To Be or Not To Be 2.0: Ben Rubin on His "Shakespeare Machine" LED Sculpture for the Public Theater

To Be or Not To Be 2.0: Ben Rubin on His "Shakespeare Machine" LED Sculpture for the Public Theater
"Shakespeare Machine," a site-specific installation by Ben Rubin
(Courtesy the Artist)

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below/ Words without thoughts never to heaven go,” a guilt-ridden Claudius says in Act III of “Hamlet.” This fall, Shakespeare’s own words will fly up to the heavens — wrested from their original meanings and contexts — as part of a new installation by artist Ben Rubin. The literary artwork will hang from the ceiling of the refurbished Public Theater, which unveils its renovated New York building on October 4. But is mashing up Shakespeare blasphemous or thought-provoking?

“I’m not so interested in scrambling the language as I am isolating certain types of phrases and gathering them together,” Rubin told ARTINFO in an interview on the steps of the Public. The project, called “Shakespeare Machine,” looks like a futuristic chandelier: it boasts 37 LED screens fanning around in a circle, like cards fanned out by a dealer at a casino. The screens — one for each play Shakespeare wrote — will feature fragments of speech that appear, dissolve, and move like a choreographed dance, a kaleidoscope of language in motion. The catch? There’s no repetition — Shakespeare’s language will continually recombine into new combinations. Each instant is unique.

“Shakespeare Machine” was commissioned as part of the city’s “Percent for Art” program, which mandates that one percent of construction budgets funded by the city go toward commissioning site-specific artworks. Rubin and his frequent collaborator, statistician Mark Hansen, spent four years studying Shakespeare’s language to pull out interesting speech patterns that recur in every play. They consulted Shakespeare scholars like James Shapiro of Columbia University and Steven Greenblatt at Harvard and read dozens of books on Shakespeare’s use of rhetoric. (Hansen and Rubin's previous collaborations include “Moveable Type,” a series of screens in the lobby of the New York Times building that do to the news in real time what “Shakespeare Machine” does to the Bard’s work.)

Though “Shakespeare Machine” might appear at first to be little more than a random, off-the-cuff mash-up, it has an internal architecture so intricate it left this reporter’s head spinning. “Shakespeare used a lot of hyphenated words, words that had never been hyphenated before,” Rubin noted. “There are more than 800 hyphenates with body parts, for example.” Rubin and Hansen build a computer program to find hyphenated phrases involving body parts in all of Shakespeare’s plays. Then, they programmed the “Shakespeare Machine” to draw on that pool of phrases and spit them across the screens for several minutes at a time. (One sequence could include the terms half-faced, deep-mouthed, true-hearted, sharp-toothed — and that’s just from “King Lear.”)

At another moment, the “Shakespeare Machine”’s screens might all fill up with the playwright’s most famous phrase, “To be” — and then continue on with 27 different lines from 27 different plays that begin with that phrase. Part of the fun is the viewer’s quest for recognition. “We haven’t labeled them, so part of the game is being able to say, ‘Oh, I know that one, that’s from Hamlet,’” Rubin explained. To mark the theater’s opening on October 10, the Public will invite a group of actors to read the words live as they appear on the screens. (A tribute to Shakespeare is a good fit for the lobby of the Public, which is most famous for putting on New York’s annual “Shakespeare In the Park” productions.)

So, what does it feel like to take on the most valorized writer of the English-speaking world? Did Rubin ever worry about diluting the Bard’s language by breaking it down? He shook his head. “Each line is like a strand of DNA. Working with Shakespeare’s text, so many of the phrases contain so much,” he said. “I see what we’re doing as analogous to what a photographer does — find something to focus on that is beautiful and represents the reality of the moment.”

"Shakespeare Machine" will be unveiled on October 10 in the lobby of the Public Theater. The reading is free and open to the public, but reservations are required. To learn more about the public programs associated with the Public Theater's reopening, click here.