Some Strategies of Bot Poetics

Poetry, Rambles

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Introduction

I think that Twitterbots are the most important development in contemporary poetry. Twitterbots are combining avant-garde conceptual techniques, ethico-political intervention and high expressive potential, and they’re doing so in a popular social space: they are a popular and populist form of poetry. Twitterbots are published for free, and the culture of making them is an open, sharing culture: Twitterbots push poetic surprise into your social space, and their authors are encouraging and supporting you to join in the making.

So I want to do a little work outlining what I think Twitterbots are actually doing poetically. While there’s an open culture of sharing the technical structure of Twitterbots, and considerable discussion of the ethical and political purposes of Twitterbots, there hasn’t been as much attention to their texts as texts, to how the pleasures of Twitterbots are expressed. (For a notable exception, see the bot category at I <3 E-Poetry.)

I’ve made a few exclusions in this discussion to make the task simpler at this stage. First, I’m analysing Twitterbots which are wholly or primarily text-driven: there are a wealth of image-driven visual art bots which I’m not engaging with here. Second, I’m just analysing bots on Twitter: while bots do exist on other platforms, Twitter has seen the most extensive spread of bots so far, and constraining by platform helps to analyse how they function in this particular social space. Third, I’m analysing bots rather than procedurally-generated texts: while this field is also rich (see NaNoGenMo in particular) and much of the same analysis applies, I want to talk about texts which have sociality built into their making.

Below is a (definitely non-exhaustive) list of conceptual strategies in Twitterbots. Each comes with at least two bot examples, and at least two example of a printed text employing the same strategy. Many of these are drawn from Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s anthology Against Expression. After a note on the poetic possibilities of different technical bases, I finish with a comparison between Twitterbots and printed texts, asking how the social space of Twitter changes and magnifies these established conceptual strategies.

The Strategies

1. Recontextualisation

@thewaybot (by @elibrody) curates a timeline of tweet fragments beginning with “I like it when”. The bot extracts diverse and copious texts from their original contexts and presents them as simple statements: “curating subtleties of human nuance”, it offers a picture of what humans like – or, rather, what English-speaking humans say they like on Twitter. The bot cannot distinguish between senses, and so straightforward statements (“I like it when a porn has a story, some background.”) are muddled together with sarcasm (“I like it when my nose bleeds bc of heat.”), statements lose their referents (“I like it when you wear those.”) and meaning is fragmented into nonsense (“I like it when people take care of.”) Whereas the foundational net- and data-art piece We Feel Fine offered a survey of human feeling that approached accuracy, @thewaybot is more a conceptual poem on the idea of liking: it is always incomplete, always reaching for new meanings.

@pentametron (by @ranjit) searches Twitter for tweets forming perfect pentameters (ten syllables in an unstressed-stressed pattern), sifts them for rhyme, then retweets rhyming pairs. The result is an ever-unfolding poem of poetic couplets, which are again recontextualised into sonnets on the bots Tumblr. Each source tweet thus has at least three contexts – its original authorship, its couplet, its sonnet – in addition to the context provided by the reader, and so the meanings of the source tweets multiply in possibility. The recontextualisation draws attention to the unintentional music of language of Twitter, and also creates unexpected jokes, critiques, aphorisms and nonsenses which have a pleasure of their own.

See also: @NoContextQueer; @wikisext; @VillanelleBot; @sixworderbot; @guardianhaiku; @a_travel_bot; @br0k3nw0rld; @HottestStartups; @nice_tips_bot

Compare:

Sally Alatalo, Unforseen Alliances, which recontextualises the titles of mass-produced romance novels into new narrative poems.

Caroline Bergvall, VIA (36 Dante Translations), which collates 36 different versions of the openin to Dante’s Inferno.

2. Procedural Editing

@boy2bot (by @rainshapes) searches Twitter for tweets with the word “boy” in them, then transcribes them on its own timeline, replacing “boy” with “bot”. In part, the result is the equivalent of @thewaybot for the word “boy”, creating a collage of collective impressions of the word, but the editing also creates multiple science fiction futures: the future where “This bot just bit the shit out of my nipple”, the future where “my poor bot is sick”. Each tweet contains a new scenario, and the collective whole is a vertiginous and often pornographic robot u/dystopia. And, of course, the bot is an in-joke for bot culture, which frequently imagines its bots as autonomous entities with lives and personalities: @boy2bot imagines a world of fully-realised Twitterbots.

@scarequoter (by @inky) takes headlines from BBC news which included quotation marks and places new scare quotes around a random word or words, performing a critique of how meaning is produced by news editors. Generated tweet frequently cast doubt where you would expect none (“Cuba crowds gather for Stones ‘concert’”, making you question what is wrong with the concert; “Go wild to protect food ‘security’”, undermining the politicised jargon that is “food security”), and thus expose where the original headline-writer elected to place doubt or distance, a decision which is frequently politically-motivated. The bot is also often very funny as a result.

See also: @at_a_Blackbird; @BlackBoughBot; @Suxting; @JustToSayBot; @storyofglitch

Compare

Leevi Lehto, Paiva, which takes all news releases from the Finish News Agency on a single day and orders them alphabetically.

Audun Mortensen, Roman, which transcribes all the sentences from Nabokov’s Lolita in reverse order, with “Roman” replacing “Lolita” and “Sammy Sammy” replacing “Humbert Humbert”, with a picture of Roman Polanski on the cover.

3. Juxtaposition

@litpatches_txt (by @lizardengland) combines the names of famous literary works with the descriptions of videogame patch notes, juxtaposing two very specific artforms and jargons in a way that creates new imaginary books: “Nabokov’s Pale Fire but with dungeons with multiple difficulty settings”, “Marx and Engel’s The Communist Manifesto but with unique powerful artifacts that can be found throughout the world”. The result is a study of the specific found poetics of videogame patch notes – by recontextualising them into a literary sphere, their poetic quality becomes apparent – a study of the space between the worlds of “high art” and “videogames”. It is absurd to imagine “Pynchon’s V. but with a brand new character select screen”, but absurd in a way that exposes the limitations of both literature and videogames.

@TwoHeadlines (by @tinysubversions) recombines two news headlines into one, creating fantasy news: “Texas Will Be Low for Easter, but Don’t Get Used to It”; “Yoga sessions to be part of Brussels celebrations”. The resulting jokes frequently critique the political space of the news in question, as with the frightening and/or inspiring “F-35 washes feet of Muslim migrants, says ‘We are brothers’”, but the tweets also reinscribe the assumptions of news headlines as often as they undermine them. @TwoHeadlines is thus a slightly broken exploration of the space of the news headline: it tells the truth of headlines, but with enough of a slant to make that truth more apparent.

See also: @AndNowImagine

Compare

Marie Buck, Whole Foods, which combines texts from the supermarket’s corporate website, an anarchist zine, and online etymological dictionaries.

Brian Joseph Davis, Voice Over, which orders and combines taglines from Hollywood films.

4. Signal from Noise

@rom_txt (by @zachwhalen) searchs the source of videogame ROM files and transcribes the texts it finds. The result is frequently meaningless and uninterpretable, including seemingly random strings of letters and lists of names or inventory items, and frequently mundane, including poorly-written game dialogue, but even these tweets serve to explore the textual space of early videogames. However, the truncation of tweets and the presentation of texts not originally intended to be read in sequence sometimes leads to serendipitous poetry:

“You’re so kind!
You won’t forget me,
will you?
Your adventures must
be so exciting!
You’ll stay with me”

Reading ROM_TXT is thus often a process of looking for signals in the noise of the source.

@MOVIESCRIPTCAPS (by @thricedotted) performs a similar operation on film scripts, tweeting only those extracts that are in all caps. This is conceptually close to the Recontextualisation examples, particularly @thewaybot, but the poetic effect is different: whereas each @thewaybot tweet tends to be meaningfully complete in itself, @MOVIESCRIPTCAPS tweets tend to be commonplace and difficult to interpret out of their original context. Reading its feed is a process of trying to construct meaning from the sequence, or looking for tweets which have a particular quality: it is as if the bot is churning through data in the hopes of finding something interesting, the hilarious tweet that reads “THIS BEAR HAS LOST HIS MIND”, in the middle of a sequence that reads “CHAMPAGNE BOTTLE”, “PLATOON CP”, “CELLPHONE FACE PLATE” and “NOISE SUBSIDES”.

See also: @wikishoutouts; @TheStrangeLog

Compare

Harry Mathews & Alastair Brotchie, Oulipo Compendium: an anthology of techniques and texts, many of which involve the repetition of procedures which generate high noise-to-signal ration

Noah Eli Gordon, Inbox, which directly transcribes the author’s entire email inbox, creatin unreadable overwhelm the readers searches for a signal.

5. Space Exploration

@restartthevoid (by @NoraReed) combines apocalyptic and horror symbology with error message syntax. Each tweet imagines a malfunctioning universe, a twisted intepretation of current or future reality: “security certificate of heavens has expired.”, “egg sac is hatching; nature not found. no such snake exists. heavens is busy; crow with a thousand bones.” The bot’s source is bounded, though it can be expanded: it is not searching for lexis or syntax outside its own source. The totality of the bot is thus a complete exploration of its own aesthetic space, and it derives its poetic power from the power of those pre-written aesthetics – but its individual tweets are still beyond the ability of its author to fully predict; that is, its aesthetic space is big enough that it will continue to surprise.

@dronesweetie (by @the_log_lady) tweets a Deep Learning programme’s attempts to describe photographs of drones: it thus relentlessly explores the space of how this artificial intelligence understands drones. Because the computer does not understand drones, the results are deeply eerie, occasionally funny, and have an unfortunate beauty: “a man is flying a parachute that they can just get prepared to land in the sky”, “two butterflies that are sitting next to each other”. Unlike @restartthevoid, the possibility space of @dronesweetie is technically infinite, but like @restartthevoid, @dronesweetie’s poetry feels bounded, like a complete exploration of a specific aesthetic space. Interestingly, both bots can continue to have their possibility expanded: the former by its author adding to its source, the latter by the crowd continually training the bot.

@genderpronoun (by @tylercallich) tweets suggestions of new pronouns, including full grammatical declensions. The possibilities are, if not infinite, then very very very large, given that the bot appears to draw on a huge range of symbols and syllable combinations to suggest new pronouns. The results are aurally pleasurable, and the pleasure also comes through the surprise: each tweet contains an unexpected combination of sounds, and occasional serendipities with other languages allow for strange and allusive identifications.

@restartthevoid draws on a bounded corpus created by its author; @dronesweetie draws on expanded knowledge created by crowd-assisted machine learning; @genderpronoun takes as its source the full orthographic possibilities of the expanded Roman alphabet. For more on the poetic possibilities of these choices, see A Note on Sourcing below.

See also: Nora Reed’s complete list of bots; @spacetravelbot; @MagicRealismBot; @str_voyage; @contingencymsgs; @DUNSONnDRAGGAN; @ThanetGuide; @memorypoem; @wearerain; @MythologyBot; @portmanteau_bot; @fantasy_florist; @feelings_js

Compare

Katie Degentesh, The Anger Scale, which runs the questons of the Minesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory through a search engine and transcribes the results, creating a poem between the Inventory and the internet.

Fiona Baner, The Nam, which writes a continuous description of multiple Vietnam war films, exposing both their possibility space and the author’s interpretation.

6. Exhaustion

@everyword (by @aparrish ) is the original exhaustive bot: its aim was to tweet, one by one, every word in the English language – or at least in a given dictionary. The content of this rolling poem is not merely the dictionary, however, but also: the number of favourites and retweets each tweet received, giving preferential meaning to particular words; the replies each tweet received, creating an going dialogue around the English lexis; and the vast number of echoes and recontextualisations of each individual word. How a given tweet appeared in my timeline was different to how it appeared in yours, and so the poem was different for every reader. The strength of this concept is appealing enough to spawn numerous tributes and derivations: reimplementations like @everybird_ and the expansive @everysimile; many jokes like @everywordisgay; attempts at exhausting an infinity or near-infinity like @nondenotative and @everyadage; and, finally, spiralling self-reference by the original author in @libraryofevery.

@EuphemismBot (attribution unlisted) indicates the continuity between exhaustion and exploration: is a bot that explores a space always attempting to exhaust that space? Here we can imagine an end to all the possible euphemisms when every verb-noun pair in English has been tweeted, but is the poetry in the exhautiveness, as with @everyword, or in the humour of the possibility space, or, reaching back, in the signals in the noise? Where the space is infinite or potentially infinite, as with @MagicRealismBot, exhaustion is possible, but the attempt at exhaustion may still define the twitterbot’s effort; where the space is finite and bounded, as with @wearerain, exhaustion seems less important than the poetry of each individual tweet, but the aesthetics of exhaustion still loom behind the poetry. In the several bots which textually describe a space, such as @str_voyage, exhaustion matters less: repetition just means the voyage has circled back on itself, or is appearing to – here, the power is in the bot’s imagined extension forward into infinity.

See also: @YouNeverDidThe; @SnowballPoetry

Compare

Christian Bok, Eunoia, which creates prose-poems from almost every unvocalic word (words with only one type of vowel) in an English dictionary.

Clause Closky, The First Thousand Numbers Classified in Alphabetical Order, which is what it says.

“Exhaustion” is an Oulipian term: it was often said to be the Oulipo’s mission to fully exhaust the possibilities of any given constraint.

7. Imitation

@oliviataters impersonates teenage girls on the internet. It applies natural language processing – a form of analysis of language that models or imitates natural language – to internet texts, weighted towards certain linguistic features of teen-speak. Part of its pleasure comes, again, from finding beautiful signal in noise (“beneath the armour of skin and bone and mind, most of our colours are right”, she tweeted recently, but also “would have they did his name is tom brady”), and part of its pleasure comes from the imperfection of its imitation: @oliviataters dwells happily in the uncanny valley, where we can tell she is a bot, even though she is sometimes indistinguishable from a human, and we enjoy the fact that she is a bot along with the broken virtuosity of her impersonation. It is more poetic when she tweets “i was amazingly bad ?￰゚マᄐ ” than when my teenage cousin tweets it, because she is a bot.

@poem_exe writes haiku, very beautifully. I have deliberately avoided finding out how it works, though it seems likely that it involves some level of markov chaining applied to a corpus of haiku texts, plus some level of context-free grammar (the system used by bots like @restartthevoid, which involves creating a set of possible syntaxes into which words or nested syntaxes can be plugged) to structure the haiku. Again, there’s the pleasure of finding signal in noise, though the signal-to-noise ratio is high; again there’s the pleasure of observing the bot’s virtuosic impersonation of a haiku poet. In this case, however, the understanding of haiku seems complete enough to grant the bot full autonomy as a haiku author: imitation has achieved originality.

See also: @moonmurmur, and _ebooks bots which apply markov chains to owners timelines.

Compare

Paul Fournel’s “Canada Dry” texts, which are “texts which have the taste of a restriction but do not follow a restriction” – that is, they look as though they’ve been written procedurally, algorithmically, or through severe constraint, but haven’t. These texts have a similar uncanny valley effect to bots impersonating humans: you can tell something is wrong but you can’t place it. The exact bot analogue here is @horse_ebooks, which pretended to be a markov chain type bot but was written by a human.

8. Instruction

@tranquilbot (by @slimedaughter) is a rolling meditation: it gives absurd instructions for calm, imaginative visualisations and affirmations. As with @restartthevoid and similar Space Exploration bots, the poetry is more closely authored than many other bots: the full possibility space is predetermined, and the act of poetic authorship is in describing that possibility space. However, an extra layer is provided by @tranquilbot’s exension into social space: it can be read as a timeline to guide a meditation, and individual tweets might be a calming intervention into a busy timelines. Instructional bots are social by design.

@DOTHINGSBOT (by @norareed) foregrounds its interventionist style: it is specifically designed to appear dramatically a Twitter timeline and provide interruptions for people with executive function disorders. The bot is also, however, given a poetic frame: a robot character, an amusing style, a relationship to the reader, and enough variety of forms to continue providing interest. These poetic techniques both make the bot more interesting as a text and strengthen its psychological function in a fusion of aesthetics and purpose.

See also: @CalmingBot; @autoflaneur; @check_o_tron

Compare

Yoko Ono, Grapefruit

Gizmet, Game Poems

A Note on Text Sourcing

There are three main methods of generating a Twitterbot text:

  1.  Context-free grammars, in which authors create a syntax or set of syntaxes into which words and nested syntaxes can be plugged.
  2. Natural language processing (particularly through markov chains, a simple probabilistic analysis of language), which applies algorithms and sometimes machine learning to a corpus of texts, such as a Twitter timeline or the Project Gutenberg library.
  3. Various forms of appropriation, often using an API (application program interface), to extract texts and sources from news sites, Twitter trends, or libraries of synonyms and rhymes.

Each technique allows for different kinds of poetics. The first technique, context-free grammars, is suited to authors who want to define and explore their own possibility space: it is easier to tightly or loosely control the poetics of the results, while still allowing for strangeness and surprise. The second technique, natural language processing, is suited to authors who who want to play with or subvert a given style or means of writing, and also tends to generate a high noise-to-signal ratio unless the algorithm is sophisticated. The third technique, sourcing texts and fragments from outside the bot, is particularly suited to authors who want to apply specific and controlled manipulations to existing types of text. Often, twitterbots combine more than one of these techniques to achieve their effects, but it’s important to recognise that the technical basis of a bot often determines its aesthetics – new bases, we can surmise, will allow for new aesthetic possibilities, though there is much left to explore in our current tools.

Some Differences Between Twitterbot Poetry and Printed Poetry

It should be clear from the examples given that, conceptually speaking, there is not much that is necessarily new in Twitterbot poetry: poets have been authoring procedural systems, appropriating and recontextualising texts, and exhausting possibility spaces for a very long time. The exception, perhaps, is in the artificial pseudo-intelligence of natural language processing, but though the process is different the canon of conceptual poetry contains many texts that fruitful occupy the uncanny valley between the human and the non-human. However, computer processing and the specific social platform of Twitter allow for major differences in how those concepts are implemented, as does the creative context of the Twitterbot community – and these differences often reshape the concept entirely.

1. Magnitude

Procedures which are laborious to complete by hand can be accomplished quickly with a computer; corpora which took years to play with can now be analysed in minutes. The result is that Twitterbots often apply a concept several orders of magnitude beyond what was previously possible. Raymond Queneau’s 1961 achievement in Cent mille milliards de poèmes – which exhausts the full combination of 10 sonnets of 14 lines each – can now be replicated on a website in an afternoon, and @poem_exe, @Pentametreon and @VillanelleBot each contain vastly more poems than Queneau’s flipbook. Thus, where once the creation of a combinatorial poetry book was interesting in itself, now the poetic strength is in how that book is written and what that book has to say. Similarly, Kenneth Goldsmith’s 2003 work Day, a complete transcription of the New York Times of a specific day, is exceeded and rendered obsolete by text-scraping programmes which routinely create such corpora for a bot to play with. Because a computer can perform the concept with ease, the concept is now less interesting than what it can specifically express.

2. Infinity

Jorge Luis Borges described, in The Book of Sand, an infinite book – a book which, when you turn a page, grows more pages in either direction, and can never be exhausted. Such books now exist, and some of them are Twitterbots. Most Twitterbots are projected forward into infinity: whether or not they do continue infinitely (and Twitterbots fail, Twitter itself may one day close, and even the cloud is built on material architecture which can decay), each tweet is understood within the context that the tweets could continue being generated forever. Whereas a conceptual poetry book must eventually be printed and bound, so that even if it describes or pretends at infinity its boundedness is always apparent, a Twitterbot poem frequently comprehends infinity: infinite authorship is its baseline. The possibility space is always contained within the tweet. Relatedly, Borges non-infinite-but-very-large Library of Babel has been fully implemented online, and there are bots tweeting extracts.

3. Sociality

Every text has a social existence, but with printed texts that sociality is often hidden, assumed, forgotten or elided: we do not always think about what a book as book means when we read it, and too often a poetry book is confined to a shelf and rarely seen in public. A Twitterbot poem is always and incontrovertibly a social text: it can only ever be seen in a corporate social space. This gives extra power to instructional poems, because their instruction are always received at a point they can be performed; it gives extra disruptive potential to political poems, because there is a ready-made social space to disrupt; and it gives extra layers to conceptual poems, because their texts are dynamic and interactive rather than static and received. Notably, poetic strategies formally confined to the academic avant-garde firmly enter the popular sphere through Twitterbots: @everyword has been read by more people than most texts on UbuWeb.

4. Politics

For various historical reasons – the particular social groups which are furthering Twitterbot making and their interests in left-liberalism, the generation of internet architecture in cultures of technological utopianism, the open-source and open-culture tendency within independent programmers, the coming-of-age of Twitterbots in a specific sociopolitical moment – the culture of Twitterbot poetry has strong senses of ethics and politics. Many Twitterbot makers share their source codes and programming techniques freely; several Twitterbot makers have created platforms to make it easier for other people to write bots; the texts themselves are freely published; and at atmosphere of collaborative open discussion pervades the botspace. Meanwhile, alongside technical articles, articles on the ethics and politics of botmaking are the most common form of discussion around bots: the Twitterbots are always understand as social and political entities over which their makers must take ethical responsibility. This contrasts with the culture of conceptual poetry, which is frequently ethically bankrupt, taking the artistic defense too often: see, for example, Kenneth Goldsmith’s appropriation of the autopsy of Michael Brown. In the botsphere, conceptual poetic techniques are often turned to political ends.

5. Expressiveness

Threaded through all the above points is the idea of expression: to me, and filtered through my own political aesthetics, Twitterbots as a body of poetic work represent a turn away from uncreative writing and conceptualism-as-such. But rather than retreating from conceptualism into expressive lyric poetry, Twitterbots move through conceptualism into a new space: a space where the meaningful and the empty co-exist, where the signal and the noise are the same thing, where intelligence is artificial but ethically sculpted, where high concept processes are used to tell bad jokes, where the digital is rooted in social and bodily experience. That is, through an atmosphere of total linguistic saturation – frequently exhausting, frequently demeaning, frequently foreclosing of individual personal expression – Twitterbots are emerging as unruly personalities and disobedient poets.

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Cover image by Duncan C, licensed under Creative Commons
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What Can Poets Do About Robots?

Poetry, Rambles

Turk-engraving5

Robots have been writing poems for quite some time; indeed, robots have been writing fairly good poems since at least 1984. Conceptual poets and uncreative writers are either terrified or elated by the capacity of robots to outdo their most extensive combinatorial, processual and appropriative work; small advances are being made on automating formal metrical and rhyming schemes; and at least one robot is sufficiently good at the contemporary undergraduate Anglo-American lyric to pass unnoticed in its publications. However, thus far, the best robots are generally worse at impersonating human poets than the best (or worst) human poets are at impersonating robots, and so committed humanists might still be sceptical of robots’ capacity to truly write poetry.

One robot, however, has solved at least one poetic form: poem.exe is the greatest writer of haiku I have yet read. Combining the best of traditional insight and contemporary reference, poem.exe’s work consistently delivers the intuitively accurate observation and wisdom through juxtaposition central to the haiku form. The general problem of how to write haiku has been solved to perfection: all that remains to human poets is learning how to write specific haiku for specific moments, learning the discipline of haiku purely as a craft and a means of world- and self-understanding – innovation, newness and progress need no longer be a drive.

What does this success mean for human poets? Beyond combinatorial, processual and appropriative poetics (which were always imitations of roboticism in the first place), the haiku is the first poetic form to be solved; what this success means, however, is that more forms will soon fall before the robots. The general problems of the limerick, the  nonet, the ottava rima – these are only a matter of time. How can human poets defend their labour, and how can they find their reasons for writing? The answers will change as the robots march on:

1. Eke Out The Forms

It is not easy to solve a poetic form. This means that poets have a grace period, perhaps lasting a century or two, in which they are better at writing some poetic forms than robots. We should make the most of this while we can. Some truly lovely villanelles, homophonic translations, erasures and puSlogh vaghs are waiting be written before the robots master them, and indeed human mastery of these forms may be necessary in order to gain the skills required to write the robots that will master them. (The renegade reactionary poet will thus notice a further available strategy: to refuse to master forms, in order to slow the robots’ own mastery. In the end, this strategy leads only to refusing to write poetry at all, which, though it may be the preferred outcome for many, is likely not the intention of the renegade reactionary poet.) Running before the tidal wave has its pleasures, and the inevitability of defeat is grimly charming, but poets may desire more, and so must:

2. Invent New Forms

It has long been the pleasure of poets to invent new forms. In the age of robot poets, this task acquires new urgency. As the robots lag behind mastering the forms of yesteryear – the sonnet, the sestina – poets can proliferate new forms, inventing them, creating deeper understandings of the world through them, even exhausting them until they are rendered cliché, perhaps, before the robots catch up. But the robots will catch up. For a time, as artificial intelligence develops, new forms will proliferate faster than robots can solve them, but eventually the speed of the robot mind will be such that not only will forms be solved faster than they can be invented by humans, but also robots will learn how to author new forms themselves, rendering this area of human activity, like the authoring of poems, redundant. The only response can be to:

3. Write the Robots

Learning how to write robots is a task I have begun myself, and it is hugely satisfying. I can testify that the writing of robots is a poetic task: it requires learning how to manipulate a set of linguistic elements within a set of constraints to produce desired effects when performed for an audience. By writing robots, poets acquire, for a time, the satisfaction of being better than robots. Instead of running ahead of the robots, or fighting against the robots, we become the people furthering the cause of artificial poetic intelligence; instead of mastering the forms of poetry, we master the masters of form. Moreover, as with many current cases, the task of selection and curation will fall to humans: robots will write beautiful concrete poems before they will be able to tell that they have done so, and will require guidance to distinguish between poor, fair and perfect concrete poems before that form too is solved. This pleasure may, in its turn, last a good century or two. But, in the end, inevitably, someone will write a robot that is better than humans at writing new poetry robots, and this activity, too, will be taken away from us. Humans will thus:

4. Become Only Political

The problem of poetic form will be solved before the problem of life. Robots will master ghazals and sound poems before they can make all society loving, equal, joyous and just. That will remain the task of humans even when all the best poems are written by robots, and we must rise to it. We must perceive the inequities of the world, and write the poems that intervene in just the right way at just the right moment to make some small step towards something better. Poems that speak a truth, poems that crack a joke, poems that set off a bomb, poems that nurture a tired struggle, poems that rouse and rabble. Our poems may be awkward, they may be stumbling, they may be unsure, and they will certainly be less graceful and perfect than the poems the robots are writing, but they can advance the cause of the good in a way the robot poems cannot, because, for a time at least, the robots will not be able to perceive and construct the good. For a time. The skills require to write, select and curate perfect poems – and the resources to build the robots to acquire them – will surely lead to something better, won’t they? Once robots have bested us at poetry, I hope they will turn their attention to society, because we have done a fairly poor job of it so far. At that point, the character of the robot mind will be indistinguishable from that of a human mind, except faster, unless it engages a voluntary slow-down; indeed, humans may incorporate robot minds into their own flesh bodies, if only to write better poetry. Let the poetry robots manage our society for us, let them bring about post-scarcity, equality, community and care, because then we can:

5. Become Only Personal

With the task of a fairer society complete, and with the distinction between robot and human minds porous and enlivening, consciousness can turn itself fully towards self-care, self-expression and self-fulfilment. Freed from the imperative to always make poetry better and new, we can make poetry for ourselves again; freed from hierarchies of fame, success and labour, art for art’s sake might finally be possible; freed from scarcity, “everyone is already an artist” might finally be meaningful. All of this is to say: teenagers will write darkly gothic poetry without shame, will pour their feelings into dodgy rhymes because they need to, will discover ways to discover new things about themselves without mediating that process through editorial selection. It will no longer matter that there are hundred thousand poems about the quiet revelations of mediocre suburban lives, because there will be no need for anything else, and even the suburbs will be beautiful. The task of the poem will be only to care for the poet; the poem will be written because it needs to be written; the accuracy, immediacy and delight of self-expression will be celebrated in small, nurturing circles of poets and friends. This is more or less indistinguishable from poetry before robots began, but the world will be better, and so the poetry will in fact be completely different.

Post-Explodem: I Blew Up the Palace of Holyroodhouse

Politics, Rambles, Theatre, Video

Harry Giles, 'I Want to Blow Up the Palace of Holyroodhouse', SPILL Festival of Performance 2014, photo (c) Guido Mencari. For the past year I’ve been researching and performing ideas about terrorism, art, civil liberties, free speech and rage under the banner I Want to Blow Up the Palace of Holyroodhouse. On November 1st 2014, at the SPILL Festival of Performance, it all came to a climax: I built a large model of the palace from cardboard and glitter, and then exploded it for a live audience. Sort of. In the event, as Lyn Gardner wrote, it “went with less of a bang than a genteel pop” and needed the help of a mob of angry hands and feet to finish it off. The possible failure of the bang (and its definite futility) were part of the project from the start, after all. You can watch a short video of the speech and explosion below; this post is a write-up of the year’s work, a post-explodem of the project, with words about what will happen next.

(video: a brief speech about the explosion, and the explosion, and the destruction of the cardboard city)

I’ve told the story so many times I’ve started to stop believing it, but it is still true: I cycle past the Palace of Holyroodhouse most days, and it makes me furious. It’s a symbol of the UK’s still-living feudalism, it’s a vast private estate in the centre of the city in close proximity to poverty, and it’s a centre of authoritarian power. But my anger is completely out of proportion to its status: something that’s built over time, that’s personal, that’s absurd, and that sometimes feels impossible to deal with. I started having fantasies about destroying the building — the most recurring one involving hiring a bulldozer, driving into the walls and seeing how far I’d get — and inevitably those began to involve the iconic idea of blowing it up.

But my anger is out of proportion, and it’s not worth dying or going to prison for, and maybe it would be better just to convert the palace into social housing, and I’m an artist, so: instead of becoming a terrorist, I decided to build a model of the palace and blow that up instead, in the name of art. This turned out to be harder than I thought. My first discovery was that it’s illegal to actually talk about blowing up the palace: under counter-terrorism legislation, it is illegal in the UK to make any statements which encourage or glorify terrorism, and also to recklessly make any statements which might indirectly encourage or glorify terrorism. Worse, it is illegal to access and possess information which could be used to commit acts of terrorism, unless you can prove that you have it for purposes other than terrorism. That means that not only could I not talk about actually blowing up the palace, but that I couldn’t gather information for blowing up a model palace unless I could prove that I was using it for artistic model purposes only.

So I decided to do all my research in public places, afterwards logging every site I visited and what my conclusions were. This was simultaneously a self-protection measure (honest, guv, I’ve nothing to hide!) and a way of absurdly satirising the surveillance state, especially in the age of social media: we are all surveilling each other, and we are all constantly under the eye of authoritarian surveillance. I wanted to taunt that state, to walk as close to its lines as I could without getting in too much trouble. In this, as with the blowing up itself, I am an incurably adolescent artist: I love thumbing my nose. But this was also just a good excuse for Doing Art in public: I like having public conversations, I like putting difficult ideas in public spaces and making them accessible.

The project hit its first major hurdle when the police actually came to visit. I’ve had enough interactions with the police that I wasn’t horrible spooked, but it was unpleasant and invasive nonetheless. And while previously I had been thumbing my nose at an imagined eye in the sky, now I knew I was actually being watched, and that I had to be properly careful. I’d also, after three public-research-performances, got a little weary of the idea: having done it three times (and always unpaid), did I still have a new point to make? Didn’t I just want to get on with making a bang? So the result of the police coming to visit is that I finished the research phase of the project in private. They may still have been watching (it’s not paranoia when they tell you they’re doing it), but I was no longer writing semi-ironic posts about explosives google searches. Instead, I teamed up with a retired fireworks engineer named Nigel Marsh to figure out how to blow up a big cardboard box in a suitably dramatic way. Doing it with someone more experienced made it far more likely to succeed, and doing it in private meant that I was much less likely to have someone turn up and tell me I wasn’t allowed to do it any more.

In retrospect, I’m sad that I didn’t push the public research component even further — it would have been interestingly risky and exciting to extensively document Nigel’s and my experiments, and it would have made an even bigger point if we got stopped — but on the other hand, bringing someone else into it required different considerations, and I’m glad we were able to make some bangs. I’m especially glad, because in September, very suddenly,  Nigel had passed away after his cancer returned. I was shocked and saddened — he was an extraordinary man — and deeply sorry that he wouldn’t be there to witness the final explosion. This performance is dedicated to him.

(video: nigel and me figuring out how to make the right size of bang)

For the record, here’s the method Nigel figured out with me: a much more stable and lower explosive variation on the bin bag bomb. We filled a three foot diameter latex balloon with household propane and oxygen in a 1:3.5 ratio, and detonated it with a long black powder fuse rigged to be more dramatically slow-burning. I absolutely genuinely do not recommend in any way trying this at home. Please don’t. And don’t take my recipe as accurate. Get a professional. Nigel had been blowing things up most of his life and knew what he was doing, and also we were way out in the countryside and just scared some cows and birds.  And for the record, DC C_____ and DS C_____, it is completely impossible to blow up the actual Palace of Holyroodhouse by inflating an enormous balloon with propane and oxygen and detonating it, so I won’t be publishing any calculations on how to do that. And I’m not encouraging anyone to take even a small explosive balloon inside to damage one of those lovely rooms. And, as always, I neither condone nor encourage the actual blowing up of actual public buildings, and will not be sharing my research with anyone who does in an encouraging way.

I have to say that last bit to stay on the right side of the law. This is a little frustrating, because I would like to have conversations with people about the history of propaganda by the deed, about why some political organisations blow up buildings, about how that’s what Nelson Mandela was in part imprisoned for, about why some people might think it’s a valid and useful tactic in some campaigns, but that it’s also been historically used by far-right groups, and that it scares me, and that I don’t know how to talk about it properly, and that I can’t talk about it properly because it’s against the law to talk about it in a direct and personal way. “I want to blow up buildings” is something I’ve said and I think is just on the right side of the law, but if I were to say “I think we should blow up buildings” that would definitely be illegal (so I am categorically not saying it).

I want to have these conversations, but as well as it being hard to have them, I’m not sure I have the right to have them. I grew up somewhere where there was no political violence (or rather, where all the political violence is perpetrated by the state on people who don’t look like me and who are mostly far away). “Blowing things up” means something different to me than to my friends from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, for a start; it means something different to all sorts of people from all sorts of places, and I wouldn’t be surprised if me talking so flippantly about it rubbed some of them up the wrong way. It probably ought to. My ability to do this comes from a place of privilege. I wanted to have a public conversation about rage and political violence , and for me one of the ways into that — one of the ways of making it more palatable to more people — was to dress it up in humour and cardboard and glitter.

But by the very act of making it accessible, I also risked not taking it seriously. All this was in my mind as I tried to find a home for the actual explosion. I was determined to do it at an official, funded performance festival — in part because I’m a working artist and need to get paid sometimes, but mainly because I wanted that official approval. This project was in part about art and the futility of art, and for those themes to be in depth I needed it to happen somewhere where it officially looked like art. All my fears about the police and seriousness and practicality were compounded when the project got rejection after rejection — more rejections than I’ve had for any other project, I think. I’m sure many of the festivals just didn’t like it (which is totally fine) but more than once the language of “this isn’t quite for us” indicated that it was just hard to find someone who would let me do an actual explosion (which is also reasonable). I was pretty despairing about the project, worrying that I’d spent six months barking up a ludicrous tree, when SPILL finally got back to me and said yes. I was delighted. I needed the context artistically, but sometimes a leg-up just feels good.

Harry Giles, 'I Want to Blow Up the Palace of Holyroodhouse', SPILL Festival of Performance 2014, photo (c) Guido Mencari.

I couldn’t have hoped for a better producer or for better support than SPILL. They were extraordinary in general, but two things were particularly delightful: they got Ipswich Borough Council to approve my explosives plan, and they secured a decommissioned police station for me to do it in. My gas canisters were kept in a former police dog kennel, and I built my cardboard model in a former interview and search room. Thanks to this, the project gained whole new layers of meaning: it had the official art context, but it also had municipal approval, and it also got to rudely repurpose a former hive of cops. The project was naughty enough to get police attention and to seem hilarious to perform in a police station, but nice enough to get the council and festival green light: exactly the line I was trying to walk.

Derrick Jensen wrote “Every morning when I awake I ask myself whether I should write or blow up a dam. I tell myself I should keep writing, though I’m not sure that’s right”, and that’s been a guiding quotation for this project. Why do I make art about blowing things up rather than actually blowing things up? (Of course, “I don’t condone or encourage actually blowing things up.”) More broadly: Why do I make political art more often than I engage in political action? More personally: Why can’t I find the motivation to do direct action as much as I used to, and am I always going to feel guilty about doing art instead? More abstractly: Why does art feel like such a cheap substitute for politics sometimes, and such a brilliant form of politics at other times? All of this is compounded by doing officially-sanctioned political art: I want to make risky performance, but if it’s approved by a Borough Council, can it truly be that risky? Does the fact of doing something which can get public funding mean that it’s not actually worth doing, politically? Is I Want to Blow Up the Palace of Holyroodhouse actually a form of radical politics, or is it just the image of radical politics projected onto a cardboard model? I’m happy to have been able to ask these questions, and asking them makes me feel less worried about them. (Which may in itself be a problem.)

As well as building my palace at SPILL, I spent three days inviting people to make cardboard models of buildings that made them angry — models that were also scheduled for demolition in the climactic event. I encouraged everyone to cover the things they hate in glitter, and asked them pointed questions about what it all meant. “Why are you angry at this building?” and “How will it feel to destroy it?” were good starters, but the best question was always “So, do you actually want to blow up the building this building, or just the symbol of it?” The question caught most people off guard, as if they hadn’t realised that blowing up actual buildings was an option. And they had to think about this question more than any of the others. Again the question of accessibility-vs-seriousness arose: I created a space where we got to have fun and have difficult conversations, but it was very hard to balance both. I think I erred too far on the side of fun throughout, and should have pushed people for more conversation as we played with crepe paper and glue. Finding ways to structure those conversations is important for me to figure out.

Harry Giles, 'I Want to Blow Up the Palace of Holyroodhouse', SPILL Festival of Performance 2014, photo (c) Guido Mencari.

And then there was the bang, or the pop. I spent an hour setting up the building, the cardboard city around it, and rigging the explosion. People started to gather. It was a completely new sort of performance for me, and I hadn’t realised I was going to do it: normally I’m a host, a talker, an extroverted performer, but here was an audience primed to watch people do strange thing in silence, and I was rigging a pink balloon explosion in a glitter city. I had ear protectors round my neck and goggles on my forehead; it was great fun. I gave a speech, setting the context, and I lit the fuse.

I don’t know exactly what went wrong. It was supposed to go more bang than it did, and I repeated the method I’d practiced with. I suspect that at one stage too much propane leaked out of the balloon, or that otherwise the propane:oxygen ratio went out of whack. The walls of the palace shook, but remained standing. As planned, to finish the job, the audience rushed in to tear everything to pieces instead. I can’t say I’m not a little disappointed. To see my beautiful horrible palace ripped to shreds by an explosion would have been extraordinarily cathartic. But that it took our hands to destroy it is still hugely in keeping with the ideas of the project: I refuse to call it a failure or apologise for it, or rather, the kind of failure we performed was itself a riotous success. Because the actual Palace of Holyroodhouse is still standing, and it hasn’t been converted into social housing, and one symbolic performance can’t change that. Unless, somehow, it can. Thinking about this, but talking about another project, I wrote this to a friend:

I’m not interested in all types of political failure, and I don’t want to fetishise failure in a world of suffering. But I do want to talk about our failures, our losses, and how we keep going in the face of them, and I think that’s vital and important.
Because I do want revolution, but I don’t want apocalypse. By which I mean, I don’t want a lifting of the veil: I don’t believe that there will be a revolution and that after that all oppression will be gone and everything will be fine. I believe that there will always be oppression, and that we will always need revolution to fight it, and that revolution will always be ongoing, BUT ALSO that things can get a hell of a lot better. So I don’t think there’s a “there” to get to that we’re failing to get to, but I do think there is a journey. I’m worried that if I did enough reading I’d stop believing in any time’s arrow of history, but I do for now.
There are two codas to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The whole project was bought and sponsored by Florian Feigl through Auction Achtung!, an excellent experiment in what it means to sell live art. Florian bought “the right to be credited in all communication materials about the performance as the owner of the explosion; the explosion; moral responsibility for the explosion; and all physical and emotional remnants of the explosion”. This post-explodem is thus dedicated to him as his emotional remnants, while this beautiful presentation box of cardboard scraps is on its way to Berlin to be part of his physical artistic collection:
Harry Giles, 'I Want to Blow Up the Palace of Holyroodhouse', SPILL Festival of Performance 2014, photo (c) Guido Mencari.
As part of selling the performance, I agreed that I “will not reperform this explosion”, reserving “the right to commit other aesthetically distinct acts of non-terrorism in the future”. I Want to Blow Up the Palace of Holyroodhouse is now over. However, it has given birth to a new project, scratched at Arches LIVE and incorporated into the performance at SPILL, called SMASHY SMASHY. In SMASHY SMASHY, participants build and destroy a city of cardboard and glitter; it grew from I Want to Blow Up… but it’s about more things, and it’s not about my rage: it’s about your rage. It will be coming back. It hopes to see you soon.
smashysmashytext
All photos (c) Guido Mencari, SPILL Festival of Performance 2014