a work per day (8): Howe and Cayley’s THE TRUE STORY OF AH-Q from the 21st century 阿Q正傳a work per day (8): Howe and Cayley’s THE TRUE STORY OF AH-Q from the 21st century 阿Q正傳

a work per day (8): Howe and Cayley’s THE TRUE STORY OF AH-Q from the 21st century 阿Q正傳


Daniel C. Howe & John Cayley 

Mixed media installation, custom software / 2014 (world premiere)


[video documentation…]

The Real Story of Ah-Q, a textual collage, print on wall
The True Story of Ah-Q, an algorithmic collage, C-print 2014

 An English translation of The True Story of Ah-Q is read by an algorithmic process that highlights phrases from Lu Xun’s revolutionary work. The phrases selected are words that others have also written – that is, they have been found on the Internet in other documents not written by or about Lu Xun. As the work progresses, the algorithmic reader sends these phrases to search engines, showing how they can be read now, in real time. This networked re-reading, augmented with targeted advertising, images, and even censorship, exists within an algorithmic framework still little-examined in terms of its effects on reading, and, indeed, its control of free inquiry itself.



The Real Story of Ah-Q (2014, Howe & Cayley), a site view @ WMC_e5, Connecting Space-HK (2014.10)
The True Story of Ah-Q (2014, Howe & Cayley), Connecting Space-HK (2014.10)

This installation is driven by the artists’ Read for Us (為我們看書) engine, in which an autonomous reader moves through the words of the chosen text, phrase by phrase, and then sends these phrases to a search engine, allowing the search engine to provide viewers with its own reading of the phrases (and also encountering occasional problems of access). A physical book, closed to us, is placed on the lectern nearby. The active digital reader is open to us in a new if now familiar way, within a culture of search and inquiry that is pervasive although still little-examined.

The Perceptual Reading Interface
real-time screen-writing
Real-time screen-writing

We call the application visible on the large screen a Perceptual Reading Interface. The name derives from the area of attention within our visual field that shifts as we read a text on an inscribed surface. Studies have shown that we see only 30-40 characters distance around the central point of our focus. This interface presents a text in constant motion that preserves the phrase being read at the center of this focal area. Crucially, however, the interface provides its readers with access to a typographic neighborhood, a concept we believe to be central to traditional reading experiences and distorted by Internet services and mobile devices. We show the text in movement, but we also show an approximation of the words that would have surrounded our focus of attention had we been reading these words on a typeset page. This exploration of typographic neighborhood is crucial to The Readers Project, of which Read for Us and The True Story of Ah-Q are instances.

What the Perceptual Reading Interface reads
Lu Xun’s The True Story of Ah-Q

The Perceptual Reading Interface moves our attention steadily through an English version of Lu Xun’s story. It reads up to nine words at a time, but chooses these phrases more carefully than may be apparent at first glance. At any given time, it only reads sequences of words that can be found in the indexes of Google Books not associated with Lu Xun (as far as our robots call determine). The reader first checks that other writers have also used each sequence of words in order to compose their own books and articles. As short sequences, therefore, these words are not unique to any particular person. They have also been composed by others and, in a sense, might have been written by anyone. Highlighted as they are, they form part of a commons of language that is (or was) more or less democratically maintained.

Reading with Google and other Censors
collage of Chinese text of The True Story of Ah-Q
Algorithmic collage from The True Story of Ah-Q

The installation demonstrates contemporary modes of reading, contrasting these modes with those of the past and with traditions of ‘deep’ as opposed to ‘hyper’ attention. Network services and censors read, for us, this still important work of Chinese cultural and political critique. What happens when the phrases themselves, regardless of their associations with any particular writer are flagged as contentious by the indexed network services through which all of us now read?

About Daniel C. HOWE and John CAYLEY

Daniel C. Howe 
Daniel C. Howe 

Daniel C. Howe (http://rednoise.org/daniel) is an artist and critical technologist, whose work focuses on networked systems for image, sound and text, and on the social and political implications of computational technologies.

Daniel C. Howe (http://rednoise.org/daniel) 為電算科學博士及文學藝術碩士,是藝術家、作家、科技評論的批判學者。主要創作探索藉由網絡系統產生的圖樣、聲音及文字,及電腦科技的社會及政治涵義。

John Cayley
John Cayley

John Cayley (http://programmatology.shadoof.net)       writes digital media, particularly in the domain of  poetry and poetics. Recent and ongoing projects include imposition with Giles Perring, riverIsland, and The True Story of Ah-Q  in the WMC_e5 exhibition. Cayley is Professor of Literary Arts at Brown University.

John Cayley (http://programmatology.shadoof.net) 現為美國布朗大學文學教授,編寫數碼媒體,特別是有關詩學的範疇。近期正致力於與Giles Perring合作的項目「imposition」,還有「riverIsland」及在文字機器創作集第五輯展出的《阿Q正傳》。


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