Articles LX 2019


-Par Jules Villa, membre du pôle rédaction de l’équipe LX 2019

Last January winter break, 12 master students went to Boston on a 10-day trip funded by the Center for Entrepreneurship of SciencesPo. This unique opportunity, called the Learning Expedition, enabled them to talk about Deep Tech and the Boston ecosystem with entrepreneurs, investors and professors.

These interviews aim at introducing the French public to notions of computational art, or more specifically, computational poetry, two words that might appear strange to associate. As part of their visit to MIT, the Sciences Po students met with Professor Nick Monfort in his office, also known as the Trope Tank, to discuss recent trends in computational poetic practices, as well as emerging digital media. You want to know what computational poetry is ? Let’s find out together !

This fascinating interview highlights some of the key points that were mentioned during our meeting.

Professor Nick Monfort, explaining students the origins of the enter key : the carriage return of the typewriter!

On the website of the Trope Tank, the lab you direct, its mission is defined as the development of new poetic practices and new understandings of digital media by focusing on the material, formal, and historical aspects of computation and language. How does that translate in your everyday research?

Our everyday work here includes “research” in the traditional sense, but also teaching and artistic practice. So we study historical computing systems, as scholars, using the resources of the lab among other resources. We also build computational models of poetic practices in the verbal arts; that is a major research push this semester, in our oral poetics project. And, we explore and inquire by developing new artistic and literary projects, sometimes on “classic” computers and sometimes on present-day ones. We did this in 2017 by writing very short creative programs from week to week and discussing them.

In our discussions, we talked a lot about art and creation. In addition to teaching, you are both a poet and a computational poet. To create, you often work on older operating systems (OS), why is that so?

As digital art and digital media creators, we are always influenced by the computer platforms we use. I write many creative programs for the Web (in ES6, the current version of JavaScript) and write programs in Python.

In some ways, with more historical distance, it is easier to see how the platform participates in supporting and constraining creativity.

But, yes, I also write creative programs for systems such as the Commodore 64, a computer that was introduced in 1982. In some ways, with more historical distance, it is easier to see how the platform participates in supporting and constraining creativity. Also, there are different communities of practice involved with each different programming language and platform. The people working on the Commodore 64 are doing interesting work. I am glad to be one of them!

Some of the machines that can be found in the Trope Tank

When we met, you mentioned your will to endure the constraints of older systems such as the ones of the Commodore 64 when creating. Doesn’t it limit artistic creation though? Isn’t there some sort of repression inherent to the system you are working with?

I don’t see working with any computer system as “enduring constraints.” Constraints are the same as possibilities. You can say “I only have 16 colors!” but you could also say “Wow — I have 16 colors!” Or you could say “I can only make something computational happen by writing a computer program!” or, alternatively, “How wonderful, I can make something computational happen by writing a computer program!”

I think of working with “constraints” in the latter way, from the standpoint of “what can I do with this very interesting set of possibilities?”. Writing something for the browser in HTML with ES6 requires just as much sensitivity to platform as does programming the Commodore 64.

I am in conversation with the developers of platforms

You are bringing in the metaphorical system of repression, resistance, and endurance. This is not in the computer; it is in the way you are thinking about the computer. You can imagine yourself as repressed or not.

I think of what I do with computational art in a framework of exploration, creativity, and inquiry, and I consider that I am in conversation with the developers of platforms — whether the Commodore 64 or the modern-day Web browser. So, that is my framework and my metaphorical system.

Your understanding of constraints as being similar to possibilities, therefore fueling creation, makes me think of Raymond Queneau or Georges Perec’s writings. What are the main analogies and differences you see with respect to your work?

The work of the Oulipo has been extremely important to me — the explorations of Queneau and Perec as well as those of Italo Calvino and Harry Mathews, not to mention members of the group still living.

I use explicit constraints of various sorts to stimulate both my “ordinary” writing and my development of computational poetry

I use explicit constraints of various sorts to stimulate both my “ordinary” writing and my development of computational poetry. I teach the Oulipo’s discoveries in potential literature to my students, to help them understand language and literature better and to help them develop as writers.

I have been writing, for many years, a book-length poem, “All the Way for the Win,” which is composed entirely of three-letter words. This involves some computer assistance but is fundamentally a constrained writing project of the sort the Oulipo pioneered. When it comes to developing computational poems, I often choose a size limit and programming language that provides an additional constraint beyond the computer platform itself. I have done many projects that are, for instance, one-line BASIC programs for the Commodore 64, and have written Python programs that are no more than one page long.

Now, the constrained writing practices of the Oulipo are a major part of my practice as a literary artist, but are not exactly the same as platform constraints and possibilities. When you send an email, I doubt you know that no line in your message can exceed 998 characters in length, according to an Internet standard. You are probably very well aware — more than many people in my country — that there are some computing contexts in which only ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) characters can be used, so it is impossible to add grave and acute accents to vowels or to type a c with a cedilla.

Only if we are sensitive to platforms and their limitations can we understand how to best use computing within culture.

If someone wants to present French words properly — or even correctly use certain words that are also part of the English language, such as résumé and façade — it is important to understand where ASCII is in place as the only option for character encoding, and where other formats are used. Only if we are sensitive to platforms and their limitations (which are, of course, also their capabilities) can we understand how to best use computing within culture. Being sensitive to how computing exists within culture allows us to produce good and creative work, but it also helps us as we try to be inclusive of different languages, writing systems, and perspectives.

Digital humanities and experimental writing are taught in the Comparative Media Studies Department at MIT

We also had the possibility to discuss with Judy Heflin, a MIT master student doing her thesis under the supervision of professor Montfort.

How would you describe the research questions that you are tacking? How is the MIT environment interesting for these matters? 

I’m currently working on a master’s thesis about literary AI-generated text that is printed and sold in the form of a book. I’m looking into the very specific ways that computational methods of text generation can have literary meaning, especially from a more traditional literary framework. Part of this research involves studying the history of computational creative writing projects, and the Trope Tank at MIT is the perfect place to do this.  I’m currently a Research Assistant for Nick Montfort who is one of the foremost computational poets of our time. He runs the Trope Tank at MIT, which houses an amazing archive of not only printed books of computer-generated literature, but all kinds of electronic literature pieces along with working versions of the systems that they were originally created for. For example, being able to read bpNichol’s First Screening on a functional Apple IIe is just one of the many exciting research opportunities that the Trope Tank provides, an opportunity you had when you visited us!

How do you explain that, except in sci-fi, technology is often absent, even in contemporary literature?  

Nobody knows what systems will stick around and for how long and what their effects will be.

Technology is a very difficult thing to write about, especially when it is new. Nobody knows what systems will stick around and for how long and what their effects will be. There’s a longstanding debate in literature about whether or not you should sacrifice timelessness for brand or tech specificity. Each one has advantages and disadvantages, but I think in general, writers of literary fiction tend to stay away from these sorts of specifics, although there are some writers who embrace them wholeheartedly.  Of course, no matter what you write, you’ll end up mentioning some sort of technology, whether it’s telephones, trains, utensils, or even something as simple as a street. All of these things are human technologies, but once they are around long enough, they cease to be novel, and start to be an unquestioned part of the way things are. Science fiction and speculative fiction are often more free from these kinds of constraints and allow writers to explore the possibilities of future tools, which are often extreme versions of contemporary developments that provide meaningful reflection on a technology-ingrained life.  

The filming industry is quite different: a recent example of an interesting way tech was used to foster creation was the interactive movie Bandersnatch, on Netflix since December 2018. To what extent is the industry realizing the potential of innovation for art? 

With Bandersnatch, it was exciting to see a powerful cultural force like Netflix start to experiment with the affordances of their unique platform. There have been artists and creators working on these kinds of innovations for a long time, but I’m very interested in mainstream integrations of technical specificity that are used for narrative purposes. To me, the best and most interesting of these projects are ones that seamlessly use a unique aspect of a technical medium to add meaning to a narrative. Although I don’t think that Bandersnatch reached that level of seamless integration, there was a lot that I appreciated about it and it made me hopeful for future experimental projects from mainstream publishers. It was interesting to see their portrayal of 1980’s gaming culture in the UK, and to see the actors working on the ZX Spectrum, a personal computer from the early eighties. We actually have one of these systems in the Trope Tank as well!  

It’s about figuring out through which tools the story you want to tell will be best told.

Could reshaping the medium be a solution to better convey the message in your opinion? To take the case of the declining publishing industry, could tech save both authors and publishers in making people read more? 

When you’re writing for any medium, it’s important to first consider the constraints that are specific to that method of storytelling. A good story is optimized for its medium. This is why you can’t just directly translate a novel into a screenplay or vice versa. I don’t think reshaping mediums is the way to go, although new platforms and mediums for storytelling are certainly exciting to me. It’s more about figuring out through which tools the story you want to tell will be best told.  As for the publishing industry, the printed codex book is still my favorite medium. I think that in a fast-paced, hyper-connected world, the ability to sit quietly with a long-form text that not only authors, but teams of people at publishing houses worked on meticulously, is one of the most satisfying forms of communication. I’m excited about ways that tech can change the experience of writing and reading literature, and I’m working on my own novel that is partially generated through computational means, but I’m also just optimistic about the future of books in general. I don’t think they’re going away.

If you want to know more, please check out Nick’s website as well as Judy’s, that we both warmly thank for receiving us in the Trope Tank and introducing us to their work through this interview.

Do you want to apply for the next Learning Expedition? Applications are open until April 18th 2019! We will visit the Startup Nation in Tel Aviv! (The project is still funded by the Centre pour l’Entrepreneuriat de Sciences Po) → To apply:

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