Saturday, June 08, 2013

Proto-Computing - an Interview with Ralf Baecker

At CODE2012 I presented a paper on "programmable matter" and the proto-computational work of Ralf Baecker and Martin Howse - part of a long-running project on digital materiality. My sources included interviews with the artists, which I will be publishing here. Ralf Baecker's 2009 The Conversation is a complex physical network, woven from solenoids - electro-mechanical "bits" or binary switches. It was one of the works that started me thinking about this notion of the proto-computational - where artists seem to be stripping digital computing down to its raw materials, only to rebuild it as something weirder. Irrational Computing (2012) - which crafts a "computer" more like a modular synth made from crystals and wires - takes this approach further. Here Baecker begins by responding to this notion of proto-computing.

MW: In your work, especially Irrational Computing, we seem to see some of the primal, material elements of digital computing. But this "proto" computing is also quite unfamiliar - it is chaotic, complex and emergent, we can't control or "program" it, and it is hard to identify familiar elements such as memory vs processor. So it seems that your work is not only deconstructing computing - revealing its components - but also reconstructing it in a strange new form. Would you agree?
RB: It took me a long time to adopt the term "proto-computing". I don't mean proto in a historical or chronological sense; it is more about its state of development. I imagine a device that refers to the raw material dimension of our everyday digital machinery. Something that suddenly appears due to the interaction of matter. What I had in mind was for instance the natural nuclear fission reactor in Oklo, Gabon that was discovered in 1972. A conglomerate of minerals in a rock formation formed the conditions for a functioning nuclear reactor, all by chance. 
Computation is a cultural and not a natural phenomenon; it includes several hundred years of knowledge and cultural technics, these days all compressed into a microscopic form (the CPU). In the 18th century the mechanical tradition of automata and symbolic/mathematical thinking merged into the first calculating and astronomical devices. Also the combinatoric/hermeneutic tradition (e.g. Athanasius Kircher and Ramon Llull) is very influential to me. These automatons/concepts were philosophical and epistemological. They were dialogic devices that let us think further, much against our current utilitarian use of technology. Generative utopia.

Schematic of Irrational Computing courtesy of the artist - click for PDF

MW: Your work stages a fusion of sound, light and material. In Irrational Computing for example we both see and hear the activity of the crystals in the SiC module. Similarly in The Conversation, the solenoids act as both mechanical / symbolic components and sound generators. So there is a strong sense of the unity of the audible and the visual - their shared material origins. (This is unlike conventional audiovisual media for example where the relation between sound and image is highly constructed). It seems that there is a sense of a kind of material continuum or spectrum here, binding electricity, light, sound, and matter together?
RB: My first contact with art or media art came through net art, software art and generative art. I was totally fascinated by it. I started programming generative systems for installations and audiovisual performances. I like a lot of the early screen based computer graphics/animation stuff. The pure reduction to wireframes, simple geometric shapes. I had the feeling that in this case concept and representation almost touch each other. But I got lost working with universial machines (Turing machines). With Rechnender Raum I started to do some kind of subjective reappropriation of the digital. So I started to build my very own non-universal devices. Rechnender Raum could also be read as a kinetic interpretation of a cellular automaton algorithm. Even if the Turing machine is a theoretical machine it feels very plastic to me. It a metaphorical machine that shows the conceptual relation of space and time. Computers are basically transposers between space and time, even without seeing the actual outcome of a simulation. I like to expose the hidden structures. They are more appealing to me than the image on the screen.

MW: There is a theme of complex but insular networks in your work. In The Conversation this is very clear - a network of internal relationships, seeking a dynamic equilibrium. Similarly in Irrational Computing, modules like the phase locked loop have this insular complexity. Can you discuss this a little bit? This tendency reminds me of notions of self-referentiality, for example in the writing of Hofstadter, where recursion and self-reference are both logical paradoxes (as in Godel's theorem) and key attributes of consciousness. Your introverted networks have a strong generative character - where complex dynamics emerge from a tightly constrained set of elements and relationships.
RB: Sure, I'm fascinated by this kind of emergent processes, and how they appear on different scales. But I find it always difficult to use the attribute consciousness. I think these kind of chaotic attractors have a beauty on their own. Regardless how closed these systems look, they are always influenced by its environment. The perfect example for me is the flame of a candle. A very dynamic complex process communicating with its environment, that generates the dynamics.

MW: You describe The Conversation as "pataphysical", and mention the "mystic" and "magic" aspects of Irrational Computing. Can you say some more about this a aspect of your work? Is there a sort of romantic or poetic idea here, about what is beyond the rational, or is this about a more systematic alternative to how we understand the world?
RB: Yes, it refers to an other kind of thinking. A thinking that is anti "cause and reaction". A thinking of hidden relations, connections and uncertainty. I like Claude Lévi-Strauss' term "The Savage Mind".


Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Figuring Data (Datascape Catalog Essay)

This essay was commissioned for the exhibition Datascape, at the Cube Gallery, QUT in April 2013. I should mention that since writing it I've discovered that Jer Thorp was way ahead of me on to the new oil thing.

“Data is the new oil” - Ann Hummer, Hummer-Winblad Venture Partners (source)

In the swirling chaos of twenty-first century capitalism, everybody wants to know what’s next. “Data is the new oil” is a pithy little announcement. It reminds us how we got here, powered by the long energetic boom of fossil fuels, now entering its closing stages. it announces a successor, a new wealth (and just in time). But in drawing the analogy, it also constructs data in a certain way; as a sort of amorphous but precious stuff, a resource for exploitation, and a sort of promising abundance. Similarly The Economist trumpeted the “Data Deluge” on their February 2010 cover: a businessman catches falling data in an upside-down umbrella, funnelling it to water a growing flower whose leaves are hundred dollar bills.

We need not (and should not) accept this analogy; but it demonstrates how data is figured, or constructed, in our culture. Our everyday life and culture is traced, tangled and enabled by digital flows. We produce and consume data as never before. But what exactly is this data? What can it do, and what can we do with it? Who owns or controls it? How can we understand, appreciate, or even sense it? The construction of data as a cultural actor is vital because data itself is so abstract, so hard to pin down. We ought not leave it to the captains of industry, and their upside-down umbrellas. In Datascape we see artists working with data, applying and diverting it for their own ends, as well as offering their own figurations of its potentials and limits. In a culture increasingly built on data, these works provide moments of cultural introspection, reflections on this abstract stuff that is our new social medium.

Google, Facebook, Twitter and the rest make us - their users - into data. This makes us anxious about privacy and surveillance, but perhaps a more interesting question is what it’s like to be data. If we are all data subjects now, then what is data subjectivity? Jordan Lane’s Digital Native Archive imagines a new bureaucratic archive for the data subject, and immediately comes to the question of mortality. If we are data, and data can be faithfully preserved, are we now immortal? Or are we, instead, dead forever, entombed in a rationalised hierarchy of metadata, request protocols and archival record formats? Christopher Baker’s My Map (below) shows us what it might be to take charge of a personal archive, with a tool that reveals the patterns and relationships in email correspondence. This self-portrait suggests that one of the challenges of data subjectivity is simply knowing oneself: the scale of our personal data exceeds our grasp.
In two of the most prominent data art works from the mid 2000s, we mine these personal archives en masse. Golan Levin’s The Dumpster and Sep Kamvar and Jonathan Harris’ We Feel Fine scour the internet for “feelings” that are compiled into datasets, and in turn staged as dynamic visualisations. In turning our digital selves into swarming dots and bouncing balls, the artists animate us as members of a teeming throng. Data here is in part a new form of social realism, a way to represent the complex texture of life in the crowd; but these works also ask us to reflect on the limits of data-subjectivity. Can the intensity of our inner lives really be represented in cool, abstract data? Are we all so much alike? Aaron Koblin’s Sheep Market answers both yes and no; for we can see here both the comical diversity of the crowd (and its sheep avatars), and the uniformity that digital systems encourage.

The pathos of this contrast, between the coolness of the digital and the warm, messy intensity of humankind, emerges again in Luke du Bois’ Hard Data, where the tolls of war unfold as stark lists and map references. Du Bois’ soundtrack, generated from the same source data, acts as an emotional mediator, trying to return some of the tragic importance that the data fails to convey. Du Bois’ work pivots between the data-subject and what we might call the data-world. For if the world, too, is now data, then what might that feel like? How do we approach such a world?

In many works here the weather - a complex (and increasingly uncooperative) material flux - is a sort of proxy for the data-world: a field that is both easy to measure, and difficult to grasp. In Miebach’s Weather Scores, Viegas and Wattenberg’s Wind Map (above), and my own Measuring Cup, weather data is a source of aesthetic richness, as well as a pointer to the world beyond, the world that data traces. The weather - so much part of our everyday sensations - is abstracted here into numbers and symbols, only to be remade in new sensual forms. What if we could see the wind across an entire continent? Or hold a hundred years of temperature? Or hear the tides as music?

Here we get a glimpse of an alternative figuration of data itself. Rather than some kind of precious (but immaterial) stuff, or fuel for market speculation, data here is a relationship, a link between one part of the world with another, and a trace that can be endlessly reshaped. Of course, that trace is imperfect; a mediated pointer, not a pure reproduction. So Viegas and Wattenberg issue a disclaimer for their Wind Map: this is just an “art project”, they say; we "can't make any guarantees about the correctness of the data or our software.” Yet that connection remains; and art here plays the role that it always has. It transforms our understanding of the world, by representing it anew.