Concrete Computing
An installation I made at DANM, Winter 2005

Featuring the early Macintosh (the machine that brought "personal computing" into the mainstream); operational specimens, and duplicates in solid concrete.

(click details to enlarge).

Here is some of the imagery that played on the working machines
(shown here at half the resolution seen on the classic Mac 9" screens):

(1.9 & 2.8 Megabytes)

Below is some writing produced while the piece was in development. Some of the material is obsolete now that the first iteration of the project has been presented. May be updated someday.

Genesis of the Project:

I've begun this project in response to imagery-based ideas, rather than theory-based ideas. Above are some images relating to the genesis of the piece. To explain what I mean by "imagery-based ideas": early last quarter, I had the idea of reviving a classic old one-piece Macintosh, and creating some "period" mid-eighties style 1-bit pictures and graphic displays. As I continued to consider this, the thought evolved into putting up an array of such computers, each displaying a presentation of moving graphics. I saw this array in my mind, although the pictures displayed on screen were not clear; rather, I had fragmentary images & thoughts of primitive digital drawings and fonts, artifacts produced by malfunctioning computers, and many other subjects (to be described below).

Around the same time, I conceived the image of one of these computers as an object cast in concrete. I visualized it with a rough surface, similar to the concrete we see on the buildings of Porter College. I also saw the possibility of a dirty or stained look to some of the concrete, as though it had perhaps been buried for a while, or exposed to the elements.

Much later, I decided that these 2 images/ideas were not separate things as I had thought, but were part of the same overall scheme. I imagined an array of several working machines intermixed with several concrete replicas, on one or maybe two metal shelving units (the photos above were shot to illustrate general ideas; they do not resemble the planned installation. The machines are simply sitting on a table on my workbench. Also, in the installation there will be no keyboards, and probably no mice).

So I got an old Mac running, and developed a test animation for it; but did not take the project further for a while. I was not aware of any particular "meaning" or "message" behind this imagery, and felt that I should not take time away from my work in the DANM program, for this project which might be trivial.

But as weeks passed, I found that these images stayed in my head. So I decided I wanted to realize the project after all, even if I didn't have an explicit meaning or message in mind. I decided to have faith that there is some value or interest in the idea, and to follow my persistent impulse to create this thing, without having a specific concept or theory behind my actions. This is my normal working method most of the time, anyway; its just that I began to doubt the validity of this process in the academic context. I was encouraged in this approach when Maggie Morse said of the artistic process, "You don't have to theorize it before you make it" (in a DANM meeting).

Presumably, the work will be more amenable to analysis after it actually exists. I will hope for some input on this from the DANM community when I present it. It may be that someone will realize what I was up to, and tell me!

Media Content & Themes

Much of the work's character will be determined by the specific content that I display on the screens. Some of the ideas that I have thought about or worked with for this imagery include:

  • Vintage-looking 1-bit drawings and other graphics
  • Graphics showing historic development of digital fonts
  • Depictions of computer malfunctions; flashing black & white patterns, error icons, etc.
  • Pictures made with moving ASCII art
  • Images referencing disassembly or decay of computers or other hardware
  • Images referencing ideas of archaeology/old & ancient art/buried things
  • Flowers blooming & wilting (could be very pretty, but too cliché?)
  • Images from early Mac "guided tours"; including such things as mousing instructions
  • "Hard disk archaeology"--my term for a display made from documents found abandoned on the drives of the old computers I've collected (possible ethical considerations here)
  • a semi-narrative presentation involving architecture, construction, and underground caverns; inspired by the revelation that DANM headquarters is to be built on a "sinkhole"

The biggest creative struggle so far has been deciding which ideas to display. I have developed a few test presentations, but nothing that really "clicks" (to use the vernacular of the artist working in intuitive mode). This is becoming a matter of some urgency, due to my deadline.

Certain themes and relations appear when I contemplate the type of imagery that has been arising for me in this project. Here, loosely stated, is a collection of these themes; things which the work when completed might be said to be "about":

  • The rapid obsolescence in the computer industry; the speed at which a new, high-priced, prestigious object becomes an old piece of trash. A contemporary metaphor for:
  • The loss of preciousness, or of a cherished thing
  • The tension between the "revolutionary" capabilities of computers, and their tendency to crash or go awry
  • Obsessive or compulsive states of mind; embodied in the repetition of similar forms seen in the array, as well as in many of the technical, mechanical, and artistic processes which must be performed to actually realize the piece.
  • Permanence vs. transience; the old computer's usefulness has long passed, but it lingers as a physical artifact; it becomes a liability, a piece of toxic "e-waste". This theme is also referenced in the use of concrete, which has the feeling of being a very solid, permanent material.
  • The tension between the virtual world of the computer, and the "real" world of physical existence; expressed in a kind of pun through the word "Concrete", meaning real, tangible, etcetera. The exhibit when completed will feature "real" computers and "concrete" computers, which itself is a kind of joke. (The personal side of my attraction to concrete in this context may have to do with a kind of reaction against the virtual and the intellectual, expressed as a celebration of gritty physical reality in an overtly base medium).
  • The fading from glory; the passing of a "star" or a special person (the mac, in its early marketing and in many people's fancy, was anthropomorphized; this element lives today in places such as this animated Help character in Microsoft Office applications):


Artists have certainly worked with "old computers" as a medium before. I've referenced some work below; indeed, some of it (Johnny Rogers and Richard Bolam) is in some (graphical) respects almost depressingly similar to what I have planned. I did not find this out until I was already underway, and so I feel I must take some care to not duplicate what has already been done. Fortunately, I have not yet found reference to an installation incorporating the "concrete" element, and that alone will make my installation unique.

There certainly is a strand in our culture which to some extent fetishizes these early machines; I have found ample evidence of this online in the realms of both art and geekdom. Now I am participating in it, which raises interesting questions; What is interesting about these machines? Is it merely nostalgia? Are they interesting because they symbolise the beginning of the "revolution" in personal computing? Has Apple simply marketed them so successfully that many of us still find them alluring 20 years later for no good reason?

Investigation of questions such as these must be deferred until after the piece is created. Right now, the important thing is to finish materialising the work.

A post-script on materials:
When I first thought of the idea of making castings of these computers, many materials besides concrete came to mind; I considered aluminum, bronze, glass, blown glass, polyester resin; even butter (probably a vague Joseph Beuys reference). But concrete won out; it always seemed the most "solid" expression of the idea.

Although I never really considered carved wood as an option, the weathered bench shown at left conveys a certain roughness I would like to see in my castings. I even momentarily considered the idea of wood-grained concrete, such as that we see all over Porter College. But I rejected this thought, feeling that the wood grain would be gimmicky and not really add anything worthwhile. Actually, I think it would be quite funny; but the joke would not be deep.

Links to Related Work:

A previous project of mine involving computer arrays, 2000-2004:

Jonny Rogers, who has done several projects with vintage Macs, their graphics, and related imagery:

Jeremy Clarke; sound installations with multiple obsolete Atari computers:

Richard Bolam; using networked old Macs with HyperCard:

Bernie Lubell; intersection of high- and low-tech materials and methods:

Jennifer Parker; (here she casts a variety of objects, with a decidedly more direct human connection than in my project. I feel there is a connection with my project, though not as direct as the others):

Innumerable sites exist offering technical information and trivia for enthusiasts of these old machines. Many of these have been useful for me in my project, as I gathered machines and software and got them running. Here is a small selection:

End with a joke: A humorous site featuring uses for an old Macintosh:

by Darryl Ferrucci