We would like to congratulate Yijie (Ink) Gao, who recently joined WSA as a PhD student, on her win for the MLH Best Hardware Hack prize in the February 2021 Highfield Hack competition.
Ink and her Digi-Key collaborators built Gua, a “viable monster robot living in the garbage dump of the wasteland era”, a kind of robotic pet who can interact with humans whilst demonstrating innate characteristics. Gua aims to address the benefits of pet ownership for humans, articulating the qualities and behaviours of a real-life pet.
Ink’s description of this fantastic and thoughtful project can be found here, including the original inspiration as well as the outcomes of the team’s creativity.
Recent PhD alumna Noriko Suzuki-Bosco and current PhD student Lesia Tkacz recently ran a fantastic workshop which introduced participants to computer-generated novels. Below, Noriko shares some details.
PhD student Lesia Tkacz asked me to help her design and organise a computer generated novel workshop. I suggested that the workshop should be collaborative, and together we designed it so that the participants would be able to work with us as fellow authors. The workshop was for the Human Worlds Festival which the University of Southampton was running as part of the UK’s national Being Human festival in November. I didn’t know anything about computer generated novels but I really enjoyed working with Lesia for the Lockdown Larder Cookbook project, so I said yes. The aim of the workshop was to create a ‘mash-up’ style generated novel using a program that Lesia would write. Participants would select texts which would then be computationally processed to produce the generative novel. I liked that the collaborative element of the workshop would further complicate our thinking around the roles of the author and of the machine. I also thought the whole process sounded a bit like making a communal stew, which made it seem accessible, even for a non-technical person like me.
What is a computer generated novel?
All computer generated texts can be algorithmically produced from data such as images, spreadsheets, or other texts. Computer generated novels are a form of creative text generation because the programmer has prioritised creativity over functionality. Prioritizing creativity often results in generated texts which can contain surprises and unusual use of language. Generated novels are therefore different from more practical computer generated texts like the weather, sports, finance, and election reports we read in news media, because the latter prioritise factuality, grammatical coherence and clarity while often ignoring creativity.
Indeed, when Lesia showed me an example of a computer generated novel, I was slightly taken back by its strangeness. Lesia explained that this was because language processing technology was still very limited when compared to the traditional ‘human’ written texts which have interesting narratives, rich character development, and can sustain semantic coherence. In recent years, however, creative text generation has been gaining attention in digital culture where it has been used for creative experimentation with language and with AI tools, for cultural critique, expression, for comic entertainment through chance and absurdity, and for parody and pastiche through the computational altering or remixing of literary works.
Furthermore, Lesia described that current computer generated novels were not meant to be ‘read’ in the conventional way from start to end. Rather they should be read in bits or skimmed through, picking up any interesting or intriguing sentence structures or word combinations. As I scanned through the text and skipped from one section to the next, I found myself creating my own rhythm of ‘reading’ and warming to the weird but strangely addictive generated texts.
The WSA Computer Generated Novel Workshop
We decided to offer an extra workshop session for the PGR community at WSA as we thought it would be fun to involve them in the process of creative text generation and to engage in conversation around this emerging form of literature.
The workshop would produce a 50,000-word computer generated novel that would be entered into the National Novel Generation Month (NaNoGenMo) 2020 challenge. NaNoGenMo is an annual online challenge which asks participants to use computer code to generate a work of 50,000 words or more.
Six people signed up to take part in the WSA session. They were asked to watch a lecture about generative text creation prior to the workshop and to select one or more texts from Project Gutenberg that would become computationally processed to create the generated novel. We asked them to select text(s) that resonated with the idea of ‘being human’ to reflect this year’s Human Worlds Festival theme ‘Being Human as Praxis’.
Here is the list of the texts that were selected:
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
An Honest Thief by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Kawidan by Lafcadio Hearn
The Works of Edgar Allen Poe (Vol. II)
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Grimm’s Fairy Tales by Brothers Grimm
The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication by Charles Darwin
The list shows the varied nature of the texts but interestingly they fell into three general themes – human behaviour and experience, the supernatural, and the animal.
During the workshop, Lesia shared the computer programming code that she had written using the Python programming language and the Markov chain tool Markovify to demonstrate what actually happens behind the scenes when we say, ‘the computer is processing the text’.
Six different versions of the generated novel were produced and the participants spent a little time ‘reading’ through the texts to decide which was to be their final version to enter the NaNoGenMo 2020 challenge.
Discussions around authorship and creativity ensued as we questioned whether the resulting text was human or machine authored. The collaborative nature of the workshop further complicated this query. The unconventional ‘reading’ experience also generated dialogues on practices of reading. ‘Are we reading?’, one participant asked. We wondered whether we were making concessions to the machine because we were trying to make sense of what we were reading. I also noticed the participants making more references to visual and sensory forms of interactions whilst engaging with the generated text.
At the end of the workshop, a collective decision was made as to which version of the generated novel would be entered to the NaNoGenMo 2020 challenge. A title, configured from words in
The Apollo and the Dragon-King: wild and semi-wild rabbits was entered to the NaNoGenMo 2020 challenge and we felt that we should have an official book launch to celebrate. We invited all of the authors to come to the book launch dressed up in the character from their chosen text(s) or inspired by the mash-up nature of the final text.
After the opening speech, the link to the submitted novel was shared. This was followed by Lesia’s dramatic reading of excerpts from the novel and a game of textual scavenger hunt where we had to find as many references to animals as we could in 3 minutes. The scavenger hunt was great fun and, interestingly, it also made us reflect on alternative ways to engage with text. ‘Maybe generated novels should be read in a group’, pondered Lesia.
Lesia and I are hoping to create a physical version of the generated novel, which may also give us opportunities to engage with the text in material ways. What if we drew pictures, made comments in the margins, rearranged the paragraphs or attached additional pages?
How would our interventions into the material matters of the book influence our reading of the computer generated novel? Would it affect how we think about the role of the author and machine?
I think Lesia and I will have to have a little chat to see how we can come up with another project to take these ideas further.
By way of a welcome back from the Winter Break, a link to some interesting reading: Yiğit Soncul (recent PhD alumnus; now Associate Lecturer at UAL) and Jussi Parikka (Professor in Technological Culture & Aesthetics at WSA) on the significance of the mask. The essay is published in issue 66, “State of Emergency”, of Neural, of which WSA’s Alessandro Ludovico is the chief editor. It can also be read here.
One thing the pandemic revealed was the strong sense of community amongst WSA’s staff and PGRs. Below, Noriko Suzuki-Basco (then a PhD candidate and now an alumna) reflects on her Covid-19 project with Lesia Tkacz (currently a PhD candidate), The Lockdown Larder Cookbook Challenge.
Boundary2’s online journal recently published a special issue, edited by WSA’s Ryan Bishop, on “Frictionless Sovereignty”. The special issue can be accessed from the journal’s website. Here, Ryan talks about the collaborations and research interests from which the special issue grew.
Berit Fischer (http://www.beritfischer.org), a recent WSA PhD graduate, is curating an exciting three-day live online event (10-12 Dec 2020), Liminal Encounters. Details are below; registration and full details of the programme are at this link.
John Beck & Ryan Bishop Technocrats of the Imagination, recently published by Duke University Press, is about a particularly striking form of interdisciplinarity: the Cold War cooperation between the military-industrial complex and avant-garde art. Below, Ryan shares some of the background related to how he came to co-author the book, the experience of writing the book and the continued necessity of understanding the Cold War.
The right to look is not about seeing. It begins at a personal level with the look into someone else’s eyes to express friendship, solidarity, or love. That look must be mutual, each person inventing the other, or it fails … It is the claim to a subjectivity that has the autonomy to arrange the relations of the visible and the sayable. The right to look confronts the police who say to us, ‘Move on, there’s nothing to see here.’ Only there is, and we know it and so do they.1
Winchester School of Art became an Associate of Tate Exchangein 2017 and staged its first main event,Building an Art Biennale, in May 2018. The second,Itinerant Objects, took place in April 2019. A podcast project, Nothing to See Here, was due to be the School’s third project. It was being developed in response to Tate Exchange’s annual theme of power for 2020, but was one of many events cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In lieu of this project an dialogue was held between Nicholas Mirzoeff (who has been a scheduled guest) and Sunil Manghani, and is posted as a ‘Research Feature’ on the Tate website.
Tate Exchange at Tate Modern opened in 2016 and describes itself as an open experiment exploring the role of art in society. It offers a unique platform that combines curation, education and social participation. In doing so, it brings together the work of international artists, members of the public and contributions from over sixty ‘Associates’ who represent an array of organisations, large and small, from diverse fields within and beyond the arts, including education, youth engagement, health and wellbeing, and community advocacy. Crucially, Tate Exchange has afforded its Associates a great deal of freedom to devise and curate their own contributions for an annual themed programme, allowing for an entire floor of Tate Modern’s new building to be dedicated to participatory artworks, workshops, activities and debates.
As a collaboration between two Associates, Winchester School of Art and Stance Podcast, the project, Nothing to See Here, had sought to foster social proximity with three other Tate Exchange Associates – Valleys Kids, People Empowering People, and John Hansard Gallery – each of which work in highly creative ways, deep within local communities (way outside of the ‘art world’ bubble), often working through very live issues of social and economic hardships. Everyone involved was due to join together to produce a podcast series, which would explore the value of art and creativity as it actually takes places within the local circumstances of the collaborating Associates. The series was to be launched at a special event at Tate Modern at which the audio would provide an invisible soundscape across the entire floor of Tate Exchange, which would otherwise be completely ‘empty’ (‘nothing to see there’). A dedicated forum had been planned, inviting the collaborating Associates and their communities, guest speakers and members of the public, to engage in critical dialogue about the ‘values’ of art and creativity, about the voices that are allowed to be heard, and the right for us to look.
One such guest speaker was Nicholas Mirzoeff, Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, and author and editor of key texts on visual culture, including An Introduction to Visual Culture (1999), Diaspora and Visual Culture: Representing Africans and Jews (2000), Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture (2005), The Right to Look: A Counter-History of Visuality (2011) and How to See the World (2015). Mirzoeff had been a key inspiration for the project concept, not least due to his use of the phrase ‘nothing to see here’. As it turned out, however, there really was going to be nothing to see.
The COVID-19 health crisis swept across the globe just as the project was finding its footing; just as the collaborators were working out when and where they could meet, among their other pressing activities and duties. There was a great deal of good will, excitement and anticipation for what this ‘open brief’ project was going to bring. Yet, as country after country went into lockdown, social distancing rules were being enforced precisely when the project collaborators were working towards proximity and exchange. As a form of observing the ‘passing’ of this event, to acknowledge the fact that nothing can now be shown for its endeavour, and yet that this very precarity of our right to be seen was always at the heart of the project, the following interview with Nicholas Mirzoeff explores some of the conceptual concerns, which also, inevitably, come to be framed within this unprecedented global event.