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Initiative: Shuffle

In 2008 we approached the New York experimental theater company ERS, statistician Mark Hansen and media artist Ben Rubin about creating a new work when we were just beginning to establish FuturePerfect. Ashley had previously worked with Hansen and Rubin in 1999 while he was the Director of Arts in Multimedia at BAM, and produced their seminal work The Listening Post for the 2001 Next Wave Festival.

Critical to Hansen and Rubin’s work is the database, the dominant storage system of the 21st century, and the practice of data analytics—sorting through large data sets to identify trends, patterns and relationships, and displaying information about everything from chat-room gossip to the outbreak of diseases in the country’s hospitals.

FuturePerfect challenged ERS to devise a theatrical work that would be structured and organized around current research in database aesthetics. What performative possibilities might there be in “staging” data; embodying data. What role could data have in creating new ways of experiencing and making art?

Through a series of workshops, ERS, Rubin and Hansen created Shuffle, a database-generated theatrical work and installation that premiered in 2011 as part of the New York Public Library’s Centennial. Performers read scripts generated in-real-time every 20 minutes by digital algorithms combining phrases from the iconic novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. The rearranged and overlapping texts produced compelling visual displays designed by Rubin and surprising, often absurd, micro-theater featuring many veteran ERS performers. ERS subsequently performed Shuffle at The Prague Quadrennial, The Beat Festival in Brooklyn, and the PEN World Voices Festival in New York.

With Shuffle, FuturePerfect successfully posited creative possibilities for how performance and data analytics might inform one another—a compelling hybrid that opened up new thinking about text, narrative, and mise en scene, and for creating playful dialogues between machines and humans. Shuffle opened up different ways of circulating, and creatively re-using already existing materials—in this case 20th century novels—and made us re-experience them through emerging technologies.