Ralf Baecker is an artist working at the interface of art, science and technology. Through installations, machines and performances, Baecker explores fundamental mechanisms of new media and technologies. His works have been exhibited internationally. Since 2016 he has been a Professor for Experimental Design of New Technologies at the University of Arts in Bremen.
A Natural History of Networks / SoftMachine
A Natural History of Networks / SoftMachine is an electrochemical algorithmic machine performance that probes an alternative computational and technological material regime, informed by Gordon Pask’s experiments on electrochemical learning mechanisms [↓1] and current research on biomimicry, programmable matter and spatio-temporally controlled liquid metal actuators. At its core, a custom-built electrochemical experimental apparatus (SoftMachine) creates a dynamic fluidic microcosm that performs a continuous becoming of form, structure and material narrations. The performance aims to provoke new imaginaries of the machinic, the artificial and matter. A radical technology that bridges traditionally discreet machine thinking and soft/fluid materials that enable self-organizing behavior through their specific material agencies.
The performer is manipulating and modulating galinstan, a liquid metal alloy composed of gallium, indium, and tin immersed in a solution of sodium hydroxide (NaOH). This inorganic “wetware” is stimulated by applying alternating electrical pulses through a set of electrodes. The evolving plexus of liquid metal creates distinctive electrical milieus (resistances/currents) in the chemical system. By sensing, analyzing and acting on changes in the shape-shifting fluid, a un/control process is realized that allows the network to react to its input in a closed feedback loop. Models and methods of self-organization are introduced into the system to enable a homeostatic nature. The performance itself is an improvised narration through various states and behaviors of the system.
SoftMachine is an analog/digital hybrid to speculate about a heterogeneous technological culture. The neo-alchemistic material performance is captured by multiple cameras and composed and displayed in real-time on a projection screen. The visuals are accompanied by a sonic layer, the direct translation of the electrochemical processes taking place in the fluid, a melange of drifting frequencies, pulses, patterns, and noise.
The process can be described as a dissipative structure, a term introduced by the physical chemist Ilya Prigogine. It is a negative entropy flow that exists in an open system far away from its equilibrium state. The evolving fractals and structures result from energy exchanges between the inside and the outside of the system. A dissipative structure is characterized by the spontaneous appearance of symmetry breaking (anisotropy) and the formation of complex, sometimes chaotic structures, where interacting particles exhibit long-range correlations. These kinds of systems appear on different scales, from hurricanes to chemical reactions and living organisms.
The apparatus is based on current scientific research on liquid metal actuators, programmable matter and soft robotics that enable flexible actuation, intelligent sensibility, and biomimetic functionality. A Natural History of Networks refers to the idiosyncratic research of the British cybernetician Gordon Pask, whose work looks at a theory of conversation and electrochemical learning mechanism (Physical Analogues to the Growth of a Concept + The Natural History of Networks ).