A brief history of the Oulipo

What is Oulipo?

Oulipo, short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, is an experimental literature group made up of people from different professions – from poets and novelists to engineers and mathematicians. Their works, mostly, are set within certain literary constraints; creating challenges to seek new forms and structures in order to find unknown and unbeknownst possibilities.

As seen in the video below, the results are playful and often humorous.

What the Oulipo intended to demonstrate was that these constraints are felicitious, generous, and are in fact literature itself. What it proposed was to discover new ones, under the name of structures.

These manipulations of language structures reminds me of the first rule from Lev Manovich’s Five Principles of New media, where he wrote about discrete units. An Oulipian example of playing with the discrete units of language would be La Disparition by Georges Perec – a novel without the letter E. At 26:15 in the video below, you may view a description of the novel.

Having read The Garden of Forking Paths as well, I can see how New Media owes much to traditional literature. Not only did it introduce hypertext, the relationship between the reader, author and text equates to the viewer, artist, and artwork. In a way, literature may be referred as the “source-text” and new media – the said deviations.

I think the most interesting thing about the Oulipo, even though it is not an original idea today, is that mathematics may play a significant role in the creative process. It can help in conjuring and permutate situations, such as Matthew’s algorithm as seen in 25:50 of the video below.

(You may try the algorithm in the link below)


In terms of application in design art, Oulipo has inspired many other -po movements such as the Oubapo which is comic version of the Oulipo. They created scrabble inspired game called Scroubeabble, that allows the players to generate comic strips in an uncommon way.


The application of ‘cross-breeding’ fundamentals from different fields, is rather ironic. Despite still applying restraints, it also removes limitations. It puts the creator in a new environment , perhaps a new perspective that does not exist within one’s home-field. It brings the boundary to light that there are physics of one subject that cannot exist in another. But as Oulipo has proven, that might not be true.

Close up of Scroubabble



Author: Ying Hui

Hello :)

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