The pride of lions guarding Nelson’s Column is swelling in number. From tomorrow night, visitors may be surprised to find a fifth beast, coated in resin and painted an eye-catching fluorescent vermilion, joining the bronze veterans on Trafalgar Square.
The newcomer brings more than a splash of colour to one of London’s best-known historic public spaces. An interactive sculpture created by artist and designer Es Devlin, it invites passers-by to “feed” it with a couple of words via a touchscreen. Almost instantaneously, it produces a two-line verse that incorporates those words, displayed on a screen housed within the lion’s open jaws. The epigram is then added to all the others previously submitted, creating a collectively inspired poem that will be light-projected on the body of the lion and up the shaft of Nelson’s column.
It is a work that pushes at the edges of design and artificial intelligence, combining light, poetry, public art and technology. The verses are generated by an algorithm provided by Google Arts and Culture, the search company’s non-profit arm and Devlin’s chief partner and funder in the project.
“Trained” on millions of words of 19th-century poetry, the neural network does not simply regurgitate stock phrases and words, but generates original text based on the probability of one word being followed by another in the body of poetry it has analysed — a process akin to predictive text on a smartphone. It is also programmed never to repeat the same line, guaranteeing an element of apparent randomness in its offerings.
Is it an art work or a technological gimmick — or a bit of both? Interviewed by the FT ahead of the launch, Devlin is clear that the technology is at the service of the art, but is nonetheless central to its function.
“I see this as an organising principle of voices. How have voices come together in Trafalgar Square?” The bronze lions installed by Sir Edwin Landseer in 1867 have borne witness to 150 years of protest, rallies and celebrations, she says, including the 1887 Bloody Sunday clashes, the poll tax riots of 1990, numerous gay pride marches and the annual New Year’s festivities. It is a civic space like no other in the capital, a place where the impoverished residents of east London once collided with the representatives of power and wealth in the west.
People will therefore be asked a question before they engage with the lion, she says. “If you could put words into the mouth of a lion that’s been silent for 150 years, what word would you add to their voice?”
Not everyone may thrill to the idea of computer-generated poetry, under the aegis of a company whose digital reach is extending ever deeper into our lives. But Devlin, whose previous work has reached into stadium rock as well as theatres and art galleries, is unapologetic about a project intended to challenge as well as delight; indeed, she draws a provocative link with the operation of our own neural networks.
“I think it’s interesting the degree to which we are carbon-based algorithms anyway. Rather than feeling somewhat nervous about a dystopian future of algorithms taking over the planet and humans being some outmoded husk, [this is] a visual point of view to recognise the commonality that we are systems and algorithms of DNA.”
Poetry-writing software should hold no fears for a society already engaged with such technology on a daily basis through digital devices and the internet, she adds. “We’re dancing with algorithms anyway, so why not poetry? If those two lines happen to be great, then who’s the worse for it?”
Those who cannot travel to Trafalgar Square for the lion’s six-day run can nonetheless experience the poetry algorithm at the London Design Festival website. Asked for an example of its output, Devlin points to text generated at a private event where guests were asked to contribute words to the system.
“Bombastic to the wall of our despair/A tree seems blind to flowers” is one. Another reads: “A kindness of the mind/An intuition is the morning tongue.”
“It’s interesting to roll the dice,” she says. “When they’ve done it once, people immediately want another go.”
How are carbon-based poets likely to react to this new source of competition? Helen Mort, whose 2013 poetry collection Division Street was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize, has no connection to the exercise but offers a generous assessment of its value, arguing that anything that engages the public with poetry is all to the good.
“Poetry is generated in many, many ways. I can take years to write a poem sometimes but equally it can arise from a happy accident, as it were. Both are valid methods of creativity.
“If you consider the way in which poems can come about from strange convergences of things, I can’t see why you wouldn’t get interesting results sometimes from an AI-generated program. Equally, you might get a lot of stuff that’s essentially meaningless.”
Is it not vital for readers to know that they are discovering the intention of the poet, that they are feeling out the emotions or thinking thoughts along the lines laid out for them by a human being? Mort, whose PhD was in the connections between poetry and neuroscience and who teaches at Manchester Metropolitan University, says reading verse is not so straightforward: we do some of the work in “creating a poem” in the act of reading it, as our brain satisfies its predilection for seeing patterns in things.
“The poem is partly what’s given to you and also partly what you create in your head in response to what you’re being asked to make patterns from. It is essentially a collaborative act — though I’m not saying anything can be poetry.”
Freya Murray, who led the project at Google Arts and Culture, points out a couple of constraints on the system. The reason it was trained on 19th-century poems, she says, is that experiments with contemporary poetry caused it to produce odd and unintelligible verse. The algorithm made better patterns from the more rule-bound style of the Victorian poets. It has also been sterilised for public display, with rude words stripped out from its database of the Oxford English Dictionary. “The lion will simply say ‘I cannot digest that word,’” she says, should mischief-makers attempt to lead it astray after closing time.
Given the often chaotic history of the venue, that seems a shame, says Mort. “There are so many worse things that people could be doing when they come out of pubs than generating rude poetry across Trafalgar Square,” she says. “That might be quite a good diversion for drunks.”
‘Please Feed the Lions’ is part of the London Design Festival and runs from September 18-23
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