Belén Gache

Scripts and Scores in Contemporary Literature: Time, Constraints and Algorithms

Ensayos Belen Gache

Scripts and Scores in Contemporary Literature: Time, Constraints and Algorithms

Conferencia de Belén Gache en la Freie Universität Berlin, en el marco del coloquio Notating Time, 10 de julio de 2019.

Throughout the twentieth century and until today, the use of scripts and scores appears as a powerful strategy for experimental literature. In this paper, I will discuss different examples of literature based on instructions, seeking to relate its use to two key concepts: that of the alienated society and that of language as a control tool. Ideas such as time, constraint and algorithm will be traced in the works of different poets, writers and artists like Raymond Roussel, Tristan Tzara, Man Ray, Julio Cortázar, Brion Gysin, George Perec, Jacques Jouet, Sophie Calle, Yoko Ono, On Kawara, Emmett Williams, among others. I will also address this issue from my own literary production, both printed and digital.


The Machine

My first example will be the poem “Die Maschine”, by French writer George Perec, based on a previous lyrical work written by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, “Wandrers Nachtlied II” (1789). As a member of the OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle) (Workshop for Potential Literature) - a group of writers who took the idea of the “machine” as a privileged metatextual element using it to create their works on a series of constraints determined in advance - , Perec bases this piece on Goethe’s celebrated and widely discussed poem, highlighting the contrast of two completely different literary models: that of the romantic lyricism (being the wanderer one of its motives) and that of the machinical poetics of the OuLiPo. He did this by recording, in May 1968 in the city of Saarbrücken Die Maschine, a radio play that departed from the analysis and decomposition of  Goethe’s poem according to rule-based structures, subjecting it to a series of protocols: by using Oulipian constraints, the text was submitted to permutational operations, such as being read backwards, omitting the last word of each line, etc. With this piece, Perec wanted to unsettle one of the main works of consecrated lyrical poetry. By appropriating Goethe’s work, he questioned not only the rules of poetry and literature but also those of language.


Scores, Alienated Society and Language as Control Machine

The printed version of Die Maschine can be read as a music score. Traditionally, a music score is a set of instructions that indicate how a musical composition should be executed establishing, for example, the time or height of its sounds. However, the motif has crossed the borders of the musical domain, making itself present in different aesthetic areas such as theatre, visual arts, literature, poetry. Today scripts and scores play an important role in contemporary literature.
The use of scores was adopted especially as a conceptual writing strategy. In its double instance instruction-realization, it keeps strong parallels with the emphasis of conceptualism on the separation between the plan and the concretion of the work. The use of sheet music can be traced in different literary manifestations throughout the twentieth century until today, as we will see, in productions such as those of Fluxus, OuLiPo, conceptualism, net poetry, etc. With the appearance of electronic literature, we can add the parallelism with the double instance code-performance.
In its will to domesticate and control behaviour/performance as well as time, we can associate the term “score” with two major themes in the field of modern thought: that of the alienated society and that of the machinic conception of language (related to the notions of code and program).


Alienated Society

Our daily life is ruled by all kinds of protocols, rules, laws and codes of behaviour. We all constantly follow social scripts without questioning them, without even noticing them, in an automatic way. If followed “by the book”, these trained manners often alluded to a “correct” and “good” education. This became evident in didactic reference books such as El Manual de urbanidad y buenas maneras (The Manual of Urbanity and Good Manners), written in 1853 by Manuel Antonio Carreño, which for decades became very popular in Spain and in Latin American Countries. In Germany, an equivalent precursor was Über den Umgang mit Menschen (On Human Relations), written in 1788 by Adolph Knigge. They both instructed people on how they should behave in society, with family, at home, in school and at work.
In a similar line of domesticated social behaviour, Michel Foucault suggested the notion of “docile bodies” (Foucault, 1977, pp. 135-170), that is, of human bodies which are constantly subjected to a political conception of anatomy that is also related to the “mechanics of power”. As such, these bodies are submitted to several sets of rules that determine not only what power wants them to do, but also how they should operate according to certain constrictions of place, time, manners.
Based on a related ground, we can find that during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Frederick Taylor developed his theory on Scientific Management. According to his theory, a series of strategies of industrial engineering could equally be applied to the bodies of workers and implemented to make the factories’ routines more effective. It established a scheme - similar that of a musical score - which determined the time of execution of every single synchronized movement. Echoing the importance that society has found in temporal organization and coordination, American writer William Burroughs, to whom we will get back in a moment, claims in his novel The Soft Machine that the ultimate thing to control is time itself. In this book, he even suggests that this idea can be dated far back, to an era when the calendar possessed by a group of ancient Mayan priests was already considered one of the most accurate and hermetic control devices, being able to determine what the population should feel and do on any given day, every single day. “I have explained that the Mayan control system depends on the calendar”, says the main character, a secret agent who has the power to travel in time (Burroughs, 1994, p. 91). This calendar, according to Burroughs, could be considered the most definitive time score.

Many of the pieces I am referring to here can be related to the idea of an instruction manual. They can also be linked to J.L. Austin’s speech acts theory and the ideas developed in his book How to do Things with Words (see bibliography).  We will see how, especially since the second half of the twentieth century, proposals such as Situationism or “Event poetics” (happenings, Theatre of the Void, Invisible Theatre, etc.), sought to provoke a rupture in social scripts, expanding the public's consciousness and senses beyond established routines. These poetics make use of the notion of score and instruction and create programmed situations in a completely different way than that of social scripts. To the control of urban space with its fixed hierarchises, for example, they oppose randomness and choice. These kinds of scripts maintain a tight relation with the exploration of the unknown and the uncertain. They also focus on the unimportant, producing slight alterations of the usual procedures in everyday life. They have to do with the ludic side of constrained writing and with the mise-en-scène of its narrative. With these strategies, the writer appropriates the places of ordinary life, programming situations that question the ways in which we occupy spaces, as well as those in which we use time.


Language as a Control Machine

Getting back to Burroughs, in The Soft Machine he states that we are all “soft machines” programmed by language. A set of linguistic instructions to be followed refer to the notion of order, and even to a way of programming, by which one gets hypnotized and brainwashed. These same instructions are the ones through which we risk being turned into to zombies, robots and, more recently, to avatars. Contemporary literature, in the style of avant garde and neo-avant-garde poetics of the twentieth century (such as Dadaism, Futurism, Lettrism, Conceptualism, etc.) search, if not to destroy the given language, at least to question and deconstruct its conventions as well as its given social scores through procedures like the use of randomness, permutation, works in progress, cut-ups, appropriations (for example, through the notions of rewriting or karaoke, as we will see later on).


Language Games, Scores, Instructions - Some Precursors

There are multiple precursors for the contemporary uses of scores in literature: Marcel Duchamp is one of them. He worked a great deal with words, for example, in pieces such as Musical Erratum (1913) where he used them as a material when scoring the composition for three voices: its particular text was appropriated from a dictionary definition of imprint  (“imprimer”).  The aleatory lyrics, as well as the equal value of the notes, and their arbitrary order and range, all participated in the artist’s contemporary experiments with objective chance.
Tristan Tzara is another good example, with his proposal for Dadaist poetics in well-known his recipe on How to Make a Dadaist Poem (1920), where he instructs the reader to: “Take a newspaper. Take a pair of scissors. Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem, then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag. Shake it gently. Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.” (Tzara, 1979, p. 64)
As a third example of that period we can mention a piece by Man Ray, Object to Be Destroyed (1923), a ready-made consisting of a metronome that had the photograph of an eye attached to its swinging arm. In 1932, as his lover (photographer Lee Miller) left him, he made a second version of it called Object of Destruction. This time, it was not an objectual piece but an ink drawing of a metronome with an eye attached to its swinging arm, carrying the following set of instructions: “Cut out the eye from a photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more. Attach the eye to the pendulum of a metronome and regulate the weight to suit the tempo desired. Keep going to the limit of endurance. With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow.” (Titus, Edward and André Breton, 1932, p. 55)
Among the many examples that followed in the decades to come, it is worth mentioning briefly Raymond Roussel’s How I Wrote Certain of My Books (published posthumously in 1935), where he reveals the constraining techniques he used to ignite his writings (see bibliography); or
John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing (written in the fifties), a text that is structured in the way of a musical score, with precise control of the words that are spoken, and the tempos and moments in which they are said (see bibliography). Other proposals that were developed with similar intentions during the second half of the twentieth century were the ones by Sol Lewitt who, instead of executing the works of art himself, used to write sets of simple instructions and give them to his assistants for them to produce the piece, being the instructions both specific and open-ended, so the work could vary in each interpretation; or Tomas Schmit, who beyond his multiple scores for performances, created a series of objects based on instructions, for example, his wonderful Schreibmaschine that combines the notions of machine, algorithm and code; and finally  Jan Bas Ader who, in a radical way of constraining his body, conceived the scores for his Falling films, imagining for each one of them a different way of falling: from a roof, from a tree, into the water, etc. The series ended with the artist’s performance The Boy Who Fell Over Niagara Falls (1972), in which he reads a Reader’s Digest text about a boy who survived his dramatic fall into the water.
This wide range of examples shows us how these types of experimental strategies manifest in the labile border between visual arts, poetry, literature and music. Sometimes, seeking to incorporate the presence of the absurd in the piece; others, by provoking an existential questioning. The presence of scores and instructions implies, on the other hand, the establishment of certain rules of a game that can be played by anyone. This means that the work has, from the beginning, the potentiality to be carried out in different versions. In the literary field, we will find it, aside from the ones already mentioned, in writers as Italo Calvino and Harry Mathews among many others. I have used it myself in pieces such as “Partitura para dejar tenues huellas de tu existencia en una ciudad” (Trueba, 2020, pp. 215-219), “Saint Germaine des Prés, mode d’emploie” (Gache, 2015) or “Cómo convertir un cuento en un dibujo abstracto (pasando por una visita algorítmica al Museo del Prado).” (Revista de Occidente, 2019, pp. 111-122)


Time, Constraint, Algorithm

The kind of writing I am dealing with in my own work is based on the idea that texts are always conditioned by something, for example, by time or by language itself. Instead of trying to avoid these constraints (which is impossible, by the way), the aim becomes to embrace them proactively.  For this purpose, I shall focus here on three concepts: time, constraint and algorithm. Time, as every instruction requires the time of its performance; constraint, as being a kind of instruction that sets the limits in which it should be performed; and algorithm, conceived as an organized set of instructions. These are three fundamental concepts in contemporary writing.



Time is one of the main concepts I will deal with here. Time control divides everyday life in productive time - unproductive time, private time - public time, etc. There are several pieces in contemporary literature that are based on the idea of “scoring time”. For instance, in June 2009, Jacques Jouet wrote his novel Agatha of Paris under the constraint that it should be written in front of the public, during the time span of five days within the framework of the “Paris en Toutes Lettres” Festival held in this French capital city. Everything he wrote during that period appeared on a big screen that was installed in Stalingrad Square in Paris.
Of course, this constraint had its precursor: the well-known text An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1975) by the previously mentioned George Perec. The constraint here was to write down, as a sort of inventory, everything he saw during three consecutive days at different times of the day, in this case in another Parisian square: la Place Saint Sulpice. Both Perec’s and Jouet’s writings are time-based notes and real time narratives.
Jouet had experimented with similar constraints in previous words, such as Poèmes de métro (Metro Poems), published in 2000. The compositions were again determined by time and space, but also considering the reader’s situation as a person in transit. Here some examples:
- A subway poem is a poem composed in the subway during the time of a journey.
- A subway poem counts as many verses as stations your trip has minus one.
- The first verse is composed in your head between the first two stations (counting the departure station).
- It is transcribed on paper when the train stops at station two.
- The second verse is composed in your head between stations two and three of your trip.
- It is transcribed on paper when the train stops at station three. And so on.
- The last verse of the poem is transcribed on the platform of your last station. (Perloff, 2010, p. 82).
In these time-constrained pieces, writing is conceived as a performance and its scenery becomes the very place where the writer is developing his work. The writer therefore is exposed and conditioned by the process of writing. This is also an example of meta-writing or self-consciousness of writing.
A variation of this self-conscious writing process can be found the work of Conceptual artist On Kawara, who from 1968 to 1979 produced a series of postcards with the title “I got up”. The idea here was to send two postcards every day to friends, family and art dealers: on each one, he printed the date and the phrase “I got up at”, followed by the time he had raised up from bed that day (of course, here is another use of time: the one given by the post delivery, what makes these pieces related also to mail art). He also developed the Date Paintings or Today series on which he worked for five decades. Here the date was composed in the language and convention of the place where he was making the painting, which was meticulously produced according to a series of instructions that never varied. For example, if a painting was not finished by midnight, he had to destroy it. The quasi-mechanical element of his routine made the production of each daily painting an exercise in meditation.
In all these cases, we see that the real-time narrative is presented as a model, different from the classical model of linear-time narrative. The real-time narrative refers to the present time of the performance. It has also gained dominance today, through digital media, in interactive fictions as the reader interacts in real-time with the story. It is also used, for example, in video-game narratives. I have used it in some of my already mentioned printed pieces, as well as in my Radikal Karaoke (see below).



Just as algorithms instruct machines, constraints limit and shape the text or the act of writing. Although I have already mentioned constraints before, I will focus here on the different ways in which they can manifest. We will have texts that are based on different kinds of constraints: as we have just seen, constraints over time but also over the body or over the writing itself.
As mentioned from the beginning, the OuLiPo had been using specific constraints as a generative writing machine since the 1960s. Some of them are well known: Noun +7 procedure, lipogramatic strategies, snowball strategies, palindromes, etc.
More or less at the same time, Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar was also working with the notion of instruction. For example, in texts such as “Instructions to climb a ladder”, “Instructions to wind a clock”, to cry, to sing, etc., that are included in his collection of texts Manual de Instrucciones (The Instruction Manual) (see bibliography). The same happens in Yoko Ono’s scores. In 1962, at the Sogetsu Art Centre in Tokyo, she presented a series of instructions written on sheets of white paper. By compiling these instructions, she would later publish her book Grapefruit (see bibliography), considered today as one of the first works of a visual artist carried out on exclusively linguistic grounds. There she writes, for example:
“- Count the clouds and name them.”
“- Scream: 1-against the wind, 2-against the wall, 3-against the sky.”
“- Listen to the sound of the earth turning.”
These types of artistic proposals within the same Fluxus movement that Ono was part of, would later on turn into what was known as Event Scores in the 1970s. These were events scored in brief verbal notations consisting of proposals, propositions, and instructions, such as the ones developed by George Brecht:
“- Determine the limits of an object or event. Determine the limits more precisely. Repeat until further precision is impossible.”
“- Word event: Exit.”
“- Drip Music (Drip Event): For single or multiple performance. A source of dripping water and an empty vessel are arranged so that the water falls into the vessel” (see bibliography).
Since the 1980s, French artist Sophie Calle similarly worked on pieces based on programmed situations, by conceiving rituals that condition her actions. For example, in Suite Vénitienne (1981), where she investigates the traces of a man through the streets of Venice, writing down methodically every detail, hoping to find clues that would lead her to him. She also incorporates photographs in her texts, as proofs that underline the indexicality and the here and now of her texts.
Francis Alÿs, Belgian artist based in Mexico City, also developed a series of artworks departing from scores, for example in his piece When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), where he recruited a great number of volunteers in a location nearby Lima, Peru. Each one was instructed to take a shovel full of sand and place it just a couple of feet away, in the middle of a dune. The result should be to displace the entire dune by a few inches. With this work he underlined the void of meaning at the core of a given social situation.
As can be derived from the above-mentioned works, constraint and instruction have functioned as a powerful creative resource through which it criticizes the same normative discourse it actually depends on. In all of these examples, the human being is understood as a machine instructed by language and social norms. The artistic or poetic use of this writing strategy aims to rarefy or subvert everyday communication and highlight the control mechanisms that they entail and that we have naturalized to the point that they have become, most of the time, almost unconscious for us.



The same idea leads to the use of algorithms in artistic or literary pieces. Given its mathematical-machinic nature, many times the creator bases the pieces on the potential “aberrant decoding” (a term suggested by Umberto Eco) where the machine highlights the communication errors in which the messages are interpreted differently from what it was intended. In any case, this raises the possibility of all interpretations being more or less aberrant. I have made use of this strategy in generative works and in pieces such as Radikal Karaoke or Robots’ Manifestos, as I will show later on.
In electronic literature we also have the double instance coding-machine performance that parallels the score-human performance. The first pieces of computer-generated poetry were Theo Lutz’s Stochastic Texts (1959), programmed on a Zuse Z22 computer at the Stuttgart Institute of Technology. He determined generated pairs of sentences - each of one-line length - , that followed one another in an endless sequence. The original version of the program randomly chose words from a pre-selected library from Franz Kafka’s Das Schloss
Some years later, in 1966, the American artist based in Berlin and related to Fluxus, Emmett Williams, composed the IBM Poem. In it, twenty-six words were randomly chosen from a dictionary and each one of them was associated with a letter of the alphabet, according to the following instruction.
(1) Choose 26 words by chance operations – or however you please. (2) Substitute these 26 words for 26 letters of the alphabet. (3) Choose a word or phrase (not included in the alphabet of words) to serve as the title of the poem. (4) For the letter in the title word or phrase substitute the corresponding words from the alphabet of words. This operation generates line one of the poem. (5) Repeat the process described in step 4 with the results of step 4. (6) Repeat the process with the results of 5. (7) Etc. (Rothemberg, Jerome and Joris, Pierre, p. 213)

In 1970, Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville used computer permutation algorithms and applied them to Gysin’s analogic permutational poems. For example, in his famous poem I am that I am:
“[“I”, “AM”, “THAT”, “I”, “AM”].reverse.permutation{|x| puts "#{x.reverse.join(" ")}"}”
Without trying to be exhaustive, let us skip some decades to get an idea of how these types of pieces evolved, for instance, by recalling from the 1990s manifestations such as those of For example, dot.walk, psychogeographic computing (2004), a piece which links net-art to neo-situationism (especially, the notions of drift and psychogeography) by presenting a class of “generative drift”, based on an instruction whose statement emulates digital programming languages:
“- walk - repeat {1st street on the left 2nd street on the right 2nd street on the left}”
The program was carried out by pedestrians who, through the execution of this simple instruction, walked the city’s grid of streets the same way as pixels crossing the screen of a computer.
Since then, many other writers have been making permutational or generative digital pieces.
Mexican artist Eugenio Tisselli, for example, developed with this technique in 2014 his piece The 27th. The constraint here was that each time the New York Stock Exchange Composite Index closed with a positive percent variation, a fragment of the 27th article of the Mexican Constitution was automatically translated into English. In this case, the “social norm” subjected to changes is the greatest one: the country’s constitution. The result can be seen at
Five years later, Andi Rueckel and Marcel Haupt developed the piece Instructional.AI (2019), creating “an artificial entity built around a neural network specialized on general language generation” called GPT-2 which was retrained on more than 350 instructional art pieces collected in Do it: the compendium by the renowned art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist (see bibliography). This neural network learned to create new Art instructions what were indistinguishable from those written by humans
In my own case, I have been working a great deal with scores and instructions in print format, similar to those that I mentioned before, and since the mid-nineties, in electronic pieces. My Robots’ Manifests Series (2009), for example, consists of a set of aleatoric poems departing from a fixed verbal structure corresponding to the genre of political discourse. These sound pieces used the IP Poetry system, developed by artist Gustavo Romano in 2004, in order to search the Internet for keywords and then verbalize them out loud by using pre-recorded phonemes (
My electronic piece Radikal Karaoke (, 2011), on the other hand, is an online device intended to allow any user to pronounce political speeches based on the idea of musical karaoke practices. Here, speeches are usually structured on linguistic and rhetorical clichés reproducing themselves as viruses. By mechanically repeating slogans, it seems to me that we have turned ourselves into a zombie society, a society that has been trained to follow instructions, acting them out without really reflecting on their meaning nor their implications. It is therefore not us who speak, but “others” who speak through us: who exactly? The system of power? The market? Language itself? As in the traditional practice of karaoke, this program makes the user have the illusion of being in this case not a singer but a political leader who is able to guide the masses through any given (even shallow and almost nonsensical) discourse by using this Radikal Karaoke program.
For what concerns my electronic piece Sabotaje Retroexistencial (2015) is an automatic poetry generator, which is included in my transmedia project Kublai Moon ( The poems generated by the machine are based here on an algorithm that involves linguistic structures as they may be “correctly” formulated in Spanish (independent and subordinated clauses; copulative, adversative and modal links; correspondences between gender and number of the nouns; adjectives, adverbs, verbal conjugations, etc). The variations are practically infinite. As they have been composed by a machine, I intend to question if the poems of Sabotage Retroexistencial have a meaning and even if they have a poetic intention. Or is it in his/her own interpretation and imagination that the reader projects on them a meaning which is actually absent? But in the end, does it not happen in every possible reading of a text?

Throughout this text, I have presented different examples on how issues such as instructions, behaviour, language and understanding have been addressed by creative discourses, elaborated from diverse artistic standpoints, in order to question and subvert the status quo of social discursive ecology. I have tried to propose a kind of genealogy from avantgarde attacks on language to conceptual approach and to machine relates aesthetics. In the case of electronic literature, these questions arise from the very departure due to the machinical writing technology itself. In my personal creative development, coding, algorithms and machinic asignifying semiotics.have become the core issues of many of my pieces.


Belén Gache




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It was not the first time that this poem of Goethe was rewritten. In 1905, Christian Morgenstern wrote “Fisches Nachtgesang” after Goethe’s poem, a concrete poem rendered in abstract shapes, a sound poem with no discernible sounds. The macrons and breves (diacritical marks that determine the supposed metric of the poem) cluster in a vaguely fish-shaped form. The poem was also appropriated by Bertold Brecht and  it also became a clear antecedent for Brazilian concrete poet Augusto de Campos in “walfischesnachtgesang / cançãonoturnadabaleia” (1990).