This article originally appeared on our sister site, Motherboard.
In the short story "The Library of Babel," Argentine writer, librarian, and weaver of labyrinths Jorge Luis Borges imagined the universe as a boundless library of adjacent, hexagonal rooms containing every possible book that could ever exist.
With the installation Borges Library, Daniel Temkin, algorithmic artist and theorist, along with writer and artist Rony Maltz, dig into Borges' fascination with this infinity of words. It takes the form of a gigantic projected word search containing every word Borges wrote, both in his native Spanish and in English translation.
Originally a web app, Temkin and Maltz's retooled Borges Library is now set to appear at Dumbo Arts Festival (September 27-28) and the New York Art Book Fair at MoMA's PS1 art institute. In anticipation of these two exhibitions, the two took some time to chat about Borges, infinity, and the software behind their installation.
In explaining the project, Maltz noted that instead of laboring on lengthy novels, Borges opted to simulate books that already existed, and write their summaries. It's a technique also deployed by science fiction master Stanislaw Lem in "A Perfect Vacuum" and "Imaginary Magnitude," which are short stories designed to be reviews or summaries of fictional books.
“His ideas are starting points rather than finished thoughts, so he didn't feel the need to play out all their possibilities,” said Maltz. “The word-search is analogous to this way of thinking: all the answers are available at the same time, but each reader/searcher has to dig their own path into that universe.”
In Borges's writings, the game is not infinite, but the variables are so vast that it is nearly impossible to exhaust them. And so, in Maltz's opinion, they tend toward infinity just like our universe, where we can only exist in one place at a time, making life choices and living “with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose.”
“The array of possibilities hidden in the word search becomes even more dramatic if we consider the range of potential translations for Borges' texts, and the linguistic differences between them,” Maltz said. "We could ultimately create a new, uncharted board for each spoken language on Earth, like in 'The Library of Babel.'"
Before there was the Borges Library interface, there was the board itself and the actual collection of letters. Temkin wrote a program that took the complete list of words in Borges's text compiled by Maltz and arranged them within a certain size. Fitting each word one-by-one in combination with existing words takes several hours to run. So far, Temkin and Maltz have run it for the English board, a Spanish board, and are currently working on a Portuguese one as well.
According to Temkin, the new version of Borges Library fixes issues with the old one. In the original iteration, words went backwards, right-to-left, bottom-to-top, and so on. But, this proved too difficult to parse, as no one ever found the words. So scrapping that version meant finding a way to make a larger board than ever before.
Originally, Temkin drew the entire board onto a single HTML5 canvas element with size limits. The new version is, as he said, a lot more complex, with a lattice of overlapping canvases to hold the letters, another set for the circles, and so. It can be extended to feature any size board regardless of browser limits.
“I was surprised how much UX consideration this project needed,” said Temkin. “Earlier this year, I finished the web version of Internet Directory, a list of every .com domain in alphabetical order, which also was the extension of a paper-based idea (it was originally a book).”
“With these projects there's the art idea itself, then their manifestation in printed form and in web application form; each adding tons of little decisions which can cloud the experience of the work if they're not selected carefully,” he added.
Temkin and Maltz took a book-making class for their MFA program, so they drew on the history of that craft for the latest Borges Library. Temkin said that in web design, there is a balance between making something intuitive, yet not so pegged to current design trends that it becomes quickly dated. The two decided that Borges Library had to be a word search first and a web app second.
At the first exhibition of Borges Library at 3 Legged Dog, Maltz noticed that the public was able to engage with the work on a level that remote, web-based private playing wouldn't allow. They would just hang out under the projection's light, talking, drinking, and watching the board as someone else manipulated it. He said that it was fun to follow the board's updates, trying to guess which word would pop up next. And for Temkin, there is also the thrill of recreating Borges's work, word by word but without any order.
“In 'Library of Babel,' Borges wrote that 'all men should juggle letters and symbols until they constructed, by an improbable gift of chance, these canonical books.'” said Temkin. “Here, the canon is Borges's own writing. My favorite words are the ones he never wrote, neologisms, and slang that manifest by chance combinations of letters.Borges Library is a probabilistic text, where many people, unaware of what the others are doing, collectively build something new and strange.”
The two artists also noticed that some people will circle random letters “just to fuck with the application.” And they're okay with this usage: those artificial words are no more or less valid than the others. Temkin noted, however, that this actually happened far less than they had anticipated. He thinks this has to do with users finding it more interesting and exciting to spot words jumping out at them, and pointing those words out to others.
The board eventually becomes so packed with circles that it becomes hard to read the words at all, which mirrors the spirit of the gibberish text in "The Library of Babel."
Maltz mused that a project like this could conceivably go on forever, since the word searches cannot be completed. And as the duo, or others, create new boards for other languages, the task becomes even more endless, tending again toward infinity.
“I enjoy thinking that at some point they might become the longer-lasting unsolved word-search puzzles in the world,” Maltz said.
The two also want to expand the game's interface by generating statistics on how people use the board. An idea for future iterations might involve sampling texts as suggestions of words yet to be found, and displaying a list of all the words already found and by whom, in what time, and in which location of the globe. Maltz said it would also be interesting to have a live chat or a stream where people could interact with one another as they play.
And, in a move that would have pleased Borges the librarian, cataloguer of ideas and information, Temkin and Maltz are keeping a history of the board, which includes internet provider (for geographical location), and the order in which the words are added. As this history of added circles grows, it could be animated. Temkin also likes the idea of new text that could be generated as the words appear, as well as keeping a list of the unfound words once the majority have been identified.
“In the preface of 'The Library of Babel," Borges wrote that he had not been the first and would not be the last person to tell that tale,” said Maltz. “A teacher and a committed reader as much as he was a writer, Borges understood that the letters are the same for everybody, what changes is how we combine them. Keen to the spirit of appropriation, there's good reason to hope he would be amused to see our own utterance of his works, and people's random approach to it.”
To learn more, visit the Borges Library online.