Affirming the beauty of a supercomputer

Martina O’Brien’s two-channel video piece, ‘Loop Topology’, alludes to both aspects of the analytical enterprise, collecting the day-by-day numbers and seeing what they say, or hint at

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‘At Some Distance in the Direction Indicated’, by Martina O’Brien. The Butler Gallery, The Castle, Kilkenny. Until April 29 butlergallery.com ****

The Torre Girona is a 19th-century church on the campus of Catalonia’s Polytechnic University. Substantially damaged during, and entirely rebuilt following the Spanish Civil War, it was used as a place of Catholic worship until it was deconsecrated in 1960. More recently, in the current century, from 2005, it has enjoyed a new lease of life, or afterlife, that is strangely, almost poetically appropriate: it houses one of Europe’s most powerful supercomputers, MareNostrum. The black computing stacks are impassively arrayed in the space once occupied by worshippers, sealed within a glass box, to the background strains of religious vocal music. The Torre Girona is now a temple of big data.     Among the numbers it has crunched are those relating to simulations of triple helix DNA, astrophysics, geology and weather forecasting. It is this latter employment that drew Irish artist Martina O’Brien to visit MareNostrum. She was exploring the subject of climate data infrastructures with regard to climate change and weather forecasting and modelling. Weather and the forecasting of it have been of vital interest to human beings since forever and, long before the advent of computers, entailed the compilation of data – the more the better – by means of monitoring and measuring as an aid to analysis and, insofar as possible, prediction.     That ground-level data harvesting is still part and parcel of meteorology and climatology, grist to the supercomputing mill. O’Brien’s two-channel video piece, Loop Topology, alludes to both aspects of the analytical enterprise, collecting the day-by-day numbers and seeing what they say, or hint at. MareNostrum does the math, invisibly but, at the same time, it is famous in the supercomputing world for its aesthetic quality, its elegance and irresistibly metaphorical character as an installation. That a computer can be beautiful certainly comes across in O’Brien’s footage.     The other aspect, the daily accumulation of raw data, is represented by footage of one of Met Éireann’s 423 rainfall stations, the one located at Casement Aerodrome, Dublin, which has been in operation since 1944. By contrast with the sleek, spotless, hallowed domain of the computer centre, the rainfall station has an appropriately weathered, basic, low-tech appearance. O’Brien lights on one feature of rainfall stations and sees it as symptomatic of official attitudes to statistical infrastructure. The precise geographical locations of the rainfall stations are not generally available. They are, in fact, disguised. It could be that such information is viewed as sensitive in one or some of several respects, including security and economics.     At Some Distance in the Direction Indicated stems from two artist residencies, one at the Irish Centre for High End Computing in 2016 and the other at Cow House Studios in Co Wexford, 2017. There are, as it happens, cows in the work that emerged from Cow House Studios, dairy cows at the nearby Teagasc research dairy farm at Johnstown Castle Dairy. These are, as you can imagine, closely monitored cows in a closely monitored environment. The very grass they graze and air they breathe are constantly assessed under any number of headings. As if that weren’t enough, they also find themselves inhabiting a Met Éireann Synoptic Automatic Weather Station.     O’Brien’s response to this barrage of surveillance leads her slightly astray, into a diversion on surveillance, in fact. She sends in the drones, giving us a drone’s eye view of the observation equipment at Johnstown and a CCTV live-feed view from a Met Éireann camera on site.

Fifty-Two Years from Monday, a set of 46 thread drawings, is an abstracted representation of the paths of conjectured storms impacting on Ireland from 2070 to 2099, according to climate modelling projections. Why thread? The allusion is apparently to the 19th-century mathematician Ada Lovelace. Byron’s daughter, Lovelace, though plagued by health problems (she was only 36 when she died), was intellectually formidable. Closely associated with Charles Babbage, she is generally regarded as being the first person to realise that his proposed computational machine could have much wider uses and implications than calculation.

While translating and annotating an Italian treatise on Babbage’s analytical engine(her notes exceeded the length of the treatise), she devised an algorithm that the device might use to calculate a specific sequence of rational numbers – in other words, a computer programme. She nailed what computers do before they were there, also pointing out a basic truth – garbage in, garbage out – immediately. Her insights stemmed in part from her observation of the way mechanical looms were capable of producing the most complex patterns with the use of simple punchcards.     O’Brien’s final work, Peripheries, is an elaborate two-channel video projection. Here we get to the nub of what is going on with data gathering and the climate modelling carried out on supercomputers such as MareNostrum. An initial overview of 41 hypothetical storms that models suggest will hit Ireland in the 20-year window from 2040 to 2060 leads on to a closer account of six of those storms. On screens set at right angles, we see the statistical flow of numbers and what the numbers might look like in real life, an ocean of data and actual stormy seas. In the end, the possible storms depend on a number of variables. In a pre-scientific age, O’Brian seems to suggest, we would have looked to an oracle. It’s hardly surprising that, from early on, computers have been identified with oracles and credited with oracular abilities – as in The Matrix. Now, MareNostrum and its companions really are our oracles.

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