You better go now, before you tell me things that I don't want to know. Monitoring the social interaction between speaker and hearer in telephone conversations

van Assendelft, Karien

MaHKU Utrecht Graduate School of Art and Design, United Kingdom


You better go now, before you tell me things that I don’t want to know.

Monitoring the social interaction between speaker and hearer in telephone


Karien van Assendelft

MaHKU Graduate School of Art and Design, Utrecht The Netherlands



The author has a background in fine arts. Her art practice and research are oriented towards

everyday speech. An extensive archive of overheard everyday conversations functions as the

main database behind her work. For SS17 she will introduce her work on BaKk.

BaKk is an interactive sound installation in the form of a telephone for public space. It attracts

passers-by into a telephone conversation without them realising that they are talking to a

dialogue machine instead of a natural conversation partner. BaKk consists of a sound archive

of pre-recorded utterances, pre-sorted into categories that follow sociolinguistic rules of

conversation. The voice of the visitor activates the computer, which randomly picks phrases

from relevant sets, and plays them back in an attempt to maintain a conversation. The result

is a random but believable conversation, although a confusing one, as the conversation

partner at times seems a bit odd to the visitor.


1 a To analyse recordings of the BaKk conversations on aspects of power and domination.

We will examine how ownership and turn-taking can be controlled in a one-to-one


1 b Can we create conditions where ownership will be absent?

2 To unravel what makes good interlocutors. In general, can an act of communication be

faked? Could random responses make just as much sense as genuine answers?

3 To study human behaviour: do people pick up a ringing telephone in public and start a

conversation with a total stranger?

With BaKk we investigate the mechanism of ownership transfer and whether we can develop a

telephone conversation without ownership: even though the computer (subject A) falls silent

as soon as the visitor (subject B) speaks, subject B does not control the conversation because

he will never receive a real response. Subject A on the other hand, cannot be said to control

the conversation either, since it is a computer program that sends messages randomly.

The phrases and categories for BaKk’s archive were very carefully chosen and special attention

was given to the category feedback and empathic signals. In its design, BaKk attempts to

create conditions that induce a conversational exchange, so that the visitor will abide by the

rules of politeness and cooperation at all times without questioning who is ‘on the line’. A key

aspect of BaKk’s believability relies on the premises of Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson,

1986). By attempting to maximise relevance of BaKk’s utterances, the visitor may never find

out that an actual act of communication has never occurred.

In the poster presentation, BaKk will be introduced through the archive of phrases from

everyday conversations, transcripts of the actual telephone recordings, analyses of BaKk

conversations and a technical explanation.

With special thanks to Slobodan Bajic, who developed the interactive MAX/MSP interface for


Session: POSTERS: Focus on interaction, discourse, media, professional settings
Friday, April 4, 2008, 12:45-15:45
room: foyer