[Portrait] Jean-Pierre Balpe, inventor of literature

If new forms of writing, especially those that bring together literature and computer programming, have developed over the past years, it's above all thanks to pioneers like Jean-Pierre Balpe. The poet, writer, teacher1 and researcher has never ceased to create hypermedia connections that highlight the intersections between artistic practice and technological discourse. As far as writing is concerned, he has linked the concepts of automatic text generation inherited from the surrealists and a widespread contemporary digital tool.

In the mid-1970s, while he was teaching at a training center for technical professors, Balpe "realized the potential of programming for literature, both in research and creative writing." "Since then," he continues, "through more or less complex installations, I have been exploring the relationship between literature and technology, delegating direct applications to specialized technicians or to artists more competent than myself in this field, but always on the same wavelength."

Trajectoires, Jean-Pierre balpe, 2000.

For despite his technological explorations since that time, Balpe considers himself to be first and foremost a writer. "It was impossible to avoid technology, which naturally goes with computers," he says. "And in the beginning, I programmed everything myself using various old programming languages (APL, Nial, Basic, Smalltalk, Applesoft, etc). But without a writer, there is no writing, even on a computer."

Balpe made his first forays into poetic writing in the 1960s, already with clearly defined ideas, especially in terms of publishing. "I had a life before computers, and it was the normal life of a writer who was concerned with inventing literature. Poetry was open ground for that, and I continued to write it, for several often 'experimental' magazines that are now gone [Ed: such as Action Poétique, voluntarily ceased in 2012, of which he was the general secretary from 1974 to 2010]. But I never really tried to publish—first, because I didn't want to depend on a publisher's conceptions, and second, because for a while now, I've believed that books are at a dead end when it comes to invention." As such, finding publishers as creative as he is quickly became a challenge.

"The rare publishers that I've worked with, La Toile or Histoires Ordinaires, are pioneers in this field: publishing-on-demand and e-books. For the past several years, I have decided to be my own publisher without relying on cumbersome traditional publishing: mail-novels, blogs, Facebook avatars, installations, magazines on disks, etc. I'm interested in any technique that allows me to tackle something other than book literature, and by extension to push boundaries. Labels like short story, novel, poem, etc, no longer correspond to what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to invent a literature of the ephemeral, of mobility, of the moment, of variation…"

Screen capture from Labylogue, installation by Maurice Benayoun, generative texts by Jean-Pierre Balpe, sound by Jean-Baptiste Barrière, 2000.

Poetic and generative writing

Balpe's technical approach to his works always finds a subtle resonance in the poetic origins of his relationship to writing. "Poetry is a formidable space for linguistic freedom that has wonderfully revealed the deepest mechanisms of language, especially probing the concept of brevity. In this sense, it has always interested me. But there are also technical considerations: a screen is not meant to display hundreds of pages for linear reading, and what we call 'poetry' better fits the space inside the screen.

Similarly, installations require relatively short, immediate, evanescent texts, and no longer support continuous length—unless they are programmed to play with continuous length, as I would like to do with my installation project L’Esprit Humain. More and more, I work on generative texts bordering several genres and obeying new structures, as in some of my blogs: theater-novel, poetry-theater, novel-novel, etc. To speak of poetry is, in a very primitive sense, to speak of systematically exploring the resources of language and relationships with languages."

Métapolis by Jean-Pierre Balpe, Miguel Chevalier, Jacopo Baboni-Schilingi, Monterrey (Mexico), 2000.

This concept of generative texts is fundamental to Balpe's creative and research work, even if he believes that "there is no 'generative art', only artworks that use generativity to varying degrees." After beginning to work on software for automatic, poetic and interactive writing in the 1980s, he later put his efforts toward creating true multimedia artworks, in connection with the growing technological developments of the time. There was the digital magazine Kaos, followed by online generative and interactive novels with Trajectoires in 2000, then the famous literary automatic generators, often presented in the form of installations such as Babel Poésie, an automatic generator of multilingual poetry conceived for Berlin's p0es1e festival in 2004.

His main essays—Littérature Numérique, Contraintes et Ouvertures de L’Ecran (Du Stylo à l’Ordinateur ou du Livre à L’Ecran), published in 2004, or Contextes de l’Art Numérique, published in 2000—recontextualize his work within the evolution of technological tools. "THE key moment was discovering computer science and the micro-computer in the 1970s—I was fortunate to own a MBC Alcyane in 1975—as well as being exposed to algorithmic languages. In other words, I discovered that any mundane function could be translated into algorithms, including natural languages. What followed was simply a succession of discoveries owing to technological progress through computers: image, video and sound processing, Internet, social networks.

I've always tried to see how these technologies, as seen on my multiple blogs, Arte Radio and YouTube channels, or my numerous avatars in social networks, especially Facebook, could contribute to a literature of our time. So I'm particularly eager to finish the automatic generation software that I'm currently developing with Digitalarti, so that I can finally work directly on the full range of possibilities offered by the Internet."

New literary playgrounds

Herbarius 2059 by Miguel Chevalier, generative texts Jean-Pierre Balpe, software cyrille Henry.

Unsurprisingly, the Web has become one of Balpe's favorite playgrounds, most notably with the online hyperfiction project that he has been maintaining since 2006 on his blog and about 20 other websites: La Disparition du Général Proust"It baffles me that most of the blogs said to be 'literary' merely use this medium as a means for self-publishing, without really exploring what makes it so specific: screen size, multimedia potential, and especially the possibility of creating hierarchically linked networks.

La Disparition du Général Proust is a permanent work-in-progress that blends groups of narratives, generative or not, which criss-cross and link to each other in various ways, each with its own structure yet linked to a group structure that oversees them all. This is why I called it hyperfiction. It's impossible to read this work in a conventional way, you have to wander around it, accept to switch from one story to another, from a blog to a Facebook page. It manipulates data flows in such a way that you can only catch glimpses of moments."

Another insight into Balpe's approach is through his multiple collaborations, especially with younger artists  also working on automatic writing and generative art, such as Miguel Chevalier (the installation Herbier Numérique, among others) or Grégory Chatonsky (with the project for an imaginary and generative rock group, Capture). "Miguel sought me out after reading about my work in Libération. He was interested in the possibilities of automatic text generation, so we started thinking about various projects together. I am still working with Grégory on Capture and on a drama generator, based on the idea of a theater without actors."

Future projects are hardly lacking. "I have in my personal catalogue a good hundred works that I would like to realize, but perhaps they are destined to remain conceptual art. Building a project requires money, time, energy, and I don't have the same drive to persuade others as I did 40 years ago. The field open to generative practices is immense."

Meanwhile, Balpe continues to be just as involved in reflections about electronic literature through initiatives such as Chercher Le Texte, held in Paris across several venues (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Bibliothèque publique d’information of Centre Pompidou, the Cube-centre for digital art). "More and more of this literature exists, but it doesn't have access to adequate institutions  in the sense that these book institutions are not designed for it and are not even interested, especially economically. E-books are good examples of this, because they were designed above all as books, while most electronic literary artworks are more informed by video games. As a result, many e-book publishers simply publish on the screen works that were destined for paper. This will not advance the field. My position is—has always been—laissez-faire. A change this important takes time, and when such works are necessary, they know how to find their media and their supporters. You don't stop art in motion."

Laurent Catala

1. From 1990 to 2005, Jean-Pierre Balpe was a professor at Paris VIII University, where he directed the hypermedia department. He also co-founded CITU (Création Interactive Transdisciplinaire Universitaire) with Maurice Benayoun. His approach to teaching goes beyond conventional principles. "Traditional education plays only a marginal role when it comes to public awareness. What advances this acculturation is confronting artworks, being exposed to artworks as well as to social or technological trends. In this way, Google does more for fragmented reading, the moment and mobility than any other lesson on the subject. So as a teacher, my contribution has been to show how to create new works, how to open your eyes, how to change your habits, how to translate our relationship with the world with the expressive tools of our time rather than the tools of the past."

* Picture at top of article : Extract from JP Balpe's photo album, Hyperfiction "La disparition du général proust", 2010.

Some artworks by Jean-Pierre balpe:

Fukushima, 2012.

Rockpoème n° 229436, 2012