Combinatory Poetics with Scott Rettberg

Well, thanks a lot. It’s been a great
sabbatical semester here, very short it seems like now. The last time I
was on sabbatical, it started out really
cold in Chicago. And I got a bunch of work done. And then it sort of opened
into the spring and warmth of creativity. And here it seems like,
you know, the reverse where I’ve got to get all the
work done at the end and walk outside. But it’s always better than
Bergen. It’s not raining. Bergen is very
pretty, by the way. I shouldn’t discourage
you from coming. $99 is insane if that remains. And we’ll put you up. And you can come
over for dinner. I want to talk a little bit– AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] SCOTT RETTBERG: Yeah. I think they cut it
off, because nobody wants to go to Bergen or
Providence this time of year. I want to talk a
little bit today about combinatory
digital poetics. I’ll try to give you a
very brief background. I’m sort of adapting a talk that
I did for like 2 and 1/2 hours last week in Berkeley for
about 40 minutes here today. And I want to get
to some of the work. Many of you I know
will be familiar with some of these concepts, so
I’ll sort of rush through them. But I just wanted to mention
that combinatory work or generative work is
actually the first genre of electronic literature. A lot of people who
work with other forms, with kinetic poetry,
with story generation, even with hypertext,
integrate this as an element of their practice. Certainly, John
who’s in the room, particularly much
of his early work was using combinatory techniques
in a very interesting way. But to come back to sort of
where it comes from originally, Tristan Tzara of
the Dada suggested how to become a
great poet, which was to take the newspaper of
the day, cut it into strips. Cut out the article,
put it into a bag. Shake it gently, remove
one cutting after the order in which they emerge. Copy conscientiously, and then
the poem will be like you. And you will now become an
infinitely original writer with a charming
sensitivity, although still misunderstood by
the common people. And that sounds funny. But actually, you
know, I regularly do this with students. And it’s interesting when
you take the news of the day, and you jumble it
up, and you represent it to yourself in a way
that the syntax has changed and so forth. You actually do end
up with something that is both
defamiliarizing and poetic and interesting in that sense. Of course, they were trying to
contest nationalism and contest sort of the hegemony of
that form of language by sort of going
back to the roots, to the utter basis of language. Surrealist writing
games and drawing games are also sort of an example
of embracing the randomness and sort of the
collective unconscious that the Surrealists
were trying to grab onto. And again, what you
end up with when you have this form of randomness
or blind collaboration between people is
something that none of them would have anticipated. So in this case, you
know, actually this is a really good
line right here. Because you make the
drawing, you leave the line. Someone comes along
and takes those lines without knowing what’s
beneath, and then adds to it. OK. So why would we do
things like this? William S. Burroughs,
who did a lot of work with cut-ups and things like
Naked Lunch and in audio work with Brion Gysin and
other writing forms, he said that the photographers
would tell you that often their best shots are accidents. And the writers will
tell you the same, that the best reading seems
to be done almost by accident. But writers, until the cut-up
method was made explicit, didn’t realize this that all
writing is, in fact, cut-ups. And they didn’t have
a way to introduce the accident of spontaneity,
that you can’t will it. But you can introduce the
unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors,
and thus surprise yourself. Also, very interested, and I
think electronic literature in general is very
interested, in the idea of writing under constraints. Because these constraints are
sort of enforced by the fact that we’re using
algorithms and programs. Really, one of the things we’re
doing is building constraints. Anyone who’s familiar
with experimental writing or electronic literature will
be familiar with A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems
by Raymond Queneau. It was a sonnet. It was actually
10 sonnets printed on 10 pages, which were then
cut with each line being cut. So you end up with 10 to the
14th power of sonnets possible, a potential literature machine. And all of them work at least
in terms of rhyme scheme. So that’s a sort of influence. The writer Harry Mathews– we think, again, about what are
the functions of constraints. And I really liked
his take on it, which was that constraints are
both interesting from the sort of Oulipan perspective where you
have mathematicians and writers collaborating together. But they’re also
productive in the sense that they free the writer
to think about things and to focus on things in a way
that frees their creativity. So the classic example of this
would be Raymond Queneau’s avoid or desperation where
he was writing a novel without using the
letter E. But why was he writing a novel without
using the letter E? He was actually writing it,
because the novel had a lot to do with the
disappearance of his parents during the Holocaust. And he couldn’t
actually approach that subject in the same
way if he was coming to it from a direct angle. But by using the oblique
angle of the constraint and thinking about how to create
this sentence without using the letter E, he was able
to approach that subject and create a moving novel. So here’s another
classic example of a simple constraint– snowball, a line that
increases one letter at a time as it’s read. This has been an important part
of practices in digital media and digital poetry,
text generation. And we could argue about what’s
the difference between text generation and
combinatory poetics. I usually choose to think
in terms of the combinatory, because it stretches back. And you could say
that text generation is only things that
create language from more, essentially, whole cloth. But there’s a
variety of approaches to working with this. OK. So going back historically,
maybe the first text generator by
Christopher Strachey, who was rumored to be a
lover of Alan Turing– he was certainly
his contemporary. But if we read the output of
the love letter generator, “Duck Duck, you are my
little affection, my beautiful appetite, my
eager hunger, my covetous love lust for your infatuation. My yearning anxiously clings
to your fellow feeling. Yours eagerly, M.
U. C.–” M. U. C. sort of standing for
Manchester University Computer. This is a very sort of
simple combinatory process. But there’s been some very
interesting scholarship– actually, [INAUDIBLE] and Jeremy
Douglass have written about this– theorizing that
part of what he was doing by creating this
very odd sounding, uncanny, not quite
profession of love was parroting heterosexual
or heteronormative love through this program. Theo Lutz from Germany– by the way Christopher
Strachey, Theo Lutz, many of the first
people who did this didn’t consider
themselves to be poets. He was essentially a linguist. And I won’t read
the German to you. But let’s read a
little bit of this. “Not every look is near. No village is late. The castle is free. And every farmer farmer is far. Every stranger is far. A day is late. Every house is dark. An eye is deep. Not every castle is old. Every day is old.” This seems very much
like intended poetry. It reads to me as if it were
a poem and not a bad poem. Can anybody guess what the
corpus this was based on? AUDIENCE: It looks
like telegrams. SCOTT RETTBERG: It looks like
telegrams, But the actual text? So he used titles from Kafka
novels and short stories as the basis for his corpus. And I think that has some
effect on the poetic nature of the text. Again, I won’t read the
first sort of intended, what at least most
people think is kind the first intended poetry
regenerator by Alison Knowles and James Tenney in 1967, a
collaboration that came out of Bell Labs. But “The House of Dust,” again,
produces these pretty simple stanzas. “A house of roots in Japan
using electricity inhabited by people who eat a great
deal– the house of roots among high mountains using
candles inhabited by people who sleep very little.” Interesting lines–
not great poetry. But the thing that I love
about this particular work is that it’s sort of
archetypally Fluxus in the sense that first they
produce the poetry generator. But then they said, what
else can we do with this? So actually, at one
point, they built several of these structures. They generated the poems, and
then built the structures. And then for some reason, they
transported them from New York to Cal Arts on the back
of an 18-wheeler truck. And then they used that as a
site for performance events including– this has got to
be my favorite performance of electronic
literature of all time– the helicopter drop where
they hired a helicopter and had about 40 reams
of the poem printed out on dot matrix paper. And then they dropped
it from the helicopter to distribute it to
the hungry audiences below just waiting for poetry. OK. That was my quick
little “what is This.” ” There’s a bunch of
different approaches to combinatory poetics
from, for instance, John Cayley’s early
clocks, the speaking clock, projects like that that use
time as a basis for regenerating text to things like Nick
Montfort’s 256-character Perl poems that are, again, a
form of constrained writing. But each of which work
to produce texts that are interesting conceptually. Some of them are not
interesting as language. But at least in concept
they’re interesting. All right, and I
wanted to show briefly “Taroko Gorge,” Tokyo Garage. So let me just read a bit
from Nick’s poem here. “Taroko Gorge, stones
command the vein. Ripplings rust, the crags
rust, the crag tails the rocks. Progress through
the encompassing cool, clear, the
crags pace the basin. Ripplings hum. Shapes hum. Shapes roam the shape. Direct the encompassing cool. Forest paces the stones. Mists range the shape. Track the straight.” So when Nick posted this
relatively simple poetry generator online– it’s a JavaScript-based
poem generator– I liked it quite a bit, because
of this sort of juxtaposition. It’s a nature poetry
generator that’s produced by a computer program. The code itself is, in
typical Nick fashion, very elegant, very compressed. It doesn’t take
much code to produce an almost infinitely running
nature poetry generator. But I thought I could
do something with it. And sort of almost as a
joke, I took Nick’s code, and I adjusted it. And then I changed the language
and the nature of the poem. I then posted it online. and sent Nick a link and said,
Nick, I’ve improved your poem. So this is “Tokyo Garage.” “Prostitute endures
the spiritual seeker. Panda bears burn. Bureaucrats rest. Travelers regret the supermodel. Revivify the silent paranoid
all-absorbing cheap. Devout worshippers
contaminate the dancers. Rock stars pay. Freaks fall. Godzilla transforms
the cuisine, scrambled the awkwardly familiar,
silent romantic abbreviated. Addict loves the banker. Bicycle messengers harass. Driver deceives the mystics. Signify. the odiferous robust
all-absorbing cheap. Talk show host
hassles the mystics. Virtual pets evaluate. Cuisines walk. Buddha covets the fruit seller. Signify the infantile scantily
clad scattered speed racers. Welcome the sailors. Shogun warriors rock
the virtual pet. Watch the robust
aimless multitudinous.” OK. so the interesting
thing about this– there’s a couple of
interesting things. One is that I took
Nick’s code base, and I just completely
substituted the vocabulary. I took what was a very
tight constrained vocabulary and expanded it a great deal. So if we look at the actual
code, this is Nick’s version. And then that’s what I did
to the language of the poem. But it was also this
act of inversion, taking a nature
poem, and turning it into a machine that produced a
sort of cosmopolitan nightmare version of the city, this
imaginary version of Tokyo. So that was interesting. But then what happened next
was even more interesting and, I think,
important as we think about electronic
literature and its nature as a community is that then
some people saw this online and said, oh, that’s an
interesting thing to do. J.R. Carpenter took
the same code base and produced “Gorge,”
a poetry generator about eating and digestion. Talan Memmott took the code
base and produced “Toy Garbage,” a poetry generator about
strange games and junky toys of the 1980s. Eric Snodgrass wrote
a pornographic poem about the relationship between
the Beatles and Yoko Ono, “Yoko Engorged.” And then, of course,
there was a [INAUDIBLE].. So the interesting thing is that
this relatively simple gesture that was originally a
joke kind of became a– “Yoko Engorge” took over– genre on its own. And the thing that
I love about this is that everyone is OK with
sharing the code in that way. And Nick, in fact, sort
of encourages that. And the other thing that
I really love about it is when I talk to writer
friends and they say– I couldn’t possibly do
electronic literature. I like to write. I love what you guys do. But the coding, man, I could
never program a computer. Well, it’s great to just open
this up, show the source code, and say, well, maybe you
can’t program a computer. But you can tell the difference
between adjectives and adverbs, right? And you can create a list of
interesting nouns and verbs, can’t you? And students jump
in and do this. We use this as sort
of a regular exercise. And actually, a
lot of these people on this list, several of
them, their first work of electronic
literature has been a version of “Taroko Gorge.” And there have been
many, many more since. I did want to show at least
one that I sort of programmed on my own. I don’t want you to think that
I’ve been completely dependent on Nick for all my code. As a matter of fact,
to inspire myself to learn to code a little bit,
I wrote a poetry generator called “Frequency” in Ruby. And I don’t know what I
was going through my life at this time. But it was sort of insane
constrained writing project where I decided to take the 200
most-used words in the English language, and then write 2,000
lines of poetry using only those words, so sets of 10 lines
beginning with each of those words– problematic in many ways. Because the 200 most-used
words in the English language are also like the
least expressive words in the English language. But I did that fairly
obsessively for a while, and then decided to do a
poetry generator with that. And we’ll see if it
produces any decent poetry– sometimes yes, sometimes no. Do you want the poem to rhyme? AUDIENCE: Yes. SCOTT RETTBERG: Yeah. So, see, everyone chooses that. And it’s always
such a poor choice. AUDIENCE: OK. SCOTT RETTBERG: All right. And I’m going to warn you–
these don’t really scan. They just have the rhyme scheme. All right, let’s see if it– OK. “Once over it, name
her after your mother.” Now, you can see it’s
just the rhyme scheme. And the rhyme scheme sucks. “Letter, but not an answer, why? Most of the year went by– very into her. Letter from her– some ask why. Different way to try. Will you try to form an answer? What have you found? Some could not make it here. Will you tell me why? Form a new sound. Of home, we ask why here? Different way to try.” OK. And we’re just going to
say no right off the bat. OK. So would you like a normal poem,
a haiku, a tanka, a snowball, a doubling, a four square? AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] SCOTT RETTBERG: Sorry? AUDIENCE: Haiku. SCOTT RETTBERG:
Haiku, sure, sure. “Around the world,
people have no time. Me, I am not who you think. Our work is not through.” I won’t leave you time
to count the syllables, but I’m pretty sure it’s right. Let’s say no. AUDIENCE: Normal poem. SCOTT RETTBERG: Normal, jeez. “But I know there
is another place. Live like you mean it. Good day. No one would call him. Why did you take the boy? Need to live with it– line you would live by. Hand will not be still. Which show are you in? Mean man, found with another
here and now, when will I see you again? Think down the page. Where did you think I would be?” It’s a normal poem. Right, Joe? AUDIENCE: When will
I see it again? SCOTT RETTBERG:
What did you say? AUDIENCE: When will
I see it again? SCOTT RETTBERG: Let’s do a
couple more here, though. Somebody? AUDIENCE: How about a snowball? SCOTT RETTBERG:
Snowball, there you go. And let’s go by character, yeah? OK. “Small animal, but
a mean one or not. Made out, made man– come down. Call on me. Oil me down. Go show them– very into her. Animal at home. There was a way. Many came to try
part of his world. Does she even know? More just than good with no word
to form said, what do you want? Thing about your world– only give a little back. Or you could be my first,
right here where it was before. Thing or to say to you–
her answer they would study. Any land other than this one– large number of men after you. Me, I will not answer your call. Does your want change to a need? Then we will have to think on it
was a picture you could see in. Go study and learn
about the world. It could come for water,
from water or the air. Is the picture
different than before? These have been found
around the home. On her need, he would
try his kind hand. Her man would not say
what he could see. Which America do you
think was your own? Then you can show me
what you are made of. It was a long time back. America was different.” All right, now I’ll just
show really quickly one more. So the interesting
thing about this is I started out trying
to do a sonnet generator. This is sort of the– I got to get a machine
to write a sonnet, right? And that was
pathetic, the output. But then when I looked
at what else we could do, for instance, just something as
simple as counting characters in a line, that
ended up yielding more interesting results,
including some where, you know, these weren’t
necessarily really forms. Like “Two Towers,”
for example, produces an interesting
juxtaposition of lines. And it will produce these
different tower structures, different counts of
lines every time. But then you can
read across and down. And they often
actually make sense. And they work as poetry. now part of that is that they
came from this common set. The lines weren’t generated. The lines were there. It’s the arrangement
of the lines that is different every time. OK. Moving on to show at
least a little bit of the combinatory film work– Rod Coover and I, and
Nick Montfort as well, became interested
in this idea of what happens if we take the
combinatory techniques from poetry generation, some of
the thinking about structures from combinatory
poetry generation, and then apply that to cinema. So we’ve done a few projects. And we have a few in
progress right now. Let me just show
you really quickly before I show it how
this system works. First, this is a
project that creates sort of short story films. Although, they all sort
of fit together in a way. First, you have a
generated title. Then you have a story part
that’s composed of a video clip from a set and a voice
narrative from a set. That cycle repeats. There’s a moral or perverb
produced, a transition. And then that whole
cycle repeats again. It never actually repeats the
narrative parts for 45 minutes. So it can be experienced as
a sort of short feature film. But, again, this was a sort of
constrained generative process. Rod sent Nick and I each a set
of images and moving images. Each of us responded
in different ways. I started sort of putting them
into these conceptual buckets and writing short narratives
in response to them. Nick responded to
some of the images by creating these
perverbs, which is sort of a Harry
Mathews idea of what happens when you break
apart two proverbs and re-yoke them together? And You often get interesting
kind of comic results. And then we said, well, what
can we do with all these things together? We can have something
that produces stories. And then Nick’s perverbs can
be the moral to those stories. Because as we know, every
story needs a moral. So let’s watch like
three cycles of this. And it’ll give you a sense of
how it works or doesn’t work. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] – The possibility of the
sleeping compartment, the mysterious stranger,
the casual glance over the newspaper at
the passenger across, the air of mystery– secret agents almost
always ride and trains. A whiff of perfume, a pill box
hat, a rhythmic landscape– the Freudian
suggestion implicit. A martini in the dining
car, a chance encounter– we always somehow
expected that we would have an
affair on the train, though we have to
properly arranged it before time ran out. I suppose, he
said, we could have brought some signs or something
to protest this place– truly ugly the way it
belches smoke into the sky. It’s sort of
monstrous, isn’t it? It’s like it’s eating itself. He said something like
that in Norwegian. I couldn’t really
tell whether or not he was joking or
serious or half serious. Everyone around here
seems to love nature. But they also like to
go home early from work and enjoy the benefits of their
natural resources provide. There’s an awareness
of consequences, a sort of balancing act people
play with the ethical parts of themselves. There are problems
of translation. – The moral of the story is
if at first you don’t succeed, any train will get you there. – The sump pump failed,
and the basement flooded. Frustrations mount as
the waters rise below. Where did he leave
the flashlight? The impossibility of
locating the batteries, figuring out which circuit
breaker to flip inside poorly marked box, all the personal
failures, the waders he had not used since the trip to
the boundary waters, unreachable plumbers, odors
of dampening photo albums– what to do? What to do? What to do? The water’s rising steadily. The insurance company– where
did he put the damn policy? What is inside all these
swollen cardboard boxes? Two feet deep now, he is
splashing in the dark futilely shining a beam on
the water watching as the heads of forgotten
dolls float towards him in the scattering light. They carve away the mountain. A mountain is not so
much, nothing eternal. A mountain can be stripped
away layer by layer. There is great pride
in the operation, making short work
of geological truth. No man is a mountain, but
men can wear one away. We assert our significance
through these acts. These miracles of capital scrape
away what thousands of years have made– our diggers
and trucks and men in hard hats, our remakers
of nature and things. Geological time is
revealed and pliable. We take what is sweetly Earth. We flatten and invert. We load our dump
trucks one at a time. Buckets and buckets,
we carry them away. We revise habitat. We change the
geometry of the Earth. We make electricity
of our violations. We want what we want. And we get when we want. – The moral of this
story is where there’s a will, carry a big stick. – Please mind the gap between
the train and the platform. [END PLAYBACK] SCOTT RETTBERG: OK. So that gives you a sense of it. It’s actually quite interesting
to watch it for a longer time. Because the story
elements do actually accrue without repeating. And I don’t know how
much we got there. But the juxtapositions
of image and text sometimes seem to
make clear sense. But other times what’s
really interesting is how we make
sense of them, how we perform this act
of closure any time that we see an image and a
text together, whether they’re closely intended or not. And lastly, we’re not going
to have too much time. But I wanted to just
briefly give you an impression of toxicity,
which is another project that uses a combinatory structure,
although in a different way. In this case, the voice
element and the image element are yoked together. However it’s a story about
climate change and flooding on the Delaware River Estuary
that has two layers to it. One of which is this sort
of near speculative story about what happens when
the East Coast keeps getting hit with hurricanes
again, and again, and again– not just one, incident,
but many in sequence. How would our society react to
that through the voices of– I think it’s– seven
or eight characters? And then the other layer was
when we started working on this was right when
Hurricane Sandy hit. And I remember
looking at a newspaper and seeing a picture of
President Obama standing in front of this
devastated shoreline. And I looked at the picture. And it somehow looked
very familiar to me. And it turned out
that he was standing on the beach two
blocks from the house that I used to live in
when I taught in New Jersey on Brigantine Island. And so I became
interested in, well, how do we think about these
events and the singularity of the lives that are lost? So we added another layer, which
is the death stories of people who died in Hurricane Sandy. So we sort of did this
research on everyone who died in the
state of New Jersey during that incident in
this very sort of odd genre that appears when
natural incidents occur. But sort of that’s in
some ways the main reason for using a
combinatory structure. One is that you sort
of get a panorama. And you’ll hear different
voices reacting differently. There will be the confusion
as these events generate. But also, there’s
many more stories of these individual
lives than we could fit into any single
run of the program. This has been shown now in a
wide variety of venues, most recently the Venice Biennale. And it’s been
shown it works sort of best as an installation. Because then you
kind of come back, and you see it again and again. But we’ll just look
at a little bit of it, since we don’t have time. And we did a lot of work
on this here, actually. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] – I was proud of the way we
handled the first big storms. I’d say we did pretty well. A lot of people died,
a lot of people. It was a catastrophic event. But we could have had
many, many more fatalities if we hadn’t rehearsed
and coordinated and had such a great
communications system in place. Then the sequesters came. You know we had
to cut 5% in 2013? That might not sound like much. But It was a billion
dollar haircut– staff, services, supplies,
trailers, blankets. Then we had four hurricanes
in a row, all the problems with the chemical plants and
water treatment facilities, all the toxins that leached
up into the water supply, the meltdown in New Jersey. It had everything, flooded
every part of the system. We had every agency
from the National Guard to the Army Corps of
Engineers to the NRC to OSHA to the FERC, Port
Authority, Homeland on down. Everybody tried to coordinate
relief and reconstruction. Just as soon as we had
one situation stabilized, we’d have another event. What did Congress do? Once we’ve blown past
this year’s budget, they called us to the carpet. Then they cut the budgets
again in ’15, ’16, and ’17. It’s the death of
logical thinking. – What I remember
most is the birds. The fish kills, they happen
every now and again, sometimes of natural causes. And it doesn’t bother you
much other than the smell or the stink of rotten fish. Something leaks out, or they
eat some bad algae, whatever. You know, fish die as
part of life on the river. Sometimes you steer your
way through a nasty patch of floaters, bull head, catfish,
striped bass, white perch, [INAUDIBLE]. It kills you to see a good
eating fish oiled up like that. But the birds,
the Canadian geese flying over this time of year,
the feathers soak up the oil. And they look pathetic in the
water, the geese and the ducks flapping around like that. The ones that make
it to the shore try to run around
and shake it off. But they’re like half blind. They try to clean
themselves, and they end up eating that sludge. It’s really pitiful. They try to fly, and they can’t
anymore, thousands of them. And Philadelphia International
is right there, you know? So it was kind of
ironic watching them. The planes kept taking
off and landing. But the birds couldn’t
get off the ground. – I remember when it all
began, at least when it really started to get worse. I was just a kid when
the big floods started. There had always been
flooding, of course, but not the big ones that
take out roads and rewrite shorelines. When the real storms started
coming, all of all of them hurricanes one after the
other, all these places that had never flooded
before were getting hit. I used to spend a lot of
time down in the basement. Money was tight
in the recession. And sometimes mom
and dad would argue. And it seemed like a safe place. I remember one night I
was down there painting [INAUDIBLE] scenes of
things like I sometimes did, listening to the rain. And the walls cracked. The foundation fractured,
and the water seeped through. The water had a
strange smell to it. It got worse and worse
over time [INAUDIBLE].. Finally, the walls and
floors came off kilter. And tiles and things came
off, floor boards coming off and stuff. By the time the inspector
said we had to move, the house itself was
at a strange angle, like the Leaning Tower
of Pisa or something. – The purpose of government
is to protect our borders and to tackle the rat problem. The rats are taking over. We need men in trucks
with traps and poison. We need to keep the electricity
flowing, the water coming clean from the tap. And we need to
keep the rats down. We don’t need government
holding our hands or telling us not to
eat this or drink that. We don’t need them
taxing us to feed people who can’t feed themselves
or protect their own homes or pay their own damn doctors. The purpose of government is to
make free enterprise possible, not to make life easier
for very loser who walks in the door
looking for a handout. If you want a handout, go
to church, and ask for one. I give to my church. And we give handouts all the
time to people who need it. From my government, I just want
good rat control and the best damn military protection
money can buy. – The Quarantine Act was
controversial, for sure. But the fact is it was already
one of the most toxic areas in the country. New Jersey– fifth in the
nation for mesothelioma. Asbestos was used
heavily in the shipyards, in the factories, built
into the buildings, barrels of formaldehyde,
pools of hexavalent chromium, arsenic, benzene. So much material was
buried in this region, you couldn’t put a
shovel in the ground without hitting something. And after the hurricanes,
those chemicals leached out all over the place. Superfund was just a
Band-Aid on a bigger problem. The meltdown at Salem,
the leak at Hope Creek, they were just the last
straws on the camel’s back. We’ve had to make choices. As a country, we’ve
had to make choices. Now, every second we remediated,
it got to that point. It was an awful decision
they had to make to seal off the whole beach. At a certain point, you just
need to give up on recovery and bury the problem. Put certain places
behind fences. Pour cement over them, and never
let anyone live there again. Declare a total loss. Draw a new map. – George was an unsuccessful
painter and sculptor born in Hungary during the
middle of the last century. And his brother remembers
that the Danube flooded over its banks each spring
near where they lived and that both boys
were terrified by the power of the water. I couldn’t understand
why George, nevertheless, chose to live in a
little bungalow that sits alongside the
lagoon in Brick Township. George didn’t drive,
and he rarely left home. Neighbors say he
lived like a hermit. During the storm
surge, the flood waters washed through the bungalow
and George drowned. [END PLAYBACK] SCOTT RETTBERG: OK. So that gives you a
sense of the piece. Because it’s sort
of a database film and it’s one that we wrote and
edited and rewrote over time, we were able to bring in new
elements and cut out elements if an actor’s voice was
particularly grating. There was only one
really grating voice. And also, to think
about the structure and present it differently
in different contexts– so sometimes we
did versions that would cycle through one
character at a time. Sometimes we did a version
that would run on a half hour cycle or 20 minute cycle. Or the one that
we use mostly now is sort of a 45 minute cycle. There’s about an hour and a
half of content in the film altogether. But that’s the sort of number
we’ve kind of arrived at. And then it’s quite
interesting to be able to take the
same body of work and adjust these algorithms,
simple algorithms. I coded these things. And anyone who knows
me knows that I’m still not a great coder. But you can do a lot with just
JavaScript in a web browser. I’ll just briefly
mention the projects, once I’m done with
the book, that I’m trying to furiously
finish in the library here that we’re working on. Let’s see. Yeah. So Circe– which there is a
short sort of simple version that I could maybe show
after questions or something. But we’re trying
out different things with the combinatory structure. In this case, it’s a narrative
film just about feature length. And we’re going to be using
the combinatory elements for dialogues, which will be
different each time it runs. As well as for
different monologues. The theme of this work
is mass extinction. Because we always choose,
you know, something funny, you know? But And, again,
you’re going to be hearing the stories of different
species every time of different takes. And it’s a narrative
that’s mainly between a drone pilot
and a bird expert, also layered with a story
of relationship between the Odysseus and Circe. So that’s a project that
we have a short version of. Although, we were working
with live actors rather than voiceover actors this time,
which with a very low budget, poses some difficulties
in that we shot this in one week in Ireland. So what we had is
sort of what we had. We might do something
different with it or use the short version
to try to get budget for a real full-length
feature film. And the other project that
we’re working on that’s shot in Greece– and this should actually be
hopefully ready the Spring, early in the Spring. So this is actually really
bouncing off of Queneau. But it’s a sonnet generator
where the sonnet will work. Rather than sets of 10, it’s
set of 5 that will alternate. But it will produce sonnets
that work every time. But they’ll also be clips that’s
sort of similar to Three Rails Live– are thematically related,
but structured differently each time. And this time we’re also
working with a composer, a Chilean composer,
[? Alejandro ?] [? Umbornjas ?] who’s doing a composition that
also will work algorithmically. So that should be an
interesting project that we’re looking forward to. And we have just about
five minutes for questions. And hopefully, people
will stay longer and enjoy the fruits of Brown catering. When I came here with
the Unknown in 1999, we sort of wrote
up a bunch of notes about our first experience of
the electronic literature scene and of Brown. And I can tell you
that Brown catering figured into our estimation
of Brown very highly. It’s not everywhere– at
Bergen, you cannot get pineapple infused water at
this type of event. SPEAKER: So first of
all, let’s thank Scott. [APPLAUSE] Maybe we could even play
one of the later pieces. SCOTT RETTBERG: Yeah. I could do that if you– SPEAKER: After we [INAUDIBLE] SCOTT RETTBERG: Maybe
people got snacks, and I can just put on Circe. SPEAKER: I know that some
people have to go right at 1:00. SCOTT RETTBERG: Yeah, exactly. SPEAKER: I don’t want to
have the death by trickle. Before we ask Scott
questions, I’d like to announce there are two
more talks before the Christmas break, the holiday break– Wednesday the 29th
at 4:00 PM here, Jill Rettberg, yet another
opportunistic success for us, will be speaking on selfies and
other cool social media things that she works on. And every time she’s spoken
on that kind of topic, just the room is
mobbed and everybody doesn’t want to leave. So do come back. And then on the 7th, I think– I send these out. Those of you who are not on my
list, I can [INAUDIBLE] later. We’ll have Sydney Skybetter– Patrick where are you– on choreography and dance and
movement and all the stuff. PATRICK: Technologies. SPEAKER: Hm? PATRICK: And technologies. SPEAKER: [APPLAUSE]
yeah, [INAUDIBLE].. Anyway, so that
will be very cool. So that’s at noon
here on the 7th. So come back. I assume I’ll have the
water, maybe not every time. So questions for Scott? [INAUDIBLE] SCOTT RETTBERG: Crickets. AUDIENCE: I was thinking,
from looking at Three Rails, in developing the systems
for sort of semi-randomly [INAUDIBLE] randomly
generated materials, dealing with navigating
text in that way seems to be very different
than dealing with either still or moving
image in that way. And I just was wondering, A,
if you agree with that premise? But then B, how do you
navigate those two things? Because they seem to be
going on simultaneously. And to me, anyway,
it seemed to require sort of different
kinds of skills for just parsing those
two kinds of information. SCOTT RETTBERG: For the
reader, or for the– AUDIENCE: Well, yeah, for me
for the reader, but also for you and putting it together
and thinking about how to [INAUDIBLE] SCOTT RETTBERG: Yeah. Well, that piece changed a lot. And I liked it a lot better
once we eliminated repetition. So I think that what happens
is, for the reader, viewer, is that at first, there is
this sort of estrangement from the experience. And then as it goes on,
there’s two things that happen. One is that it becomes
a bit easier for you to make these little creative
leaps about how these images and text are fitting
together in your mind. And the other is
that, because they’re from a common set that aren’t
sort of tagged or keyworded together or anything,
you’ll begin to see an image that reminds
you of something you just heard two tracks ago. Because the texts are in
response to each other. So it creates a kind of a unity
over time with the experience. But, yeah, that
was really our sort of first leaping in kind of
complete experiment with it. And the thing I like
about it is that– I mean, I show
ToxiCity all the time. And I always walk away. If we show the whole thing,
I just feel depressed. But this, actually, it does
surprise me still every time that I watch it. And sometimes the
juxtapositions are these things that nobody would
have thought of, but that are nonetheless
really, really interesting. So I don’t know if that
answers the question. But the other aspect of that
is text and image, I guess. And it helps a lot
to have two of us. Rod is always, you know,
sort of the image creator. And I’m working with the text. And it’s really
these two projects in particular, and Hearts and
Minds, evolved over a fairly long period of time. So there’s been a
lot of negotiation and back and forth and
thinking through how narrative and image
and fractured narrative and image and even
poetry can fit together. Because the interesting thing
about the structure of these is really, if you sort of
look at those flow charts, they’re more like a
formal poem than they are like anything else, actually. They sort of go back to things
like a sonnet or something like that an in interesting way. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] I
thinking of Merce Cunningham and John Cage. And Merce would separately
choreograph a piece. And John Cage would write music. And then they would
bring them together. And it’s really interesting. It’s similar technique. SCOTT RETTBERG: Yeah. Very, very, very, very
simple process, I’d say. AUDIENCE: Sort of [INAUDIBLE]
his question, I mean, in what you showed, the
morals and the perverbs, are place where you have like
the voice and a cut-up, where if that was pure
text, you wouldn’t know exactly where the joy was. And with voice, you can hear
it or will they still work. And they probably work,
because we both know both sides of what’s going to happen. But have you done other things
where you’re using voice rather than text in combination? where you can hear the cuts? SCOTT RETTBERG: Well,
you’ll definitely be able to with Circe,
you know, if it’s made as it was conceptualized. Because, actually,
the dialogue– I mean, hopefully it’ll sort
of be fluid and actually work as dialogue. But, yeah, if that’s what
you’re sort of asking about. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]
different voices though? SCOTT RETTBERG: Oh,
within a single voice? I tried to do the 100
babies poetry generator– the “100 Baby Story” generator,
which was a children’s work where I actually did that. I recorded one word at a time. And then it sort of
produces these stories of the 100 babies. It was an unfinished project
with Jessie, with my daughter. But hopefully, we’ll
show that some day. And that does exactly that. Although, yeah, it has problems. AUDIENCE: A lot of father’s
will appreciate that. So you’ll always have
a new story to tell. SCOTT RETTBERG: Exactly,
yeah, yeah, yeah. I do have one that
does it with text. It never quite becomes a story. But it’s always a
chaotic situation. SPEAKER: [INAUDIBLE]
then [INAUDIBLE].. AUDIENCE: Forgive me if this
is an electronic literature 101 question. But I was wondering
about, I mean, you talked about the process, so
we have a sense of the process. I’m wondering when
you present it as more of a
traditional, you know, recitation or presentation,
how whether you let the audience know the
process, and whether that’s important for people to
know or whether you want the work to stand on its own? Or– SCOTT RETTBERG: Yeah, you want
the work to stand on its own I think. And in some ways, it’s
more interesting to do that, to show the work,
and then to not show, here’s my flowchart
first, right? And certainly, when we exhibit
stuff– and these pieces have been exciting. Because the works been more
and more and museum and gallery contexts. And in that case, you know,
you just show the work. And people come away with
what they come away with. You know, it’s clear that
it’s combinatory in any case. But yeah, I hope that
it stands on its own. AUDIENCE: Yeah. AUDIENCE: Well, thank you. This is very exciting. It’s hard to formulate
one question, because there’s so
many implications that I see for creative
writing, but also for analysis. And I’ll go back to the
frequency poetry generator. I work with the archive,
[INAUDIBLE],, the [INAUDIBLE] that created all these
header names, right? And it’s particularly
hard to differentiate their writing styles and
their vocabulary level. And I think for frequency
poetry generator that you have could be very
interesting to differentiate the corpus of each of
his fictional writers. And they wrote a lot of sonnets. SCOTT RETTBERG:
You mean, Pessoa? AUDIENCE: Pessoa, [INAUDIBLE]. SCOTT RETTBERG: Yeah, yeah. AUDIENCE: So it would
be interesting to put different textual databases
of the different header names to see what kind of [INAUDIBLE]. And a lot of his characters
generated sonnets. So I’m interested in using even
the frequency poetry generator as a tool for analysis. SCOTT RETTBERG: Yeah. Well, I can show you the code. Then you might change your mind. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] SCOTT RETTBERG: It is the worst. I mean, actually, it’s
marked out very nicely. It’s sort of like you can
read it like a document– but in terms of it’s
applicability to other things. Some things are very simple. Counting letters is simple. But actually, for
example, the rhyme stuff was all done by hand in arrays. And syllable counts
were hand in arrays. So you could do that same thing. But one thing you should
be aware of though is– do you know [INAUDIBLE] and
[? Manuel ?] [? Porta? ?] Yes. AUDIENCE: Yes. SCOTT RETTBERG: Ah, OK. Good. Yeah. Because I know they’re
doing something with Pessoa. AUDIENCE: Yeah, they
just published a book of the [INAUDIBLE] online. The website it beautiful. SCOTT RETTBERG: Yeah. And they’ve done– AUDIENCE: It just came out. They’ve SCOTT RETTBERG:
–wonderful things with sort of remediating
early combinatory poetry, remediating concrete
poetry as kinetic poetry. The Poets Project’s an
amazing piece of work. Yeah. AUDIENCE: I liked
your idea of it’s almost like the 1,000
monkeys at the typewriter. It’s as if you want to
set up the constraints and see if somebody
can make the saw. AUDIENCE: Yes, exactly. SCOTT RETTBERG: Yeah, yeah. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] Do
you know Antonio Machado? Antonio Machado
invented as a poet. And this poet that
he invented, invented a machine of making poetry– SCOTT RETTBERG: Oh, OK. AUDIENCE: –in his literature. You would like that, too. SCOTT RETTBERG: Yeah, yeah. Calvino did the
same thing, right? AUDIENCE: Yeah, yeah. SPEAKER: So I see the
trickle beginning. So again, let’s thank Scott. And you can then play things. And then we can eat the cookies
and listen to the new piece and ask Scott more questions. So thank you again. SCOTT RETTBERG: OK. [APPLAUSE] All right, I’ll put
it on if you want. SPEAKER: Yeah, that’d be cool. SCOTT RETTBERG: Sure. You haven’t seen it yet? He’s seen it. It made John cry. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] SCOTT RETTBERG: It didn’t
really make him cry. I’ve been trying to
Didn’t you see it in– oh, you skipped it? OK. Maybe it was just some
other old guy crying. Sorry, that was– you saw it. You saw it. You’ll see. SCOTT RETTBERG: So
this is just a study. It’s actually not
a beautiful place, yeah. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] – [INAUDIBLE] ages ago,
there was an island in the [INAUDIBLE] to and
fro [INAUDIBLE] he stepped on the shore, having some
difficulty [INAUDIBLE].. It seems the island
is [INAUDIBLE].. As the fog lifted,
the boatman discovered he was on a bank between
the sea and the lake. He saw an old woman leading a
great white cow [INAUDIBLE].. When she [INAUDIBLE] the cow– SCOTT RETTBERG: No. That’s what I was saying. This [INAUDIBLE] is
basically [INAUDIBLE].. – [INAUDIBLE]
striking her boldly, both he and she were
transformed into [INAUDIBLE].. Sometimes the cow
returns [INAUDIBLE] times of darkness and death. [INAUDIBLE] creatures who appear
in this, the last of their [INAUDIBLE]. They come [INAUDIBLE]. SCOTT RETTBERG: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, but sort of
works, doesn’t it? [INTERPOSING VOICES] SCOTT RETTBERG: Yeah, yeah. [INAUDIBLE] [INTERPOSING VOICES] – A mandatory vacation
is part of [INAUDIBLE].. They both serve to gives
the higher ups time to do reports and evaluations. And it gives the operators
time to clear their heads. [INTERPOSING VOICES] AUDIENCE: Oh, good. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] SCOTT RETTBERG: Yeah. [INAUDIBLE] – And so in this case,
there were several children in the house at the
time [INAUDIBLE].. At the time, I [INAUDIBLE]. At the time, I was
order to [INAUDIBLE].. And that would not
be intelligence. It was contrary to intelligence. It’s something we tried to
avoid, children in particular. [INAUDIBLE] against
us [INAUDIBLE].. [INTERPOSING VOICES] – This is not the only
time this has happened. It’s the only time that this
this is actually– so this is the last [INAUDIBLE] [INTERPOSING VOICES] – –there, I would have
requested the change in order if I had known. SCOTT RETTBERG: But
the story’s centered around this sort of kind of a
retelling of the Circe story, but also this dialogue
between an ornithologist and a drone pilot. [INAUDIBLE] [INTERPOSING VOICES] SCOTT RETTBERG: But,
yeah, I’m really hoping that it [INAUDIBLE]. [INTERPOSING VOICES] AUDIENCE: Was that
[INAUDIBLE] as well? SCOTT RETTBERG: No. There would be some
scenes that [INAUDIBLE] Others we would fix. And then there’s monologues
at various point. [INAUDIBLE] get a couple
of them out of [INAUDIBLE].. So I mean, [INAUDIBLE]
necessarily have consequential exchange
on the outcome of the story. But it sort of provides
different takes, and sort of different types. [INTERPOSING VOICES] AUDIENCE: And is this
the one that music for? [INAUDIBLE]? SCOTT RETTBERG: No, the
music wasn’t in the sonnet. [INAUDIBLE] AUDIENCE: OK. [INTERPOSING VOICES] SCOTT RETTBERG: Yeah. No, I’m looking forward to it. I hope this [INAUDIBLE]. Because, I mean, we
shot the whole thing. AUDIENCE: Yeah. SCOTT RETTBERG: But there was
the sonnet [INAUDIBLE] working [INAUDIBLE]. He’ll have to keep all
the tax [INAUDIBLE].. Because that was a constraint. AUDIENCE: Right. [INTERPOSING VOICES] SCOTT RETTBERG: [INAUDIBLE]
my tax [INAUDIBLE].. AUDIENCE: Yeah. [INTERPOSING VOICES] – I’ve face so many challenges. [SIDE CONVERSATION] – The time it takes [INAUDIBLE]. The time it takes
to bury the dead. But there are other scales,
scales that we can’t process. A lifetime of
[INAUDIBLE],, the movement of the continental shelf. [INAUDIBLE] [INTERPOSING VOICES] – [INAUDIBLE] lost things
in search of a home. [INAUDIBLE] things
that wash ashore. I told him not to
[INAUDIBLE] lost visitors, that it might be dangerous. It could have been. When people come to my island,
they do not stay the same. We all have beasts inside us. When I cast the spell,
I guided [INAUDIBLE].. But I cannot say what
[INAUDIBLE] leopard, inchworm, or bear. But once I set my eyes
upon those [INAUDIBLE],, they do not stay the same. He ran towards them. And I raised my staff. With a flash and a crack
in the sky, [INAUDIBLE].. They stood for a
moment [INAUDIBLE].. [INTERPOSING VOICES] – Eddie stood and
stared for a moment. Then he turned back
towards me [INAUDIBLE].. He understood that it was
all as I had told him. He will stay with me
here on this island where last things come to gather and
rest to wait out their days until their time
ends, until they must make their final journey,
the journey of the dead. [INTERPOSING VOICES] [END PLAYBACK]

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