Resistance Bots

January 24th, 2017

Everyone has their breaking point. My work has tended towards more abstract modes of expression so it has rarely been overtly political. But it appears that the fact that this dishonest, unqualified, unserious and unworthy dumpster fire of a human being could somehow become our president is apparently beyond my limit to bear in silence. So in the aftermath of this disastrous election, Betsy and I started to think more and more about what kind of changes we should make to our current and future projects.

One of the great things about making art with software that lives on the internet is that it can be updated easily and frequently. In fact, the potential an idea has to evolve over time is a high priority when we’re considering our next project. It’s natural for the changing cultural and political landscape to influence the direction of such a work over time.

The first thing we did after the election was temporarily shut down our Twitter bots. In truth, this wasn’t so much a political statement as self-care. Waking up on November 9th, way too early and way too hungover, with continuing difficulty processing this new reality, I grabbed my phone off the nightstand and looked at my Twitter feed. Watching the satirical movie pitches of Jerry Botheimer (@jerrybotheimer) and the silly photo collages of Kiddie Rides BK (@kiddieridesbk) pass by just felt…wrong. I turned to Betsy and suggested that we shut them down temporarily. She agreed.

We shut them down once again on Inauguration Day. This time the silence was more purely ideological. Many art spaces shut down in protest that day and it felt appropriate to pause our bots in solidarity. We planned to use this downtime to add new content related to the current…situation we’ve found ourselves in. It would have been difficult to focus on any of my other work anyway, so this had a side benefit of distracting me from an obsessive wallow through the news.

Jerry Botheimer and Kiddie Rides each have a different character, but both were meant to be silly and fun, and neither was particularly political before their Inauguration Day updates. Nevertheless, these differences suggested a way of adding a political twist to each, in which they could retain their established character. Both will draw solely from this new political material until the end of January. After that, it will be a mix of the old and the new.

For Jerry Botheimer, the new direction was fairly obvious. Jerry Botheimer produces stereotypical Hollywood-style movie pitches by drawing from a set of formulas into which random actors, directors, genres, pets, etc. can be inserted. Though simple, this approach still creates some fun and unexpected juxtapositions so that even when a formula is repeated, it’s possible for it to contain new meaning.

To update Jerry Botheimer, it was just a matter of creating movie pitch formulas that are “ripped from the headlines,” as they say. I started things off in a blunt, unsubtle fashion:

[ACTOR] is a fascist clown who accidentally becomes president.

We did leave that formula in the mix, but fortunately from there Betsy took over and added a couple of dozen (and counting) formulas with more, er, depth. Though the new formulas are more thematically serious than the previous Hollywood caricatures that Jerry Botheimer churned out, the new pitches do continue to retain a silly and irreverent tone. Hopefully Jerry Botheimer now reflects the state of the world a little better while still retaining it’s original spirit.

While Jerry Botheimer now complains about how things are today, the new Kiddie Rides BK update reminds us of how things can be again. For the last few years, Betsy has been taking pictures of those quarter-gobbling cartoon characters you find outside bodegas and grocery stores that kids can ride on for a minute at a time. The best of them are posted to Instagram and Twitter tagged with #kiddieridesofbrooklyn. The Kiddie Rides BK bot takes the rides from this collection and inserts them into old public domain photos. Some of the background photos are pretty prosaic, but many come from recognizable sources such as the depression-era Works Progress Administration and early NASA missions.

Recognizable or not, the background photos have a sort of inherent nostalgia attached to them. Continuing in this vein, we selected photos from the first 100 days of the Obama administration. Hopefully this reminder of a time of Hope can provide a small respite or elicit the occasional smile.

As it turns out, in addition to updates to these existing bots, Inauguration Day found us making a brand new bot as well. While procrastinating the work described above, I fired off a jokey suggestion to Betsy:

Damon: I’m not feeling much like being mature today. I’m thinking we should make “Trump is a” Bot. It just tweets juvenile insults. Trump is a weenie. Trump is an asshole. Trump is a penis head. Etc. It’ll just take about an hour…

Not taking the bait, Betsy suggested:

Betsy: I don’t know sweets. Can you make it more original/genius?

Undeterred, I defended my nascent masterwork:

Damon: It is genius!!!

Then the joke actually became a real idea:

Betsy: Maybe it could just tweet Trump’s own insults. Perhaps at him?

Damon: We’re rubber and he’s glue everything he says bounces off of us and sticks to him.

Betsy: Exactly.

And thus a new bot was conceived. About a Bully (@insultingdonald) takes the history of all of Trump’s tweeted insults and simply turns each one around on Trump. Even if you don’t follow him on Twitter, you may have heard that, from time to time (*ahem*), Trump takes to it to insult people he doesn’t like. Well, these Twitter insults have been collected in one place (of course) and the list is a doozy. You hear about his stupid rants and tantrums, but to see them all collected in one place is something else. We’ve been manually processing the list to make each insult be about Trump instead of whoever it was meant for (Trump is.., Trump has…, Trump can’t, etc.). They are so consistently juvenile and substance-free that few of these insults make less sense when applied to Trump. Hence our school yard inspired slogan: “Everyone’s rubber and Trump’s glue, whatever he says bounces off them and sticks to him.”

At a rate of five a day, using just the insults that were collected before Trump’s inauguration, it will take well over year before About a Bully will have to repeat itself. Well, that’s only half true. Trump’s lack of imagination is displayed in the repetitive nature of his bile-stream, and so About a Bully will reflect that. I had originally thought that this would be just a throw-away punchline bot; something to blow off a little steam and maybe provide a cheap laugh or two. But it turns out that watching these insults pass through my Twitter stream in a relentless march provided a more enlightening perspective on just how much more hateful and petty this man is than I could have realized. The coincidental relationship between About a Bully’s latest tweet and the latest news from Trumpville also frequently proves interesting. Perhaps this is just the beginning for this bot too. Maybe there’s room for it to grow beyond its original, simple idea.

I kept myself informed. I voted. I gave to the ACLU, the EFF, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. I spent a very long day making some silly bots slightly less silly and ended up creating a third as well. I marched. Will political themes now appear more frequently in my art? I don’t know, but I do know there’s a lot more work to be done.