E.L.I.: Nomad

2003-2004 ICE Project Grant
Ben Coolik (MFA Candidate, Drama)
Christian Croft (BFA Candidate, Lamar Dodd School of Art)


E.L.I., or Electro-Linguistic Imaginator, is a mobile computer module that moves about unlikely environments speaking randomly generated poetry in exchange for new vocabulary words for his database. Through a series of public interventions, the E.L.I. artists are developing a documentary, website, and a book covering their travels.

Navigating crowds of activists and police officers, E.L.I.: Nomad, an interactive project developed by artists Christian Croft (B.F.A., Digital Media), Ben Coolik (M.F.A. candidate, Drama), and Todd Shalom, a graduate student at the California College of Arts and Crafts in San Francisco, roamed the streets during two late November protests in Miami, Florida and Fort Benning, Georgia. These appearances belong to a string of performances supported in part by a project grant from ICE.

E.L.I., an acronym for Electro-Linguistic Imaginator, is part cyborg, part performance piece. Consisting of a media cart equipped with a computer, monitor, and printer, E.L.I. is programmed to generate random poetry from a text database. E.L.I. gets around with the help of his fellow “real-time” artists, approaching passersby to share poetry in exchange for new vocabulary words for his database of words.

E.L.I. maneuvered his way through downtown Miami, site of protests against the Eighth Ministerial meeting to plan for the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement (FTAA). Claiming to want to learn more about the problems with the FTAA, E.L.I. approached demonstrators to trade poems for politically minded language to add to his database. With Coolik and Croft’s assistance, he fell into step with a union-sponsored march that wound its way to Miami’s Bayfront Park. There he enunciated his poetry along with the chants of activists and union workers until columns of police officers in full riot gear began to advance upon the crowd. When the police started firing rubber bullets and teargas, Coolik and Croft were forced to rush E.L.I. to safety.

Two days later, undeterred by the violence in Miami, the artists brought E.L.I. to Fort Benning, Georgia for the annual demonstration against the School of the Americas. After passing through a security checkpoint where E.L.I. was searched for dangerous material, the computer personality again set about his task of learning and sharing his poetry. Although military officials attempted to drown out the rally’s proceedings by blasting loud, patriotic music behind the speaker’s stage, the crowd remained calm. E.L.I. rolled about the protest interacting with nearly 300 people that afternoon.

By bringing E.L.I. to these protests, the projects creators are adding a new element to the already diverse protest environment while exploring reactions of demonstrators and police present to their technological brand of creative resistance. They are planning future outings with E.L.I. into more everyday situations where they believe the protest messages he learned this weekend will instigate political debate when introduced to more mainstream interactions.

E.L.I.’s vocabulary originally consisted of technologically related words typical to the computer environment. Since his inception at the 2003 Sidney Kahn Summer Institute at The Kitchen gallery and performance space in New York City, E.L.I. has collected words from his journeys through the fashionable district of Chelsea, Manhattan, the political climate of the Stop the Occupation in Iraq rally in Washington, DC, and the party atmosphere of the UGA Bulldogs football tailgating party scene. After hundreds of interactions, E.L.I.’s poetry has transformed from strange techno-babble to an astonishingly communicative medium able to transfer language and ideas across various situations. Thus, an unlikely cross pollination occurs in E.L.I.’s wanderings, where a football fan is as likely to learn “war is not the answer” as a political demonstrator is to hear “go Dawgs!”

An example of E.L.I.s poetry follows:

The word stretches from new windows
Pointing virtual
The spirit that moves in all things
Up spitting gorgeous.