Before computers were digital, they were people who performed calculations by hand for scientific research. Starting as a cottage industry, this practice continued into the 1950s, even as human computers were replaced by the machines we use today. Human Computers is a long-duration performance where thirteen performers calculate by hand over a period of eight hours something trivially easy for the computer to do: decode a single image PNG file. Inspired by historical examples as well as office culture and the automation of labor, this performance is the physical enacting of a technology that is pervasive and difficult to understand.

Performers sit at custom furniture and slowly decode the file (printed as spiral-bound books) using paper worksheets; resulting pixels are assembled from CMYK transparencies, stapled to worksheets, and hung. The image (a screenshot from Google Streetview of the street outside the gallery) is resolved over approximately eight hours: office meets regimented dance. This project reveals the histories/affordances that a single file format encapsulates and suggests that slowness and collaboration can be a form of knowledge-production.

This project also included a limited-edition flowchart poster, showing the decoding process used in the piece (download a copy).

Commissioned by Locust Projects and the University of Nevada, Reno

Workers calculate rows of pixels, return their sheets to the front for pixel rendering, and hang their completed worksheets on the wall
The assembled image (a pixelated version of a screenshot from Google Streetview outside the gallery), with individual pixel worksheets showing
After the performance is complete, the image, worksheets, custom-built furniture, and other objects remain in the gallery documenting the work carried out there
Each pixel requires 67 calculations to extract its RGB value
Coffee area with a cover from IBM's THINK magazine
Since computer files are not intended to be read by hand, worksheets and tools were designed to enable humans to carry out the work of the computer
Limited-edition flowchart poster, showing the decoding process used in the piece (download a copy)