Premiered at Unsound Festival last October, Robert Henke presented his CBM 8032 AV experience at the Barbican last Thursday, offering a synergy between contemporary aesthetic and vintage hardware.

Within the brutalist concrete walls of the Barbican five Commodore 8032 computers glow as acid green cathode rays flash across their monitors. A sequencer stutters like an electrocardiogram, translating the synthetic heartbeat of code into 8-bit audio. More green pixelated graphics are projected onto a vast screen that dominates Robert Henke, who sits hunched in an office chair wearing a brown suit. He spins around and begins to type out the code that will create the audio. We hear the click of the cursor inputting and deleting numbers in rows and columns. It is a foreign language.

The 6502 was the first affordable microprocessor, Henke tells us. At twenty-five dollars, the only other comparable CPU was made by Intel and cost four hundred dollars. The Commodore 8032 that houses this microprocessor is also pretty much the last generation of computers that almost anyone could figure out on their own at home. The circuit diagrams take up ten A4 pages in the instruction manual, which totals just twenty-five pages (a modern day USB port spec has about six hundred pages). These twenty-five pages give you complete control over the entire system. What began as a solo exploration from Henke, co-founder of Ableton Live and principal member of Monolake, eventually morphed into a collaborative project, with a technical development team including software engineer Anna Tskhovrebov. The result is a symbiotic audio-visual installation, transporting the audience into an eighties sci-fi novel.

Photo: Mark Allan

The music itself is pure 8-bit, a far cry from Monolake’s slick, melodic techno. Henke’s musicianship pushes the limits of his single CPU, from percussive bleeps and pops to driving industrial techno and ambient electronic meanderings. The initial thump of a computerised kick drum and hi-hat builds until we find ourselves in a synthesised wasteland, raindrops plip-plopping around us. The projections flicker in time with the audio, sometimes forming simple shapes and neural patterns and others resembling a swarm of insects, rolling in on a tide of code. The final section begins slowly, undulating and rippling across the audience like a cross-section of satellite signals interconnecting as a twenty-foot eyeball made out of hundreds of tiny numbers becomes a black hole and engulfs us. I wonder if this is actually an experiment in hypnosis and we are all going to leave with our brains secretly rewired. 

Photo: Mark Allan

As Henke types out the end credits, it’s hard to think of a more perfect venue. Completed in 1981, the Barbican’s structure is a Cold War re-imagining of the ziggurat – a religious temple from Mesopotamia and ancient Iran. Originally built as a sacred space to house the Gods, the retro-futurism of a man and a machine communicating through a language only written in the last forty years seems to hold some significance. We may have written the code but our reverence for technology positions them as deities, and we worship accordingly.

Photo credits: Mark Allan/Barbican