August 26, 2005

The poem machine

*By blending writing with computers and video games, Yucef Merhi creates interactive art.

Back when Atari video game systems weren't considered retro, Yucef Merhi was playing around with words and video cords. The Venezuelan-born Merhi wrote poems as a hobby and mastered the Atari 2600 by the time he had reached junior high. That was when he decided to get creative by mixing the mediums. Through programming ingenuity, Merhi wired the Atari to act like a primitive computer, enabling him to post poetic messages on the video screen. He then gave others the chance to fiddle with his words.

At his "Poetic Engineering" exhibition, which closes Sunday at the Orange Lounge, visitors use video game joysticks to scroll through Merhi's stanzas and create a seemingly endless combination of poems, seen on three monitors.

The result, titled "Super Atari Poetry," is a visual experience that tests the traditional boundaries of literature and illustrates Merhi's artistic philosophy.

"When you write a book, you are unable to change the words," he said. "Through this medium, you have the freedom to create dynamic poems. I see poetry as a live organism -- an interactive entity that you can manipulate."

Merhi's preference for fluidity in art is apparent in his show, which opened at Orange County Museum of Art's new-media center in May.

Over the past two weeks, Merhi and his wife, Deborah Mizrahi, have led a dozen Southern California high school students through a symposium that focused on communicating through new media.

"It's an experiential program," Mizrahi said. "We are teaching students to understand how to live in the present."

Wednesday's reception marked the end of the pilot internship program, run through the Orange County Museum of Art and sponsored by the Nimoy Foundation.

Students in the program were paid to create a series of projects using video cameras, audio equipment and the written word.

The final projects were displayed along with Merhi's solo exhibition.

"I normally focus on narrative filmmaking, and I wanted to try a different form of expression," said Corona del Mar resident Whitney Ellis, 17, whose video subject was the tempo of walking feet.

Through group discussions and lectures, Merhi explained to students what motivated him to incorporate poetry into visual presentations.

"Atari was my first contact with cultural globalization," he said. "While I was playing Pac-Man in the 1980s, kids across the world were doing the same thing."

Merhi said he always saw a purpose to video games and television beyond promoting commercialism. He saw his goal as to make these mediums intellectual.

Throughout the exhibition, flat-screen televisions, audio devices and computer monitors display his vision.

"The Poetic Clock 2.0," one of the pieces, is a poem-generating machine. In this constantly fluctuating poem, shown alongside a digital clock, the first line rotates every hour, the second line every minute and the third every second. The result is 86,000 poems produced per day.

"Poetic Dialogues" is an Internet project that shows people reacting to Merhi's poetry. He has taken the exhibition to studios and lounges across the country and continues to lecture on college campus.

Merhi said he sees no limit to producing art in the future.

"There's not just one way of experimentation," he said. "In this field, there are hundreds of thousands of possibilities."

* ELIA POWERS is the enterprise and general assignment reporter.