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FLOCKING ENCOUNTERS

Romain Biros

 

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: