Sag carries Babbage.


Kevin Murray


Dave Sag’s March of the Photobots is a self-organising, auto-cannibalistic and economically rationalised digitarium. It reminds me of a South Australian museum in Naracoorte that offered visitors the spectacle of live mice devoured by local snakes. Sag provides a set of 20th century icons like the former Apple logo, chess boards, a screen snap from 80's video arcade classic Galaga, that are thrown to the pit of seething pixel bugs. For the tentative web surfer, March of the Photobots offers a quick fix of shock value that is well worth of a bookmark hall of fame. For those who stay a little longer, Sag’s site returns more sober rewards.

After choosing an image for sacrifice, the visitor can monitor the population of photobots that feed off its pixels. An applet provides information on the photobot population, giving statistics on aging, reproduction and emotion. There’s an almost sublime level of sophistication in the ecological economy that has been programmed into this screen world. Though matricide seems mandatory, parental traits are combined and passed onto offspring. Powerless to change it, we have a modern god-like capacity to monitor its progress.

So what is the appeal of monitoring decomposition? There isn’t an equivalent fascination in watching maggots gorging themselves on chicken leg that is well beyond its used by date. Perhaps it’s a matter of expectation. Organic decay is accepted as an unfortunate fact of life– one reason, possibly, for the flight to virtual worlds that never rust. To witness screen images rotting can be surprisingly reassuring. With virtual decomposition comes a possible return to the organic seedbed in which the digital was first born.

March of the Photobots stretches back to the birth of computing. We know that the first serious computer research was a joint project: Charles Babbage worked with the charming Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace on mechanical gears for calculating devices. Their intimacy provided a theatre looking at computing that is radically different to the sterile bench of today. Lovelace described Babbage’s first mathematical calculator: ‘The analytical engine weaves algebraic patterns as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves’. From our end of history, where computing technology has been represented by the sneakers gang in Silicon Valley, it is hard to consider that its conception was attended by heavy breathing.

We can see March of the Photobots as establishing a trial that takes us back to that primal scene of research. Besides inventing the computer, Babbage could count as his achievements the English modern postal system, the speedometer and the locomotive cowcatcher. One of his less celebrated achievements was in the field of textile entomology, for which Babbage devised a technique of lace production using caterpillars. The use of marked cards here was not for the purpose of crunching numbers, but producing dainty fabrics for the species he admired–lace for those who love lace.

While an ancient practice, textile entomology is particularly strong in our time. We naturally begin in the east. Since 3rd millennium BC, the Chinese have used silkworms to produce textiles. But it is only recently that a Japanese priest in the Daioh Temple of the Daioh Mountain, has been able to breed silkworms that will spin onto flat surfaces. The temple creates these special paper charms for those who attend its service.

In the west, this technique finds itself in the burgeoning art movement of bio-technics. French artist Hubert Duprat uses the caddis worm to create jewellery out of precious materials such as gold leaf and lapis lazuli. In larvae form, the caddis fly constructs a portable case for itself using whatever it can find, including sand, shells and plant debris. These elements are bound together by a silky substance secreted from its labial glands. Artists intervene at this point by replacing its normal building materials with precious metals. The result is a brooch constructed by the ideal labour force– free and totally expendable.

While the constructive instincts of insects have been employed to build works of art, their destructive effects on the world around have also been put to use. In an act of sericulture-clash, the Chinese expatriate artist Xu Bing created an installation titled Language Lost in which silkworms moved slowly over printed pages, weaving cocoons and destroying the text. Entomological anarchy is one of many ways that artists are now attacking the image. The Yorkshire artist Patrick Smith makes canvases out of maggots by turning them onto a wax plate, which is then plunged into nitric acid, revealing traces of their movements. The plate is then used to make prints on paper. American artists Christopher Leitch and Stephanie Sabato constructed a work by laying decaying vegetable matter over yards of fine silk. When the microorganisms feasting on the rot eventually die, they leave coloured traces. In Peter Greenaway’s film Zed and Two Naughts, a photographer obsessively documents the process of decomposition. Snails crawl over decaying matter and worms slither through compost. It is a test of the artistic nerve to see beauty in loss of form.

As the century of computing ends, there are many attempts realise its originating vision. Amazingly, the world is yet to see a fully constructed version of Babbage’s plan for difference engine. In 1985, the Science Museum of London began its construction to coincide with the 200th anniversary of his birth in 1992. The resulting device was 11 feet long, 7 feet tall, made of bronze, iron and steel. It worked perfectly, but lacked a printer, which is almost as complicated as the engine itself. The printer should be finished before the end of the year.

As we reach back to the origins of modern technology, we find surprising source of energy–flower power as well as steam power. The original Remington typewriters in 1868 were decorated with brightly coloured curlicues. A Melbourne jeweller is now making floral arrangements out of disused typewriter strikers. In the same way, we might see Dave Sag’s March of the Photobots as a realisation of Babbage’s ‘wet’ dream– an ecological engine of organisms leaving baroque patterns in their traces. One day we might see computers teaming with microscopic bugs, constructing databases and weaving spreadsheets. And we might fancy that in this digital farm there could still be some surviving photobots, like remnants of an ancient civilisation worthy of info-archaeology. As with other intriguing digital art works, March of the Photobots grants us the ability to feel ancient and new at the same time.