‘The Transparency of Randomness’ at Ars Electronica explores chance and probability

In the second of a two-part series, STIR reviews the Transparency of Randomness by Vera Tolazzi and Mathias Gartner at Kepler’s Garden and the role of randomness in our lives.

by Shraddha Nair Published on : Nov 12, 2020

Over two dozen dimly lit glass cubes hang suspended from the ceiling. Each holds a single dice, which is held at the top by cable and an electronic magnet. The mysterious and ethereal cubes fill up the room, glowing. Immobile yet alive with movement, The Transparency of Randomness recalls the atmosphere of a room full of rows of crystal ball prophecies. As if making predictions of your fate, the dice is held precariously at the top of the cube before it is released or ‘rolled’. Each cube holds a surface which is covered with a single natural material. Orange slices, seed shells, flowers and cinnamon sticks create a uniquely uneven platform, waiting for the dice to fall upon it. The installation sits with an eerie stillness. Suddenly, and all at once, 27 dice are released and the clatter of the dice rings against the glass, a sound softened by the mattress of natural materials it rolls across.

The sterile environment is broken by the sight of natural materials in the cube | Transparency of Randomness | STIRworld
The sterile environment is broken by the sight of natural materials in the cube Image: Vera Tolazzi and Mathias Gartner

On display at Kepler’s Garden at Ars Electronica 2020 in September this year, The Transparency of Randomness by Vera Tolazzi and Mathias Gartner took a look at the mathematical and philosophical aspects of randomness. In conversation with STIR, the duo discussed why the notion of randomness is a relevant discussion today. They say, “With our installation we show that random numbers can be used for scientific calculations, by using so-called Monte Carlo methods. The installation continuously generates random numbers by rolling 27 dice and collecting the results. With these results we approximate the famous number Pi, a number you most probably know from calculating the area of a circle. The more often we roll the dice, the more precise this approximation of the number Pi will be. This method is rather simple and shows in a very clear way that random numbers are more than just a useless series of digits. Of course, there are more elaborate ways of calculating the number Pi, but we find it really fascinating that one can actually use random numbers for this task. And it clearly shows that random numbers are useful and can play a very important role in current mathematical and physical research. Within the context of today’s uncertainties due to the pandemic we think that it is important to increase the general awareness for science, and how scientific findings can be used to understand and fight current problems. There are also a lot of mathematical methods that are used, for example to simulate the spread of the virus, where also random numbers play an important role”.

This cube holds moss under the die | Transparency of Randomness | Vera Tolazzi and Mathias Gartner | STIRworld
This cube holds moss under the dice Image: Vera Tolazzi and Mathias Gartner

With the backdrop of scientifically driven hypotheses, the inclusion of natural materials in The Transparency of Randomness is immediately mystifying. “By using different materials, we integrate the complexity of nature into our otherwise rather technical installation. Each box contains a different natural material, we used slices of oranges, cinnamon, moss, cotton, cork and many others. Thus, the surface over which the dice are rolled has a very specific structure. Here we focused on collecting materials with special haptic properties like finely structured, soft, rough, edgy or fluffy. In the box with cotton, the dice rolls very smooth and silent, whereas when using cinnamon, the process of rolling the dice has a completely different characteristic. Nature is therefore a part of the whole process of generating the random numbers. In the long run, however, the distribution of the dice throws is evenly distributed in every box - the influence of the materials affects the individual throw, i.e. its behaviour, how it rolls over the surfaces, etcetera - but doesn’t favour a specific number to be rolled. So, if you analyse the results of each box, they are all equally distributed as one would expect when rolling a dice,” say Tolazzi and Gartner.

A portrait of the artists | Transparency of Randomness | Vera Tolazzi and Mathias Gartner | STIRworld
A portrait of the artists Image: Vera Tolazzi and Mathias Gartner

The generative installation creates a space for the contemplation of stochastic randomness and the places it emerges within our lives. Here, the assortment of fruit, spices and other plants serve as insurance against bias in the numbers generated by the artwork. This insurance is only restricted by the repetition of the dice roll over the same material in 27 different ways. The mood cultivated by the artwork is one which for me draws lines between concepts of randomness, fate and fortune-telling. Each are continuously changing and perhaps for that reason, none can be fully known. The installation ties together these ideas with a mystical visual aesthetic, using lighting and material to its advantage. The artists say, “If one knows the exact position and velocity of the dice as well as the microscopic structure of the ramp over which the dice is rolled, the resulting number could be in principle calculated. But knowing all these parameters and performing calculations with them is impossible, even on the fastest computers that are available. The information one has to process is sheerly too much. So, we would say that rolling the dice is a good random process. The question about real randomness is a very interesting one. Today’s physical theories about our world tell us that real randomness can be found in quantum mechanical systems - that is the world of small particles like single atoms or light particles called photons. In this microscopic regime true randomness is present, and results could not be predicted, even if all initial parameters would be known”.

04 mins watch A look at ‘The Transparency of Randomness’ in motion | Transparency of Randomness | Vera Tolazzi and Mathias Gartner | STIRworld
A look at The Transparency of Randomness in motion Video: Vera Tolazzi and Mathias Gartner
'The Transparency of Randomness’ holds 27 glass cubes | Transparency of Randomness | Vera Tolazzi and Mathias Gartner | STIRworld
The Transparency of Randomness holds 27 glass cubes Image: Vera Tolazzi and Mathias Gartner

(Ars Electronica 2020 was held at JKU campus, Linz, and 120 other locations worldwide from September 9-13, 2020.)

Also read Part 1: In Kepler’s Gardens at JKU Campus.

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