Networking Ernst Jandl: How one DVD tries to revolutionise the way we think about literary biographies.


It’s been a while since I started blogging. Engaged in several different blogging-project, austrianresearchuk is without a doubt one of the most interesting ones I had the honour of participating in. Together with VOLLTEXT Blogbuch, the Vienna-based magazine for literary culture that I co-founded last year, austrianresearchuk is part of a great new movement exploring literature and culture in the challenging context of the Internet. As for me, I am studying literature in Vienna and Constance and occasional publish photos and poems in several German magazines.

It can hardly be doubted: Ernst Jandl is Vienna’s most famous, albeit most controversial, poet. Publishing in Austria was all but impossible for an author, who tried with all his force to transcend the jaded language of contemporary poetry. After causing a literary scandal in the magazine neue wege, Jandl had to look to Germany for help. He found it in the person of Otto Friedrich Walter, who in 1966 published Jandl’s collection Laut und Luise (Loud and Luise – a pun on the German word ‘leise’, ‘quiet’) as a bibliophile edition with a circulation of only 1000 books. The ensuing scandal ensured Jandl’s position as a leading figure of the German avant-garde and made him into one of the best selling poets in the German-speaking world.

But Jandl was always bigger than both, Austria and Germany. It was not until his stay in London that he developed his unique voice under the influence of Erich Fried and H. G. Adler, who themselves lived and worked in Great Britain. Here, he came to view language – and the human voice – not as a means to communicate but as the primary poetic material. In Die schöne Kunst des Schreibens (The Fine Art of Writing), Jandl defines his poetry to revolve around the ‘Sprechgedicht’ (‘talk-poem’), the ‘Lautgedicht’ (‘sound-poem’), everyday language and visual poetry.[1] As such many of his poems exist only partially on paper.  Bernhard Fetz and Hannes Schweiger, the curators of the exhibition, on which the DVD Ernst Jandl vernetzt is based, put it this way: ‘Jandls Texte wollen laut gelesen werden […], sie wollen gesehen werden, als visuelle Texte, als Schriftzeichnungen, als Partituren zu Hörspielen und Textcollagen.’[2] (‚Jandl’s texts want to be read out aloud […], they want to be seen as visual texts, as scriptural drawings, as the scores of radio plays and collages of texts.’) Indeed, much of his fame is owed to his skills as a performer. This poses great difficulties for any publication on the poet and the man Ernst Jandl.

The organisers of the exhibition entitled Die Ernst Jandl Show (The Ernst Jandl Show) have therefore decided to publish their catalogue as an interactive multimedia-DVD, an honourable and ambitions endeavour. The DVD is designed as a network of thematic nodes organised around 12 chapters like ‘Orte’ (‘Places’), ‘Liebe’ (‘Love’), ‘Richtung’ (‘Direction’ – a play with Jandl’s letter-substitution-poem Lichtung), or ‘Stimme’ (‘Voice’). Whenever you click on a node, all the others re-group themselves around the new centre, in a smoothly animated way, and allow you to look at the node’s content. Jumping from node to node, the readers will find their individual way on the DVD. Alternatively, the reader is presented with a classical chapter/sub-chapter-organisation at the top of the screen, giving a more systematic overview. However, this way of navigating the content is rather cumbersome and most readers will want to make use of the visually much more appealing network-design to move through the collected material, most of which has been published for the first time.

Jandl has long been known to have had an obsession with lists, an obsession that the curators seem to share. Many of the documents on display here are indeed lists, preparations for Jandl’s readings all over the world. Unfortunately the publishers have included only very few readings themselves and the readings that are included do not correlate with the preparations. The opportunity to witness the whole (reconstructed) process, from invention to editing and on to performing is therefore lost. It has to be said that contemporary copyright laws makes it indeed difficult to obtain suitable video- or audio-recordings. However, Jandl himself made it clear that he is not the sole performer of his poems but that they ought to be interpreted in different ways by different persons. And even the curators themselves stress this in their introduction to the exhibition: ‘Seine Gedichte sind Partituren, die auf ganz unterschiedliche Weise hörbar gemacht werden können’[3] (‘His poems are scores that can be made audible in a variety of ways’). Why then, one has to ask, are only Jandl’s own interpretation to be found on the DVD and not interpretations by performers like Frank Klötgen or Markus Köhle? Emphasising the interpretability of Jandl’s poetry without practicing it thus becomes a mere phrase bereft of meaning.

In general there is an observable shortage of multimedia content, which is surprising given that usually the medium DVD is solely associated with visual representations. This is, so it seems, the downside of linking a digital interactive publication with an exhibition. What works in the museum does not necessarily need to work on screen. In the museum the rental contract of Jandl’s apartment might be somehow interesting for someone living in Vienna and they might quickly glance at it before they move on to the next exhibit. On the computer screen, at the other hand, the same rental contract is given undue importance because the reader is forced to first click on the node containing, among other things, the contract’s picture and then has to click on the picture’s thumbnail to open the actual picture. Only then can they decide whether the document is indeed interesting or something to only cast a quick look at a process, which in the museum happens in the matter of moments and without conscious action on the part of the perceiver. This problem may have been avoided on a hardware platform better suited for a design like this than the production oriented environment of the personal computer: touch interfaces, like they are found on tablets, convertibles or desk-sized touchscreens. Users of those platforms have long been used to fluid designs like this one and have developed a ‘lean back and browse’-attitude more akin to strolling through an exhibition.

All that said, there is a lot of interesting material and a lot of insight to be gained from this DVD. Seldom does one get the opportunity to read Ernst Jandl’s letters to Bruno Kreisky (Austria’s president at the time and political idol, even today) asking him to support the young artist Peter Weibel (today one of the best known Austrian artists and curators). Rarely, too, is it possible to read Jandl’s other voice, a distant, polite, yet highly dogmatic voice, which he used in his poetological and political letters, manifests and speeches. In a video by the Saarländischer Rundfunk the poet can be seen answering a polemic question from the audience; his voice alive with righteous anger. Yes, Jandl was a great performer, both in poetry and in politics.

The real strength of the publication, though, is the novel way of presenting the material. In the context of the digital humanities Fregeian taxonomies have long been outdated and replaced by non-exclusive keywords. Most museum- or library-catalogues organise their content around ‘Subject Terms’ (MLA/EBSCOhost) or ‘Schlagwörter’ (BDSL). It is the overt use of this usually latent organisational structure in presenting information that is novel here. Making the network metaphor the primary conceptual framework this DVD is much better suited to convey and explore the phenomenon that is Ernst Jandl. Neither the museum box metaphor nor the timeline metaphor of the biography studies are equipped to deal with the multitude of connections between seemingly separate elements of a poet’s life. There is of course some trade-off: The network metaphor can hardly be made to appear as clear and straight forward as both, box and timeline metaphors, and sometimes the readers will find themselves lost and wanting more structure. However, as a prototype for other ‘life and work’-publications, who encounter the same problems as does this Jandl project, this venture has to be regarded a success.

It can’t be stressed enough, that, as a prototype the DVD is a success; but there is definitely room for improvement. There is, for one, the design. As you can see in the screenshot below the layout is quite beautiful. With its clean and calm dark blue background, glowing circles, neatly embedded videos, three clean, yet modern fonts and the unobtrusively present search box, Ernst Jandl vernetzt looks much better than most comparable publications in the sector of hyperfiction. However, this beauty comes at the cost of surprisingly high hardware requirements. Programmed in Adobe Flash it heats up the processor of my one-year old Macbook Pro considerably resulting in constant fan-noise and the lack of data-caching often means several seconds latency time when opening a node because the data has to be read directly from DVD. Even Adobe themselves have started slowly phasing out Adobe Flash and moving towards the more modern HTML5. This poses questions of future accessibility and sustainable archiving. Being standardised HTML5 has the benefit of being universally supported, internationally developed and, most importantly, being embedded in a controlled development cycle by the W3C that guarantees future accessibility.

It can be assumed that one of the main reasons for choosing Adobe Flash over HTML5 (or the more conventional Java) was the want for stronger copyright protection. The programmers have basically created a ‘walled garden’, a closed container of information with very restricted access.[4] However justified DRM-concerns might be especially today, this approach must appear quite anachronistic to anyone working in the digital humanities; or, in fact, to anyone having been socialised with the internet early on.

There is a lot of lost potential too, in distributing this as a purely offline medium. As a website Ernst Jandl vernetzt could have been truly ‘vernetzt’ (‘connected’). Application Programming Interfaces (API) for example allow for an extensible online-platform, both in functionality and in content. The closed nature of this publication is most unfortunate, especially since the potential audience for this project is immense due to the importance and international reach of Ernst Jandl.

This of course raises the question, who this DVD actually is intended for, and what its purpose is, apart from its formal experimentation. Clearly, neither scholars nor students of literature are the intended audience of this publication but also the general reader seems an unlikely target. The publishers themselves don’t seem to have a clear notion of what it actually is. In the help-file to the DVD the makers call it an offer to readers to indulge in the fascinating cosmos or Ernst Jandl, a biographical collection of some (not all!) apects of Jandl’s life and works with material that has not previously been accessible to the public. However, they stress, it is neither an exhaustive biography, nor a survey of secondary literature, nor a substitution for reading Ernst Jandl’s published texts. While it becomes quite clear, what the DVD is not, what it is remains obscure.

[1] Jandl, Ernst: „Die schöne Kunst des Schreibens.“ Darmstadt: Luchterhand 1976, p. 19-23.

[2] Fetz, Bernhard, Hannes Schweiger: „Zur Ausstellung.“ Die Ernst Jandl Show. Ed. Bernhard Fetz, Hannes Schweiger. Wien: Residenz 2010, p. 10.

[3] Fetz/Schweiger, p. 11.

[4] ‘More generally, a “walled garden” refers to a closed or exclusive set of information services provided for users. This is in contrast to giving consumers unrestricted access to applications and content. Similar to a “real” walled garden, a user in a walled garden is unable to escape this area unless it is through the designated entry/exit points or the walled garden is removed.’ <> (accessed 2012-05.09).


Comments RSS
  1. Geoff Howes


    I finally found time to read your review of the Jandl DVD. It is very interesting, both in its information about the project and in its consideration of the technical possibilities for presenting life and work. As I read it, I thought of your reflection regarding translations: that each one is a rendition of a “score”, a “Partitur”, and that it would be useful and interesting to bring various translations together. This of course is made much more possible through online publication than through traditional print. It might be one of the possible projects for the austrianresearchuk blog: to present side-by-side multiple translations of the same texts.


    • Martin Prechelmacher

      Hello Geoff,

      thank you for your reply! I never really thought about translations as interpretations of a composition but it does make a lot of sense. Just like such interpretations can (or often have to) focus on one particular aspect of the original composition translations can often only convey parts of a given text accurately. And just like going to the concert hall and hearing a new interpretation focusing on an aspect that you haven’t been aware of so far makes you aware of the immense beauty of music, reading a different translation might do the same.
      The be honest, your reply made me want to translate Artmann myself, just to see what I would produce. But of course, I would never be able to translate him in a way that I’d be even remotely happy with.
      So again: I am amazed at how accurately you have translated Artmann…


    • IBC London


      Thanks for your comments! Could you elaborate on your idea of the side-by-side multiple translations for this blog? Right now, publishing translations in the current format only seems to be possible as threads….but I might be wrong.


      • Martin Prechelmacher


        in general it is true that standard-wordpress is not well suited for side-by-side translations. There’s two alternatives I can think of right now (and given the technical limitations). a) you can use HTML-columns for actual side-by-side-translations or b) you can use anchor-links to link verses that differ or insert footnotes. however, the latter is not as good in terms of usability and slightly cumbersome to create (
        Of course, if one is to collaborate on the blog (and not publish already collaborative work), threaded comments seem to be most appropriate at the moment.


      • IBC London

        Many thanks for your comment, indeed! I am intrigued bt the idea of generating a discussion about a blog’s potential to depict translations in progress as well as to present results in an innovative, side-by-side form.
        I agree that, for now, threaded discussions fulfill the purpose to bring the working process to the fore-front. Surely it will be sensible to look into the other options you mentioned, in order to explore the potential of this medium.
        In the meantime, let’s see what happens here in terms of practical translation and its meta-discourse.


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