Art Sinister computers. Although it would be misleading to say that nothing frightens me, because frankly I'm scared of everything, sinister computers and indeed computers in general would be pretty high on the list along with my own face in the wrong light, biting into biscuits and the future. For a computer to be especially sinister it has to be running but without a particular reason for existence or at least no obvious sense of purpose, even for a limited time. Passing a closed university teaching room filled with computers at night is terrifying, dozens of identical machines with monitor and standby lights flashing in unison. The laptop I'm typing this on is perfect fine right now because it has a working screen, a keyboard and I'm generally master of it, although given that it's a Windows 8.1 machine, "master" tends to be interchangeable with "the things I can get to work". But there are moments, especially when I've closed the lid and my room's dark and the small blue light of the hard disk (pictured) continues flashing when I wonder, "What is it doing? What is it thinking?"
There's a very sinister computer reposing at the new edition of the DLA Piper series Constellations exhibition at Tate Liverpool (for which I attended the press view this afternoon), a Diab DS-101 computer, the exterior for which was designed by the artist Richard Hamilton. Constellations is the semi-permanent display show which fills the first and second floors at Tate Liverpool displaying sections of the gallery's own collection. A particular artwork is explored through a series of pieces by other artists which may be connected either thematically or technically. Elsewhere Louise Bourgeois's wall hanging, Mamelles, which features a three dimensional collage of female breasts in rubber, fibreglass and wood is reflected in a series of piece bringing together ideas of gender and the body including Marcel Duchamp's Female Fig Leaf (the casting of a vagina from another of his mannequins) and Rachel Whiteread's Untitled, one of her customary castings, on this occasion showing the interior of an air bed. The Tate's own website has a better explanation.
The Richard Hamilton constellation is actually "triggered" by a different piece, Towards a definitive statement on the coming trends in menswear and accessories (a) Together let us explore the stars (which as you can see from the image on the Tate's own website) is a collage inspired by JFK's moon speech produced in 1962 at the interstitial point between when the the President said these words and was shot. The rest of the display includes art works which evoke the space age, like Liliane Lijn's kinetic spinning cone Space Displace Koan, with its sleek white surface and lit circular lines which make it seems like the kind of artwork you'd find in the inevitable gallery on the Galaxy-class Starship Enterprise. Artworks about the space race like Pierre Huyghe's video One Million Kingdoms in which an electronic version of Neil Armstrong's voice reads a passage from Jules Verne's Rocket To The Moon computer generating a digital lunar landscape which is explored by a wireframe girl not unlike Rod Lord's animations for the TV version of Hitchhikers. Artworks about the Cold War such as the photographs by Don McCullin of Berlin citizens on either side of the wall.
Then sitting patiently the middle of all that is the Diab DS-101, a short pile of four metal boxes in various shades of grey, the topper most of which has a logo "Diab Data", a cassette drive, a 5.25" floppy drive and another space I can't identity but others have tried. As the accompanying label explains, Hamilton was interested in how the boundaries between art and high end design sometimes merged and was asked by a Swedish computer manufacturer, Dataindustrier AB, in 1983 to design this (what was then) "minicomputer" with a simple three-box design (actually a version of their DS90-3, a UNIX computer with a dual Motorola 68030 processor). So it's a potentially practical object which is also an art object. In the Tate's own image, it looks relatively benign even when you use the little button at the bottom of the photo to rotate it and turn it upside down) and I imagine now that we live in an age when the average microwave has better processing power than this box most people would probably overlook it, or perhaps stop and marvel and how the phone they're using to take its image (since this is an exhibition when such things are allowed) would seem like magic to both the artist and the scientists who designed the innards (though they probably went on to design the phone too).
Except it's actually ghastly, clearly the scariest object the Tate has ever displayed and that includes the faceless infant mannequins in their recent Cathy Wilkes retrospective. I noticed the Diab almost as soon as I entered the exhibition and the fact that it was turned on, the small green and red lights on the front illuminated. There's a cliche about how the eyes on some portraits follow a visitor around the room in stately homes and haunted houses in Scooby-Doo cartoons and these two lights have just that effect, impassive, unchanging and always in my peripheral vision as I wandered the gallery and chatted with friends and even when I couldn't see them, I knew they were there. The reason the Diab DS-101 is sinister is because although it still has utility as an art object, its primary function is obscured and so like the laptop in my room or those university computers at night I can't help wondering what it's thinking. We can find out. There's an array of twenty DVI sockets on the back waiting to output but instead the only form of communication it has is those two lights, one red, one green, both always on somehow, simultaneously reminding us that it exists and is working but also, in my imagination, watching like the circular eye of a HAL-9000.
Which is all, of course, entirely irrational. For a start the processor isn't powerful enough to have artificial intelligence, let alone magically network with the desktop and tablet computer which are surely otherwise in the Tate's ancient building creating a kind of rudimentary Skynet with the potential to overthrow the curatorial direction of the gallery replacing it with some sort of mechanised brain repetitiously scheduling Futurist retrospectives (though it's worth noting - ish - that the WOPR in War Games almost brought nuclear armageddon and that was surely even less powerful than the Diab). Plus there are admittedly far scarier objects in the exhibition, not least the Paul McCarthy video, Painter, a satire on the heroic artist, which is in places so disgustingly scattalogical children aren't allowed to watch it (and here's a shot of me from the Liverpool Echo website doing just that). Yet I am wondering right now if it's turned off when the gallery is closed or is left to sit overnight in the solitary exhibition space plotting our downfall. Perhaps I'd simply be happier if it wasn't turned on at all, if Pinocchio was broken, its strings cut.
DLA Piper: Constellations at Tate Liverpool is free to visit.