Form for Fluid Computer
Do you know the definition of a computer? According to the dictionary, it is “an automatic machine for processing information, obeying programs formed by arithmetic and logical sequences”. Although the words used seem clear, the definition is nonetheless abstract, which makes it difficult to visualise an image of the computer other than the one we all already have in mind. Yet the history of computational systems goes back to antiquity, and computers have taken different forms before and alongside those that have been popularised, as technologies have evolved. In her project Form for Fluid Computer, Ioana Vreme Moser explores an alternative form of computer based on a forgotten technology, and with it, a new narrative of our future. Between ecological economy, fluidic mechanism and low tech philosophy, she shows us another way.
As Ioana begins to develop her project, she has two concerns.
The first one is related to computer models and their creators; long before the automated and digital systems we know today, devices were designed to decode the world around us. Let’s take the astrolabe: it is a tool that was used throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages by navigators and astronomers from the four corners of the world to find their way in time and space. It consists of several superimposed discs, each representing a distinct function which, when combined by a rotating mechanism, calculate the height of the stars and their direction. By calculating the variations of quantifiable physical data, it makes it possible to solve the problem and model it. This is the definition of an analog computer, and the astrolabe is a good example. Ioana’s second concern is the history of the components and their political implications; the design of our current computers, i.e. digital computers, involves the extraction of mineral resources, generally from poor countries, sometimes hit by war, and where the workforce lives and works in appalling conditions.
With this as a starting point, and given the multitude of catastrophic scenarios linked to our future, the artist asks the question: if all the super-sophisticated computer systems on which we depend were to disappear overnight, how would we manage to establish communication? Ioana knows that the key element in the functioning of electronics is the transistor, a component that has the ability to modulate and amplify electrical signals thanks to a material called a semiconductor. As the name suggests, its electrical conductivity is halfway between insulating materials and metals, and this feature allows the amount of current flowing through the transistor to be controlled. Their manufacture is complex, but the artist discovers that it would be possible to imitate their properties by recovering materials that we have at our disposal, such as the galvanised sheet metal used for roofing when it is heated in certain areas. She organises a series of workshops on the subject called Politics of Parts.
Alongside her experiments, she continues to look for other amplifier systems and stumbles upon fluidics, a field that relies on computation through the movement of water streams. It’s 2019, Ioana is doing research but finds very little information online, the subject being rather niche. So she starts to draw prototypes without understanding 100% how it works. It is only in 2022 that she resumes her research at the library of the Technische Universitat in Berlin, which has an important archive on fluidics. One of the first water-based analog computers, called a “hydraulic integrator”, was designed in 1936 by Vladimir Lukyanov, the principle being to replace the mechanical process with water. In 1957, American researchers filed patents for their new creation, the fluidic amplifier. To visualise it, imagine a system of interconnected tanks and tubes through which water (or other fluid) flows. From the initial reservoir, the water is pumped into the tubes which form branching circuits. This means that not only can the path taken by the water stream be different depending on the pressure at which the water is pumped, but also that it can be controlled. The streams can be guided from right to left by a Coanda effect; as the stream meets a convex surface, it attaches to it and flows, it undergoes a deviation in its trajectory. Let’s say you have a tea in your hands and you pour it very slowly, the fluid attaches itself to the side of the cup and then flows out into the void when it has nowhere else to stick. In the same way, Ioana can create a logical command and direct the water stream where she wants it. In short, the water enters the circuit, follows a predefined path resulting from a series of operations, and exits providing information. This refers to the basic elements of the analog computer.
Now she has to define each channel to make sense of the information. She is inspired by MONIAC, an analog computer based on fluidic logic, created by Bill Phillips in 1949 to model the British economy. In his concept, water represents money, and money could flow down the tube of consumption into the tank of people’s needs, in a completely transparent circuit. She also looks at World3, the computer simulation on which the 1972 Limits of Growth report is based. The simulation is built on the following variables: population, food production, industrialisation, pollution and consumption of non-renewable natural resources. And the report is blunt, concluding: “the most likely outcome will be a fairly sudden and uncontrollable decline in population and industrial capacity”. This is precisely what interests Ioana, and this is the subject she chooses to address.
She imagines an installation based on the MONIAC model in which we can transparently visualise our consumption of resources and the rate of global growth through two scenarios: “business as usual” in which if we do nothing, we will suffer the societal collapse predicted by World3, and an equilibrium scenario in which policies regulate consumption to build a sustainable model. Ioana is now working on mapping her circuit: in the World3 scenario, if the pollution rate increases, the water tank that represents it will fill up by drawing from another tank that represents the world population. Or, on the contrary, the world’s population will increase, letting the resources slowly drain away until the water disappears.
In her early experiments, she had the devices made by a glass craftsman, and although the material is appealing, glass can have drawbacks. The complexity of the circuit requires the creation to be handmade, which makes it fragile, and unfortunately too inaccurate. It would therefore need a material that could be moulded, such as perhaps ceramic. But for practical reasons, Ioana also has devices made in Plexiglas, which is more resistant and lighter, a first since she had never worked with plastic before. She tests and explores her circuits, letting the process dictate the path of the final work. She also collaborates with scientists and engineers when technical needs arise.
The aim of this research is not to illustrate precise data, but to make the fast pace of today’s world visible and to visualise the potential benefits of putting a stop to it. Fluidics itself is a perfect example; until the 1970s, this model was competitive in the market, but its slowness and mass mean that a multitude of parameters have to be taken into account in comparison with electronics, which in turn has seen transistors become smaller and the power of digital computers grow exponentially as Moore’s law indicates. But if fluid technology seems futile because it is limited by the development of its own body, it is nevertheless back in the research laboratories in a derivative form: microfluidics.
For Ioana, the study of former technologies and their decline remains central to her work. This year, she starts a cycle of workshops in Italy, Austria and France at NØ SCHOOL Nevers, dedicated to fluidic theory, which she mixes with Politics of Parts on semiconductors for the practical part. She is also exhibiting her work Fluid Memory on the same theme between Timisoara, European Capital of Culture 2023, and Berlin.
Photo credit : Ozan Tezvaran
By using fluidics as a technical process and by putting future scenarios into perspective, Form for Fluid Computer crosses the line into a political act.
But not only. Ioana Vreme Moser invites us to pause and be aware of the fragility of our existence. She encourages us to listen to and respect our own slow but stable rhythm, like that of a resilient nature.
“Efficiency, yes, but at what cost? I don’t want to give up, I still want to imagine a different future, what would technology look like in an alternative future?” This is a good question that many contemporary artists ask themselves. Alongside the refinement of AIs that both panic and fascinate people at all levels, climate emergencies have prompted many intellectuals to deconstruct the manufacturing elements of electronic objects, which are seen as one of the sources of ecological and social imbalance. Ioana Vreme Moser is among those who question the use of materials and their functioning through sound works. Her installations, performances and workshops revolve around these themes and put our practices and uses of technology into perspective.
Many would say that Ioana was predestined to follow an artistic career. Born in 1994 in Timișoara, she comes from a long line of creative minds and is immersed in the cultural milieu. Her parents open one of the first graphic design studio in the city in the 90s, which allows her to have exceptional contact with computers from a very young age. Exceptional because at the time these objects were not very accessible to the general population, and particularly in Romania which was undergoing socio-economic reconstruction. But as a child, Ioana loves dancing and drawing; she is a ballerina for almost ten years and is fascinated by the movement in space that she associates with the gesture of drawing. During her high school years, she specialises in graphic arts, studies photography, video and philosophy while continuing with contemporary dance. She already mixes disciplines and mediums, and one day, by chance comes across an electronics workshop. The circuit is a drawing on which the electrons circulate, dance, creating different moments of interaction with the components which can be expressed by sounds or movements.
She continues to study art at the University of Timisoara; the one who wanted to touch interdisciplinarity spends a difficult first year there due to the rigidity of the teaching staff. But the following year, she flies to Krakow thanks to an Erasmus partnership where she feels freer, and where she discovers electroacoustics while taking courses on the sly at the Academy of Music. Her third year is split between the two universities, and she begins to integrate sound into her work by creating a first work based on mechatronics, an engineering field at the crossroads of mechanics, electronics and computer science. That year she also writes her degree thesis on Synthetic Sound, a movement that originated in Russia in the 1920s, initiated by artists and scientists who realised that drawing a pattern on film could generate sound.
Freshly graduated in 2016, she is looking to move away from the Romanian cultural scene which she feels is too conservative for her practice. She sets her sights on Berlin where she hopes to learn more about electronics, sound art and the interdisciplinary approach. Through a member of the Simultan festival, with whom she is close at the time (and still is today), she makes contact with an artist there and joins the scene. For almost three years, she takes on a series of small jobs as an artist’s assistant; the pay is meagre, but she learns a lot and looks back on this period with a kindly eye, which gave her independence and self-confidence. Gradually, invitations to participate in exhibitions and festivals arrive, and as time goes by, they become more and more interesting.
Based on the knowledge she acquired, she produces a first series of works that she calls On the peripheries of electronic wastelands in reference to the salvaged objects she uses; these are printed circuits or electronic components donated by other artists, which she reconstitutes with organic materials such as earth or leaves. She imagines that in the distant future these objects would have formed creatures that would have been stranded on the periphery of an electronic wasteland and that over time would have continued to pile up and superimpose themselves to crystallize into a geological layer. At the same time, she is developing Coquetta, a work linked to her childhood as a ballerina; she is an alter ego, a sort of diva who wears a lot of make-up and responds in a very exaggerated way to the heteronormativity that is so deeply rooted in our society. On stage, her lipstick, hairbrush and eyelash curler have become musical instruments.
Ioana exhibits her electronic creatures, the Coquetta performances follow one another, she conducts workshops and her own research at the same time. Her pace of life is inordinate and so is her carbon footprint. In addition to the stress, she no longer feels in tune with her stage persona and decides to turn the page, in favour of a slower, more serene life, and to further her research into computer systems. By this time, she had already dabbled in fluidics and designed the Fluid Memory installation. Then the pandemic strikes; the last tours are cancelled, as are the exhibitions and workshops.
This is a difficult period for the artist, but she takes advantage of it to refine her concepts and experiment; deeply affected by the climate crisis, she goes through several phases, sometimes nihilistic, sometimes optimistic, and from which she emerges with the Fluid Analog Computer project. Revisiting one of the world’s best-selling objects with its mysterious functioning, symbol of neo-colonialism and ever more exponential growth, in order to turn it into a futile, transparent object, deemed ineffective and at odds with contemporary history, is a provocation. Because, as we all know, it is much easier to continue to sell the same product dressed in eco-labelled materials than to change our ways. It is like switching to cardboard straws, it is not a solution, nor even an alternative. Not only does it not solve the initial problem, but it makes it worse by perpetuating harmful behaviour. The environment is fluid, let’s learn to become so too.
In the manner of an engineer, therefore, pragmatic, she lets the process dictate the final result by testing different ways of constructing her idea until she finds the most efficient modality. At the end of the lockdown, she focuses on the workshops that allow her to advance her research and give her financial stability. When doing her research, Ioana is always careful to diversify the sources; she looks around the world because she knows that the idea that technologies are created and developed by Westerners is only received. She brings the history of inventions to light by breaking down the image of the old, wise, white-bearded scientist in school textbooks, and by extension deconstructs the concept of white male supremacy over the scientific field. Integrating this information into the theoretical part of her workshops is important to her, as is researching the source of a discovery, and then all the parallel paths of development. The most fascinating period in history for the artist is the 1970s, and fluidics is a testament to this. But above all, it is a first in the history of humanity that a catastrophe scenario allows us to project solutions and the hope of building a better future.
At this early stage of Form for Fluid Computer, she combines the theory of the latter with the practical part of Politics of Parts, her workshop series developed earlier in 2022 on semiconductor materials. For the time being, therefore, she is leaving the performances aside and focusing on the conceptual part of her work. At the beginning of 2023, she is working on Mineral Amesia, a sound installation made of obsolete electronic components that erode in contact with light until they fall silent and question the longevity of digital objects. The work will be visible on 26 May 2023 at the Sonic Narratives event organised by the Simultan association as part of the Timisoara European Capital of Culture programme, then at the Galerie Nord in Berlin on 17 June.
Her career is the proof: Ioana Vreme Moser is courageous. She constantly touches on complex, painful and debatable contemporary issues.
And in turn, she en-courages us in every possible way; the courage to embrace a vision that breaks with a predestined future, and the courage to act on it.