For a more enhanced experience, PS122 has committed to commissioning program notes for each major production. We’re hoping that through these writings we can provide a deeper connection to the ideas that are prevalent throughout the work or the artist’s body of work and how these ideas relate to contemporary issues permeating throughout society. Our goal is to foster dialogue so if you feel compelled to share your thoughts, leave a comment.
Program Notes for COIL 2016: Yesterday Tomorrow by Annie Dorsen
Written by Miriam Felton-Dansky
When an actor steps onstage, who tells her what to do—where to stand, what to say, how to say it? A director? Her own emotional impulses? What about a software program, sending artistic choices to her from behind the scenes?
Sound surprising? That’s exactly what you’ll see in Yesterday Tomorrow, Annie Dorsen’s algorithmic concert piece. This piece, and the others in Dorsen’s algorithmic theater trilogy, challenges many ideas so deeply embedded in our assumptions about live performance that we rarely question them: the presumption that theater includes actors, for instance, and that live actors must be human. The idea that when technology appears onstage, human artists control it and not the other way around. Yesterday Tomorrow tests and rearranges these fundamental theatrical concepts, using computer algorithms, procedures for solving problems and making decisions, now frequently performed by software. Dorsen creates a new kind of concert, organized according to new musical principles: you’ll see her singers transform the Beatles’ “Yesterday” into “Tomorrow,” from the musical Annie, under the live, moment-to-moment direction of algorithms. As pitch and key and melody shift, these two songs become many songs, each a little different from the next, each evening’s performance different—subtly or wildly, as the algorithm decides—from the performance the night before.
Algorithms—the decision-makers in this performance piece—are more than abstract software programs: they increasingly, but often invisibly, matter in our lives. When Amazon.com suggests a book you might enjoy, or Netflix a film you should watch, those web sites’ uncanny knowledge emerges from algorithmic systems busily recording and responding to your every click and purchase. When you post an update on Facebook, algorithms decide which of your friends will see it. Worldwide, algorithms buy and sell stocks and predict environmental change. Dorsen’s algorithmic theater invokes the larger ways in which computer algorithms have already become decision-makers in our culture, putting these computer-generated choices onstage, the computer’s next move unknown to actors and audiences alike.
Yesterday Tomorrow is the third in Dorsen’s trilogy of algorithmic theater pieces, all of which place human and machine performance side by side. In Hello Hi There (2010), a pair of MacBooks running chatbot software held a debate about—among other topics—whether language is something humans learn or something we are born with, inspired by a famous philosophical debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault on the same topic. In A Piece of Work (2013), computer algorithms adapted Hamlet—a foundational text about the nature of being human—in performative dialogue with physical stagecraft and human actors.
In Yesterday Tomorrow, algorithmic programs create a concert that progresses according to digital rules, not human ones. You won’t see the computer making decisions—changing notes, altering light cues, leading the singers from one harmony or dissonance to the next—just as, in the wider world, we often can’t see, touch, or feel algorithms guiding the economy or tracking our daily online activities. But you will see the human results of the choices the algorithm makes, as the music gradually, inexorably evolves from the past to the future, in the unfolding theatrical present.
© Photo by Maria Baranova