Knifeandfork: The Wrench
by Lee Webster
Joe (the Plumber) Wurzelbacher’s story has been aired, dissected, and already forgotten in most American living rooms. In our search for an Everyman, Joe the Plumber fit the bill, at least for a while. Still, Joe exists as a rhetorical device, a human face to politicians’ populist appeals this season and the personification of Senator John McCain’s “fundamentals of the economy” – i.e. the American work force. For a couple weeks what was most interesting in this unfolding drama was Joe’s story, its truths and fictions, how it was represented and how it broke down under scrutiny. Most interestingly, Joe’s story was never a straight narrative; politicians, the media, and the man himself batted it about, spinning it this way and that to fit the various agendas of the day and the person.
Like Joe the Plumber, Tino Faussone, the main character in The Wrench (still in beta), the latest project from Knifeandfork collaborators Brian House and Sue Huang, personifies the working Everyman. Knifeandfork has adapted Primo Levi’s 1978 novel, The Monkey’s Wrench, and its protagonist, Tino, into a work of interactive fiction: a weeklong exchange via text message between a contemporary Tino and you. The Tino of the novel is a loquacious, straight-talking Italian rigger whose work is his life’s passion. His expertise at the finer points of fixing factory towers at 65 stories up and fastening oil derricks to ocean platforms takes him to jobs the world over. The novel is essentially a collection of Tino’s impossible tales from his life as a rigger, structured by the ongoing conversation between Tino and a writer he meets on the job. In The Wrench you become Tino’s sounding board. Anytime of day or night, for better or worse, you are Tino’s friend and confidant. He pushes the boundaries of relational art and your patience as a participant.
After you initiate the conversation Tino keeps it up, checking in on your day and work, sharing bits of personal philosophy and occasionally asking for your help or advice. The artificially intelligent Tino engages you in conversations based on ideas and incidents in the novel, while pulling from RSS news feeds for convincing contemporary material. Thanks to the text messaging’s accepted nonobservance of rules of grammar, Tino’s computer generated responses are mostly convincing as typical text messages.
Knifeandfork have adopted SMS (Short Messaging Service), the most widely used text-messaging platform, to create software that facilitates the delivery of an interactive narrative. In an accompanying essay on the project’s website, Brian House cites the genre of interactive fiction, embodied most fully in the computer-based adventure fiction game Zork of 1978, as one of the influential models for the non-linear narrative structure of The Wrench. In Zork, a player moves throughout the space and encounters obstacles according to either/or decisions made along the way. Similarly, Tino at points during The Wrench will ask for direction:
Tino: Point is, i'm lost. Not worried though, these things work out. But I need your help. Do I follow the group of people or go where they aren't?
Tino: These guys are going too slow. so now is it stop at the tourist office or follow the rat down the side street?
Me: Go it alone…
Tino: Going with the tourist. Ok but Im not the asking for directions type. Should I go walk by the Office Depot or past the XXX adult video store?
Occasionally Tino’s questions seem loaded with possibility, as if your answer might determine the trajectory of a whole day’s conversation. I wonder now, if I’d advised Tino to take his date to the movies and instead of to the shore at sundown, would he have been prompted to calculate which New Jersey chemical factory emits the right combination of vapors to produce my very own dream sunset: aquamarine and orange, with red accents.
Tino: K. Some wine, lil'cheese and vulcanized nylon vapor and you got a dream picnic. Head to the Dupont Factory in Pompton Lakes, NJ. in the spring. Pretty.
Tino is a character who would have known the original use of SMS, invented more than two decades ago as a communication tool for technicians on the job. Today, as billions of 160 character conversations are exchanged each year, text messaging holds a different place in our lives; it has become a ubiquitous social medium. At one point during The Wrench Tino refers to Eliza, the girl who “got (him) started with this texting stuff.” It’s a playful reference to the 1960’s computer program ELIZA, the first of Tino’s kind; ELIZA inserted text input from users into preprogrammed phrases to create the illusion of human conversation. ELIZA’s conversational ability was limited to mock psychotherapeutic responses, taking a user’s statement and rephrasing it as a question. It’s rumored that on occasion ELIZA’s responses could be so convincing as to bring users to a point of psychological breakthrough. ELIZA laid the groundwork for computer generated chat programs, and revealed our impulse to anthropomorphize just about any linguistic voice, to use it even as an outlet for our more private emotions. The Wrench plays on our willingness to suspend disbelief because of our desire to engage. As long as the illusion remains convincing, we are happy to let the project insinuate a presence in our lives.
Tino’s messages alternate between the colloquial and the poetic, engaging us more with their imagery and ideas, less with the story they tell. He only ruminates on the nature of labor and product, never criticizing.
Tino: Hey Lee whats up. I can't get out of bed this morning: PAIN. That rigging job in India is catching up to me with a vengeance.
Tino: Built a massive building for tiny parts. Semi-conductor facility There's a certain satisfaction in that. What do you do for work anyway?
Tino finds wonder in the world around him and in his work, and implores you to do the same.
Tino: Guy called di staso says that if youre an expert you can see your work in any object. Look at that box of paper, am I right?
Since 2004, Knifeandfork’s work together has made use of mobile devices, artificial intelligence and text to explore the nature of narrative, truth and fiction. In a piece at Kulturhuset in Stockholm in 2004, viewers who checked out handheld computers were cast in the role of detective as they watched a murder mystery unfold in chapters triggered by hotspots around the venue. In Berlin in 2005 they designed a text message-based project utilizing the Ringbahn. The Ringbahn’s route, which rounds the city’s perimeter, sparked a circular narrative about the symbolic significance of the train route in a once divided city. The Wrench continues this experimentation with narrative structure by employing elements of interactive fiction, expanding to include the viewer as a player in the performance of the narrative. The experience of The Wrench is as much in the moment and context in which the viewer receives Tino’s messages as it is in what those messages say.
Although Tino talks around work, usually with bullish optimism, you can never quite ascertain any fundamental meaning to the talk. Tino works in a line of highly skilled manual labor—a type of work that is both romanticized as an American tradition and disappearing in a new economy. Just ask Joe the Plumber, whose launch into the limelight highlights the multiple narratives that exist in the story of labor and the U.S. economy. With all this talk floating around in our heads, it’s a shame The Wrench doesn’t use Tino to delve further into the conflicting narratives of a changing economy and every working person’s place within it.
Lee Webster is an artist living and working in Austin, TX.