Beginner's Guide to A Piece of Work (formerly False Peach) Feb 11, 2013

by Heidi

I'm so excited to see False Peach I could bust.  I hope the following 'beginner's guide' gives you some clues as to how very brilliant, diverse, and awesome Annie Dorsen and her cohort are and how interesting this piece is going to be.  Here goes:

1. Annie Dorsen, a New York director with a diverse resume—from a successful musical, to feminist performance art pieces, and political works— is currently passionately devoted to what she calls algorithmic theater, meaning she uses algorithms to decide what happens on stage.  Her first piece of algorithmic theater, Hello, Hi There (2010), was a “conversation” between two computers.  The computers were programmed by inputting a huge dataset of possible language/responses and then creating a natural language processing algorithm that allowed the two computers to respond to one another.  The computers were conversing about Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky’s 1971 debate on whether there is such a thing as innate human nature or if we are shaped by experiences and the power of cultural and social institutions around us.

In False Peach, Annie is using a far more complicated algorithmic modality for fragmenting and assembling the text of Hamlet.  In this piece, light, sound, and text will all be controlled by probabilistic algorithms called hidden Markov models.   The hidden Markov model we are all probably most familiar with is T9 texting; your phone will guess which word you might be spelling based on what letters you have already typed and the frequency the word is used--most frequently used words being suggested first--all based on probability.  Somehow, similarly, Annie and her team are training a Markov model with the text of Hamlet so that a new version of the play is created each night.

Image from Hello, Hi There

2. Get reacquainted with Scott Shepherd; he will be the sole human performer in False Peach. He performed at On the Boards in 2007 as the narrator/Nick Carraway in the Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, the six and a half hour long performance of The Great Gatsby where Shepard read every word of the book.  He’s a member of The Wooster Group as well.  He is known for ability to memorize entire texts—like The Great Gatsby and Hamlet—a skillset which will surely be incorporated into the algorithmic performance of False Peach


3. Mark Hansen also joins the team of False Peach as a data analyst.  He has a BA in applied mathematics and a MA and PhD in statistical analysis and enjoys analyzing complex datasets.   He is one of the minds behind the informational structuring of Hamlet as it’s used in False Peach.  


He’s possibly best known for his collaboration with Ben Rubin on Listening Post, a 2001 art installation that culled live time text from internet chat rooms.  He used statistical analysis of language to display related phrases, for example, the phrase, “I am” as keywords, would elicit a chain of “I am” statements which are read aloud by an automated voice as the sentences scrolled across the screens of over 200 small, fluorescent vacuum screens.  The piece visited On the Boards in 2002 and has shown at MoMA and the Whitney Museum amongst others.


4. Why Hamlet?  Several reasons. Dorsen has mentioned that Hamlet could be read as a play about someone gathering information to make decisions.  In a way, Hamlet is gathering a dataset from which to base a decision in a way that mimics the way an algorithm makes decisions from a dataset.  Annie, in her interview with Andrew Russell, discussed how in a word increasingly shaped and informed by algorithms, (check out this TED talk about algorithms shaping our world) it’s both profoundly honest and a bit sacrilegious to parse apart and rearrange this canonical text that discusses the nature of man—is he a beast, is he a mind, is he a lump of flesh?—using algorithms.  It references the history of artificial intelligence (re: Alan Turing and his Turing Test) and the fear man feels about losing a sense of his importance as other methods of modeling and decision making (algorithmic) increasingly shape the world.  False Peach is then a very cold and probabilistic dissection of one of western culture’s semi-sacred, humanist, texts.  Hamlet, a frequently reproduced and re-interpreted play, is being told through the modus of contemporary concepts in applied math, technology, and statistics; this is traditional, canonical art held tenuously in the jaws of new algorithm, and equally, the creative potential of art to transform and recharge algorithms which are currently mostly used for commerce and science.