ART FORUM | 15 March 2023

Sasha Stiles, whose work was exhibited at ANNKA KULTYS GALLERY for her solo show B1NARY 0DES, was interviewed by Tina Rivers Ryan for the ARTFORUM.

Transcending digital dualism through networked poetry

Over the past year, Kalmyk American poet Sasha Stiles has become the public face of the burgeoning world of poetry NFTs, which circulate and monetize poems outside of poetry books and magazines. She cofounded theVERSEverse, a “poetry NFT gallery,” in 2021, has sold her own tokenized poems through platforms like Christie’s and SuperRare, and has spoken widely about the commercial and even aesthetic potential of NFTs for poetry. Inspired by the idea of “ars poetica” and by text-based visual art, the homepage of theVERSEverse boldly declares “poem = work of art.” The 2021 exhibition “Computational Poetics” at the Beall Center for Art and Technology included her alongside artists such as Nam June Paik and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer; her solo show “B1NARY 0DES” is on view at Annka Kultys Gallery in London through March 18.

Stiles coauthored her 2021 book Technelegy with GPT-2 and GPT-3—the forerunners of the now-ubiquitous ChatGPTby training them on her own poetry and select other literary materials. The AI-powered poems generally deal with the impact of emerging technologies on the human condition: How will artificial wombs change how society values women? What can Large Language Models (LLMs) reveal about the roots of political extremism? Some of the text falls across the page like concrete poetry; the book’s other imagery includes photographs of her installations of “analog binary code” (in which objects like seeds or pills are arrayed like bits in a grid) and examples of her “cursive binary” (a Twomblyesque handwritten script of 0s and 1s). Online, her poems take the form of static digital broadsides or multimedia videos with spoken-word or electronic soundtracks, typically styled to look like the credits of The Matrix or word paintings by Ed Ruscha. Stiles also has experimented with storing generative poetry “on chain,” raising the question of how poetry itself is like an NFT. The comparison upends the binary thinking (past/future; human/machine) that commonly shapes how we understand digital tech.

THERE’S THIS PERVASIVE IDEA that poetry is quintessentially human and deeply expressive, while technology is sterile, automated, emotionless. To me, this is a false binary. My work is about trying to use technology as a lens through which to understand why poetry has always been so important to humans, and why it might continue to be relevant to the things that we’re bringing into the future.

I’ve been saying for a long time that poetry is code, and vice versa. All poets throughout history have used algorithm in the form of pattern and syntax to evoke feelings, call up memories, and achieve some kind of poetic immortality. Humans invented poetry as a data storage system. All the devices that we learn as poetic techniques—rhyme, rhythm, meter, assonance, repetition—aren’t just aesthetic; they have utility in that they helped make spoken language easier to remember before the advent of the written word. And once I got into the blockchain, it occurred to me that poems, in a sense, are nonfungible tokens. If you swap in a different word or remove even a period or change a dash to a semicolon, everything changes. 

Poets transport us through space and time, let us try on other identities, simulate other realities. Successful poetry challenges mundane, prosaic life (what we might call IRL) and augments a reader’s base reality. In that way, I think poetry is already the metaverse we’re trying to build. We tend to believe that VR and AR and the metaverse are antithetical to some authentic version of what it means to be human, when actually they’re evolutions of the inventions that have made us more and more human over time.

Artificial intelligence, too, is often regarded as alien or antihuman, when actually it’s hyperhuman—a system built by humans for ingesting, processing, synthesizing, utilizing vast quantities of human information. I’m very interested in what AI tools, like large language models, might be able to tell us about human nature by facilitating networked imagination and collective consciousness, by letting us write with all of history’s literature at our fingertips, instead of only the books we’ve personally read. 

Of course, data sets have shortcomings, biases, blind spots, and limits that surface in an algorithm’s outputs. At the same time, they can yield surprising outcomes that suggest new possibilities. When I’m working with a text generator, I can adjust the predictability dial from pattern recognition and imitation to pattern transcendence. I could program a generator to write just like me, but I’m more interested in having an intelligent coauthor who takes me beyond my own imagination—and whose partnership results in a third, transhuman voice that isn’t mine or the machine’s, but something else that can only exist as synergy.

Which is true of so much of the human condition: We can’t really separate ourselves from the technologies that shape how we think and move and live and create. That’s why, in addition to experimenting with natural language processing and generative literature, I write in different mediums across the analog-to-virtual spectrum. I also play with taking words off the page and figuring out how to bring them into the world in ways that resonate with my daily devices and activities, via a kind of moveable type that reconsiders what the printing press can be and do in a networked, web3 world. Why not take a 100 percent human-written poem and publish it as a media-rich palimpsest, using digital animation as a kind of type design, and electronically enhanced spoken word to evolve the oral tradition? Why not let a text unroll as a digital scroll, rather than as pages? Why not use a generative algorithm to “read” and interpret a single poem hundreds of times? Why not turn a long, AI-coauthored ars poetica into a series of thirty interlinked NFTs, collectively owned by a group of poetry patrons? New tech has always inspired new forms of art and literature, and I feel like I’m carrying the torch for a long tradition of writers and poets pushing the limits of language to explore what it means to be human, now.

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