Andrew Eaton-Lewis: ‘I’m on shaky ground with my journalistic snark, I suspect’

AI takes centre stage in new take on Festival Fringe, finds our festival editor

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh used artificial intelligence to analyse a digital archive of fringe listings to create a series of mind-bending online spectacles.

Stare at any word for long enough and it becomes a meaningless jumble of shapes. I have a similar experience each year after four or five hours at a time trawling through show descriptions in the Edinburgh Fringe programme.

A lot of them didn’t make much sense to begin with. Sometimes this is because they describe a show that hasn’t been made yet and are desperately trying to guess what it might look like five months later. Sometimes it’s because they were clearly written in a last-minute drunken panic just before the programme deadline. Sometimes it’s because English is the second or third language of the person writing them. And sometimes it’s because they are archly spoofing all of the above. Which is how you end up with Fringe show titles like The Movie New Musical, Michael McIntyre: The Truth Plays, Sex Bell In The Female Man and The High School Voice of Work in Progress.

Actually I’m lying. All of the titles above were written by ImprovBot, an AI built at Edinburgh University which is currently generating one new show description per hour from nine years’ worth of Fringe programme copy, then sharing them on Twitter. ImprovBot has become my favourite Fringe show, which I feel is a reasonable thing to say in a year in which none of the things being described as Fringe shows can make any more claim to be an actual Fringe show than ImprovBot.

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I’d pick a favourite but it feels more in the spirit of the thing to pick one at random. ‘The Messy Minds: Following the success of Boris Most Artistic Production at the Angel and Panda. The play shows a patriarchal journey through the creative poetry of the The Hunter and Danny, the present where will they become the most extraordinary revelations of her dignity.’

This will probably feel familiar to seasoned Fringe-goers. The desperate boast about an obscure award. The promise of ‘creative poetry’ and ‘extraordinary revelations’. The brandishing of the word ‘patriarchal’. The more I look at it, the more I’m convinced I have actually reviewed this show, given it a non-committal three stars, then forgotten it entirely.

I’m on shaky ground with my journalistic snark, I suspect. ImprovBot’s blurbs are also full of review quotes that are nonsensical and possibly real. ThreeWeeks features a lot. ‘A perfect comic to be really trying to the generation.’ ‘The guests are absolutely different.’ Both of which I can imagine actually appearing in ThreeWeeks. The Scotsman pops up less often but does give four stars to a show called Mervyn Thomas Hall: The Destruction of the Beatle, which sounds like something we would do.

ImprovBot reminds me of classic media satire Brass Eye in the way it skewers the language we use to talk about the Fringe as much as the Fringe itself. The clichés, the hyperbole, the narcissism, the absurdity exposed by blending it all together into word soup. But there is – genuinely - creative poetry too. William Burroughs might appreciate a line such as ‘security jazz sets off the stand apart with a play that magically takes a smile on the planets’.I want to see a lot of these shows - Cathedral Garden Ghosts is an accidentally beautiful title, The Last Arts Company a timely and poignant one - and I probably will.

The Improverts are already creating real performances from ImprovBot’s robot imaginings – itself a tried and tested Fringe joke. The comedians Sara Pascoe and Steen Raskopoulos are doing something similar soon as part of Shedinburgh, the new online fringe created from people’s sheds. The duo promise ‘condensed versions of full-length Edinburgh shows having never seen them… find some old fringe listings because YOU will be making the suggestions’. Hi Sara and Steen, I have some right here.

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