History, New York)

W. Nelson Francis in his Structure of American English (Ronald Press, New York, 1958), ch. 3: The Significant Sounds of Speech: Phonemics, pp. 119-61 (see esp. chart p. 151).

Errata: Aspen’s archive misspells “assymetries”(sic) in several places, but Jackson Mac Low seems to have spelled it correctly in the original print run.



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