A new journey
It starts in the summer of 2018 as the heat wave was hitting London. Back then home was in North London, around Hoxton. It was one of those high narrow council building, 9th floor no balcony but an open view on the city’s outskirts. Home to my longings and unsatisfied yearnings for change. I had just notified my employer my intentions to quit the position as a what they call a “pre-sales engineer” and my workload consequently started to decrease. The heat was dry and too strong to be able to stay indoors for too long so, every morning, I used to go to the London Fields Lido.
One of those ritual mornings, a salient silhouette detached from the sunbathing bodies. It was a woman reading a book by Charles Bukowski. Finding the scene to be rather unusual, we engaged in a conversation and a few days later I was invited to one the graduate show of Trinity Laban Conservatory of Dance and Music where she was studying. This was the starting point of the creation of a new social scene just before abandoning my unfulfilling job and moving to South London.
It took me a long time for me to make such a life-changing move. But I’ve had reached the point of not having the choice but to relinquish on living the same way. It was a decisive moment, I had to reject “relativism and nihilistic defeatism” and instead embraced this new “ethical bond, an affirmative bond, that locate the subject in the flow of relations with multiple others” (Braidotti, 2013).
After a short time looking for new things to partake in, I had been accepted to join the MA in Computational Arts in September and everything was going to intentionally change in the coming days. It was one of those rare moments of peaceful yet conscious transitional clarity.
Affective encounters, mass hysteria, photography
This aesthetic, affective encounter is not to be underestimated; it is that which, as Guattari argued, ‘may irreversibly mark the course of an existence... something which draws the subject towards his or her own recreation and reinvention.’” (Salter and Pickering, 2015)
Seeing and getting to know those new faces guided me transitioning from two different lifestyles and establish my practice of photography in new and unpredictable ways. The group of dancers gathered as a collective called “mass hysteria”:
“In sociology and psychology, mass hysteria (also known as mass psychogenic illness, collective hysteria, group hysteria, or collective obsessional behaviour) is a phenomenon that transmits collective illusions of threats, whether real or imaginary, through a population in society as a result of rumours and fear (memory acknowledgement).”
Mass hysteria is also an all-female creative collective based in South East London, they gather monthly in friend’s flat and homes. I’ve had the chance to host one of their events and to be assigned the role of the photographer on several occasions:
Everyone approaches their art practice their own way, to me, it’s always been helped and pushed by such kind of not so random affective encounters. I believe that those type of exchange also forces you not to perpetuate a familiar regime. Despise the strength of my willingness and enthusiasm for change and creativity, “it needs to be channelled toward specific forms for it to blossom into something like intelligence.” (Berlin Johnson, 2001)
I believe that their group was actually made for that purpose of channelling creative energy and being invited to partake into their process of creation affected me greatly. Those new encounters have been the catalysers for change and for my art practice since going back to university one year ago. This kind of unexpected non-hierarchical and disinterested relation that I created with this group is to me, a sign of an emerging phenomenon mostly made possible or if not, enhanced by the complexity of big cities such as London. Similarly, to a cell in an organism, a human being in a city will struggle to get the bird view of the structure he is living in, but will strive in a street-level type of interaction, “this is the secret of self-assembly: cell collectives emerge because each cell looks to its neighbours for cues about how to behave.” (Berlin Johnson, 2001)
Complex systems and emerging behaviour
Despise the novel-like narrative of what you just read, the reference I made to complex system and emerging behaviour theory are a witness to the growing interest I’ve recently had in them. I decided to study them a bit closer, for the main reason that they can express unpredicted and complex behaviour despite not obeying to any authority or having a hierarchical structure. But also, because system theory is related to art practice:
“In the past, our technologically conceived artefacts structured living patterns. We are now in transition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture. Here change emanates, not from things, but from the way things are done.” (Burnham, 1968)
Examples of complex systems and emerging behaviours are numerous. I first started with the building of a liquid system. If you need to simulate a fluid behaviour you have to design a complex system, the fluid is dissected as a grid of pixels, with each pixel following a set of rules that are triggered and influenced by its nearest neighbours.
While still unaware of the GLSL world and technic, I decided to follow Daniel Schiffman tutorial. Even if I’m still unsure of all the maths at stake, doing the tutorial (originally aimed at being coded for processing) in Open Frameworks really helped me understand its design. Bellow is the result of my first attempt at creating a fluid-system:
Later on, and due to the complexity of the fluid system and the short timescale of the implementation phase, I decided to focus on flocking systems which emanate from birds gathering and flying together. In the first phase of the study, I narrowed my interest to the research of replicating that specific behaviour in a computational way. Without really considering goals or outcomes of what art form could be done with it, I let the art form emerging along with the experience of creation and the search for meaning.
Like any complex system, a flocking system is made of a unit that obeys to a set of rules. There are no leaders leading the way the flocking should go to but instead, each unit is bound to the following mechanism:
• Separation: steer to avoid crowding local flockmates
• Alignment: steer towards the average heading of local flockmates
• Cohesion: steer to move toward the average position of local flockmates
Using Open Frameworks, and OpenCL I was able to simulate such behaviour as the video shown below:
Using reasonably balanced values for the different force’s parameters conducting the particle’s behaviours, the flocking pattern appeared quite clearly. But I was also able to observe an autopoietic and autonomous behaviour with patterns that I couldn’t have imagined nor expected. Similarly to socio-economical system studies, it featured “nonlinear dynamics, where marginally different inputs can cause dramatically divergent outputs, intricate sets of causes feedback on one another in unexpected ways, and which characteristically operates on scales of space and time that go far beyond any individual’s unaided perception.” (Srnicek and Williams, 2015)
The video shown above is showing one of the few examples of unexpected flocking particles assemblage and gathering that happen when forces inputs are slightly changed or used in unexpected ways. From very simple low-level rules, higher sophisticated behaviour (mainly aesthetically in that case) can emerge (Berlin Johnson, 2001) as shown below :
While evaluating the system came the retrospective phase of analysing the potential outcomes of my investigation. I started to put them “into perspective considering boundaries, structure, input, output, and related activity inside and outside the system” (Burnham, 1968).
We can already affirm that defining or designing local rules doesn’t necessarily tell us about the range of pattern behaviours that will diverge from the expected/normative one. So, by reducing a system to its local rules and isolating it from another system one can expect to never fully understand the horizontal consequences (sometimes disastrous) of such unexpected behaviours. This applies to sociological, economic and environmental perspective but also artistical practice. My practice at the moment is not determined by the search for a result but rather a “provocation of a search for meaning that is constrained by the work of art without necessarily being determined in its results”. (Luhmann, 2000)
I decided to enlarge the frame of the practice, get rid of the boundaries of the early research of simulating complex system and have the simulation interact with non-related external bodies and other practices. This came into two different aspects, first to entangle the simulation with a chorographical piece with the group of dancers (from Masshisteria collective) but also make my photography practice comes into play during that piece.
Complex system, interaction, photography
The second element introduced in the piece was the possibility for any participant to place the webcam wherever she/he wished, being able to take a snapshot of the current footage used by the program. This was first a way to break the normative role of the webcam or camera of being statically set in a specific place, then to introduce the element of time (when do you take the snapshot) and a softer sense of objectification of the performance (what do you take as a snapshot, why?). You will be able to observe towards the end of the performance some examples of that dimension.
Bringing the photographic practice among the system of flocking particles brought also a new aesthetic perspective. The technical challenge quickly let place to the satisfaction of discovering how the particles move from being autonomously flocking to reconstructing the image they were given.
You can see below some example of some images being reconstructed by the flocking particles:
This form of metalepsis of the performer actually grabbing the camera supposedly capturing its movement and take control of what is being filmed helped broke that hierarchical way of setting up performances.
“This is why the artistic medium must be constituted by the double framing of an illusion that, at the same time, is recognized as such on the basis of specific clues. It is constituted by an internal medium that shapes materials – paint, language, bodily movement, spatial arrangements-within an external medium that isolates the forms in their striking particularity and guarantees that they are perceived as art rather than as wood, a coat of paint, a simple communication or human behaviour. One hundred years later, Diderot will speak of the paradox of the comedian who must simultaneously perform and disrupt the illusion.” (Luhmann, 2000)
Bodily complex system interaction
Monika, Mateo and I engaged in a collaboration to build a piece around the interaction of their practice with mine through the particle flocking system I’ve designed. We wanted to approach this collaboration in a non-hierarchical and non-normative way. In that respect I was not the one fulfilling the role of the artist nor were they the dancers fulfilling my directions. We both came with our perspective and knowledge of our respective practice in weekly sessions where we shared our opinions about what we wanted to experience, and what we had to come up with in terms of ideas/system designed.
As a non-normative way of choreographing the piece, the projector displaying the particle was not at the centre of the room, the focus can also be on the dancers themselves allowing them to express themselves without the audience or footage being involved with any direct external inputs. I was also engaged in the performance and not constrained to the role of the creative programmer being in the back of the room watching the unfolding performance. I was in between worlds, sometimes taking photographs, moving the webcam towards a specific direction, sometimes moving and dancing. All of this created a sense of harmonious and spontaneous fluidity and continuation without clear boundaries as of when or where the performance starts and ends.
“They consciously avoid materials and procedures identified with art; they allow for geographical expansiveness and mobility; they include experience and duration as part of their esthetic format, and they emphasize practical activities as the most meaningful mode of procedure.” (Burnham, 1968)
Below are some of the feedback we wrote post our session that showed we were unconsciously following Burnham’s analysis.
Some methodologies came up during those sessions, one was to not let the dancer or performer know too much about the system’s behaviour that she/he/it is interacting with. In that way, the interaction is not biased and the outcome less predictable. Below is the video of the performance:
Far from pretending to bring about a new theoretical framework in the domain of computational arts, this is an attempt to describe the recent art practice I’ve engaged in without detaching it from all the dimensions of my life choices. All of what was described above was hopefully made without constrained within the role of the artist or any other pre-fabricated sociological category. This is not a presentation of a finished project, the collaboration I’ve engaged in with the dancers is still existing and will continue being made in the coming months.
Berlin Johnson, S. (2001) Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. Scribner.
Braidotti, R. (2013) The Posthuman. Polity Press. Cambridge.
Burnham, J. (1968) Systems Esthetics. (Artforum).
Luhmann, N. (2000) Art as a Social System. Meridian-Crossing Aesthetics. Stanford California: Stanford University Press.
Shiffman, D. (2012) The Nature of Code, Simulating Natural Systems with Processing.
Srnicek, N. and Williams, A. (2015) Inventing the Future, Postcapitalism and a world without work. Verso.