Generative Dances: A Visit to The Office for Creative Research

By Gabriele Oropallo.

Diagram of the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan (2009-2010). The algorithm working the connections was designed by Jer Thorpe.

Sitting at a wooden table in their studio, Jer Thorp and Ben Rubin look remote from the frosty aesthetics of their work. Eyes wide open, infectious surprise. They bolster each other with sudden exclamations of mutual approval. Both communicate genuine, boyish delight. Their hands never rest on the rough surface of the table and accompany with wide gestures their memories of projects past and plans for the future.

The two members of The Office for Creative Research formally joined forces less than two years ago after informally collaborating for several years, and are still honeymooning. Thorp, a digital artist with a background in genetics, is excited at the idea of the office providing a stable home for their joint efforts.

I enter the dim, second-floor Bowery studio through the kitchen. Ben Rubin has occupied the office squeezed between a Chinese furniture store and a takeaway for a decade already. In their recent projects they use large textual bodies such as Wikileaks, the Bible, or Shakespeares – and startlingly enough even Justin Bieber’s tweets. Rubin remembers that his very first encounter with computers was triggered by his interest in Noam Chomsky’s theory of a generative grammar. A set of rules embedded in language that allows speakers to build infinite sentences from a limited set of words. He remembers using an early computer while at school in the 1970s to build a software that could write all possible sentences in the English Language. “These computers didn’t even have their own screens,” he says, “we shared one between six.” But they did have printers. Rubin launched the code and the computer room became flooded with an uncontainable paper avalanche. I wonder what strategies he has since developed to reconcile the infinitity of the digital world with the constrains of the one we alas live in.

Rubin’s Listening Post (2002) lifted fragments of conversations from on-line chatrooms and delivered them to LCD displays and synthesised voices. In The Language of Diplomacy (2011) the archive was constituted by the Wikileaks cables, and the display was a simple sheet of paper fed into an Underwood typewriter. The Shakespeare Machine (2012) is a permanent wheel-shaped installation that hovers above the lobby of the New York Public Theater. There are 37 blades departing from a central hub. Each one carries a digital display, and each one is dedicated to one of Shakespeare’s plays. The displays show words and brief lines. At first sight the fragments seem randomly fished from the dramatist’s corpus. Yet, after a few seconds in the lobby, one will discern a sort of dialogue taking place between the 37 voices, as if they were controlled by the strings of a hidden puppeteer. They interact, throw hints, ask questions and respond. But who is directing the dialogue?

The least visible aspect of the artworks is also the most powerful. The digital hands that parse the books are those of algorithms conceived on purpose, typically written in a programming language called Processing. Thorp also designed one for the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan (2009-2010). His algorithm helped decide on the placement of the 3,000 names carved on the memorial, and make visible the family connections between the victims.

I ask Thorp and Rubin for images that could capture the ineffable nature of an algorithm. Thorp is very straightforward, and somehow mathematical about it. “It’s a series of do-until strings. Like the recipes we use when we cook – those are all algorithms.” Rubin pauses a bit and closes his eyes as if to meditate. When he comes back, he uses an image I wasn’t seeing coming. “A series of dance moves,” he says. Finally I see how the bottomless pit of the digital world was reconciled with the comfort of the limited horizon humans enjoy. Choreography. Their algorithms are dancers dancing in a library. They look for the right words to pick from the shelves, and in the process they tell us always novel and unrepeatable stories. The list of possible plots is bottomless.