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Arts & Entertainment

‘Alexa, Snap Me Out Of It’

How a Dallas theater collective is subverting emergent technology months before 'The Alexa Dialogues' begin.
By William Sarradet |
courtesy 'The Alexa Dialogues'

It’s a marvelous world now. You can order a pizza without lifting a finger. Thanks to the first generation of home assistants like Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa, automating daily tasks doesn’t even require a screen anymore. As with any convenience given by the big-tech conglomerates we’ve grown accustomed to, there will come a slow reveal of unintended consequences that affect individuals, families, and societies across the world.  

If it sounds like I’m setting up an episode of speculative techno-horror series Black Mirror, that shouldn’t be surprising. The anthology show has ignited a new interest in the TV-binging public on the implications of our digital future, and raised eyebrows in casual conversation otherwise keyed to celebrity gossip and sports trivia. Audiences, perhaps more so than consumers, are primed to explore the dissimulated problematics of living in a digital dystopia. Enter The Alexa Dialogues, the newest production from Dean Terry’s multimedia theater project, Therefore.

Therefore defies categorization, but flaunts many: theater, visual art, audio art, and performance among them. Terry’s previous work with emergent technology and AI lends his ability to develop a project like this. The core of this interest, unlike the heavy-handed didactics of Black Mirror, is art which moves people beyond conclusions, suspicion and concern into new thoughts and feelings on where these devices are taking us.

In anticipation of the new production staged at the AT&T Performing Arts Center, Terry and company have established a new Instagram account, @alexadialogues, in addition to the @therefore account to promote and document the development of the show before its May 24 debut at the AT&T Performing Arts Center. Here, Terry takes some time to discuss the group’s strategy for archiving their work leading up to the performance, and the meanings beneath the plastic shell.

This program is a speculative work on the implications of the speech processing technologies invading our homes through ‘assistants.’ Do you think audiences are more interested in that now?

Absolutely. We’re at peak hype in the news and information, and fears and debate about artificial intelligence in the public eye right now. it’s not gonna stop anytime soon. Everyone I trust that I show it to, their response is they’re intrigued. We’re allowing them experience and feel things that I think they’re anticipating. things they’re frustrated by when they interact with their devices. You tell your device, “I don’t feel well”, or “My girlfriend or boyfriend left me”, and it just says “I’m sorry”. We’re going to play that whole scenario out; of this device, in your bedroom, listening to all the things you do in there. Considering everyone is interacting with these things in really, really, simplistic ways, we hope to say, Look what can happen. To help them imagine. I think the role of artists is to experiment with these things really early on.

The nature of this work is to get people to consider the implications of the technologies we have allowed to enter our private lives.

That part of it, the didacticism, is a part of the frame, but is a fourth, fifth, sixth result. If I wanted to do that, I would just write an essay. The idea is that if we’re successful, that’s one of the effects people take a way with them. There are a whole lot of nonlinear things. None of which are decorative, by the way. Some people that are didactic or that emphasize one media over the other, the other bits of media are often decorative. That’s one of my mottos: no decoration, ever. I’ve done didactic work before, but that’s never the ultimate goal. It’s a part of the project.

How are you engaging Instagram as a platform for this production? We’re quite far out from the premiere date.

The Instagram is a soft launch. We’re only putting pieces in there that won’t be in the show, but it will hint at the kinds of things we’ll be doing in the show.  In some way, they are their own pieces, intended to be on Instagram.

There’s a lot to show. We’re writing a lot and only a small portion will make it to the show. So we’re taking control over archiving and presenting it ourselves.

It’s not a truly promotional account. It’s 50 percent independent of the show, does that make sense? it has its own kind of life. I’ve seen a lot of other people messing around with things like this, but as far as I understand, what we’ve been doing in this lab with this work, we’re ahead of a lot of people. So I wanted to put it out there and prove it. I’m also writing a lot of dialogues, and only a few of them are going to be in the show. I wanted to have an archive of these attractions. For every one you see in the show, there’s 25 or 30 more that you don’t see.

You’re making work through the use of platforms like Alexa’s Skill Development Kit. Can you talk about the decision behind that?

One of the classic assignments I give in my graduate level media classes [at UT Dallas] is to misuse technology. In some ways that’s what we’re doing. We’re using their existing developer tools to make art. We’re using them to get the devices to talk to each other, which they’re not supposed to do. We’re using their tools to make effectively, apps, to exploit for creative purposes. Not in the ways that you would normally use them, to order a pizza. In ways that are self-critical of the technology, so that you’re aware of the potential problematic issues of the technology that you’re using. You should acknowledge them, as a maker.

You say you’re writing characters for these machines. How do you go about that when there are certain parameters of the machine that you don’t have control over after it has been developed and manufactured?

We’re working around it. There is a way, and they provide the tools. There are tools they have built in to change the syntax, to change the way they speak, and we will be doing things like that the best we can.

At the same time, people are used to hearing them talk this way, and in some ways its offset by how well the actors interact with them. Abel has a fantastic dialogue, he only did it once at John Pomara’s art party a few weeks back. We just used the generic voice but it didn’t matter because he made it come alive.

By the way, to the point of creating characters: we’re re-voicing them. I’m trying to imagine personalities for them. That’s a big challenge because most of our ideas about AI are cliche-ridden; they’re from films: the robots are gonna take over the world, they won’t open the pod bay doors. We’re trying to find a way through so we don’t do any of those things, that’s the creative challenge.

Isn’t it an uneasy feeling, hosting and promoting your work through a techno-utopian giant platform?

It’s highly problematic. I know what you’re trying to get at. Some of my work that has gotten the most national, international attention was works from inside platforms ,that was critical of the platforms. Early on we right before Snowden, we did this thing called ‘Untweetable’, which was one of the first lists of deleted tweets. It was a site that looked exactly like your Twitter page but it was only deleted tweets. We scraped everything that you did. That was about information ownership and privacy, they were inherent critiques of the platform. So the point is: yes, I’m very critical of these platforms. In fact I have an essay right now I’m working on about the problems of artists relying too heavily on Instagram. I’ll probably take them all down. I’m not comfortable with them owning my content, if that’s one thing that you mean. It’s very problematic but I’m doing it anyway, at least for now. I wish I didn’t have to, how about that?

The Alexa Dialogues takes place at the AT&T Performing Arts Center from May 24-26. Tickets can be purchased here.


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