I first became aware of Saito Group while preparing an Emergent Media Lab at B4BEL4B Gallery in Oakland. The event was the launch for this website and it focused on the intersection of poetry and activism. At the same time, the exhibition TLDR; Too Long, Didn’t Read was on view in the gallery, exploring digital culture and the evolution of language. On opening night the art historian Mindy Seu gave an impressive survey of different artists fusing poetics and technology. Allison Knowles’s The House of Dust and Jorg Piringer’s poetry GIFs were notable examples.
Invigorated, the next day I posted on Facebook asking friends if they had any leads on places or people working at the intersection of poetry and tech. Within an hour, a friend had texted me a photograph of poems by a mysterious entity called Saito Group, handed out at a recent Buzzfeed event in San Francisco.
Saito Group operates at a curious crossroads of technology, activism and poetics. It is an anonymous collective of writers, artists and hackers whose mission states that its “campaigns, tools, and networks work against the enslavement of the data self.” Buzzfeed, that tech titan of trending news and online quizzes, awarded Saito Group a fellowship through the Buzzfeed Open Lab project. Yet the group formed to support the Occupy movement following the financial collapse of 2008. Much of its work focuses on gentrification and displacement in the context of tech growth in the Bay Area. The group has in the past partnered with the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project to provide resources to victims of displacement via Twitter.
The group’s poetic output includes culling Tweets from around Buzzfeed offices to build ‘BOT poems’. The resultant verse is a fusion of free-market mania, wholesome beauty, and sycophantic futurism. The reader toggles between displays of startling artistry and passive horror, an experience not unfamiliar to many middle- and low-income residents of the city itself. The group performs its work by projecting its texts onto various tech-company buildings throughout downtown San Francisco.
The following interview is a transcript from a Google Hangout video call between Saito Group and Poets Reading The News; Saito Group preserved its anonymity by speaking through a robotic voice generator.
Poets Reading The News: Can you describe Saito Group’s process in creating its BOT poems?
Saito Group: Firstly, one of our members is dispatched to the area of interest to surveil it in person. From there, we activate our geo-scanning software, and analyze what is being said on twitter in that area. We search for keywords and common themes. Then, we scrape the tweets we think are important. Then, with the assistance of bots, we reorganize those tweets into political poetic texts and broadcast them into the area via projection and onto social media, frequently tagging those who unwittingly participated. What we choose to focus on is usually a combination of the themes we typically cover [class, geography, data] and what we find to be occurring at the moment in the area we scanned.
PRTN: Studying your work, I thought of Guillame Apollinaire’s famous 1917 lecture “L’Esprit Nouveau et les Poétes.” He predicted that “poets will mechanize poetry one day, just like other things in the world have been mechanized.” I wonder if you think the art of poetry can be taken over by robots or programming. Is a human perspective required?
SG: “At first, Fan Hui thought the move was rather odd. But then he saw its beauty. “It’s not a human move. I’ve never seen a human play this move,” he says. “So beautiful.” It’s a word he keeps repeating. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful. The move in question was the 37th in the second game of the historic ‘Go’ match between Lee Sedol, one of the world’s top players, and AlphaGo, an artificially intelligent computing system built by researchers at Google.”
PRTN: Your website lists roles like designer and hacker, but not names. What are you hiding?
SG: “If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.” This is a dangerously narrow conception of the value of privacy. Privacy is an essential human need, and central to our ability to control how we relate to the world. Being stripped of privacy is fundamentally dehumanizing, and it makes no difference whether the surveillance is conducted by an undercover policeman following us around, by a false friend or by a computer algorithm that tracks our every move.
The group typically navigates itself into a fundamentally dangerous position.
PRTN: Saito Group participates in Buzzfeed’s Open Lab Project. Indeed, your videos are hosted on that organization’s YouTube channel. How does Saito Group decide with whom to associate and how to align itself in relation to technology companies?
SG: The group typically navigates itself into a fundamentally dangerous position. On the one hand, it will partner with companies that have access to capital. On the other hand, it will partner with grassroots organizations. Once the group occupies this position, it will then attempt a downward transfer of expertise, finances and services to the grassroots organization. If the group is perceived to be too radical by the corporation, it will lose access to resources. If the group is perceived to be not radical enough by the grassroots organization, it will refuse to participate. In the best case, the group will be able to build new capacities within the grassroots organization; in the worst case, the group will function as an agent of appeasement, the aim of the non-profit industrial complex. Every project is a negotiation in this respect.
PRTN: If Saito Group were to find itself in that worst case scenario — placating a tech company that is ultimately destructive toward the community in which it exists and thus proving antithetical to Saito Group’s overarching goals — what would it do?
SG: If the company is highly destructive and the grassroots organization is highly ineffective, our group would have to terminate the arrangement; rarely though are these situations so clear cut.
PRTN: What would have to change for you not to need to exist?
SG: There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience. But I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries. We weep for the blood of a bird, but not for the blood of a fish. Blessed are those who have a voice.
We are tenant farmers for these companies, working on their land by producing data that they in turn sell for profit.
PRTN: What advice do you have for the technology-using public?
SG: Our relationship with many of the Internet companies we rely on is not a traditional company–customer relationship. That’s primarily because we’re not customers. We’re products those companies sell to their real customers. The relationship is more feudal than commercial. The companies are analogous to feudal lords, and we are their vassals, peasants, and—on a bad day—serfs. We are tenant farmers for these companies, working on their land by producing data that they in turn sell for profit. What advice would you give to the peasants of the feudal era?
PRTN: Which leads to my next question: what advice do you have for the techies?
SG: Almost all computers produce personal information. It stays around, festering. How we deal with it—how we contain it and how we dispose of it—is central to the health of our information economy. Just as we look back today at the early decades of the industrial age and wonder how our ancestors could have ignored pollution in their rush to build an industrial world, our grandchildren will look back at us during these early decades of the information age and judge us on how we addressed the challenge of data collection and misuse. We should try to make them proud, shouldn’t we?
PRTN: What does the tech community think of you?
SG: tear gas. fireflies. a reckless chase through the haze. SUNLIGHT. combing the tear gas out of my hair. later awakening. a motorcycle corona. ecological collapse. waves of stations. a planter’s village. machine vision. robot assisted surgery. immersive. exhaustive. gunshots. gates of paradise. midnight cherries. forever cherries. a snail. radio lilacs and summer. utterly consumed by the screen, a gunshot mirror. a hundred houses, cool in moonlight. autumn meteor copper. cancer, stable. washing slowly the tear gas out of my hair, the interrogation. waves. radiation. leaving the station. guided utterly by hundreds of vertical idling chrysanthemums. summer. clouds. observe the helicopter. the beam. the pilot’s brain computer interface. a swarm of horses. gunshots. wisteria. poems. armor. sunlight. cherries. I’m a gif. a repeating figure. a vertical stripe by green moss. virtual world SUNSHINE.
Elle Aviv Newton is a poet, art critic and journalist who writes about aesthetics, technology, politics and intercultural exchange. She is a fourth-generation native of Oakland, California where she is Writer in Residence at B4BEL4B Gallery. She is editor and co-founder of Poets Reading The News.
Saito Group is a collective of writers, artists and hackers advocating for the right to the city, data rights and economic solidarity. Visit their website at saitogroup.info.