Against -- Against


“Against – Against” is an interactive and generative installation by Portland Art Ensemble.

“Against – Against” draws on traditions of phrasal template word games–Consequences, Exquisite Corpse, and Mads Libs–to spur audience engagement with Western grammars of power and the logics they embody, affirm and advance.

The game’s template is made from a statement by United States Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy as part of oral arguments in Supreme Court Case 16-111, “Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission"--a pivotal human rights case in a critical time. Kennedy states:

“Suppose he says: Look, I have nothing against – against gay people. He says, but I just don’t think they should have marriage because that’s contrary to my beliefs. It’s not – it’s not their identity; it’s what they’re doing.”

Perhaps most notable are the words, “I just don’t think they should have . . . because that’s contrary to my beliefs.” The inherent logic is that my beliefs dictate your rights; my beliefs dictate what you get and do not get; my beliefs regulate your access to resources. I don’t think so because I don’t believe so.

Furthermore, Kennedy imagines power itself as immune to any allegation of discrimination. To any such allegation, power need only respond: “It is not who you are, it is how I see you.” You may think I am discriminating against you because you are gay; but that is not it at all; it is the things you do."

Of all statements, Michel Foucault recommended thinkers ask, “Who is speaking?”--as in what socially constructed identities might inhabit the authorial space these words generate and hold? Who is eligible to be the “I” in Kennedy’s statement? In Western history, this “I” is the colonizer. Kennedy’s statement follows a grammar and syntax of colonial violence, the content of which is malleable.

To prompt engagement with that grammar/logic, “Against – Against” provides its audience a game, a phrasal template word game. Words are subtracted from the original statement and players replace them according to stated rules. Phrasal template word games offer play and a process for unraveling this realm and making alternates. They were popularized in the twentieth century by Fluxus.

To play “Against – Against," participants rewrite/re-imagine Kennedy’s statement as follows:

  1. Where Kennedy says “gay people” place any categorization of people presently or historically oppressed.

  2. Where Kennedy says “marriage” place any human right, social benefit, or desired resource.

  3. Where Kennedy says “it’s what they’re doing” place any human behavior or characteristics subject to judgment.

To play this very moment, complete the template below:

Suppose he says: Look, I have nothing against – against ______________. He says, but I just don’t think they should have ______________ because that’s contrary to my beliefs. It’s not – it’s not their identity; it’s _____________________.”

Participant input is gathered and added to three computer-generated arrays:


A computer program generates a projectable image of the phrasal template and algorithmically populates the template’s blanks with array data (i.e. player input). The algorithm is applied through a block of programming in the American creative programming development environment, Max. The program block is called an “urn.” An urn outputs random numbers and keeps track of each number that has been generated. When all numbers up to a chosen maximum have been output, the urn outputs a notice of completion and stops. The urn algorithm enacts randomness (a type of impartiality) and democratic or equitable representation (no data is output twice before all data has spoken).

Data, selected by urn algorithms, is output from the three arrays at three independent, steady tempos. Consequently, the three changing phrases of the template change at three separate rates. The phrases exist in phased relationships with one another and visualize a silent polyrhythm. Also, all three phrases cycle at rates faster than a reader can read the whole statement, resisting the reader’s trained desire for a statement that stays still long enough to be read linearly in full.

As the arrays of player input grow indefinitely, the logic of colonial violence spreads to more and more categories of people, denies more and more rights, social benefits and resources, and does so for more and more arbitrary and superficial reasons. The possible scope of the logic’s silent terror is interactively and generatively produced, considered and commented on.

“Against – Against” may be installed in widely various ways. Here, it is shown on a 40"x40”X6' free-standing home movie screen in a small room, a projector on a nearby pedestal (14"X14"X36”).