(REVIEW) Automatic Souls, by Andrew Brenza

In this review, Dan Power explores the glitching ontologies, delusional signifiers and enmeshed architectures of Automatic Souls (Timglaset Books 2020), Andrew Brenza’s book of visual poems for the decade ahead.


> Reading Andrew Brenza’s Automatic Souls is a delirious experience, drawing you into a dystopian faux-reality where minds and machines meld into each other, where stick figures are embedded in networks of circuitry, where people must choose between contorting themselves to work in harmony with their world, or break free and disfigure themselves in the process. These vispoems create a world which operates on its own terms. They develop their own signifiers, communicating by replicating and corrupting their own patterns. Circle-headed figures have more distorted, squiggly, organic bodies, painfully contorted to fit in with their programmed environments. Those with square heads behave more mechanically, get attuned to their circuitry, often so inseparable from the floor-plans/circuit boards/tangles of wires intersecting their bodies that they lose any personal identity. They plug into the machine, giving up their freedom to become part of it.


> There is an architectural simplicity to these poems. Some resemble floor plans, where every wall can be traced back to a humanoid figure whose arms stretch and snap to form a structure which encases themselves. Their whole environment is structured and inseparable from their bodies – they can no sooner escape their programmed world than their mind or soul can escape their physical bodies. There is “a web of veins in everything”. Webs are intrinsic to both artificial and non-artificial life – think veins carrying blood or wires funnelling electrons, neural networks and mycorrhiza pinging chemical data through all their various branches – and the figures in these poems surrender themselves to the web in order to survive. One poem has many people sharing heads, laid out in a grid pattern, like a chain-link fence. The caption, “a briar-work / of brutality”, making explicit that this mechanical conformity is nothing to celebrate. Those who refuse or who are unable to change their programming, to swap individual identity and volition for security, find themselves in hot water. One early poem shows the danger of non-conformity by having a figure exceed the limits of their symmetrical frame. They are not integrated with their environment – no walls or wires flow through their body – and they are left broken and useless. They sit on the bottom of the frame with arms undulating against a backdrop of parallel lines, their legs flailing into the blank space below. The visual discord between order and disorder is tied to a tension between conformity and freedom. The figure is disconnected from their world, they are not programmed in the right way, and so find themselves falling out of it.


> These unfortunate rebels are the heart of the collection, and the poems often play with size and scale to make their vulnerability stand out. The plugged-in figures, almost mass-produced in their exact mirroring of each other, tower over those who are mis-shapen, non-conforming, to show their uniqueness is incompatible with the mathematically uniformity of their surroundings. As Barthes might say (this one’s for the theory crowd), the misfits are a living punctum in these visual poems, piercing through the oppressively identical and mass-produced studium of the collection’s fully-networked hell. They are radically free agents – their souls are souls – and they are tentatively breaking through the solid structures of their environments. In a pre-ordained, fully networked and computed world, a soul allows these people to act freely. In this way the soul becomes a glitch, pushing against the “atomic mimicry” of the machine.

           saying I too pond carp            barrel rust I too           ripples of mid-                                    day faces I too                         am like that

> Captions like this sit under most of the poems. The language is hesitant, broken, the expression stifled. A disembodied voice strains through some field of mechanical conformity, struggling to formulate itself from the debris of circuitry and data. One reads “let asymmetry protect us”, but from what? The horror realising our souls are nothing more than machinery? The collection opens with a quote from Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”, the bleakness and absurd contradiction of which perfectly encapsulating the predicament facing these poor souls – they have no volition, no choice but to following their programming. When these stickmen resemble circuitry their heads might be seen as buttons or batteries or lights, their bodies as wiring, vessels for sending messages to and from their control centres.

> There’s one poem in which several people share one large head. This head might be a mode of thinking, an etiquette or ideology, which stems from one person and to which the others must recalibrate. It clearly belongs to one figure, the only one whose body is proportioned to it, and who isn’t joined to the head by a grotesquely extended and twisting neck. Here the size and scale, as well as the contrast between order/symmetry and distortion/asymmetry, make the figure owning the head stand sturdier on the page. There is a power balance. Those external figures connecting to this head are not doing so freely, but rather they are compelled, and so distort themselves. Another poem extends the figures’ necks and bends them backwards, Exorcist-style, pushing their heads away from their bodies and physically separating the mind and the self from the physical machinery of the body. It’s visually very striking – you can feel the discomfort.


> Other poems dwell on the effects this adaptive conformity might have on a stickperson’s psyche. One depicts a person with multiple heads, but instead of the heads being circle or square we see a complex and messy circuit-like structure, giving a cyborg-esque impression of a face. There are not many faces in this book, and those that we do see are technologically distorted. In this poem each head is an exact replica of the others, only varying in size. The identity of this figure is digitally-rendered, and as such it’s scattered and fractured, its long twisting necks make the faces feel precariously balanced, and disconnected from each other. When the identity is digitally replicated, the sense of personhood is destabilised, corrupted.


> At times the images are slanted and stretched, like when you 3-d rotate a picture on Instagram and its flatness becomes fully apparent. Often these rotated distortions are contrasted against each other, so that the poem appears to be presented from multiple vantage points simultaneously, disrupting any sense of reality. Other poems play with the reality of their world by having images expand outwards in fractals, only to be cut off at a superimposed border, so we can image the world expanding infinitely beyond what we see. Fractals occur organically, but they’re also mathematical, computational, they can be simulated. We are organic machines, and the soul, the most corporeal, intangible, and all-consuming essence of life, something we might elevate to supernatural status, is not beyond computation. We are ghosts trapped in our meat machines.


> Towards the end the book explodes, all order is thrown to the wall. The pattern (an image with captioning text below) is abandoned, the poems expand to fill whole pages, text is nestled wherever there is space. The machine exceeds its own boundaries, the life, the soul emerges from its ether. A tension between mind and body, perceived identity and dangerous computational reality has been building throughout, and when the book comes to a sudden halt your head is spinning with ideas. I only wish the author's post-script had been at the start, so that these ideas could tumble out freely instead of being funnelled into one definitive explanation – but maybe that's intentional? We all re-interpret the world for each other, all communication tuning one person's reality to another’s. We're all swaying, to take on Brenza’s phrase, in the half-light of our fading free will.


Automatic Souls is out now and available to order here from Timglaset Books. 


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Text: Dan Power

Published: 5/5/20

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