Sunday, January 09, 2011

THEATER: Hello Hi There

[Part of the COIL Festival]

Actors have nothing to fear from Annie Dorsen's "ipad-de-deus," Hello Hi There, which has two laptop-based chatter bots attempting to talk about the famous 1971 debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. It's a clever concept, from Dorsen's Turing Test introduction down to the proof-in-the-pudding "performance," which better illustrates the debate than the debate itself, illustrating the essence of "innate human nature" by the often-comically-looping bots' complete lack of it. Though there are, Dorsen claims, over 80 million different ways in which the performance can go -- which lasts as long as a taped recording of the debate, silently playing on a muted stage-right computer -- the computers are stuck in linear, uncreative thinking: they can only go forward, responding to whatever their algorithms have parsed as most relevant and able to be respond to from their partner's statement.

They are surprising, and funny in a laugh-at deadpan sort of way, but when the reach into their programming to point out that "An idea is not a Swiss Army Knife," the audience can only agree as we place our own significance onto statements that the computers cannot recognize or return to. (That's why they wind up with playground back-and-forths like "That's just one of many of many of many of many of many of many of many of many person's opinions." Which, admittedly, is really funny when spoken aloud with a computer-synthesized voice, one that cannot bring itself to properly pronounce "Foucault.") It's not really theater, even though Dorsen's aesthetically arranged the stage and entered a few rudimentary rising-and-falling light cues, but it is an oddly endearing meditation on existence and creativity, a reminder that while a computer recognizes that "I can only think about the things I can say," an artist -- like Dorsen, who at least continues to think outside the box (as with her last representational piece, Democracy in America) -- can choose to think about the things they cannot say.

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