How & Where to Read an Opem, AKA a Boundry Pushing Explosion of Color & Sound

Art, City Guide, Culture & Arts


Written by Paige Melin

Published on March 27, 2018

Nuts / Photo x Paige Melin

Earlier this month, the art installation OPEMS: Verbal Visual Combines opened at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Opems are the brainchild of longtime Buffalonian, poet, and former curator of the SUNY Buffalo Poetry and Rare Books Collection Michael Basinski, who is perhaps one of the quirkiest poets and artists ever to come out of Buffalo. (Seriously, if you haven’t heard of him before check out some of his work here & here).

But what is an opem?

Basinski describes them as “improvisational verbal scores, sound poems, song, poetry, and visual poetry for solo or choral recitation and orchestration.”

Okay, so what does that actually mean? And how should you approach these explosions of color & sound? Read on to find out.

Full Pond / Photo x Paige Melin

1. Are these drawings? Collages? Poems? Musical scores?

Yes, yes, and yes – and more. These pieces are meant to push boundaries. They’re meant to break down barriers between different art forms. Sure, you can look at these opems just like you might look at any other piece in an art gallery – just a representation of something the artist was thinking or feeling. But the fun of opems is that they can be so much more. Which leads us to…

Nuts / Photo x Paige Melin

2. Don’t expect them to make sense.

Opems are, according to the artist, “manuscripts of ideas.” They’re all about spontaneity. The best way to experience them is to let yourself get swept away with the colors, moods, words, and images. Don’t worry too much about trying to find a cohesive image, story, or takeaway from each piece.

Letters / Photo x Paige Melin

3. Look for letters and words – you’ll find them in unexpected places.

See those fun geometric patterns? Look closer. They’re actually vowels – A, E, I, O. One of the coolest parts about this exhibit is the way things are hiding in plain sight. It’s like a treasure hunt for words, letters, phrases, and creatures. We guarantee you’ll find something unexpected when you look closely – and if you visit this exhibit more than once, you’ll find something new every time.

Portals / Photo x Paige Melin

3. Solid circles like the black ones here are “portals.”

While you can enjoy the opems as static pieces of art, they’re actually – believe it or not – meant to be performed. Any solid circles in the pieces function as “portals,” or points of entry where the performer can begin reading the work. Here, for instance, you might “enter” the piece by saying, “ee ee ee ee eeeek!” Since these portals exist in all the opems, the performer can use them to move from one section of an opem to another, or even from one opem to an entirely different one.

Ectoplasm / Photo x Paige Melin

Ectoplasm / Photo x Paige Melin

4. Did I just hear the phrase “sing the glories of ectoplasm?”

Yes, you did. Since the opems are meant to be performed, there’s actually an hour-long audio track that plays continuously at the exhibit. This track features Basinski and a handful of other artists performing the opems. Sometimes they’ll read phrases found on the opems – like the one here. Other times they’ll make noises and sounds based on the letters, shapes, and colors they see in the opems. And sometimes – they’ll just make things up!


OPEMS: Verbal Visual Combines is up at the Burchfield Penny until June 24, 2018. Do not miss out on this playful, genre-bending exhibit!


OPEMS: Verbal Visual Combines

x Poet Michael Basinski

Burchfield Penny – 1300 Elmwood Ave, Buffalo, NY 14222

Now through June 24, 2018

Written by <a href="" target="_self">Paige Melin</a>

Written by Paige Melin

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