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James Bridle 1

Broken Symmetries: Interview with James Bridle

by FACT

Blog, Art and Science

Part of the Winter 2018 season

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James Bridle is a British artist and writer working across technologies and disciplines. His artworks have been commissioned by galleries and institutions and exhibited worldwide and on the internet. His writing on literature, culture and networks has appeared in magazines and newspapers including Wired, Domus, Cabinet, the Atlantic, the New Statesman, the Guardian, the Observer and many others, in print and online. He lectures regularly at conferences, universities, and other events. Bridle is showing his work A State of Sin in Broken Symmetries, which he discusses more in-depth in today’s blog.

How would you describe A State of Sin?

The work is composed of a series of random number generators – eight of them, in fact – each of which, embodied as a kind of robot, uses a different sensor to sample randomness from the world in order to generate random numbers. These robots were constructed over the summer in Istanbul, from essentially found materials in the city’s wonderful electrical, plumbing, tourist and everything-else-you-can-imagine bazaars.

Randomness cannot be determined: it must be produced, found, sought out, discovered. Modern sources of random numbers include atmospheric noise, roulette wheels, and bouncing balls. In order to solve and safeguard some of the trickiest computational operations we perform, it’s necessary to go out into the world and sample true complexity from its chaos. Sound levels, lighting changes, gas concentrations, breezes, the buzzing of the power grid, heat, humidity and electromagnetic fluctuations – each of these provide the source – or seed – for generating an infinite sequence of new random numbers in A State of Sin, a precious yet inexhaustible resource. These numbers are broadcast to, analysed, and made available on a dedicated website - http://random.jamesbridle.com/.

What are the main themes and subject matter of the work?

Randomness, or rather, that which cannot be computed. Computational thought, as I attempt to outline in my book New Dark Age, is the kind of thinking which has settled, often unconsciously, into the belief that only that which is computable – which can be observed, recorded, modelled, and predicted – is true and immanent. And this is a useful way of thinking, but it is woefully insufficient for coming up with new ideas, for breaking with established paradigms – whether we’re talking about aesthetic representations, scientific modes, or social forms. Building only upon what our flawed and incomplete models tell us about what we already know about the world is what leads us, on the one hand, to theoretical dead-ends, and experimental failures, and on the other to biased systems that merely replicate the failures, power structures, and bigotries of the past in the present day, and cement them for the future.

I describe this gang of machines as “hopeful robots”: simple autonomous machines venturing out into the world in order to learn something from it, and to use what they discover as fuel for new inventions. They stage the encounter between computation and the world as something chancey and contingent, but full of possibilities, as well as joy and humour. Computation alone is insufficient: to learn, to discover, and to create – to think meaningfully in an entangled, interconnected, and networked world - we must engage, and trust in the noise and messiness of the world itself to assist us in those processes. This is as true of our politics and our social relations as it is of science and art.

How does A State of Sin relate to time spent at CERN through Collide International?

A couple of years ago I applied for the artist in residency programme at CERN. I was lucky enough to receive an honorary mention, meaning I got to spend a couple of days there meeting physicists and exploring the facilities. I’d visited once back in 2012, which was very exciting, and it was even more extraordinary to go back a second time, to go down into the tunnels, and have actual discussions with people there. I was particularly interested in what was happening within the Theory group at CERN – the collection of practitioners within the institution not focussed on constructing apparatuses to test existing suppositions, but to formulate new ones. Also, the focus of the work is on randomness, which underpins everything from scientific research to cryptography, providing the basis for both the exabyte-scale data analysis performed at CERN and the algorithms which ensure your credit card details aren’t stolen online.