blending writing with computers and video games, Yucef Merhi creates interactive
By Elia Powers, Daily Pilot
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
"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
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.