Next Wave and CSIRAC

by Kate C
Publish date
21 May 2012
Comments (1)

Zoe Meagher's performance and audio tour, Goodbye, CSIRAC, takes place at Melbourne Museum this week as part of the 2012 Next Wave Festival. Described as "a love letter to 1960s computing and sci-fi", Goodbye, CSIRAC reflects upon a long-gone era when computers occupied whole rooms and ran programs that women punched into paper tape.

Goodbye, CSIRAC performance A performance of Goodbye, CSIRAC at Melbourne Museum.
Source: Museum Victoria

Zoe's fondness for first-generation computers was forged while working at Melbourne Museum, where CSIRAC now lurks in the lower ground floor. Zoe was also inspired by former technical assistant Kay Thorne, who recalled that that prior to CSIRAC, the same kinds of calculations were done by female workers who were also called computers. In Goodbye, CSIRAC, Zoe performs as the Ghost of Computers Past, an amalgamation of these long-gone human and mechanical computers. "The idea that these human, female computers were replaced by CSIRAC, which was in turn replaced, led to the Ghost," says Zoe.

Zoe pondered what CSIRAC would say if it had a voice, and what it would want us to remember. With slow, robotic movements and draped in eerie gossamer, her Ghost appears in several locations as the audience is directed through exhibits by the audio guide. Plugged in to the Ghost's  thoughts and feelings, this closed soundscape unifies the small audience group while simultaneously isolating them from other museum visitors. In a surprisingly touching moment the Ghost asks to meet the computers in the pockets of the group. "Is she your first?" she asks, as she mourns the discarded models that came before them: "Did you wipe her memory first?"

Interspersed with the melancholy monologue of the Ghost are extracts from articles in the 1960s that promoted computer programming as an excellent career choice for girls. A quote from a prominent computer scientist of the day claims that since the discipline shares the fundamental requirements of dinner-party planning, such as planning and patience, women have a natural aptitude for it. Zoe explains that it was considered an "appropriate feminine occupation, much like clerical work, and largely unacknowledged." What happened to these women, and how did computer science became the male-dominated field it is today? In an absorbing and immersive way, Zoe's Ghost invites the audience to consider the changing fate of female computer operators and their machines.

Goodbye, CSIRAC is a free performance that runs from 22-27 May at Melbourne Museum. Each show is limited to 12 people so bookings are essential. Book online through the Next Wave website or call 1300 30 40 72. Bookings do not include general entry to the museum.


Next Wave 2012: Goodbye, CSIRAC

CSIRAC in Collections Online

CSIRAC website

Comments (1)

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Huw Edwards 22 May, 2012 15:17
Wondeful work by Next Wave and Melbourne Museum! It really had me spooked to think how much we depend on computers during our daily lives. Added I noticed later I had during the tour an Iphone (Smartphone) and a notebook computer - yikes!!!
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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.