Taroko Gorge Remixed: Repetition and Difference in Machine Texts

Abstract (in English): 

In 2009 Nick Montfort wrote a short program--first in Python and later in Javascript--that generated an infinite nature poem inspired by the stunning Taroko Gorge in Taiwan. While Montfort never explicitly released the code of “Taroko Gorge” under a free software license, it was readily available to anyone who viewed the HTML source of the poem’s web page. Lean and elegantly coded, with self-evident algorithms and a clearly demarcated word list, “Taroko Gorge” lends itself to reappropriation. Simply altering the word list (the paradigmatic axis) creates an entirely different randomly generated poem, while the underlying sentence structure (the syntagmatic axis) remains the same. Very quickly Scott Rettberg remixed the original poem, replacing its naturalistic vocabulary (“crags,” “basins,” “rocks,” “mist,” and so on) with words drawn from what Rettberg imagined to be a counterpoint to Montfort’s meditative nature scene--a garage in Toyko, cluttered with consumer objects. J.R. Carpenter followed up Rettberg’s “Tokyo Garage” in 2010 with “Gorge,” a remix that relentlessly depicts the act of devouring food, and “Whisper Wire,” a remix that haunts Montfort’s source code with strange sounds, disembodied voices and ghost whispers. In 2011 an uncoordinated series of other remixes of “Taroko Gorge” appeared: J.R. Carpenter’s “Along the Briny Beach”; Talan Memmott’s cynically nostalgic “Toy Garbage”; Eric Snodgrass’s fluxus influenced “Yoko Engorged”; Maria Engberg’s campus parody “Alone Engaged”; Mark Sample’s Star Trek tribute “Takei, George”; Flourish Klink’s erotic fanfic “Fred & George”; and Andrew Plotkin’s meta-remix “Argot Ogre, OK!”

Aside from a common DNA in Montfort’s original Javascript code, these remixes share other similarities, such as the title wordplay, often referencing the original title either homonymously or alliteratively; the list of crossed-out names of previous appropriators that appears on the upper right side of the screen; and of course, the dizzying repetition with a difference of a poem that will never stand still nor ever end. Yet despite these similarities, the various remixes are palpably distinct from one another, both stylistically and thematically. This dynamic between appropriation and individuation suggests that there is much to learn from the example of “Taroko Gorge” and its remixes. To this end, this roundtable will bring together many of the authors of the “Taroko Gorge” remixes. While each author will introduce his or her work with a 1-2 minute artist’s statement, the goal of this roundtable is not to dwell on any specific variation, but to discuss the implications of this work upon the broader spheres of text generation, electronic literature, and remix culture. After a series of prompts by the session organizer (Mark Sample), the audience will be invited to join the discussion. Note that two of the participants (Carpenter and Engberg) will be presenting their artist statements via teleconferencing.

Tokyo Gargage presentation Photo by Kathi Inman Berens
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Eric Dean Rasmussen