December 15, 2023

Digital Duality: The Analog and Virtual Realms of Sasha Stiles

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Sasha Stiles is a first-generation Kalmyk-American poet, language artist, and AI researcher, exploring the intersection of text and technology, and is known for her pioneering experiments with generative literature and blockchain poetics. In late 2021, Stiles released her debut book, Technelegy, co-authored by a custom AI-powered text generator; the book probes how technology has made us more and more human over time, and explores both the exhilaration and danger of our intimate relationship with the digital. Praised by Ray Kurzweil, among others, Technelegy serves as a touchstone for Stiles' ongoing investigations of the posthuman. A co-founder of theVERSEverse, a web3 gallery and writers' collective, Stiles showcases her multidimensional, transdisciplinary pieces in physical and virtual exhibitions worldwide. Her vision for the future of poetry goes beyond the literary and artistic to encompass the role that linguistic innovations have always played in the development of human consciousness, and the augmentation of human imagination.

We caught up with Sasha on the eve of her exclusive Refraction drop, when her piece Cursive Binary: cloud vellum indelible (2022) will be airdropped to Refract Pass holders.

Let’s start with how you came to the blockchain as an artist, we would love to hear how the tech enabled new possibilities for your practice and for poetry in general.

I'm a lifelong writer, and I've published widely in print journals and traditional outlets. When I look back at some of my earliest teenage poems, which to be honest are pretty awful, a lot of them have to do with speculative futures and my musings on the books I was reading at that time by writers like Aldous Huxley and H.G. Wells and Octavia Butler and Ursula K. LeGuin; later, when I was in college, I started to think more and more about my relationship to the technologies I was using to write my poems and essays on technology, and things began to get a bit meta. I have always loved text-based art and concrete poetry and video art, and I embarked on poems that incorporated new media, poems that I loved making but didn't know how to submit or publish to print journals. After sharing these works on social media for a while, I started receiving invitations from curators to exhibit them in digital and virtual art showcases, and in 2020, Jess Conatser invited me and my AI alter ego to write a poetic manifesto for a major show in the metaverse. That was an eye-opener for me, and led me to regard blockchain as a kind of next-gen printing press perfectly suited for my poems, which don't always sit still in time and space or lie flat on the page.

Your work is described as a fusion of text and technology. How did you first become interested in exploring the intersection of poetry and artificial intelligence, and what drives your creative process in this field?

I've always been a sci fi nerd and have done a lot of reading and research on virtual humanity, digital immortality and posthumanism, and AI entered my consciousness through those curiosities. At some point in 2015, 2016, I began clocking mentions of natural language processing and generative text written by AI systems, and it immediately woke up something in my brain. I was very intimidated at first because my background is literature, not computer science, but I understood pretty quickly that poetry and code are two sides of the same coin, and that epiphany has driven much of my work ever since.

Sasha Stiles, Cursive Binary : Fragment 3, 2021

As a pioneer in generative literature and language art, how do you approach the challenge of balancing the algorithmic aspects of your work with the emotional and human elements of poetry?

In a way it comes naturally because I'm a flesh-and-blood human engaging with machinic processes, and the work I do is about the process of grappling with my own digital duality, the state of living in both analog and virtual realms at the same time. I also believe it helps that my writing is rooted in an appreciation of classic literature, ancient poetry and poets like Enheduanna and Sappho and Catullus, who I studied in grade school. I try to regard our current technological advances within the broader spectrum of all the ways that inventions and innovations have made us human over time, and also encountered resistance in their own moment.

How do you approach the ethical considerations of using algorithms in your art? Are there boundaries or limitations you consciously set to maintain a balance between human expression and computational influence?

I've had years of practice and craft as a human poet, and I think my human voice and vernacular and style has been pretty hard-earned - and above all, I genuinely love the process of writing, it brings me immense pleasure even when it's difficult and especially when it's flowing. I've spoken to poets in recent years who think using AI to write is plagiarism or cheating or lazy, but that's simply not at all true for the way I use it - as a collaborator, as a medium, as an augmentation of my own imagination. There really is no conscious boundary or limit for me, because I'm fully open to experimentation across the range of possibilities, and because as an artist I'm always following my nose and doing what feels right.

Can you tell us more about the specific work you’ve donated for the Refract Pass? Would love to hear about the genesis of the piece and how it fits into your overall body of work.

This piece from 2022 is from a series of transhuman translations, transposing bits of poetry into Cursive Binary, a language I invented as a kind of fusion of human and machine tongues. I'm very interested in how various writing techniques, from cursive to typewriting to word processing and so on, affect modes of cognition and the way language emerges from the brain and moves into the world, and this piece is very much about that. It's also an example of my attempts to challenge perfunctory binaries, in that here the human language is rendered in computer font, and the machinic code is handwritten, hand-drawn.

Sasha Stiles, Analog Binary Code: plant intelligence, 2020

For those unfamiliar, how did theVERSEverse come to be and what do you see as its role in the larger web3 creative ecosystem?

There was a very small, fledgling group of writers on Tezos in early 2021, and we sort of gravitated toward one another. Kalen Iwamoto – one of the co-founders of theVV – started an official CryptoWriters community, and that was a pivotal milestone; I remember many threads and DM conversations with Kalen, Aurece Vettier, James Yu (co-founder of Sudowrite) and others about the need for a dedicated poetry hub, a place in web3 for avant-garde literary experiments and strength in numbers, and we were making plans to launch a next-gen zine of sorts. Then a bunch of us were invited to be part of artchick’s ETHERPOEMS Volume 2: Spoken Word, an on-chain project where we met fellow participant Ana Maria Caballero, who had entered the space wanting to make a home for poetry. I had been exhibiting my poetry as art, in art spaces for some time, and knew many other poets outside of web3 who were working in this transdisciplinary mode as well, with conceptual or computational or visual practices, and it was clear we were all on a similar mission, to leverage technology and the art world to explore new poetic possibilities. I messaged Ana, we all put heads together, and now here we are. I'm very fortunate and grateful that many friends from the pre-VV days came in full force to support our launch and really helped us get off to an exciting start, and have continued to cheer us on despite the challenges. We are all very passionate about advocating for web3 as a game-changing innovation for writers, in that it enables us to imbue text with the rarity and value of artwork, and frees us from a lot of the dictates and desires of the literary establishment.

How important are creative communities like theVERSEverse and Refraction to the future of web3 and adoption of new creative tech as a whole?

These creative communities are artistic movements or maybe even decentralized artist residencies, enabling information and influence and ideas to flow in real time, which is vital for any fledgling or avant-garde experimentation to find its footing and voice.

Finally, what is next for you, what projects can people look forward to in the near future and beyond?

For 2024, I am focused in particular on a few major projects that I've been wanting to do for a long time, both evolving the possibilities for multimedia language and literature and immersive, sensorial experiences of poetry that bring visual poetry and spoken word into unexpected venues, and also continuing to build bridges between the poets of antiquity and the poets of tomorrow via hybrid literary artifacts that seek to preserve or archive themselves in multiple ways.

To receive Sasha Stiles' Cursive Binary: cloud vellum indelible (2022) as well as other exclusive work by Refraction founding artists, you must hold a Refract Pass. Passes can be minted here.

To learn more about further Refract Pass perks,
visit this page.

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