Panel 6: Experimental Stories
Kat Mustatea, Lynda Clark and Rachel Genn
In Voidopolis, Kat Mustatea reflects on the creation of Voidopolis, a digital performance about loss and memory that is currently unfolding on Kat’s Instagram feed (@kmustatea). Started July 1, 2020, the story is a loose retelling of Dante’s Inferno, informed by the grim experience of wandering through NYC during a pandemic. Instead of the poet Virgil, Mustatea’s guide is a caustic hobo named Nikita.
Voidopolis makes use of synthetic language, generated in this instance without the letter ‘e’ with the help of a modified GPT-2 type text generator. The images are created by algorithmically “wiping” humans from stock photography. The piece is meant to culminate in loss, so will eventually be deleted from Mustatea’s feed once the narrative is completed. By ultimately disappearing, this work makes a case for a collective amnesia that follows cataclysm.
Mustatea is writing two additional parts after Voidopolis (corresponding roughly to Purgatorio and Paradiso, comprising the remaining two parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy). Each of the subsequent sections have their own distinct language constraint and visual style, establishing each its own mood of increasing hope as we emerge from the pandemic.
True to its hybrid status across literature, technology, and social media, Voidopolis won the 2020 Arts and Letters Prize For Literature, given to works that “blur, bend, blend, erase, or obliterate genre and other labels.” Judge Michael Martone noted:
“[VOIDOPOLIS] takes to heart and exploits the reality that a writer today is not simply a “writer” who writes, creating a text, but a media artist not using a 19th century typewriter but an extremely powerful typesetting machine now connected to the internet. I was also attracted to the ephemeral nature of the piece, its temporary-ness. A piece about the virus infects itself with its own digital virus that rewrites and then erases the living codes.”
In Mechanical Oracles – Writing for Talking Machines, Lynda Clark considers our relationships and interactions with virtual assistants.
“Are you single?” Raj asks Siri. “I don’t have a marital status […]”, Siri responds. “You’re right”, Raj concedes, “that’s too personal – we hardly know each other.” In the comedy series ‘The Big Bang Theory’ (2012), Raj’s relationship with his phone’s voice assistant, Siri, is played for laughs, but it actually exemplifies the reality of many people’s interactions with speaking machines. In a recent study by the Universities of Waterloo and Lille, (Kuzminykh, 2020) researchers found that people tend to assign personalities to virtual agents with some elements arising somewhat consistently – Google Assistant is ‘nerdy’, Alexa is ‘peculiar and rather bright’, Siri is ‘audacious and daring’. In ascribing personality and intent to these tools, we experience feelings of both joy and fear, often unaware that these joys and fears originate in ourselves, rather than the technologies in question.
Clark considers how audience reactions to early conversational machines such as Euphonia (Chambers, 1846) and ELIZA (Weizenbaum, 1966) might inform the narrative design of modern voice agents and AI conversational systems. This culminates with the lessons learned from writing Euphonia, a short, experimental voice-controlled AI-powered story inspired by the real life machine and the popular narratives surrounding it.
In Can We Make Room for the Polyphonic Personal?, Rachel Genn examines how Bakhtin postulates a narrative truth that requires a multiplicity of consciousnesses, something that comes into existence at the point of contact between diverse consciousnesses, …and is intrinsically “full of event potential” (Bakhtin, 1984).
How might diverse platforms and new media be used to tell a story, not just support, but ‘bring about’ polyphony in a personal narrative space? How could the arrangement of storytelling elements in digital space comprise a first person story “full of event potential”?
At MIX 2019, Rachel presented a blueprint for WHISPERS, a binaural exploration of paranoia which manipulated deixis (the who/when/where of psycholinguistic space). In parallel to the binaural piece, she began writing about how paranoia, jealousy and regret combined in the working class sub-culture that had inspired her creative work.
Regret as a theme has driven Genn’s art and writing since 2015 (NATIONAL FACILITY FOR THE REGULATION OF REGRET, 2015 ASFF 2016, REGRET-O-TRON, 2016, WHAT YOU COULD HAVE WON, 2021- MIX 2017). Rotating through science, fiction, art and memoir, she asked if regret was an impediment to artistic reverie (Aeon/Psyche 2021; No Contact Magazine NY, 2021) but also asked whether regret can spur creativity. Her most recent non-Fiction (STREET-FIGHTING GIRLS, New Statesman, 2021) is a place-based memoir examining regrettable acts: the physical violence and signifiers of invincibility (clothes/language) used by working-class teenage girls.
Genn presents a plan for a Scrolly-Telling rendering of this piece combining testimony, fashion, photogrammetry/360 filming, creating an almost cubist rendering of a single voice. BATTLEDRESS will seek to interrogate how a single POV might speak into and about itself, exploiting new techniques to capture the carnivalesque workings of one mind and the social and political discourses and dialogues that make it up.