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Art in the Wires

Computers aren't often thought of as holding artistic merit. The aesthetic appeal of the computer itself has always seemed a distant consideration compared to performance, and computers, to most people, just look like bulky boxes on the outside, and a combination of wires, circuits and the like on the inside.

However, Core Memory: A Visual Survey of Vintage Computers by Mark Richards recognizes those boxes and wires as works of beauty. The project began as a coffee-table book, filled with pictures of vintage computers, and it's now coming to Etherton Gallery as a collection of photographs.

"There are these red and blue wires of the ILLIAC supercomputer, and it just reminded me so much of ... (when) da Vinci and some other artists did beautiful paintings of human innards way back when, and it just struck me that this computer had a whole other life, so to speak, removed from its original intent," says Richards. "It also, in a weird sort of way, resembled humanity. Even though it's a bunch of wires, it just looked so much like veins and arteries."

Richards comes from a background in photojournalism. The inspiration for Core Memory came while he was working on a feature story on the Computer History Museum located in Mountain View, Calif. Before beginning the project, Richards says, he didn't have a particular interest in technology.

"I came to this conclusion that photojournalism was not going to be much of a future, and I just looked around and kind of happened to be in this museum, and all of a sudden, I don't know what clicked in my brain, but some part of my brain just clicked and said, 'Hey, this is really art as well as technology,' and I just happened to put that hat on," says Richards. "It largely does not relate to the rest of my career whatsoever."

Once Richards had the inspiration, he still had to get the book made. Richards says the project took more than two years to get into production, as he attempted to convince the publishers that it could be a viable commercial book, and the Computer History Museum that it was a worthwhile use of the museum.

"I had to convince the computer people that, in fact, there was something more," says Richards. "They saw it primarily, as you would expect, from an engineering standpoint, and historical, and what it meant. ... And then, on the other hand, I was convincing Chronicle Books that, in fact, it could be a successful book, and it would work. I guess I was desperate enough to make it work."

Getting the book into production wasn't the only difficulty. The photographs aren't necessarily of, say, an entire computer, but often focus on specific details that drew Richards' attention. The computers were in a museum, and, as a result, couldn't be moved. He used a digital display to decide on the framing of the shots, of what would be the focus.

"I wanted to give it a distinct look. In fact, if you go to the museum, the pieces look so much more boring than they do in the book," says Richards.

Core Memory doesn't ignore the historical impact of the technology. The book, in addition to presenting a visual representation of the various computers, also gives historical context for the technology in the photographs. The Etherton Gallery exhibition will, however, focus just on the photographs.

"The book is kind of a halfway point between the art and the history," says Richards. "And when you see (the photos) large, it's like a whole different thing. It just so overwhelms the senses in terms of the visual. I think it's a whole different statement in a way, as to how I see it."

"One of them is of a piece of the navigation system that went to the moon. When you look at it very large and reduce the components you're looking at down, it looks very much like weaving."

Richards realizes different people will take away different things from the exhibit, but he hopes everyone appreciates the artistry in the technology.

"These made an impact on me emotionally, to some level, and I wanted to make other people who had nothing to do with it go, 'Wow, that's beautiful.' That was my end result."

Core Memory is now open. There will be a reception and book-signing from 7 to 10 p.m., Saturday, June 14, at Etherton Gallery, 135 S. Sixth Ave. The exhibit will be on display through Aug. 30; gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays. Admission is free. Call 624-7370 or visit the Etherton Gallery Web site for more information.

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