Clemens J. Setz
Write, Robot, Write!
An interview request to the author, and the idea for this book was born. When Austrian writer Clemens J. Setz can’t think of any answers, he programs a Clemens Setz Bot based on his digital diary. Derived from the word “robot”, a bot is a computer program that executes tasks without human interaction.
By Regine Hader
In his interview volume Bot, Setz experiments with how intellectual conversations can now take place without a human counterpart and presents research at the artistic limits of artificial intelligence.
Small talk or poetry?At no point do the short, fragmentary passages that make up the book lapse into shallow effusions. In describing the scaffolding on the towers of the Cologne Cathedral as its headset, for example, the author casts a keen and ironic eye on the world. Through his imaginative attempts at explanations, he once again reveals the absurdity of the world around us. Publisher Suhrkamp could have easily sold Setz’ notes as the travel diary of a charming space tourist stranded in Graz or Berlin. Like a literary ethnologist, he analyses the scenes and secondary arenas of everyday life. The precision of his descriptions and his search for causalities are reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s memories of his childhood around 1900. For example, as Setz turns a crank in passing, it becomes a remnant of a projector that shows long-forgotten black and white movies.
Whose voice is it?From arts programme 3Sat-Kulturzeit to the feuilletons, critics are praising the author’s innovative method. Setz has indeed accomplished a remarkable piece of literature. Perhaps even remarkable enough not to require marketing based on the perennial question “Can computers make art?“. After all, in quite traditional fashion, the texts stem from the author himself – the alpha offline version, if you will.
The bot’s artistic work therefore simply lies in combining the interview questions with excerpts from the author’s journals. As if slightly cross-eyed, question and answer only gently brush or even miss each other entirely. But isn’t this “innovative method” suspiciously reminiscent of the cut-up technique of the Beat Generation? In the 1960s and 1970s, they cut up and rearranged their own texts as well as those of others, producing very similar disruptions, new connections and moments of irritation. Max Frisch, James Joyce and David Bowie have previously tried to provoke chance with such methods. Cast against the background of beat literature, maybe bot literature isn’t quite as innovative as originally thought.
Comprehension and incomprehension in the digital ageSo what purpose does this updated cut-up technique serve for our usually inventive author? In an interview about his book Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre (The Hour between Woman and Guitar, 2015), Setz points out that in e-mails and chats, we constantly combine sentences that make sense if taken by themselves. Strung together, however, they frequently don’t. He calls them “non sequiturs” – phrases that follow one another without their content being in quite the right order. They have evolved from a niche phenomenon in whispered intimate moments to the rule in digital communication. So while Setz may not be using a completely new method, he employs it to illustrate a highly topical linguistic conflict aesthetically.
This book is as refreshing as it is unique. Clemens Setz’ method may be less innovative than assumed, but it deals with the new formats and conventions of conversation without theoretical ado or any sign of descending into a doomsday mood.
(Bot: Conversation without the author)
Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2018. 166 pages.
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