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An Artist Has Made A Primitive Computer Out Of Earth Crystals, And Little Else

"Irrational Computing" by Ralf Baecker is technology in its most natural form.

by Nadja Sayej
May 16 2014, 9:00pm
Irrational Computing by Ralf Baecker

German artist Ralf Baecker gives technology a life of its own. His new piece Irrational Computing, which debuts June 10 at the International Triennial of New Media Art, use semiconductor crystals (quartz sand) and connects them to interlinked modules to create a primitive macroscopic signal processor. In other words, he's using quartz (a natural resource that's one of the basic commodities for all information technology), to create a raw mineral computer.

Baecker used quartz crystals taken directly from nature and industrial waste products and connected them to the modules, which use the electrical and mechanical specifics of the mineral to form a visual display, of sorts. Simultaneously, the crystals work as sound generators, as the electrical impulses from the modules force the quartz to vibrate. Through speakers, gallery visitors can both see and hear these quartz crystals. They even appear to have an unpredictable, life-like "conversation" with the other materials in the installation set-up, as the impulse signals and responses are organically random (thus, the "Irrational" part of the installation's title).

Unlike a real computer, Irrational Computing is not supposed to function. Rather, it all comes down to expressing poetry through technology and examining the border between technological control and chaos. Just as there is a long-held tradition of philosophy and poetic machines, Baecker explores the poetics of technology, thinking beyond the hardware. His mechanical installations sometimes even get out of control. Baecker spoke to us from Berlin about hallucinating machines, neural networks, and the one time he went into a crystal shop with a personal oscilloscope and the shopkeeper thought he was a new age oddity. 

The Creators Project: Do a lot of people forget that the basic commodity of information technology is made from semiconductor crystals?

Ralf Baecker: The transistor is one of the most important inventions of the 20th century. I did some research on early transistors and other electronic components and discovered that early radio devices from the 1920s were actually based on raw crystal specimens to detect a radio signal—crystal sets. I wanted build semiconducting parts from scratch using natural occurring crystals like galena, silicon or silicon carbide.

From my perspective, we interact with technology mostly through software interfaces. And these software interfaces run on black boxes like a laptop or smartphone, nevertheless the actual computing or executing part of these devices stays invisible. Its physical function is almost hidden. In the course of the open-source and open-hardware movement of the last couple of years, these black boxes became more transparent though the actual structures of a central processing unit (CPU), the core element of every computer stays hidden and is kept like a secret. CPUs are made from silicon and silicon is made from quartz sand. We can say that formal “human” logic is running on the minerals of the earth.

Why did you want to create a primitive signal processor in Irrational Computing?

My goal was not to reproduce electronic parts from scratch, so that these parts are able to do what they were invented for. My aim was to reverse the economic logic of these devices. Computers stand today for precision, control and application. I was interested in the opposite, referring to the history of logical machines and automatons. Computers are an aggregation of the long existing mechanistic and mathematical or algorithmic thinking traditions that used to be separated.

I imagined if, somewhere in the crust of the earth, an accidental distribution of materials could form some kind of primitive computing device. Though computation is a human concept, I used the more general term “signal processor.” Irrational Computing is a speculative setup that investigates the idea of an untamed signal process based on raw specimens.

Where did you get your crystal collection? Do you believe that crystals have metaphysical properties?

I got most of the crystals from crystal shops on eBay. But your assumption is right; some of them were advertised with an esoteric connotation. That was pretty surprising to me. I didn’t know that there is such a big pseudo-scientific scene, believing in the power and the healing potential of crystals. But I didn't look very deep into this field. Another source was shops for element collectors. Finally, I found a good crystal shop in Berlin. I went to the shop with my electronic equipment, like power supplies, oscilloscopes and multimeters, to test the electronic properties of the specimens. I guess they thought I was a very advanced new age or esoteric freak.

Irrational Computing almost gives technology a life of its own. Why did you want to allow conversations between crystals?

I basically put this “raw mineral computer” setup in a laboratory situation. My intentions were to investigate the aesthetics of a raw digital apparatus. The installation consists of five modules. Each module produces signals based on its material and their configuration. The “shot noise generator” for example is a simple circuit that uses “galena” crystals, instead of diodes generate binary noise and simple boolean operations. The module generates a constant shifting stream of random but significant binary pattern.

Another module, the “SIC display” is based on the light emitting effect, that we all know from LEDs. But instead of using manufactured LEDs, I used a raw chunk of silicon carbide. I pointed 64 iron needles on its surface to produce a semiconducting point contact diode to the crystal. By applying currents to a needle the crystal structure emits a tiny light in the visible range. Now, I inject for example the binary patterns generated by the “shot noise generator” on the crystal. Another module controls which signal is written on the display module. As a result of this interplay and its unpredictability, it appears to have a life-like behavior.

Ralf Baecker shows as part of the International Triennial of New Media Artopening June 10. Check out his website and videos. Follow Nadja on Twitter.


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