“Firm_cyborgs_plotted_phylum_zap_arsenic_bind” (from Code_Words)

In 2006-7 I collaborated with Adam Stark (for the first time) to make the procedural poem (CODE_WORDS). The poem recoded a speech that was already highly coded: ‘On The Three-Part Comprehensive Settlement’. This was delivered by American Secretary of State Dr. Condaleeza Rice in Israel on the 31 July 2006 during the war between Hezbollah and Israel.

Some political commentators described Rice’s speech as a ‘coded message’ directed towards the Israeli administration, letting them know that they only had a limited amount of time until international pressure would make a cease-fire necessary.

A visualisation of the poetic form (a finite state automata)

In the poem/program (visualised above) pressing ‘Pause’ in the GUI activated a ‘replace’ function where the start word ‘birth’ was replaced with a pre-selected word from Rice’s speech. ‘Stop’ activated a ‘delete letter’ function, where letters from the previous word were deleted and then reordered to form a new word, and ‘Play’ operated a non-deterministic function where the computer chose, through psuedo-chaotic means, between two pre-programmed options where letters were added to the previous word, and then reordered to form a new word without any letters from the previous word being deleted. In other words,  every word within the finite state machine had four other words leading from it.

(CODE_WORDS) can be downloaded here. It’s pretty lo-fi, and only runs on Windows, but it was 2006 and our first collaboration.

While the poem is the program, focussing only on the words produced by the program makes a user blind to other poetic possibilities; other textual connections. For example, a user/reader starting from ‘Birth’ entering the nine commands: PLAY – PLAY – PAUSE – PAUSE – STOP – STOP –  STOP – PLAY – PAUSE into the GUI could potentially generate any of the following eight sequences of words, but the user would only experience one of those sequences:

code_words diagram

A note on the code

The poem was coded in Prolog, a freely distributed software. This means that anyone can download it and learn the language. Prolog, much like other coding languages, also has particularly strict syntactic rules: a missing comma or bracket can prevent a whole line of code from functioning, and yet the language’s commands when used in the right context can be incredibly rich in metaphor.

The poem used variables and comment lines (any line preceded by a % sign is not read by Prolog) to critique the idea that freedom is somehow inherent to programmable media, and to sometimes hide uncomfortable statements within the code.


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