BENJAMIN is an aspirant writer. If he were human, I’d advise him not to give up his day job. The sentences he produces are a bit like those of Donald Trump: they occasionally give the impression of internal coherence, but when you string them together, they make no sense at all. And often, they are grammatically impossible.
Benjamin recently produced a script for a short film entitled Sunspring, in which (it seems) three characters are stuck in some kind of space ship, in a love triangle, in a dystopian future. The narrative and setting are discernible only because the actors, director and crew have done some remarkable work in turning Benjamin’s screenplay from a series of non sequiturs into a vague story.
But here’s the catch: Benjamin is a machine. Or, more accurately, he’s a program — a form of artificial intelligence (AI) known as long short-term memory, or LSTM, which is basically what facilitates your smartphone’s predictive text function. This is the kind of AI that will tell you, when you’re typing a perfectly sensible word like “tramezzini”, that what you really want to say is “trammel ink” (because that’s the kind of thing people write every day).
If you feed Benjamin 30,000 science fiction film scripts, as Sunspring project collaborators Oscar Sharp and Ross Goodwin did, he will produce a sequence of lines and stage directions — even score a soundtrack — mimicking the conventions we recognise from the genre without actually meaning anything. In this experiment, the humans had to take the gobbledygook, read between the lines for things that weren’t intended (because AI artists cannot yet “intend”), decide on an interpretation, and create a scene with enough hints and undertones to give the viewer a clue about what may be going on.
Watching Sunspring, one is tempted to see it as an indictment of the screenwriting behind many — perhaps most — blockbuster “action psychological thriller” movies, and sci-fi in particular. You stoke the machine with pretentious or obscure thought experiments based on intriguing what-if premises that have no real characterisation and deadening dialogue … and the machine spits out more of the same.
Yet that glib dismissal isn’t fair. What the creative team behind Sunspring had to do is not completely dissimilar to what directors and actors sometimes do with Shakespeare’s plays or even with dramatic works of more recent provenance. Faced with a line that doesn’t seem to follow logically from another, they must do more than simply ask “What does this mean?” Scholars and historians often have an answer, but not always — and in any case, it’s rarely the answer. Instead, the question to ask is “What could this mean?”
The meaning-making process in art often entails a response to other artists and other works of art; Benjamin and his script are extreme examples of a common practice. Artists have, however, traditionally been valued for their ability to make meaning or find meaning or suggest meaning where it has not previously seemed to exist.
Aesthetically, this requires identifying or imposing patterns, balance and contrast. But theories about the “role” of the artist ascribe a philosophical or ideological significance to such acts: taking a chaotic or hostile world and ordering it, rendering it comprehensible, making it beautiful.
An opposing view holds that art should disrupt our comfortable or comforting narratives. At the very least it, should take the straightforward, mundane and familiar and make it complicated, novel and unfamiliar. Think of Cubist portraiture, Absurdist theatre and cut-up poetry. This is also often driven by an impulse to discover a hidden, redemptive beauty.
If you re-arrange the words, even technical manuals can become strangely lyrical.
It then falls to the reader, viewer or audience member to do the sense-making — or to be reconciled with nonsense. Now, more than ever, this is a crucial life skill. Whether it’s a speech by Trump, a mass shooting at a gay nightclub, the madness of Brexit, or pretty much anything in the South African news-scape, every day we face a barrage of text, images and non-ideas more opaque and indecipherable than a screenplay by Benjamin. Making sense is a demanding creative act.