This project draws upon several areas of theoretical discussion. The first is a growing body of work gathered under the title ‘material feminisms’,9 work that argues we should not divide human corporeality from a wider material world, but should instead “submerse the human within the material flows, exchanges, and interactions of substances, habitats, places and environments”.10 This thinking is redefining (hegemonic, Western) understandings of culture and nature, and human and more-than-human worlds. Rethinking the nature of being in this way, (new)11 material feminists argue, is an ethical imperative; we have ample evidence that the existence we’ve created is not ethical — climate change, species extinction, wealth inequality, etc. — and the piling up of that evidence forces us to imagine a different existence.12
The second area of discussion deals with questions about AI, what it means to imitate human cognition or to construct a new intelligence, and where its limitations are. The third surrounds the fanfiction community and its reuse of existing texts: who forms this community and why do they write. The fourth is a technique that we use as a reference point in our own reuse of texts: the cut-up technique, dating back to the 1950s. Each of these contexts will be given brief consideration in this review. Together, these areas orient our ontological, epistemological, and methodological choices in this project.
Material feminisms thinkers include Karen Barad, Donna Haraway, and Nancy Tuana, who collectively work to disassemble dichotomies between the human and the non-human, the natural and the cultural, or the material and the discursive, drawing our attention instead to the relations that exist between and within these entities.
Barad’s concept of ‘intra-action’, for example, describes the world not as made up of pre-existing individual entities (objects, subjects, bodies) but of ‘intra-acting phenomena’ that only become determinate, material, and meaningful through relations.13 This mode of thinking challenges the dominant Western idea of the coherently embodied individual subject and related epistemologies that focus on discrete objects of consideration, and instead draws our attention to the margins within and between bodies and the rich muddle of intra-actions that happen there. Haraway makes a similar point through her discussion of “material-discursive” practices,14 as does Tuana with “interactionist ontology”.15 Each of these concepts calls into question the nature of agency and its presumed localisation within individuals (whether human or non-human), moving us away from anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism and helping us to consider the complex and ever-emergent relations that exist between and within all things.
Engaging with this thinking has helped us to work productively and sensitively with collaboration as both a concept and a practice. When the world is understood as fundamentally entangled, collaboration is not the product of inter-acting entities but is the ever-emergent process of the world-becoming. This has played out in our research approach, which we treated not as a process of gathering data but as a process of “becoming entangled in relations”,16 focusing on what anthropologist Tim Ingold would describe as “knowing as we go, not before we go”.17
Further, with intra-actions drawing our attention to the margins within and between bodies (human, non-human, inorganic), emphasis is placed on “the entangled materializations of which we are [all] a part” and the topologies of power these reveal.18 For example, “If humans have no separate existence, if we are completely entangled with the world…then we are completely responsible to and for the world and all our relations of becoming with it”.19 However, we are also keen to pay attention to existing power asymmetries that exist and persist within and between human communities, not understanding ‘anthropos’ as a homogenous mass, but as intra-acting phenomena that have their own specific material configurations influencing their ability to act and respond — what Donna Haraway neatly terms “response-ability”.20
Through the process of this project, our aim is to make sense-able some of the sites of sticky friction, resistance, and opposition that are inevitably produced in this context; we aim to represent “viscosity” as opposed to “fluidity”,21 to both participate within and describe these sticky and contested relations.
Art practice research is uniquely positioned to engage with challenges such as these, as observed by Graeme Sullivan:
“Artistic practice undertaken in a digital environment is giving rise to research that is no longer challenged by questions about the human condition but is challenged by the need to revise what it is to be human… Cyberspace is radically altering these notions of individuality as modernist conceptions of identity grounded in traditional psychological perspectives are being replaced by a reflexive and decentered sense of self.”22
Granting a computer permission to dream allows us to experiment with creatively representing the perceived alterations taking place in the socio-cultural and ecological networks and assemblages that we are entangled within. It also allows us to encounter the outcomes of these negotiations in a form that lays itself open to interpretation and aesthetic consideration, inviting human minds to experience and construct a relationship to something that is often carefully camouflaged to fit into everyday experience.
AI, computers, and thought
The idea that the human mind might easily be modelled through simple decision chains is long dead, and questions still abound about where the limits of artificial intelligence lie (as in Hubert Dreyfus’ two wittily titled texts, What Computers Can’t Do, and two decades later, What Computers Still Can’t Do).23,24 The legendary Turing test, the test of whether a machine is able to exhibit behaviour indistinguishable from that of a human, still towers over popular understandings of AI (the film Ex Machina (2014) is a particularly salient example25), though John Searle’s famous Chinese Room thought experiment26 powerfully made the case that even producing appropriately ‘human’ responses does not necessarily entail understanding, or a mind.27 An exciting possibility is that there is a real benefit to be had by focusing on the ways that computers diverge from human minds and find paths of their own. The possible advantages of adopting alternative tests in the realm of Computational Creativity is interestingly discussed in Pease and Colton, 201128).
Creative experiments with automatically-generated texts abound; an example relevant to the speculative nature of this project is SunSpring,29 the screenplay of which was written by an AI using an open-source algorithm that applies Markov models, efficient algorithms that work well with sequence data. The project has superficial similarities to our own, but they diverge in ways that demonstrate varying attitudes to AI writing. We use stories, rather than film scripts, and, importantly, work written by amateur writers rather than paid professionals, as an aim of this project is to bring something of these writers' methods into our own uses of the texts. Rather than using a play’s convention for emotive human acting to impose socially coherent meaning on an AI generated text, we embrace the incoherence of our outputs, allowing imagery and atmosphere to come to the fore.
This conscious attitude toward machine-made texts allows and examines its otherness. This has also been achieved in other applications, such as the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition in 1968, which featured several text-generation projects. Most of these were presented as poems, an effective way to make sense of their strangeness. While much research in the field of Natural Language Processing focuses on attempting to better imitate human writing through different text-generation systems, presenting these texts as poetry means that the points at which imitation was imperfect, strange, and imaginatively fruitful becomes advantageous — the jumping-off point of the work rather than its limitation. Margaret Masterton and Robert McKinnon Wood’s computer-generated haikus are a particularly strange and exploratory example.30 Traditionally consisting of a set of objective statements in the present tense, human-written haikus produce a profound effect on the reader, requiring an enormously active and creative engagement. This means that the strangeness of the computer-written haikus becomes provocation for exciting interpretive work.
eons deep in the ice
I paint all time in a whorl
bang the sludge has cracked
eons deep in the ice
I see gelled time in a whorl
pffft the sludge has cracked
all green in the leaves
I smell dark pools in the trees
crash the moon has fled
all white in the buds
I flash snow peaks in the spring
bang the sun has fogged
Computerised Japanese Haiku by Margaret Masterton and Robert McKinnon Wood
This raises a question: why should computers be expected to write in a way that is comfortable and straightforward for us to read? Why is it that the most famous evaluative criterion for an artificial intelligence, the Turing test, is that it should fool us? Should we be placing value only on a computer’s ability to slide undetected into our lives above its ability to show us new things? The Turing test assumes that the appearance of humanness is all-important, while, in a material feminist way of thinking, this anthropocentrism is precisely the thing we want to get away from.
In the case of Sunspring, production work like set design, costumes, props, and human acting allows a basically very strange screenplay narrative to slide comfortably into the expected format of silver-wrapped sci-fi. So much work is done to overcome the nonsensical nature of the text that the end result misses an opportunity. If we are to work with non-human elements, surely there is a value in allowing them to show us things that we do not expect to see. What can be learnt from the experience of otherness if we no longer try to overcome it?
We make use of fanfiction as source material in this project, and so here we attempt to summarise our understanding of that world and how we position ourselves in relation to it. In general terms, fanfiction is “writing that continues, interrupts, or just riffs on stories and characters other people have already written about”.31 It has a long history that far precedes the internet age (see Coppa, 2006 for examples32), but it is its contemporary online manifestation that is of interest to us here.
In Code: Version 2.0,33 Lawrence Lessig identifies several features of the architecture of online communities that influence the kind of identity and credibility that can be constructed in that world, including anonymity, the kind of identity constructed, the kind of commentary and feedback that is allowed, and so on. Its supportive and collaborative nature means that fanfiction lies not on the sharp edges of internet culture but in a constructive place, produced by people sharing their own work and offering supportive feedback on others’ creative endeavours. We can see the effect of architecture on the workings of this community, just as Lessig describes; the written-only feedback system and lack of connection to real-world identity create an environment in which writers are free to dream and can expect positive responses from their peers.34
It is difficult to give a precise demographic of an online community, with thousands of individuals choosing to share limited information about themselves, but the fanfiction community is often characterised as “feminine, feminist, and /or queer”,35 “written by women, or if not by women, then by people who are willing to be (mis)taken for women”36 (for some demographic information, see Charles Sendlor's data on FFN research37). Also of importance is that fanfiction is usually not published for profit.38 These stories are published on public, searchable websites, making it an ideal place to find a multitude of marginal voices covering an abundance of topics.
As Henry Jenkins would have it, fanfiction “is a way of appropriating media texts and rereading them in a fashion that serves different interests”.39 Beth Bonstetter and Brian Ott, in their narrative performance text on écriture féminine in fanfiction, claim that the rewriting is a “means for marginalized groups and especially female fans to construct a discursive space within hegemonic culture to express themselves in meaningful and personally fulfilling ways”.40 Though fanfiction writers draw upon popular published and produced texts that flood our culture, the stories told are given new twists and priorities, and the process "permits women to write alternative versions of existing narratives and characters that speak more directly to their feminine, feminist, and/or queer investments and desires".41
Further, fan writers ignore the devices that the publishing world says make writing “serious” or “professional”.42 As Jamison describes, fanfiction “feeds on its predecessors and its contemporaries, interacts with them, makes them new. It is in a constant state of conversation and exchange”.43 The result is a rich, subversive, shapeshifting and interactive archive of narratives that both speak to and against their ‘master’ (narratives).
The fanfiction community has its own rich language, culture and classification system — Mary Sues, Canadian shack stories, high school alternate universes, mirror universe fics — that organises their engagements and describes typical forms of writing.44 While the community has its own abundant and often participatory structure around these texts, and though the community is engaged in the production of texts, it is also a site for discussion, co-creation, and construction of a worldview. As Jamison reminds us (and by that we really do mean us, the ‘academic authors’ of this work), “Academics can tend to emphasize fanfictions potential for collaboration, non-hierarchical relations, dissent and resistance […] Fic may be known for creating worlds in which anything goes […], but communities and individuals can police these worlds and their boundaries with tremendous vigilance.”45
Fanfiction writers are Henry Jenkins’ "Textual Poachers", fans that pro-actively construct alternative cultures using elements “poached” and reworked from the popular media.46 In this project, we extend this tradition, and try to write through these writers themselves; the poachers become the poached.
Our own experience of working with and through fanfiction is further discussed in Source Material.
The Cut-up Technique
Finally, we introduce a way of making that is a reference point for the interactions that we had with these texts. The cut-up technique was a reference point which grew in significance as the project developed. It is a technique made famous by the beat writer William Burroughs in the 1950s, but dates back further to the Dadaists in the 1920s. Cut-up is a literary technique based on chance, in which existing texts are cut up to create new texts, often poetry.47
When it was first developed, the intention of the cut-up technique was to create new poetic connections and find unexpected (often subversive) meanings in the abundance of texts found in mid-twentieth century lives. In the modern world, texts are more abundant than ever, and with internet communities meeting in forums online we have a rich resource of grassroots voices, offering a view into the psyche of the internet-using community that could not be found in the institutionally sanctioned writings of journalists and published authors. Our technique, therefore, makes use of super-abundant source data and a super-charged, machine-driven cut-up process, making new worlds and new imaginings from the texts of others.
We realised that what had begun as a metaphorical understanding of Artificial Intelligence programming became something we were playing with throughout the project. The films, with their identity scavenged from obscure corners of YouTube, cut and spliced together to create new stories, are another version of the cut-up technique, creating surprises and subversions through the juxtaposition of found material. This thread extends even further, into the way we chose to present our research. The use of different colours for each of our voices evokes a reversed cut-up aesthetic, where meaning that emerges from these juxtapositions is intentional. The cutting is a record of our approaches to that meaning. With the words on this website ‘cut-up’ at their inception, it is interesting to consider how different the communication of this project would be if our words, entangled and undisciplined as they currently are, were ‘un-cut’ and placed in neat blocks of red, blue, and green.
The intention of the cut-up technique is, and always was, to problematise authorship, to produce meanings while exposing their fractured origins, and to both invite and confound the reader’s process of interpretation; interpretation that expects — but will not find — human intentions on the other side. We instead set this process of interpretation against a cut-up process of mixed origin: of a human writing in collaboration with a computer, an algorithm to be executed by a computer on human-written texts, and again, invite an interpretative process on the part of the reader that is bound to be productive, frustrated, and a test of the process itself.