Archives for the Month of November, 2006

Jóhann Jóhannsson – IBM 1401, A Users Manual

IMB 1401 Data Processing System

A computer that crops up again and again in classic old photographs of the early era of computing is the IMB 1401 Data Processing System, a stored-program transistor-logic computer from 1959. It happened to be first mass-produced digital business computer (10,000 existed in the mid-1960s) that could be afforded by many businesses worldwide. The machine came with 4096 characters of memory, with a maximum expansion of up to 16k, the monthly rental for a 1401 was $2,500! Jóhann Jóhannsson, an Icelandic musician, composer and producer has created an album of music commemorating the life (and death) of this computer system – ‘IBM 1401, A Users Manual’.

The chief maintenance engineer for this machine (when it arrived in Iceland) was Jóhann Gunnarsson, (Jóhann Jóhannsson’s father). A keen musician, Gunnarsson senior learned of an obscure method of making music on this computer, a purpose for which this business machine was not designed. The method was simple – the computer’s memory emitted strong electromagnetic waves and by programming the memory in a certain way and by placing a radio receiver next to it, melodies could captured by a receiver as a delicate, melancholy sine-wave tone.

When the 1401 was taken out of service in 1971, rather than being just thrown away, it was given a little farewell ceremony where its melodies were played for the last time and documented for posterity. The motifs of the ‘funeral music’ were used as sonic material for Jóhannsson’s album.

The track ‘Printer’ uses the voice of an instructor, reading through the maintenance manual, while elegiac strings build into a kind of requiem. It imparts an emotional connection to the 1401 and continues an ongoing fascination with the anthropomorphism of technology. The final track, ‘The suns gone dim and the sky’s turned black’ uses a computer reading of a Dorothy Parker poem, as if the IMB 1401 was conscious, and aware, of its own permanent departure: ‘The sun’s gone dim, and the moon’s gone black. For I loved him, and he didn’t love back’

Early Abstractions (1946-57) Harry Smith

Circular Tensions, Homage to Oskar Fischinger - Harry Smith
Circular Tensions, Homage to Oskar Fischinger – Harry Smith

Donjuanauxenfers has uploaded ‘Early Abstractions’ a cycle of early experimental films and animations by the great Harry Smith. There are a number of short individual films on the compilation although they are presented as one long stream in this context.

Part 1 contains three films that are colourful and abstract. Falling neatly into a category that could be called ‘visual music’, Smith produced these films by hand-painting 35mm film and stock photographing, or in the case of ‘Message from the sun’ using sticker stencils to mask and then paint onto the film. The films were silent although it was intended that music be played alongside them, Smith often used the jazz or native American Indian tribal music.

The preoccupation of synaesthetically merging sound with moving image is a key aspect of Smiths early work, as with his contemporaries (Bute, Mclaren, Belson, Whitney), its also follows a tradition set by earlier proponents such as Oskar Fischinger. Infact Part 3 contains ‘Circular Tensions, Homage to Oskar Fischinger’, a personal favourite where an abstract interplay of moving geometric figures are augmented by hypontic native american music.

Smith devoted much of his life to the study of the occult and the arcane. He was a known Kabbalist, Alchemist and Tarot fanatacist and these interests could be tied back to the fact that his parents were Theosophists. In his later life it’s interesting to note he had major connections with the OTO and delved deep into Enochian studies. All of this can be felt in Mirror Animations (1957) in which the filmmaker described as ‘An exposition of Buddhism and the Kaballa in the form of a collage’.

‘In a time when computers had not yet nudged their way into everyday life, Smith was making a decent attempt to turn his brain into a multimedia hub, a receptacle capable of sucking in and spewing out various bits of data, juggling them around in new, enlightening ways.’ – Jamie Sexton

Further Reading:

Harry Smith Archives including pictures of him.
Alchemical Transformations: The Abstract Films of Harry Smith, Jamie Sexton.
Image-Smithing, Dirk de Bruyn.
Smith was also fervent and well-known anthologist of American Folk Music.

Procedural Networks

Map (detail) – Nigel Peake

Secondstreet contains a set of finely drafted maps that overflow into the territory of emotion and imagination. Abstracting imagined pathways, roads, boundaries and fields to a psychogeographic set of geometries; the final drawings appear flat & doodle-like with repetitive textures containing undulating rhythms. Nigel Peake, a previous student of architecture, cites bike trips at night time and hand drawn maps in history as some of his favourite things!

Reducing the paths, flows and networks to a microscopic level Laura Splan’s Though Patterns series of drawings are inspired by neuroanatomical biology. Using her own blood as ink the ‘series explores the relationship between the images being depicted and the source of the medium with which they are drawn’. Each drawing becomes a diagram of the though process itself and in essence a self-reflective sigil of processed pattern.

Both artists, to some extent, rely on the human algorithm and internal if/then statements to build their complex drawings and have a strong, if unintentional, allegiance to the kind of art made by computational artists and their algorithms.

For more procedural drawings see this post. Also related is Human Robots & Space filling Emotions.

No Such Thing as One

Binary Star – Conrad Shawcross

Conrad Shawcross make kinetic sculptures dealing with philosophical theories around the creation of the universe, harmonics and cosmology. Even if you don’t have a predilection for such concepts as String Theory and Quantum Mechanics (And why shouldn’t you?) you can still marvel at Conrad’s impressive constructions dealing with types of Harmonic Motion. Loop System Quintet consists of five oak ‘machines’ that are engineered to draw ‘knots’ of light in space. The ratios of the different movements of these ‘knots’ are also connected to theories of musical harmony. The work also has added pataphysical dimension by virtue of it being entirely useless, and as the artists says ‘It is all folly, and with no use or product, as a machine, it is tragic’. Harmonic Tower saw the construction of a gigantic Harmonograph (Granddaddy of the Spirograph) – Large-scale ‘space-time’ drawings produced by the machine were installed on the walls around the tower for an exhibition at the Walker Gallery, Liverpool, last year.

No Such Thing as One is a new body of work currently on display at Victoria Miro Gallery, London, (up until the 18 Nov 2006) dealing with aspects of time and the essence of matter. Space Grid (Mirrored tetrahedral system) is ‘a system of tetrahedrons that tessellate universally in space. The system comprises of two types of tetrahedron that are identical but are in fact mirror images of each other. Shawcross arranges these tetrahedrons in a multiplicity of combinations and directions to form a 6-D grid of dense geometry’

The work of this artist relates to two other recent posts on Dataisnature:

Drawings of Harmonic Motion – Bálint Bolygó
Oscillating Light Kinetics – Paul Friedlander

Data Vapour 081102

Blossfeldt Fractals – William Ngan

Metaphorical brings to us a new work based on the photographs of Karl Blossfeldt and generated using a species of algorithm similar to L-Systems. Check out the dynamically generated Blossfeldt Fractals here, you can also read about the process behind the piece here.
Whereas Blossfeldt often only took pictures of plant fragments, single flowers and close ups, Metaphorical’s computed plants exist as more complex rhyzomatic constructions.

Socialfiction continues his adventures into the more esoteric territories of Cellular Automata, Universal Computers & the Game of Life. After a year of work there is now a ‘Chain Reaction Glitterati Stable release’ of the Crystalpunk Automaton, oh yes! From the strange attractor himself:

‘This automaton is a writing machine and a machine for language generation. But as one postulated behaviour is the existence of a Universal Constructor this machine also brings us into the domain of origin of life. The test now becomes the users ability to model processes of mind and matter into a chain-reaction.’

Jin-Yo Mok’s Sonic Column consists of a large cylinder who’s inside surface is covered with a grid of LEDs. When the user’s touch reacts with a sensor its respective LED is lit to produce collectively a pattern of lights. In much the same way a traditional music box works, the column can be turned with a crankshaft to produce sounds corresponding to each of the illuminated LEDs.

Over at SanchTV the VVVV Superformula port turns 2.0 with 3d deformations applied to 2d renditions of the Superformula. The result, beautiful complex graphical surfaces, many types of different meshes and perfect flowers! One of the intentions for this new work is to output to high resolution for print.