Cybernetics on the Prairie



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The core of this project takes the form of BCL/IGB, a commissioned public artwork in three parts: a printed mural, a reprinted collection of historic texts, and a recreated historical computer. I intended the work as a monument to an under-recognized episode in my home institution’s history, constructed in a form appropriate to the content.
More ambitiously, this work is an attempt to deal with the nature of institutional memory, especially in the context of scientific research. More personally, I entered the project as a way to learn how one might successfully navigate the complex moral and philosophical challenges of teaching, research and administration in a modern American University.

Not long after moving to Urbana, Illinois in 2002, I learned that my University was once home to the Biological Computer Lab, a once famous hub of research into cybernetics. As the campus bore no visible mark or monument to this significant history, I decided to respond to a 2008 call for public artworks with a proposal to tell the story of the Lab in multiple forms. The resulting work is permanently installed in the Institute for Genomic Biology, and continues to unfold in new ways.

Cybernetics, most simply put, is the study of all phenomena as describable in terms of information flows that follow predictable, self-governing patterns.  Cyberneticists seek to understand and influence these flows the way a small rudder turns a large ship Рonce one knows how the flow will behave, one can intervene in that flow with minimal effort. In the Cybernetic frame, flows seem to govern themselves, self-organizing according to principles that seem mysterious, but which are likely to be describable in mathematical, logical terms.

That’s what the diverse research group at Illinois’ Biological Computer Lab sought to do in the 1950s and 1960s, and with ample support from such entities as the Office of Naval Research and the United States Air Force.

Building on discoveries in both computing and brain science, they sought to understand human memory and intelligence through creating analog, pre-chip computers that reflected and condensed their understanding of neurology as a process of computation.

Many people have told the story of this lab: of its rise as an outgrowth of the Macy Conferences and the great migration of scientists out of Germany after WWII; of its function as a shelter to outcast visionaries from around the world; of its importance as a hub of radical political action and alternative pedagogy in the late 1960s; of its influence on the founders of the internet, its anticipation of contemporary social networks.

My contribution to this growing body of work lies in a focus on materiality in the lab’s sometimes highly abstract research.¬†BCL/IGB tells the story of the lab as a material process in three ways:

  • A Timeline Mural
  • A collection of re-printed texts
  • An ongoing effort to re-enact one the Lab’s more significant experiments

Timeline Mural

A timeline mural, designed in collaboration with Miriam Moore, and according to Heinz Von Foerster’s own principles of memory, shows the lab in light of the lifespans of its primary figures, as well as the lifespans of geneticists and proto-geneticists over the centuries. For each figure we learn of at least one significant publication, which is in some cases represented on the wall via a scanned cover page. The wall situates these scientists and their texts in the context of a panoply of world events: empires rise and fall, government programs come and go, people earn and lose access to rights and freedoms.Examples of non-human species significant to these stories also populate the composition.

BCL Library

The mural’s focus on the textual as mnemonic instrument continues on the opposite wall, where a large selection of the Lab’s self-published zines and journals are available as reprints. Over the years, the BCL – and probably its leader, Heinz Von Foerster, in particular – was increasingly concerned with the printed page. BCL staff and students converted many-to-most of the articles generated by BCL researchers into smaller, distributable form, with brightly-colored, hand-drawn covers. Newcomers to the Lab were often greeted with a stack of these booklets and asked to read them as an introduction to the research and community. Von Foerster’s experimental seminars, which occupied an increasingly central place in the Lab’s work, also generated standalone publications, some of which are featured here.

Adaptive Reorganizing Automaton: a re-enactment

Lastly, Skot Wiedmann and I are still at work on a re-enactment of one of the lab’s more significant experiments, the early construction of an analog neural-net computer called the Adaptive Reorganizing Automaton. We’ve been working solely from Murray Babcock’s PhD Thesis on the machine (now lost), and are close to realizing an operational version using all-analog components. We’re approaching this as a re-enactment more than a re-creation, in order to emphasize the interrogative and interpretive nature of our work from the original claims and diagrams.

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