Remembering Alan Turing

October 2012

Computer Art Image of the Month

Thank You, an artwork dedicated to Alan Turing

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Craig Morrison and Joel Cockrill, Thank You, an artwork dedicated to Alan Turing. blinc Festival, 2012.

Copyright the artists, reproduced with permission.

Alan Turing Year 2012 continues apace with a variety of events inspired by the great contribution made by the mathematician and code breaker to the history of computer science and modern biology.

This month we continue to explore Turing’s influence on the strand of art that is interested in the intersection of arts and technology.

Due to the secret nature of the work Turing (and others) did during the Second World War, and the prominence of American mega-systems and companies subsequently, Britain’s contribution to computing innovation can only too easily be overlooked.

I think it right therefore that 2012, the centenary of his birth, has been designated ‘Alan Turing Year.’ Of course such achievements involve many people but I hope that the focus on Alan Turing’s fascinating work helps to educate those unfamiliar with the tremendous pioneering role Britain played and continues to play in this field.

After seeing Sir Tim Berners-Lee make an appearance in the London 2012 Olympic Opening ceremony, I believe it is indeed an exciting time for the convergence of computing history and culture in this country.

The future of Bletchley Park and its preservation as an important world heritage and educational site is now assured, thanks to major support from Google as well as other partners. (Earlier this year Turing was even honoured with a Google Doodle - a playable Turing Machine.

Last month we looked at Patrick Tresset who was inspired by the concept of machine intelligence put forward by Turing in 1950 and this month we’re considering the work of artists / curators Craig Morrison and Joel Cockrill who have been commissioned by the Arts Council of Wales to produce a laser and light installation honouring Turing’s life and legacy. Appropriately entitled Thank You, Craig and Joel’s piece will be shown at the blinc digital arts festival in Conway, North Wales, which this year is dedicated to the memory of Alan Turing.

Craig and Joel are the team who last year produced amazing digital projections onto the 500 year old walls of Conwy Castle and Plas Mawr, a Elizabethan era mansion, seen by over 8,000 people.

For blinc 2012, the team collaborates on two large scale light installations; Thank You will be installed on Conway Castle and Intense Colour Movement will be a projection mapped light work on Plas Mawr, at the end of October. Both of these works will be streamed on The Space, an online platform for arts run by the BBC. Our image shows a mock-up as, at the time of writing, the show has not yet started.

Described by Joel as ‘an emotional response’ to Turing’s life and work, Thank You will use programmed ‘hyperboloids’, or rolling spheres, to sweep across sea and sky above the castle towers flickering at a frequency calculated using Morse code projecting the text ‘Thank You’ towards the heavens.

Alongside this, on a plinth on the ground, a white neon sign will display Turing’s epitaph. The plinth is a reference to the Fourth Plinth project in Trafalgar Square, an empty plinth outside the National Gallery, which since 1999 has hosted a changing display of contemporary artworks.

Craig says: ‘Alan Turing’s abstract mathematical achievements epitomise what the plinth represents and in some way is responsible for probably most of the artwork that is displayed. His fundamental work in computing has helped to shape what we see in contemporary life. His wartime work on code breaking definitely went towards preserving our freedom of expression.’

The wording of the epitaph comes from one of four postcards Turing sent to his friend and associate, fellow mathematician and logician Robin Gandy with the headings Messages from the Unseen World. The artists chose the following short poem from 1954, shortly before Turing died, to re-create in neon:

Hyperboloids of wondrous Light
Rolling for aye through space and time
Harbour those waves which somehow might
Play out God's holy pantomime

According to Turing’s biographer Andrew Hodges this was ‘a parody of the hymns of Sherborne School chapel [where Turing had attended school], but perhaps also a serious reference back to his first wondering about mind and matter.’

In fact Hodges sees this poem as prescient about the future of quantum mechanics as it then stood, which Turing had been thinking about at the time. Hodges says, ‘the reference to “the unseen world” was a shared joke with Gandy about the religious standpoint of the mathematical physicist and astronomer Arthur Eddington, whose book The Nature of the Physical World had started Turing thinking about fundamental physical theory in 1930. It was also very strangely suggestive of mathematical developments in relativity barely starting in 1954: ideas in which the geometry of light rays was fundamental.’

Hodges reminds us that ‘it is perhaps impossible now to recover how shocking Turing was, blasting through public and private truth in a world where no-one was ever supposed to question bishops, judges, or police.’ A personal statement of apology was issued by Prime Minster Gordon Brown in September 2009 for the ‘appalling’ way that Turing was treated in his lifetime and a petition has been circulating online calling for a posthumous pardon to be granted.

But this art work is about gratitude. Thank You can be seen as precisely that; a thanks on behalf of the media arts world, using the very digital materials that Turing helped to invent. According to Hodges, Turing believed in the survival of the spirit after death. Perhaps Turing was right; here we are remembering him nearly sixty years after his death, his legacy surrounding us in the ever-present technology we use every day.

The blinc festival includes 28 international artists working in film, digital media, light and sound and runs from 27 to 28 October.

Catherine Mason is the author of A Computer in the Art Room: the origins of British computer arts 1950-80, published in 2008.

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More about this month’s artists: Craig Morrison and Joel Cockrill

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