“Tokyo Garage” by Scott Rettberg

Screen capture from "Tokyo Garage" by Scott Rettberg. Black background with various lines of yellow text, one line in green and two in pink. Text: "Monk subdues the pachinko parlor. / Chauffeurs proselytize the cigarette. / eliminate the lithe curvy techno cruel-- / Dragons assault the kids. / Funds drop. / Movie stars evacuate. / Driver adores the cigarette. / concatenate the drunken oversexed-- / Surveillance cameras grok the villians. / Processors pay. / Rock star arrests the spiritual seekers. / forgive the electric scantily clad metallic--" To the upper left "Tokyo Garage / Nick Monfort / Scott Rettenberg."
Open “Tokyo Garage” by Scott Rettberg

As the story goes, when Nick Montfort published “Taroko Gorge” in his website in early 2009, his longtime friend and creative collaborator Scott Rettberg decided he would take the structure of the work and invert it, so he changed the dataset for the variables, modified the formatting of the page, crossed out Nick Montfort’s name, inserting his own above it, and published the remix in his own website. (For a complete, detailed, and quite humorous account, read the second page of the attachment in this page). He published this statement in the source code:

This here is a total remix of the classic and elegant generated nature poem Taroko Gorge by Nick Montfort. He wrote the code here. I hacked the words to make it more about urbanity, modernity, and my idea of Tokyo, a city I have never been to. Remixed March 18, 2009 by Scott Rettberg.

A close inspection of Tokyo Garage and its source code reveals a much more extensive dataset for each variable, which producing greater variation in the generated poem. Of course there are many more variables in a city like Tokyo than one might notice while walking through Taroko Gorge. The question is whether the increased complexity of an urban environment, represented through a poetry generator designed with a simplified and organized natural system in mind, can produce compelling output.

It can and does. Montfort’s poem is meditative and animistic, personifying the rocks and crags, as they contemplate themselves and each other in a geological time frame. Rettberg’s remix is full of surprises and humor, as it comes up with absurd and sometimes violent situations. For instance, in the third stanza of the screen captured image above, we see simple subject-object relations (“Dragons assault the kids”) escalate to affect the entertainment industry, with financial (“Funds drop”) and/or eschatological consequences (“ Movie stars evacuate”). Rettberg’s poem generates a complex media ecosystem, in which a small creative act in a garage in Tokyo can have a global impact. The storage function of a garage filled with memorabilia allows for the world to be represented within and the capacity for endless play with all these wonderful toys echo the code and its execution.

It is remarkable that such a simple construct can be successfully repurposed to create such distinct works, which is why J.R. Carpenter and many others (myself included) walked through the door that Scott opened and started to refurbish the place.

Over the next few weeks, this blog will be exploring the Taroko Gorge remixes, one per day, seeing how they extend the code’s capacity for meaningful poetry generation.

ELMCIP logo with text: “Read more about this work at ELMCIP.”