Individual Work

“Evolution” is a 2013 poetry generation artwork by Johannes Heldén and Håkan Jonson. In it an algorithm creates continuously evolving poetry using words and phrases from Heldén’s corpus. The piece’s challenges the algorithm’s intelligence and is built around passing Allan Turing’s ‘Turing test’. It focuses on extending authorship to the algorithm and transforming Heldén’s works in ways he could never. Each poem “Evolution” appears as typed text scattered on a real book page. The ambiance is created by a compilation of Heldén’s music which swells in the background as the text moves around and away.

Heldén and Jonson create a collaborative poetry experience where the reader creates a story influenced by the music, type pacing, words and word spacing. After the reader enters the site and selects a language of choice phrases are generated all over the page. A white cursor guides the words spawning and highlights others to shift the focus of the poems. When unpaused the music plays and changes as the poem constantly evolves. When paused the music stops and a reader experiences a one-of-a-kind poem that can be read diagonally or from left to right or up to down and vice versa. Heldén and Jonson have inexplicitly created hypertext fiction because how each poem is read and given a narrative is an adventure.

“Evolution’s” site design is a physical book resting on a table. The updates on the generation, ambiance and sequence mimic most books’ character set. The words appear as though they are being typed in a Microsoft Word document. This aesthetic is significant because it fuses traditional and electronic literature. It shows how they can converge to create a dual reading experience. Additionally, it shows that readers can connect with algorithms and what is most important is interpretation and atmosphere rather than cohesive story or tangible accessibility. This may sound like a threat to scholars of traditional literature, but “Evolution” reveals how digital humanities can enhance English. “Evolution” as electronic literature, and its many fragments and phrases, do not fully deform or discard the traditional format. Similar fragments, spacing and oddities can be found in the traditional works of Mina Loy, E.E. Cummings, and the algorithm’s content pool Johannes Heldén. “Evolution” rather cleverly reinvents this format.

“Evolution” is predicated on the reader interacting and continuously collaborating with the piece. However, it is up for contention whether the piece encourages a lazy reader who can uncritically listen and watch the algorithm run. To “Evolution’s” credit this will make little difference to the demonstration of its intent. Even a passive spectator can witness the key purpose of the work which is measuring the algorithm and transformation of Heldén’s voice through “Evolution’s”. Watching the piece continue without any symptomatic reading or context of the words does not change the visual changes that recreate and reconstruct Heldén’s original works.

As the algorithm experiments with new phrases, the site’s interface design experiments with literature. Despite the words looking unorganized, the algorithm is constantly topic modelling from Heldén’s collection of works so that his voice is and themes are conveyed. “Evolution” explores where the algorithm ends, and the poet and traditional poetry begins. It asks the reader to interpret the phrases and simultaneously unconsciously figure out the gaps the algorithm creates. Despite the digital experimentation, the randomized words and gaps in meaning can be filled with emotion. These coldly calculated algorithmic functions contrast their design by becoming a means of which to coax emotion. This refutes any notion that coded software is unemotional and that similar digital works by proxy are more detached. The vaguer Heldén’s context becomes the more intention the reader can add to his words. This brings persons even closer to the work by connecting it to their own mind frame.

Interaction with “Evolution” is made easy through the amount of control the reader is given. They control the speed of the words appearing and the direction they read in. They control the words they read, and their meaning and they control when each poem ends. Experientially, this encourages persons to renter the site and observe another “Evolution”. The ambiance also enhances the site experience. Heldén’s music completes the poetry reading experience. The mundane shuffling and classical music are reminiscent of resting in a coffee shop with a book in hand. The ambiance allows readers to consider the work as any other prose and better understand and appreciate it.

Author statement: 
Evolution is an online artwork-in-progress designed to emulate the texts and music of poet and artist Johannes Heldén, with the ultimate goal of passing "The Imitation Game Test" as proposed by Alan Turing in 1951. With Evolution we aim to examine and dissect the role of the author; when new poetry that resembles the work of the original author is created or presented through an algorithm, is it possible to make the distinction between "author" and "programmer"? And is it even relevant? When the work of the algorithm is extrapolated to the point where the original author becomes redundant, how does this affect copyright, legacy, future writings, etc? The purpose of the work is not to deromanticize or deconstruct the role of the author, but is rather the ongoing exploration itself. Where will it take us, and perhaps more importantly, what will happen along the way? The release of Evolution will mark the end of Johannes Heldén writing poetry books. He has, in a sense, been replaced.