By Alex Hersler; Directed by Richard C. Aven
Produced by Chaos Theatre
Part of the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 8.24.16
VENUE #4: Abrazo Interno at the Clemente, 107 Suffolk Street
by Sarah Palay on 8.14.16
Terrence Montgomery and Sean Shannon in Algorithmism. Photo by Kent Meister.
BOTTOM LINE: Algorithmism is a smart show that explores the ramifications of technology in artistic spheres.
As computer programs readily displace humans in the workforce, it is seldom the artist who expresses fear of obsolescence. But Algorithmism illuminates that creative professionals are not impervious to usurpation by machine.
Tom (Terrence Montgomery) and Paul (Sean Shannon) are business partners, and their relationship is deteriorating. Tom is a gallery owner, a businessman; Paul is a painter, a creative. While Paul was once a lucrative artist, he has begun to falter, which in turn has affected his relationship with gallery owner Tom. Paul cares deeply about his art and needs space and time to hone his craft. But Tom does not have the patience for Paul’s request—in a world where time is money, Tom needs paintings. The pieces must be good and consistent and, most important, they must sell.
Enter Tom’s brazen solution: Artificial Creative Intelligence (ACI), a machine that produces stunning paintings at an absurdly efficient rate. It’s going harderbetterfasterstronger than its human counterparts, and it’s not looking good for our artist friend, Paul. Tom, on the other hand, is practically peeing himself with excitement over this newfound innovation. Once this human-human-nonhuman triangulation emerges, various permutations of artistic relationships unfold. Alliances form and break, for all’s fair in love and war...and art.
Algorithmism is adeptly taken on by Montgomery and Shannon under Richard C. Aven’s directorial leadership. Along with lighting designer Christina Verde and sound engineer Drew Nungesser, Aven creates an ambiance caught between the warm human world and the steely realm of computers. The scenes between Tom and Paul are illuminated under a warm glow of light, while the set—a simple silver table and silver chairs—introduces an industrial chilliness. I am particularly struck by Aven’s careful attention to the scene interludes: blue LED lights cast an icy shadow as the shift music transports us to the liminal space between what is natural and what is manufactured.
As algorithms continue to dominate our modern world, this nuanced piece asks us to consider whether computer programs have merit as creatives. What is lost by outsourcing this quintessential human feature to machines? By presenting a dichotomy between machine consistency and human inconsistency, Algorithmism suggests that computational creativity is an oxymoron: if an algorithm is a set of rules, can there be such a thing as a creative computer? Once the algorithm runs (free from human intervention) there is no room for imagination or originality; there are no mistakes, risks, or imperfections; nothing is left to chance. Certainly, an appealing offer to an investor, such as Tom. But is artistry not at its most poetic when infused with error and imperfection?
Algorithmism introduces wonderful queries and is full of evocative ideas, but at times, I felt as though some complexities were under-explored. A lot is packed into a short amount of time: in just over eighty minutes, much transpires, loyalties change quickly, and the play ends somewhat abruptly. The piece might benefit from a bit more time to expand, but it is, nonetheless, tremendously compelling.
Hersler’s play is intelligent, witty, and explores pressing questions that linger unspoken in our present Age of Artificial Intelligence. It's a piece that resonates eerily well as part of a theater art festival, as if to press us: what’s next, robot actors?
(Algorithmism plays at VENUE #4: Abrazo Interno at the Clemente, 107 Suffolk Street, through August 24, 2016. The running time is 1 hour 20 minutes. Performances are Fri 8/12 at 9:15; Sun 8/14 at 4; Wed 8/17 at 5:15; Sun 8/21 at 8:30; and Wed 8/24 at 3. There is no late seating at FringeNYC. Tickets are $18 and are available at fringenyc.org. For more information visit algorithmism.com.)
Algorithmism is by Alex Hersler. Directed by Richard C. Aven. Stage manager is Gonçalo Ruivo. Lighting design is by Christina Verde. Sound design is by Drew Nungesser. Costume design is by Susanne Houstle. Associate Producer is Jae Kramisen.
The cast is Sean Shannon and Terrence Montgomery.