The Wrench

Rhizome at the New Museum for Contemporary Art
2007 Commission

FILMOBILE, University of Westminster, London
2008 April

About

The Monkey's Wrench Primo Levi's The Wrench, published in Italian in 1978, is a fictional collection of tales told to a narrator by an itinerant steelworker, Tino Faussone. Faussone's sharply observed accounts of life on the job outline an idiosyncratic philosophy organized by profound individuality and a deeply contingent and physical relationship to the world. The stories reflect on both the meaning of work and the work of narrative.

Knifeandfork's The Wrench recasts Levi's work into a mobile phone text-message exchange between participants and a contemporary Tino played by an artificially intelligent agent. Taking place over the course of a week, the dialogue, though reminiscent of an SMS-novel, is not entirely predetermined. Rather, Tino attempts to be convincingly human, and the real-time narrative intertwines the lives of the character and participant through the ubiquitous yet restrictive communication channel of text-messaging. Further, certain interests and events of the character's life are dynamically generated from real-world material via RSS/Atom content feeds. By animating Levi's original text, The Wrench challenges the division between the experience of a fiction and our performance of everyday life.

This work is an ongoing project; in response to user participation, new episodes are added and Tino is adapted to better respond to natural conversation. Like any endeavor exploring dialogue between a human and a computer, The Wrench invokes the Turing Test. Though often failing to respond appropriately to a participant's expressions, there is enough serendipity in the exchange for Tino's persona to hover in the uncanny valley between obvious artificial construction and an aware partner. In this he demonstrates ideas about virtual character development outlined by Janet Murray, including the 'ELIZA-effect': humans often find themselves willingly "attributing greater intelligence or intentionality to a machine than it possesses." Part of the appeal of Tino's persona are all of his intentional and unintentional quirks.

Additionally, Knifeandfork is concerned with how SMS can serve as a 'literary machine' capable of the same kind of combinatoric language experiments conducted by the Oulipo or as a mechanism for interactive fiction inspired by games such as Zork. Espen Aarseth groups such works under the term 'cybertext', indicating that the process of feedback is essential to the production of text. The first-person perspective and verbal nature intrinsic to SMS make it an intriguing medium for cybertext. However, the spatial nature of the mobile phone and the imperative poetics of text-messaging also suggest its use as a contemporary tool in the kind of nontheatrical performance prefigured by Fluxus and demonstrated by Tim Etchell's Surrender Control. Uniquely positioned to combine these methodologies, SMS allows the transposition of literature into the experiential domain, animating fictional text with everyday life in a way that is elusive to other new media, such as virtual reality, or conventional uses of SMS.

The Wrench is technically realized with Knifeandfork's TXTML, free software for creating interactive SMS applications. TXTML was specifically designed for narrative and natural-language uses of SMS (as opposed to more traditional, stateless, and syntax-based services), and it abstracts away the technical layers of message delivery and state management. The script itself is open-source: participants, should they be so inclined, are able to view, modify, and expand the structure of the narrative.

Credits

Concept, engineering, writing, and production
Brian House
Sue Huang
Additional concept and writing
Johanna Linsley
Nathan Phillips
Audio-visual content and editing
David Feinberg
Documentary subjects
Anna Moore
Merran Swartwood
Alex Lambert
Dakota
Thanks to
Rhizome
Max Schleser

Text-message your name to
646.920.2156
Your number will not be revealed in any way or transferred beyond the scope of this project. A transcript of your conversation may be published on this page.

Essay
Subversive Mobile Storytelling

Run your own SMS narrative
TXTML.org
Press

...might be good / Fluent~Collaborative
2008 October