This is a written-up, not-verbatim version of the notes that I used for a quick Aug 2015 talk at WordHack.
In Summer 2015, I had the opportunity to go to the School for Poetic Computation during their summer session on code poetry. It felt like a definite departure from my usual practice, which is game design. Most of the stuff I make is about creating bounded scenarios in which people interact with each other in funny, competitive, and unpredictable ways. SFPC was the first time I started to play with the intersection of code and language. It’s a new arm of my practice, but it feels like a natural overlap: the setting up of rules to generate unpredictable outputs.
It’s not quite true to say that SFPC was the first time I played with that intersection, to be fair. The first time was 2nd Amendment.
Excellent pull quote:
“A few game developers decided that for some reason, Unity, the 3D game engine, is the perfect medium for a text adventure. Amazingly, it turns out that they were right.” - Kotaku
I’ve talked a lot about 2nd Amendment before, so I’ll keep this short and sweet. 2nd Amendment was the product of us being interested inhow we can take super powerful tools and use them in the worst way possible. Ramiro, Anthony, and I were taking a Unity3D class where the final was basically to make any interactive world built with Unity.
Now, Unity is this super-powerful game development tool, primarily for fancy, hi-res, AAA-style games, especially FPSes. Despite, or maybe because of, that, none of us could think up any ideas that grabbed us–until Ramiro and Anthony joked about building a text adventure in Unity. Our uncontrollable laughter was the key indicator that we were on some sort of weird track that might pay off.
It was an interesting place to start brainstorming, and one I’ve ended up using a lot: to think about the absolute limits of whatever you’re working with, to use your tools for the thing they’re worst at while ignoring the things they’re best at. When you start to explore the margins of a tool, you get these interesting and ridiculous and often magical things.
When Was The Last
At SFPC, I was still really interested in interactive projects that are broken on purpose (like 2nd Amendment), or leave big gaps for users or viewers to fill in. With regard to the latter, I’ve been especially fascinated by the human impulse to create stories, even from things that we might believe are truly arbitrary and random. (Tarot is a good example for me: regardless of how little I believe in mysticism, every tarot reading I do naturally forms a narrative around the thing I’m asking.) I wanted to explore this impulse to find stories and create moments for reflection through a purposefully vague digital experience.
When was the last might be the simplest thing I’ve ever made. It’s just white text against a black wall, with the prompt “When was the last time you felt [x] and [y] at the same time?” projected against it. Two emotional states are chosen at random from a list of emotions, and the emotions change every four seconds. You can see it here.
That’s it. For a career programmer, it was almost unnervingly simple. And yet, I found people standing in front of it and staring for far longer than I expected. I found myself doing exactly what I did with tarot cards and horoscopes: feeling my brain start to wake up and search around for a story or a memory long gone that fit the prompt. The rapid cycling of the prompts kept everything short and sweet and impactful, giving just a few seconds for reflection and the sudden recollection of a meaningful moment in the viewer’s life.
I really liked it.
It is a different friction
Sarah Groff Palermo and Allison Parrish may have blown my mind the most at SFPC. The former taught the development of programming languages (no projects from me there… yet) and the latter taught computational poetry. I remember how excited I was when I realized I could start to play with cutting up and remixing language just from my command line. I’ll admit I spent a couple lunch hours at my day job just recombining text.
Choosing a good source text, however, was hard. I started thinking about the outside sources we use for self-affirmation and guidance–those things I mentioned earlier, like tarot, where even though we might believe they’re random, we find flashes of meaning in them anyway. I started to play with the text of horoscopes, thinking that might be a good start.
I looked up a zodiac match profile for me and my partner, who’ve been together for 8 years, thinking our ~true love~ might lead to some loveliness. But to my surprise, our match profile was super negative! The entire profile was basically saying that we could never, ever, ever work together.
This made me cranky. Shuffling this text, I decided, seemed like a way to interrupt the fixed and rigid nature of this prediction. Maybe I could cast some of it in a new light by reorganizing it in a way that was still decently faithful to the source text.
It is a different friction is a set of chapbooks, in which the text from this prediction is cut up, shuffled, rearranged, and lightly edited to form a series of poems about relationships. There are five different covers, each with a different constellation randomly generated in Processing.
What I liked about this project was that this process interruped the rigidity of these predictions, allowing algorithmic chance and human choice to influence the kind of relationship the source text originally forecasted. This was me as Sarah Connor scratching “NO FATE” into the picnic table. And who doesn’t want art that lets them feel like that?
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