Jeff T. Johnson: Letters From the Archiverse

Jeff T. Johnson: Letters From the Archiverse


LETTERS FROM THE ARCHIVERSE is an ongoing visual poem composed in architectural modeling space, using AutoCAD design software. In progress since 2008, when it was given the working title LIVE FROM THE VOID, it combines attributes and methods in concrete poetry and open-field composition with 3D image modeling capabilities. THE ARCHIVERSE explores materiality in writing and the potential for language-based visual art in an age of ready access to touch-screen mobile interfaces.

In collaboration with literary theorist Andrew Klobucar, Associate Professor of English at New Jersey Institute of Technology, I am currently developing a mobile/tablet application that gives viewers an unprecedented level of control over a screen-based compositional environment. Our goal is to develop and use new digital writing tools, and add to the growing discipline of digital poetics. Along these lines, we seek to create an open-field, interactive and compositional space that intentionally blurs all traditional lines between viewers and authors/producers to offer a site of ongoing collaboration while building a single text-based artwork. This application’s development is part of a broader investigation of compositional space and language materiality in THE ARCHIVERSE. For the OPR digital residency, I plan to further develop the visual dynamics and spacial articulation of language in THE ARCHIVERSE, and explore ways that the poem can be adapted to platforms other than those in the AutoCAD suite. The OPR residency will begin as a presentation of the current ARCHIVERSE, and will track its development, with the goal of incorporating more advanced and involved viewer interactivity as the residency progresses, so that by the end of the residency, THE ARCHIVERSE will have been transformed.

There are three principal conceptual frameworks at play in THE ARCHIVERSE: model space, paper space, and the snapshot. These correspond to and complicate different (publishing) relationships to text: composition, distribution, and exhibition.

Model space is the primary compositional space. This is where the viewer explores the poem via scrolling and panning. In the tablet application, she may also manipulate, add and delete text objects. These objects inhabit color-coded layers that correspond to architectural lineweights. Layer designations include: line (green), phrase (blue), sentence (red), word (yellow), and shadow (grey).

Paper space is a space of transition, in that it represents a collection of provisional stills from model space. The zoom level varies from still to still, and may be adjusted along with the composition and frame. Layer qualities may be customized for each still: colors may be adjusted and layers may be turned off without affecting the source composition in model space. However, adjustments in model space do affect paper space compositions. Paper space is a modifiable window to model space; that is, paper space is an adjustable frame with an array of filters.

The snapshot most recognizably behaves like a page, or the representation of a finished composition. Images from model space or paper space are captured and presented as greyscale or color PDFs. Via the snapshot, THE ARCHIVERSE is objectified in familiar, static aesthetic formats: It becomes a series of pictures, rather than a map that is also a territory.

My goal with THE ARCHIVERSE is to conflate the act of looking with the act of reading, and to cede or compromise the authorial role in the very act of exercising (or exorcising) it. The viewer is asked to collaborate on or even take over the meaning-making function of the work. She may, according to her whim, concentrate, diffuse, or altogether dispense with that function.

In public performance, Klobucar and I animate and explore THE ARCHIVERSE via projection, navigation, and sound, incorporating original music and samples with an improvisatory reading of the digital language/object environment. The visual, structural, and aural dynamics of THE ARCHIVERSE allow us to stir the text as we engage a digital poetics of interruption and process-based composition. Here we trouble the visual field of composition and disrupt hierarchies of literary production and distribution. THE ARCHIVERSE is both transmission and anti-transmission, exchange and the collapse of exchange value, representation and self-referential digital materiality—language turned up.


Jeff T. Johnson’s poetry is forthcoming or has appeared in Boston Review, 1913 a journal of forms, dandelion magazine, Slope, VOLT, and Forklift, Ohio,among other publications. Critical essays have appeared in Sink Review,The Rumpus, Coldfront, The Aviary, Poetry Project Newsletter, and elsewhere. With Claire Donato, he collaborates on SPECIAL AMERICA, a digitally mediated theoretical performance. He lives in Brooklyn, is Editor in Chief at LIT, and edits Dewclaw. He received his MFA from The New School, where he teaches part-time in the Graduate Writing Program. He also teaches at St. John’s University and College of Staten Island. He has completed three full-length poetry manuscripts, and is at work on a book of musicological poetics called Trouble Songs, as well as an ongoing visual poem composed in architectural modeling space called LETTERS FROM THE ARCHIVERSE. For more information, visit