Features Essays Published 3 November 2011

Rabbits, Riots and the Algorithmic Gaze

What’s the Latin for ‘let’s fuck something up?’

Carmel Doohan

During the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe, an artist from Tehran staged a play that he had written without ever speaking to his actors or seeing the results. Each performance of his script was performed by a different person who saw the words they were to speak for the first time when they stepped out onto the stage. “If you, dear actor, are on stage in front of an audience reading my words then my greatest hopes are being realised.”

Unable to leave Iran and with his work heavily censored, this is the only way in which Nassim Soleimanpour can get his work heard. In writing his play or ‘letter to the actor’ Soleimanpour was embarking upon a risky experiment, an experiment to see what kind of world he was living in and whether it was one that would allow words such as his to be heard. When his algorithmic request (“If, dear actor, audience member number five agrees to come up on stage, please tell them to…”) was read out and interpreted on stage, it set in motion a chain of events he could not have predicted: the production has so far been staged in London, Edinburgh, New York and Toronto and won the New Performance Text Award and the 2011 Arches Brick Award.

Nassim Soleimanpour's White Rabbit Red Rabbit.

White Rabbit Red Rabbit is about, among other things, rabbits. Soleimanpour describes an experiment devised by his uncle. In a hutch there are ten rabbits with some steps leading up to a carrot. Each time one rabbit climbs up to reach the carrot, he is daubed with red while the others are sprayed with ice cold water. Eventually the nine learn to attack any rabbit that goes near the stairs, resulting in the starvation of the entire group. Assuming that two events occurring together have a cause and effect relationship, the rabbits have developed an algorithmic response to their situation and become locked in it.

At this summer’s TEDglobal conference Kevin Slavin spoke about ‘how algorithms shape our world.’ From stock markets to movies; social media to search engines, these mathematical equations (IF test=true THEN GOTO step X) are organising our technological and economic environment. Often the pervasiveness of this form of automated reasoning is only noticed when things go wrong; two of the most spectacular examples are a book about The Making of a Fly that was suddenly selling at £1.7 million on Amazon and the stock market ‘Flash crash’ in May 2011 where the Dow Jones plunged more than 1000 points for reasons that nobody can fully explain. As Slavin argued at the TED conference ‘we are writing things that we can no longer read’; once set in motion, unrehearsable, set-less and prop-less instructions can take on a life of their own, developing into inscrutable feedback loops.


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Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.

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