Sauntering Verse, a new app for auto-generated poetry, uses Dadaist language to redefine the experience of physical space. In this essay, Lara Norgaard tests the app while reflecting on its implications for our relationship with technology, and the art that it creates. What contexts do we bring to the art we create and consume? What does it mean to be an artist when art is made possible just by taking your phone on a walk?
It is warm and cloudy on the afternoon following the first round of Brazil’s presidential election. The extreme right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro received just over 46% of the popular vote—he would come to win the run-off election just weeks later. It feels like the world I woke up to earlier that morning was not precisely my own, as if a body-snatcher stole my world instead of my skin.
The day is a blur: I walk a few meters from the living room to the kitchen in my apartment. Outside the window, the skyline of nearly identical high-rises in the Brazilian city that I call home glint in clouded sadness, weighed down by more than 186 thousand people who voted for a man whom The New Yorker has called a cross between Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte. Perhaps he will not win in the second round, but perhaps what is already bad will get worse. This eventuality feels so surreal that I focus on boiling water for a calming mug of coffee. I glance down at my phone. It wrote me a poem:
She skipped it
A rear Jesus
They of them
The sagging can retract or sagging sagging
A quirky staging
She pots him
The lines are not supposed to make sense, but the way poem skips, sags, stages—and ends with a pot—reminds me of the way time lurched forward as the weight of the political world slammed, unexpected, on the national stage as I slowly drizzle hot water over fresh coffee grounds.
Roughly around the same date, a Dutch-Iranian computer programmer sits at his desk in a ranch house just beyond the smog of São Paulo. A black and white cat called, simply, the Lady—not his own, just a visitor—sits primly on top of his stereo, while Patrick, another feline passing through, curls up on the chair next to him. Outside the window behind him is a garden where tiny monkeys play and brightly colored toucans hop between branches of a large avocado tree. He will soon tell his phone to write him a poem—one he will use to explain how a digital program independently generates rather insightful, though often nonsensical, verse.
Babak Fakhamzadeh is in that idyllic space when I call him to talk about the app that captured my post-election malaise. Sauntering Verse creates “unique Dadaist poetry related to your location.” Moving past the bounds of most computer poetry, this app that raises the question of how language can affect our experience of our physical surroundings. Auto-generated language has the potential to build its own poetics.
When the app’s minimalist interface says its poetry is “related to your location,” it means that literally. Take your mobile device for a walk, Fakhamzadeh tells me. “As you walk, the app generates poetry, and it uses your location as the source for words that are used to construct the sentences that make up the poem.”
The concept is ingeniously simple. Every location has unique geographic coordinates made up of one number that indicates your horizontal distance from the prime meridian and another that measures your vertical distance from the equator. “But numbers are hard to remember, especially when they’re twelve digit numbers,” the programmer points out. A few years back, a company called what3words decided to divide the world up into 3-meter by 3-meter grids and assign each cell a unique set of three English words. Fakhamzadeh decided to make those words the heart of his auto-generated poetry.
“So, for example, I am now sitting in a little 3×3 meter grid that is identified by the three words that are ‘noted, jetted, priced,’” Fakhamzadeh explains. He fed the app the syntax of simple English sentences, like pronoun–verb–pronoun, which the app uses in conjunction with the accumulated location vocabulary to build random phrases. “It tries to create a sentence from the words that are available. It if it successful, then it will try to create another sentence from the words that remain,” he says.
He reads out the result of his little test poem built from the grid location of his desk:
She priced me
We jetted her
They noted them
It gets more complicated the more you move, especially since some of the words in the grid are nouns, not just past-tense verbs as in the case of this short example. The app attempts to use all of the words from one cell but sometimes fails, leaving a few nouns out. If you move to a new cell, it will try to again with new vocabulary.
If Dadaist poetry is essentially cutting up words in a newspaper and then rearranging them at random to see what the result is, then this, according to Fakhamzadeh, is only slightly different. The poetry is still random—still essentially Dada—but the syntax is recognizable, which gives each line an ounce of sense.
Each poem even contains a visual component, one meant to match the concept behind the poetry. The program connects most poems with a kind of palimpsest collage by the visual artist Marc-Anthony Macon, one of the few contemporary Dadaist artists who also happens to make his art available on Flickr under a Creative Commons license. Each image comes with tags that the Sauntering Verse app can use to match its content with a collage. When the program can’t find an appropriate match, though, it might come up with an image filled with noise—the kind that “looks like you’re tuning your TV and something went wrong,” as Fakhamzadeh puts it. It could also locate a photograph that was taken in the same place as where the poem was generated. If all of those options fail, it will display the poem with the snapshot of a map.
When I ask Fakhamzadeh what separates Sauntering Verse from other kinds of computer-generated poetry, he explains its novelty in terms of the connection between the language and physical space. “You’re walking around and the app uses these abstract connections to where you are, that is, the words that represent the grid in which you reside, to create a poem,” he says. But in addition to the words from each 3×3 cell, the newest iteration of the app pays attention to the names of shops near the user. If the stores have common proper nouns or English words in them, the program might choose to incorporate those into the poem. “The names of these shops are very tangible. You might have just walked past one. You can see it in the distance. So it creates this Dadaist poetry, but based on where you are, and not just in an intangible manner, but also in a tangible manner.”
Weeks later, in Vallejo, California, precisely that phenomenon takes place: someone walks by a Starbucks and then passes by a MacDonald’s. They likely walked near an Indian or Chinese restaurant. It might have occurred to them that they were hungry. Maybe, like me, they thought about politics as they moved, but it is equally as likely that they worried about an upcoming exam or a sick pet. All we know for sure is that their phone, too, wrote them a poem:
In for the Starbucks tests this here stir
A rather just
The linen Indian foil save for a Chinese MacDonald’s
The location-focused aspect of Sauntering Verse connects to a larger concern about our relationship to physical space, one that Fakhamzadeh tackles through a variety of apps. “When you travel and you use guidebooks or Foursquare or Trip Advisor or Yelp or whatever to find your way around, the consequence is that you and everyone else end up with exactly the same experience,” he says. “We ask Google to show us Thai restaurants and we’re all given the same list with the same reviews and we go to the one that’s closest and that has the highest marks. And then we ask Google how to get there, and if we happen to be in the same place, then we actually follow the exact same route, whether it’s today or tomorrow or next week, because we all want to get there fast.”
Consequently, more and more people have identical experiences of the spaces around them based on consumerist choices. “We are forced into a straitjacket of how to experience society,” Fakhamzadeh summarizes. He intends to use technology to break the trap that our own tools lock us into, finding ways to facilitate unique experiences of the physical world. He partnered with a South African artist interested in the Situationist International movement from the 1960s and 70s to create Dérive, an app that gives users a series of quirky tasks they must follow as they explore a city (e.g. “Find a streetlight” or “Walk in the opposite direction of a KFC”). His app where is the next . beer curates an unconventional pub crawl, suggesting three places for users to get a beer every thirty minutes. “But it doesn’t tell you what the best places are. It just gives you three places that are close to you,” says Fakhamzadeh. You end up checking out a bar you might not usually walk into, which opens up a world of new, unique, and unexpected experiences. In addition to these apps (and there are more of them, too), the Dutch-Iranian programmer also maintains iamthewalker.com, a website that archives the work of walking artists—any artist around the world for whom walking makes up an integral part of their work.
Sauntering Verse fits into this overall mission to infuse our relationship to our surroundings with new meaning: “every time you use it, even if you are in the same place, your result will be different.” The app can create a variety of lines of verse with the words in a single cell, and if you move just three meters to the left or right, the app will have new vocabulary to play with. The auto-generated poetry uses language to make the way we inhabit the world unique.
For authors, poets, and literary translators, the implications of Sauntering Verse go beyond urban exploration, suggesting a revolutionary approach to programmed language. Amidst debates of whether or not artificial intelligence will soon equal humanity in its ability to write and translate, this app raises a far more interesting question: what are the poetics of the computer when it does not try to mimic human style? The poems formed through Sauntering Verse do not sound like our poetry. They dialogue with Dadaism while also redefining what Dada means in the digital age. The app is a post-humanist poet, a digital program that collaborates with people to create art, opening up worlds of exciting possibilities for what literature and translation might look like in decades to come.
My last question for Fakhamzadeh is a bit tongue-in-cheek: “Do you consider yourself to be a walking artist?” I ask. “Sure, why not?” he laughs. “But I’ll put a star next to that, there has to be a caveat. I’m very much a supporter of the Fluxus movement.” Fluxus, an art movement roughly contemporaneous to the Situationist International, argued that everyone is an artist and everything is art. “It sort of invalidates the statements of every art critic. Because who’s the art critic to decide that the painting by Van Gogh or Gauguin is art, but a painting by your mom is not art, right? Whatever you do is art as well, if you think so. It’s up to you.”
In that context, Fakhamzadeh says he is an artist, but not like those featured on his walking artist website. “Walking artists walk to create something. So actually, you could argue that you are the walking artist,” he says. I agree, thinking back to how the meaning of the simple poem I made wandering through my apartment came from the emotional tenor of my recent experiences, interpreted and understood through the channel of randomly generated words.
In true Fluxus spirit, I decide that I am a walking artist along with Babak Fakhamzadeh. And, most interestingly, so is my phone.
Lara Norgaard is a journalist and an editor-at-large in Brazil for Asymptote. Her reporting has appeared in publications such as Agência Pública, The Princeton Echo, and The Nassau Weekly. After researching the memory of military dictatorships in 1990s Brazilian and Argentinian fiction at Princeton University, she was one of four graduates to receive a 2017 post-graduate Labouisse Fellowship, for which she founded the magazine Artememoria, a free-access, English-language publication about art and the memory of Brazil’s civil-military dictatorship. She is also a 2018 Fulbright Grant recipient and currently lives in Londrina, Paraná.
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