Evolution is an online artwork-in-progress designed to emulate the texts and music of poet and artist Johannes Heldén through artificial intelligence. The application analyzes a database of all the published text and soundworks by the artist and generates a continuously evolving poem that simulates Heldén’s style: in vocabulary, the spacing in-between words, [and] syntax.
The digital poetry of ‘Evolution’ reinforces the idea that the archive is in an unremitting state of becoming; a problematic question that arises is, if archival research is a site of mass deception and artifice because the archive mirrors back parts of ourselves as we appraise and participate with it, then is it possible to make a distinction between ‘archive’ and ‘interpreter’?
In New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories (2006) Talan Memmott writes in his essay ‘Beyond Taxonomy: Digital Poetics and the Problem of Reading’ that digital poetry essentially disintegrates the lacunas between reader and object; digital poetry’s
performance or poetic emergence requires the participation of a user or operator to initiate the computational processes encoded by its author, and
digital poetry is a piece of software that needs a user to become an instrument of/for signification (Memmott 294). In terms of the archive, this comment strikes me as being suggestive of the reciprocity and fusion that transpires between subject (reader/interpretant) and object (in this case digital media), which further proposes that we belong to and are part of the archive during this participatory process – the archive is thus metaphysical, we connect to it interactively through time and space. Here, I take up a line in the foreword of New Media Poetics, it is Donna Harroway’s idea from ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1985) that
The machine is not an it to be animated, worshipped, and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment (Morris et al.). In this sense, the process of engaging with the archive is the archive itself. Ted Nelson states here too, that:
The physical universe is not all that decays. So do abstractions and categories. Human ideas, science, scholarship, and language are constantly collapsing and unfolding… (Morris and Swiss). This intimates that we breathe life into the archive through our interactions; when object and interpreter participate in the creation of meaning, the archive is in an unceasing state of ontological generation.
In Archive Fever, Jacque Derrida ponders the consistent construction of the archive when he avows that there is a possibility of a spectral response informed by techne (art/craft) in an archive;
The phantom continues to speak. Perhaps he does not respond, but he speaks (Derrida 62). It’s
a bit like the answering machine whose voice outlives its moment of recording (Derrida 62). ‘Evolution’ plays out this idea of spectrality through an algorithm that aims to resemble the work of the original (human) author; one of the questions the site asks of its work is,
Is it possible to make a distinction between ‘author’ and ‘programmer’? At what point does the original author become redundant? The site reads that
The release of ‘Evolution’ will mark the end of Johannes Heldén writing poetry books. He has, in a sense, been replaced (Evolution).
In ‘Evolution’, where a fluctuating interactive algorithm is the expressive medium of the archive, how it this mass deception? We know that the poetic content of Johannes Heldén is where this archival content originated from, but a digital reconceptualisation of that poetry is actively constructed algorithmically. This arguably turns the archive into a computer-generated rip-off of artistic material, but this does not mean that the digital archive holds less poetic authority than human poetics, there is still a human behind the code; the digitas are effectively extensions of human participation, thought and artistic expression. These ideas are not always at the forefront of our minds when we engage with archives (it is peripheral information). Why is this of consequence? Because our interaction with the archive is semiotic – we tend to approach knowledge and objects as though we are separate experiencers rather than as participatory parts of it. As participatory observers of the digital archive – we give as much rise to information as the archive gives us – what we and the archive are, depends on what we focus on. A clear problem of archival research is then, that in our appraisals, we become the archive. To objectively decode the digital archive, (technologically fragile and transient by nature) we must consider our relationship to it.