Q&A with Allison Parrish

Welcome to Q&A, a series from the editors of Artists + Machine Intelligence.

Every week, we feature collaborators working at the intersection of art and technology. Follow us on Medium for new posts weekly, or explore the archive of featured guests here.

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Courtesy Allison Parrish

Allison Parrish is a computer programmer, poet, educator, and game designer. Her teaching and practice address the unusual phenomena that blossom when language and computers meet, with a focus on artificial intelligence and computational creativity. She holds a master’s degree from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (where she is currently a member of the full-time faculty), and her computer-generated poetry has recently been published in Ninth Letter and Vetch. She is also a recipient of AMI’s inaugural artist grants, where she’s exploring the relationships between spelling, pronunciation, and feeling (we won’t say more!) This week, Allison writes in to share what’s top of mind. You can follow Allison on twitter, or right here, on Medium under Allison Parrish.

What is your current state of mind? Exhausted, anxious, angry. Everything is distended. In the park near my apartment that I never used to visit, someone planted bright red tulips beneath the rose bushes. From a few steps away, it looks like the rose blossoms have already blown even though it’s only April. I opened my calendar the other day and it was like looking at hieroglyphics.

Describe a typical Tuesday: On the first Tuesday of the semester, a department administrator came into my office and asked if I didn’t have class right then, and said that in any case my students had been waiting for me in the classroom for twenty minutes and were wondering where I was. Panicked, I checked the registrar website and saw that yes, I did have class then — a class that I had thought was on Thursday. At some point when you’re a professor, you stop having nightmares about classes you’d forgotten you were enrolled in, and start having nightmares about classes you’d forgotten you were teaching. So this was a literal nightmare scenario, and I thought it would be the worst thing to happen this semester, and I was wrong!

Currently reading: Recently I mentioned to a friend that I was interested in writing “lyric essays” and as instruction they recommended Anne Carson’s “Short Talks” in Plainwater. As a computer programmer with (a) very little formal education in literature; (b) quirky aesthetic preferences; and (c) pretty much no interest in lyricism, it’s often difficult for me to connect with a lot of mainstream poetry. But I really love this book. It’s both very clever and very intimate, which is a difficult balance to maintain. I imagine it’s a difficult balance, I mean. I’ve only ever tried to be very clever.

Just started watching: Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein’s YouTube series on the history of the Seattle Mariners. Can data journalism about sports be both hilarious and deeply moving? Yes, and its name is Dorktown.

Your favorite place on ‘the Internet’: I have an account on friend.camp (Darius Kazemi’s Mastodon-based small-scale social network), which is like a cross between a group chat and pre-hellmouth Twitter. Camp is very good and I don’t know how I’d survive without it!

Where do you find inspiration? Maybe this isn’t fashionable to say — and I’m certainly trying to fuel the argument that you have to love programming in order to be a “real” programmer — but computer programming makes me happy. It makes me especially happy when it is aimless, and useless.

I think artists from all backgrounds depend on constraints, rules and formalisms to produce artworks that surprise even the person who made it. (Think of LeWitt’s wall drawings, or free writing exercises in creative writing classes.) It so happens that formulating constraints, writing rules and honing formalisms in order to produce surprise is the entire art of programming. For me, there is nothing more joyful than the moment where a computer program I wrote produces output that is both clearly the inescapable outcome of my instructions and charming in its unpredictability. The grin you get on your face when you look at your screen and say to yourself “I can’t believe that worked” — that’s the feeling I’m after.

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“Wall Drawing 305” by Sol Lewitt (Photo courtesy of MASS MoCA)

Which came first for you: art or tech? I really need to learn why other people consider these to be separate things.

What are you working on? I read a Johanna Drucker book a while back so I’ve been trying to teach myself more about “material” aspects of language. Most of my experiments in the last few months have been concrete and/or asemic poetry, made with algorithmic drawing techniques or machine learning (thank you, DCGAN, for being so simple and effective). Not unrelated: I took a workshop earlier this year on how to do letterpress printing at The Arm in Brooklyn.

Artwork you’ve been thinking about lately: All of Mirtha Dermisache’s work. Thinking through the analogy between legible/illegible and speakable/unspeakable.

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Mirtha Dermisache, Sin título (Texto), no date, c. 1970s. Ink on paper, 9.6 × 7 inches. From Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings. Image courtesy the Mirtha Dermisache Archive.

Artist not working with AI that should be: Oh. I don’t really know enough about the art world to not look foolish if I were to answer this. Whoops!

Most exciting development in AI that can apply to artists: Anything that makes it easier, faster, and cheaper to train models from scratch.

Advice you wish you heard 10 years ago: Math is fun and useful and you should learn a lot of it.

In 2020, I want to see more: Funding for the arts.

Tell us about a poem that speaks to you: I can’t pick one, so I’ll just talk about the whole book: Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers, which I adore. Part of what I want to do as a poet is invent forms of language so new that even GPT-2 can’t predict them (yes, I realize there’s an irony in trying to use machine learning to achieve that goal). I find myself constantly coming back to 80 Flowers for guidance on how to do this.

Artists + Machine Intelligence (AMI) is a program at Google that invites artists to work with engineers and researchers together in the design of intelligent systems. Questions? Feedback? Tweet us or email: artwithmi@google.com

This publication showcases collaborations with artists…

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We bring artists and engineers together to realize projects with machine intelligence at Google.

Artists + Machine Intelligence

This publication showcases collaborations with artists, engineers, and researchers as part of Google’s Artists + Machine Intelligence program.

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