Visual Logic: Aesthetics of Computation

Morgen Fleisig

Visual Logic is a one-bit computer: an absurdist testament to our social organization & industrial scale, and a study of the aesthetic potential of the modular components that make up the complex digital devices all around us.

The rapid miniaturization of control and communication systems has been critical to the scientific and economic development of the past half-century, but in its reduction of the physical to practical invisibility, it is also an apparent act of magic. Because of this illusion, it is difficult to sensibly comprehend not just the mechanisms behind most of the systems we now enjoy, but the vast human undertaking, cooperation and investment that has gone into making them all possible. Through Visual Logic, I seek to highlight the unconsidered potential and unappreciated hidden aesthetic qualities of lost or forgotten technologies by magnifying their expressive components.

We make sense of the complexity of the world by categorizing it, by organizing its parts into containers, objects, and metaphors. We create tools and machines for the same reason: to bridge the gap between imagination and reality, to act upon the world, explore it, control it, and communicate within it. Ironically, as we create new and more powerful tools, we create more complexity. These elaborate machines are made of simple parts based on simple principles; it is through their combinations that many things are possible, and by examining those fundamental logical mechanisms we make more sense of the complexity about us.

• Charles Petzold's Code
• Tim Hawkinson’s Überorgan, Signature Chair, Spin/Sink
• Alexander Graham Bell’s Photophone
• Arthur Ganson’s Machines
• Player Pianos and Pneumatic Air Logic Gates
• Duchamp’s Large Glass
• Rube Goldberg
• The Toaster Project
• Connections

The audience I seek to reach is one interested in bridging a gap between science and art. There are innumerable examples of scientists speaking of the moment of insight as one of artistic inspiration, and reciprocally, of artists profoundly moved to create by scientific discoveries. We are somewhat inured now to the marvels of scientific discovery, but an ideal setting for the presentation of my piece would be on the stage in an institution of scientific enquiry, roughly 130 years ago, when the Victorian backdrop and sense of wonder at the new dawn of the era of science lent a sense of spectacle to the endeavor: a revelation of the magic in peeling back the artifice to reveal the mechanism beneath.

Stepping out of the realm of fantasy and back into reality, while such a venue could be created today, a more realistic present-day analog would be an art or science museum, or a hybrid such as the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Eventually, it would be my goal to take the principles developed in the piece and implement them as a larger-scale installation in a work of architecture or urban design, or possibly even incorporate them within the built fabric of the building or public square itself.

User Scenario
The piece is composed of framed members and is intended to hang on a wall. Alternatively, the frames can be fastened together to form a compact rectangular solid. The audience approaches it and pulls one or two input levers coupled to simple Edison bulbs to indicate an on (1) or off (0) state. This triggers the flow of logic, visible through the cascade of swinging pendulums clicking against the electromagnetic relays as they pass light from one gate to the next. In its basic form, the resulting output will also be transparent Edison bulbs indicating a sum between 0 and 2. Elaborated, a carry will be included which will either be randomly set or also-lever operated, raising the output to 3, but also allowing for the generalizing concept that this adder could be used in any column for any power of two. More importantly, the output can be abstracted to counting in general: for example, animal sounds could stand in place of pure number, whgere an elephant = 1, an elephant plus a bird = 2, an elephant plus a bird plus a lion = 3.

I am building a one-bit computer, an electro-magnetic sculpture in which every part is composed of readily recognizable objects, and the transfer of signal from one element to the next is accompanied by a humanly intelligible sign, whether acoustic or visual. I will add bits as time allows. The adding machine, and the logic necessary to execute that addition, is the foundation of nearly every digital communication device in use today. I seek to depict its behavior clearly, but to mine the processes and principles embodied within it for their rich aesthetic potential.

Everyday, ubiquitous devices such as printers, fax machines, cell phones and cameras all depend on this technology, and their streamlined packaging obscures the incredible complexity within working so remarkably well and so nearly on the verge of failure. These devices are a point of departure: science and technology can be a basis for art.

Ultimately, I see this as a representative piece of a larger undertaking: the depiction of communication systems out of bits and pieces of readily recognizable and possibly anachronistic technology, with a focus on making humanly sensible the protocols of information management. The goal is to depict the means by which devices take human input, transform it and send it to other devices, which then in turn also transform, store and output it back to us.

The input for my one-bit computer will be two levers with indicator bulbs, and the output two transparent Edison bulbs. I also intend to experiment with representing number in other forms, such as with animal sounds, the number of animals equaling the output. The main story will be told in the behavior of the device itself, though: like a mechanical ballet, the logic gates will each act differently depending on the user's input, and the manner in which energy is converted from one form to another, all magnified for effect.

I have already set my thesis on fire once. I have an even greater appreciation now than I did when I began for the interdependent complexity of our civilization, and the economies of scale upon which we depend. Metaphor, simplification, the ability to see the forest for the trees--they are all critical tools for moving forward, for progress, but it is instructive--critically so--to try to take stock from time to time of the mind-boggling degree of thought, design and engineering that has gone into so-called everyday objects. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

It amazes me how quickly the basic repeated modular building blocks add together to a total complexity that is no longer really humanly comprehensible. I just watched Tati's Mon Oncle again and am coming full circle to question my idea that audible and visual indices can help clarify the logical mechanism of a complex system. Up to some limit, certainly, but thereafter, they just add to the noise and confusion. Of course, if they are orchestrated they will hopefully delight, but I'm wondering now if the idea of their leading to any sort of deeper understanding of the machine of which they are a part is itself a faulty premise.