Artist and programmer with a background in Computer Science, Ralf Baecker has focused his artistic research in unfolding the different processes that take place underneath the illusory interfaces of the devices we use everyday. Exploring the materiality of our current information technology, he turns machines inside out and creates installations in which the user is confronted with a machine that is not under her command, but rather engaged in its own processual existence. Two of Baecker’s projects have been distinguished at the VIDA Art and Artificial Life International Awards: The Conversation received a Special Mention in VIDA 13.0, while Irrational Computing has earned the Second Prize in VIDA 14.0.
Irrational Computing reminds us of the materiality of a technology that increasingly intends to be invisible and ethereal. Did you conceive this installation with this particular aim?
Irrational Computing refers to the disappearance of materiality in contemporary information technology. This was one question that I was asking myself during the development. Current technologies are characterized by manifold layers. Approaching them from the top layer, there are the metaphorical user interfaces, signs, the operating system, binary symbols down to the CPU, the transistors, the silicon and finally tiny analog electronic currents. My aim is to carry out some kind of re-appropriation of the digital. And this becomes a poetic starting point for my work.
The crystals used in Irrational Computing emit sounds and light. Are these outputs necessary for the viewer to perceive that a process is taking place? Would you conceive this piece as a fully internal process with no external outputs?
This is a good question. Indeed this is something that I ask myself. On the one hand, a very important consideration for the decision to make the process audible and visible is that I want to offer an emotional, not conceptual, access to my installations. I gave it a very atmospheric touch, referring to historic computational/scientific propositions, such as the combinatoric devices of Ramon Lull, alchemy and the hermeneutic tradition. The paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby are very influential to me, too. On the other hand, this is what the crystals actually do, they generate sound by the piezo electric effect and they emit light. For IC I just had to amplify some of these phenomena.
The Conversation and Rechnender Raum present processes based on tensions between different elements. How did you decide for this particular form of display?
In both machines, every visible element IS the process of the machine. That makes the display part of the process too. In Rechnender Raum the whole structure of a symbol processing machine is inverted. It consists of highly complex logical parts constructed of strings, rubber bands, levers, weight, etc. The spectator has to look through all these parts to see the actual result in the wireframe-like display in the center. In The Conversation the permanent shifting forces between the magnets affect the movements of the rubber bands and vice versa. But finally it is a paradox. In both works I basically show every bit (binary digit) of the machine, but this transparency doesn’t help to understand it. It is not in our range of perception. If we distinguish between the surface and the layer that lies underneath, I want my devices and machines to be somewhere in between.
To what extent do aesthetic considerations determine your installations? Do you think that technological equipment should be exposed in artistic installations using technology?
My aim is to get rid of the display. I want process, and therefore I try to enhance the visual aspects of the machinery. The reason why I use the term “display” for some parts of my installation lies in the etymology of the word display, that leads us the latin word “displicare”, “to unfold” in English.
Nowhere – Data Landscapes also presents a machine engaged in an apparent soliloquy, but this time the process is less “irrational” and generates a final output. How does this work relate to your recent projects?
Nowhere was my first attempt to break out of the virtual into the physical.
Sound is apparently important in your work. What role does the “polyphonic buzz” in your installations play? Do you intend to stimulate a particular mood in the viewer?
In the beginning sound was more accidental than constructed. Since Rechnender Raum I’m more aware of it. Sound is a very good indicator for process and a good way to immerse the viewer in a certain space. I use it to generate an invisible hull around my works.
We now consider machines to be subject to our command, probably only fearing that Artificial Intelligence may one day render us obsolete. In this sense, do you intend the machines to look particularly mysterious, chaotic or even threatening?
A couple of years ago I started researching on the history of computing and on computer theory. I am very much interested in the roots of these devices. In early times there was still a division between the mechanical and the mathematical/algorithmic. This could also be replaced by matter and mind (the imaginary). I traced back to various times in the history in which these two roots merged into strange devices like the Hero of Alexandria (10-70 AD), automatic temple doors or Charles Babbage’s difference engine. These automatons are theatrical and/or philosophical devices, epistemological devices that contrast the utilitarian devices that we use on a daily basis now. Even Alan Turing’s “Turing machine”, that was the basis for the development of the “universal computer”, was in the beginning a hypothetical device to understand the limits of mathematics and mechanical computation.
The machines you create are characterized by their apparent autonomy, which we usually perceive as a distinctive trait of a living organism. Could these machines be understood as living beings?
It is interesting to see that, if you connect a couple of elements in the right way, these systems are able to generate some very life-like emergent behavior. For me there is some kind of life that goes beyond plants and animals. If we look around we will find this kind of behavior in all scales in social, economical and technical systems. And, not surprisingly, all these different systems are connected in a way.
Finally, how would you define artificial life?
It is quite hard to give a good definition. But recently I did some research on kinetic self-reproduction. There are some theoretical implementations of self-reproducing machines, like John von Neumann’s “universal constructor”. But most of the more elegant solutions stay in the computational space, it is hard to find a good physical implementation. Roger and Lionel Penrose built a simple stochastic self-replicating system that is based on wooden parts that are able to join and generate a copy of itself with other “floating” parts. But to come back to your question, Von Neumann’s definition of artificial life is: “life is a process which can be abstracted away from any particular medium”. Samuel Butler proposed in his 1872 novel Erewhon that machines were already capable of reproducing themselves but it was man who made them do so, and added that “machines which reproduce machinery do not reproduce machines after their own kind”. So there is already some kind of self-reproduction happening, but all mediated by humans.