The Debating Society, due for installation in a section of the redeveloped
Gorbals area of Glasgow in the spring of 2007, will consist of a circular
seating area into which headrests relaying an audio soundtrack are placed.
Building on the ‘Eliza’ programme developed at MIT in the 60’s, Cotterrell
has created a bespoke programme which can ‘learn’ to converse in a
spoken Scottish dialect. Aided by data from the Centre for Speech
Technology Research at Edinburgh University, he has developed The
Debating Society, a continuous five-way conversation carried out by five
computers all speaking in the distinctive Gorbals’ accent.
These computers are not, however, simply regurgitating lines of text: Cotterrell’s programme allows them to freely develop conversation
according to the dictates of their own set of characteristics. Each of the
computers has a well-developed ‘personality’ and will respond to different
situations accordingly. While one may express an interest in Darwin’s
Origin of Species, another may prefer the Biblical story of creation. As
well, each has the ability to develop, altering its ‘ideas’ as it encounters
All personalities will take as their starting points people who live in the
area: Cotterrell is working with Gorbals Art Project to locate people
willing to have their speech (and ideas) logged on a lexicon. This lexicon
will serve the dual purposes of creating a base for the art work as well as an
historical document of this accent and dialect in the early 21st century.
The Gorbals has a history of regeneration: the Victorian tenements of the
area were replaced in the 50’s with Basil Spence’s ‘vertical villages’,
which are currently being substituted with low-level housing. The area has
a rich oral tradition which, whatever type of structure residents find
themselves occupying, has not been destroyed. The ‘windae hingers’ have
not ceased to chat through the decades of architectural change imposed
upon them by external forces.