Around 1993 I realized I had not been able to forget a particularly memorable scene from one of the great films made by Stanley Kubrick, namely ‘2001, A Space Odyssey’.
In this scene, we see ‘HAL’ the mainframe computer lipreading with it’s ‘eye / lens’, two of the astronauts on the spaceship plotting to subvert HAL’s increasingly controlling behaviour towards the crew. We are are led to believe that HAL is both ‘concious’ and is subverting the 1st law of robotics, namely that a machine will not harm a human being (it does in fact terminate the life support systems for a number of the astronauts), because it wants the original mission to proceed as planned, without human ‘interference’.
I had remembered that when I first saw this scene, I had found it gripping and entirely plausible.
Further, as a boy, I had also been very interested in chess, and was aware that the best chess player in the world in late 80’s and 90’s was Gary Kasparov, who had played and beaten an IBM computer, ‘Deep Thought’ in 1989.
Around 1994/5 it became clear that IBM was developing a computer “Deep Blue’ that would be far more powerful than the earlier computer, which Kasparov would play subsequently, and at first win against in 1996, and subsequently lose against in 1997. Some of the IBM computer designers had been speaking about recognizing the ‘first signs of conciousness’ in Deep Blue, which had connected in my mind with the Kubrick scene above.
I decided to approach dozens of scientific sites around the world where the most advanced research was taking place, and go to make ‘Portraits’ of machines, as opposed to just ‘photographs’ of them, as we might be seeing the emergence of a new class, with socialogical implications. Perhaps we would be in competition with machines in the future. I visited NASA at Houston, Cern at Geneva, Boeing and the Fermi Laboratories in Chicago, the working Royal Greenwich Observatory at La Palma in the Canary Islands and many, many others.
There are two photographs in the final series ‘DEEP BLUE’, namely the ‘Survey trolley’ and ‘Gravity scaffold’ which provided conceptual vertical and horizontal axes between which all the portraits are placed.
Many of the scientific sites I visited, required me to change into specialist clothing in order not to contaminate machines and production processes, by introducing small particles of dirt into ‘clean rooms’. These are rooms where particles of material above a minute size would interfere with research and production.
In around 1998, I was sitting in my studio in London on a brilliant sunny day, looking at the top of my shiny black coffee table which I had cleaned a week or so before, and couldn’t believe how covered in dust it had become in such a short time. I began to think about dust and dirt and material we try to keep at a distance in everyday life.
This became a new obsession, photographing the ‘stuff’ of my world that suddenly seemed very important. While working on these pictures, I was commissioned by a government body (EPSRC) for one year to go to a laser physics laboratory at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow to make art using photography.
I was already making photographs of material which had a very low cultural status, and suddenly I entered a research environment where scientists were using lasers to investigate matter at a sub-atomic level, trying to understand what the world is made of. This research at Nobel level, had very high cultural status, and for a while these two quite separate series of photographs continued in parallel, until at one point I realized I could put these two series together and propose a ‘democratic view of all material’.
This then became the proposition of ‘Material’, that all matter ‘everywhere‘ is equal in status because of its equal improbability and beauty.
–Peter Fraser, London 2008
[first appeared in EXIT Magazine, #31 MACHINES, August, September, October – 2008]