Symbolic Grounding

Christian Faubel, Wolfgang Spahn

Symbolic Grounding is a kinetic light and sound installation by artists and researchers Christian Faubel and Wolfgang Spahn that runs at its core by a network of 100 artificial analogue neurons

In this complex network, diverse functions, temporal structures, ordered sequences and coordination patterns emerge from the interaction of the artificial neurons and the connectivity of the network itself. The installation renders these temporal structures and functions tangible and allows the visitor to experience the complexity of interactions happening in such a network.

Symbolic Grounding is an artistic exploration into the world of analog computation and analog pattern generation, a world that is governed by self-organization, emergence and chaos. Randomness comes for free in this world and is integrated into any process. Faubel and Spahn use the unpredictable as raw material, framed into stable emergent patterns. These patterns are oscillations that are made audible and visualized by tracing temporal activations.

“Our approach is guided by systems theory, one the one hand theoretical models that explain inter-limb coordination, specifically the coordination dynamics of finger tapping and on the other hand by models from theoretical neuroscience. Similar to the technique of using analog computers for solving complex equations, we use analogue electronics to run the equations for describing the temporal evolution of models of neural populations as proposed by the Japanese mathematician Shun-Ichi Amari.” – Christian Faubel

Analog computation is characterized by an openness towards subtle changes. For example historical, analog computers might compute different results at different temperatures. While in technological applications this was seen as a drawback, from an artistic point of view this renders analog computation extremely interesting, because it exactly allows autonomous processes to be modulated and played with.

Faubel and Spahn have built modulatory networks of analog circuits that produce an ever-changing ensemble of oscillations. Unlike using the algorithmic software libraries for executing the feedforward neural networks as they are provided by Google, the artists are interested in non-algorithmic approaches to computation. In the systems which Faubel and Spahn develop, there is no central clock that steps through a set of instructions, no reading or writing of symbols as in the Turing machine, but a continuous of time and electrons. The tools used for the project are the methods and equations as they have been developed for describing circular systems that feed back onto themselves by dynamics systems theory and earlier by cybernetics. Faubel and Spahn use these tools in a constructive and experimental approach to produce temporal patterns that may seem algorithmic, but are not.