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#GraphPoem @ DHSI: A Poetics of Network Walks, Stigmergy, and Accident in Performance

Published onMay 04, 2022
#GraphPoem @ DHSI: A Poetics of Network Walks, Stigmergy, and Accident in Performance
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Could there be any relevance to, or at least fun in, a livestream involving sharing one’s computer screen online? Watching somebody else’s computer screen on one’s own in order to watch a performance that requires apps one might not have access to? 

What if the viewer/participant could access and use apps, social media, and code in ways that would impact the performance and give them enhanced options to look under the hood—to inspect and control an event shaped also by improvisation, chance, and even accident? What kind of performance would that be? What about its theatre or performance venue: a digital environment with its own specificities and history of evolution? 

The #GraphPoem events presented on a yearly basis at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) since 2019 (“DHSI” #GraphPoem) are digital space performances involving collective database assemblage, interactive coding, social media automation, and livestreaming. Python scripts on JupyterHub represent DHSI-related data as networks that are analyzed for graph-theory (topological) features and then, based on those analyses, sampled intermittently by a Twitter bot (@GraphPoem). This whole process is then fed into an intermedia, cross-artform performance on Facebook (@Margento.Official).

This paper highlights a few moments of #GraphPoem @ DHSI 2021, analyzing them from the perspectives of intermediality, remix studies, performance studies, and graph theory while focusing on relevant issues such as topography-topology, the interface, human-computer intra-action, community, and network walks.

Venue and/as Performance: The Communal Now(/)here of Interfacing Mediation

Chiel Kattenbelt has notably asserted about theatre that “just as it can incorporate the other arts, so it can incorporate all media into its performance space. It is in this capacity that I regard theatre as a hypermedium” (“Theatre” 37). This hypermedium or “federating medium” (Larrue and Vitali-Rosati 25 can be seen both as “an interart” and “a technological meeting place” that is a window for both “looking at” and “looking through” (Richard Lanham qtd. in Larrue and Vitali-Rosati 25). The former is tellingly exemplified by the hypermediacy of a webpage opening onto other windows and not any reality beyond (17). My point in this section is that one may consider not only a webpage but also, even more relevantly and representatively, the whole interface of the computer alongside its connectivity to or inclusiveness of multiple other interfaces to be the digital hypermedium. 

This hypermediacy is made most apparent, perhaps, in events such as #GraphPoem, in which the venue/theatre consists of a live-streamed computer interface and its multiple windows and applications. “Computer interface” here refers to a live stream unfolding as the real-time inner works of a graphical user interface (GUI) and not to a particular identifiable or essentialized interactive screen. Therefore, a more appropriate term than “live-streamed computer interface” would be “interfacing livestream” (performing an apparently usual GUI as event venue). The venue becomes on such occasions a screen of manipulated/manipulatable screens and, therefore, an interface of interfaces, multitudinous and connective. It displays the various platforms informing and/or hosting the event—JupyterHub, Twitter, SoundCloud, Facebook, etc.—and it connects (with) the interfaces of participants and viewers which, besides displaying the interfacing livestream in their turn, also instantiate or make getting actively involved in the event-related processes happening on the above-mentioned platforms possible and visible. 

There are two main consequences of this hypermediacy. First, the live-streamed interface or apparent venue, i.e., the GUI interface in the livestream, turns out to be contained or conditioned by what it contains and conditions. Such performance goes beyond the above-mentioned distinction between look-through and look-at windows. The look-at facet involves other windows that amount to a look-through effect as they literally overlook activities and processes (at times even displaying participants as such contributing to the event) shaping the performance per se “from beyond.” This beyond is nevertheless a “beyond within,” appearing at, and (re)shaping, the very window the performance consists of. 

Second, the venue becomes the performance per se as the mediations it consists of generate technological-societal relational multiplicities. The interface has been defined, indeed, as a “form of relation […] between two or more distinct entities” shaped by the “coupling of the processes of holding apart and drawing together” (Hookway 4), a relational form that brings into existence both machinic technology and user (Larrue and Vitali-Rosati 51). While Larrue and Vitali-Rosati convincingly highlight the mediating/relational/generative functionality of the interface, they prefer nevertheless to speak of its user or subject in the singular. As mentioned above, while framing the interface as involving two or more entities, Hookway still speaks of the production of “the subject through [the interface’s] processes of subjectification” (Hookway 5, author’s emphasis). Hookway’s typographical emphasis on “subject” highlights the singural form of the noun; yet, as already hinted and as discussed below, plurality and multiplicity are of the essence in interfaces and the type of subjectification they incur.

The interface, particularly within events such as #GraphPoem—that is, mediated as venue-performance—is nevertheless fundamentally multiple, engendering communities in/as performance and action (Tanasescu, “Community”). The interface in its evental dimension, thus, makes (communities and ensembles of) humans, technologies, and (poetry) datasets functionally overlap and become ontologically imbricated as “webformances,” communal webs deployed in “post-Occupy[ing]” the web (Tanasescu, “Community”; see also Tanasescu et al.; Tanasescu and Tanasescu). As argued in these publications, texts are always multiple and networked in digital environments (they are inevitably involved in graphs, while poems are always “graph poems”), and so are users and artificial intelligence. Moreover, performance (and the performativity of the digital per se) presupposes inter/intra-activity which generates communities, in their turn performative, networked, and ontologically hybrid, involving and generating poem-user-machines.

Hookway’s statement, “[t]he separation maintained by the interface between distinct entities or states is also the basis of the unity it produces from those entities or states” (Hookway 4) could be consequently now read in a new light. That is, it is referring to communities and ensembles that are brought together by means of network-based (graph theory topology–informed) differentiation and as discrete interfaces converging into the interfacing livestream. The “here and now” of traditional performance and the “home to all” quality of theatre emerging from Kattenbelt’s vision (Larrue and Vitali-Rosati 25) becomes in this case the “now(/)here” of the manifold mediating venue in/as performance. The now and here as well as the “nowhere” (and no specific time) of now(/)here coexist: there are the various temporalities of the multiple processes happening on various platforms just as there are the different temporalities related to the involvement or attendance of various participants or viewers. All of them converge within the apparently linear and all-absorbing temporality of the livestream or its subsequent playbacks.

Similarly, the palpable “here” of the interfacing livestream informed by the evident and consistent tangibility of the live-streamed GUI—with its continuous mouse hovering and clicking and writing in search bars, in Jupyter-based coding scripts, etc.—owes its seeming coherence to the various algorithmically interrelated platforms involved, as well as to the various web-based and physical locations of the participants and users. The latter, while making that “here” coherently possible, manifest, and ongoing, also gesture toward its underlying discreteness and machinic trompe l’œil, its “nowhere[s].” I will focus on the implications of physical and/as web-based place or location in the following subsection, but suffice it for now to briefly emphasize the communal function of a graph-theory–based approach to performance such as the one at stake here.

Kattenbelt has noted that the appearance of “a world of bits and bytes” adjacent to the one of atoms (Kattenbelt, “Intermediality” 36, drawing on Nicholas Negroponte) makes it much more difficult to assemble a community (or explicitly belong in one) and, consequently, equally difficult to stage [oneself as] [part of] a performance. Life in our culture, since no longer centred on the “physical world,” entails “a certain rootlessness” (37). Yet life in digital space—a reality that goes beyond the real–virtual binary (cf. Kennedy)—can, and did, spawn and/or strengthen communities with clear-cut profiles, MOs, and evolutions (Tanasescu, “Community”). Deploying graph theory in performance articulates communities with clearly distinct features and individual members or groups (nodes or subgraphs). Moreover, being in, and contributing to, the network is the way to start, expand, and/or enact—and  thus perform—a community or engage in “commoning” (see Tanasescu, “Community”). Intermedial—and consequently interfacing—commoning is the now(/)here performance par excellence, one in which topography is not replaced by topology or the physical by the mathematical; rather, the two coexist and shape each other into a reality beyond both. The physical world is not abandoned in favour of the digital; instead, it becomes constitutive of and constituted by network analysis­–based commoning. Now(/)here is the multiple, specific, correlated, and contextually inflected here-and-now of the graph-theory­–informed community. But it is also the nowhere of both unpinnable intermediality and the amorphous or anonymous beyond of viewers’/surfers’ multi- or non-identities and localities: the beyond within.1

Place/Site/Placing/"St[e]alling"

As already hinted, place and site exist in a number of varieties in approaches such as the one informing #GraphPoem.2 I already mentioned topography versus/plus topology, the former referring to the rigorous charting of physical places and the latter to mathematical methods of assessing relationships between, or hierarchies of, elements of a set based on features such as connectivity, continuity, and compactness. 

More specifically, since our model is the graph, topology does not really have to do with how the graph is represented (it is not topographical) but with characteristics referring to the individual nodes/edges or the network as a whole, such as degree, connectivity, shortest paths, and centrality. These qualitative and quantitative features remain the same no matter how we visualize  the graph (or not), and how we look at or stretch it. Consequently, as mentioned in the previous section, data can be paradoxically both here and now and nowhere at the same time. The topology of the network (specifically of the graph poem) can accurately, if only relationally, locate data, while topographically speaking, we cannot say much about their physical and/as web-based locations.

The topographical and the topological interact and fuse toward experiences beyond the binary and are, moreover, already inextricably intertwined in digital space. Topography represents an encoding of space to begin with (see David Harvey, referenced in Bennett 43), but what is more, in digital space it relies on the network topology underlying the web, the digital apps, and/or the online communities involved in or addressed by its generation. This simplifies and complicates the issue at the same time, especially when examined from a performance-relevant standpoint.

Site-specific (performance) art has generally been seen as site and community enacting, performative, or even generative, and so has (performance) poetry (see Skoulding and Davidson; Tanasescu, “Community”). I have argued elsewhere that the fact that the poem can not only describe but also generate place (see Davidson) amounts to the poem being the (digitally networked/web) site and highlighted poetry as the digital space genre (Tanasescu, “Community”; see also Tanasescu, “Literature”). Yet in other recent approaches, place and its unique specificity is seen as more actively involved and agentive, animating performance “in locally material ways—rather than merely awaiting animation by performance” (Dickinson 93).3 Dickinson finds Laura Levin’s concept of “environmental unconscious” useful in building such an argument about the spatial turn in performance ethnography (in Canadian dance studies) applied to urban dance communities and, even more relevantly to this contribution, movement practices in general (qtd. in Dickinson 92–93).

The imbrication of topography and topology briefly considered above renders movement multidimensional and multilayered as it bridges bodily movements and physical walks, on the one hand, and web surfing and/or network pathfinding (with their own kind of movements, bodily ones included) on the other. While going beyond the physical–digital and real–virtual binaries renders the space of our culture more cohesive and articulate (if spectacularly heterogeneous), it also exposes the complexity of movement the said space is conducive to and the truly remarkable opportunities thus made available for performance.   

A work featured as part of (and specially created for) #GraphPoem @ DHSI 2021 and relevant to this discussion is Margento’s Brussels. A Human-Computer-Intra-action Hypersonnet. This transmedia poem consists of a dataset of fourteen (“guiding”) poems, a Jupyter Notebook, a few imported GitHub-based Python scripts, a note on “Technics” followed by a “Poetics Statement,” and a number of “resulting” poems consisting of cosine similarity calculus outputs, lists of words, and concrete arrangements of the latter (“the emerging concrete shape of the poem as linguistic mapping app”) (Margento, Brussels).4

While strolling in various communes of Brussels I would stumble upon a place speaking to me in a really particular way (but otherwise hardly noticeable to other passers-by), and that is how the compositional process began. As I let my senses be suddenly, fully, and continuously flooded by the feel and vibe (and noise) of the place, I would put together a list of words in my mind, avalanching in no particular order (what natural language processing or NLP calls a “bag of words”) and with no syntax or poetic form in mind, while also trying to think of, or find online, an existing poem that would go best with that environment and the mood it put me in.5 In many cases, a relevant poem or poet popped into my mind or was among the Google or various database search results I uncovered afterwards, or I would simply serendipitously come across it much later. This poem would then go in the guiding dataset, while the poem I was working on would continue to evolve. I was being a flaneur around the city, across a database, and along a compositional process at the same time:

We also walk through a dataset. A corpus of poems we’ve been collecting and reading recently as guidance in our wanderings. Guidance and fluid evolving frame of reference at the same time. It actually works as a “mental” AR app popping up before our eyes in the process of translating (scraping and processing) what we see as we walk. Translation or app or both are shaped in the process. While translation generates both the “original” and the “translation,” the AR does not presuppose a constant or self-contained R either. Rather, AR and R search through/with, and thus shape, each other in the process. Poems are picked for guidance in a specific spot, are de/re/trans-formed, or added to the guidance corpus as we go along, while what we scrape, what we (choose) to see is grounded in those poems (Margento, Brussels).

The code would then compute vectors of both the guiding and the evolving poems based on the FastText word embeddings and measure the cosine similarity between the latter and all the guiding poems.6, 7 It would be thus associated with the input poem with the greatest cosine similarity, even in the generally unlikely event of being most similar to another poem than the one I initially assigned to the public place in question. This would provide the resulting poem with a certain position (as a multidimensional line of verse) in the in-progress “hypersonnet” (an intermedial sonnet of poems and platforms) and also a spot in the emerging route of public places and poems. The process is described in the “Maths” section of the poetics statement:

Maths. Our code computes (iteratively, where needed) the similarity between the emerging poem’s vector and that of the guidance corpus poem involved in mapping the place we loiter about at the time of “writing.” This computation is in fact part of the composition process, crucially impacting the poem’s form (described, therefore, as vector prosody) and informing the topology and optimal tour across the resulting corpus. It is not only the poetry of place involved that intertwines mapping and touring into a dynamic performative topophrenia (Robert T. Tally’s term). It is also the mathematics of poetic form transitioning from digits to the digital (or rather submerging the former into the latter) that accomplishes that in mapping and crossing vector and “real-life” spaces alike. […] The language and form mutual shaping process involves now a space-modeling mathematics of place exploration-generation (Margento, Brussels).

The multiple movements and itineraries that the creation of the hypersonnet involved or discovered were nevertheless complemented with yet another one that potentially detoured and/or superseded all of the above: the journey of the entire transmedial poem into the DHSI performance. Or, otherwise put, the mediated interface-staged reading and presentation of the hypersonnet; the way in which the performance performs the poem. The various spaces and times that the performance crosses, plots, and/or alternates become therefore instrumental in the context in inscribing and (re)shaping—and thus intermedially (re)performing and rewriting—the poem from scratch.

As the JupyterHub was already up and running and outputting poems to be sampled by the bot on Twitter, the hypersonnet was introduced by opening another Jupyter Notebook, the one containing its own script (Margento,#GraphPoem 34:53) (Figure 1). Observing the technique that pervades most parts of the performance (as well as the previous #GraphPoem events at DHSI), the relatively longer time certain notebook cells or individual commands took to run was used to keep wandering around the other windows and apps opened on the screen (or opening even more of them) apparently looking for some “filler” and getting lost in the process.

Figure 1: The Brussels. A Human-Computer-Intra-action Hypersonnet Jupyter Notebook running while being hovered across the screen and among the other windows and apps involved in the performance

There were thus multiple other sites and temporalities that became manifest and interfered one way or another with the temporalities and processes (plurals) of the poem in the making per se. The latter consisted of the Jupyter/Python command runtimes, the pace and duration of browsing the guidance database or scrolling the document presenting the relevant poetics statements, other notes and data, the resulting concrete poetry, etc. All these temporalities and sites came to the fore as interspersed with, or put on hold if not obliterated by, other sites and processes that once in a while occasioned potential serendipitous convergences. Besides flaneuring around the “usual suspect” platforms, JupyterHub (now in tandem with the hypersonnet’s Jupyter Notebook), Twitter (Figure 2), SoundCloud, etc., this part involved starting other applications, windows, and files as well.

Figure 2: The @GraphPoem bot tweeting samples of the poem/text nodes singled out by the JupyterHub network analysis script.

Among the files started was a recent awarded article on the testing of natural language processing models: Marco Tulio Ribeiro et al’s. “Beyond Accuracy: Behavioral Testing of NLP Models with CheckList.”8 The file was opened and browsed at almost the same time as a YouTube bass and drums backing track mixed with a recording of Hildegard von Bingen’s Hortus Deliciarum performed by the ensemble Discantus played simultaneously in another YouTube window (“Hildegard”). Another window, which had been opened earlier on and was lurking in the background both visually and aurally, featured digital poet David (Jhave) Johnston’s project SloMoVo. The window’s sound had been nevertheless interrupted (while the image itself seemed to have jammed up and was refreshing indefinitely) by the increasing number of apps I was running and/or bandwidth-related issues. And then, all of a sudden, at minute 41:03, it started playing again.

Mystory vs Remix and/as Network Walks

Before detailing what happened at that specific moment (41:03) and its implications, I want to briefly discuss a couple of ideas relevant to the poetics briefly suggested above and generally characteristic of #GraphPoem events. This will help us place the latter in current theoretical and practical currents relevant to intermediality, performance studies, and remix studies.     

First, #GraphPoem seems to be telling a number of ongoing “live” participatory stories that unfold side by side  but that converge, alternate, and/or clash recurrently. JupyterHub for instance, and Jupyter notebooks in general, are ideal forms and media for presenting and running code as story, moving from one episode (cell of code) to the next (more such cells and coding blocks). It is indeed a mode of telling and performing a story at the same time, as the code itself outputs a manyfold narrative: that of its literal outputs as well as the narrative of its impact on other actors, platforms, or sections of the performance as a whole.

This manyfold narrative is part of what ties #GraphPoem in with, and differentiates it from, mystory. Gregory Ulmer uses the term “mystory” to describe digital (“non-linear, multimedia”) composition genre that goes beyond traditional portraiture by exploiting and exposing the digital culture–relevant problematics and manifoldness of self as performed, explored, and/or disintegrated through “cultural lenses” (Gratch 55­–56). Most relevantly for our discussion, mystory curates, mixes, and re-mixes digital artifacts that can amount to new or surprising—if ricocheted—insight about the mystorian, mainly through unexpected “through-lines” crossing the various discourses involved by the multimedia mashup and the patterns and themes emerging from the latter (see Gratch 55–56).

For #GraphPoem, the through-lines are represented by the edges drawn within the expanding network graph and consistently shedding new light on the involved data and/as community. They can be seen as telling a mystory that is an “autocommunication” (Ulmer qtd. in Gratch 56), yet not so much one of oneself as of one of ourselves: an ourstory, therefore, based on the networked data poem and fed into it at the same time. But the difference does not reside in the fact that the actors or subjects—"algorithmic subjects” in Johanna Drucker’s terms—are multiple rather than singular. It is, rather, a case of thinking beyond the alternatives of multiple or singular and enacting/experiencing events and contexts in which their distinction becomes impossible. Distinction and distance altogether. For in mystory, “performances are her ‘me,’ ‘not me,’ and ‘not not me,’ all at once” (Gratch 61), which, besides the culture-relevant ontological diffuseness, still presupposes a distinguishable “me.”  That is hardly the case with performances such as #GraphPoem in which data-commoning not only performs community but also makes humans, AI, and data operationally overlap while performing them as ontologically imbricated (Tanasescu et al. “A-poetic”). The paradox of the interface being mine and belonging to others and to no-one at the same time is therefore potentially reaching further than “not not me.” Discreteness feeds, by means of measuring mathematical (topological) distances, into amassing and agglutination to the point of—again, performative and therefore ontological—indistinguishability.9

Consequently, while the notion is not completely irrelevant, “writing style” is hardly there in #GraphPoem in the sense that it can be definitory of mystory (Tanasescu et al., “A-poetic” 84, 85, and particularly 87).10 #GraphPoem writing always has a prominent machinic and/or human computer interaction (HCI) form within which the “human” contribution mostly involves coding or running code, contributing data (saving files into shared folders or entering links in code lines), entering comments in coding scripts or phrases in search bars, remixing, or “simply” clicking (which was in fact also, once in a while, automated, as explained below). 

The way in which the hypersonnet was featured in the event is a form of writing characteristic of #GraphPoem that fuses remix and network walks. The performance remixed the code behind the hypersonnet alongside its poetics statements and HCI poems (the topographical poems informed by the guiding dataset’s topology), on the one hand, and the various other components, platforms, and sub-performances making up the in-progress graph poem on the other. This amounted to network walks on at least three main levels: distance-based (centrality) network analyses informing the performance, pathfinding across the graphs representing (specific sections of) the datasets involved (see below), and flaneuring across and within networked data (including the above-mentioned scripts, platforms, and [un]correlated windows). The latter in particular is relevant to the performance of the hypersonnet that is remixed—i.e., rewritten—as a walk through its various (plat)forms and mediating processes (including browsing the resulting poem document from bottom to top) as well as some of other data and apps running, being opened or quit, or cl(/r)ashing in the process.

The accidental (or serendipitous) restarting of Johnston’s interrupted “performance” was itself incorporated on the fly into the ongoing walks in a way illustrative of the above-described underlying poetics. The navigation of a magnified graph representing a “collage-voyage” across a poetry corpus (Margento, “Voyage-collage”) continued with Johnston’s literally moving image hovering over it, and then getting behind it and seeming to do the scrolling up and down the graph image himself. These visuals and their suddenly reemerging “soundtrack” (Johnston’s SloMoVo) thus amounted to a perhaps surprising enactment of an evolving poetics of network walks (Margento, #GraphPoem 41:03–41:07 and 41:31–41:47) (Figure 3).11

Figure 3: David (Jhave) Johnston performing SloMoVo and navigating #GraphPoem at the same time.

Stigmergetic HCI

The sudden comeback of the temporarily interrupted SloMoVo video and the way it was spontaneously worked into the performance speaks to a number of potentially relevant performance and media studies aspects of #GraphPoem. Liveness in recent and/or relevant contributions goes beyond the “physically” live vs. recorded (or mediated) binary and is seen as a mode of presence and presentation that can involve either or both in ways that challenge the very distinctions between them. Liveness and performance cannot be seen as distinct from documentation or re-enactment/re-performance anymore (Widrich, Performative and “Is the ‘Re’”), and both are therefore always informed by technologies, notably digital ones. What makes liveness different from the non-live, and even more so than the feel of the here and now—in its turn mediated or translatable, as we have seen, into computational now(/)here[s]—is the definitory element of danger (see Dixon 131). Unpredictability, the fact that things can go not really according to plan, if not factually haywire, is what makes liveness live.12

At the same time, for authors interested in intermediality and the philosophy of media such as Larrue and Vitali-Rosati, performativity is all about mediation and, thus, about the freedom that can be enacted and experienced in the moment as transgressing the pre-established: “Performativity is the element of each action that eludes determination. It is what happens in the instant of action that could not have been foreseen” (49). Significantly relevant to our discussion is the physics/biology-based model advanced by Larrue and Vitali-Rosati (and based on Ollivier Dyens’s concept) for their hallmark concept “mediating conjunctures,” namely “stigmergy” (53). Stigmergy is a form of self-organization in which actions or events in a certain environment trigger the completion of other actions carried out by the same or different agents. In the excellent example of schooling fish that Larrue and Vitali-Rosati provide, “[t]he school’s shape is the outcome of all of the fish’s movement but, at the same time, it is also the cause” (53). 

The #GraphPoem environment is exactly that, a stigmergetic system of mediating conjunctures whose evolution and dynamics are determined by the agents it contains and determines. The hypersonnet “accident” described above and the way in which it was translated and integrated into the performance, is a suitable illustration of the concept of stigmergy—and of performativity as (the) freedom (of mediation) while also speaking quite literally to the already referenced notion of liveness as danger.13 The third dimension of HCI still has to be considered, though, although a more appropriate concept would be that of HC intra-action.14

A telling illustration of HC intra-action was offered by another “accident” during the event. For most of the time, the mouse was manually hovered in a consistently patterned movement alternated with clicks on various windows and apps, but I have included an automation experiment in that section of the event as well.15 A script using the library PyAutoGUI (for controlling or programming mouse movements) was scheduled to activate a couple of times during the event, take over the mouse from wherever it was at the moment, move it in a pattern similar to the above-mentioned manual one, and then click on the screen wherever it happened to end up. Far from a consistent MO, these quick interventions were devised as tentative and prospective implementations to be further pursued at a larger scale and more consistently in the future. One of such experiments, taking place while visiting the SoundCloud page of Christopher Funkhouser’s “electronic poetry / post-punk improvisation / digital recording project” Most Serene Congress (“Most Serene Congress”), “accidentally” resulted in clicking on a recording also available on the same webpage yet involving another project: a poetry reading followed by an interview on radio with Steve Rushton and his band Ovid with Reverb (Margento, #GraphPoem 1:29:11). 

While playing this poetry reading and interview had not been part of “the plan,” it nevertheless involved contributors and mediations pertaining to the overall #GraphPoem stigmergy, which triggered in its turn an on-the-fly excursus into, and integration of, a number of other related mediating conjunctures. Among these, the PDF file of the book Various Wanted (Margento et al.) and the topic modelling–based computational poetry translations/transcreations involved in it. 

There is, as already alluded to, a complex HCI dimension informing such episodes of danger and performativity. And by “complex,” I certainly mean the already mentioned ontological imbrication of humans and computers but also (and in certain respects consequently) the multilayered serial nature of HC intra-action. In the example above, for instance, the machine automatically clicked on the “wrong” link and did that according to an algorithm written by a human, based on another machinic/algorithmic conglomerate (a coding library) assembled by other humans. This accident attracted a number of unplanned human performative actions (e.g., browsing a related book PDF), in their turn informed and shaped by, and/or dependent on, further machinic (and human) explicit or implicit agents (the code involved in writing that particular book, the code runtime in other windows, and the beat of the music played at the moment, both of them pacing the performance and its characteristic flaneuring, and so on). 

I am therefore revisiting the present-day focus on human and non-human shared involvement and collaboration in performance (see for instance Schweitzer 142), rereading the phrase “human and non-human” not so much as an enumeration but as a non-identifying co-incidence, or indeed, conjuncture, a statement referring to being, or rather operating (performing) as both human and non-human. One of the main functions of performance, at least of a #GraphPoem performance, is therefore to explore and/or make apparent how the human and non-human are intertwined (cf. Larrue and Vitali-Rosati who want to “understand” that intertwining, 123), imbricated, intra-active, how a human-computer (HC) ensemble or environment acts as an object in Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins’s formulation, that is, a “sprawling category” (Candlin and Guins 2) straddling the human-non-human divide.

Toward the end of the performance under discussion, a sprawling HC object emerges (1:55:55, Jupyter Notebook a bit earlier on) that can serve as a suitable case in point here. Cannes. A Bilingual Corpus Journey in Vector Prosody is another transmedia project developed by Margento specially for DHSI 2021 and consisting of a bilingual (English and French) poetry database, a poetics statement (a Pages file for the event, README.md on GitHub), a Python script (Jupyter Notebook and .py respectively), and a poem outputted by the script in the very last moments of the performance. While the algorithm solves another pathfinding problem—finding the route alternating between English and French without hitting the same poem-node twice and proceeding in the (decreasing) order of edge weights—the project as a whole reaches much deeper into the above-mentioned walk poetics. Its sprawling nature unveils the human/non-human how of the database and code, that is, working with page (txt-form) poems located in digital environments and automatically analyzing them, repurposing word embedding alignment scripts for multilingual poetry sampling and generation, and so forth.  

At the same time, this walk poetics resonates with the performance’s main recurrent themes and motifs, such as topography and topology as mutually shaping each other in digital space, journeys across geographic distances and databases at once, vector prosody, and so forth. In doing so, it engages in a remarkable kind of remix: the performance itself is remixed within the performance, as computational method but also as documented event. One of the main tenets of remix studies–based “configurable culture,” modularity—that “each work may become an element in another work” (Rosa et. al. 36–37)—becomes here another potentially representative instance of performative intra-action: the very ongoing performance is itself recycled as part of its own development (which also involves sampling previous editions of the event) (Figure 4).

This (re)mix of documentation, (uroboric) reenactment, and improvisation (Margento, #GraphPoem 2:01:02–end) operates as an “evocative object” and constellation of “things to think with” (Sherry Turkle qtd. in Muller and Seck Langill 2).16 The self-recycling and sampling performance is thus itself performed as computational poetry bi/multilingual pathfinding. And while such dialectics may seem to abstractly involve re- or trans-performing the identical into otherness, it also echoes the specific issues of local community, memory, and sustainability as evoked in some of the videos “accidentally” played as part of this section of the performance. These videos had come up in a search for “Margento” on YouTube that produced, besides videos of the already mentioned post-rock cross-artform band, testimonies from members of the local community, traditional music, and footage of events and sights from the township of Margento, Colombia (Margento, #GraphPoem 1:57:11 to 2:00:11). The clashing topologies of the networked poem and digital space platforms thus once again coincidentally foregrounded communal topographies (and their various cultural ecologies) within the stigmergy of the performance. 

Figure 4: Remixing the previous and the in-progress editions of #GraphPoem as part of the latter

In Guise of Conclusion

As on ongoing project with episodes dating back to 2019 at DHSI and further back in time in other contexts—Margento @ E-Poetry London in 2013 and Two Walls & a Mirror (2021)—plus an upcoming new installment at DHSI 2022, #GraphPoem is a protean, multifaceted initiative with a definitory performative dimension that involves quite a number of implicit or explicit trans/post-disciplinary and cross-artform investments. The underpinning academic research has fused NLP, complex network analysis, and literary studies for well over a decade now, while the analytical-creative side of things has been instrumental in expanding corpora automatically and editing computationally assembled anthologies (Sondheim et al.) or co-authoring intermedial poetry collections (Tanasescu “Nouveau livre”).

As the event grows more and more popular—with more than 600 registered participants in 2021 and thousands of online viewers (more than 12,000 in 2020)—the involved technical infrastructure will have to be upgraded in ways that will take the poetic, performative, and community-relevant approaches to the next level. Any conclusion can therefore only be tentative, temporary, and/or partial, if not completely absorbable in its turn into the unfolding performance(s).

Such provisional closing remarks focusing mainly on the 2021 event would highlight the fact that #GraphPoem fuses mathematical pathfinding with digital space flaneuring in ways that bring to the fore a poetics of network walks and intermedial topography-topology, human-computer, and data-commoning/social-media intra-action. #GraphPoem thus proves once again (if in ever new ways) to be an ongoing remix—involving coding scripts, collectively assembled data, automation, cross-artform DJ-ing/improvisation, and pseudo-narrative self-sampling loops—that navigates the dangers, and, as briefly exemplified above, accidents, of liveness with a holistic and consistent stigmergetic approach. In the process, performance emerges as the now(/)here of community, data, and artificial intelligence networking. 

 

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Acknowledgments

Credit needs to be given to the entire team involved in the #GraphPoem event for their technical, artistic, computational, academic, and/or organizing contributions: Costin Dumitrache (Margento & Toy Division), Prasadith Kirinde Gamaarachchige (U Ottawa), Laurane Castiaux (U C Louvain), Diana Inkpen (U Ottawa), Jean Vanderdonckt (U C Louvain), Vaibhav Kesarwani (U Ottawa), Nicolas Burny (U C Louvain), and Raluca Tanasescu (U Groningen). A big thank you as well to the DHSI team at the University of Victoria for their unfaltering support and assistance, and particularly to Ray Siemens, Randa El Khatib, Jannaya Friggstad Jensen, Caroline Winter, and Luis Meneses. The author is at the same time endlessly grateful to the editors and peer reviewers of IDEAH for their invaluable suggestions. Also, many thanks to the artists that were involved directly or granted us permission to feature their work as part of #GraphPoem @ DHSI 2021, notably Laurène Durantel-Helstroffer, Bruno Helstroffer, David Jhave Johnston, Margento(Costin Dumitrache, Valentin Baicu, Grigore Negrescu, Maria Raducanu, Marina din Abis, Sorina Enea, Chris Tanasescu), Most Serene Congress, and Ovid with Reverb, and all the others whose YouTube or SoundCloud videos, poems, translations, and/or academic publications were sampled or popped up on the screen(s) during the event.

The author’s work on this publication was supported by a grant from Wallonie-Bruxelles International awarded to the DigiLiBeRo project SUB/2021/518987.

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