About "World Power Systems"

We are living today in a world largely created between 1936 and 1952; colored, modified and populated since then certainly, but the foundation for the cultural -- and scientific -- revolutions that are casually called "the 50's"(3) are actually rooted in this earlier period. Computers and electronics were born then(1); their fruits obvious just now, but their form determined by visionaries, both warm- and cold-hearted, during and after the war.

Lois Cook (Leurgans), exceptional programmer.
"Lois Cook, (Leurgans), exceptional programmer, coder, operator, and problem analyst."

The wartime period not only saw women enter the working world; demands for talent caused otherwise unacceptable people to be accepted if they had something to contribute -- Alan Turing's homosexuality is an obvious example. It was also a time of fantastic cross-pollenation of seemingly unrelated skills and disciplines (eg. psychologists, aircraft engineers, electronics experts, medical doctors, concert-hall architects working together to solve problems with headphones and communication for new WWII high-altitude aircraft) never seen before or since.

It was also the beginning of the end of a certain kind naivety, and increased skepticism (and cynicism) about what countries, governments, industries, were actually up to vs. what was said, a side effect of the new information technologies (eg. portable movie cameras, audio tape recorders, radio, television). Many of the creators of the first atomic bombs voiced their fears of escalation, before and after they were complete; and some (Bohr, Einstein) refused to be involved from the start, to a large extent knowing what would come of it. Indeed, this ambivalence ran deep and wide, appearing in in some surprising places.

Kerouac's "On the road" original manuscript on teletype paper, 1951.
Kerouac's "On the road" original manuscript on teletype paper, 1951.

Today's abilities and freedoms, pop culture, internetworking, music and communication cultures, travel, international and cross-cultural trade, all grew from this period. So did surveillance and prison culture, economic warfare, loss of anonymity, medical and insurance redlining.

Technology is not some isolated thing that happens in factories; it's an integral part of our Western culture, no more removed from daily life than clothing or language, and has all the same ambivalencies and tensions between artifact and culture.

And most old technology is as interesting and desirable as old food.

World Power Systems
Model 47, Trinity Diorama
Model 47 Trinity diorama

But not all of it.

World Power Systems(2) is an entity that produces artifacts and written ideas to create a sort of portal between this early Cold War era and today; to illuminate the beauty and horror, at once alien and familiar, and thereby reflect today's beauty and horror back into visibility.

The artifacts, visible elsewhere, are obsolete forgeries. My work is not entirely visual; it needs to be felt and manipulated to hear it's story.

The form tells a story of aesthetic design evolution; the functions define the true history of money and politics.

For example

When apparatus was built to solve some problem in science or industry, a fantastic range of seemingly disparate solutions were brought to bear upon the problem -- for instance, a recording thermometer might contain:

first-principle physics mercury metal expands when hot, rises in a thin tube
optics light source, mirrors and lenses sense the mercury column's position
quantum physics cadmium sulfide cell converts light to electrical signal
electronics a vacuum-tube amplifies the signal
electromechanics a D'Arsonval meter movement translates voltage to angular motion
mechanics clockwork pulls paper under ink pen on D'Arsonval meter
craft cabinetry quality cases of solid wood, old-growth walnut, teak, mahogany

Surplus counter
      using many disparate technologies; dekatrons, cathode ray tube,
      mechanical vernier, etc.
Instrument using many disparate technologies; dekatrons, cathode ray tube, mechanical vernier, etc.

For my "World Power Systems" series of devices, I try to achieve a period aesthetic for functions that produce modern (and sometimes revisionist) views of the human and politic environment they might have existed in, today or else-when. To me, some of the pieces are creepy -- they claim a rational functionality but hint at cold-hearted approaches to life, all the while the materials and components are rich and wonderful to touch and use.

The jarring correspondence between the external beauty (aerodynamic test consoles, in grey wrinkle paint, bakelite knobs and meters) and secret ugliness (the test dispersed radioactive Iodine contaminating children's milk in Utah) is the goal. Sleek futuristic technologies of the past; entire branches of science and industry utterly forgotten, whose once-experts now cranks; solutions to problems impossible to recall; the solutions now problems themselves.


Hand-built lab. equipment built into oddly-styled cabinet.
Surplus, hand-built lab equipment built into oddly-styled cabinet.

My punk past won't let myself be merely fascinated with the beauty inherent in the aesthetic; it requires that I keep it connected to the context it came from. It's not a denial of pleasure, or a plodding political tirade, but rather a necessary integration, to avoid repeating our (and my own!) stupid mistakes.


Note 1: "Electronics" certainly existed soon after the turn of the (20th) century; but it was generally limited to reproduction and transport of sound (radio, audio, etc). WWII triggered an explosion of disciplines; pulse and digital techniques, and the vacuum tube was essentially discovered a second time.

Note 2: I did not make up the name "World Power Systems", I stole it from some criminals. You can read about the original World Power Systems on Eric Smith's web page. What I didn't know, all those years ago when I usurped it, is that it originated out of Tucson, Arizona. Who'd have known I'd move (t)here? I even know someone who delivered a computer to the original WPSers, and never got paid! OOPS! Just one of those things that happens to me.

Note 3: Meaning to me the roots of the "counter-"cultures -- the civil rights/black rights movements, rock'n'roll, the Beats, car culture, the Cold War that begat the Vietnam war and its oppositional cultures, etc.