Alan Turing – putting the sex into maths and machines
One of the highlights of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival is likely to be The Heresy Machine, a new exploration of the life of Alan Turing.
I caught up with co-creators Dmitri Barcomi and Seth Majnoon for a behind-the-scenes look at the production.
What was your inspiration for this piece?
Dmitri Barcomi: Our initial impetus for creating this work came from the desire to create a dramatic language from the language of mathematics, as it plays out in the natural and technological world around us. Realising the inherently dramatic structure of computer programming, we saw an exciting and immediate opportunity to pursue a new direction in performance that is not simply inspired by maths but directly uses mathematics as the source of
the dramatic content.
Our intention is to create a play that reflects Turing’s legacy as an inventor and innovator by doing something ourselves that is completely new. New techniques and approaches are necessary to communicate how the work Turing was doing was unheard of in his time, and how it transformed the landscape of mathematics and technology, laying the groundwork for the advances we see today.
Imagine the excitement of creating a machine that seemed as though it could truly think for itself and answer questions or follow commands, when only humans had been capable of this. We hope to not only capture this exciting moment in the history of technology, but also connect it to present frontiers in computing and artificial intelligence, and realise the spirit of Turing’s curiosity and innovation in our own work.
How does The Heresy Machine add to our understanding of Alan Turing?
Seth Majnoon: Rather than telling a story about Turing, we chose to adapt his own work and ideas to create something that directly reflects his impact and his vision. We wanted to extend his legacy by using his work as a jumping-off point to create something entirely new in our own field.
It’s also our aim to push back against the tragic martyr narrative that risks overshadowing the joyful, hopeful aspects of Alan Turing’s life as a gay man who wholeheartedly expressed himself in both his personal life and his work.
The Heresy Machine has been described as a machine-ballet – what does that mean?
Seth Majnoon: From the perspective of a computer programmer, a series of directives that can be repeated is called an algorithm – from our perspective, that’s called choreography. The choreographic methods for The Heresy Machine emerged from our desire to locate and explore harmony and incompatibility between programmatic and choreographic processes.
We arrived at the term “machine-ballet” because ballet is a method of movement-based storytelling that follows a rigorously formalised structure and vocabulary, which resonates with the specificity of commands in computer programming.
As a choreographer I’m both disturbed and inspired by the tension that often arises between expectations for precise execution of choreography and the individuality of dancers’ bodies, and The Heresy Machine plays with that tension rather than attempting to dispel it.
The Heresy Machine is best described as “dance-theatre” or “movement-based theatre,” because movement and dramatic text are so integrated that if one part were removed the work as a whole would be unrecognisable.
What are some of the challenges in bringing a production like this to the stage?
Dmitri Barcomi: The design process has been particularly challenging but also enjoyable – we’re making things up as we go along, creating new relationships between computer programming and projection design, and developing programming as a design element that dancers can interact with.
Because all elements of The Heresy Machine are so integrated—sound design is reacting to projections which is informing choreography—all the designers have to work much more cohesively and collaboratively than they
would in a more traditional production, but that challenge is fun.
It’s also been a great experience finding collaborators who really have a deep understanding of the world we want to create. They don’t have to come at it from an encyclopedic knowledge of Alan Turing, but we’ve had to find people who are willing to enter that world and bring their own knowledge, creativity, and drive. After several years of development, we’ve assembled a wonderfully collaborative team of creators who are all leaving their mark on the production, making it something bigger and more colourful than Seth and I ever imagined it could be.
As an exploration of our relationship with machines and technology, can we attribute queer characteristics to a machine that’s somewhere beyond gender?
Dmitri Barcomi: Turing’s understanding of the folly of evaluating a machine’s intelligence by human standards is so similar to the concept of queer identity and assimilationist politics. Queer bodies, sexuality, and politics should not be deserving of respect in relation to their proximity to the heteronormative standards, but valued.
Seth Majnoon: Themes of dehumanisation and otherness appear not only in Turing’s personal life, but in his actual writings – even as he was composing some of the earliest theories of artificial intelligence, he was already deeply
concerned with the ethical questions of our future relationships with intelligent machines. I interpret the compassion and empathy Turing expressed towards these theoretical machines as reflective of his own experience of otherness. He advocated for “fair play to the machines” and stressed the importance of allowing machines to express their own form of intelligence, rather than expecting them to conform to standards based on human bias. Although he was writing about machines, his words on the subject strike a chord with the queer experience of divergence from expectations of conformity.
What do you hope that people feel when watching The Heresy Machine?
Dmitri Barcomi: I want to bring to audiences my favourite part of watching theatre, which is the delight and magic of experiencing something brand new. I want people to be surprised either by our use of technology or perhaps by new
discoveries in their own relationships to machines or to humans.
Seth Majnoon: I’m continually struck by how emotional, philosophical and poetic Turing’s work is – he bucks all common assumptions of how mathematicians write and think. My aim is to capture his unique voice, and I hope that
audiences will feel some of the delight I experience in engaging with Turing’s writings – and maybe even get inspired to crack open Computing Machinery and Intelligence or The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis and see