from Threshold

by and

Two installation shots from Allison Urban's recent installation Threshold1 are particularly relevant to vis-à-vis its concern with code poetry and literary aleatoricism. Originally, the editors intended the former phrase to refer to works of Perl Poetry and the like -- that is, modern programming code -- but Urban challenges us to expand the concept to include telegraphic communication and, as concerns the two installation shots selected below, combine it -- momentarily, at least -- with aleatoricism.

By her own admission, Urban plays with various forms of found language and asemic text in Threshold:

I wanted to explore opposing epochs in human evolution, past and future, using architecture and asemic text to create an environment that at once feels archaic and futuristic. Drawing aesthetic reference from universally emergent patterns in our geological, biological and computational histories, I tried to craft a structure that connects our earliest days as cave dwellers and the future worlds of utopian science fiction.

In Threshold, lines of light emanate from a hidden source and wash onto the installation room walls, amplifying the geometric aesthetic of the two main structural components positioned on either side. The negative space between the structural components implies a pathway, heightening the viewer's natural inclination to investigate the source of the light. I tried to use this inclination to send the viewer on an exploratory arc, ending with a revelation of the light's source as esoteric patterns.

Although written in an impenetrable language of light patterns, the series of backlit inscriptions seem to suggest an embedded communication system. In this way, I wanted to invite viewers to re-evaluate humanity's communicative origins, as if our early history was re-mediated through technology.

While this accidental light language may be more or less impenetrable semantically, it serves as the installation's most powerful conceit by concretizing Urban's concerns with technology, nature, language, and mankind's relationship to each.

In the two installation shots (and their details) below, we see what appear to be strands of chromosomal data in some late stage of cell division or even -- less organic but in keeping with Urban's preoccupation with language and technology -- computer punch card patterns or lines of Morse code.

If one reads them as Morse code, orienting the lines counterclockwise, s/he finds a number of different abstract Morse messages:

  • OA / C / M
  • OA / NN / M

The possibilities and permeations of possibilities are numerous, especially when one orients the light "paragraphs" clockwise and reads them that way as well.

Trying to force these "longs and shorts" to reveal purely semantic, or even acronymic, messages would miss the point. Urban's light patterns function more like cosmic pulsars -- which were themselves originally interpreted as sentient messages -- than millitary communiqué. Instead, Threshold allows us to engage with a complex style of nature-speak that, when transliterated into Morse code, becomes reminiscent of the letter chains used to represent DNA, enzymes, nucleotides, peptides, amino acids, and other organic molecules. Transliterating Urban's asemic light words in this way, therefore, suggests how complexly layered the installation's various metaphors are and reinforces its essential themes and concerns with organicism, technology, and found language.

At its core, Threshold adroitly and intricately articulates nature's "found" language: an asemic tongue organized around the sorts of complex rhythms and patterns common to the various discourses of Chaos theory. That these textual forms fail to communicate semantic meaning to us reveals less about the essential entropy of nature and more about humanity's communicational limitations.

Editor's Note

All quotes from Allison Urban were collected by Q.M. via email.

  1. Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (University of Washington, Seattle, USA), June 2009. The exhibition website can be found here: (7 December 2009. "DXARTS 2009 BFA Show | June 11-17 |", n.d.)

Citation: Urban, Allison and Quimby Melton. 8 December 2012. "from Threshold." (accessed [PST / -7:00]).

Updated: December 8, 2012 at 1:26 am (PST / -7:00)

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