Golan Levin: Good evening. And wel­come back to the pre­sen­ta­tions of Shall Make, Shall Be. This is our final evening, but the first of five pre­sen­ta­tions this evening. And our first pre­sen­ter tonight is Peter Bradley, whose project con­sid­ered the Sixth Amendment. 

Peter Bradley is a con­cep­tu­al artist whose recent work is about com­put­ers and meta­physics. Applied first to music and the con­cept of keys, and now to lan­guage and the notion of seman­tic sim­i­lar­i­ty, his prac­tice aims to test the lim­its of com­pu­ta­tion, to cap­ture the mean­ing of an idea as its being is reduced to quan­ti­ty. Peter lives in New York City and tours as a mem­ber of Japanese Breakfast. Peter Bradley. 

Peter Bradley: Hi Golan. Thank you for that intro­duc­tion. Hello everyone. 

As you men­tioned, my day job is not real­ly as com­put­er sci­en­tist or a game design­er per se, or even as an artist real­ly. I’m a gui­tarist in a band. And my back­ground from a uni­ver­si­ty per­spec­tive is real­ly in the human­i­ties. I stud­ied French and com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture, and I stud­ied phi­los­o­phy and aes­thet­ics. However, I got inter­est­ed in this line of work and in game design a few years ago when I had an idea for a board game which was about music. And specif­i­cal­ly the con­cept of a key in music. I read a real­ly fan­tas­tic nov­el by [Tomas Ma?] that told the sto­ry of a fic­tion­al com­pos­er in the 20th cen­tu­ry. And it inspired me to cre­ate this game which I call Leverkuhn. I’m gonna show a trailer. 

[nar­rat­ing from 1:49]

So in that game you select a home key here. And you’re pit­ted against a com­put­er oppo­nent who is play­ing for its own key as you go back and forth, trad­ing chords, cre­at­ing a song.

At the end of the game, you end up with this kind of mini rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the lit­tle song you put togeth­er. Then you take that down­load and cre­ate some­thing [inaudi­ble].

[nar­ra­tion ends at 3:10]

The thing that real­ly inter­est­ed me in work on Leverkuhn was this idea of a game as an essay. Like, a game that some­how takes a posi­tion or a theme. Like in this case, the code actu­al­ly embod­ies some ideas that I came to have about the con­cept of the key, how it func­tions in music, what the lim­its of one key are into another. 

When I fin­ished that work, I became inter­est­ed in a sub­set of com­put­er sci­ence called nat­ur­al lan­guage pro­cess­ing. And I knew that the next project I want­ed to work on would deal some­how with lan­guage. Within that space there’s an idea called a word vec­tor, which is an impor­tant con­cept in the idea of how we rep­re­sent words com­pu­ta­tion­al­ly, how they might be reduced to num­ber in one fash­ion or anoth­er so that the com­put­er can work with them if you’re doing some kind of like AI research on human lan­guage. It’s used in all sorts of dif­fer­ent approaches. 

And as I was read­ing up on this con­cept of word vec­tors, I start­ed to think about how we might rep­re­sent lan­guage in space. And that became sort of…just the inkling of an idea for my next project. There’s a lin­guist called Saussure who is an impor­tant 20th cen­tu­ry thinker who cre­at­ed this idea of dif­fer­en­tial net of mean­ing. Which means that a word sig­ni­fies in such a fash­ion as it’s relat­ed to all the oth­er words around it. 

Take a word like cat,” for instance. It’s anchored in lan­guage along cat­e­gories of sim­i­lar­i­ty and dif­fer­ence. And cat­e­gories above it and items, or the cat­e­go­ry of types of cats” under­neath it. To kind of sim­pli­fy the whole idea. So you know, a cat is a pet. In our cul­ture a cat is the oppo­site of a dog. You bring to cer­tain words your own psy­cho­log­i­cal for­ma­tion and per­son­al his­to­ry that also con­tributes to that meet­ing. So for me cat” is con­nect­ed to this Baudelaire poem that I stud­ied in col­lege that I real­ly love and it has all these asso­ci­a­tions about like 19th cen­tu­ry Paris or some­thing like that. 

And I want­ed to sort of just dis­till this idea of a seman­tic net—that is the way that one word is ingrained with and meshed with all of the oth­ers in the way that it acquires meaning—and present it in a spa­tial fash­ion that peo­ple could just traverse. 

That’s about the time that I became aware of the Shall Make, Shall Be pro­pos­al. And I took a look at the amend­ments and I guess the First Amendment was in some ways a kind of nat­ur­al com­pan­ion to this idea of lan­guage and what I want­ed to do. But, at the same time I was real­ly cap­ti­vat­ed by an old philo­soph­i­cal metaphor, which is the prison-house of lan­guage. It’s some­thing that Nietzsche said and Jacobson took up. The idea being that when you’re enmeshed in lan­guage in the fash­ion I’m talk­ing about, you can’t escape it. It’s just this sort of like Kafkaesque house of sig­ni­fiers that are con­stant­ly relat­ing to one anoth­er. And I thought that there was some­thing just real­ly poet­ic and inter­est­ing about that that could serve as the fun­da­men­tal theme of the game.

So, I hit on the Sixth Amendment, which deals with the rights of the accused in crim­i­nal pro­ceed­ings. And set about work try­ing to get to the back end of what would be an enor­mous dic­tio­nary, more or less, that would serve as a way to nav­i­gate this lin­guis­tic space.

This is just a Python library that I wrote to begin this process. And you can see here this idea of seman­tics sets. So that’s what I was try­ing to explain per­haps a lit­tle bit poor­ly ear­li­er. If we have a giv­en word, there’s an axis of sim­i­lar­i­ty, and an axis of cat­e­go­ry. Which I took to be like the fun­da­men­tal orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple to get towards the meaning. 

Once that back­end was built out, I could do some­thing like this, which is just kind of a shell rep­re­sen­ta­tion of what hap­pens in the actu­al game. Given a word like abuse,” I’ve gone and mined from a zil­lion dif­fer­ent sources all of these closely-related words. Either on that cat­e­go­ry axis or on the simil­i­tude axis. And you can just see how they’re kind of relat­ing together. 

And then, I got this game engine called Godot. It’s like an open source ver­sion of Unity. This is just an exam­ple of all the zil­lions of lines of code that are nec­es­sary to cre­ate a video game. And it’s a great tool, though. You can sort of have your world, and it keeps all of your resources nice and well-organized for you as you’re build­ing out your idea. 

Now we’ll tran­si­tion into some actu­al game footage. This is the intro­duc­tion. The con­ceit is that you’re a ball of ink on the nation­al mall and you’re try­ing to get to the Supreme Courthouse in order to sort of argue your case. 

But as the game says, you move seman­ti­cal­ly. It’s kind of a hard con­cept to explain quite quick­ly. So we get into this tuto­r­i­al which I hope makes it nice and clear to players. 

In real life the game is one long sequence, but I had to chop it up just for the sake of screen­caps. So, a syn­onym is gonna move you to the right, and an antonym will move you to the left. Jumping or mov­ing for­ward, which in a hard­core lin­guis­tic sense is called a hyper­nym, is accom­plished by sort of sup­ply­ing a cat­e­go­ry. So in that sense size” is a cat­e­go­ry that con­tains small.” Or the oppo­site, length” is con­tained in the cat­e­go­ry of size.”

You can also change parts of speech in place, or sub­mit words that’re con­tained in oth­er words or that con­tain words in them. And then the gav­el is a key con­cept here, as it sort of bridges the gap between the amend­ment and this more free play of just lan­guage. They occur through­out the dif­fer­ent lev­els, and they come back to the key con­cepts of the Sixth Amendment, or what I’ve iden­ti­fied as the most impor­tant words that con­tribute to its mean­ing, one of which is coun­sel.” And then, just like in quite a lot of video games like this there’s a time ele­ment and a life element. 

Once you move your way through this lit­tle tuto­r­i­al and the lily pads, you get into sort of a time tri­al com­po­nent which I think is real­ly fun. You’re up against the clock here, and you’re try­ing to avoid these obsta­cles by sup­ply­ing new words to that head­word on the screen, which I call the seed word. A crea­ture is an organ­ism, type there­of. We get anoth­er gav­el so we get into this world of counsel/attorney, what that real­ly means. 

The next seg­ment is the stairs. Once I kin­da had this con­cept we’re just run­ning with dif­fer­ent iter­a­tions of how we can put those lin­guis­tic moves togeth­er. So where­as the time tri­al is kind of more about the simil­i­tude axis—supplying syn­onyms or antonyms as you try to under­stand the word on the screen—this one is very much about the cat­e­gor­i­cal axis and what you think about the con­tain­ing cat­e­gories that some­thing like jus­tice” or rec­om­pense” might fit into. 

There’s anoth­er lit­tle room in here. This one is kin­da like a tile game with an over­head look, and you’re attempt­ing to avoid black tiles as you make your way through the room. 

And then this is the final lev­el, or seg­ment if you want, in which you final­ly make it into the Supreme Court. Still kind of work­ing on the archi­tec­ture. I think it sort of looks like a cheap megachurch at the moment. It’ll get there. That’s ink.

And then this last game, the idea is that you move from one word to another—so here from snow” to friend” in nine moves or less. I think I’ll prob­a­bly relate these clos­er to those key terms that I was talk­ing about in the amend­ment before: speedy, pub­lic, nature, cause, wit­ness. Although I am quite inter­est­ed in just these sort of unas­sum­ing but very full, sim­ple words and how you might be able to move from one to another. 

So that’s the game where it stands. Development is real­ly close to being fin­ished. I think that in a lot of ways it enacts legal his­to­ry. Just like, if you are tuned into Supreme Court oral argu­ments or Supreme Court papers at all, they spent a ton of time try­ing to fig­ure out what is the mean­ing of a term. Like I was lis­ten­ing to a case from this term about trans­porta­tion work­ers. And the whole three hours of oral argu­ment were devot­ed to the idea of like what is a steve­dore, which is a per­son who moves car­go to and from ships. And whether or not steve­dore” could be con­tained in the cat­e­go­ry of trans­porta­tion work­er. And sim­i­lar­ly I think that the case his­to­ry of the Sixth Amendment is like what I was say­ing about these key terms. Like what counts as speedy. How do we under­stand that word?

So my hope is that ingrain­ing peo­ple in this sort of seman­tic nexus as they try to asso­ciate their way around a word like speedy” or pub­lic” or nature” ulti­mate­ly brings them clos­er to the mean­ing of those terms and kind of enacts that lawyer­ly or jurispru­den­tial type of seman­tics. Thank you.