Award-Winning Art Installation Considers Historical Context of Supercomputing

10 September 2019

Visualization and video created at HLRS figured prominently in Armin Linke und Estelle Blaschke's installation "Image Capital," winner of the 2019 Kubus.Sparda Kunstpreis. We spoke with them about the project.

This spring, visitors at the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart had an opportunity to experience high-performance computing in the heart of the city. As part of their installation Image Capital, internationally exhibited photographer Armin Linke and historian of photography Dr. Estelle Blaschke included images and video created at HLRS as a way to propose provocative questions about the rhetoric, economics, and politics of images, archives, and digital technologies.

The exhibit was presented as part of the competition for the 2019 Kubus.Sparda Art Prize, an award given each year to a distinguished artist who either lives in or has a close relationship to the state of Baden-Württemberg. Linke was named winner of the 2019 prize in May.

The installation prominently displayed large-format scientific visualizations that were generated at HLRS as well as video interviews with HLRS's Dr. Uwe Wössner and Dr. Thomas Bönisch. The scientists explained how high-performance computing, data storage systems, and visualization are used in today's research and technology development. Linke and Blaschke positioned HLRS and such technologies in the context of other interesting examples from the history of data storage and visualization, including photographic archives, microfiche, and Vannevar Bush's MEMEX concept, which they consider ancestors of today's digital tools.

HLRS met with Linke and Blaschke to discuss their collaboration and how HLRS's work fits into the concepts and themes behind their installation. (The interview was edited and translated into English following the conversation.)

HLRS: How did your project Image Capital start?

Linke: What interests me are infrastructure systems, particularly how we conceive of information following the digital turn and what role it plays in our society. This project began as an attempt to visit locations where analog photonegatives are still stored. For example, we visited the Corbis photo archive — Corbis is a photography agency founded by Bill Gates in 1995 — which is located deep underground at Iron Mountain in the United States. Interestingly, computer servers have been operating in the same location for the past decade. This means that Iron Mountain no longer only stores and protects analog information, but also digital information.

Armin Linke (l) and Estelle Blaschke. (Photo: HLRS)

Blaschke: Photography occupies a very interesting position in Armin's work, because it is a tool to think about structures and even about photography itself. The point for us was that the digital is often described as something completely new, as if it came out of nowhere. In our exhibit we try to look at digital technologies from the perspective of another time. By observing them from the correct distance, we see that analog and digital technologies are perhaps not so different after all.

Iron Mountain began to take its current form at the end of the 1940s — the beginning of the Cold War. Earlier, such depots were logistics centers where, for example, oil barrels were stored. At the moment when information and data became important, however, these locations were transformed into data depots. In this way they represent an interesting continuity between the analog and the digital.

HLRS: How does HLRS fit into the main themes you are exploring in your installation?

Linke: Because the invitation to participate in the exhibition came from Stuttgart, the question for us was how we might update the project and make it more current. What might be an interesting location here in this region? So on the one hand, the idea was to find a local relationship to Stuttgart. On the other, we wanted to find a way to expand our frame of reference and complement the theme of the archive by incorporating servers and digital technologies into the subject matter. During our visit at HLRS we identified two topics that seemed particularly relevant — the data backup system and the CAVE (a facility for immersive 3D visualization that is integrated into HLRS's high-performance computing systems).

The image that we made in the CAVE at HLRS represents a model of an automobile. It demonstrates how digital models make it possible to adjust various parameters and test specific physical properties and engineering-related adjustments in real time. In this way, visualization makes it possible to save money because it is no longer necessary to build a physical model every time you want to test something new.

This approach was particularly interesting for me because my father was an industrial designer. In those days everything was built from wood, with ten people at a time working on a model. The designer would come up with a drawing and the model builder would interpret it.

The CAVE is also a location for dialogue. Using images for simulation makes it possible for an aesthete and an engineer to communicate and exchange ideas. At the same time, the ability to optimize the design is integrated into the tool.

HLRS: How do you characterize the continuity between analog and digital images in your installation?

Blaschke: An important reflection in the exhibit is the relationship between image and metadata. An image is never simply an image, but is a stable carrier of metadata that are becoming increasingly important due to digital technologies. An image is in practice a data-construct, not just a chemical or optical process on paper. During a visualization in the CAVE you have both the visual representation and the list of technical data that are continually called up and refreshed. This feature makes it possible to use images as a tool for developing and refining simulations.

Image Capital installation view, with image produced at HLRS in the background. (Photo: HLRS)

Next to the image from HLRS in the installation we placed a photographic reconstruction of the inside of a church we found at the Photo Library of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence, Italy. The image brings together several different paintings that were removed from the church and scattered among different museums and art collections. At the beginning of the twentieth century — a time when Photoshop didn't yet exist — various images were brought together in one image, reproducing the paintings together in their completeness. Such reconstructions provided researchers a foundation for their investigations.

For this reason, the inscriptions, stamps, and archive numbers that are noted on the cardboard backing are very important. Today we would characterize these kinds of information as metadata because the image is recorded in systems for searching and finding artifacts. Although such a simulation of a room utilizes a very different technology, the principle behind it is similar to what we see in the CAVE.

HLRS: The installation is organized into four "chapters," with the images and videos from HLRS placed under "Currency." Why?

Linke: From a historical perspective, the installation brings to light several connections between the analog and the digital, and what is clear is that new technologies are often introduced to save money and reduce workload. This raises social questions. This image from HLRS, which has an aesthetic value at first glance, brings such themes into question.

Blaschke: The installation also contains reflection about photography as having a kind of currency; that is, that photography is a kind of cultural property that has a material value in many different domains as a result of its ability to carry information. In the history of microfilm, for example, banks, insurance companies, and the automotive industry have used photography as a storage medium and as a way to exchange information within global corporations. With respect to the concept of "currency," manufacturing in the analog and digital eras is also relevant when we think about computing centers.

One fundamental hypothesis of this exhibition is that the storage of data is embedded into capitalist societies. Beginning with industrialization, information became property. Having information provides competitive advantages and enables the production of capital. This was our reason for naming the project Image Capital.

HLRS: Technologies for data storage are prominently displayed in the installation. What similarities exist between the storage media of yesterday and today?

Blaschke: In the exhibit, for example, we show an article by Vannevar Bush from 1945 titled "As We May Think." It describes MEMEX, a hypothetical concept for a sort of external memory that would facilitate access to all kinds of documents. Someone would wear a camera on his forehead and be able to record documents, pictures, newspaper articles, and other data. The idea was for a kind of supercomputer that used photography as a storage medium.

We see another example in a passage from The World Brain by H.G. Wells from 1938. In the previous year he had been a speaker at the First World Documentation Congress, an important meeting that took place in conjunction with the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris; i.e., shortly before the start of the second world war. Participants at the conference discussed how they might go about transferring archives, museums, and libraries onto microfilm before such cultural heritage disappeared or was destroyed. In The World Brain Wells writes, "The brain of mankind can exist in numerous identical replicas throughout the world." In this sense, microfilm is a kind of server like the backup server at HLRS.

Making these kinds of connections between the past and the present is the goal of this installation. Doing so makes it possible for us to better reflect on the cultural, social, and economic meaning of new technologies.

— Interview: Christopher Williams