Supercomputer FAQ

How does this work situate itself in a wider artistic and cultural context ? Is it “like” Heath Robinson ?

No, it’s a Kinetic artwork more “like” Tinguely’s metamechanics. And indebted to Pierre Bastien and his mechanical instruments and to Sol LeWitt’s rule based drawings and structures, to pachinko parlours and pinball . . .

What’s it got to do with Cambridge ?

A university is an institution for creating and passing on knowledge, for the processing and transmission of information across generations. Cambridge is such a place obviously, but more than that it occupies a seminal position in the advent of the digital age we now find ourselves in - Alan Turing and his conceptualisation of the foundations of computing, John Conway and the Game of Life (which anticipated the computer’s iterative powers and the field of Artificial Life / Complexity), 75 years of hardware development from EDSAC to the Raspberry Pi . . . Supercomputer is a sculpture of computational process, of mechanised information.

Why not use a normal computer ?

I was interested in making a sculpture for one thing, but also in the process of transformation, taking something we take for granted - the computer - which is also totally opaque as to its workings, and making something physical and visible. It may look complicated but the mechanics are there to see, nothing is hidden. In a simplistic sense, all a computer consists of is millions of electronic switches chained together into logic gates and circuits. Logic gates don’t have to be electronic, they can be made from plumbing, Lego, Meccano, hydraulics . . . or in this case simple mechanical flip flops. For a long time I’ve been interested in what I call post-digital practice, by which I mean a return - after years of working with digital technology, of mediating the world through a screen - to a tactile engagement with materials. The notion of a post-digital computing sculpture is in a sense a logical conclusion to such a train of thought.

In some places it says it is a hydraulic computer ?

That was the original idea and plans exist. It would have necessitated a 60 foot high water tower to provide the necessary pressure, and a far greater budget. There are some drawings here.

Is it about failure ?

That’s a good question as such matters interest me. Clearly, as an art work, it doesn’t have to function as, for example, as does a machine in industry, but it has to work within its own conditions: in the same sense that each Sol LeWitt wall drawing is a unique instance of applying simple rules he has stipulated, Supercomputer takes its form from the system it represents, the network of connections between inputs and outputs, bits and rules - as in the drawing below. And then setting the result in motion, the ball bearings carrying information around the sculpture, and all the moving parts, do what they have to do according to their nature. Any deviation from expectation is not then a failure, only a sculptural conclusion.
If it is a failure (which it isn’t !), it’s a failure on a spectacular scale, and that, in itself, I’d call a success.

Is it a Surreal or Absurdist object ?

It has a preposterousness, an absurdity I guess, but I prefer to see it more as a ‘pataphysical object.

What does it look like ?

It’s hard to photograph because someone built a fence right in front of it, which wasn’t the plan. And inside there is so little space it is not easy to take good portraits of the different elements. There are some photographs here.

How many ball bearings are there ?

At any one time it is possible to account for 160 and their whereabouts. That's the maximum number that could be used in one computational cycle. There are at least 4 times that number as backup. But in total it is hard to say as they have a tendency to hide away in pipes and inaccessible corners, making an accurate accounting impossible. Originally there were 1000, more or less.

Is it a musical instrument ?

Well, yes, in many ways I see a lot of my works as being instruments or composing machines within an expanded idea / notion of music, and existing at a point where sound and music begin or end. I once wrote a song about a pachinko parlour and in many ways the sound of the cascading metal balls was the most musically convincing, the most sonorous and delightful part of the composition, the part that was found-sound. Often the sonic ready-made beats the consciously composed. Ask any Cagian !

Is it a composing-machine ?

The sculpture incorporates a five note xylophone, each note corresponding to one of Supercomputer’s five bits. Any positive output will play a note . . . so on the strictly melodic side it composes minimal melodies. Much more intricate are the sounds of the sculpture’s process. Each moving element has its own sound and rhythm and the sum total of these sonic parts constitute a complex rhythmic accompaniment in which one can pick out further tiny melodic details. Listening from the outside, through the speakers, is not ideal. There are a number of microphones inside, and while what one is hearing is live, what’s heard is one of many possible mixes through an average sound system. Inside is another matter; it’s possible to listen very clearly as one moves around the different sections. Unfortunately it’s not generally open for people to wonder about inside.

What does it sound like ?

Recorded on a very rainy day in January 2016 . . .

What is it calculating ?

I’m often asked that while I’m maintaining it. One interegator was so persistent with the tiny details that my answer lasted several hours. In short, it is an endless cycle of computation in which each output becomes the next input. So it’s calculating patterns.

How does it do that ?

It’s a one-dimensional, single-neighbour cellular automata. It’s a simplification of the brilliant Cambridge mathematician John Conway’s Game of Life, which is a big inspiration. The Game of Life is a two-dimensional, single-neighbour cellular automata with very specific rules whereas Supercomputer makes comparisons between the state of each bit and that of its immediate neighbours.

Is it really a super-computer ?

It is a sculpture, a sculptural-machine. It isn’t a computer, though it does compute on its own terms. And those terms are complicated and indeterminate due to the complexity of its construction. In the lexicon of computer programming one could call them bugs. And from the bugs come mutations to the computations which giving rise to unpredictable “results” - it has a life of its own. Supercomputer embraces the bugs and avoids the expectation that it’s capable of scientific accuracy and reproducibility.
Guide Supercomputer Sound Photographs Plumbing