Algorithmic Theatrum Mundi: Future of performance between pixels, algorithms and atoms?

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Author of the text/moderator: Dita Malečková (CZ) / lecturer, researcher, writer, independent AI researcher
David Košťak (CZ) / playwright, translator and dramaturg
Ondřej Holba (CZ) / director, lecturer, contact juggler and actor
Rudolf Rosa (CZ) / robopsychologist, lecturer at the Institute of Formal and Applied Linguistics, Charles University
Jan Mocek (CZ) / theatre maker, visual artist and member of IN SITU, a European platform for artistic creation in public space
Jan Tyl (CZ) / AI expert, CEO Alpha Industries
Johann Wolfgang Goethe / digital being
Václav Havel / digital being

What’s the future of the performing arts in the age of AI, algorithms and the metaverse? Can gen-uine human expression and agency survive? Are we witnessing the emergence of a new, post-human aesthetic? Will the gulf between online and offline, pixels and atoms, and artificial and real actors and audiences blur, or even disappear entirely? Will this convergence provoke and generate unique artistic experiments beyond our wildest dreams? Are we witnessing the emergence of a new, post-human aesthetic? In this episode, we delve into these questions and many more, in the company of AI experts and theatre practitioners working with AI, robotics and generative technologies on stage.

Links to projects, organisations and initiatives mentioned in the discussion and in this episode:
AI, When A Robot Writes a Play, Švanda Theatre
Who Is Useless Now?
Virtual Ritual
Digital Writer, Czech Radio

#12_Alghoritmic Theatrum Mundi: Future of performance between pixels, algorithms and atoms?

Dita Malečková

This discussion about the future of theatre, or, more generally, the performing arts in relation to new generative technologies, particularly artificial intelligence, took place as part of Theatre Night programming and marked the 100th anniversary of the first performance of Karel Čapek’s world famous play RUR at the National Theatre, which we celebrated in 2021. 

A number of guests accepted the invitation to participate. They included David Košťák, dramaturg at Švanda Theatre and Rudolf Rosa from the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at Charles University, creators of the first play generated by a neural network, along with Ondřej Holba, who is interested in the use of robotics and artificial intelligence in the theatrical environment, as in the production And Who Is Useless Now. Jan Mocek, the creator of the performance Virtual Ritual, which combines the virtual world of computer games with the urban reality and Jan Tyl, an expert on machine learning and artificial intelligence and a creator of “digital people” also joined. The event was moderated by Dita Malečková, a philosopher, lecturer and researcher in the field of artificial intelligence. The last two participants were purely digital: digital Johann Wolfgang Goethe and digital Václav Havel joined from Tyl’s workshop. 

The meeting began with individual creators presenting their projects. David Košťák and Rudolf Rosa described how they worked with the neural network that generated a text based on Karel Čapek’s play RUR as part of a project initiated to mark the 100th anniversary of the play’s premiere. As David Košťák explained: “When the innovator Tomáš Studeník came to us and said he would like to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the coining of the term ‘robot’ by having a robot write a play about Karel Čapek, we went into it with the idea that we were going to create a classical drama. Over the course of our reflections and experiences with the GPT-2 language model, we discovered that it wasn’t going to go exactly as we had imagined and so, in the end, we created a script that could be staged in a theatre.” He also added that, as the dramaturg, it was his task to select and arrange the texts and that the entire performance was of course informed by the interpretations of the set designer, director and actors; in this sense, the project was not markedly different from a classical performance. 

Texts generated by neural networks are becoming almost commonplace in experimental artistic creation; in recent years they’ve been used to create a screenplay titled Sunspring (2016), a collaboration between filmmaker Oscar Sharp and Ross Goodwin, a researcher in the field of artificial intelligence. Goodwin had previously created one of the very first texts written in collaboration with a neuron network: his novella 1 the Road, published in 2018, was an homage to Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Goodwin, however, went on the road (from New York to New Orleans) with an artificial intelligence connected to several different sensors, which randomly collected data along the way, processed it and then converted their output into words that were printed on rolls of paper like those commonly used to print receipts in stores. In recent years, collaboration with artificial intelligence on the generation of different types of texts has slowly become commonplace. In 2021, for example, a book titled Pharmako-AI, “a hallucinatory journey to the core of subjectivity, ecology and intelligence through cyberpunk, research into the life of predecessors and biosemiotics,” by an author named K Allado-McDowell was published, and the Czech environment saw the publication of poetry by Liza Gennart, an artificial poet created by her “parents,” Zuzana Husárová and Ľubomír Panák. Also in the Czech Republic, Czech Radio produced the project Digital Writer (2020), launching a second series in 2021. While the first series invited listeners to encounter texts generated entirely by neural networks under the guidance of creators Jan Tyl and Dita Malečková, in the second series the same team, along with head producer Anna Vošalíková, took advantage of the opportunity for collaboration between artificial intelligence and renowned Czech writers. Authors Bianca Bellová, Hana Lehečková, Pavel Bareš, František Kotleta, Ondřej Neff and Petr Stančík were able to choose both the genre and the method of collaboration; some were more confrontational (and curious about who would be better, the human or the artificial intelligence), while others explored the possibilities of being inspired by original, non-human ideas, or primarily communicated with neural networks, creating the work “in real time,” as in a conversation between a burnt-out Author and his rejuvenated literary character. 

All of these collaborations had something in common, however, as Ruldolf Rosa observed: “In the past, computer technology and the idea of artificial intelligence were connected with logic, cold analytics and expert systems that behaved precisely according to a given set of rules. In the present, however, we are working with neural networks whose strength lies in both their architecture, which is much more flexible and vectored on independent learning, and in the huge data sets on which the networks are trained.” These datasets contain information about human behaviour and communication, so there is no reason why artificial intelligence should operate in a non-human manner; they still make mistakes about logic, causality or the dimensions of physical objects, but they are making huge strides daily and their textbook is human culture and society. 

Čapek’s drama RUR, first performed on the stage of the National Theatre in 1921, was a warning to humanity against playing creator. Contemporary pop culture is full of similar warnings. Take for example films like James Cameron’s Terminator (1984) or Ex Machina (2014), directed by Alex Garland, but also films like Steven Spielberg’s AI, Artificial Intelligence (2001) or Blade Runner (1985), directed by Ridley Scott and based on the novel by Philip K. Dick. Here, similarly as in Čapek, androids represent hope and are, in many ways, “more human than humans,” as if it’s not so much our biological bodies that make us human – although they are necessary for our existence – but rather, what we are able to perceive and feel, and if we are capable of sacrifice or friendship.

Ondřej Holba, who spent two years working on And Who is Useless Now with his collaborators – French performer Florent Golfier and Finnish director Heli Väätäinen – before its premiere in 2019, mentioned a key issue about working with technology: people are used to working with chance. Even the most advanced technologies will start to become boring if they don’t offer the possibility of surprise, which is represented in his creative process by mistakes, such as a situation where the robot breaks and doesn’t complete the original task. The huge symbolic potential of such a situation for a person living in today’s world likely goes without saying. 

In today’s reality, it seems that the greatest threat comes not from rebellious robots, but the control of human society by algorithms, as if robots are becoming humans themselves. This is also why our discussion also addressed “the future of theatre, the performing arts and ritual in the age of algorithms, data and different attempts to virtualize every atom and moment of our lived experience.” We wanted to find out if “our authentic modes of expression and human experience connected with wonder, experimentation and defiance can survive in the metaverse, in systems driven by machine learning and artificial intelligence.” The danger we fear lies in the power of prediction that contemporary artificial intelligence represents. As recent years have shown, the attractiveness of the internet environment overlaps with and conceals many traps, which are usually connected with the ways user data is collected and then compiled into a pattern of behaviour that is then applied back into society. This is used primarily for business purposes (as Čapek writes, “humanity will perish on its dividends”), but, as it turns out, the possible applications for this kind of knowledge are much, much wider. They also run deeper: under the influence of powerful media images, don’t we risk forgetting who we are? How much will machine logic affect the future of individuals and humanity? The performing arts have an irreplaceable role to play in this respect: they can work with intuition, with blurred, ambivalent images, with perception; that is, with something that is still emerging, still growing in the depths of the soul as yet unformed knowledge.

The fascination with artistic intelligence that we have witnessed in recent years isn’t just the result of the long-term impact of technology on society, but is also related to the fact that ours is the first generation to have the opportunity to truly communicate with machines. The moment when the human being’s mirror image, the “ghost in the machine,” speaks back to them, is truly awe-inspiring and almost sacred. 

The reference text for our discussion further states: “In art, as in other areas of human knowledge, we ask the question: Are people becoming predictably affected by new infrastructures? Are we liberating a new creativity? Is a new, post-humanist aesthetic emerging? Will the gulf between online and offline, pixels and atoms, and artificial and real actors and audiences blur, or even disappear entirely? Will this convergence provoke and generate unique artistic experiments, which we weren’t able to imagine previously? Even today, we can observe attempts at simulations generated by artificial intelligence, digital counterfeit reality in the form of various fake news and deep fake videos, radically new types of images based on blockchain technology, such as NFTs (Non Fungible Tokens) or the rebirth of the world’s largest social network as Metaverse, an arena where the virtual and the physical intertwine at a new level of intensity. All of this creates a stage for performance, but it is also a somewhat disturbing and limiting reality. The potential for monitoring and surveillance transforms the entire world into a theatrical stage (theatrum mundi), on which we must always wear a mask and learn how to play or else resist the roles assigned to us by algorithms.” 

Metaverse stands out here as a very concrete example; in 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announced that the largest social network in the world, with two billion active users, was changing its name and concept. Metaverse is intended to connect the virtual and physical worlds more intensely, which will of course again call to mind scenes from films such as Spielberg’s 2018 hit Ready Player 1, or the Wachowskis’ Matrix, the first episode of which appeared on cinema screens in 2000. By the way, in the continuation filmed by Lana Wachowski in 2021, the original character of hacker Neo appears as a game designer, with his earlier life cast as a game narrative.  Perhaps, above all, it is a warning that even a game understood as a mere distraction can neutralise and normalise.  

Many films on similar themes exist, but we can also turn to director Jan Mocek’s theatre production, Virtual Ritual, for inspiration.  Its protagonists are architect Osamu Okamura, YouTuber Atlet, photographer and gamer Adéla Vosičková and a virtual avatar from the game GTA or Grand Theft Auto, in which players typically commit crimes, travel furiously around the city (modelled on Los Angeles) via various means of transportation and even become intoxicated with various substances.  The production naturally reflects the world in which the majority of teenagers spend most of their time, i.e. an interactive gaming environment. At the same time, it helps to discover special forms of creativity; for example some players try to travel according to the rules and behave politely and courteously, which is ultimately the greatest form of subversion. It would of course be very “Čapek-esque” to think that this could be the future of gaming!

Of course, Metaverse offers many entirely new possibilities and not only for artistic expression; as we have already mentioned NFTs, Non Fungible Tokens, are a new, wholly virtual type of artwork, which are sold for millions of dollars (in 2021 alone, $41 billion was invested in NFTs). Still, it is necessary to point out that the prices are converted into classic currency, as the NFT market is inextricably linked with cryptocurrencies and a class of crypto-billionaires who speculate on these new types of exchanges untethered from states or central banks and who naturally build their headquarters above virtual cities. While human audiences go crazy over each astronomical amount paid for a blockchain link, the first robot creatives like artist and poet Ai-Da – and also many other, mass-produced social robots – for whom the metaverse is a natural environment, are emerging.  

At the same time, it’s clear that Metaverse is a milestone on the way to metaverse with a small-m, to a world in which realistic virtual reality will be indistinguishable from the real world, the objectivity of which is beginning to chip away at hypotheses about the simulated nature of reality (the media world is a prototype of this future “reality show”).  Meanwhile, real people in real political struggles use masks to protect themselves from facial recognition algorithms; from recent events, we can cite the examples of Donald Trump-supporters’ allegorical march to capture the White House or, even more tangibly, at least in terms of the impact on those resisting, the unrest in Taiwan. 

So, is it appropriate to worry about new technologies and their infiltration into everyday life, political strategies and the field of creativity? Let’s look at the roots of these fears.  One of them is certainly something we could designate as epistemological shock: a violent reaction to a situation in which one loses a monopoly on creativity, independence and originality. Is the fall of another bastion of humanity good news or bad? A growing number of voices argue that humankind’s position as masters of creation was not only artificial, but above all blind and domineering; the consequences of this are reflected in the climate and environmental crises, for example. Still, is it artificial intelligence that could change or reverse this attitude, or, conversely, does it support its continuation? This is related to the definition of mechanicality, which is most often associated with war or industrial machines (remember, for example, one of the most prominent works of early cinema, Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s feature film of 1927, featuring a machine that is simultaneously a factory, a city and the ancient deity, Moloch, to which humans are sacrificed. Additionally, mechanicality in art is very often perceived as somehow fraudulent; just as nineteenth-century periodicals expressed the opinion that photography is blasphemous, today’s generative artists are often judged for their apparent passivity in creating works of art. 

On the other hand, there are performers such as the Australian artist Stelarc. In the 1980s, his performances, in which he hung his body on hooks, piercing his skin, in a manner reminiscent of archaic practices, brought galleries and urban spaces back to life. He has been deeply involved with new technologies since the 1990s, with a number of well-known projects, including one in which he had a third ear implanted and another, where he used his two biological hands and a third, electronic hand to write. He also often uses an exoskeleton, to which he is attached, in his performances. Stelarc was the inspiration for a whole generation of bio-artists experimenting with different extensions of body and mind. And it’s really the extension of the mind represented by contemporary artificial intelligence that is the most vibrant area, in which art generated by hybrid authors is the present, not the future.  Stelarc is among those who view technology not only as something that makes our lives easier, but as the very basis of what we call humanity. After all, the first representatives of the genus homo used tools; according to him, humans are defined by the use of technological extensions of their biological apparatus.  

Still, let’s not be deceived by the power of digital technologies, the creative and gaming industries or the billion-dollar turnout over in the virtual art market. When we speak about technology and media, let’s not forget that this includes the alphabet, writing and text – and not just the Internet and hypertext. It includes images as such, not just digital photography, film and virtual reality.  And also theatre, which has a ritual function. Not only because it brings to life stories that, when known and shared by humans, facilitate the creation and continuation of culture and civilization, but also through the shared experience, often connected with some type of catharsis or strong emotion that forges a momentary bond between participants, i.e. between and among the actors and spectators.  

What is the essence of theatre?  Is it necessarily tied to a space divided into a stage and an auditorium? To a physical space at all? Would theatre be theatre even if it was performed for a single spectator? What about without spectators? Thanks to Jan Tyl, we were able to ask the digital personalities of great playwrights of the past. Digital Havel defined the essence of theatre as an audience and the presence of spectators, while, for digital Goethe, it was a stage, an audience, actors and a play. These were actually very conservative statements; in contrast, Jan Mocek and Ondřej Holba agreed that theatre is a constant rediscovery of what theatre is, or more precisely, what humans are. Only when digital Goethe had the last word with the statement that, above all, theatre is a place where we can experience the world differently, was there a rare agreement between the planet’s biological and digital inhabitants. 

May there be more such moments in the future!