Simultaneous writing (machines)
The singular “writing” is always suspicious, as the source of truth and authority, as monism. The multiple on the other hand(s) seems like the supreme expression of the algorithmic. A potentially endlessly ongoing writing, iteration, recursion, re-instantiation, or as Frieder Nake put it: “The work of art in algorithmic art is the description of an infinity of possible works.” Perhaps against the backdrop of capitalist-industrialist automated production and techno-optimism, when Cage was interviewed about HPSCHD, he said that “in the case of working with another person and with computer facilities, the need to work as though decisions were scarce – as though you had to limit yourself to one idea – is no longer pressing. It’s a change from the influences of scarcity or economy to the influences of abundance and – I’d be willing to say – waste.” Waste, surplus, excess. It is interesting that the work on computers is linked here with collaborative work. How can we arrive at a form of excessive and collaborative writing that does not subscribe to the techno-optimist logic or imperative that all writing should become inter-connectable, compatible, ready for optimisation and exploitation? We want to capture this idea of a surplus writing – writing with machines, through machines, writing with other artists – that resists becoming a network node, one that preserves the alterity of each agent in the process, as a simultaneous writing. Instead of defining a topology that assigns positions to each part, totalising the text’s meaning, simultaneous writing practices hodology, makes pathways, orients different texts towards each other, allowing them to come together in a space without establishing cause-and-effect or hierarchy among them. In this presentation, we work with sound and computation. We understand writing as an operation more generic than “linguistic” and discrete writing.
The singular “writing” is always suspicious, as the source of truth and authority, as monism. The multiple on the other hand(s) seems like the supreme expression of the algorithmic. A potentially endlessly ongoing writing, iteration, recursion, re-instantiation, or as Frieder Nake put it: “The work of art in algorithmic art is the description of an infinity of possible works.” (Nake 2010, 56) Perhaps against the backdrop of capitalist-industrialist automated production and techno-optimism, when John Cage was interviewed about HPSCHD (1969) – a piece for harpsichord and computer generated tapes created together with Lejaren Hiller – he said that
in the case of working with another person and with computer facilities, the need to work as though decisions were scarce – as though you had to limit yourself to one idea – is no longer pressing. It’s a change from the influences of scarcity or economy to the influences of abundance and – I’d be willing to say – waste.(Austin 1992, 21)
Waste, surplus, excess. It is interesting that the work on computers is linked here with collaborative work. How can we arrive at a form of excessive and collaborative writing that does not subscribe to the techno-optimist logic or imperative that all writing should become inter-connectable, compatible, ready for optimisation and exploitation? We want to capture this idea of a surplus writing – writing with machines, through machines, writing with other artists – that resists becoming a network node, one that preserves the alterity of each agent in the process, as a simultaneous writing. Instead of defining a topology that assigns position to each part, totalising the text’s meaning, simultaneous writing practices hodology, makes pathways, orients different texts towards each other, allowing them to come together in a space without establishing cause-and-effect or hierarchy among them.
We will practice this making of pathways through a series of (now erased) generative questions. They are a selection and reconfiguration from a previous text project (Rutz 2020). Reconfiguration is the general concept of the inner movement of a heterogeneous form, by deliberately or accidentally removing or inserting an element from or into this form, or, more importantly, by altering the relations among the elements in the form (Rutz 2018). The performance of reconfigurations by humans is an algorithmic practice that brings us closer to machinic ways of algorithmic operation. What we are ultimately interested in is not a continuation of the exhausted pathway known as human-machine interaction, but rather the proposal of a new human-human-machine trialogue, understanding algorithmic agency as a possibility to foster collaboration among different beings.
When two people speak at the same time in the same register, they are barely intelligibly. It is as if you composed a piece of music without dynamics, without modulation of rhythm and density, without silence. When you put yourself in a mode of simultaneity, you know the other one is there, with you, but it does not imply that you are competing for the same resources. Instead, you are aiming for a commonality in which the two voices are preserved. When you write a text on a typewriter, you and the typewriter become one entity, and what you produce is substantially shaped by the machine (cf. Saroyan 1969, last page). You can speak in different registers at the same time, for instance we can write this text and listen, at the same time, to the electronic drones of Éliane Radigue. They are a reproduction, thirty-four years after the fact, nevertheless the flow and interruption of words is shaped by us listening to these decade old sounds in this very moment. Simultaneity is not the same as synchronicity, in fact one can think of it as in opposition to synchronicity.
It is possible to feel simultaneity within an installation piece. In the project Witness (2000), Susan Hiller collects experiences of UFOs encounters from around the world in different languages. This installation with 400 hanging speakers invites the observer to navigate the complex waters of the testimonies. As you enter the piece, for the first few seconds the brain concentrates on the mother language(s), but after some minutes inside the cloud of voices, all stories in any familiar language appear intelligible, so to say, and it becomes possible to listen, understand and revisit a polyphony of testimonies at the same time. This piece takes any polyglot observer by surprise, by highlighting their capability of understanding simultaneously all languages commanded, and also those similar to them.
In the grammatology, Jacques Derrida replaced the myth of the original author and their intention with a new mystical element: the trace and arche-trace (Derrida 1976). While the simultaneous is also understood as staying away from a new idealisation of presence – immersion, real-time, … – it focuses on the act of arrival, in other words, how simultaneity comes about, how it is really a movement. Instead of the archaeological traversal “back and back and back”, perhaps implied in the chain of signification, we want to think of a multiple writing making a movement “forth and forth and forth”, as nearing each other until contact is made. Making contact is the intention.
Making contact is not a synchronisation, equalising rhythms and temporalities, except perhaps for an infinitesimal and therefore vanishing moment. It is a kiss, a mutual touch that leaves an imprint on both beings that touch (Ahmed 2010), but knowing they will bifurcate again. The multiple writing has to make an attempt at incompatibility, so that no writing assumes the position of the other (Nancy 2000). We briefly go through each other. Each writing nevertheless makes an effort at arriving at a common site, the arrival zone, which is thus really a site of joyful departures.
Often, one may consider the completion of an artwork to be the most crucial arrival, its premiere or inauguration. The opening is when the attention is heightened, and the artist usually accompanies the work. But with time and different experiments with media, we are starting to see new requirements for readings, for another temporality that establishes comfortable and good communication between the piece and its surroundings, allowing new elements to be incorporated across the exhibition’s duration or even thereafter. Indeed any form of exposition creates a new space for generative details that consecutively need adjustment and care. The work is therefore never completed and always open to the participation of the observer. A way of composing elastic pieces opens the action of the creative collective to remain malleable, transforming the otherwise hermetic writing process into a mass action. The exhibited piece is then merely a detonator, a starting point for various experiences.
Part of this malleability is to always consider a statement as susceptible to rewriting. To come back and do it again, necessarily differently, is how this very text you are reading has been produced. There is a tendency to structure writing processes in a hierarchical manner, that is a text, a meta-text, a meta-meta-text, and so forth. We would therefore like to cross out any mentioning of writing “about”. Artistic research is research through artistic practice, never just about it. The “meta” alludes to a scientific or intersubjective warranty: One does not have to worry about the artistic doings at the bottom, as long as one has a meta-text that creates the frame and proper layer of discourse. But what happens when the layers collapse? Do we not trust that the material, low-level, sub-symbolic writing is capable enough as a means of communication?
Isabelle Stengers introduces the concept of relaying as a thinking-with that is also a thinking-between, enacting a relay between what was held out and what could be in our responsibility (Stengers 2011). It is precisely not a verticality, a commentary, interpretation or testimony, something that subsumes what it “takes”. When we design a machinic rewriting, we intend it to be faithful to what is being rewritten, but it has to imbue the rewritten with a new actuality. One may think of the old delay-line memory, also used in the first digital computers, a dynamic memory that requires refresh after refresh after refresh, constant movement. Relaying implies that what a memory holds shifts as our concern and context for it shifts.
Activating memory, revisiting and reconceptualising is something that we, installation artists, tend to do not only because of a natural re-reading process that highlights the somehow self-evolutive dynamic of creation, but also due to the recurrence in ideas that, contrary to other artistic expressions, need to adjust to new times. There is not only a revisiting of the conceptual positioning of the piece but a technological revision. In less than five years, technology changes so fast that the revision usually incorporates new technology or the archaeological investigation of the previous one. This revisiting runs parallel to the emotions that arise while in revision.
Instead of a rewriting in semblance, new writing interspersed with some passages of the old happens. Consequently, the revisiting is the formulation of an entirely new work, seen by a different public in a further space. The newly generated piece operates as a performance that, by being revisited, changes its configuration and semantics.
What about the memories of multiple people? Our society and educational system is still defined by being able to attribute efforts and capacities to individuals, and artists and researchers stand to be evaluated based on their personally attributable originality. Group processes are thus made artificially difficult. A proper bibliography identifies all who had a hand in the writing, but ultimately the current authors are shed from the past references, and if you do not want to repeat yourself, you split yourself into your present and past existence and cite yourself. When you submit a portfolio, be careful to outline your responsibility in each project.
To put it straight, writing a sound piece with others is no simple task, but a real difficulty emerges once the artificial one has been lifted. While performers know how to play together, composers struggle, and so do many visual artists. Take a machinic perspective. Machines are always networked and write together, there is no intrinsic insistence on authorship and attribution. Of course, at the end of the day, we want to be remunerated, so there is that… It almost seems as if “overlapping” collaboration, in which the roles are not functionally separated, is easier in a precarious situation with not much to earn.
A functional separation is never possible in artistic production, no aspect is written alone. Even when one author elaborates the text or narrative, the text as it is inserted into an installation does not emerge from a solipsistic approach. First, there is the one that perceives it. Second, in a project conceived collectively, there is a constant dialogue with otherness. The writing process becomes a palimpsest of experimental positions that run across experiences obtained, misunderstandings, reconceptions, and new constructions – a landscape of writings.
Even for those trying to write alone, a conversation appears algorithmically or mechanically, not only with respect to the readers but also to the machines involved. There is no space for single writing within the incorporation of different media in the installation process.
It is wrong to think the writing terminates in the performed or exhibited piece. As if the artwork became immutable, with the museum placing the indication next to the piece: “Do not touch”. The digital world has created a contradiction: On the one hand, it is fundamentally defined by referentiality and operational closure, the possibility or rather invitation that any object can be rewritten, given a set of suitable operators. On the other hand, it anachronistically introduced the non-fungible token, heating up the atmosphere to pretend untouchability.
The simultaneous implies an absence of cause and effect, a pure side-by-side. A simultaneous writing undoes the notion of fungible/non-fungible, because its constituents are indifferent, it makes no sense to discuss effigy. We suggest the term equiform to describe the property that a common gesture is produced while the individuality of each movement is preserved (Rutz 2021).
In installation art, the individuality of movement extends to multiple media because several structures or communication mechanisms can work together and act in parallel. Not only the media mix is flexible, but also the textuality. If we analyse some of our work, as in the collaborative exhibition Writing Machines (2012), the overall space was generated by different pieces that had been revisited and now produced a unified semantics. The materiality here depends on the two persons multi/writing with the other media, on different surfaces. There is no single distinguished perception but a multiplicity of meanings, determined by the mixed media and the several readings of the spectators and listeners. The relations of the visitors towards the installations are crucial and their readings become part of the semantic, the narrative is formed with several fragments from different perceptions and observations. We are not only writing together as a team but writing with the observers.
We thus clearly abandon the figure of the soloist writer, in a heroic battle, ascetically equipped just with pen, paper, and alternatively beautiful or tormented mind. Writing is in the here and now. Computer poet Allison Parrish recently noted in response to Orwell’s Roses in which Rebecca Solnit describes writing as a withdrawal and disconnection from the world:
Weirdly this is exactly the opposite of how I feel about writing. Writing is the physical record of linguistic bodies, squished and spread on dead trees or twisting crystals with electricity (or whatever). It’s all about physical connection through the senses.(Parrish 2021, 13th November)
You would not ascribe pathos to a machine that writes, to machinic writing. Neither to writing performed by a swarm of things, of beings. We are reminded of the deconstruction of Husserl’s writing table at the beginning of Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology (Ahmed 2006). We have to invert the frame, include the background dimly perceived outside the corner of our eye.
Think of writing as a form of breathing or eating or sleeping. Nothing extraordinary, rather a function of your autonomous nervous system. All muscles in total relaxation, no requirement, no rules to be obeyed, no pauses disallowed. We would think of machinic writing as the pure expression of rules obeyed. But what we harvest from it, is always the surplus excess, the expression of the machine’s nervous system.
Machinic writing is a writing we have initiated, as pro-grammers, having written before the other writing. Both forms of writing are material practices, performed as spatial compositions, spatial poetry that bends, expands, and distorts places as we know them, creating new sites. But also sedimenting layers of sense. The physical context is, at the same time, the surface of the action and the source of trouble. Space is detonator and detonation. For installation art, physicality affects representation and meaning, yielding a new semantic space, producing a particular succession of memories, all episodic and related to the objects arranged within the spatial rhythms. Writing is creating the conditions so that something happens, so who prepares the terrain? What generates the environment? Is it thus necessary to rethink the agency? Who writes? The installation artist? The media with which they compose? The software introduced? Or does it revolve around the different experiences of the spectators?
Sedimentation is perhaps a good term to describe the translation from temporal process to spatial co-presence. Before Writing Machines, there was the generative sound installation titled in singular Writing Machine (2009), a piece for a table of annularly arranged Petri dishes that came about at the beginning of a thought process, which from today’s perspective lies in a blurry past. What is it that you capture or re-enact, when you make a new version a decade later. Essentially, the piece was rewritten “entirely” in the 2020 version Writing (simultan), even if its constituents are givens: Petri dishes, graphite powder, filigree copper wires, the thin and colourised sound of radio voices produced by piezoelectric discs and emitted from the Petri dishes’ lids. Now both configurations appear as objects that slide on top of each other as simultaneous layers. The recent piece has not replaced to old piece, it is not a palimpsest, as both are too distinct. But it is an illusion to think of writing as purely accumulative, as heating up the atmosphere. Elements disappear, each layer becomes more fragile and translucent.
When installation is the chosen form and space the materiality, the exercise of writing becomes a distribution and arrangement of (physical and virtual) objects. Rather than traditional writing, this form of writing focuses on processes – classification, positioning, construction, conceptual meanderings, and deconstruction are intrinsic parts of the script. Each activity, e.g. soldering circuits, pouring graphite, picking the right locations, programming, cleaning the Petri capsules, adding light, finding the adequate elevation, is part of the textuality.
In installation art, the writing process is very corporeal, where the five senses are involved, and the physical relationship with different kinds of spaces is fundamental (physical-architectural, aesthetic-composed, imagined). The senses work in parallel, it is not really about a dissolution in synaesthesia, you can tend to them individually, yet they all are engaged in the common gesture of arriving at the artistic object-in-making. And one layer of the text is produced by the complex pattern of echoes distributed by the spaces across the different objects and their arrangement.
Parrish, Allison. 2021, 13th November. Friend Camp, social media post, https://friend.camp/@aparrish/107270766960167382.
Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham and London: Duke University Press. doi: 10.1515/9780822388074
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Rutz, Hanns Holger. 2020. “Writing (about) Writing Machines.” Research Catalogue. Almat 2020 Symposium on Algorithmic Agency in Artistic Practice. https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/921059/922512.
Rutz, Hanns Holger. 2021. “Lob der Gleichformen | In Praise of Equiforms.” In Algorithmische Segmente | Algorithmic Segments. Edited by Nayarí Castillo and Hanns Holger Rutz, 58–67. Graz: Reagenz Verlag.
Saroyan, Aram. 1969. Pages. New York: Random House.
Stengers, Isabelle. 2011. “Relaying a War Machine?” In The Guattari Effect. Edited by Éric Alliez and Andrew Goffey, 134–155. London: Continuum.
Hanns Holger Rutz
Hanns Holger Rutz is a sound and digital artist, composer, performer, and researcher. He holds a PhD in computer music, observing computer-based compositional processes. In his work, development and research on software and algorithms are crucial. He worked as researcher at the Institute of Electronic Music and Acoustics (IEM) Graz (AT), most recently leading the project Algorithms that Matter, funded by the FWF programme PEEK. He is chairman of Reagenz – Association for Artistic Experiments.
Nayarí Castillo is trained as molecular biologist, and works as installation artist focusing on interventions in public space and collaborative art. With experience in cross-border projects and eighteen years of active art praxis, she explores space as material, using text, objects, photography, architectural solutions and video. Her work engages with history, personal experiences, time and place, claiming a semantic where tools/ideas and devices/forms merge. She is research assistant at the Institute of Spatial Design of TU Graz (AT).