Moheb Soliman’s “Ilk”, by Billy Mullaney

Performed as part of Kevin Obsatz’s showcase Art/Road/Movie at the Bryant-Lake Bowl on June 4th & 5th

Exactly halfway through his performance Moheb recited a complete URL, asking the listener to “Meet [him]” at a precise location on Google Maps, which wasn’t but could have been:

https://www.google.com/maps/place/4630+Cottonwood+Ln+N/@45.039288,-93.424567,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m2!3m1!1s0x52b33619253f1465:0x39768a40437f8309?hl=en

It was incredible.

What made the URL recitation so compelling is how deeply it contrasted with the rest of Moheb’s language, and how this shift asked us to listen differently. Contextually–intellectually–it makes sense, one of many repetitions of the imperative to “meet me…” but linguistically it’s wildly incongruous with the rest of the piece.

Moheb self-defines as a poet, which is a pretty big deal. In addition to this performance, I saw him perform a half evening of his poetry as part of Naked Stages at Pillsbury House Theater. Moheb doesn’t deliver his text in a conventional poet-voice cadence, nor does he isolate his words by standing stock-still center stage at a poet-mic. I’ve only heard him deliver his poetry in theatrical or performance art contexts, nestled into an installation, with accompanying movement and/or performative tasks. The effect of Moheb’s sparse, recombinant rhyme, delivered conversationally while performing simple gestures and tasks, is wavelike, washing over the audience, piquing interest with an odd turn of phrase here or a slant rhyme there.

The URL represented a tremendous linguistic shift from the casually-spoken, meticulously-constructed first half of the poem. Simply Ctrl+C/Ctrl+V’d into the middle, the string of digits and letters doesn’t pretend it can make sense to us or was constructed for aesthetics. It’s language of a completely different “ilk” to what has come before. We’re put on hold, and as soon as we hear “https://” we know it’ll be for a while.

Yet it’s still in the space of poetry–and especially so since Moheb has attenuated our ears to the ebbs and flows of his language. Call something poetry–a URL, a locker combo, the back of a cereal box, etc–and I’ll consume it differently, hold it in my mouth longer, make meaning and pay attention to aesthetics.

What changes when this extra-poetic language is consumed as “poetry”? This appropriative impulse is an old exercise surely, and one similar to looking out your window at movement “as choreography” or any household object “as visual art”. These brief readymades are exciting reminders of how surrounded we are by overlooked aesthetics, both intentional and not, begging to be pointed at.

Conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith, who for better or worse has emerged as a leading figure in poetic practices surrounding internet-assisted and -inspired appropriation, describes his practice as “uncreative writing”, “the act of pushing language around”:

“[There are] moments of unanticipated beauty, some grammatical, others structural, many philosophical: The wonderful rhythms of repetition, the spectacle of the mundane reframed as literature…this writing delivers emotion obliquely and unpredictably, with sentiments expressed as a result of the writing process rather than by authorial intention.”

There is definitely a spectacle behind the mundane act of reading a URL, reframing it as literature. Reciting a string of effectively-random characters is impressive (Moheb performed blindfolded), and gives space to consider the complexities of a code that powers our information and communication systems and structures our lives from the top-left corner of our browsers. Instead of speaking about the URL, he’s speaking the URL–he’s not spelling it out for us, he’s letting the language do the talking.

Goldsmith again:

“What we take to be graphics, sounds, and motion in our screen world is merely a thin skin under which resides miles and miles of language. Occasionally…the skin is punctured and, like getting a glimpse under the hood, we see that our digital world–our images, our film and video, our sound…is comprised of language, miles and miles of alphanumeric code.”

Does this alphanumeric code have literary value? Words by definition are constructed to communicate sense–so what happens when sense is not foregrounded as being of primary importance? When Moheb lets the language do the talking, what does it say?

It took about a minute and a half to intone every backslash and alphanumeric character. I could feel every second unfolding as a Borgesian gesture towards infinity. On the scale of information complexity, the specificity of Moheb’s proposed location literally grew exponentially with each uttered digit and letter, a gesture beautifully equating time to space in that the longer the URL stretched, the more vast became the space he described, and the greater danger of getting it wrong. Briefly the language became sculptural, indicating how a single alphanumeric character’s difference or absence in the URL would bring him to a completely different location, both on the internet and on the globe.

It struck me that URL code, though entirely incomprehensible, is simply a different vocabulary to describe a place–theoretically as arbitrary as any other name for a location. Significantly more precise yet wholly less descriptive than any of his other descriptions of places to “meet” him.

We’re not expected to understand the informational implication of every digit, care about it, or even remember it. Moheb’s gesture doesn’t require 100% comprehension or engagement. What we get is the materiality of his delivery: The sound and the time and the space, and through the semantic connection to information and location, the impossibility of actually meeting him where he wants us.

This is totally my jam: After attenuating our ears to his poetic voice, Moheb seismically shifted the landscape of his performance by employing a fundamentally different approach to language mid-poem. Pasting the URL into the space of poetry took advantage of a more conventional efficacy to the form of poetry, ready to make meaning out of what is put in frame. Faced with indecipherable text, we started listening differently, forgot about the sense language carries, and started engaging with its materiality. That moment was a beautiful example of the ground that can be gained when form shifts, content shuts up and structure does the talking.

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