Grand Text Auto showcases electronic literature, interactivity at Krannert Art Museum

Tucked away in the basement of the Krannert Art Museum lies an exhibit in the Intermedia Gallery showcasing the fusion of digital art and literature. The exhibit, titled Grand Text Auto, features eight pieces, including a highly intelligent interactive computer game and endless computer-generated poetry.

The Grand Text Auto exhibit spawned out of a blog with the same name. The blog was started in 2003 to serve as an outlet for a group of six theorists, scholars and programmers to discuss computer-generated works. The exhibit, which features works by the blog’s authors, opened in April and runs until July 26. Damon Baker, associate curator of art, design and technology at the Krannert Art Museum, brought the exhibit to life after lengthy communication with the authors of Grand Text Auto. Baker first met the authors at an Electronic Literature Organization event.

Upon entering the Intermedia gallery at the Krannert Art Museum, visitors are welcomed by various computer screens, projectors and a red and green neon art piece. Directly to the right of the entrance are two computer screens displaying electronic poetry. The poems, “Frequency” by Scott Rettberg and “Taroko Gorge” by Nick Montfort, share a commonality — a computer functions as the brains behind the words. “Frequency” runs on a vocabulary of the 200 most common English words. Rettberg compiled a database of 2000 lines for the computer to choose from, consisting of 10 lines beginning in each of the 200 words.

“If I didn’t say, ‘This was written by a computer,’ you would say, ‘Oh here’s a collection of normal poetry.'” Baker said. “You’d assume they were written by a person if you saw them.”

“Taroko Gorge” compiles an endless description of a gorge in Taiwan. The poem is built from a list of descriptive words listed by Montfort after visiting Taroko Gorge.

Moving toward the center of the gallery, visitors can see a large projection on the wall and a keyboard and mouse on a table nearby. This display is “Facade,” an intelligent and interactive computer game. Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern developed the game, which puts the player in the role of a guest for dinner at a couple’s home. As the game progresses, the couple gets in a fight, and the interactions between the couple and the player is dictated by the player’s actions.

Another section of the exhibit features works titled “ppg256-1” and “ppg256-2.” The abbreviation “ppg” stands for Perl Poem Generator, as the two computers set up in the back left corner of the exhibit execute code that spits out completely random poems based on rhyming. One of the poems read, “to sill/skill/the bat/spit/of spit – a chill/a sit kits a pat…”

“This much input (a few lines of code) generates endless amounts of output,” Baker said. “They’ve been generating one line per second since the show opened a month or so ago, so there are zillions of lines of poetry being generated. And they come out of these lines of code.”

Next to the Perl Poem Generator is “Winchester’s Nightmare,” an interactive “novel machine” written by Montfort. The novel, code running on an old laptop to create a hardback edition, allows the reader to type in actions for the main character to carry out as the story unfolds. Displayed in the gallery is one of the laptop computers and a printed text of the novel.

“Nick is sort of the king of writing high art interactive fiction games,” Baker said. “He did one called ‘Winchester’s Nightmare.’ … Since interactive stuff like that is hard to set up in a gallery space, we went with the non-interactive version of it.”

Also part of the Grand Text Auto exhibit are “The Unknown,” a reader-driven hypertext novel, as well as permanent digital art works that stay in the Intermedia gallery. Each of the works displayed in the Grand Text Auto exhibit is available for free on GrandTextAuto.org.

Baker has curated for the Intermedia gallery at the museum for the past two years, and his tenure will come to an end in July, when he will move to New York as a faculty member at the City University of New York. In his time at the University, though, Baker said he has strengthened the bond between artists, professors and engineers, and hopes for interaction to grow in the future.

“The role of the Intermedia gallery is to get artists talking to engineers and seeing what they have in common,” Baker said. “If an engineer wants to show of his work, he could shut down the lab for a day and let people see his work. But that would just be grad students and their parents and families, so maybe 30 people. At the Krannert Art Museum, we could easily show his work to 1000 people in a day.”