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turing among the machines

One of the defining characteristics of Alan Turing was his pairing of supremely abstract thinking with a very real-world interest in the nuts and bolts of machines. He enjoyed hands-on physics, chemistry, and biology experiments his entire life, and had already begun his life-long adventures with computing machines with analog devices when he recognized and formalized the design advantages of digital technology.

Turing portrait in progressIt is entirely natural to think of Turing’s deepest emotional relationship as being the one which he had with The Machine. He formalized what we mean by a “binary computing machine”, as well as the universal nature of such a machine. He knew that machines had the capacity to possess their own intelligence (and their own set of fallibilities) far before that was fashionable, and spoke of them in that light from day one. (He probably went further, thinking of all life as mechanical, but this is only implied in his writings.) He would often solve new problems by sketching or prototyping: his output started with devices such as his childhood Foucault pendulum, continued with advanced devices of his own design including a gear-driven analog calculator, a binary electronic adder, and an electronic voice scrambler, and culminated with the first flush of true general-purpose computers in the 1940s and early 1950s, for which he was a central influence.

In this installation, I have chosen one of the oldest and most universal technologies, the loom, to stand in as the ritual presence of The Machine. When I first encountered the machines described by Turing in On Computable Numbers, my mind immediately went to the motion of a shuttle, whose oscillatory movements resemble the movement of the turing machine head across its tape. The tape itself also seems symbolically linked: the fabric being created from warp and weft seems similar to the output being created from “state” and “mark”. Because of this, I have chosen to weave the sounds and outputs of looms into the performance. They come and go, and are produced by both live weaving in the room, as well as by the triggering of electronic field recordings.

Geoff Shilling has also created a woven portrait of Turing which will sit with us in the room, invoking his presence. If you examine the portrait closely, you will see that it is composed of letters (symbols) from the Fraktur family of fonts, which is the same font that Turing used to represent the workings of his universal machines on paper. It is a beautiful piece, and a beautiful tribute.