“Today, we are witnessing the third generation of electronic literature. Literary works come to us unbidden these days,” says Piotr Marecki, a digital media expert from the Jagiellonian University, in an interview with Monika Redzisz

Tak jest, tak, panie, trzy worki pełne!

Jeden dla pana,
Jeden dla Dame,
I jeden dla chłopczyka
Kto mieszka pasa w dół

Baa, baa, Black Sheep,
Czy którykolwiek z wełny?
Tak jest, tak, proszę pana,
Trzy torby pełne…

Baa, baa, białe owce,
Masz jakieś wełny?
Yes sir, yes sir.
Trzy igły pełny.

[see below]

Monika Redzisz: This is the first piece in the little book of poetry entitled “Wiersze za sto dolarów” (Poems for One Hundred Dollars) you published. Did you write it yourself?

Piotr Marecki*: No. It was written by an Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT). Someone bearing the number ARTLO1JR51DT1.

By who?!

Amazon Mechanical Turk is a platform that allows one to hire people to perform certain tasks. Its name comes from an 18th century hoax: a certain Hungarian, one Wolfgang von Kempelen, announced that he had invented a machine that can play chess. A dummy in Turkish attire was sitting at a special table in front of a chess board and beating all opponents. It was extremely popular for a time, but then it came out that inside the dummy there was a midget who happened to be a chess master.

Piotr Marecki

The Mechanical Turk thus became a metaphor of failure of a man who creates machines to use them but ends up becoming their peon. On Amazon’s platform you are either a requester who commissions a job or an anonymous worker who performs it, while Amazon takes a percentage of the wage. AMT is famous for the fact that requesters pay extremely low wages, for example half a dollar. I paid 22 cents for the poem that you quoted.

You hired poets?

I hired people to write poetry. Obviously, I did this to critique the inhuman practices that are commonplace in the world of digital labor markets. I was aware that I established employment relationships with the people who wrote poems specifically with the tools offered by Amazon. This project is less about good, aesthetical poetry and more about inhuman practices of this global giant. This is a new genre: crowdsourced poetry. Crowdsourcing is a process in which tasks are outsourced to a big group of people.

Why are the wages so low? Who agrees to work for so little?

Those at the very bottom: people without money, without names, anonymous peons. Prices are set freely by the requesters when placing the order. There are no minimal wages here, nobody controls this. I set the limit of 100 dollars for myself; the most expensive poem cost me 10 dollars. This is a book about appraising artistic work. How much is one poem worth? Is the poem for one dollar worth more than the one for 22 cents? This problem applies not only to the art market, but the labor market as a whole.

You ordered poetry written in Polish in the United States?

Yes, because this is also a project about the role of languages that today, in the age of platform capitalism, have been divided into dominating and dominated. Polish belongs to the latter category. We can see here the hegemony of what we call the centre: everything is in English, your company needs to be registered in the US, all payments to be made in US dollars only. I think I was the first to post a project there in a language other than English, although many creators have already used AMT for their artistic projects. For example, Aaron Koblin and Takashi Kawashima hired one thousand Amazon Turks, asking each of them to copy a thousandth part of a banknote for 1 cent. None of them knew about the others. All the pieces put together formed a 100 dollar banknote. This was another project about man’s subjugation by the machine.

Who sent you the poems? Poles?

I don’t know, all I knew were their worker numbers. But I received poems from many different time zones. I rejected most of them because they had been written in Google Translate Polish or had been produced by bots. At some point I even introduced a questionnaire to check whether those people actually knew Polish. I also pasted those texts into search engines to check if they hadn’t been stolen from the internet. Even after the book had been published, I found some of them on chomikuj.pl. The first poem in my book – the one that you quoted – most likely also had been written by a bot. However, I appreciated the potential of Dadaist absurdity it contained.

Right now I am working on a series of poetry books that are being created by taking advantage of large, digital platforms of capitalism: Amazon, Twitter, Google. These platforms have colonized my time, I work on them, so I have decided to use them for creative work, too. For example, “Niepodległa Google” (Independent Google) is a collection of flarf poetry.

Flarf poetry? What’s that?!

Flarf poetry is one of the new digital genres of poetry. It became widespread during the times when search engines were gaining in popularity. I decided to google phrases that have recently begun to appear frequently in the public domain in Poland, in online media, including the mainstream media. Recently, many new words and phrases have appeared: “terytorialsi” (soldiers from the Territorial Defense Force), “antypolonizm” (anti-Polish sentiment), “ciamajdan” (public protests; a portmanteau of “ciamajda” – a bungler – and “majdan” – a reference to the Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine that was the site of the Euromaidan protests), “miesięcznica” (a monthiversary), while many others are abused: “szkalować” (to vilify), “suweren” (a sovereign), “nadzwyczajna kasta” (an extraordinary caste) etc. The search engine returned hits and I copied them to a separate document to form a Polish alexandrine, and what I ended up with was sort of a collective portrait of Poles.

So who is actually the author here: you? Poles? The search engine?

The real author here is the crowd, a collective – I didn’t add a single word from myself, I was only the medium – but the search engine’s algorithm plays a very important role here as well, because it supplied the texts. And that’s what flarf poetry is.

It’s not about being a software engineer, but about being aware what software engineering is. We live in algorithmic culture.

New digital genres have new properties. One of them is the creators’ anonymity. I call this type of writing uncreative writing, or one which uses already existing texts or data. Memes are another example of a new digital genre. Their creators simply use new tools, including but not limited to large platforms of capitalism, like Twitter. I am currently working on the third book in this series, one based on Twitter.

What is your idea for it?

I decided to create a bot that tweets censorship – a cenzobot. I obtained many real censorship reviews from the New Records Archive in Poland from the 1950s and 1960s and I attempted to copy their style and structure. My bot has been tweeting since June 2018 and so far it has produced more than 20,000 tweets. It’s a sort of web performance. In February 2018 the first Twitter “bot purge” took place; in the US, where democracy is based on the freedom of speech, this medium’s administrators deleted several million bots over the course of one night. I expect them to delete mine, too, so they will censor my cenzobot that tweets censorship. They haven’t done it yet, but it’s bound to happen soon.

Why are they deleting those bots?

Because there is so many of them that they are no longer able to control them. In the United States bots that pretended to be followers got many people their jobs in politics. During this one night of the purge some popular politicians lost the majority of their followers! This was also mentioned in Poland during the last presidential election, but Twitter isn’t such a popular medium in Poland.

In electronic literature the medium is the key element of the work.

Yes, the medium influences the content. It is on the level of technology that tropes are born which can be compared to metaphors, similes, or epithets in language. And, on the level of technology, meanings are born. That is why artists are very careful about selecting their medium. Is it going to be on a mobile device, an 8-bit computer, a video game console? That matters. My bot project couldn’t have been implemented on any other platform.

New media, new literary genres… When did it start?

It started when people began using computers for art – which was as early as the 1950s. But the first generation of artists had to cope with extremely limited access to the tool, that is to say – computers. There were few computers available, one had to know how to use them, and know programming languages. Activity of the second generation, active during the 1990s and at the beginning of the 21st century was related to the growing popularity of the internet. Artists usually already have their own websites on which they publish their works. Access to the tool is easy, but we still need to have a certain type of knowledge, for example we need to know the website’s address.

Covers of Piotr Marecki’s books

Today, we are seeing the third generation of electronic literature. We actually need to make no effort at all to familiarize ourselves with digital works. In a way, they come to us unbidden. We use big platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – and our wall displays works of art: tweets, memes, Instagram poems. It is also easy to be a creator. It’s not difficult to write instapoetry and hashtag it. Famous instapoets can have up to several million followers. Traditional little books of poetry that you used to go to a bookstore to buy or ordered online now find it more difficult to compete.

Have you encountered the use of artificial intelligence algorithms in electronic literature?

Yes, there have been a few interesting projects, but they are all very new: from 2017, 2018, 2019. Professor Nick Montfort of the MIT collects computer-generated books. His collection features approximately 80 titles, some of which were generated by AI. One of the books created by artificial neural networks is “1 the Road”, which is a reference to Jack Kerouac’s famous 1957 novel entitled “On the Road” that became a manifest for the whole generation of American beatniks. 60 years after Kerouac, Ross Goodwin, the author of “1 the Road”, took a trip across America with a laptop equipped with various sensors, a microphone, and a camera. Artificial neural networks processed these data and created something like a modern road novel. It was an interesting experiment.

It is a cross-border domain that draws from many disciplines of art. Such works can be analyzed textually, visually, technologically

David Jhave Johnston, on the other hand, taught neural networks to compose poetry on the basis of the huge repository of American poetry. He published 12 books of poetry, one per month. But in this case, too, the process itself was the most interesting thing. I attended Johnston’s lecture. He said that each morning he would get up before everyone else in the house and, like a farmer going to work the field, he went to see what his algorithms returned. He intervened in them; you can find the documentation of this process on the internet. This is the human and artificial intelligence poetry.

Another very interesting work is “For the Sleepers in that Quiet Earth” by Sofian Audry, a Canadian. It’s a singularly unique thing. Audry publishes books that are a record of a learning process: how artificial intelligence is learning to write a text, a piece of literature based on Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights”. Each of the 31 volumes is unique, because it is a record of a different stage of learning.

And in Poland?

It’s worth mentioning Natalia Balska, one of the most interesting artists who also creates text works, for example Obelisk Beta. She also programs them herself. Few people in Poland are involved in electronic literature seriously, to name a few: Anna Nacher, Monika Górska Olesińska, Agnieszka Przybyszewska, Aleksandra Małecka, Mariusz Pisarski. I am thinking here about the people who are a part of the international Electronic Literature Organization society. The first conference about electronic literature in Poland was held in 2001, and since then our community has been growing. But these are not works formatted for domestic markets, like traditional literature. There are no boundaries here.

In this context traditional literature seems to be incredibly archaic: books that are not collective works whose authors are humans who are also not anonymous. Does the concept of an author even make sense in electronic literature?

The author’s autonomy no longer exists. The author may, for example, share with it programming languages or activities of selected platform that may even delete the artistic work, like a bot. Advanced works of electronic literature are most frequently created by teams, because few people are capable of designing art, sound, and text. Hence also collaborative writing: joint writing and sharing of authorship.

And what about the concept of a work as a completed piece?

A project may be the documentation of a certain performance that occurs over a period of time. In the past we submitted the book to the publisher, then it went to the printing shop, and there you have it, the book was a complete piece of literature. In the world of digital media a project may continue growing, and the duration of a work is only one of its elements. One should also remember that an actual digital work may also be an artifact with which we spend just 3 seconds. It can be a work that appears to us only for a short moment while we are scrolling our Facebook wall. There is a publishing company that puts out only books designed for scrolling. They contain a lot of information but they are not designed for reading, but for scrolling on a smartphone.

What is that, actually? Can it still be called literature?

Let’s say it’s a cross-border domain that draws from many disciplines of art. Such works can be analyzed textually, visually, technologically.

What about readers or viewers? Is there still a place for them here? After all, the creative process may be completely impossible to understand for them and technical details may not interest them at all.

If one engages traditional tools used in evaluating literature in contact with such work, then they will actually prove insufficient for this task. Unfortunately, scholars frequently stop in this place, as if they remained on the surface of a digital work.

How should a modern scholar act then?

He should immerse himself in the piece of work; he should recognize that it also has other layers in addition to the textual one. He should at least be aware of it, but this requires new competencies.

But I don’t think anybody teaches that.

High schools may not teach that, but it is taught on the university level. For example, at the Jagiellonian University’s UBU Lab we teach this regularly. Students are very open to such genres because they are in contact with them, because they are alive, and it is all happening now.

Should people enrolled in Polish studies know how to write software?

It’s not about being a software engineer, but about being aware what software engineering is. We live in algorithmic culture. A great number of texts – for example weather or sport news – is already generated automatically. This happens wherever there is a large quantity of repetitive information. We should know how to name the processes that are taking place before our eyes. We mustn’t ignore such phenomena as technotexts because it is our actual culture and we must have the competencies to name it and to evaluate it.

*Piotr Marecki is a professor of the Jagiellonian University where he works with digital media. He has also been a visiting professor at, among others, the MIT (USA), the Media Archeology Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder (USA), the University of Rochester (USA), the University of Bergen (Norway), and at the Smolny College in Saint Petersburg (Russia). He collaborated with authors from various countries on publishing a collection of generative literature entitled “2X6” (2016). He authored “Sezon grzewczy” (Heating season, 2018), written together with citizens of Cracow. He uses digital platforms for creative work, including but not limited to his books entitled “Wiersze za sto dolarów” (Poems for One Hudred Dollars, 2017), “Niepodległa Google” (Independent Google, 2018), “Cenzobot” (2019). He lives in Cracow.

From nursery rhyme to AFUUPNBIKHRFZ

Obviously, it is difficult for us to use the English version to illustrate the translation discussed. For that reason, to give our readers an idea of what we mean, we have decided to translate the Polish translation of the nursery rhyme below back to English with the use of… Amazon Mechanical Turk. Only this time it has been done by user AFUUPNBIKHRFZ. What is the outcome? Well, the AMT translation seems more convincing than the Polish version or the Google Translator version.

[nursery rhyme]
Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool?

Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full!
One for the master,
One for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane

Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir,
Three bags full…

Baa, baa, white sheep,
have you any wool?
yes sir, yes sir,
three needles full.

[AFUUPNBIKHRFZ from Polish translation]
Yes, sir, three bags full!

One for the gentleman,
One for Dame,
And one for the boy
Who lives down the lane

Baa, baa, Black Sheep,
Any wool?
Yes, yes, sir,
Three bags full…
Baa, baa, white sheep,

Do you have any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir.
Three needles full.

[Google translator – from Polish translation]
Yes, sir, three bags full!

One for you
One for Dame
And one for the boy
Who lives lane down

Baa, baa, Black Sheep,
Do any of wool?
Yes, yes sir
Three bags full…

Baa, baa, white sheep,
Do you have any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir.
Three needles full.

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