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Title: Humans Thinking Like Machines - Incidental Media Art in the Swedish Welfare State
Authors: Gansing, Kristoffer
Issue Date: Nov-2007
Abstract: In 1962 the Swedish Minister of Finances instigated a “Committee on National Taxation Organization” to deal with what has been called “the most extensive administrative revolution of the country ever in modern times.” This being the computerisation of the civic registration and tax collection, and the quote coming from one of its central co-workers, Åke Johansson a bureaucrat from the National Archives who was transferred to the new committee in 1962. I’ve had the privilege to have direct conversations with Åke, now aged 83 and one of the last survivors of this pioneer group of about twenty people. The informal interviews have led to the unearthing of what I in my paper will explore as “incidental media art”, as a denoting of subversive creative work which cannot easily be particularized as avante-garde, leisure or even simply “art”. This investigation departs from the unusual capabilities of the system that Åke, as subsequent administrative director of the computer center in Karlstad, would supervise. The system in question being the IBM 1401, introduced in 1959, and not only one of the first successful general-purpose business computer systems to be sold on a mass-scale (reaching 10 000 units), but also a veritable “futurist orchestra”, producing an incredible soundscape of noise. The 1401 recently came to the public’s attention through the work of noted Icelandic musician Jóhann Jóhannsson, who in 2006 released 1401: A Users Manual building on the story of his father who while having worked with the 1401 as an engineer in the early 60’s, also discovered how to make music with it. However, this is far from the only account of this incidental music-making and other artistic practices that the 1401 system was subjected to during its ten year life span. In a culture of noise, the taxation bureaucrats brought forward classical music and in a culture of numbers they brought forward pictures of beautiful women. The paper I propose will feature a number of cases from this startling alternative history of media arts and use them as a background for talking about the meaning of artistic subversion, the relation between the worker and the (sound of) the machine in the context of AI and desiring machines. Finally, this will be a call for re-introducing the everyday in what I perceive as the media arts histories’ possible over-preoccupation with the avante-garde.
Description: This text was presented at re:place the second conference on the histories of media, art, science and technology - November 15-18 2007, as a peer-reviewed scholarly work chosen for inclusion. This text may have been or will be published and/or presented elsewhere by the author.
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