Hyperrhiz 14: Featured works

Shy nag: Second Staging, Bergen 2015

Christopher Funkhouser

Artist Statement

In Shy nag, Sonny Rae Tempest and I transform one image's hexadecimal code into text (libretto), media components (sound/animation), and performance choreography to create a "code opera," first staged at Rutgers University-Newark in February 2015 with Brian O'Mahoney and Louis Wells Co-Directing. Six months later, Shy nag's Act I was re-staged at the 2015 Electronic Literature Organization festival in Bergen, Norway, with Wells directing.

As introduced elsewhere, Shy nag emerged from a collaboratively taught UnderAcademy College course titled TOO MANY COOKS in Fall 2012. The course's logo, created by Talan Memmott, was used to compose each element of its production.

Underacademy course logo and description.

To begin, we opened this image as a Chinese character-encoded text file. This document became English via Google Translate, and was then processed and filtered by Tempest and I through Microsoft Word Spell-check into scripted form. We did not initially set out to compose an opera, but as we proceeded a libretto emerged. This text was translated into sound using the P22 Music Text Composition Generator. The resultant MIDI file was opened with Acid Pro 3 Digital Audio Workshop software. Tempest created three identical audio tracks (double bass, acoustic guitar, piano), manually transposing all notes into the appropriate range (per instrument) and into the key of D major. The first seventy-five minutes of a musical rendering that is more than five hours long, paired with a second audio track that tightly compresses the full soundtrack, was designed and implemented for both staged performances. Projected imagery for performances was produced by breaking the original hexadecimal code into 24-bit sections, to act as the hex code for HTML web colors. An HTML file was then created to consecutively fade from one color to the next, based on that partitioned hex, using JavaScript. Each color block is displayed in text above its color field; for efficiency in presentation, a video (.mp4) that captures the effect was projected above the actors in Bergen. During prep for Shy nag's stage premiere in Newark, I was asked to create an animation to use as preface to the performance, indicating the fact that manipulating code is at its roots. Our Bergen staging also commenced by screening it.

Given the nature of an international event including dozens of artistic performances, we knew beforehand the Bergen iteration ofShy nag would be bare bones, with time to present only one Act, and little time for rehearsal. I invited people attending the festival, who I felt would bring energy to the material (including my nine year old daughter), to participate. In the end, this "pick up" cast had one reading-through of the material (with an incomplete ensemble); one actor did not rehearse at all prior to performance. Sigurd Wik at Cinemateket USF, where the show was staged, provided helpful assistance with lighting, sound, and projection.

For the occasion, that is all we needed. Four of the ten actors had seen the Newark performance, and though none of us had performed in it, at least we had firsthand sense of the engagement. The libretto and some documentation from the February show was sent out to the cast in advance. Further, before convening in Norway, a single instructive message authored by Wells was delivered to the cast:

Hello actors. This is a very strange, beautiful, poetic piece that requires a unique way of looking at the text. When you read the lines your character speaks don't worry about trying to find a story. You won't. You have to look for tone, mood, implied emotion, or tones. Read it out loud a few times to find this. It won't come from an intellectual place, but a poetic one. You'll have to choose a relationship for the characters you are speaking to. Just make it up based on the feeling that seems to come out of the words. It will be refined when we start talking to each other, but it's important you come in with an idea. Don't worry about it being right, just a choice to start us off.

You are all part of the chorus, so be familiar with the words. You might be part of the "ads," so look those over as well. Honor the punctuation; that is the map to the material.

We are aiming for business casual dress but it can be relaxed a bit more if needed.

In order to facilitate our staging in Bergen, the plot trajectory/narrative arc that determined or invented conceptual relationships existing between characters, divined by Wells and O'Mahoney for Shy nag's initial production, was imported. Other aspects of the first staging were preserved: costumes were to be "business casual", various "scenes" were announced, with gesture, by one of the actors — who also indicatively used a flashlight as a spotlight when "Ads" were read. Two actors clacking clavés with one another signified a Chorus' completion. Beyond this, only a few props were required: a row of chairs for actors to sit on, a microphone, some celebratory colored feathers, a discoball whose purpose was marginal due to mechanical issues and lack of prep time.

The actors in Shy nag's second staging were Maria Aladren, Sandy Baldwin, Kathi Inman Berens, Natalia Fedorova, Aleatory Funkhouser, Christopher Funkhouser, Flourish Klink, Jeneen Naji, Álvaro Seiça, and Louis Wells.

As an artist, Hakim Bey's sense of potential for temporary autonomous zones — creating provisional spaces that elude formal structures of control, where information becomes a key tool that sneaks into the cracks of formal procedures — has always held appeal, and often effects structural modalities I become involved with. This particular production of the show, wayward and off-the-wall, supported and welcomed by the community, is a good example of a product that accomplishes this objective.

Considering the constraints faced in producing a performance on-the-fly, as we did, the entire experience of the work's second staging was satisfying, despite our lack of communal preparation and the imperfection of having the opening animation stall as the show began. We are hopeful thatShy nag might again be staged in the future, and are also considering making another code-oriented piece with dramatic and musical elements. Similar processes could be applied to any image. For now, I see this "code opera" as a fruitful collaboration with Tempest, with hardware and software, and then with Wells. Throughout, an inventive translation and transcreation involving intuition and improvisation within indeterminate circumstances, and a glorious experience to share with the actors who interpreted the material.

VIEW documentation of Shy nag's staging in Bergen (video by Jaad Asante)

Shy nag signifies one of many new potentials for poetic composition, in which the subsurface encodings of information become alternatively rendered — a process involving destruction and construction both on automated/objective and subjective registers. When combined as, or within, an expressive sensorium, moments of visceral synthesis impress on an audience in surprising ways. Our stew of language, beyond practical sense, accumulates with humor, delivering the type of seated, psychic transportation such as is afforded by musical lyricism and sensory stimuli.

— Chris Funkhouser
Rhinebeck, 2016


  1. In February 2016,Shy nag (a code opera): ACT II was published as an E-Chapbook by Cordite Poetry Review. See http://cordite.org.au/chapbooks-features/s-h-y-n-a-g-a-c-t-i-i/.
  2. See https://web.njit.edu/~funkhous/2015/Shy-nag/shy-nag-info.html for narratives and documentation.
  3. For more discussion and example of our use of Spell-check as compositional tool, see the essay "Picture Becomes text, Becomes Writing: Software as Interlocutor" in Cordite Poetry Review 40, http://cordite.org.au/ekphrasis/picture-becomes-text-becomes-writing/.
  4. https://p22.com/musicfont/.
  5. The original apparatus is posted at https://web.njit.edu/~funkhous/2015/Shy-nag/colorfield/colortext.html.
  6. See https://web.njit.edu/~funkhous/2015/Shy-nag/Shy-nag-intro7.swf.