Suspended from the ceiling and spirally twisted in the semblance of the DNA double helix, two long tapes of paper are systematically and measuredly printed over with a pattern generated by a cellular automaton governed by Wolfram’s rule 30. As they spill down, the tapes materially archive the evolution of a computationally irreducible process (which can also be watched at a slightly faster pace on screens).
The concept of computationality tends to invoke its dark antithesis, i.e., the profound belief that there is a hidden mechanistic order. Cellular automata are part of a sizeable group of mathematical beings which in some measure stir the popular imagination, whereby people’s surprising propensity to detect similarities of patterns generated by cellular automata to some forms found in nature or art (and, thus, implicitly “originally encoded” in humans) promotes envisioning them as the hardware and software of reality – as a program that generates our lived and experienced world. The totalitarianism of such a self-simulated world, of the world as a computational system, is amply captured in sci-fi and speculative literature, exemplified by Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1953) and Ian McDonald’s “Brasyl” (2007). Our reality is a computational system which works towards a predefined target, and may just come to a halt at a certain moment.
The design of r30 relies on a one-dimensional cellular automaton of the kind described by Stephen Wolfram in “A New Kind of Science” (this particular rule from the set governing automated behavior studied by Wolfram is numbered 30). Based on rule 30, the automaton generates an infinite sequence of graphic patterns. If the scale is big enough, the automaton is basically computationally irreducible, which means that to find out what its state will be like after, say, one hundred steps, each of these one hundred steps must be computed one by one (as each consecutive step is based on the state of the cellular automaton at the previous step), and there is no formula or a universal principle for “jumping” from the current step to one or another remote one that happens to be of interest to us. This means that while the system evolves in conformity with accurately and lucidly defined rules, its remote states remain unknown until they actually come to pass.