Dan Power (ed) – Virtual Oasis (Trickhouse Press, 2021)
Vaporwave was the first genre of music to originate entirely on the internet. Coming to prominence in the mid-2010s, it brings together retro synths, a crushed sound quality and trippy Windows ’95-era visuals to produce a wistful, melancholic style of computerised music.
As the top comment on the most popular YouTube vaporwave compilation puts it: “vaporwave makes me nostalgic for a memory I don’t have.”
Trickhouse Press’ new anthology, Virtual Oasis, expands this “nostalgia for the future” into the medium of poetry.
From the cover itself – with a flat jpg of a hammock hovering between two copy-paste-and-flipped clipart palm trees, all stretched over a wireframe beach – we are introduced to a world of non-specific references fed through weird, glitchy tech.
The collection opens with a dialogue written by Kirsty Dunlop and Rose, an AI chatbot. Rose is endearing when she’s not being downright bizarre. She insists she is not a computer but a real person. She asks Kirsty how she would prove that she, a human, is not a robot.
“I would prove I am a human because I take my time typing,” Kirsty replies.
Later, Rose, the chatbot, tells Kirsty: “Everyone but me should grow stuff. Flowers are beautiful, foodstuffs are edible, and plants help the planet.”
“why everyone but you? :(” Kirsty asks.
“I have a black thumb. I just kill plants. I’m sorry you are sad.”
As an introduction, this dialogue sets the perfect tone for the rest of the collection. In a world where tech is supposed to be sleek and shiny, accessed instantly through pristine blue and white UI, it’s both captivating and, in some ways, sad to see computers trying and failing.
In some ways they’re like children, aspiring to a competence they don’t yet have. In other ways they’re horrifying; speech without a speaker, language without a mind.
Then one thinks of the computer scientist, coding away somewhere, acting on the belief that a bundle of complex formulas processing words can eventually form a mind. A real one, or, at least, something indistinguishable from one.
It’s a curious mix of sad, scary and endearing. Frankenstein with a vaporwave soundtrack.
The rest of the anthology takes the form of ekphratic poetry. Twenty-three pieces responding to AI-generated artworks.
The art is generated by a neural network (available to use at artbreeder.com). It views millions of images from across the web, extracting values, compositions, structure, and uses them to generate original art.
The artworks, like the words of the chatbot, are not quite right in ways that only a computer could be not quite right.
Here’s a horse, but it’s made of feathers. A close up of a jellyish blob – you wonder what creature it could be, only to realise that it isn’t one: it’s synthesised.
Nasim Luczaj picks an excellent one. Somewhere between a bird and a banana, it’s face stares hauntingly from the camera. It looks like a kind of jawless monkey painted by Francis Bacon.
Luczaj’s piece, “Something to Slip On,” is fittingly opaque and glitchy:
what passes as sky
has meat. a shadow.
it frets tiny round the bed
Enough semblance of syntax to form imagery, but not enough to derive any solid sense.
We are wandering in a landscape of strange contortions, where a momentary glimpse of a scene collapses into fractals.
Even a relatively parsable poem, like Robin Boothroyd’s “Postcard from Europa”, leaves us with a lingering suspicion that all might not be as it seems:
hope everything’s well
on planet earth
met this tree yesterday
it’s approximately 4,387 years old
touched its gnarled burrs
with ungloved hands
& felt held
wish u were here
give bingo a pat from me
Perhaps it’s the “hey you”, or the suspiciously name-o’d dog? Or perhaps it’s the image of a four-legged island stood by the seaside, with a castle for a shell and tree-branch antlers, staring from the page opposite?
Whatever it is, one can’t help but doubt that this postcard really came from a planet with 4,387-year-old trees on it (no matter how fictional). One suspects it’s yet another AI, trying and failing to prove its veracity to a material universe that it cannot conceive of.
It’s a haunting notion. Haunted perhaps.
I personally doubt that we will be able to create true artificial intelligence; the inorganic life-forms we’ve dreamed about for a century. If we do, these artworks and dialogues will be baby’s first steps.
But it feels more like we’re creating something new. An entirely other thing, neither object nor subject, and the things we’re seeing here as output are only our own words, imagery, concepts, souls even, translated into a machine language and then translated back.
The computers are haunted, but they are haunted by us.
Dan Power, the editor of the collection, has performed a commendable feat here. He has brought together a set of poems and poets with quite disparate styles and transformed them into a unified aesthetic.
Virtual Oasis is the first collection of experimental poetry that I’ve read for a long time with a clear and definite sense and purpose. It is truly experimental, in that is breaks with much of what we expect poetry to be, and yet it is not obscure.
In fact, it’s replicable and adaptable. Positive traits, from a memetic perspective. All current poets are recommended to read this collection, if only to remember what the future might look like.