BCNM at ELO 2019

20 Aug, 2019

BCNM at ELO 2019

It was fantastic to see Alex Saum-Pascual and alum Kyle Booten presenting at the Electronic Literature Organization conference of 2019 in Cork, Ireland!

Alex participated in "Generational shifts and critical peripheries: electronic literature’s social function," chaired by Leonardo Flores (Appalachian State University) with Rui Torres (University Fernando Pessoa) & Eugenio Tisselli (Independent Artist).

From the description:

This panel interrogates conceptions of e-lit as a field, its social function, and how it situates itself in relation to literary and digital culture, experimental and mainstream art, high and popular culture. Flores will draw lessons from 3rd generation e-lit to suggest ways the ELO community can expand its audience, capitalize on developing markets, and build bridges across 2nd and 3rd generations to benefit both experimental and popular aesthetic practices. Saum will define postweb literature as a type of 3rd generation literature that is fully aware of the role of the web in almost all of today’s literary creation. In postweb works digital media and the web are no longer seen as a novelty, but as a sign of our present time, inevitably changing the way writers relate to the past, history, and their record.

Finally, Torres and Tisselli will provide a counterpoint by critiquing proprietary technologies commonly present in 3rd gen literature. They will discuss how the digital reader/writer might choose to adapt to a regime that commodifies literature as content, or to adopt its discourse in order to subvert it and produce bifurcations that may give shape to a critical periphery. The participants will performatively explore the tensions that arise from the destabilizing potentials of the new platforms and technologies that rapidly integrate into the practice of e-lit, and from the contrasting worldviews that inform its production and reception.

Kyle Booten & Dan Rockmore (Neukom Institute, Dartmouth College) presented "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (of the Artist)." From the description:

There exists a rift in contemporary culture of computational poetry generation. On the one hand, a vibrant poet-programmer scene has emerged around certain arts-focused conferences (e.g. ELO), online events (e.g. #nanogenmo/#napogenmo), spaces (e.g. NYC's Babycastles), and publication venues (e.g. Nick Montfort's On the other, computer scientists working on Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing, and related fields publish scientific research on generating literary texts. The epistemological divide between these two groups can be seen most readily in the latter's focus on using empirical tests to assess work. These tests may be intrinsic (e.g. a quantitative measure of the linguistic features of computer-generated poetry), but they are often extrinsic (e.g. based on human judgments of whether a poem possesses qualities such as humor or coherence). Underwriting much (though not all) of this activity is the notion of the Turing Test and its assumed goal of computer-generated text that can pass as human-authored. Clearly, a great variety of work produced by the former group, poetprogrammers, does not lend itself to this kind of empirical testing; more often these works refuse to dissemble, instead radically foregrounding their non- or post-human qualities.

The point of this paper will be to reconsider the peripheral status within the e-lit community of the kind of text generation that takes as its goal the emulation of human-produced literary discourse. As this paper’s title suggests, our main point of theoretical departure is Walter Benjamin’s classic account of the way that mechanical reproduction threatens art’s “aura” by obliterating the distance between art and its consumer. Likewise, Vilém Flusser (_Does Writing Have a Future?_) imagined that computer-generated poetry requires the writer-programmer to “dissect” their experience, fracturing it into the smallest logical units possible in order to be calculable and thus turned into a model of human cognition. What is “mechanically reproduced,” then, is not so much the poem but the poet. What do we learn about ourselves, our experiences, and our perception when we subject them to algorithmic “dissection”? What notions of the human do we reproduce or produce anew when we model the mind or minds? How do contemporary computational paradigms (e.g. deep learning) constrain this representation? Where is the consonance between human and computational thought, and where is the dissonance? What remains mysterious, distant, unmodellable? The goal of this paper is not to answer these meta-questions but rather to suggest that to turn entirely away from “emulation” as a goal is to evade them. In an era when algorithmic agents increasingly imitate humans, corporate interests are very happy to pursue these questions on their own terms, determining what aspects of humanity are worth emulating and to what ends. Artist- and researcher-led “imitation games” are one way of wresting back this prerogative; our talk will reflect on these questions in light of the Turing Tests in the Creative Arts at Dartmouth College.

Kyle also chaired the Artist Forum with Jesse Vigil & Martzi Campos (University of Southern California), Katherine Morayati (Independent Artist), Eric Murnane (University of Central Florida), and Terhi Marttila (University of Porto).

Kyle presented his piece "Fragile Pulse: A Meditation App." Description below:

As N. Katherine Hayles has argued, the proliferation of digital media has radically transformed the ways in which we pay attention, privileging a kind of frantic and promiscuous “hyper attention” over the sustained “deep attention” traditionally solicited by long-form print media. “Fragile Pulse: A Meditation App” invites the reader to consider the ways that computational media may indeed cause what has been called “digital distraction” but may also be used in the context of regimes of self-care and self-quantification to increase our capacity to pay attention deeply. While tools for measuring, testing, and training for one's body and mind are widely popular (from the Fitbit to meditation apps like Headspace), the theme of self-care is generally peripheral to the electronic literature community.

“Fragile Pulse” takes the form of a digital text/web application that encourages the viewer to pay attention to attention. Using data from the webcam and microphone, it quantifies the reader's bodily stillness and quietness. When the reader is still and quiet, a calmly pulsating text unfolds on the screen, guiding the reader through a meditation. However, when the program detects movement or noise above a certain threshold, signaling distraction, the screen becomes filled with “stray thoughts” generated on-the-fly via a natural language processing. Visually, these stray thoughts (shards of hyper attention) cover up the meditative text, blinking and wiggling to further emphasize their status as distractions. Echoing the way that digital/social media can foster anxiety and depression, this text generation system models the way a mind can slip from harmless distractions to anxious obsessions. Only the viewer's silence and stillness dispel these computer-generated distractions and re-launch the human-authored meditative text. This piece thus raises questions not only about attention but also about the ways that digital technologies of self-care enforce regimes of (sometimes extreme) cognitive and physical discipline. Hayles, N. K. (2007). Hyper and deep attention: The generational divide in cognitive modes. Profession, 2007(1), 187-199.

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