“Algorithms are artists”

An Interview with Annie Dorsen, whose “The Great Outdoors” takes the public on an intergalactic voyage.

Annie Dorsen, on a quest for a new kind of theater. photo: Steven Dodd

By Christopher Tibble

Audience members huddled around a square, monolithic, projector that cast a 360-degree simulation of the universe over their heads at the Florence Guild Hall, where a black, inflatable, dome-shaped planetarium sat atop the stage. Spectators lay on yoga mats as the eerie music of composer Sébastien Roux set the tempo for Annie Dorsen’s new piece, The Great Outdoors, which transports the public to the far ends of the Galaxy while a female performer reads aloud 4chan and Reddit comments selected by an algorithm during the previous 24 hours. The play, according to Dorsen’s website, “invites us to imagine the internet’s infinite possibilities as a new form of celestial authority, and the comments as the internet’s id — unrestrained and protected by anonymity.” ArtsCultureBeat talked to Dorsen about this latest piece in her quest for a new form of theater.

You coined the term ‘algorithmic theatre’ in a 2012 essay. What does it mean?

I came up with the term because I was trying to find a way of describing what I was doing that wouldn’t be confused with other terms, like multimedia theatre or performance, which don’t necessarily incorporate any algorithmic processes on the ground floor of the dramaturgy. On the contrary, multimedia theatre and performance often use video, or other technology, as decoration. So I coined the term rather aspirationally — at the time I had only made one piece — to describe works that incorporate the algorithm as a consequential partner of the substance of the piece.

What in particular interested you about algorithms and the role they can play in cultural production?

For one thing, there is this kind of old cliché that states that theater is action. That somehow what defines a play is not the dialogue, the character, or the design, but the action that the characters take. I was thinking of an algorithm as a potentially important theatre artist, in the sense that algorithms do things, they make choices. It seemed to me quite interesting to think of an algorithm in this sense as an actor. Not just as a stage actor, but as the active protagonist of a piece. I was intrigued by the capacity of algorithms to generate language, create dramatic structure, order information, and play a consequential role in the root structure of the performance.

In The Great Outdoors the algorithm not only becomes the protagonist, but it defies the very notion of theater by eliminating the script, in the sense that every performance is different.

In one way, we can think of this work as having to do with improvisational theatre, in the sense that improvisations normally function with a set of rules, and the improviser acts within those rules, but the content he comes up with may be different each time he runs it through a given improvisational structure. On another level, it does challenge the script in a fundamental way, and from that perspective, we don’t talk about one script, but about a kind of “state-space” [what computer scientists call the collection of all possible outputs of a given program] that is abstractly made possible by the algorithm. The Great Outdoors is an open-system piece. It works with what has been posted on the Internet on the day before the performance. So in that sense, the amount of possible scripts is infinite because it depends on what humans put on the internet. Other pieces of mine are closed systems. One of them takes the finished script of Hamlet as its corpus. Another, called Yesterday Tomorrow, traces the path between the song “Yesterday” and the song “Tomorrow”. These don’t have an infinite number of possibilities, but they also have a “state-space,” because there are billions of possible scripts that could be produced by these algorithms. That, we might say, is the real work I do, not what an individual sees on a particular night, but the entire implied number of potential scripts that could be produced by the algorithm in any given play.

The Great Outdoors takes place inside an inflatable dome. Although it could have been staged anywhere, you decided to do so inside a theater. Why?

I like the piece best when the dome is sitting on a theater stage. I think it looks fantastic there, very strange. [She laughs.] But there is also one element of it that is purely experiential: When you walk into a theater building, there are usually several doors separating you and the sitting area, so there is this process of going in and in and in, and in this case you go one more level into the dome, where you suddenly find yourself outside, or in this artificial outside. I also like the fact that a theater stage is a very ambiguous space. It’s a space for the creation of artificial life, which nonetheless it’s still real life. There is also something quite nice about this double nature of theater: it is a simulation of life, but also actual life; it is at the same time totally fake and real.

Would you say that this double nature you ascribe to theater could also be ascribed to the digital world?

The internet is both an inner and an outer space. It is a giant connection point between each of us individually, in our private homes and offices, and the whole world out there. It’s a kind of node of connection between ourselves and the world beyond our physical self, our physical location. On the other hand, it also functions as an inner space, almost like a projection of ourselves that exists in the screens of our iPhones or laptops. A kind of very personal dreamscape, a cinema for one that is constantly changing, that’s responsive to us. It’s a space of fantasy in a certain way, even when it’s telling us horrible things about the world. It was this contradiction that I was thinking of with the title The Great Outdoors. But maybe there is a third element to this: that theater itself is another form of projection, a sort of screen, fantasy, or point of connection with the outside world.

How did you come up with the algorithm?

We did so using the idea of entropy. What we are calling the algorithm is actually a set of sorting algorithms that we devised, and that all taken together try to model entropy in the sense that Claude Shannon proposed in the late ’40s: a way of trying to measure the density of information in a given message. We tried to make a model of this by sorting internet comments from low to high entropy. And we did it in a few different ways. Some very basic, like looking at which comments were more commonly posted on Reddit. That is more relevant in the early part of the piece, where words like ‘Yes’ and phrases like ‘Thank You’ appear often. Some ways were more complex. We used a technique that tries to quantify the semantic and contextual distance between different words in a given corpus.

The play can evoke this chilling thought, that if humanity ends, algorithms will continue to produce information for no one in particular, a kind a of mechanical, emotionless residue of us. Did that concern you?

Not with this particular algorithm, because it only has to do with what humans have posted on the internet. But it’s certainly something that I’ve thought before because there are many algorithmic processes that are not dependent on human input, and that will just continue on until the machines that they run on have no more power. So if we take seriously the notion that the algorithm is an actor in the world, there is a whole level of activity going on all the time that is entirely independent of human intervention. That is certainly true of the animal world, of the natural world, but this is different, because it is human-made. In case we cease to exist, it will just continue on, crunching numbers, buying and selling stocks, pinging satellites for response, a whole kind of hyperactive world of activity going on in the ether around us.

You make it almost sound poetic…

I don’t know about that [laughs]. A key element of The Great Outdoors we worked with is the concept of entropy. Both in their information theory sense, as I mentioned before, but also in its thermodynamic sense, which Sébastien Roux used as an inspiration for the music composition that he made. It was quite a topic of conversation. In the thermodynamic sense, entropy does have to do a lot with the end of the world. It’s about the winding down of all of the available energy of the universe. That is the end point of entropy, when the usable energy has been used. We’re talking of millions of years from now, when the sun has grown cold. This is what photoshoots predict, what they call heat death, a state of non-activity and undifferentiation. In this sense, the play is apocalyptic, for sure, but it is also quite peaceful to think about.

Was there any particular feeling you wanted the audience to leave with?

This piece has an almost physical impact because of the visuals and because of the intensity of the music. I think people can have many responses to it. It’s possible someone would feel quite sick, not only from the visible turning of the universe, but also from the almost disgusting accumulation of opinion, judgment, need, and desire espoused by the algorithm. But it’s also possible that someone really feels it energizes them. They might find the ending, as it winds down, quite optimistic, as if something new is born. What I was thinking is that the combination of text, music, and visuals should be somehow felt, that there is a kind of sublimity to it, and that it may produce a non-rational impact on viewers.