An ode to Alan Turing

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“The idea that you can take poetry and make it a collaborative project is very, very exciting,” says Hackney-based poet Nick Drake. “I’m very interested in thinking about what poetry is, beyond the page.”

About 18 months ago, Nick was approached by Matt Clark, creative director of United Visual Artists. The pair had worked together before, after meeting on an artistic mission to the Arctic in 2010. This time, Matt had conceived an artwork honouring one of Paddington’s famous figures, Alan Turing. The piece would sit on the Paddington Central campus, unifying the site’s history and development. The focal point would be a poem.

“[Turing] hasn’t really been celebrated with a public artwork, apart from the statue in Manchester, so this was a great opportunity,” says Nick. “The idea was for me to write a poem that would be fed into an algorithm. [It] would go through every word of every line and give every possible synonym, creating almost infinite numbers of new lines out of my poem. Some of them make absolutely no sense, but some of them make a beautiful new sense.”

“I was really intrigued… It was a very Turing idea.

“What we’re doing is watching a machine think poetically, but you’d have to put that in inverted commas, because is it really thinking or is it a machine? That was at the very heart of Turing’s thinking about machines and people.”

Finding Turing’s voice

The resulting public artwork, Message From the Unseen World, will be unveiled later this summer. It combines sculpture, light and poetry and will be found by the canal, beneath Bishop’s Bridge.

Nick settled on the title while researching Turing’s life.

“Messages From the Unseen World was a series of postcards he sent in the weeks before he died, to a friend of his, Robin Gandy,” he explains. “They were a series of very cryptic jokes about quantum mechanics.

“I already knew a bit about Turing. I had worked on a film called Enigma, so I had been to Bletchley. Then there are some wonderful plays about him. There’s one by Snoo Wilson called Lovesong of the Electric Bear, which is very surreal and Turing-style. Then there’s this amazing book, The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, who gathered all the fragments of his life and work together.”

This exploration helped Nick capture the essence of Turing.

“The poem itself is spoken by Alan,” he says. “The idea is that he is speaking to us from the unseen world, which is both the afterlife and the world inside the computer – a world that he invented.”

Untold story

Alan Turing’s fascination with computation began in his teens. Nurtured by his study of mathematics at the University of Cambridge, his talent was soon recognised by the National Physical Laboratory in London and he was recruited to design a calculating machine. During this period, he developed complex original theories, which culminated in his 1936 paper, On Computable Numbers. After Turing’s death, this came to be seen as a pioneering work on computation.

“His work was so sophisticated and complicated,” says Nick. “I don’t understand the equations, but I understood that he did and that he saw them as beautiful. That was his language; that was his poetry.”

Turing’s work on computation remains fairly obscure though. While his wartime code-breaking is now common knowledge, thanks in great part to 2014 film The Imitation Game, other aspects of his life remain in shadow. His struggle to live as an openly gay man at a time when this was illegal, his lasting impact on artificial intelligence, and his tragic premature death are vital to his story.

"I don’t understand the equations, but I understood that he did and that he saw them as beautiful" 

Nick hopes Message From the Unseen World will inspire people to look into the untold story of Turing’s life.

“I would like it to be a memorial to Turing himself – to his work and to his thinking and to other aspects of his life,” he says.

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“I’d like it to be a piece that makes people think about the story of computers and about how our life is now entirely mediated by this machine, which he literally dreamed up. We live in that world now, in that future he invented, and as we all know, it’s a complicated future. I want people to think about that.

“But I hope also that they enjoy it, and enjoy seeing words being played with. It’s going to be on permanently, which is extremely exciting. This mysterious work is constantly doing its mysterious job, running through the night, running through the poem. When I go to bed, I’ll be thinking: ‘I wonder what line it’s on tonight?’”

Visit Paddington Central to read Nick’s poem.

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