Prof. Anthony Moore

History-producing machines

“Perhaps these automatons were running on some unknowable mixture of sound waves and celestial diesel. Certainly their flickering needles, probes, and multifold operations continued unceasingly.”*

This is an idle meditation on machines and a speculation on what it might be that defines machine-like processes. To do this in the context of the sculptural, computational, kinetic, sounding art of Ralf Baecker makes obvious sense. In my view it is exactly what his work, minus the idleness and speculation of course, is all about. In English it could be stated that the reason (for placing this text in proximity to the work of Baecker) is self-evident.

So the first meditation arises from questioning whether machines and machine-like processes are capable of producing self-evident results; indeed, are they capable of producing anything other than obvious outcomes? Given that the structuring of language is a machine-like process and that conscious, modern thinking is carried out in language, then thought itself becomes a machine-like process. Thus the author of this text which is self-evident and produces self-evident outcomes, can be no more (nor less) than a machine, albeit a meditating machine! Strictly speaking, further definition of the term “self-evident” is appropriate. Something that has the quality of being self-evident must carry within itself the reason for its existence. In fact it becomes its reason for being. This process seems to be evolutionary and recursive. Designed to forge tools for the making of machines which forge tools, the recursive machine-tool improves itself through the application of learning algorithms, adjusting weights and thresholds as it goes along. It is not designed to produce perfection (which is self-evident).

Contemporary machines such as computers using electricity can act so fast as to fool the observer into imagining timeless processes, leaving an impression of an instantaneously acquired history or pre-knowledge of rules required to construct those same rules themselves. However recursion does not commence (nor complete itself) spontaneously, it is given a name and some simple conditions before it starts to work. Recursion is heavy with time because it is essentially a process of systematically ruling out options until nothing is left and then ascending with this information back to the surface of the problem again. In a similar way, by rendering the electrical mechanical, with gears and levers, Baecker’s work frustrates speed’s desire for acceleration.

The singular thing about the thought-machine of Alan Turing is not just that it is ‘universal’ but, perhaps more fundamentally, that it is immaterial. Turing utilises the term ‘machine’ to counter-balance this very insubstantiality. The machinery works on paper. That would usually mean, “theoretically, hypothetically, perhaps not in the real, practical world”. But in this case working on paper really IS where actuality takes place. The program, though writing, is operative. And for all its insubstantiality it is still a machine – albeit a still machine, motionless in the normal sense.

Once they leave the paper the machines begin to make noise again. So they slip from timeless, soundless thought to musical apparatus and then to the mute theory of quantum computing only to emerge as humming spaceships. Thoughts appear as machines and machines become thoughts – the thundering machines of the 19th century, Babbage et al, and the ethereal, silent constructions of mathematics and language. Some machines, producing other kinds of display, transform information in differing media, for example reading a text or program out loud, replacing the medium of paper and writing with pressure waves formed by the atoms of the air. And sometimes these transformations are reversible, as if the nib of a pen could unwrite lines of text: the stylus that engraves the wax cylinder is the same as the one that follows the grooves it has made in order to playback the information it has engraved: the piezo may be used both as a loudspeaker and a microphone, it simply depends on which side of the membrane the flow of disturbance impacts. Even the ear with its active mechanics can output sound in the form of oto-acoustic emissions.

Another such machine is the mercurial Mercury Acoustic Delay Line. Driven by a need to phase cancel echo and noise the inventors of radar wanted to create a delay in the flow of incoming information. This delay, summed with the direct signal, should leave a clearly displayed flight-path of the tracked object. The information as electrical flow is split into two paths, one heads, uninterrupted, for the display. The second is introduced into a quartz crystal placed at one end of a body of mercury. The electrical charge causes the crystal to vibrate and this disturbance sends waves through the mercury. At the far end of this body is a second crystal which converts the mechanical disturbance back into electrical energy. Due to the speed of sound in mercury a delay has been effected and this signal is then summed with the direct one. Transformation of information in different media, reversibility and memory storage are all at work in this machine. Turing recognised that this process could be used to provide internal memory for a computer and whilst it was impossible to access the signal path randomly, nevertheless acoustic memory was indeed implemented into early computers.

The mesmerizing thing about machines is that they are fueled by time, they run on time, and ultimately they reproduce the time they consume. They are history-producing Such are the recursive unfoldings of this ill-disciplined meditation, all of which are reflected in various surprising and touching ways in the thought-provoking work of Ralf Baecker.

anthony moore: ales: feb2010.

* from Anthony Moore “The Musical Yardstick”, in: Siegfried Zielinski & Silvia M. Wagnermaier “Variantology 1; On Deep Time Relations of Arts, Sciences and Technologies”, Walther Koenig Verlag Cologne 2005: P. 195.

published in Space Inventions Exhibition Catalog Künstlerhaus Wien, 2010

(c) Ralf Baecker 2004 - 2023