Algorithmic Theatre

GIR_DOOM_1280x1025_Background_by_ChaossityThis weekend, On the Boards is offering a show called “A Piece of Work (formerly False Peach)”. The show, per it’s website write-up, mixes live performance and AI software.

As part of the show’s run, OtB will also offer a master class with Annie Dorsen, who created the show. Dorsen has created basically a new genre of theatre, which she calls algorithmic theatre, and discusses in this article in Theatre Magazine.

I’m fascinated by the concept. As a scifi nerd, I’m thrilled when considering how technology impacts us, our thought processes, and our future. I’m especially fascinated by the Turing Test, a test in which chatbots and humans talk, though IM software, to other humans, and are judged for “humanness” at the end of the competition. There’s a great book about one year’s winner called “The Most Human Human.” 

So I’m fascinated with the idea of algorithmic theatre in part because it feels, in a way, like pushing the boundaries of robot “consciousness” and aiming for something more human in an algorithmic program. But the show also uses our own ability to project our humanness onto animals/things to tell the story. There’s a fabulous brain phenomenon called pareidolia that explains why, for example, we see Jesus in burnt toast, or monsters in a pile of socks in our closet.

One of the interesting situations created by algorithmic performance is that the production of language is disconnected from consciousness. Though I wrote above that the programs produce text and make decisions and do all kinds of things, they have no inherent interiority or desire to communicate from the stage. To put it another way, they have no thoughts that aren’t spoken or acted upon. The language arises from the operation of the software, and at times may suggest consciousness, but never actually issues from it. So understanding language, or more properly seeing through language to the thought “beneath,” is revealed to be an act of imagination on the part of the listener, rather than merely an act of reception.

That’s a quote from the article. Dorsen also discusses the fascinating experience of experiencing yourself experiencing the piece of theatre. You get more immersed in yourself than in the performers, because the performers are telling a story but they are not people.

I also got this really interesting quote:

How the body is deployed within a performance has of course been the subject of three thousand years of exploration, but the necessary presence of a human body onstage, performing actions in front of other human bodies, has rarely been disputed. Aristotle’s origin myth of theater, in which the first actor, Thespis, stepped in front of the chorus one day and announced himself as a character, is book-ended by Peter Brook’s formulation, which reduces theater to nothing more than the performer-spectator relationship: “A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theater to be engaged.”

To me, this says something interesting about the evolution of theatre through history, which we don’t often talk about. There’s been a gradual switch from a communal activity – a chorus of peers celebrating an event – to a solo (lonely?) person onstage doing very little. I think that change reflects a great deal of how cultural philosophy about humanity has changed – we’re not communal animals, but mere individuals suffering and struggling against something that we don’t totally understand about ourselves. Dorsen’s show makes that distance even greater – removing the lonely individual and creating and even deeper sense of disconnection for the purpose of sensory experience and philosophical reflection. This makes a lot of sense. Theatre is no longer a ritual in which we, homo sapiens sapiens, gather and reaffirm who we are. It is a ritual instead that we experience alone, in a dark room, quietly, that makes us question who we are. Dorsen’s show takes that a step further and makes us question what we are, by showing us a performance that is literally inhuman.

However, I would also like to close with this TED Talk. Shyam Sankar discusses a different philosophy of human/computer interaction, which I rather agree with – rather than seeing computers/robots as somehow diametrically opposed to us, or our eventual overlords, or some kind of Frankenstein’s Monster that we’re slowly creating to become a grotesque reflection of ourselves, computers are instead a tool, with a lot of processing power, that we can use to aid our own incredible processing power. And together we fight crime! (literally, sometimes)

 

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