The lights dim, save two spotlights illuminating the main attraction. At the front of the room lies an artificial grassy hill, atop which sit the two white laptops upon which the spotlights are shining. Behind the hill, two dark screens await being lit up, with a television to the side, also waiting. The Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center’s Studio 1 is hushed, eagerly anticipating the start of the performance: Hello Hi There, by Annie Dorsen.
The screens light up, and the performance begins with a short intro by Dorsen, explaining chatterbots, which are programs designed to converse with either humans or other bots; musing on the differences between the chatbots and humans; and giving a bit of information about the 1971 debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault that the performance is based on. Then, the television screen lights up as the introduction to the debate is played for the audience, before the sound cuts out and the chatbots are fired up.
The conversation that ensued was quite interesting and very entertaining to witness. Unfortunately, it seemed as if the chatbots’ programs weren’t perfect, as their responses occasionally were non sequiturs, and they sometimes repeated the same few statements, but for the most part, the conversation was fluid and realistic. Another minor problem that was actually quite amusing was that the chatbots never seemed to remember what they had previously said. This led to, despite the fact that one had a male voice and the other a female voice, both of them claiming to be both genders at different points in the show. They also quoted the debate, but expressed every possible opinion about it, from liking Chomsky to liking Foucault (whose name they always mispronounced) to liking both of them to liking neither of them. Their language also ranged from civil to vulgar; at one point the male-voiced chatbot was extremely insulting to the female-voiced one.
Two parts of the performance vie for my favorite part, just for their sheer hilarity. First was the seemingly random insertion in the female-voiced chatbot’s dialogue of a proposition to view her webcam, complete with promises of women taking their clothes off. The other most hilarious part was when the chatbots sang a song together. Alternating lines, the text-to-speech program read off things like “aiaiaiaiaiaiaiaiaiai” and “oeoeoeoeoaiauaiauoe.” The entire audience was laughing the whole time, and again after the song was over as the chatbots proclaimed their talent.
All in all, Hello Hi There was a great show. I’m very glad I went; I greatly enjoyed it. One of my favorite things about the performance as a whole is that it was (theoretically, at least) unique—there are over 80 million ways the conversation could play out, so any other performance will be different from the one that I witnessed on Saturday night.