A conversation with Kat Mustatea, author of Voidopolis

Mustatea discusses her book Voidopolis—a hybrid digital artistic and literary project in the form of an augmented reality book, which retells Dante’s Inferno as if it were set in pandemic-ravaged New York City

What is a book? Kat Mustatea, a transmedia playwright, artist, and author, seeks to grapple with that question with her recent book, Voidopolis.

Voidopolis—which was recently shortlisted for the 2023 Lumen Prize—is a digital performance about loss and memory presented as an augmented reality (AR) book with a limited lifespan. The book loosely retells the story of Dante’s Inferno as if it were the dystopic experience of wandering through New York City during the pandemic; instead of Virgil, however, the narrator is guided through this modern hellscape by a caustic hobo named Nikita.

It features images that are created by digitally “wiping” humans from stock photography and text that is generated without the letter “e” by using a modified GPT-2 text generator. The book is designed to disappear: its garbled pages can only be deciphered with an AR app, and they decay at the same rate over a period of one year, after which the decay process restarts and begins again. At the end of this decay cycle, only the printed book, with its unintelligible pages, remains. Each July 1, the date the project first started on Instagram, the book resets again, beginning anew the cycle of its own vanishing.

We spoke to Mustatea about the inspiration behind the project and the meaning behind the book’s inherent decay. Read our conversation below, and learn more about Voidopolis.

The MIT Press: The guide throughout Voidopolis is Nikita, a caustic hobo roaming the streets of pandemic-ravaged New York City. In the afterword, Arielle Saiber describes this guide as a “Nikita-Virgil-Narrator-Dante-Us hybrid.” What drew you to retelling Dante’s Inferno in this hybrid form, and how has Nikita’s perspective affirmed or challenged your understanding of this epic?

Author Kat Mustatea.

Kat Mustatea: I read Dante’s emotional and rhetorical argument at the core of the Inferno to be something like: “In my darkest hours, Virgil’s poetry was my comfort and guide,” or maybe more broadly, “Poetry can light the way in a dark world.” Nikita was my antidote and guide for a world suddenly askew, as I witnessed the collapse of what I—along with New York, with the world—understood to be the basic building blocks of daily life and of reality itself. My project is as much an argument for the power of language to shape reality as Dante’s, but Nikita is a modern figure—poorer, pricklier, more obscure, his literary aspirations at odds with a world that devalues the written word. Social media is now our vernacular. Nikita’s sarcasm, his unconcern for the niceties and strictures of polite society, his meandering literary aspirations, his poor diet, are a quiet form of dissent, a refusal to participate in the collapse, failure and constraint of the world around him. He is buoyant and capable of a joy that the more palatable figures around him are not; he cultivates a wisdom and worldliness that belong to no school. His sarcasm is a way of scratching at the corners of the veneer of power to see how much will peel off.

The MIT Press: For this project, you edited the output of GPT-2 generated text. How did you decide what to augment in GPT-2’s output? Could you elaborate on how this way of writing was informed by your experience of the pandemic?

Kat Mustatea: I had been tinkering with the idea that GPT-2 could be modified to generate grammatically coherent sentences using only words that do not contain the letter “e”—it seemed like a fun way to extend and update the Oulipo author Georges Perec’s A Void, a 300-page novel written entirely without the letter “e.” The Oulipian experiments with language and mathematics from the 1960’s and 1970’s seem to me direct precursors to the age of artificial intelligence. Just before the pandemic, I had a modified model that could even generalize on Perec’s constraint, to omit any letter or group of letters I chose. 

That tool might have remained something of a parlor trick had it not been for the pandemic. Daily life under lockdown suddenly became a series of avoidances, constraints, and workarounds for things no longer possible to do, and here I had in hand a technique for embedding—inside the very structure of language—a palpable sense of that loss, a way to evoke the missing people, the stilled traffic, the vanishing of the markers and measures of everyday life. Ultimately, “e” was the letter I chose to omit because regular past tense verbs in English end in “ed,” and removing the past warped the narrative with a quality of being out of time, out of history.

The MIT Press: Voidopolis began as a series of Instagram posts before being adapted into a book-length project; your artist statement discusses how “book-making was bound up in the workings of memory” in contrast to deleting all of the original Instagram posts. Could you discuss how memory functions in this project?

Kat Mustatea: A book is a form of memory. I thought of the story unfolding on my Instagram feed as a performance, with the comments and likes received on each post a form of applause. Wiping it away once the story was complete was an argument for the collective amnesia needed to heal following such a cataclysm—a gesture also in a sense about memory. The impulse to make a book was to document that the story had existed at all, similar to the way a catalog documents an exhibit. Is a book that much more permanent, though? I’m not so sure.

Every aspect of the book’s design was carefully considered in terms of the workings of memory. The algorithm that decays the digital AR imagery has a tactile, milky quality meant to evoke the way memory erodes the sharp edges of a moment. Because we remember images and language differently, the treatment of the text is based on the idea that I might remember a particularly luminous turn of phrase in a poem long after I’ve forgotten the full text. Rather than have the words become decayed and obscure indiscriminately across the page, I selected which words and phrases would remain untouched.

The MIT Press: While augmented reality is thought of as an additive process, Voidopolis is inherently subtractive as it generates decay and wipes away stock photos of its human subjects. How does this tension inform the project as a whole?

Kat Mustatea: Voidopolis isn’t quite a book, is it? It’s a performative object. The AR components work to reproduce the sensation of loss rather than illustrate or describe loss. Meaning is embedded in the book’s formal presentation as much as in the narrative itself. If there is an artistic lineage here, it is probably Bansky’s infamous shredded painting, in the way the AR components enable an active disappearance, both giving and taking away the story. By wreaking some havoc with expectations for how a book is read, it has the subversive quality of graffiti—but in reverse.

By design, the digital AR components are unstable and contingent. The book threatens to disappear. But the reward of this delicate setup—and I think this an important aspect of the poetics of Voidopolis—is that you witness the book’s deterioration over time along with every other reader, in real time, worldwide. Reading a book is a private act; we rarely think of it as a communal experience. The pandemic created the situation of a collective experience had while individually isolated from each other, and Voidopolis does something similar in book form. 

The MIT Press: It has been three years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. How has Voidopolis changed since those early days of the pandemic, and what do you hope that readers gain from reflecting on this experience?

Kat Mustatea: Voidopolis is at its core an oblique parable and guidebook for surviving cataclysm at any scale, whether the personal or the global. Going about daily life, we tend to take for granted how utterly fragile everything is; how life can simply come to a halt; how societies, however formidable and complex, can collapse. I hope Voidopolis can function as a reminder that while our connections to one another are tenuous, ever contingent, nevertheless we cling to one another, we form cities, we make artifacts in hopes they will be meaningful to what generations come after. If the story offers a depiction of how our world might look in this collapsing, the book’s very existence is a way of resisting that collapse.

Learn more about Voidopolis