By Bethany Ruhe
Pittsburgh Current Associate Editor
The Salem Witch Trials are one of those historical cultural events that we all have some sort of knowledge about. From February 1692 to May 1693 more than 200 people in Salem, Massachusetts were accused of witchcraft. 30 of them were found guilty, and 20 of them were executed by hanging. Nearly all of them were women.
Long a study in mass hysteria, the trials are being looked at yet again, but this time from a different angle. Director Philip Wesley Gates has fed every scrap of text they could find on the subject into an algorithm and is using the resulting artificial intelligence (AI) as the basis of their new work, TERMINER, which debuts at the New Hazlett Theater next month.
TERMINER, which is a part of New Hazlett’s Community Supported Art Performance series, is constructed as a ritual by four actors, one of whom is actually a modern day witch. The stage is set with some of the same books whose text had been fed into the algorithm, developed by the folks at Carnegie Mellon Robotics.
The AI is listening as the actors speak, taking in all of their words, eventually constructing its own text that the actors then read. It is, as Gates says, ‘eerily accurate.’
To Gates, bringing together a historical event and modern technology is a way to cast a light on current social issues. “I wanted to examine power and how it plays out,” Gates says, adding ‘Marginalized people didn’t do so well during the Salem Witch Trials.”
And the Salem Witch Trials had a lot of repetitive language that lent itself to the algorithm. “A lot of the language they used to accuse people, such as ‘I verily believe” and ‘most dreadful,’ appears over and over again, which is good, because as Gates explains, that’s how the AI works. “It learns from variations of language happening over and over again. It can’t invent the future; it has to be trained on something that happened in the past.”
Knowledge of the Salem Witch Trials is not necessary to see and enjoy TERMINER. The examination of power imbalance and marginalized communities transcends the subject matter. And, while you might think we don’t have anything in common with the Puritans, Gates disagrees. The examination of this time period with this technology was actually quite deliberate. “We put so much faith in machines and computers, we structure our whole lives around them.”
As Gates explains, that’s very similar to who the Puritans lived, albeit with a different ‘god’.
Gates had originally asked for queer femmes on the audition call sheet because they wanted to a feminist take on the work. They did end up with an all queer ensemble, and moslty queer design crew. Gates likes to use their work as a way to create spaces for queer artists. “I want to nourish the community,” Gates explains.