AL-gorithm is a completely analog text munging algorithm in three parts.
The first is an interactive version of a passage from All the King’s Men created by cutting out all but a single character from laser prints of the quote. I intended to letterpress the quotes to explore the text’s physicality in full (though conceptual completeness probably dictates that I should have cut my own font) but decided to temper my art with a little reason. I did however preserve my intention with my choice of font; 24-point Bodoni was the typeface I would have used had I laid out the type and printed it on a press. The physical algorithmic process is documented here.
The second is a bag filled with the discarded bits of text. In digital space, memory registers that held the initial text can be overwritten. Clearing memory in the analog world is a little more complicated.
The third is a visualization that’s intended to emphasize both the physical origin of text and also its arbitrariness. The cutout for each letter produces a unique pattern. I’ve used this pattern to generate visualizations that highlight the letter’s frequency and distribution while also serving as a symbol for the letter itself. Taken together, the pattern visualizations form a new abstracted alphabet, in which I’ve re-written the quote. Certain letters—q, x, j, z—don’t appear in the quote and are thus not part of the new alphabet. My intention here is to make the levels of abstraction that underlie programming languages easily comprehensible. In this example, if the alphabet is machine language, then these patterns are written in a language that’s one level up. Remember, we are the machines in this analogy, so we can’t understand the higher levels of abstraction.
Here’s the text, recursively generated by reinserting the patterns of letter frequencies into the original text (recursively makes it sound like it was done programmatically—I actually manually created the pattern files in Illustrator and then used them to create a font).
REMEMBERING THE TEXT
There is definitely something liberating about reducing Shakespeare and Austen and Whitman and Frost to algorithmic plasticine. It’s healthy occasionally to check our reverence of texts lest the objects usurp the meaning they contain, but at the same time, it’s important to recognize their status as objects, as discrete entities with physical texture and context. Digital text is infinitely malleable, yes, but it is also ephemeral. Close a book, and the words remain; turn off the screen, and they’re gone.
I’ve spent an entire semester slicing up texts using a variety of digital methodologies and philosophies, moving from grep’s graceful julienne on the command line to much more vigorous and grammatically aware Java frappés. My goal throughout: forcing text to perform all manner of cruel contortions for my amusement and edification, compressing a novel into a few lines or stretching out sentences into languid visualizations strung with looping semantic threads. I can’t help feeling that in the process I lost something, and it’s taken me all semester to figure out that it’s a sense of text’s increasingly atavistic physical nature.
This project was born of the late-night liaison of two ideas.
- What happens to all the text that an algorithm discards? Writing text-munging algorithms is relatively painless, so much so that it’s easy to forget the text entirely. I wanted to rediscover text munging from the algorithm’s perspective. I documented the entire process of becoming an algorithm.
- Moving text off of the screen/page and into three-dimensional space. I have been thinking recently about designing interactive narratives that someone can experience architecturally, literally walking through a story. My initial sketches were based on “physical” interactions with stories in a digital game environment, but that begged the question, “What would an architectural text look like?”
Brian Dettmer’s Book Autopsies provide one pretty good answer. Their pages are static, however, transformed by his nimble cutting into something other than book pages, something beautiful but unreadable, if we believe his nomenclature, something dead. That reminded me of some of the cross-sections of human cadavers exhibited in Vesalian glory at the Body Worlds expositions—you can still recognize the body even though it’s been unnaturally dismantled. I wanted to keep the text alive but still allow you to move through it. Here are a bunch of other three-dimensional text sculptures.
On mornings when the sun is out, I like to walk to school along cobble-stoned Bond Street and look into the gallery windows, scoff at Herzog & de Meuron’s ridiculously splashy facade, and marvel at the understated multi-faceted building at 25, which provided the final piece of inspiration. I had already started cutting out letters when I realized that the stacked patterns looked a lot like the building’s facade. Architectural text indeed!