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A filing cabinet on the internet by Rob Giampietro

Circuitry

Above: MC Escher, Dragon (c. 1952).

What is a circuit? At its simplest, a circuit is a closed loop, but most circuits are more complex: they contain multiple routes, flows, nested loops, and more. Some are serial, some are parallel. Some are diagrammed, some are not. This workshop will probe the visual form of the circuit, its technical and artistic representations, and its metaphorical and cultural extensions.

Over ten years before he established information theory at Bell Labs, mathematician and engineer Claude Shannon published his master’s thesis on A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits, which used boolean algebra to model electrical systems, and, in the process, helped Bell to simplify the phone system. His famous diagram of information theory has the feeling of a circuit:

Above, from top: Shannon’s information theory diagram; Shannon with Theseus and the maze.

Years later, Shannon would investigate artificial intelligence by placing a mechanical mouse in a circuit-based maze. The mouse was named Theseus, after the original Greek hero in the story of the labyrinth. As artists Olaf Nicolai and Jan Wenzel describe in their book Four Times through the Labyrinth, the myth of labyrinth arose in response to the growth of the city, and, indeed, centuries later, Thomas Pynchon observes the same idea in The Crying of Lot 49:

San Narciso lay further south, near L.A. Like many named places in California it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway. But it had been Pierce’s domicile, and headquarters: the place he’d begun his land speculating in ten years ago, and so put down the plinth course of capital on which everything afterward had been built, however rickety or grotesque, toward the sky; and that, she supposed, would set the spot apart, give it an aura. But if there was any vital difference between it and the rest of Southern California, it was invisible on first glance. She drove into San Narciso on a Sunday, in a rented Impala. Nothing was happening. She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding. Smog hung all round the horizon, the sun on the bright beige countryside was painful; she and the Chevy seemed parked at the centre of an odd, religious instant. As if, on some other frequency, or out of the eye of some whirlwind rotating too slow for her heated skin even to feel the centrifugal coolness of, words were being spoken. She suspected that much.

Pynchon’s character Oedipa Maas traces her way through the overwhelming circuitry of San Narciso in the way that the Greek goddess Ariadne’s thread helps Theseus find his way out of the terrifying labyrinth in the myth. As Sadie Plant, who translated Nicolai and Wenzel’s book, observes in her own brilliant essay “Shuttle Systems,”

Ariadne’s thread, and the famous contest in which the divine Athena tore mortal Arachne’s weaving to shreds, are among the many mythical associations between women and webs, spinsters and spiders, spinning yarns and storylines. […] If the weaving of such magical spells gives priority to the process over the completion of a task, this tendency is implicit in the production of all textiles.

For Plant, the string is a route and the textile is a circuit. In the collaborative, communal, distributed, and often unrecognized work of weaving, she sees the origin of the modern information age.

Ulrich Beck, who sadly passed away this January, saw the modern age as a set of loops as well. Some of these circles were virtuous, many were vicious. Unchecked globalization produced atomized and often alienated individual subjects while unabated technological acceleration produced a social order that was increasingly incapable of dealing with the threats it had created. Modernism, said Beck, had gone off track, hit a dead end in the ever-forward maze of progress. It now must reflect on how to place itself back on course. Only a more reflexive form of modernism could counter the crisis of Beck’s risk society.

Above: One solution to the Knights Tour.

We could go on and on along this route, weaving a careful Knight’s Tour across the 64 squares our chessboard, only to pause and remember theorist Friedrich Kittler’s observation that

The last historical act of writing may well have been the moment when, in the early ’70s, the Intel engineers laid out some dozen square meters of blueprint paper (64 square meters in the case of the later 8086) in order to design the hardware architecture of the first integrated microprocessor.

But, as architectural historian John Harwood rightly points out, there are others who see the modern printed circuit board as not symbolic but factually direct, a thing that represents primarily through its own illegibility or opacity:

[Microchip drawings] are unique in that, unlike drawings of earlier logic machines, there is little distinction between what is being represented and the representing. They are not symbolic. […] These designs were in fact not meant to be seen. […] They are the most complex patterns people have ever made, and because of their intricacy they can be deciphered completely only by a computer.

Above: Sam Lucente, Diagram of Dynamic Random-Access-Memory Chip (1984).

That’s curator Cara McCarty in the catalogue for her wonderful ’90s MoMA survey Information Art: Diagramming Microchips. Over two decades later, the artist Trisha Donnelly would include these same diagrams in her MoMA show Artist’s Choice. Both McCarty and Donnelly see circuits everywhere they look: in town grids and textiles, modern architecture and Mondrians.

Above, from top: Turin city plan; Anni Albers wall hanging; Mies Van Der Rohe interior for Dominion Centre, Bank Pavilion, Toronto; Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie-Woogie.

Is there any escape? What’s outside the closed circuit? Keeping the circle closed may seem to make us secure, but as Hardt and Negri assert, we now live in the world of Empire, in which all subjectivity is inside the global ring. Writer and theorist Suhail Malik suggests a more activated perspective, at least where art is concerned. Art, he instructs, must exit the Contemporary Art world to save itself. Contemporary Art, in other words, may be a dead end.

To conclude as we started: What is a circuit? Maybe it has less to do with what you produce than how you arrive. Maybe it describes something not individually comprehensible but complexly coherent. As any group would, over the next few days we’ll look for ways to tie it all together.

Above, from top: Western Union wire-wrapping methods; Sidrax Organ by Ciat-Lonbarde; Stripboard practice circuit; electrical engineering notation; wire-o binding sample.

Assignment

Our task is to publish a printed primer on the circuit, as it relates to our work, our world, and ourselves, assembled from loose-leaf dossiers (8.5 x 11 inches) in routes selected by each of you, with no two copies the same. Spiral-bound and ever changing, these primers will have no beginning, no end. Finally, as a class, we will produce a single flat “circuit” that lays these various sequences out as a whole.

Rough schedule

Friday, 1–7pm: Kickoff class (45 mins), desk crits and ideation (2 hrs), short presentations and knowledge sharing (1 hr), additional development until we break, first-draft dossier pages due for Saturday morning.

Saturday, 9:30–7pm: Workshop (bring one copy for every member of the class) and critique pages (2 hrs), revise pages with feedback (1.5 hrs), break into groups of two and sequence all dossiers according to a rationale (1.5 hrs), bind and make circuit books and wall display (4 hrs+).

Sunday, 10am–1pm: Finish wall display (1 hr), final crit and discussion (2 hrs).