How digitalisation could reinvent poetry

The SNSF awards its Optimus Agora prize to Antonio Rodriguez for an exhibition which explores the future of poetry.

​The "Digital Lyric" exhibition to be held at Château de Morges (VD) in 2020 will offer an interactive exploration of poetry through digital technology. Conducted by Antonio Rodriguez, professor of modern French literature at the University of Lausanne, this project has won the Optimus prize of the SNSF's Agora funding scheme, which promotes original ways of promoting science. The laureate will be handed the prize at the Sciencecomm '19 conference in September 2019.

Why mix information technology and poetry?

Poetry is emblematic of the turning point between paper and digitalisation, because it has always made use of new textual media. Since the late 19th century, Western poetry has been reduced to printed matter that is destined to be read in silence. Poetry can take different forms, however. It can be recited, sung or danced, for example. Digital media can breathe new life into the different aspects of poetry and generate new ways of experiencing it.

What does your exhibtion show?

It consists of eight spaces. Visitors can improve their diction in a virtual master class which shows you how much progress you are making in real time. Or they can use an automatic poem generator based on artificial intelligence that allows you to change certain parameters - more love, or sadness or joy - and even to mimic the style of famous poets. In one room, we use augmented reality to enhance an artistic performance. And algorithms based on big data propose new anthologies (editor's note: by regrouping texts), a typical example of the new field of digital humanities.

The Optimus Agora prize will take you to San Francisco for two weeks, capital of the new technologies. What do you hope to get out of that?

First, pave the way for the Swissnex and Pro Helvetia networks to raise awareness of the very special poetic heritage of French-speaking Switzerland - celebrated by the likes of Byron, Hugo, Rilke and Borges - but also of our know-how, organisation and capacity for innovation.

What is your view of digitalisation?

It must not be anonymous, agonising or disembodied, rather it should be firmly rooted, enhance creativity and bring us closer to our language, voice and body. In other words: it should make us more human. The aim of this exhibition is to allay certain fears to do with digitalisation, but also with elitist poetry.

The Digital Lyric exhibition

The exhibition "Digital Lyric" will be shown at Château de Morges from 14 February to 10 May 2020, i.e. from Valentine's Day to Mother's Day ("two rituals of popular poetry," says Antonio Rodriguez). The project is conducted by experts in literature, information technology and geography from the University of Lausanne, EPFL and the School of Management and Engineering Vaud and of the Haute école d’art et de design (HEAD - Genève). It is funded under the SNSF's Agora programme.