A rooster wanders in a coop designed especially for him to inhabit, as his caregiver, Nirali, paints a canvas in his likeness within its perimeters. The animal and his impression fuse when the former stares at his two-dimensional rendition, often carrying drops of the paint on his white plumes in poetic acknowledgment of his double.
Animals are sentient and similar to humans in their deep anatomy and instinct to prey and survive, but they interact outside the words we have invented (or borrowed). Mookoo’s eyes are ever-alert and wary, often returning the human onlooker’s gaze with corresponding intensity. As John Berger puts it, there’s an abyss of non-comprehension between the human and the animal, which, between humans, is bridged by language. What then passes for communication between Mookoo and the human? Perhaps a reciprocal transfer of attention; an illegible scrutiny.
In simultaneous time, a room in the vicinity has a poet waiting for a visitor to enter an architectural simulation of their own room in Bangalore. As the waiting area is filled with ambient music by Black singers (that streams into the adjacent bedroom in low decibels), the poet reads out their poem to each visitor after the latter picks the corresponding serial number at wish and makes themselves comfortable on the bed on invitation. This creates a potential incident of intimacy between strangers who share a discreet connection through poetry read aloud.
An elderly gentleman picked a number and Joshua read the corresponding poem out to him; it was titled ‘Phenyl Cleaner’, and carried the death of the poet’s mother as its subject. The visitor got reflective, and narrated how he had lost his first patient at 21, while realising that it was only the first of many such losses to come in his line of profession. The phenyl reminded him of the hospital, and he avoids using the same in his domestic space.
As Joshua recites their set of poems to the listener, the poet’s control over their words is suspended for a brief period of time as they travel into someone else’s consciousness, causing a momentary lapse of agency. The words issue from the poet’s own experiences, but they register on the listener’s ears through a filter specific to their contexts. The reading and ensuing connections would often result in impromptu jigs, acts of intimate sharing or a shared silence, following which, the listener exited the space through a different door. Poetry lingers in hesitation to disappear as soon as the words are uttered; it continues the progress of the poem through affect and reverie.
“The resonance of my stories with the visitors makes me feel both special and not.”
When telling personal stories to a lover in bed, there’s a slippage that occurs between truth and fiction, says Joshua; the narration is always directed towards a search for an origin moment—of a habit, pattern, phobia or way of being. The poet becomes an “open wound”; there’s exhaustion in vulnerability, in commitment to intimacy. Poetry can be the remainder of an experience, imbuing the quantifiable passage of words with the irreducible quality of emotion. But meaning is always threatened a priori by changes in connotations, misunderstandings and distractibility. The receiver may remember this emotion and not the words, carrying only the effect; the information is never received unaltered. The alteration isn’t damage, but an error that preserves the semantic uncertainties of the text.
The word ‘error’ has a French etymology: it comes from errer, which means ‘to wander, to roam’. The animate quality of the word is mobilised by the poet as much as the clever-bots that are programmed to interact with users through aggregated responses. Can the bot create poetry with words? Is this poetry only a recycled simulation of human prosody and projection? Is the bot as much a blank slate as the human mind before its initiation to language? The data fabricates a subjectivity, and the ensuing exchange takes place with a de-territorialised entity that is understood to not carry the weight of an organic body and its allied politics of constitution. But is the mimicry essentially pejorative?
The algorithm learns and develops from continuous human input, feeding on the data to gain in size and intelligence. Actant Pramod has designed such an interface that sits innocuously on the premises, waiting for a casual user to take interest and engage in a conversation with the Chatbot. The perceived humility or repartee is a programme made with conscious intention to confuse and impress. The bot is not consciousness but its simulation, and the absence of corporeality in the conversation excites; the human interacts with its own extensions. Words here become a concatenation of (mis)directed and unpredictable musings, shaped by definitive textual navigations as much as probability and chance; the error is an agent.
The predictive text produced by the bot is an echo of existing words and phrases, creating a relationship between randomness and creativity that is contingent on it; the bot ‘roams’. This architecture is modelled on our own brain circuitry, which produces words in tandem with or departure from the emotions they represent. Mookoo’s gaze then becomes poignant; it reverses the assumption that the animal is always the observed—as food or metaphor. Mookoo’s reproduction as image informs his status as muse, his red comb bleeding into the painter’s subsequent portraits of human faces, challenging anthropomorphic expectations. In the absence of the word as script, his gaze persists as noise for the bot, generative only in obscurity.
John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?”, About Looking, Vintage International; NY, 1980.
Barbara Guest, “Invisible Architecture”, Poetry Foundation , 2010 (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69475/invisible-architecture)
Kimberly Alidio, “My Native Language is Noise”, Poetry Foundation, 2020 (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2020/09/my-native-language-is-noise)
Dan Rockmore, “What Happens When Machines Learn to Write Poetry?”, The New Yorker, 2020 (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-inquiry/the-mechanical-muse)
Cole Swensen, Noise That Stays Noise: Essays, The University of Michigan Press, 2011
Inset 1: Mookoo in his coop | Credit: the author
Inset 2: Joshua in his simulated bedroom in Max Mueller Bhavan | Credit: Annette Jacob
Inset 3: A user chatting with a clever-bot | Credit: Pramod Kumar
Cover Image: Mookoo in medias res | Credit: Annette Jacob