The semiotics of supercomputers

Photo credits: Špela Petric and Miha Turšic

Is there artistic potential in understanding quantum physics and high-performance computing (HPC)? New media visual artists Špela Petrič and Miha Turšič try to explain complex research projects from their perspective and create awareness of new technologies and their societal and environmental implications

 31 August 2018 

Exascale supercomputing refers to super fast computers to be implemented between 2018 and 2020 to analyse massive volumes of data. The downside: they consume vast amounts of energy. This issue inspired new media visual artists Špela Petrič and Miha Turšič, who started a collaboration with a group of scientists working on exascale supercomputing projects

“Supercomputing was a big mystery,” says Špela Petrič. “It was George Beckett from the University of Edinburgh  who provoked us saying that in order to run the next exascale vision a supercomputer requires almost a whole power plant to power it,” she says. 

“George Beckett made it possible that we could work also with other projects and partners to have a better understanding of what exascale supercomputing is about: hardware, software, infrastructure, computing science and other sciences required by computing science,” says Miha Turšič. “They introduced us to all these levels of supercomputing”. 

Using new artistic methodologies the duo responded to knowledge and technology by transforming the data into works of artistic value that can be better understood by the general public. Becoming.A (Thing) (2017) is the result of their interpretation. 

It is a performance made up of things, and these things are input by algorithms. "The artwork represents a congress of entities that are human, digital, algorithmic, technological. They are somehow connected to what we've encountered during the residency," Špela Petrič tells youris. “They are algorithms for image recognition, text to speech, different simulations of clouds or rain. The result is an artwork that is a gallery-performance, like a live laboratory,” says Turšič. “It is a semiotic instrument, a tool to understand ourselves." 

"Algorithmic entities are fed with unexpected inputs and they are asked to make sense of them. This outcome is further processed with another algorithm, yet another technological interface. What we get is an emergence of meaning that does not have the meaning that was intended for," explains Petrič. "The important thing was to really consider the process of semiosis, not only something that is only attributable to humans, but that also emerges from the materiality of the objects that are involved in this congress of interpretation, in this process of meaning-making," she says.  

“With supercomputing scientists are trying to understand our environment and us as humans, how we use technology, how the technologies work from medicine to neurosciences. Everything is about understanding ourselves,” says Turšič. “We were really interested in the meaning that is produced by employing this technology.” 

To create this artwork the artists collaborated with Future and Emerging Technologies - High Performance Computers (FET-HPC) projects on exascale supercomputers including INTERTWinE in Edinburgh, UK, EXDCI in Renne, France and in Barcelona, Spain, NextGenIO in Edinburgh, UK, and ESCAPE in Reading, UK. 

According to Nick Brown, researcher from INTERTWinE, working with the artists was fascinating. “It allowed us to re-evaluate what we do, why we are doing it, and the impact of it as well,” he said. 

In science, things are right or wrong. In art there is so much grey area in the interpretation. Even if you don’t quite get the answer you’re looking for that’s still okay because it’s still useful as an artistic piece. For me, it was very useful for the different dimensions of what we do. It’s positive to include this in other sorts of scientific projects,” said Brown.  

“It’s a very engaging piece,” George Beckett says, who recommends to reserve enough time to spend at the performance in order to understand it, to have the opportunity to get involved with the piece, to talk to the artists, and to ask questions. 

Becoming.A(Thing) will be exhibited at the Bozar Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels, Belgium, from 14th to 30th September 2017. The artists’ residency was part of the Future and Emerging Art and Technology (FEAT) project supported by the EU 7th Framework programme Future and Emerging Technologies (FET).

By Susan Fourtané