From Rotterdam to Pyschotherapy to Bletchley Park and Back: Some Personal Reflections

Enigma machine

This bank holiday weekend I did something I've wanted to do for years: I accompanied my 91 year old grandma on a visit to Bletchley Park, home of Alan Turing and the WWII codebreakers who cracked the Nazi's Enigma machine. My grandma had wanted to go for years, too, as she worked during the war receiving encrypted morse code messages at a similar facility only a few miles away. She had been completely unaware, during the war, of Bletchley Park's existence - and since then, intensely curious. Now that I'm sitting with Ciderpunx, who following our visit has made a Haskell morse code generator (obviously), I've been inspired to reflect on this cryptographic excursion myself.

It was a wonderful experience to accompany my grandma as she joined some dots from her past lives: having her experience incorporated into the presentation of a wonderful tourguide; telling her story of the night shift when she transcribed a message word-perfectly in her sleep; and having her photo taken by enthusiastic tourists next to a statue of Alan Turing.

Bletchley Park is a truly surreal place, partway between a lot of abandoned portacabins, wonderful retro museum (catch the 1970s diorama of shop-mannequin Nazis while you still can), and on the verge of becoming a modern tourist attraction thanks to a big injection of funding. There were builders constructing the gift shop when we arrived, which by the end of the day had been stocked with Bletchley teddy bears. (And as in Brussels with 'father of the internet' Paul Otlet's Mundaneum, here too the mighty Google are muscling in with funding and interpretational plaques - offensively recuperating Turing's homosexuality to make glib allusions to Google's egalitarianism - apparently not satisfied until they have appropriated the whole of computing history.)

Anyway, Bletchley Park has an incredible collection of original Enigma machines and related Steampunk contraptions: literally modified typewriters that encrypt their output with the turning of cogs and wheels. The enthusiasm of the guide who talked us through the reconstructed Turing Bombe decryption machine was really infectious. And the whole experience got me joining up a few dots of my own.

Enigma machine

There is something utterly irresistable about ciphers and dechiphering: secret languages, hidden meanings, obscure symbolic communication. It's a fascination I've been pursuing more directly than ever since I graduated last year from the Networked Media MA at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam. I spent my final year in Rotterdam puzzling over one of the difficulties inherent in digitally mediated communication: there is only 1 or 0; there can be no maybe-space. Hence, communication is necessarily reduced and distorted; 'yes' or 'no' are the only options - or else a plethora of other computationally generated outputs which are, by their nature, the reductive results of mathematical calculations.

When I graduated from Piet Zwart I took a turn which made intuitive sense to me, although hard to explain and baffling to people who ask. I went to Goldsmiths to begin the long process of training as a psychotherapist. As an artist I have taken to this study like a duck to water; no longer struggling with commandline arguments but instead absorbed in the big juicy questions at the very heart of my interest in communication. What does a symbol really mean? Where do messages originate; where do they end up? How do we understand the other? And is there anything at the root of it all? Inevitably along this track you get to Freud at some point, and why not. Though outdated if you want to be scientific about it, there is something seductively believable about his very cryptographic approach. A seductive appeal that very much resonates with those incredible sci-fi machines at Bletchley Park and their mechanical translation of character into cipher. Take for example Freud's postulated internal 'censor', which transforms unacceptable psychic contents into disguised symbolic images that pop up in dreams and artworks.


The therapist has long been likened to the sleuth; a thread I've been following of late in my newfound addiction to David Lynch's Twin Peakes and other films. Doesn't Blue Velvet's young heroine Sandy cut to the psychoanalyst's core question when she challenges Kyle MacLachlan: "I don't know if you're a detective or a pervert"? What in all this deep-digging and decrypting are we digging for? Perhaps there is simply an aesthetic pleasure in the act of decoding - especially in the crude pop-Freudian sense! Back from David Lynch you get to Hitchcock, and to the wonderful rehearsal for Psycho, the analytic detective story Spellbound. Check the amazing dream-sequence by Salvador Dali which, analysed by a psychiatrist, solves the whodunnit. (The wheel stands for 'revolver', geddit?)

fruit salad enigma

And here we're not a million miles away from many of the great and wacky projects to emanate from Piet Zwart over the years - not least my studiomate Dave Young's first year prank, the "Fruit Salad Enigma". There is even morse code painted on the wall of the institute from a past student's project. So in my own dot-joining exercise this weekend I'm starting to close the loop between Rotterdam and London, networked media and psychoanalysis: encoding and decoding, input and output, meanings and symbols, dots and dashes. While the idea of decoding is seductive, perhaps it is encrypting, scrambling and symbolizing in the first place which are really irresistible.

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