Through a malignant nightclub air
In conversation with Kat Mustatea
Kat Mustatea is a New York-based artist, playwright, and technologist, who describes herself as “an imagination engine” who stretches theater into the digital age. Her current project, Voidopolis, utilizes the ubiquitously performative platform of Instagram to turn the app into performance itself. It is a kind of chronicle of the empty, ghostly streets of New York City during the pandemic, through a narrative inspired by Dante’s Inferno. A software-generated language devoid of the letter “E” accompanies images in which the figures are shimmering mirages. And at the end of the year, after 40-or-so posts, the entire project will be erased. The Instagram links in this article will lead only to places that once performed something–an empty stage. We talked with Kat about the future of AI and art in the digital age, her interest in language, and why, one night in June, she quietly deleted seven years of posts on her Instagram feed and began Voidopolis.
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Dovetail Mag: Did Voidopolis spring from another project, or was there a particular idea or event that set the stage, so to speak, for this project?
Kat Mustatea: The impetus was a combination of several things. At the time I was engaged in a project to develop various types of synthetic language, so I was working a lot with constraints in language. Studying, for example, how language sounds if you remove certain letters, or limit the length of words, that kind of thing. I come from theater, so I was looking at how spoken language in particular might be expressive in surprising ways under constraint. And suddenly we were in the middle of a pandemic, under lockdown, and all of life became constrained in an incredibly painful way. Theater was gone. Daily life became a series of avoidances and workarounds for things no longer possible to do.
By June when I started Voidopolis, NYC was a place deeply scarred by the pandemic (it still is now, months later). We had witnessed a horrific number of people dying on a daily basis. You would hear a near-constant wail of ambulances all over the city carrying people to hospitals, and there was a sense that many of those people would not come out of those hospitals alive. You would see neighborhood stores just vanish overnight, leaving empty storefronts. And under lockdown, there was a sense of small, trivial things that you associate with normal life just vanishing.
I was trying to find a helium balloon to buy for a child’s birthday, which would normally be a 5 minute trip to the local bodega. But under lockdown, with so many things closed, this simple goal became a multi-day event of trying to obtain a helium tank and a balloon that I could blow up myself. Because everything else was so grim, it suddenly seemed important to go to all that trouble just so a child could have this small pleasure.
How we engaged with the rituals of the everyday became wholly altered and surreal. I remember posting that photo of the child’s balloon on Instagram—like many people, I’d used Instagram for years as a way to document small moments of my private life, or to work out the odd visual idea. But this particular ritual of social media sharing just seemed disjointed from all the loss happening around me. How do you document absences and vanishings? And then one night in June, I quietly deleted seven years’ worth of posts from my Instagram feed. It was an eerie feeling. It’s not what you’re supposed to do on Instagram. Was I sure about this? Well, I was sure whatever stories I was going to tell about this time were going to require a very different mode of telling.
DM: Was there any particular influence for the title, Voidopolis?
KM: I meant this project to be a portrait of a city. A place name seemed appropriate. The title is something of an homage to A Void, by Georges Perec, a 300-page novel written entirely without the letter “E,” which has become an emblem of the Oulipo literary movement of the 1960’s and 70’s.
DM: You’ve been interested in software and technology’s capacity, or the human capacity to create these tools and model them after ourselves, such as AI and bots. Also, in your TED talk, you touched on the collective fear that it will “outintelligence” us, wiping out humankind. Does this fear or concern of redundancy, or total deletion or erasure, especially as portrayed in pop culture, inform your current project?
KM: Ah, so interesting! It’s not an association I would have made, but who knows? I’m not afraid of AI, I’m only afraid of humans, and what warped things humans might do to each other using AI.
That doesn’t need to translate to literal violence, by the way. The kind of top-down conformity that AI can impose systematically and at scale is its own kind of violence and erasure. Think about the implications of Gmail’s auto-complete feature. So many rich idiosyncrasies and regionalisms of language use will eventually be smoothed over because of the repetition and reinforcement of a handful of the blandest auto-complete phrases. Many small languages are dying out all over the world because of a similar insistence on imposing a few, dominant languages. And culture vanishes with a language, so the erasure there is staggering.
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DM: Are there any other influences that led to its making?
KM: I read Dante’s Inferno in college. The universe of punishment that Dante depicts is utterly impersonal, like a machine. Every single person is meted out their punishment in hell—often, a physically gruesome one—according to a strict hierarchy of their misdeeds in life. Even those whom Dante loves, like the poet Virgil, cannot be saved. It’s an intriguing aspect of the Inferno, and of Dante’s imagination. I have been thinking a lot about this idea of impersonal punishment as I have made my way through the Inferno this time around. In a sense, a virus is also an impersonal force, moving from body to body, wreaking havoc on each body, irrespective of who deserves it and who doesn’t. The impersonal is a source of horror. I do think there is a connection there to our unease about what machines might enact upon us.
DM: Your choice of Dante’s Inferno is a classic text and reflects the grim reality of events, especially this year. Does this text have any particular significance to you, or to the project, or how it came about?
KM: Apparently the Inferno is a beautiful piece of poetry—my Italian is not good enough to appreciate the original—but that’s not what comes across in the translations I read in school. Figures walk upright, holding their own heads. People are transformed into bushes, howling in pain and bleeding from the twig when someone plucks a leaf. I mean, it takes an astonishing force of imagination to come up with such stuff. All great art, I think, flirts with moments of bad taste—and here is Dante, describing in the most unbearably beautiful, poetic language imaginable, people who are slopping around in a pit full of feces.
And then here we are, trying to slog through a slowly unfolding cataclysm. With consequences not only to our bodies, but also economic devastation, with its toll on collective mental health. Dante proves this much: these are hellish times we live in, but it doesn’t mean we can’t have poetry.
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DM: What about the use of stock imagery, and how the figures in these images are digitally “deleted” or removed? Is this done using software, or is it “hand-done?”
KM: I do the wiping by hand, using the “correct” feature of one of those photo editing apps you can download to your phone for $5. I had initially wanted to use the artist damjanski‘s app, Bye Bye Camera, to create some quick imagery to go along with the text—he wryly calls his app “posthuman,” and that seemed to fit conceptually the idea of loss. But I found that the industrial apps give me a lot more control over the results. They use a simple form of machine learning to fill in a background when you ask it to remove a figure. For example, people typically use the feature to remove someone photobombing their perfect sunset snapshot. The delight of this bespoke process has been in “misusing” the function for my own ends.
Initially my strategy was to look for stock images where, if you remove the person, there is still an indication of human presence. You don’t want the wiping to be entirely successful, otherwise it just looks like a still life. If you remove the person and leave the shadow, there is a trace, a human presence in the photo, still. So, the earliest images I worked with featured bicycles in mid-ride with the rider removed, or umbrellas that seemed to be holding themselves up, or a skateboard seeming to flip in mid-air by itself. But as the project has progressed, I have moved more toward only partially wiping the figures. So: a face without eyes, or a hand disconnected from its body. Turns out you only need to remove a small part of a person to interfere with their humanity and agency. I think this evolution came from the experience of writing the text, and realizing how few body parts I can actually refer to. If I can’t use the letter “E,” I can’t say: eyes, face, head, feet, legs, heart. What happens to those body parts if they can’t be named? Do they still exist? How do you move through the world without language?
I generate the short videos by “wiping” the same area several times. The algorithms don’t create the same-pixel-by-pixel result each time, so there’s a bit of variation in each image. Taken as a composite video, the images look like they’re shimmering.
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DM: The language and captions in the posts are also synthetically generated without the use of the letter “E” — why “E”?
KM: I might have picked a different vowel to omit. I considered omitting “I” because it seemed interesting to take up the impossible task of writing a first-person narrative in which I can’t refer to my own person. But I chose to omit “E” because in English, all regular past tense verbs end in “ed.” If you remove the past tense, time warps in strange ways. My narrator moves back and forth fluidly from a very constricted past tense made of only irregular verbs, to a present tense meant to be understood as the past. It was a way to poetically evoke the unreal way we experience time without history during lockdown.
DM: How is the language generated? Do you take it as-is, or do you personally edit or control what you decide to use?
KM: I use an algorithmic GPT-2 type text generator that has been modified to omit whatever letter I want, in this case “E.” It produces coherent sentences, but they are very bland. Sometimes I’ll pick out a few phrases verbatim, but there is a lot of me really composing off those bland sentences, adding rich bits of vocabulary, thinking through the storyline and character development. Injecting, you know, humanity and imagination. The process is a lot about me assembling language, ideas, and a sense of the mood I want to evoke in any given post—and then riffing off the elements I have gathered at hand that day.
An algorithm can never output anything as coherent as Perec’s novel, A Void. But it is a handy tool for amassing a lot of language that is constrained in a certain way, so that you have something to build from. Plus, as coherent as A Void is, I find it largely unreadable. The pleasure is conceptual, in knowing Perec pulled off the feat. For Voidopolis, I work really hard to make each post not only a technical feat, but also vivid and muscular as story. I want people to be captivated by my character Nikita, to want to read the next episode. The short format of Instagram captions helps a lot: I don’t think I could sustain the same level of interest and excitement if I was composing an entire novel in this mode.
DM: And you’ll be deleting it once the project has reached its conclusion?
KM: There was a lot of talk at the start of the pandemic of writers suddenly writing plays and novels about the pandemic. But I thought: hell, no. Once we’re past this awful time, no one will want to dwell on it. Most certainly, no one will want to go see a pandemic play. We’ll want to do the opposite of remembering. We’ll want to all pack tightly together into tiny rooms, singing euphorically. We’re all going to want to be joyous, to celebrate, to rebuild. There is an argument to be made for remembering collective histories. But after a trauma of this magnitude, forgetting—at least temporarily—allows for space to heal and rediscover something else: joy. We might eventually be willing to revisit this time, but only from the safety of some distance in time. For this particular project, I have to navigate that ambivalence as I complete it—looking forward to the day this story becomes completely irrelevant.
DM: Why did you choose Instagram to share this project? Why is it important that there is a record or an archive of it, once it’s gone?
Something about the immediacy and ephemerality of the medium seemed right. I didn’t want to be writing a book, for example. Waiting for some later time for it to be published. Social media offers a way of responding in real time to the moment at hand. And Instagram in particular seems conducive to posts that are episodic in nature. It’s easy to scroll through to the beginning of the series and read the story in full.
In June, I decided to use my Instagram feed as a performance space of sorts. The Voidopolis story could unfold for a time, but then once it was done, I could wipe it away—perhaps start a completely different kind of story, with a completely different kind of logic. There would be a moment in the future, I thought, when Voidopolis is no longer the story at hand, when we are finally past the pandemic and need to tell completely different kinds of stories. But I did have the thought that it might be nice to document responses to Voidopolis, to keep after the fact. If my Instagram feed is a performance space, and Voidopolis the performance currently playing, then those responses are a kind of applause. In theater, the most ephemeral of all art forms, all that is left when the performance is over is applause.
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Kat Mustatea is a co-curator of EdgeCut, a live performance series that explores our complex relationship to the digital, and a member of NEW INC, the art and tech incubator at The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City. VOIDOPOLIS was featured at the 2020 Ars Electronica + The Grid: Exposure Festival and won the 2020 Arts and Letters “Unclassifiable” Prize for Literature.
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