conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 22.08.2023
KALEN IWAMOTO: BRINGING THE PAGE INTO THE LITERARY ARTWORK
AI AND POETRY ON THE BLOCKCHAIN
Kalen Iwamoto is one of the co-founders of theVERSEverse, a poetry NFT gallery where poem = work of art. Together with Ana Maria Caballero and Sasha Stiles, she empowers writers creatively and financially, celebrates the rise of crypto-native poetry, and onboards acclaimed writers to Web3. As an artist and poet, she explores the intersection of art and language on the blockchain. Her work takes blockchain technology and crypto culture as its point of departure and focuses on playfulness, exploration, and experimentation to push the boundaries of the NFT medium and of conceptual writing and art.
In conversation with Anika Meier, Iwamoto discusses writing and poetry, blockchain and AI, and the dialogue between art and language.
Anika Meier: You are a conceptual writer and artist exploring the intersection of art and language on the blockchain. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Kalen Iwamoto: I've been enthralled by words from the moment I began reading. As a child, I would spend countless hours with my nose in a book, and in later years, I would linger over beautiful sentences and try to dissect the mechanics of their beauty.
But it wasn't until much later that I started exploring what kind of writer I wanted to be—not in the sense of genre, as in novelist, poet, or short story writer, but in my approach to language. Growing up between two tongues and two cultures, I had a knotty, ambivalent relationship with language; words were not as self-evident or transparent to me as they were to my monolingual cohorts. I feel more at home on the periphery of language, and when I leaned into that later as an adult, I began learning what kind of writer I wanted to be, and that turned out to be something along the lines of conceptual, minimalist, experimental artist-writer. And here, as elsewhere, my identity lives in that hyphen: I don't fully identify as one or the other, but as the movement and dialogue between the two.
Anika Meier: How did you learn about blockchain and NFTs?
KI: I first learned about the blockchain through my husband, Julien Silvano, who discovered Dogecoin in 2013. He sold all his assets long before Elon Musk's endorsement, but he was really taken with the fun, generous spirit of the Dogecoin community. Unfortunately, even though we knew the blockchain technology was important, the financial and trading aspects didn't sustain our interest for very long, and there was a long hiatus until 2020, when we discovered NFTs and the art side of things. Julien is also an artist, so we were really excited to jump back in.
AM: What did you find out when exploring the intersection of art and language?
KI: I've always worked very closely with Julien, whom I like to refer to as my partner in art and in life, and we've started what we call an art and language atelier called Wen New. The name is obviously a nod to crypto language and culture, but it's also a tongue-in-cheek reference to the rich history of art and language—not just text-based art but conceptual art and movements like Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus, and groups like Art & Language. On the literary side, there is visual and concrete poetry, Conceptualism, Oulipo, lettrism, situationists, poems like e.e. cumming's "l(a", Aram Saroyan's "lighght", bpNichol's "First screening", just to name a few. How new, really, is anything under the sun?
There are infinite ways to give form to this dialogue between art and language, so I'll just cite a few examples of the directions our explorations have taken. We've been considering the mediums and technologies we use and the concomitant changes in the way we create, write, read, and understand. Recently, we've been inspired by the way the French movement Support/Surface questioned the space of art, bringing in frames, stretchbars, and what were considered accessories and tools for the creation and presentation of art into the art itself. To translate these questions into the textual field, how might we question the literary frame? How could we bring the page, the book, and the screen into the literary artwork? How could we incorporate the frames and tools of reading and writing, and how might that raise questions about the writing and reading conventions or practises that each enables or encourages?
Anika Meier: You are one of the co-founders of theVERSEverse, a literary gallery where poems are works of art. Has your perception of poetry changed through blockchain and the possibilities of making poetry easily accessible for everyone?
KI: It's true that people in the Web3 sphere seem more receptive to poetry since they've encountered poetry NFTs. Whereas it was once experienced as this mystifying, hermetic high literary genre, they now feel like it's more approachable, and I think that's a wonderful thing. The poetry world has actually been hermetic, and barring a few isolated, niche genres and movements, it's remained mostly untouched by the technological revolution that has upended most other art forms. NFTs present us with a unique opportunity to play catch-up, to experiment with the blockchain and technology, and to take to heart the rapid, seismic changes we as a society are undergoing and be clear-eyed about how they affect literature, writing, publishing, reading, and every other aspect of our textual lives.
Personally, the blockchain has opened up new possibilities for poetry; it's a new playground where we can conceptually engage with the mechanisms, the protocols, the technology, the culture, and the language of NFTs and the blockchain.
AM: theVERSEverse explicitly states that poems are a work of art based on a quote from Ana María Caballero, an influential voice and poet in Web3. What distinguishes poems from other forms of text published as NFTs?
KI: For a long time, I resisted the label "poet". Then, Christian Bök, a brilliant poet I deeply admire and respect, offered me a definition that I could finally identify with. He told me a poet is someone with a particular attitude towards language. Someone who sees words as more than a means of communication; someone who pays attention to the way words sound, look, and feel. Someone who uses language otherwise. I think this attitude is what differentiates poetry from other forms of writing, both on and off the blockchain.
AM: Is it a difference for you whether you write a poem to be released as an NFT or in a book? Is your approach to concepts, storytelling, and communicating about them different?
KI: Yes, the medium is an important and integral part of the work. Although some of my pieces could be published traditionally without losing their conceptual integrity, others wouldn't make much sense outside of their native ecosystem. For example, one of my earlier NFTs, 12, is a poem that contains twelve words of a seed phrase. Upon purchasing the NFT, the collector received clues to find the twelve words within the poem, and the first collector to crack the seedphrase took the NFTs inside the wallet. More recently, for laCollection's Art and Currency exhibition, I created a poetry mini-series called Coining Poetry. I wrote a poem with seven Ethereum vanity addresses, and to each of the addresses, I sent 1000 $Poetry coins, ERC-20 tokens I created specially for the series. The collector receives the NFT as well as the private key to their vanity address. Each word of the poem literally contains currency of an as yet undetermined value, raising questions about not only the value of poetry but the relationship between art, poetry, and currency in the crypto art world. I think transplanting poems like these into a book takes them out of the context that gives their concept meaning and removes the elements of play, action, and transaction.
I've also been thinking of the different publication mediums as sites for exploring divergent reading practices and putting forward speculative or emergent ones. I recently wrote a play called ROMEO AND JULIAPE, an AI-human love story co-written with AI, and I wanted the reading of the play to mirror its writing in some way, so I minted each line as an NFT and published the play in its entirety as a physical book, which collectors of the NFT receive for free. The book represents the linear, progressive reading experience we're all familiar with. The NFTs, on the other hand, shatter the play into its smaller units, offering a contrasting reading experience that is nonlinear, haphazard, fragmentary, and nodal.
AM: Some writers do not enjoy the process of writing. I might be one of them. Well, it depends. (laughs) How is that for you? What does your creative process look like? I, for example, only sit down and start writing once I have a very clear idea in my mind about the text. Otherwise, I’d sit in front of my blank screens for days.
KI: I'm the same way—I usually don't start writing until I have a clear concept. There are many paths to a final concept, but more often than not, for me, it begins with a conversation with my partner, Julien. We'll brainstorm and tease out themes, building on each other's ideas. The concept is the creative bit, while the execution, or the writing itself, simply follows from the concept and is, in the words of Sol LeWitt, a "perfunctory affair".
AM: When I am writing a text in my mind, I go on long walks. And also, when I write, I tend to walk around my place a lot. When does inspiration most likely hit you?
KI: There's energy and movement in ideas and writing, so I think it makes sense that you feel the impulse to walk as you flesh out ideas. I also feel restless when ideas are roiling.
In my experience, deadlines are also very effective for conjuring the muse. Otherwise, inspiration generally hits after a period of intense research or deep reflection, and it usually comes in the course of my conversations with Julien. Sometimes, we have a fully formed idea before producing the work; other times, we'll play with visual forms, and that might spark an idea. There are also certain themes, like absence or presence, the design of imperfection, etc., that I might be preoccupied with and that want to be expressed in a specific form, in which case I'll spontaneously follow that.
AM: How important is it for you to be able to perform a poem live? Does a poem demand the presence of the voice, or even the presence of the author?
KI: To be honest, I wouldn't even know how to read some of my poems. How does one read a poem whose line emerges at the meeting point of two sets of words, like "Littor[alter]ms", the prequel poem to ROMEO AND JULIAPE? Or how might one perform a visual poem? And if the concept can't be conveyed through a traditional reading, doesn't the "meaning" of the poem get lost? In fact, conceptual writing does away with even the metaphorical voice of the writer. The writing I practice is not an expression of my deepest thoughts and feelings; it's something else—the output of an algorithmic engagement with language, the result of following a set of procedures, rules, or constraints, a typographical arrangement that plays with the materiality of letters, a collage of a pre-existing text, or any number of things—but it's usually not an expression of my subjectivity. And even if something of my subjectivity does get expressed, the meaning of the work still lies elsewhere.
AM: AI is one of your co-writers. How do you collaborate with AI?
KI: For ROMEO AND JULIAPE, the play I mentioned earlier, I wrote the lines for the human character while AI wrote the lines for the AI character, and the play is a dialogue that was issued from a prompt about an AI and human that fall in love. I curated it but didn't edit any of its lines, as I wanted to let it speak for itself, see how far it could go, and reveal its limits and imperfections.
How genuine does it feel? Can it make readers believe in its sentiency? I wanted the play to be moving, but uncanny in its poignancy. But at heart, the play is less a commentary on AI than it is an unveiling of us, humans, and our ambivalence towards AI.
AM: What has the feedback been so far on your AI collaborations? Do you have the feeling that you have to fight for acceptance once more?
KI: The feedback has generally been positive. But then again, the project didn't get a great deal of attention. If it did, I'm sure the reception would have been more mixed.
AM: What are your thoughts about nature in the age of the metaverse?
KI: I live in the countryside and am in close, daily contact with nature, so at the most mundane level, I personally experience nature as a countervailing force to my highly digital life.
At a more theoretical level, the first thing that comes to mind is how nature, historically, has acted as the Other to the human Self, and today, with the anxiety-ridden discourse around AI, how machines and technology are overwhelmingly bearing that label. And because it's hard to fathom any sort of relationship between nature and the metaverse that's unmediated by humans in some way, my main question becomes: how do we move from a relationship of control to one of collaboration in our encounter with the Other?
AM: If you could give your younger self, the struggling writer, some advice, what would that be?
KI: Their periphery is your centre. Lean into your weirdness. Have fun.