Illinois artist commemorates legendary ECE Cybernetics Lab
A new exhibit in the University of Illinois Institute for Genomic Biology commemorates the Biological Computer Laboratory, a leading center of cybernetics research from 1958 to 1976 under its brilliant and charismatic director, ECE Professor Heinz von Foerster (1911–2001).
Illinois Art and Design Professor Kevin Hamilton won a commission to do the work thanks to a State of Illinois program that provides for public art in buildings constructed with state funds. The $75 million, 186,000 square foot IGB facility, comprising a lab building and conference center, was completed in 2006 and dedicated in 2007. Three years in the making, Hamilton’s exhibit now occupies the third floor atrium in the lab building, which is open to the public during business hours.
An MIT graduate and chair of the new media program in the School of Art and Design, Hamilton has long been interested in intersections of art and technology. “Along the way,” he said, “I learned about cybernetics through the various media historians and theorists talking about technology’s role in modernity. When, around 2004, I sat down to watch Lutz Dammbeck’s documentary called Das Netz [The Net], I nearly fell off my chair when I learned about the Biological Computer Laboratory.”
The exhibit comprises a mural covering the north wall of the lobby and a literature display and reading area in the lobby’s sunlit west end overlooking the historic Morrow Plots experimental field. The mural is set up as a gigantic timetable centering on the life spans of BCL researchers and other cybernetics luminaries as well as prominent geneticists. At eye level is a long row of covers and title pages from important books and papers in these fields. Life spans of other notable people, events, and institutions provide historical context, and all of it is interwoven with drawings of living creatures such as Mendel’s peas and Watson and Crick’s T4 virus.
The reading area abuts a wall display of facsimile reproductions of BCL publications, legendary for their bold designs and provocative content. “These are meant to be browsed and borrowed, resurrected for the hands to hold, as I understood Heinz von Foerster wanted them,” said Hamilton. “The booklets are simply beautiful as objects, and their span of voices and disciplines is incredible.
Eventually, the exhibit will feature a third component. Hamilton, along with former ECE student Skot Wiedmann—an artist, engineer, and musician—has completed significant work toward what he calls a “functional recreation” of one of BCL’s notable cybernetic machines, the Adaptive Reorganizing Automaton designed and built by ECE faculty member Murray L. Babcock (1924–1999). However, the task of fathoming Babcock’s documentation for the long-vanished machine and rebuilding it with contemporary components and visual interface has proven a colossal challenge, likely to occupy Hamilton for some time to come.
Hamilton would rather let viewers make their own connections among cybernetics, genetics, and the world than explain any connections he may see. “I’m hoping to place a catalyst to dialogue … to create a destination space for people on campus who wish to talk about issues of value in society, why we study and produce what we do as a university.”
Retired ECE Lecturer Ricardo B Uribe is one of the five ECE faculty represented in the mural. “Hamilton’s installation achieves a rare accomplishment,” said Uribe, “by enveloping the history of cybernetics and the BCL with the concomitant events in the world. It connects the BCL activity with its past and suggests its continued activity and influences into the future.”