Swallowed by a tiny giant

by Vanessa Kisuule, Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus artist in residence and Bristol City Poet

What follows is a strange and erratic collection of thoughts to accompany a poem I have written in response to a bot generated poem ‘written’ by Tiny Giant. The bot had the entirety of my last poetry collection A Recipe for Sorcery, a few of my favourite poems from other writers and some tech related writing provided by the University. The result was somewhat like looking at myself with all my body parts in the wrong place, toes on my forehead, elbows and knees swapped round. It was confusing, slightly sinister and endlessly fascinating.

The echoes of my work were immediately clear. They were not distorted enough to be unrecognisable, but there was enough deviation to intrigue and unsettle me. Some of the imagery jarred. Some of it occasionally touched on the profound. It was impossible not to wince at my own stylistic tropes: imagine having a friend write a parody of your work and reading it back to you, but with none of the tact that a human might offer! I’d recommend this process to any poet, but it would be remiss for me not to acknowledge the existential crisis it may cause.

Poetry is an artistic hinterland where abstraction and ambiguity can live more comfortably than in other forms. Linear narrative and logical coherence do not matter in this context as they would for a novel or a screen play. Poetry, then, may be the medium that AI could find the most ‘success’. Moments of incidental brilliance in the poem were not frequent, but there were enough to make me sit up. Some images genuinely moved and excited me; there was even the occasional jolt of envy at a particularly evocative turn of phrase.

It was hard to know what to do with these mixed feelings of admiration and disquietude. It’s rather foolish, and pointless, to be envious of an algorithm. It has simply done what was asked of it, deducing an end goal through its encrypted set of logical rules. Surely art is as much about intention and communication as the end product? Unlike you or I, it is unmotivated by a desire to connect with others or even a compulsion to sound clever, original or superior. And yet….

It’s a small comfort that it cannot produce anything without the initial input of words, but could the same not be said for us? Aren’t all the years of education, reading, talking and listening we do not our own form of data collection? The methodical approach of the bot may seem antithetical to the elusive creative process we purport to undertake, but this project has forced me to reconsider how we talk about the mechanics of art.

A huge amount of art has been produced through formulas for centuries, culminating in what we may loosely call ‘popular culture’. There are the four chord progressions and seven story formats that recur again and again in music, literature, film and theatre.  More often than not, we pull from a series of long-established methods which we may copy or use as a spring board to ‘new’ ideas. Though we’re loathe to admit it, we, too, are algorithmic machines. AI may be the impetus we need to push ourselves out of our own tropes, or at least be more aware of how much we rely on them.

Marcus Du Sautoy’s timely new book The Creativity Code details how the new innovations in algorithmic learning are expanding our notions of whether a computer can ‘think creatively’. He talks about ‘bottom up’ code: algorithms that learn through data input and continually adjusting its methods for better results. In this way, the AI bot Deep Blue beat world champion Garry Kasparov having played millions of iterations of the game, learned from its mistakes and developed creative strategies to ensure a higher chance of winning. The bot can even make choices that have not been explicitly programmed by the writers of the code. It’s hard to overstate what a game changer this is: the potential for AI to innovate rather than regurgitate is ever more plausible.

The neural network used to create my poem also exhumes ghosts. In PLaiTH, Tiny Giant worked with other agencies to not only produce work in Sylvia Plath’s style but in her handwriting. This detail pushes at new level of invasive imitation, an unwitting mockery of penmanship and its implied intimacy. The project demonstrates how easily this can be learnt, aped and mass produced. Plath’s death is mired in controversy and the seductive myth of a genius’ life cut short. It’s natural to wonder what she may have produced had she lived longer. The Plath Project could be framed as a respectful homage, a creative continuation of legacy forming an ellipsis where once there was a full stop. Still, there is a difficult conversation to be had around assumption and ownership, on how we justify the use of intellectual copyright after death.

There is an online quiz called Bot or Not with fifteen poems in it which asks you to guess which were written by humans and which by bots. I got eight out of fifteen. It’s safe to say that the ‘humanity’ we assume is inherent in human writing is not at all obvious. Many people feel cheated when they learn that a piece of art that moved them was not made by a fellow human. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to admonish ourselves, or demonise the AI. Our minds are built to create meaning and relevance in everything we consume. It’s why we anthropomorphise animals, why we tell stories and build religion. In a world where bot generated art is an ever increasing part of our reality, would it not be a natural extension of our survival instinct to engage with it? Ultimately, if the end result stirs you, does it matter who or what made it? I still don’t know if it does, but I’m sure our morality and imagination will expand to fit around this brave new world.

Can AI write poetry?

For National Storytelling Week, we investigated the boundary between human and technology in the creative arts. We worked with Tiny Giant to train a recurrent neural network on Bristol City Poet Vanessa Kisuule’s poetry and a selection of technology-related pieces. The lines below are an extract of what the neural network produced and the poem below that is Vanessa’s reaction to the process. Read more about Vanessa’s response to the experience.

a goddess of the space bar
my brain, stretching
a recipe for answers.
cut and filed
to fit to technology

her isles of know
through the dirt on her own rivers
digital darkness
jeopardising my own name

then that alexa
she remembers gush and implosion
not a boy
gotta love us , girls
I’ve said to stop

we are blinded by the first of things
go beyond the height
it is easy !
give us dynamite drills
i cut the country

like they think
this or phone?
hand me love anxious
I’ll wait
and when we fight , not a ring

except in the world wide web
we just print and weave heat
write rules out
give them stumps for hands

my brain stretching
i watch my end
fleeting footnote on a final page
you are not enough to be written

living in virtual reality
angel dilated beautiful on the plazas
you niggling
coded numbers flashing light
that’s gold

like something boneless, seeping seeping
eyes wearied so so as deep
please no tweets
affecting our content
trigger my thumb, i dare not!

it is our right to a back up
i don’t hear it
once everybody had the place
all the stories we have ever been
just a spark you you?
we are the thing to your real

my private face
youtube my heart
every single tongue, like the hope one
make a picture of steel


A Tiny Giant Looms

by Vanessa Kisuule


I hereby acknowledge the long legacy of algorithms in the scattered art of poetry.

Long before upstart bots birthed Frankenstein verse,

Shakespeare took mangled beasts of sentiment and squeezed them into the boning of sonnets,

laced them in until every implication stood taut and ready for inspection.


You know what’s interesting? I’m growing in a way I couldn’t if I had a physical form. 

I mean, I’m not limited.

I’m not tethered to time and space in a way that I would be if I was stuck in a body 

that’s inevitably gonna die.

From the 2013 film Her


I hereby acknowledge we are not sacred.

Adorned as we are by glittering myths, they sadly cannot endure.

Our ghosts of inspiration are soft willed, quick to wilt.

The rigour of language made machine gave poetry its rib and muscle.

In rhyme, in meter, in ancient ghazal we find formulaic dogma.

Our slow work this tiny giant does in minutes,

unsaddled by anxiety, coffee shakes or misplaced hopes of profundity.

It’s simply a task unpacked, sifted then neutered like a dog.


Once you learn to think, (in) 


the (programming) language is secondary. 

(Sure) it kicks and drags its feet (a little). 

(But) in the end(…)

From a 2017 Medium article entitled When you finish reading this, you’ll know how to code


I hereby acknowledge the false god of originality.

How we’ve romanticised this thirst for theft,

past thoughts reheated then declared fresh.

Words cluster like boiled sweets in my mouth and

Tiny giant surveys them.

A singular, stoic criteria.

No pretence, reverence or preference encoded.

A thick plagiarist porridge, served cool.

Spirals of thought revealed as affectation,

heavy with the effort to please or reveal.

I am humbled and furious.

We were drunk on us-ness, our inimitable humanhood.

Look at how we hold a thought up to the light,

scallop its edges until it dances in the wind.


Computers expect you to declare your variables. 

A variable declaration is like 

a birth certificate for a piece of data.

From aforementioned Medium article


I hereby acknowledge a shift in the hierarchy.

Whoever won a fight with the tide?

Whoever punched a wall of code and still kept their knuckles, their pride or slovenly mind?

They have not come for our jobs, they have come for our salt flaked egos,

our rotted fallacy of divine purpose.

Tiny Giant ‘speaks’ of things beyond our young puddle of reality.

In this new frontier we will not lead, but chase the future off the cliff face of our own limits.

Will you be there, your heavy foot quivering as if a glitch in the matrix?

Your last words before the sweep of oblivion

already predicted?


Read more about Vanessa’s experience of seeing her own work interpreted by artificial intelligence in her commentary ‘Swallowed by a tiny giant’.

We Are Not a Single Species: Behind the scenes

Paul Hurley, one of our artists in residence, has created a collaborative film investigating the heritage of Temple Quarter and the human and nonhuman communities that inhabit the area. The piece will be on display 20-21 September at SPACE6 West Street, Old Market. 

There are many things that connect us in Bristol – different worlds, experiences, identities and perceptions bridge the gaps between us. Paul’s creation is designed to unpack this and introduce us to a new way of seeing our world. 

“We live in entanglements of human and nonhuman worlds, of pasts, presents, and many possible futures. My approach to the residency was to explore some of these, to tease out some of the tangled threads that connect different worlds to a new university campus in the city.” – Paul Hurley

Cinemadography: Barney LaBeija filming on a GoPro

While filming, Paul spent some time around the University and at the Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus building site. To capture the nonhuman perspective in these areas, his four-legged companion Barney donned a GoPro and set off exploring. Often led by Barney’s nose, Paul captured footage he might never have chosen himself. He said, “There were elements of a situationist dérive, an artistic drift around the city, unsure where we and the camera were being taken.” 

As part of the piece, others were invited to collaborate in ‘walk and talks’ with a nonhuman of their choice – human participants included university staff, members of the public and people living and working near Temple Quarter. Recording the conversations, they walked with a range of nonhumans from the weather and Carlo the cat to Siri and the plants of the University’s botanic garden. 

Paul explained that by combining the dog-filmed footage with a collage of audio from the walks, our expectations of looking at the city were disrupted.” In the exhibition on 20-21 September, each visitor will experience a unique combination of sound and visual – reflecting the serendipity of the filming itself. An audio track of the ‘walk and talk’ conversations together with three screens showing individual videos are all different lengths, creating intersecting spirals of film instead of loop. 

They operate like the layers of conversation, history and experience that accumulate in articulating the world (or worlds) of the Temple Quarter. These worlds, like us, are multiple, they are separate but entangled. We are not – and can never be – a single species.” – Paul Hurley 


‘We are not a single species’, by Paul Hurley. Film by Paul Hurley and Paul Samuel White, cinemadography by Barney LaBeija, copyright Paul Hurley 2019.  

With thanks to all human and nonhuman participants.

Part 3: Looking into the gulf

This blog is the last in a series of three on ethical facilitation by Vanessa Kisuule, Bristol City Poet and Temple Quarter artist-in-residence. Find out what Vanessa has to say about appropriate outreach and engaging with people from different backgrounds in her previous blogs. 

As an artist from the outside coming into a new space, it’s hard to make woolly notions such as art, aspirations, the future and self-expression seem relevant. It’s a similar conundrum for the university as they try to translate the glowing buzzwords of inclusivity, diversity and public engagement into concrete actions that benefit the public. Awareness of the university’s new Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus will hopefully increase as its opening date draws nearer and the buildings take physical shape. What’s harder to articulate and get people excited about is the potential for social change that brews alongside it. 

In a bid to connect these dots, I have often found myself working backwards. Instead of thinking about how the university’s agenda fits into the lives of local people, I’ve tried to learn about the many things that Bristol citizens want changed about the city. From there I work out what, if anything, the new campus might offer around their concerns and form my work from that. The issues that cropped up are familiar: better job prospects, cheaper and accessible childcare, more reliable transport links and less stigma around minority groups. Whilst there are some very exciting conversations around technological innovation and research around the new campus, it seems difficult to discuss these whilst many people feel that even an entry-level job at the university is out of their reach. This speaks to how potentially polarising tech advancements might be if they race ahead before we have addressed the deep gulfs in opportunity across class, gender, race and ability.  

Getting the group to talk about these issues without inserting my own political beliefs was both difficult and fascinating. We played a game where they each had a job title on a post-it note that they represented – the jobs ranged from social worker, teacher, hairdresser, cleaner, nurse and bin man right through to pilot, banker, computer programer and politician. They put themselves in order of who they thought made the most money, and then who they felt had the most worth in society. I watched them wrestle themselves into fascinating knots with these questions. Their ideas sprawled across many topics: economics, ethics, philosophy, sociology and politics. They had a unique disdain for specific jobs and a deep respect for others due to their culture and faith. One girl jokingly dismissed the career choice of musician or model as ‘haram’. This clash between my liberal, agnostic mindset and their Muslim/Somali upbringing was interesting to navigate. I think I did an okay job of honouring my point of view whilst focusing on learning more about theirs.  

During this game, one of the older, more cheeky and opinionated girls in the group derided photographers and journalists that go to war-torn countries to take pictures, instead of doing something to help. A spirited conversation ensued as to whether these images contribute by spreading awareness or if they merely dehumanise the people in them. As mentioned in part 2 of this blog, this further consolidated why taking constant pictures or videos whilst running the workshops didn’t feel right. 

Ultimately, these ‘groups’ we talk about in our meetings aren’t problems to solve, subjects of voyeuristic photographs or trophies of our liberal saviour complexes. We must remember this when we facilitate – only then will inclusion graduate from a tokenistic process to an integral value system. Whilst accepting that my motives as an artist can never be entirely altruistic, I am trying as much as possible to find a practice that is first and foremost responsive rather than instructive. It takes work, patience and a willingness to constantly unlearn. But through this unlearning, we’re more open to the wonders of the unexpected and tangential – where true art and progress live. 

Part 2: To understand and be understood

This blog is the second in a series of three on ethical facilitation by Vanessa Kisuule, Bristol City Poet and Temple Quarter artist-in-residence. Get up to speed on Vanessas thoughts on appropriate outreach in her first blog. 

As a freelancer who usually runs into creative sessions over a short period of time, there are limits to what I can do without the foundation of long-term rapport. Balancing the desire to make the workshops enriching for the participants with my own personal objectives as a commissioned artist is tenuous. In the creative writing workshops I ran for a Somali girl group in Barton Hill Settlement, I mostly found myself immersed in the task of keeping them engaged and focused. When the thought of recording the progress of the sessions crossed my mind, it felt crass to whip out my camera and start taking pictures. It’s an awkward quandary: I have an employer to report back to and clear reports on my activities keeps them happy. Twice over the four sessions, I took short videos that I promised not to share publicly. Other than that, my camera phone stayed in my bag. Building a strong enough foundation on which conversations and creativity can flower takes time. Constantly recording videos or taking pictures disrupts this and is a constant reminder to them that I am more concerned with the optics of what I am doing. I tried to be present with the group, to allow the process of talking and writing with them be its own ephemeral, worthwhile result. 

So how did the sessions go? Well: these girls were absolute live wires. Loud, cheeky, smart-mouthed and fizzing with an energy that occasionally tipped into insolence. Exactly like me at their age! The first two sessions were pretty chaotic and I struggled to keep them focused on any given task for more than a few minutes. Frankly, I didn’t blame them. I was an unknown entity, encroaching on their after-school club with strange questions and writing exercises that perhaps felt too reminiscent of the classroom. So I abandoned my earnest plans for twenty-minute writing and sharing exercises and focused on games – the quicker and the more physical, the better. The group clearly thrived on this type of energetic play. I tried as much as possible to make the space one of creativity, no matter how lateral my approach. If a planned exercise disintegrated due to lack of focus or interest, I tried to hone in on what the girls were talking about amongst themselves and ask questions about their lives and interests.  

This leads me on to a silly faux pas I made that still makes cringe months after the event. I say this in a bid to be transparent and show that we can all mess up and learn from it. One particular girl that we shall call Halimah was initially one of the more dismissive and disruptive girls in the group. To my surprise and delight, she eventually went on to write a stunning poem about Bristol by the fourth session. Whilst the girls were preparing for the final showcase, I decided on a whim to run to a corner shop and buy a few packets of sweets as a small prize for her. In my haste, I grabbed what I felt to be fail-safe crowd pleasers: Malteasers, Smarties and Haribo Tangfastics. After the showcase, I gave her the prize and told her the poem was brilliant. She seemed very happy with her sweets and didn’t mention any problems. It was only on the bus home, reflecting on the four weeks that had passed, that my brain made a sickening jolt of realisation. Haribo is made from gelatin, something a strict Muslim would most probably not eat. It was a small mistake, but one that made me inwardly groan at my thoughtlessness. 

These are the seemingly small but avoidable errors that come from lack of exposure and cultural sensitivity. I think sometimes, in our fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, we don’t attempt to connect with different groups at all. We severely underestimate our ability to understand, and be understood, by each other. So we continue to live in an ignorance that cannot be challenged or broken down, and remain safe in our homogenous bubbles. It’s safe to say that in trying to make connections outside of your circle, you probably will make mistakes. But it’s our job to correct ourselves and keep pushing. Not so we can arrive at a mythical stage of perfect enlightenment, but to commit to the quiet and constant exchange of an integrated society. 

In part 3, Vanessa will examine the opportunity gap for people in minority groups and the importance of Temple Quarter Enterprise Campuss relationship with the community.

Part 1: Nothing about us, without us

This blog is the first in a series of three on ethical facilitation by Vanessa Kisuule, Bristol City Poet and Temple Quarter artist-in-residence. 

How many times have you been privy to conversations about a group to which you don’t belong? It happens often in the worlds I frequent (media, the arts, education: the self-proclaimed pillars of progressive thought). In such conversations there is a lot of academic terminology, statistics and percentages. Faces scrunch up in devastating earnest, heads are nodded, pledges are signed, quotas are made. “Whatever to do about young people, women, Muslims, working class people, BAME people?” Yet representatives from these groups are often not in the room. 

To say these conversations don’t create important change would be overly cynical, but there is something persistently othering in how they are framed. I say this as both the person who belongs to many of the minority groups discussed and also as a member of this ham-fisted group of agonisers. I sometimes catch myself speaking of entire demographics of people in lazy sweeps, as if they were a bloated monolith and not an intricate web of individuals. Is there a way to speak of prevalent trends amongst a group without flattening communities and their stories? I like to hope so, but we haven’t quite found it yet. As the Latin phrase “Nihil de nobis, sine nobis” (Nothing About Us Without Us) succinctly asserts, no conversation around change should occur without those affected present.  

Whilst thinking of how to involve residents in the immediate area surrounding Temple Quarter, I felt it best that I reach out – and even this benign phrase seems to have a whiff of neo-colonial heroism about it! I had a vague notion that I wanted to work with local people in Lawrence Hill and that it would be good to work with young people in particular. After running creative writing sessions with a group of Somali girls in Barton Hill Settlement, I have been reflecting on the ethics and ultimate purpose of outreach work. I am still in the process of acknowledging the shape of my own ignorance, accepting that I am not entirely buffered by my youth, my blackness, my woman-ness, my general liberalism and artistic temperament. Coming in as an outside entity with an ambitious yet vague aim to enlighten a group in some way, there can be dangerous assumption that the group in question must be in the dark. 

This is not a neglected area of discussion; I recently read this brilliant piece on the potential pitfalls of outreach theatre work that has deeply informed my thinking on this issue. I organised the workshops with the help of Travelling Light Theatre that is also based in the Settlement. We had some great discussions on how to do outreach sensitively and the many mistakes made by well-intentioned facilitators. We discussed the importance of not exploiting the stories of others, no matter how pertinent, and not appropriating people’s narratives. As easy as an airtight definition would make our lives, there’s no cut and dry consensus on what appropriation constitutes. It often comes down to the relationship between facilitator and participants and an unsparing consultation with one’s conscience. 

In part 2, Vanessa will delve deeper into her experiences of engaging with people from different backgrounds and the important lessons she learned as a result.

Changing landscapes

Asha Sahni, Assistant Governance Officer at University of Bristol, was inspired by Guy Orpen’s article and photograph of sunrise over the demolished Sorting Office. While working with a writing group of adults with Asperger Syndrome Asha co-facilitates, she wrote the haiku below about changing landscapes.

Temple Meads to Tintern

via Bishopston Library and Oxford


Platform fifteen sun

rising on city ridden

of concrete wasteland.


Rubbish bags wasting

weeds thriving in gleaming heat

order has broken.


What are you reading?

I ask for the pleasure of

seeing book not phone.


Shadows glamour walls

water wandering through grass

lands of twilight sky.

Remembering Temple Quarter’s first innovators and entrepreneurs

By Professor Tim Cole, Professor of Social History and Director of Brigstow Institute

John Anthony Hare visits the Temple Island site

Responsible innovation will be at the heart of Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus and although it’s currently a levelled building site, the land has a rich history of innovation and entrepreneurship.

One example of this is John Hare and Company. Founded in 1782, it manufactured floor-cloths which were highly sought after and exported around the world. Records show that its prized floor-cloths were sent to five continents.

John Hare and Company was a 19th-century innovator. It was the only company to own the whole manufacturing process, weaving the cloth from flax and hemp, making the paint and printing the intricate patterns on to the stretched canvases – all within a mile radius of the Temple Island site.

I was lucky enough to meet a direct descendent of the first John Hare recently, 83-year old John Anthony Hare. He got in touch after reading the work of some of our history students, who have been researching the history of site that will be home to our new campus.

John Anthony Hare and his son Rupert visit the Temple Island site with Tim Cole

I invited John and his son Rupert to visit the site to see where his ancestor started the family floor-cloth business. Visiting this site that was once home to the Hare Colour Works and will become the site of the new University of Bristol campus, John told me: “It’s quite emotional to be standing here actually. It makes me really proud of my family for building such a successful business here in Bristol. It’s exciting to think it could produce the next generation of businessmen and women too.”

John and Rupert plan to follow the campus as work develops and a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs make this place their home. You can find out more about our plans here.

Taking theatre to the community

By Department of Theatre second-year students Mathilde Hirth, Hannah Jones, Clara Friedrichs and Imogen Withers

Image from 2018 Family Theatre Day. Photo Credit: Lizzy Cummins, Travelling Light Theatre

Working with Travelling Light Theatre Company and our lecturer Jess McCormack in the Department of Theatre, we’ve created performances for a Family Theatre Day 11-4pm on Saturday 4 May at Barton Hill Settlement. We’ve organised how the event will run and promoted it among families in the local communities. During the day, families in Lawrence Hill are invited to drop in, watch performances and enjoy other activities held by the Travelling Light Theatre Company Youth Board.

Members of the Youth Board collaborated with University of Bristol students to come up with activities to go alongside the performances. Through several workshops, we explored the role of facilitation and different ways of making theatre for young audiences. The aim of the theatre pieces and the day itself is to give the children a place to be imaginative and inventive – where they are as much part of the performance as the performers. We will take the audience on a journey under the sea, into a world of music, to a little post office at Barton Hill and to save our planet from plastic.

Image from 2018 Family Theatre Day. Photo Credit: Lizzy Cummins, Travelling Light Theatre

Being involved in the Family Theatre Day and the school performances has been a great experience. Sometimes at university you can lose sight of what you’re doing the degree for – and you can get stuck in the academic bubble of lectures and deadlines. Interacting with communities that we don’t normally get to meet, and may get to work with after graduating, gives a new perspective and context to everything we learn in our courses. Creating theatre for children is refreshing, fun and so important. It’s great to know our performances could have an influence on the way they see the world and themselves in the future.

We have loved this project in so many different ways. From exploring information about Barton Hill Settlement to making a real piece for the festival, it has been great fun. We love the fact that we’re getting to interact with a community in Bristol. A lot of students don’t get that chance and it’s given us the opportunity to consider what sort of theatre we want to share – and important messages we want to explore through theatre.

We feel so lucky to be a part of such a fun and diverse festival. We often make theatre and show it to our peers. But to go outside of the university, share it with the wider communities beyond our theatre bubble and take time to bring a little joy and fun to some children’s everyday life has been amazing and inspiring.

Supported by proposed Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus, the Family Theatre Day is a free day of fun for families with children 4+. From 11-4pm on Saturday 4 May, the team will be putting on four exciting performances, painting faces and holding a cake and crafts sale. Donations will go to Travelling Light Youth Theatre, based in Barton Hill Settlement.