New Elements – Analog Computing and the Environment

Exhibition “New Elements”
Laboratoria Arts & Science Foundation,
New Tretyakov Gallery Moscow
November 17, 2021 – February 27, 2022

Curated by Daria Parkhomenko & Dietmar Offenhuber

New Elements in the New Tretyakov Galery Moscow, photo by Yuri Palmin

The physical world is an analog computer. Everything that happens in the atmosphere, the soil, or the water inscribes itself into the world in countless ways. Polar ice, ocean sediments, and coral skeletons record the history of the global climate and aggregate it into physical patterns. The fingerprints of global warming are everywhere around us. All living and nonliving beings carry the imprints and scars of what has taken place.

Even the most powerful digital computers can only describe the world through abstract symbols. The main disadvantage of symbols is that we confuse them with reality, as Alan Watts reminds us. Analog computers, on the other hand, don’t describe information; they embody it. Their complexity lies in their structure, not in linear code.

The seemingly abstract world of digital information, which governs much of our lives, is brittle— never safe from the countless intrusions of the analog. From benign glitches due to an overheating processor to cyberattacks, from chip shortages to the energy footprint of blockchains—the material world, with all its messiness and unpredictability, constantly lurks beneath the immaterial virtual surface.

This exhibition explores an unusual perspective on data, information, and computation: What if information is not abstract but physical? What if meaning is not created by a human mind but an integral part of the world? What if computation is not confined to binary logic but is a process everything around us is constantly engaged in?

Physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach introduced the concept of “elements” to overcome traditional dualisms of body and mind, matter and information. For Mach, an element is a physical event that can manifest itself both as an object and a sensation. Today, we witness the emergence of an elemental philosophy of media, communication, and computation — a perspective that considers information an environmental phenomenon with profound ethical and political implications. Perceiving human and non-human subjects can never be outside observers. The elements surround us and we are always entangled inside.

Describing the world as a computer is not a metaphor. We don’t view the environment through the lens of technology, but recognize technology as part of the physical world. The works in “New Elements” are propositions for closing the epistemic gap between digital data and the experiential world.

Exhibition title graphic
Photo by Anton Galetsky

The exhibition examines three different aspects:

1. The autographic world

The first part of the exhibition examines the autographic nature of the physical world, its self-inscribing and self-recording capacity. It examines the nature of traces and how they can help us make sense of global changes, past and current climates.

Printed Matter(s), Tomás Saraceno, 2018. Photo by Yuri Palmin

Printed Matter(s)
Tomás Saraceno (Argentina)
prints with ink made of black carbon sequestered from the air of Mumbai on eight-gram handmade paper

Printed Matter(s) is a series of photo giclée prints made with black carbon pollution sequestered from the air in Mumbai, printed onto eight-gram handmade paper. The carbon particles constitute what is described as PM2.5 dust pollution — particles smaller than 2.5 µm in diameter. PM2.5 is the most common pollutant in urban environments and is especially harmful as the particles are small enough to travel deep into the lungs. The prints reproduce images of cosmic dust particles from a NASA Cosmic Dust Catalog — like polluted air, cosmic dust touches every person around the world, but on vastly different timescales. In these prints, the particles material with which the air has been poisoned becomes a tool for the air to communicate, reminding us of its ever-present agency even in the face of efforts to destroy it.

Cloud Studies, Forensic Architecture, 2021. Photo Yuri Palmin
Cloud Studies, Forensic Architecture, 2021. (Screenshot)

Cloud Studies
Forensic Architecture (UK)

Whether in the courtroom or in the science lab, the concept of evidence implies aesthetic experience. Forensic Architecture is a multidisciplinary investigative group of architects, filmmakers, and citizen journalists that reveals evidence of human rights violations through spatial, visual, and experiential means. The Cloud studies series examines the precarious production of evidence through a series of investigations in international crisis areas. The project an elemental focus fitting to the topic of the exhibition: the “clouds” it studies are poisonous gases used in warfare which leave their signatures on satellite images, the dustclouds of detonations that indicate their origin, or the traces of environmental pollution. Forensic architecture examines the relationship between evidence, aesthetics, and materiality.

Autoradiographic Examination of a Landscape, Erich Berger, 2021. Photo by Anton Galetsky

Autoradiographic Examination of a Landscape
Erich Berger (Finland)
photo installation / photo prints mounted on Dibond

Erich Berger’s “Autoradiographic Examination of a Landscape” is a project interested in “deep time,” the geological past of the landscape, and the traces it has left. Berger uses large-format photographic film to capture the remnants of natural radioactivity in the ground. Somewhat surprisingly, this radioactivity is not evenly distributed but manifests itself in intricate patterns that correspond to the radioactive qualities of different rocks and parts of the landscape. In the eyes of a geologist, these rocks and their radioactive properties can tell many stories, not just about their origins but also about the planet’s history. The visitor, of course, will not be able to decode these traces, but their complex patterns reveal a hidden world that is otherwise invisible.

Drop Tracer, Tuula Närhinen, 2011. Photo by Anton Galetsky

Drop Tracer
Tuula Närhinen (Finland)
mixed media installation, photoprints, slides, objects, video (duration)

Tuula Närhinen engages historical scientific methods for measuring elemental processes and explores the physical and conceptual underpinnings of pictorial representation. She constructs experimental visual interfaces that connect the observer with the fabric of the world. Images that emerge from this interaction unravel the inherent pictorial potential in naturally occurring events. Re-adapting methods and instruments derived from natural sciences, Närhinen facilitates the transcription of movements of different natural phenomena, such as water and wind into visual plots. The tracings and photographic recordings are created by the agency of nature itself– trees scribble and waves dash down their signatures. Närhinen constructs simple low-tech devices and uses various (photo)graphic techniques that enable us to move beyond the explicit and grasp the unfurling of a world invisible to the naked eye. Drop tracer is a visual record of a raindrop’s collision with a soot-coated glass slide. A contact microphone catches the sound, and the captured process is shown on the screen.

2. Computation with analog media

The second part examines non-digital and non-representational forms of information. Computation is more than manipulating abstract symbols; it expresses itself in the interaction of all matter. Examples include wind tunnels and cybernetic experiments that enlist organisms and electrochemical reactions for solving complex problems.

The Natural History of Networks / SoftMachine, Ralf Baecker, 2020. Photo by Anton Galetsky

The Natural History of Networks / SoftMachine
Ralf Baecker (Germany)
performance & video documentation

A Natural History of Networks / Softmachine” by Ralf Baecker is a direct reference to an episode in the history of computing: the cybernetic experiments by Gordon Pask in the late 1950s in which he tried to evolve an electro-chemical computer that doesn’t use bits and bytes, but magnetic fluids and electromagnetic fields. Pask’s idea of computation was not based on symbolic logic, which is the basis of all modern computers, but on self-organizing systems and how they can sense and adapt. Pask and his fellow cybernetic pioneers were not interested in representation — how a machine can see the world but how it acts in the world. Ralf Baecker’s artworks explore such self-organizing systems that consist of simple elements, but nevertheless, show surprisingly complex behaviors.

POEM, Thomas Feuerstein, 2010. Photo by Yuri Palmin

Thomas Feuerstein (Austria)
biotechnological installation

Thomas Feuerstein is sculptor and new media artist who frequently collaborates with scientists on sculptures and objects that comprise biological and technological systems. His work in new elements, “POEM” is part of a larger ecosystem of objects: each of his artworks consists of other artworks, each with its own name and role, which communicate and exchange materials with each other. The installation extracts the liquids from the air exhaled by the visitors and feeds them into a bioreactor that extracts amino acids and ethanol, which are subsequently distilled into drinkable alcohol. Feuerstein’s art is “media art” in the literal sense, engaging the media of air, water, and the different substrates and processes of life in a complex process of communication.

ooze, Theresa Schubert, 2021. Photo Yuri Palmin

Theresa Schubert (Germany)
audiovisual biotechnological installation

Theresa Schubert is a German artist who works on the relationship between biological and technological processes, reframing the old and worn-out duality of nature versus culture. In her work “OOZE” she examines systems of measurement that connect both the biological and the digital world. She is working with point clouds created from 3d scans made from a forest and the infrastructure of a data center; both environments are fragmented into disconnected points in space through the optical method of quantification. The installation also includes an algae bioreactor that is continuously scanned through a similar optical process. The activity of the algae turns into random numbers, which are used to change and animate the point clouds of the two environments. It is a beautiful meditation about how measurement is always reductive but also a material process — the data it generates are not abstract but part of the material world. Commissioned by LABORATORIA Art&Science Foundation and Kaspersky.

3. Digital materiality

The third section explores the formal materiality of complex software systems such as deep neural networks, which can exhibit material-like qualities, resisting control almost like a physical material. With their inner structures too complicated to disentangle and their training data often too heterogeneous to produce predictable results, many researchers approach these systems almost like natural phenomena —through probing, observing, and interpretation.

Anna Riedler, Proof of Work: The Shell Record, 2021. Photo by Yuri Palmin

Proof of Work: The Shell Record
Anna Ridler (UK)
installation, video, shells, archival materials

“Proof of Work: The Shell Record” takes us through the entire spectrum of autographic phenomena. The British artist collected shells from the foreshore of the River Thames to create a record of history of the river — some of the shells have gone extinct and no longer live in the river, others are invasive species that are the result of globalisation. This piece shows how she catalogued, photographed, and feed them into an artificial neural network, creating an infinite variety of simulated shells. These synthetic traces are then recorded on the Blockchain as a bespoke NFT token, embodying the energy used to create them. For Ridler, it is significant that the shells, historically used as a form of currency, have been collected near the City of London, one of the financial centres of the world. The Shell Record NFT was part of Sotheby’s first NFT auction.

Elementum, Ryoichi Kurokawa, 2018. Photo by Anton Galetsky

Ryoichi Kurokawa (Japan)
mixed media installation, digital print, pressed flowers and butterfly, aluminium, glass elementum #12 — papilio ulysseselementum #13 — glebioniselementum #14 — sweet peaelementum #15 — yarrow

The elementum series combines Oshibana — the Japanese method of drying and pressing flowers dating back to the 16th century with modern digital printing techniques. Oshibana is closely related to the aesthetic of wabi-sabi — the Japanese worldview rooted in the acceptance of the transitory nature of things, which is characterised by three key concepts: mushin, anicca and mono no awareMushin, “no-mindness”, expresses the ability to let go and to free one’s mind from the search for perfection. Anicca can be translated as “impermanence”: everything is destined, sooner or later, to perish; acceptance of this reality is part of a wise and serene attitude to existence. Mono no aware, or empathy for objects, denotes a profound pathos in all things: by accepting and understanding the natural process of degeneration, we become capable of truly appreciating beauty. Reconfiguring flowers that have lost their original vitality, Kurokawa further enriches these arrangements with a digital elaboration of the images on glass. By uniting these various elements, the work brings new life to the flowers through enhancing the process of decay.

Exo-Ark, Ilya Fedotov-Fedorov, 2019. Photo by Anton Galetsky

Ilya Fedotov-Fedorov (Russia)
mixed media installation, video, 8′

Ilya Fedotov-Fedorov studies the relationships between man and nature, science and ritual. The pursuit of immortality originated the practice of ritual mummification, the physical preservation of human bodies. In order to document knowledge about nature, humans invented the technique of taxidermy to preserve animal bodies. Fedotov-Fedorov considers natural history and zoology museums as both temples and cemeteries for nature that foreground a profound paradox: as animals and plants are prepared for their immortal life, they first have to be killed. Digital methods of data storing generate new rituals and preservation modes: metadata, 3D-scanning and modeling, and virtual reality become a digital version of Noah’s ark. Fedotov-Fedorov’s work poses the question of whether digital images of animals and plants continue nature or manifest its death. The artist looks for connections in the chain nature-human-technology, where each subsequent link emerge from the previous one, gains autonomy, and then subjugates and destroys its antecedent.

Right: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, Memo Akten, 2021. Photo by Anton Galetsky

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
Memo Akten (UK)
video, 1’58’’

Technology alone cannot save us. Salvation does not lie in submission to technology. Neither is it in a rejection of technology. There is no either/or, as there is no divide between humanity and technology; technology is human, and thus natural. Rejection of technology is a rejection of humanity. To break out of this false dichotomy, we must adapt a holistic approach — to embrace not only technology, but all of humanity, all of nature — including technology.