Give a room full of monkeys some typewriters and an infinite amount of time and you’ll eventually get the complete works of Shakespeare. Lacking that kind of patience, not to mention the requisite number of bananas or desire to clean up after monkeys, the creative minds at Lab[au] built a robot that does the same thing. Called Signal-to-noise, the installation combines the Oxford English Dictionary and a Jet Age wayfinding technology to capture order in chaos.
Inside an aluminium structure, roughly the size of a narrow body airline cabin, 512 vintage split-flap letter mechanisms are arrayed in four rows at eye height. Controlled by a hidden computer, each of the individual mechanisms flip continuously through letters until the software recognises that a word has been formed by adjacent units.
The computer freezes those nodes and flips their colour to red while the others continue to cascade, revealing a hidden signal among the noise. “As artists we try to extract the character of our time, to give contemporaneity a form and a meaning,” says Lab[au] principle Manuel Abendroth. “The circular installation invites the visitor to plunge into an audio-visual composition right in the centre of a calculation process of an auto-poetic machine.”
Three and four letter terms are most common, though a cuss word filter has been added to keep the installation family friendly. Longer words appear regularly, but so far none of the Bard’s sonnets have appeared fully formed, or even a line from a killer haiku.
Signal-to-noise is an impressive feat from a technical and financial perspective. Split-flap modules cost about $160 (£97) — or $22,000 (£134,000) for a single tweet. Luckily, a cache of these kinematic characters was discovered in a train station in Belgium, still functional after 50 years of neglect. They were offered to Lab[au] for a promise that they produce an installation with them.
Split-flaps haven’t been a big part of the tech world since the mid-1960s, but they have surprising cultural potency. The TV series Lost featured them to dramatic effect, travel site Kayak features the anachronistic technology prominently in their ads, and even Apple made great use of them in their user interface until iOS 7 purged all traces of skeuomorphism. They were the inspiration for the mid-line flipping behavior on Flipboard.
Lab[au] has several theories as to why this Kennedy-era technology still captures the imagination in an age of omnipresent iPhones. “The refreshment of the board takes time, as a ‘slow’ technology it attracts our curiosity and imagination,” says Abendroth. “Most people still recall the excitement when the gate number or the arrival hour finally appeared.”
There is also a game-like experience where viewers try to find the patterns alongside the robot. “It’s a splurge of un-understandable information gradually being rendered understandable,” says Lab[au] principle Els Vermang. “The notion of cracking the code is an inspiring intelligence intrigue.”
“It’s a technology that embodies its time,” says Vermang. “Split-flaps, with their splitting symbols and flapping sound, no other devices have shaped more our imagination about globalisation and mobility. They’re understandable devices from an era where technology was understandable.”
These analog, alphanumeric displays dictated the travel fates of millions until low-cost LED displays offered superior control, flexibility, and price advantages. However, Abendroth believes emotion rather than pure technical performance could keep split flaps from their final destination. “We face a nostalgia towards mid-century positivism of seemingly mastered global economy and PanAm world exploration,” he says. “They constitute ‘the’ link between the printed character and the dematerialised screen display.