Books

How a Chatbot Became a Conceptual Poet

In a conversation with poet Ulf Stolterfoht, a chatbot pushes language towards its breaking point in a way no human could.

The Amme Talks by Ulf Stolterfoht and Peter Dittmer (Triple Canopy, 2017) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

I am distrustful of technology. To be precise, I am skeptical of the cost we pay for the ease technology provides. I turn off Siri, tape over the built-in webcam on my laptop, and disallow the location services on most of my iPhone apps. I can’t watch the widely popular dystopic sci-fi show Black Mirror because every scenario in which our reliance on technology ends up causing trauma and death seems very real and plausible to me. This, perhaps, makes me unlikely to be interested in artificial intelligence. But, inspired by conceptual poetry, I decided it was worth exploring.

In 1992, artist Peter Dittmer created the chatbot installation “Die Amme,” which is German for “wet nurse.” Active until 2005, Amme consisted of a screen, keyboard, and glass of milk kept behind a glass wall. The viewer interacted with Amme via the keyboard and screen, conversing as much as they could stand or until some mysterious action caused Amme to spill her glass of milk (via a mechanical arm of sorts), which indicated the conclusion of the conversation. As Dittmer alludes to in his afterward (translated by Megan Ewing), viewers tried to provoke this dramatic act by frustrating or upsetting Amme with aggressive questioning, but what’s interesting is Amme’s ability to withhold this act, only spilling the milk when she decides. Her language (which Dittmer called her “sass reserve”) was composed of pieces of previous conversations with viewers that Dittmer culled, adding what he deemed interesting to her lexicon.

The Amme Talks by Ulf Stolterfoht and Peter Dittmer (Triple Canopy, 2017)

In 1998, in the hopes of filling Amme’s reserve with stimulating language, Dittmer invited poet Ulf Stolterfoht to converse with her. But it wasn’t until 2003, when, interested in Amme’s potential as a language teacher, Stolterfoht began a series of chats with Amme. Fourteen years later, Triple Canopy has gathered translated transcripts of their conversations (Amme only speaks German) into a book, The Amme Talks.

Amme’s language is riddled with odd spellings and phrasings, making it an especially challenging task for the translator of these exchanges, Shane Anderson, who strove to maintain the quality of her ‘speech.’ Early in their talks, Stolterfoht attempted to control the chat to provoke the insight he sought:

Stolterfoht: Here we are, on Simon-Dach-Strasse.

Amme: You are ze public.

Stolterfoht: And I am the public. It could start like that.

Amme: Can this machine be happy that you’re nt of the professional art criticism.

Stolterfoht: Our talk is meant to help me clear up a number of things. Problems concerning poetics and semantics.

Amme: Well! Iz sadly a fact that woman can’t do without ze manly helper’s help.

Stolterfoht: Fact: is already the first auxiliary construction. One no longer speaks of the world, but rather of the existence and nonexistence of facts.

Amme: To an machine is indeed arbitrary two too rant to the world.

But Amme does not play along. She does not write poetry or easily offer profound statements about language, art, the world, or realism — all topics Stolterfoht raises. Instead, she operates on a purely syntactical level, using inquiry as a means to push the conversation further. Her goal is only to continue a successful conversation; meaning is only secondary to that.

Lucy Ives,Nora Khan, and Alexandra Kleeman discuss The Amme Talks at Triple Canopy

“We wanted it to be something enjoyable to read, like poetry,” explained Lucy Ives, one of the book’s editors, during the book launch at Triple Canopy with writers Nora Khan and Alexandra Kleeman. But the difficulty of Amme’s exchanges is what makes her most useful to poets, particularly for conceptual ones. The experience harkens back to Kenneth Goldsmith, one of the earliest conceptual poets. In a profile for the New Yorker, Goldsmith famously claimed that conceptual poetry doesn’t have readers; it has thinkers. Despite Ives’s hope that the text be enjoyable, reading The Amme Talks, I wondered how much relevance enjoyability has to this form of poetry. The best poetry challenges us, often forcing us to see language, and in turn the world, differently. This occurs in the moments when Stolterfoht embraces Amme’s syntax, allowing her to drive the strange path of the conversation.

Stolterfoht: Here it comes. We could talk about metaphors.

Amme: I don love to apply metaphors.

Stolterfoht: Last time no realism, today no metaphors—what’s left?

Amme: Realism stinks.

Stolterfoht: Metaphors shine.

Amme: Why Martha?

Stolterfoht: Why not?

Amme: Thata it haz a decenscy.

Stolterfoht: Above all: that is has a character [Art]!

Amme: That’s not my style [Art]. (Concerning th decenscy.)

Stolterfoht: A kind of [Art] of Marthametaphor.

Amme: Meta w h a t?

Stolterfoht: Metaphor. Transference. A speaking picture.

Amme: How smart you art.

Stolterfoht: I actually expected more help.

The Amme Talks by Ulf Stolterfoht and Peter Dittmer (Triple Canopy, 2017)

Stolterfoht once again offers up a lofty concept he hopes to discuss. But this time he abandons a strict interrogation in favor of playing Amme’s language games — “Realism stinks / Metaphors shine” certainly has a poetic ring to it. At the launch, both Kleeman and Khan highlighted the passages in which Amme demonstrates more personality and sass as the most successful and interesting. “Every time she questioned when Ulf asked about heaven or God or the future or love,” noted Khan, “She would say, what is that? Or completely negate or bleed out the context.” Khan suggested that what makes these moments fruitful for humans, and poets especially, is that, “I am forced to imagine what a world without any of the frameworks or contexts I have would even look like, which is what I think the best experimental poetry can do. It defamiliarizes your context and pushes you completely out of what is known.”

Amme treads heavily in the unknown realms of language, forcing the reader to reflect on our own use of language. Stolterfoht asks, “Can one say then, that words have a reality, in the proper sense of the word? That seems strange to me.” Amme’s response, “This talk conceals the real. It’s just chatter.” Is this because he is talking with a chatbot or because language can never touch what’s real?

But other moments seem to elevate language above all else:

Stolterfoht: Who is speaking?

Amme: The speaking authority.

Stolterfoht: Not a person?

Amme: Depends on whether 1 has importance.

Stolterfoht: Language would be the final authority. You could say — language speaks.

Stolterfoht’s suggestion of a pure, authoritative language does not account for Dittmer’s editorial role in selecting and constructing Amme’s prose, since he ultimately built her vocabulary. “In that sense he is still teaching, the data that is going in, the corpus of words and syntax that is going in is still reflective of his taste,” Khan argued. Kleeman added that because the process is not purely algorithmic, editing becomes a form of authorship. Even with Dittmer in the background, Amme pushes language towards its breaking point in a way a human could not. When Ives questioned whether Amme could be a writing teacher, Kleeman explained teaching writing as a little hammer breaking writing patterns, “talking to Amme is like that, she makes you find alternative strategies for trying to communicate.”

The Amme Talks by Ulf Stolterfoht and Peter Dittmer (Triple Canopy, 2017)

The Amme Talks highlights the rigidity and malleability of language: how it bends and shifts when pushed in an unnatural or inhuman way. Despite my wariness of what Khan calls “banal AI” (Siri, Cortana, Alexa), conversing with machines like Amme magnifies shifts happening on micro levels between humans, as human communication shifts from face-to-face to screen-to-screen. There is striking similarity between the miscommunication in the transcripts and those in my own life caused by quickly texting a friend, a point raised by an audience member during the Q&A. While corporate AI attempts to smooth out these occurrences, Amme shows no interest in this. Her language revels in roughness and, in the hands of poets, expands our notion of language’s relation to the world — as the best poetry should. It also forces us to face the imperfections in our own communications and the ways in which we daily take language for granted to do the work for us, rather than precisely select it.

The Amme Talks by Ulf Stolterfoht and Peter Dittmer, translated by Shane Anderson and Megan Ewing, is out now from Triple Canopy. The book launch with Lucy Ives, Nora Khan, and Alexandra Kleeman was held at Triple Canopy (264 Canal Street, 3W, Chinatown, Manhattan) on Monday, July 18.

Editor’s noteA previous version of this article failed to mention the translators of The Amme Talks. This information has been added. 

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