:: Article

Fabricated Terrains

By Victoria Nebolsin.

Ed Steck, An Interface for a Fractal Landscape (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019)

The machine is an exercise in ceremonial power. Whether that machine be the incantatory use of language or a daily object which spurs ritualistic reliance, the point remains the same: when the self mixes with the object, repetition breeds narrative meaning. Blaise Pascal first expressed this idea in 1670, though it’s difficult to say if he could predict the extent to which the machine and the self would become entwined. The curation of a social media persona, the embodied thrill of virtual reality, and the extension of the mind through the smartphone—all these provide a new dimension to the relationship between personal narrative and mechanized matter. On the other hand, there also exists an automation so indulgent that the pendulum swings in the opposite direction. Repeat a word enough times, it starts to sound absurd, otherworldly—it oscillates back into raw sensation. Too much association with the digital object produces a similar effect. Seeing one’s persona in the social media realm can be akin to a startled infant recognizing its reflection. You know that it’s you, but who that you belongs to is nebulous at best.

An Interface for a Fractal Landscape is both the title and the central machine in Ed Steck’s new book of poetry. “A fractal landscape is composed of an infinite arrangement of triangles forming a recursive spiraling loop” is the first line, reflecting the vivid yet vexing terrain of the litany which follows. The landscape itself is a result of a post-Anthropocene world where the physical has deteriorated, leaving behind an abundant repository of human memory. Memory then becomes the source of tactile information as the interface unfurls its virtual reconstruction of organic life. The resulting nature is squishy, lithe, yet detached. It is a squishiness that is somehow plangent, where one steps in the mud to find an echo closer to walking on linoleum. As the narrator (what the interface names a “user”) directs these conjectures at what’s earthly, the virtual machine leeches off lived moments in looped constructions of the natural. Ultimately, the landscape becomes too populated, too turgid with user perceptions, and it begins to glitch. It is in these glitches that absurdity firmly takes hold of the reader with a hypnagogic grip and thickens the atmosphere.

The bulk of Steck’s book revolves around a long-form poem from the user’s perspective, a strikingly extraneous yet involved point of view. He emphasizes the effect of watching oneself watch oneself:

The materialization process what swift albeit somewhat jarring: the feel of a third  perspective forming over my body as the visual sensory input was silenced caused some self-disambiguation and landscape disorientation.

This third perspective permeates the poetry with an incantatory cadence, the sentences continuously beginning with “I see my body” or “I watch.”  “I see my body lag”; “I see my body shape”; “I watch variations of my perspective and body multiply and decay in rapid motion”; “I watch inorganic networks consume my body”—all sensations are both lived and enacted through a mechanized avatar. There is no space for immediacy as there is not only a lag in the body, but a lag in the conscious mind, which raptly trails behind the fabrications of the machine. The narrator can only witness the cyclical nature of the interface as it mines memory for a “procedurally generated objectivity defined by user experience,” and as the body shapes again and again, a sentiment of unified design, a narrative, arises. A ceremony of programmed re-creation births a poetry of Proustian reflection. Involuntary memory drives the interface’s fabrication of virtual reality in much the same way that the madeleine drives the writer to fabricate literary reality, much the same way our own obfuscated recollections pave the future with the potential of narrative. The machine hums forward, the user lags behind, and the rest is enveloped in turbid nascency.

From the relationship between interface and user springs a malleable atmosphere where the line between self and the surrounding foliage begins to blur, become elastic. “I continue breathing like grass,” Steck writes and the swift movement of blades in the wind enters the mind as a pulmonary rhythm. The body and the fractal landscape blend physiologies, allowing a tactile emphasis so rich that one is swallowed by its sensations. What further deepens the palpable absurdity of the user’s reality are the glitches resulting from over-indulgent repetition—the devolving into irrationality.  When the artificial machine confronts the unpredictable souvenirs of the organic, the design is not always flawless. The user steps into a menagerie of unsettling, consuming landmarks—mixtures of the fluid and the idle. “River water textures generate movement in stunted progression” and one watches as what is otherwise serous become a source of fractured spurts. There are the arresting images of an “ice bog,” the dissonance of a humid, spongy muck that’s somehow gelidly compact; the “moon grass,” a verdant vegetation placed in the context of an ashen, amorphous space desert; and the “butter marsh” which lards that same spongy muck with the gooey byproduct of an animal. The uncanny combinations jar and perturb, though in the fractal landscape it is simply what is.

Though much of the book centers upon poetry from the user perspective, there are the added images of pixelated shapes—snippets of what digitized nature could look like. Full pages revel in the “visual” manifestation of varying organic lifeforms, showing elements such as hollow mountains depicted with sharp, congruous patterns. The contrast between biological concept and rigid geometry glares out from the ink—a turtle appears as an image of a bark-like imprint, a dotted circle cutting through the edge. The texture might bring to mind the mottled, pitted shell of this languid animal…or it might not. Your guess is as good as the interface’s. In the margins, similar images occur sporadically alongside floods of organic “key terms” and the lulling repetition of the phrase “dreamless I slept without time passing” bolsters a sense of remote reverie. In the end, pages of glossolalic computer-speak further embed the creeping aura of disjunction.

Despite the rich imagery, it is this disjunction of language which enhances a sense of alienation and can make the book difficult to engage with. The poetic experience, stripped of all metaphors and thrust into line-by-line dictations of each movement, creates a rift where one is hyper-aware of the act of reading. Or, on the contrary, in pages of coded (literally) language, eyes blur before the sea of randomized numbers, letters, symbols, and key terms. In either case, the solitude is infectious, though if one can accept it, the deepening of the rift only bolsters the very essence of what it means to create. Steck writes “I sit with organic life in a virtual cave”—a stirring image of holding one’s own perceptions in a state of fabricated isolation. Fabricated because any medium of communication can only artificially contain the ineffable. Initially, the stark, digitized words of Interface fully retain this steely quality, but with each repetition, the machine begins to hum with more and more momentum. As the landscape becomes turgid with the souvenirs of users, the ensuing friction between subject and object sparks a narrative, however glitchy. It is artificial but it gains its own vitality if one lets it.

An Interface brings to mind the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, which use the cinematic machine to draw the viewer back to the senses through an accumulating fog of discordant nature. The fractal landscape conjures up the Zone in Stalker—a banned territory where flowers have no smell and water reverberates with a sound too remote to be sincere. All senses become confused yet emphasized. One has a similar feeling of being plunged into grounded yet obfuscated sensation, where the landscape takes control and its inhabitants can only follow. Frederic Jameson has responded to this autonomous nature by highlighting a “deepest contradiction” that is “offered by a valorization of nature without human technology achieved by the highest technology of the photographic apparatus itself.” The concern is poignant, though what if that nature becomes an extension of human technology itself? Then you get An Interface for a Fractal Landscape and the question becomes more complicated.

Another collector of the senses, photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue has asked the question, “when will they invent a machine to know who I am?” He sought to answer this through the use of the camera and visual documentation, though now we know that the repeated return to a photo builds a nostalgia which morphs that “I” in each instance of looking. Ed Steck’s machine—both the interface and the language itself—attempts to be an answer to that question through the patterned excavation of memory. Not only in terms of the self, but the entire landscape around it. In the interface, repetition simultaneously creates and recollects perception and the glitches are no less anomalous than the rampant absurdity of living which can strike at any moment.  Who is to say that life in the fractal landscape is less real than the fabricated narratives one resides in on a day-to-day basis? As Steck puts it, “User-memory understands object only by association…Navigating generated terrain is existence.”


Victoria Nebolsin
is from North Carolina and she often reads and writes about books.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 8th, 2019.