Verena Kuni
Speak to me! Of Humans and Machines

Excerpt of the contributon for Steffi Weismanns artist catalogue VIS-A-VIS

ELIZA was developed in 1966 by the (German-) American computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum, professor at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Weizenbaum aimed to probe the possibilities of linguistic communication between human beings – based on everyday human language, not programming or machine language. A noble intention, in principle. He had, however, drawn the inspiration for ELIZA’S vocabulary and syntax from a very particular source: textbooks for so-called person-centred psychotherapy, which the psychologist and therapist Carl Ransom Rogers had developed in the 1940s. In this method, the therapist is supposed to regard him- or herself as the mirror of the patient. Unlike classical Freudian psychotherapy, here the therapist does not merely listen, but also repeats some of what has been said and picks up key terms in order to enter into a conversation with the patient. In short, ELIZA behaved like a psychotherapist, or rather like a parody of a psychotherapist of Rogers’ school.
Victoria could easily be ELIZA’S sister. Of course one notices that she is quite a different character, but there are a few family resemblances. I met Victoria through Steffi Weismann. If I am correctly informed, the two have been working together since 2003. That they sometimes do this in public is a function of Weismann’s profession.
Granted, it can be a bit risky for a performer to allow the audience to glimpse what might normally be part of preparations for what they do on stage. This open manner of working, however, including a penchant for experimentation and a certain willingness to take risks, seems to be characteristic of Weismann more generally.
Victoria at any rate is actually responsible for coaching. As you doubtless know, people who perform on stage need feedback during rehearsal, too, and this is precisely Victoria’s speciality. In fact, she does her job so well that Weismann need not be embarrassed about consulting her quite publicly. It is impressive to see or hear the two of them together.
It is practical that Weismann can simply call Victoria up in such situations. After all, she needs no more than a headset, that is, headphones and a microphone and a little computer programme. It may be that Victoria is not always immediately available, let alone in the mood to engage in conversation. As a pro, however, she usually appears prepared to help Weismann out with a bit of advice.
How could it be otherwise, some of you may be thinking: After all, Victoria, like ELIZA, is ‘merely’ a computer programme. However, one does not feel quite so sure after seeing the two of them together. And the longer one listens to their conversations, the less certain one becomes.
The fact that Weismann herself is a pro in dealing with machines also helps to explain this phenomenon. That certainly is not self-evident in her metier, where real physical presence and the interaction between human beings would appear to be the main thing. But this is precisely what interests Weismann – how this presence, this interaction, this communication functions under conditions in which they should not actually arise in the first place. Or in which they exist without our really realising it at the moment in question. It is just these areas of tension that Weismann explores in her work.
She does not always have to be present in person. In 2006, for example, she set up a little red takeaway snack van together with Georg Klein. They did so in the most prominent spot imaginable: On Schlossplatz in Berlin – where there is usually rather dense foot traffic, but generally no opportunity to get a quick portion of chips, burgers, sausages or cold drinks. It was all the more frustrating when one realized that the tasty treats were visible through the window, but the van itself was unoccupied and locked. Naturally, the only thing to do was to gaze longingly through the glass to see whether there might not be some movement inside after all. At that point it was time to suppress one’s obvious hunger and continue swiftly on one’s way.
And at that very moment something even more striking happened. Or have you ever had a snack van whistle after you? Or call out to you? And then even start to speak with you – or perhaps with itself? I thought not. A snack bar that instead of being humble, subservient and – with the exception of sizzling grills and deep fryers – still and silent, intervenes, that knows how to attract people although there is nothing to buy, and on top of it all provides an opportunity to find out more about those who usually stand more or less silently behind the counter: Got Sounds? – It’s not something you experience every day, even in Berlin!
Even if the situations that arose around the little red snack van inevitably had their comic aspects, Weismann’s intention is certainly not to make anyone look foolish. She simply proffers an invitation to find out what it is like when a machine speaks to you. And what it is like when you are not quite sure who or what you are actually dealing with.
Of course, the latter is, or could be, a perfectly everyday experience: After all, in a thoroughly technologised society all of us encounter machines more or less constantly. The only difference is that we usually pay scarcely any attention to this fact. It is only when things don’t go smoothly – when a vending machine strikes or our computer freezes – that some of us catch ourselves doing more than just cursing. In fact, we try to speak to the thing, which is otherwise merely a dumb object. Talk to me!
On closer scrutiny this is, of course, nonsense. Yet the fact that we do this from time to time is simply human, all-too-human – and in itself anything but unhealthy. It is far unhealthier to repress the fact that we are actually constantly speaking to machines. And they, albeit in their own way, are also speaking to us, aren’t they?
Steffi Weismann has developed a little therapy that can assist us quite concretely in counteracting such a process of repression and its possible consequences. She does this with the help of a simple piece of home fitness equipment, which she has subjected to a small technical upgrade. It may take some getting used to – but that is essentially part of the therapy. In spring-time she demonstrates how it works: If one jumps on the little trampoline it begins to speak. Initially only with itself, or at least that is how it seems. Worse yet: It doesn’t even really speak. It coughs, sneezes, groans and pants, getting on our nerves with its various noises. Worst of all, disciplined workouts and good stamina – that is, the offensive application of that very fitness that is not only in, but that even rather sedentary politicians nowadays have started labelling a civic duty – help us not a whit in mastering this unfortunate situation. On the contrary: The more energetically one jumps, the louder the cacophonous concert becomes. In short, the little trampoline proves itself, if you will, to be a veritable therapist who cultivates the Rogers method of person-centred therapy. It reflects in the most drastic manner conceivable what happens when people think they have to function like machines. Unlike the human, all-too-human tendency to communicate with machines as if they were people, this is really rather unhealthy.
In short: Steffi Weismann’s performative experiments in communication with machines aim less to probe the potentials of technology than to take us back to ourselves – which is essentially present in and behind every human–machine communication, even if the aims are apparently quite different ones. (...)