Archive: Computer Collector Newsletter / Technology Rewind, Jan. 2004 - March 2006

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Computers as art

by Christine Finn

I've spent the last five years addressing the idea of computers as a form of archaeological artifact -- now, how about we try this for size -- computers as art?

In this respect I am not thinking about computers which are used to make digital artworks, or even the design aesthetics of particular models, but considering new ways of using historical computers as a way of engaging another audience, non-techies and otherwise people unfamiliar with the concept of collectable computers -- and there are plenty such folks out there. I hope it will bring out some discussion which comes into the concept of computers as classic technologies, and that is how to display them in an engaging way. Now I know that at the VCF the idea is to have machines in action, and those attending those shows see them as working machines. But I am detecting a growing interest in the idea of computer heritage, which begs an approach from outside the group, and instead looks at ideas from museology and visual arts. The former is addressed by the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., and similar institutions. I also appreciate that many collectors pay great attention to how collections look, welcoming the chance to show them off as display.

But what about the machines and ephemera as art in itself? Vintage tech purists might want to go check their email at this point, but I am putting my reputation where my hunch is by installing the stuff of classic computing as a modern art exhibit in London in the fall.

I am working with an artist, Richard Ducker, who got in touch with me after I spoke about computer collecting on a BBC Radio 4 panel called "Start the Week" (May 24, 2004). Richard reckoned my descriptions of collectors and their artifacts, and my sense of Silicon Valley as a kind of dig site, complemented his idea of computers as inspiration for his art. He is also captivated by other everyday technologies such as clothes irons and cars, but his computers made from wood and concrete have an intriguing quality which is not your typical VCF! Check out his "Morgue" series at to see what I mean.

Anyway, that contact a few weeks back rapidly led to discussion about how we could work together. So in September we'll be embarking on a show in an old office block, in that taking redundancy over time to the nth degree... we have a month to show before the whole block is torn down. That ticking of the clock will reinforce a sense of redundancy, which, at its more positive end, produces the material of collectable computers, and at its more negative, the boom-bust of Silicon Valley in recent years.

What is also neat is that the office is his American wife's - hence the name of the show, "Sonya's Office".

The show will comprise Richard's work in center stage, and I'll be making installations in small offices, taking up the theme of Artifacts to create mini-museums of recent technologies, souvenirs and photographs from Silicon Valley of the late 1990s, to pieces of technology displayed as history, but with personal attachment, and in the context of an archaeological, rather than a technological, museum.

So what is this aiming to say? Well, in 2002, I wrote: "Silicon Valley Continues to change, and so too do our responses to it...[Artifacts] was a history book even as it was being written. Around 80% of the material I drew on in 2000 could not be gathered now…people's lives appear more individuated and fragmented. A form of mythmaking begins. As people have moved on, objects, displayed in new homes outside the Valley or dispersed on e Bay, have become a weight of trophy or souvenir."

Richard Ducker echoes this: "On the other hand our relationship to technological change has always been a complex one but also one that in recent years seems to have become more strained. Both our anxiety and our excitement have increased, as have our sense of nostalgia and our dependency. This may always have been the case, but it seems particularly pertinent now. Through a process of fetishization, contemporary technology of the everyday conceals its built-in obsolescence, and in my sculptures this issue, and the often contradictory emotional investment we place in these objects, is revealed as historical - frozen in time, while the trace of its meaning fades only to be given meaning by the viewer. For now however, they seem to respond to Frederic Jameson's claim that there is a 'nostalgia for the present'".

Housing this art show in an office, Richard and I are reminding visitors of the original significance of the computer, and the type of data they were designed to contain in the everyday. They are also repositories of the tales of their fantastic research and development.

We are also saying: "In many ways it is the office that houses these transient stories and obsolete narratives. But where the museum offers contemplation, the office offers drudgery: - in this installation both are implied."

Anyway, it's short notice, but I'd welcome extra loans of material for the show. Computer ephemera would be welcomed, especially items with a story of some kind.

The show will run on Fridays and weekends from 3rd September to 26th at: 7th Floor, 21 New Fetter Lane, London, EC4A 1AW.