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Resurrecting a dead poet

A neural network, poetry from the grave and quantum mechanics


I.

Surrealist automatism is a method of art-making in which the artist suppresses conscious control over the creation process, allowing the unconscious mind to exceed limitations and have greater sway. A branch of it - automatic writing - is about making words arise from a subconscious, spiritual or supernatural source.

When we sit down in front of the empty paper, we have a conception about literature that controls the way we write and that manufactures clichés. Some have used drugs to escape the control, to seek out things in language that lie outside the blinders. We are so trained in reading literature that when we encounter language on the other side of the established logic we know and live inside, our thoughts are challenged.

Language shapes how we think, and by expanding language, we can possibly expand our thinking. This is one of the reasons why we have conducted experiments with literature at our studio, and want to open the process and share some reflections.

At the core of the experiment is an open source neural network, that we have worked with in order to explore language, more specifically poetry. What our praxis has to do with automatic writing, is that the source of text is somehow supernatural, in the sense that it is a system without a body to experience the world through. That means everything the network has ever experienced is text.


II.

The input, the network builds on, is that of the late danish poet Sophus Claussen (1865-1931). A human once with a body and a mind, but also a human that believed in the connectedness of things, with a wish to transcend the borders of the body through his work. What we wanted to do with the experiment was to summon a new work from Sophus Claussen, and use the neural network as the medium.

By feeding the neural network Sophus Claussen’s collected poems, we have requested a voluminous output that for most is beyond our grammar and logic, but in moments open a portal to a forceful poetic parallel universe worth visiting. So we are publishing selected poems by the network in physical form. The title for the book is taken from one of the texts and suggests that the experiment does actually give access to a parallel language and logic: Den Store Portal - The Great Portal.

The network learns by contextualising characters and looking for patterns. What it has learned, it uses as input for the next. Like that it scales up the parameters surrounding all individual characters and approaches an understanding of how Sophus Claussen worked. As the network is training, it is important to find and maintain a balance between input and output, so that the output sustains some sort of sense for a human reader. It is possible to adjust certain parameters, and one of them we organised the publication after: temperature. In this case temperature says something about how conservative or creative the output is. 

The book is a document where the experiment with the different temperatures are represented, and where poetry and language are pushed out in conditions we are not used to. It is an experiment in forcing us to read differently, think differently.

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III.

Quantum mechanics is a fundamental theory in physics that describes nature at the smallest scales of energy levels of atoms and subatomic particles. Quantum mechanics collapses how our intuition works, and how we understand things around us. The theory of quantum mechanics has an inherent unpredictability. Our brains are trained on big things, we know how they work, but in quantum mechanics, the same rules does not apply. We simply do not know where the particles are located. It is completely unpredictable.

A common way to explain this is through the so called double slit experiment: You shoot electrons on to a surface with two holes in it. Behind there is another surface. In classical physics, you would have three options: the electron hits the first surface and returns, it passes through the first hole or it passes through the second hole, and finally hits the screen directly behind the hole it passed through, but what actually happens is that a wave pattern is formed behind the holes. If you then try do measure what hole the electron passes through, the pattern disappears. The logical consequence of that is, that we cannot say what hole the electron passed through, and have to live with the fact that small particles do not have a well defined position. It is not because we do not know where they are - they do not have a defined position.

This conflicts with our intuitive understanding of physical objects as being present at a specific point in space at a specific time. When we are on such a small level, the world functions in a radically different way than what we know from the bigger things. With quantum mechanics it is not possible to say where the electron hits, we can only calculate where it possibly will be.

When we encounter a place where our human senses cannot sense what happens, when things become very small, when they travel very fast, there is a different reality. It is very real, but our brains' programming can not process it. It goes against everything we know, so we cannot understand it. But we can train and eventually rewrite some of the limits of our mind, by spending time feeding ourselves ideas and facts from seemingly parallel realities.

The neural network poetry collection is a speculation manifested as an object you can encounter and engage with through you body and your mind. By spending time with things that propose a different logic, a different way of doing things, you open a space of possibility. The role of tactile speculation is to suggest alternate futures, preferable futures - to make them tangible, to make them irresistible.

Transcending Body