Ross Sutherland – Every Rendition on a Broken Machine


Originally written for Exeunt.

Man shapes creation in his own image; creation is unruly, rebels, behaves in ways not calibrated by man; man and creation become enemies, locked in a struggle that can only be terminated by death. It’s the stuff of cultural myth, a mutation of Genesis that persists in fiction from Frankenstein through to The Matrix. We are perpetually sowing the arrogant seeds of our own destruction.

In a hyper-connected world, the modern receptacle for such anxieties is, unsurprisingly, the machine. It is these anxieties that poet Ross Sutherland has channelled in his own confrontation with the uncanny capabilities of artificial intelligence, an intelligence with the amassed knowledge of the world at its disposal. Our one comfort in our encounters with these omniscient bundles of wire and code is the certainty that, for all their factual knowledge, they lack the emotional sensitivities that distinguish humanity. But if a computer is capable of writing poetry, the enshrined output of the soul – Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions” – then where does that leave the human spirit?

Sutherland has been collaborating with a machine throughout his career as a poet, from his gleeful seventeen-year-old attempt to mutate Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’, to digitally tinkered versions of Yeats and Plath. Filtered through various different languages via the mediator of a digital translator, his resulting poems are the distorted offspring of their iconic parents, barely recognisable riffs on famous lines. It is this process that he explores in his film Every Rendition on a Broken Machine, an exploration of man’s animosity with the machine, the developments of digital translation, and the possibility that a computer might just be a better poet than a human being.

Presenting this documentary accompanied by his own live commentary – a wry nod to the conventions of the DVD – Sutherland adds another knowing dimension to this stand-off between computer and human. Standing next to a screen, it is Sutherland versus the computer multiplied by two. The film also acknowledges throughout the role of the computer in its own creation, tacking together YouTube clips and webcam recordings. As Sutherland states, it as though human and machine have become somehow enmeshed in modern society, the former often indistinguishable from its reliance on the latter.

Through his technique of distorting and remoulding poetry via a process of translation and retranslation, Sutherland speculates that poems might just be “computer programmes of a different order”; what he is embarking upon is a project of transforming technological glitches into something beautiful. There is also something gloriously honest about this process, which lays bare the inescapable fact that writers are always engaged in some level of plagiarism. Preceded by a vast literary history that has seeped, conscious or not, into our cultural identity, writing must necessarily involve quotation and acquisition. This is once again reflected in the form of Sutherland’s film, which borrows from sources as eclectic as J.G. Ballard and Clarissa Explains it All.

Behind everything Sutherland is doing is a series of ingrained cultural assumptions about the nature of poetry. As rigid as the patterns of rhyme and rhythm may be and as meticulously calculated as the craft of poetry often is, there persists a notion, perpetuated by Romanticism’s shrine to the imagination, that this is an art form that somehow offers a window onto the human soul. Perhaps at the root of our natural repulsion to the sort of collaboration Sutherland is proposing is not a fear for the computer’s destruction of the poetic muse, but a fear that the creative potential of the machine will reveal that this worshipped muse never really existed.

Yet there is something inherently creative about Sutherland’s strange craft. While the original words may be those of another poet and it is the computer that is doing the translating, this process is ultimately shaped by Sutherland’s hand; acting as a sort of sculptor, these elements are his materials and tools respectively. As artificial intelligence is sold to us in ever more “organic”, sexy packages, the threat of the machine garbed attractively in smooth lines and pseudo-friendly marketing speak – even given a human voice – that line between us and our gadgets becomes increasingly blurred. But beneath the screens and the apps and the iPoetry, the initial creative catalyst is always wonderfully, fallibly human.