January 17th 2021

The only source of news I swear by is media artist Sam Lavigne’s frenetically soothing and wholly addicting Twitter bot C-SPAN 5. Hatched in 2015, the bot is programmed using the open source speech-to-text engine pocketsphinx and the Python module MoviePy to perform video editing. Its concept is simple: the bot watches C-SPAN, downloads random clips from the no-frills news service’s public database, and boils the videos down to only the most-used words and phrases. Crucially, C-SPAN’s extensively indexed video archive allows and even encourages its videos to be clipped and shared on social media, shielding C-SPAN 5 from the algorithmic legal recourse that so often befalls bots. A compilation of introductory excerpts is available on Vimeo. C-SPAN 5’s conceit might theoretically seem best served to expose overused talking points and repeated language that elected representatives use as crutches. However, in the last few years, with our governmental chambers overrun by the aged and incoherent who have simply given up any pretense of cogency and decorum, Lavigne’s creation has ended up amplifying the surreal disarray of Washington.

Recently, it turned the far-right attack inside the Capital into a jittery horror film recalling the atomic birth of Twin Peaks: The Return’s woodsmen (keyword: “Ummmmmmmmmmm”). As demonstrated by that video and a bizarrely languid clip of Trump hearing about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s passing for the first time, the program can make mistakes, blending tonally similar phonetic chunks — here Trump’s lip-smacking and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” — into umms and uhhs. It also struggles to differentiate “Joe Biden” and “job,” which could soon cause increasing amounts of uncanny flubs.

There are very occasionally worthwhile journalistic dividends. Clips in the runup to the Demoncratic primary make it painfully clear just how little time Bernie Sanders was given to speak in comparison to the other candidates at the Nevada caucus. But if most of these snippets don’t exactly shed light on any meaning, they at least dissolve the grammatical barriers of political speech, creating total semiotic chaos, which is way more bearable and fun. While watching members of Congress being squeezed through a tube of free-associative, syntactical anarchy is very funny, the repetition also turns the clips into an ASMR trance. These bursts of key phrases, paired with C-SPAN’s more cognizant chyrons, convince my brain that, whether actually true or not, I’ve just received all of the necessary information. Satisfied that I have “watched the news,” I move on with my life.

I asked Sam for some of his favorite recent posts, and he responded with the following, among others: a Trump speech about opioids from March 20th, 2018 (keywords: “THANKS and DRUGS and AMERICAN”), and Trump recounting the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019 (keywords: “GETTING and LIVE and DADDY and KILLED and MISSION”). I would personally choose this clip of Trump and Biden introducing a dinner for New York’s Archdiocese (keywords: “THANK and PRESIDENT and DINNER and SPECIAL”), which I have watched innumerable times since, finding the jump-cut phrase “thanks special president dinner” especially bewitching, as if suggesting that the two men were about to willingly become the cannibalistic feast of the clergy themselves.

C-SPAN 5 follows in the internet footprint of such video works as David Tinapple’s Debate Breath, a rendering of the 2004 Presidential debate between Bush and Kerry that solely features the silent moments, and even recalls Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway’s 1992 documentary Feed. While it may not be functionally new, this kind of homebrew algorithmic editing makes analysis of digital footage far easier, allowing both the artist and the viewer to ignore the obvious intentions and zoom in to a microscopic level. And when the spectacle being presented is so contemptuously demoralizing and brutally dull, why not spend more time reading between the lines.