nabil ahmed

He who says Zero he who says One

Learning-plays by Brecht performed by humans and machine

My current research at Goldsmiths MA Critical Theory and Practice concerns FLOSS+Art and the epic theatre of Bertolt Brecht that seeks to interrogate political action in a control society.


Software is not neutral politically; it cannot be detached from its conditions of production and reception. To refrain from thinking through this is a political act of censorship. This is the position of an expanding network of students- artists-theorists-programmers who write and use free and open source software. Their response is a firm and resounding NO to the idea that software has no reference to anything outside itself; instead creating, playing and criticizing with software not as application, object but as social relations, an idea highly problematized by the valorisation of collaboration. The problem field of software as social relations already anticipated in the media theories of Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin (Montage).

1966: After WWII; the history of modern computing is a history of the war machine. The prime example of the coupling of power/knowledge discourse, 80 percent funding for the AI project comes from ARPA. I wanted to find an interesting way to interrogate this history. From my research I found a classic, ELIZA, an early example of natural language processing written in 1966 by Joseph Weizenbaum at MIT while working on Project MAC where timesharing and lisp are beng developed, the beginning of interactive computing. ELIZA is written in a lisp flavor and it's most famous script imitates a psychotherapist.

1927: Brecht writes 'Radio as an Apparatus of Communication' which calls for the alteration of radio from a distribution apparatus to a communication apparatus, where every receiver has the potential to be a sender. He writes the Lehrstücke or 'learning-plays', highly didactic exercises in Epic Theatre which through alienation and interruption aims to teach audiences how to alter means of production, in the process abolishing actor/audience division. NOT technological utopia of the historical avant-garde, BUT political action (code) written towards that purpose, as noted by Walter Benjamin in 'The Author as Producer.'


Flight of the Lindberghs (1929) - nabil ahmed

2009: I want to re-configure models of resistance in thinking about how free software can be a way to alter means of production that is both open and has a pedagogical potential. Brecht whose work exemplifies that critical practice and theory can and should fold into each other, provided such a model of resistance, in the Epic Theatre which I aim to reignite through a performance of a so called learning-play (He Who says Yes and He Who says No) interrupted and performed by an artefact of the technical culture of software – ELIZA modified in perl - He Who says Zero He Who says One.


The ELIZA algorithm can be broken down in to four basic steps: read user input, match user input with what’s on the script, replace (decompose and reassemble) words such as ”I” with ”you” and finally print a reply. The core of the algorithm is simple pattern matching. Assuming input is ”I like Interactive media”. In this case the first case-statement will match and output would be ”Why do you like interactive media?” If instead input would have been ”I like your radio”, output would have ended up with ”Why do you like your radio” when in fact ”Why do you like my radio” was desired. Here is where the reassembly rule appears to be seen. If all instances of ”you”,”your”,etc is replaced by ”I”, ”my”, etc and vice versa, the resulting output would be ”Why do you like my radio”. What is really interesting is that ELIZA functions based on script files, text files with reference words that the program looks for in the text input. This means ELIZA can work with any script that is written for the program so long as it can read it properly. The modifications I made are in the script file where texts from Brecht's play and quotations by Benjamin and Artaud are inserted into ELIZA's usual responses and the command loop of the perl module that effects the output behaviour of the program syncing text and speech speed.


A performance took place on 07/05/09 in Hackney Wick, London.

Synopsis: A boy with his teacher and three fellow students goes to fetch medicine and instructions for cure from a place on the other side of the mountains for his mother who is dying from a deadly illness. The teacher does not want to take the boy along as it's a difficult journey but the boy persists on the condition that he consents knowing the dangers and consequences. In HE WHO SAYS YES, the boy falls ill during the journey and cannot go on, he consents to death as tradition, the others continue. In HE WHO SAYS NO, the boy refuses to be left to die and changes convention.

Concept and direction: Nabil Ahmed

The Players:

ELIZA - The Great Chorus
Nabil Ahmed - The Teacher
Pol Mclernon - The boy
Ruth Beale - The Mother
Jeremy Keenan and Matt Lewis (Foley) - The Three Students


Laptop, Data Projector, Camcorder, Script, Microphone, Musical saw, omnichord, toy snare, prepared toy cymbal, stylophone, celery, carrot, glasses, ping-pong ball, walnuts, leather shoe, wooden box, gravel, spaghetti, balloons, plastic glove, straw, keys, tape, matches

Interrupting the play with discussion topics randomly picked by ELIZA's algorithm, the computer program facilitates reflection turning the performance into a political meeting. While with a nod to Hans Eisler, music emerged as a great way to interact, at the performance we improvised with various instruments and objects. It became clear that it would help to have some kind of a score so I will be writing a graphic score over the next month before the Groupshow at Goldsmiths in July.

Video documentation here