Sommerer and Mignonneau. Living systems

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Living Systems Level of organization where living organisms can be recognized, live together and react with each other. It is not a closed entity and it also includes the set of factors that constitute what we call physical environment or habitat.


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Josep Perell贸



Liveg Syyems

EDsyyems ddArt: ExperimnXng the Theory

Ricard Sol茅

BiologiAl Complexiy

Susanne Witzgall

Art As AnOpen Syyem. Complexiy dd InWracione Art sece 1960

Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau Liveg Syyems

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Eau de Jardin IveracivePldqGroweg PhoYtropy LifeSpaCes II A-Volve MobileFeelings


EDsyyems ddArt: ExperimnXng the Theory Josep Perelló

Responsible of Science Ambit Arts Santa Mònica

“How long is the British coastline?” the scientist has been asking. Why do different measurements give different perimeters? What is this disparity of results due to if sound arguments have been supplied to defend each new length measured? An article published in the journal Science in 1967 by the mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot (not a geographer) interprets the reasons for the disparity under the umbrella of an apparently innocent and virtually unknown mathematical divertimento: fractals. The publication of the article in Science catapults fractals towards the general public and the science of punchy headlines. Mandelbrot’s merit lies in finding the link between the geographer’s fieldwork and armchair mathematics, extremely formal and purely conceptual. The resulting appearance of a fractal refers to the inlets of the bays and the promontories of the headlands of the rugged British coastline. The erosion of the coastal rocks due to the incessant beating of the ocean is explained by fragmentary shapes of tiny, angular, endless straight lines. The geometrical richness of fractals emerges from the persistence of an identical and simple

law of proportions practised on all levels. A fundamental one-dimensional straight line expands upon occupying the two dimensions of the paper, with a line generated by breaking into a host of tiny redirected straight lines. Fractal theory only works when it finds the explanation for a highly specific phenomenology. Nevertheless, the graphic representations of fractal geometries, with their captivating beauty, are likewise fundamentally important with the aim of convincing about their interest. The iteration of the same operation as that which constructs a fractal could already be done, let’s say in homemade fashion, in the nineteenth century but the intensive mechanization of the operation with 1960s computers exponentially multiplies the number of possible iterations that can be made. The structures emerging with very simple rules could only be represented and constructed thanks to the then brand-new computers, like the IBMs that Mandelbrot worked with. Here the computer, the tool, takes on a fundamental role, as important as the formal theory of old mathematics. Its graphs, drawn almost immediately after the user introduces a parameter, help to demonstrate what fractals can do. Fractal shapes have, since Mandelbrot, had certain universal ambitions or, at least, transverse aptitudes. The structures are observed in the result of the crystallization of salts due to electrolysis or the evaporation of seawater on a rock. The leaves of the trees, the snowflakes, the electrical discharges of lightning bolts, the spread of stains on a piece of cloth, the price changes on the stock market or the changes in the water level of a river are other forms comprehensible through this geometry. Indeed, the multi-talented Leonardo da Vinci had

Josep Perelló


Complexity The complexity of living matter results from the presence of emergent properties, not reducible to the properties of the underlying components. As an example, consciousness or memory cannot be understood by looking at individual neurons; nor is the behaviour of an ant colony the result of a group of individual ants.

already anticipated, four hundred year earl­ ier, these transverse and trans-disciplinary relationships by comparing the bird’s-eye view of fluvial terrain with the branches of the blood circulation in our internal anatomy. Nor does it cease to be symptomatic that the programmatic surrealist text over the automatic writing, free-flowing and unceasing, should be illustrated with the photograph of an electrical discharge inside a cylindrical condenser, similar in appearance to the branching of rivers or the veins of the circulatory system. André Breton’s text “Beauty Will be Convulsive or Not At All” was published in 1934 in the journal Minotaure, forty years before the term fractal was coined and its ubiquitous presence in nature verbalized. Behind these lyrical leaps between different phenomena is concealed the wish to bear in mind interactions on all levels and relationships through all scales. In certain scientific contexts, the approach is given the name “systems theory”. The theory seeks to describe the framework of relationships between different elements rather than study their specific nature. It is not excessively significant whether the interaction is originally electrical, gravitational, magnetic or of any other kind imaginable. It is more interesting to describe the patterns observed when a large number of very different elements interact. The structures emerging with thousands or millions of elements interacting, whatever the specific system, end up revealing certain orders. Although the structures do not always have to refer to fractal geometries, they are always liable to be explained via simple rules of interaction. The computer as a black box that simulates phenomena thus becomes a very valuable tool. The theorist then devotes

himself to proposing very simple formulae of interaction and relation, of play when all is said and done. He thus aspires to emulate the complexity of nature. The stance breaks old ways of thinking of the science of the unavoidable connection between cause and effect and introduces chance or statistics into the formulation of certainties. The old methodologies of mathematical analytical calculus are to a large extent useless. Now a direct line is sought to the essence of the system studied through a schematic recreation. Guilty of excessive simplification, one might say that systems theory transforms the science of “why” into a science of “how”. An important part of contemporary science adopts these ways at least partially and, thanks to the computer, the theoretical scientist experiments directly without having to turn to the empirical scientist for the fieldwork. Fractals, iterations, interactions, simulations, theories experimented directly and simulations make up, in large part, the exhibition project “Living Systems” curated jointly with Irma Vilà. Curiously, it represents the first individual retrospective exhibition of the pair of artists Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau who began their careers in the 1990s. The creative pair, who reside in Austria and are lecturers in the InterFace Culture Lab, University of Art and Design in Linz, are true pioneers of interactive art within virtual environments. The international media art and electronic art scene acknowledges them thus and Susanne Witzgall’s text helps to place the artists in the context of contemporary art in the last fifty years. From the technological point of view we can just as easily appreciate the value of their contribution merely by looking at the years in which their works were produced and

Josep Perelló


Evolution The generative process of biological complexity, operating at multiple scales. It accounts for all sorts of changes and adaptations in different situations, from the emergence of new viruses to human language. It can be slow or very fast.

remembering what computers or what technology was available at that moment in time. Nevertheless, the exhibition has chosen the works of Sommerer & Mignonneau that place the emphasis on science and its more theoretical side. The rules of the underlying interactivity of the pieces chosen are not gratuitous. It exudes a good knowledge of ecosystems. Immersing him or herself in many of their works, the scientist can recognize basic theories and models that describe the behaviour and the evolution of living systems. The visitor-user-researcher knows and manages at first hand the workings and the dynamic of certain theoretical models. Their effect is as forceful as the one that Mandelbrot produced with the fractals thanks to his article in Science and his graphic representations using computers, then recently invented. The pieces are convincing on the possibilities that systems theory offers when understanding the network of relationships among living beings. The exhibition proposes artistic pieces that are at the same time different ecosystems represented on large screens. We have to bear in mind that without visitors there is no life in these spaces and the visitors have to take care of the system. Visitors regulate and modify both the landscape of living beings and the biodiversity proposed by the artists. Mediation is above all through ordinary or everyday objects and the computers are hidden in the background. We genetically design the small creatures that we later send into the virtual ecosystem to observe their evolution and the effect of their presence on the other species. We watch over the growth and the health of the ecosystem by stroking real plants hanging from the ceiling and opposite the screen, placing our hand in a pool

of water that covers a screen, or by shining a flashlight on certain areas of the screen. One of the pieces, Mobile Feelings, differs from the others. It reminds us of the effect of feedback and synchronization on living systems. The visitors’ opposite number in this case is not a screen. We swap our vital signs with another person. We therefore also interact very intimately. The space designed by the architects Pocaa helps us to understand the underlying framework of the pieces chosen. It links them with the bleaker theorizing of the science that we began with. In it there is a glimpse of a convent cloister suitable for meditation. The theoretical concepts of the theory of living systems are in the surrounding corridors. Ricard Solé, physicist and biologist of complex systems, has collaborated by refining the scientific aspect and accentuating its presence. The artistic pieces chosen, the core of the exhibition, constitute the garden of the cloister. This is where the plants, insects and fish live. Sommerer & Mignonneau enable us to experiment and get to know the formality of the theory of ecosystems through their simulation and recreation. The artistic garden becomes a place of contemplation, education, knowledge, experience and, why not, scientific research. But, finally, how long is the British coastline? After countless iterations that refine the measurement to the millimetre, we shall reach the surprising conclusion that the British coastline has an infinite perimeter. Just as Sommerer & Mignonneau’s pieces constantly mutate despite being governed by the same rules in each interaction. Let us experiment the theory of living systems.

Josep Perelló


BiologiAl Complexiy Ricard Solé ICREA research professor (Catalan Institute for research and Advanced Studies)

“It was with these feelings that I began the creation of a human being” Frankenstein, M ary Shelley

Against Reduction The late 20 th century witnessed the rapid development of genomics, with the sequencing of the human genome as its key landmark and the resulting confirmation that the complexity of life was far from being reduced to the sequence of letters of DNA. As the physicist Philip Ball puts it, “The genome is the book of the cell in the same way that a dictionary is the script for Waiting for Godot. It’s all there, but you can’t deduce one from the other.” With the turn of the century we have also witnessed the end of the reductionist view of science, based on the idea that knowledge of the system can be reduced to knowledge of the minimum constituent parts. It has also seen the triumph of the view of the theory of complexity over the analytical view. As the late Brian Goodwin used to say, there exists an irreducible order in complexity that can no longer be captured by the observation of the basic blocks. The genes do not explain (in themselves) the development of an organism or the workings of the genome. The ants do not explain (in

themselves) the architecture of the ant’s nest and its apparent global intelligence. The brain cells do not explain (in themselves) the brain’s capabilities to think, dream and imagine. To explain the whole, it is necessary, but by no means enough, to consider the basic elements, be they genes, ants or cells, but above all to bear in mind the interactions between these elements. The most surprising thing is that very often the details of the components are irrelevant when constructing theories of the behaviour of the system. And due precisely to this fact, it is possible to make mathematical or computer-simulated models that enable us to understand, and at times to predict, what a complex system has done or will do in the future. The end of the 20 th century also saw the emergence of a new field of research whose aim is, in the final instance, to understand the limits of the living. This field, called synthetic biology, does not set out merely to understand biology in all its complexity, but also to use everything that the latter offers us at cellular and molecular level to design, construct and programme new forms of life. Although very close to a new engineering that reminds us (not by chance) of the film Blade Runner, synthetic biology is also a new way of understanding the natural and its limits, using what biology itself offers but overcoming all its barriers. We can combine components from totally different realms, creating chimeras that include for example pieces of bacteria, human cells and viruses. Chimeras that, like those in ancient mythology, up to now have lived only in our imagination. By using this approach, we open up the doors to alternative realities in which we will be able to generate the things that evolution has not been able to,

Ricard Solé


Artificial Life It studies the logic of living systems by means of computational simulations, robotics or synthetic biology. It differs from traditional approaches in studying “life-as-itwould-be�.

either because the opportunity did not arise or because they were impossible. By doing so, we also encounter a curious situation: in the manner of techno-artists from a future that until now seemed distant, scientists can recreate life forms up to now only imaginable. The big challenge for the new biology is the complexity of the raw materials we work with. Living systems are the most complex forms we know of, and their complexity far surpasses that of any artefact built by human beings. Studying the framework of life is an extraordinary and inexhaustible experience. Its range of existence covers multiple scales, from the tiny, inhabited by infinite forms of viruses up to the largest, in which we find that strange creature whose mind tries to make sense of the universe. And this life that we observe is just one per cent of all the forms that have existed on our planet over billions of years. What we now see is the legacy of all the baggage of our evolutionary past, of which only a few traces remain, subtle but irrefutable, of those that came before us. Throughout the process, major transitions have taken place that have profoundly marked the history of life, most of which have to do with the invention of a new characteristic that affects the way in which life adapts to its surroundings. These inventions include multi-cellularity (cooperating), sex (swapping genes), the eye (perceiving reality with precision), photosynthesis or the brain, to mention but a few. At each one of these crucial steps, life experienced leaps forward in which many of the things that compose our identity as a species emerged. Like a mosaic of inventions that have been accumulated and combined, we are descendants of the long chain that links us to all the other forms of

life. At some moment in the history of evolution, something else was invented that would change the course of events even more: a system capable of communicating beyond the mere exchange of signs. Human language, and the symbolic mind that emerged with it, was possibly the most important transition in the evolutionary process. Not just because it represents the appearance of non-genetic forms of information and the almost infinite ability to generate information, but also because it opened the doors to the manipulation of life itself and as a result to a change in the rules of the game. We are the first species that can distance itself from the course of natural selection, modify its surroundings just like that and even make predictions about its destiny. Synthetic biology is the last step in our ambition to manipulate nature and, through this ability to manipulate, to be able to understand in what way complexity emerged. But moreover, we have another discipline available that also brings us closer to the frontiers, this time thanks to the world of simulation: artificial life, proposed as such in 1987 by Christopher Langton. This discip­ line, which has spread in many directions, from the origin of life to human history and society, allows us to tackle the problem of the nature of the living by completely avoiding the limits imposed by biology. The experiments with the simulation of artificial systems capable of behaving like cells, organisms or ecosystems provide an alternative way of exploring ­reality, but also a window to designing other realities alternative to ours. Through this exercise of exploration through possible worlds, we can trace the limits of what evolution can achieve and also of the prohibited areas that we can gain access to.

Ricard SolĂŠ


Interaction Process through which individuals and groups act, identify, communicate and react in relation to each other and to the environment.

Synthetic Cells There is a grey zone that sep­ arates the living from the not living. A place that we still know hardly anything about and which hides a secret that scientists have been seeking for centuries. A secret that alchemists sought obsessively and which has inspired writers and artists throughout history. The secret is none other than that of the recipe for generating the breath of life or bringing it back when it has abandoned a dead body. It should not surprise us that the major religions have forged much of their particular myth­ ology through resurrection and providing explanations to the uncertainty about what awaits us when the mind switches off for good. Even a fictional story like the one José Saramago proposes for us in Death’s Intermittence is disturbing. A world without death would be as unfeasible as it is inadmissible. The only certainty is that, no matter how ordinary life and its unavoidable opposite are, the point at which both meet draws the line between two apparently different worlds. We know a lot about the possibilities of chemistry and also about what happens inside our cells, but we have not yet been able to understand the exact nature of the boundary that separates a soup of inert molecules from a system capable of reproducing itself. The world of chemistry offers a host of extraordinary examples, of structures and processes that emerge spontan­ eously as a result of the interactions between molecules, giving rise to phenomena at times unexpected. In some experiments, regular chemical waves are formed that are observable with the naked eye, despite the fact that the chemical molecules that generate them

(through microscopic reactions) inhabit the atomic scale, totally beyond what our senses will ever be able to capture. In other cases, the mixture of polymers in certain conditions gives rise to spatial structures organized as spheres, foam. But none of them, up to now, contains that strange property of living systems: the ability to replicate themselves indefinitely. This problem has fascinated phil­osophers and scientists alike. During the period of the development of alchemy, long before rationality and the critical discourse were part of the method of studying nature, the very idea of life remained in obscurity and the quest for eternal youth or ways for spontaneously creating life were based on all kinds of prejudices and irrational ideas. Only with the arrival of science, beginning with Pasteur (who demonstrated the absurdity of spontaneous generation) and with the slow invasion of evolutionist ideas, did the first suggestions that life could be obtained artificially begin to materialize. The very possibility that something might exist in the non-living world capable of producing life has emerged time and again throughout history. It is no coincidence that Mary Shelley, when writing her magnificent novel Frankenstein (at the age of 18) should have introduced a scientist who, using physics and chemistry, brought his creature back to life. At that time galvan­ ism and some of its less rigorous derivations were all the rage. In particular, the physicist Giovanni Aldini, nephew of the famous Galvani, studied the effect of electric currents, supplied through batteries from that time, on human corpses. These corpses came from executions, and the story of what happened is to say the least surprising. Occasionally an eye, a mouth opened, at times a hand closed into a fist while the arm rose up, or the dead

Ricard Solé


Art As An Open Syyem Complexiy dd InWracion e Art sece 1960 Susanne Witzgall Department of Art History, Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts) Munich

In the virtual worlds of Sommerer and Mignonneau plants grow lux­ uriantly in the twinkling of an eye, and they are teeming with strange grotesque organisms that move, multiply and die according to evolutionary principles. Computerized systems of growth and artificial life are normally closely linked to the visitors and, in this way, penetrate reality. It is above all in the works A-Volve, Phototropy, GENMA, Verbarium or Life Spacies that a complex network of interactions extends between the visitors and the artificial living beings, and among the creatures themselves, whose dynamic is unpredictable and non linear. It is not enough to add up the interactions between each of these feisty beings to describe the behaviour of their colourful population. We may say that they are open systems because, through the visitors, an exchange is established between the artificial ecosystems and their inhabitants on one hand, and the surroundings on the other. These systems are also distinguished by their self-organization and self-referentiality,

given that their essential characteristics are determined by the elements of the system itself, and any behaviour by the system reacts to the system itself and constitutes the point of departure of its future behaviour. The artificial ecosystems of Sommerer and Mignonneau are, in two words, complex systems1 and, of course, not at all in a trivial sense. It seems that the artistic interest of complex systems – at least of what we understand as such lately – dates back to just over half a century, and this interest is very closely linked to the development of interactive art. It was promoted by the ideas of the systems theory, which not only exerted a notable influence in scientific, political and military contexts, but which was also introduced to art. Systems theory is, however, rooted in three disciplines: cybernetics, auto­m ata theory and general systems theory, disciplines that appeared during the second quarter of the 20th century. Automata theory dates back to the work Alan M. Turing and John von Neumann did in the 1930s and the 1950s, and was developed as one of the most important bases for modern computing. ­Cybernetics was founded by the Austrian scientist Norbert Wiener, who in 1948 provided a comprehensive description of its fundamental principles in his treatise Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. It is based on military research (missile control) and established analogies between the regulatory mechanisms of technological and biological 1 : Non-linearity, self-organization and self-referentiality are properties characteristic of complex systems, despite the lack of a precise definition of what should be understood by the term complex system.

Susanne Witzgall


Self-organization Process whereby a structure appears in a system without a central authority or external element. This global pattern appears from the local interaction of the elements that make up the system, thus the organization is achieved in a way that is parallel and distributed, that is without a coordinator.

systems. Finally, general systems theory, formulated in the 1930s by the theoretical biol­ ogist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, was directed above all towards the observation of life. This theory describes living beings as complex open systems that establish their dynamics in an exchange with the environment, inside which a dynamic equilibrium predominates. From these three roots, the geographer and expert in human ecology Dieter Steiner derives two interpretations of systems theory that compete with one another and open up a new perspective in the (interactive) art of the 1960s influenced by systems theory: “From it,” Steiner says, “there comes an opposition between an engineering interpretation and a living one, but both were related to the idea of being able to provide a general basis for systems theory. The first interpretation saw in systems theory the key to understanding the functioning of systems, so that new systems could be created and existing ones controlled or, at best, imitated. The second, conversely, placed less emphasis on operability but emphasized the understanding of systems’ self control.”2 Steiner calls the first systems model, corresponding to the point of view of cybernetics and information sciences, the “control model”, after Francisco J. Varela. He calls the second, which cannot be formalized so easily and which is based on Bertalanffy’s general systems theory, the “autonomy model”. When during the 1950s and 1960s, thanks to the writings of Norbert Wiener, Herbert Marshal McLuhan and R. Buckminster Fuller, cybernetic thinking and systems theory were introduced to the world of avant-garde art, the concepts of the control and autonomy models, competing with each other, also infiltrated the intellectual sediment

of art. For in the works that were conceived as a system in that period and which induced the artist and art theorist Jack Burnham to predict a general development of art from the “objet d’art” towards the “système d’art”3, two rival concepts can be distinguished: one that stresses the autonomy and the self-organization of complex open systems and another that is more interested in the principle of external control and regulation from the outside. Belonging to the group of the first concept are, without a shadow of a doubt, the early works of Hans Haacke, especially those that the artist himself – who, by the way, was a close friend of Jack Burnham – called “systems”. In an interview he gave in 1969, he cleared up which of his works he considered it right to apply the name “system” to: “I use the word ‘system’ exclusively for things that are not systems in terms of perception, but which are physical, biological or social entities […].”4 His Condensation Cubes (1962/64), methacrylate cubes containing water, are an example of these systems. They react to changes in the external atmospheric conditions, like the effect of the light or the air currents, with different processes of condensation that precipitate multivariant drops. “The process of condensation,” Haacke explains, “has no end. 2 : Steiner , Dieter. “Zur autopoietischen Systemtheorie”. Theorie und Quantitative Methodik in der Geographie (METAR), 14, p. 136. 3 : Burnham, Jack. Beyond Modern Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technolog y on the Sculpture of this Century. New York: George Braziller, 1969, p. 10 et seq.

Susanne Witzgall

4 : Siegel , Jeanne. “An Interview with Hans Haacke”. Arts Magazine (May 1971), p. 18. Quoted after: Bijvoet, Marga. Art as Inquiry. (American University Studies, Series XX, Fine Arts, Vol. 32). New York, etc.: Peter Lang, 1997, p. 83.


Autonomous Systems A system able to sustain itself and adapt to a given environment and its changes. This can be achieved through adaptive strategies to perform given functions, cooperation with other systems or even language development.

absence of viewers, the communication tends to a balance that consists of a synchronic story or a hypnotic song. By means of speech, the viewers can interact with this system, which gives the impression of a closed social community, but they can only do it when at least one of the monitors shows an uncovered ear. If the contact is successful, the self-sufficiency of this system that acts autonomously will suddenly be broken. The “artificial beings”16 will start chatting to each other suddenly and excitedly, and at the same time they will try to process the visitor’s information. Thanks to the selectivity of external stimuli, n-Cha(n)t also comes very close to the systems theory’s autonomy model. Speaking about this model, Steiner says that, “the system interprets the surroundings, and its own behaviour will eventually end up determining which of the captured environmental ‘stimuli’ will have to be significant”.17 A year before n-Cha(n)t, Ken Rinaldo created Autopoiesis (2000), a work that, like a flag, already has the idea of autonomy in the title. It is not surprising then that the artist is crucially associated with Francisco J. Varela and Humberto Maturana, who were the first to define the criteria of autopoietic systems. For them, autopoiesis is a particular kind of autonomy “as proper to the unitary character of living organisms in the physical space”18 and which refers to these systems’ process of self-preservation and selfcreation. In this case, the artistic system that acts autonomously consists of fifteen robotic arms that hang from a structure. As if they were elephants’ trunks, these arms snake from one side to the other and communicate with one another through a fixed connection network and audible telephonic sounds. At the same time, they create by themselves

new patterns of behaviour.19 If the spectator enters, these patterns of behaviour will be changed according to the stimuli captured, without, however, the growing process of self-organization ceasing. The majority of current “software abstractions” that Lev Manovich talks about in his article “Abstraction and Complexity” and for which he makes use of the notion “aesthetic complexity”, can also be related to the autonomy model. The concept of the autonomy model is not mentioned in this context, but Manovich describes the behaviour of current software works as “neither linear nor random”, but as a system that “seems to change from state to state, oscillating between order and chaos,” and, he adds, “exactly like complex systems found in the natural world.”20 But let us finally go back once again to the complex systems of Sommerer and Mignonneau, with whom we started: at the latest with A-Volve (1994), this artist duo created an early model of a self-organized auto­nomous system, which experiences a growth of autonomy and complexity in Life Spacies and Life Spacies II. On one hand, visitors can influence the life and the survival of the artificial creatures in the virtual 16 : Cf. Jaschko, Susanne. Konstruktion und Dekonstruktion als Handlungsmomente in interaktiver Kunst. URL: < servlet/CatServlet? cmd=netzkollektor &subCommand=sh owEntry&entryId =256029&lang=de> (19.2.2011). 17 : Steiner op. cit. (see note 2), p. 137.

Susanne Witzgall

18 : Varela op. cit. (see note 8), p. 16. 19 : Cf. <http://> (19.02.2011). 20 : M anovich, Lev. “Abstraction and Complexity”. In: Abstraction Now [exhibition catalogue]. Ed.: Norbert Pfaffenbichler; Sandro Droschl. Vienna: Künstlerhaus Vienna, 2008, p. 83.


Fractal Geometric structure characterized by the presence of self-similarity: parts of the system appear to look like the whole. The term was coined by Mandelbrot in 1975 and was derived from the Latin fractus meaning “broken” or “fractured.”

pool, but, on the other, the aquatic beings also interact constantly with one another, grow, multiply and continue developing. In this way, the visitor becomes an element in the “systemic network of pro­cesses”, in this ecosystem of a self-organizing population which is subjected to a constant change and to a processual development. 21 In many of Sommerer and Mignonneau’s works, this model of autonomy combines with a control model in which it seems the possibilities of intervention and the feasibility fantasies of contemporary science are once more reflected. In A-Volve the viewer produces the artificial beings on a touch screen; in Life Spacies and Life Spacies II (1997/99) there is a text-toform editor that translates “email messages into the genetic code of a creature.”22 The analogies with genetics, in which Varela sees a combination of the autonomy and control models, 23 are closely related to this case and the artists choose them deliberately. 24 What we see here is not the desire for an effective instruction and the control of life, but a raising of awareness about the possibilities of manipulation of nature and human responsibility with regard to nature. The autonomy model, followed by the majority of computerized installations as complex systems, has for Dieter Steiner above all an advantage with regard to the control model: it is not reductionist. The control model corresponds “essentially to the continuation of thought in the framework of the mechanistic conception of the world […], which is closely related to predictability, planability and controllability”25, while the approaches that follow the autonomy model, especially in relation to complex systems of biology, ecology, sociology or the economy, do not result in formal reductionisms. We

could exaggerate and say that in the control model we are affected by a new presentation of classical Newtonian mechanics, which is based on the causal describability of the world, while the autonomy model gradually dilutes the predominance of mechanistic thinking. In the face of this panorama and from the point of view of the history of ideas, the current computerized and interactive installations that I mentioned above seem to be closer to the works of art of the 1960s that included nat­ ural and physical processes in the exhibition space, than to most contemporary technoid “cybernetic games”. 21 : Cf. Grau, Oliver, “Living Habitats: Immersive Strategies”. In: Sommerer , Christa; M ignonneau, Laurent. Interactive Art Research. Vienna; New York: Springer, 2009, p. 172. 22 : Sommerer , Christa; M ignonneau, Laurent. “Life Spacies and Life Spacies II”. In: op. cit., p. 103.

Susanne Witzgall

23 : Varela op. cit. (see note 8), p. 20. 24 : Cf. “Wir sind nicht daran interessiert Leben nur zu simulieren, im Sinne einer ‘mimicry of life’”. Interview with Christa Sommerer included in: Witzgall , Susanne. Kunst nach der Wissenschaft. Nuremberg: Verlag für Moderne Kunst, 2003, p. 396. 25 : Steiner (see note 2), p. 133 et seq.


44 Eau de Jardin 2004 Christa SOMMERER & Laurent MIGNONNEAU

Eau de Jardin was developed for the House of Shiseido in Ginza, Tokyo.

References Sommerer, C.; M ignonneau, L., , “Eau de Jardin,” in Karakusa, House of Shiseido exhibition catalog (Tokyo: 2004). Sommerer, C.; M ignonneau, L., , “Eau de Jardin,” in beap07 – Biennale of Electronic Art in Perth exhibition catalog, ed. C. Malcolm (Perth: John Curtin Gallery, Curtin University of Technology, 2007).

“Imagine a circular room, the dado below the wall molding entirely filled with a plane of water scattered with these plants, transparent screens sometimes green, sometimes mauve. The calm, silent, still waters reflecting the scattered flowers, the colors evanescent, with delicious nuances of a dream-like delicacy.” Claude Monet Eau de Jardin is an interactive installation that transports visitors into the imaginary world of virtual water gardens. Inspired by Monet’s later Water Lilies paintings and their panoramic setting at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, in 2004 we constructed a 3-sided vaulted projection screen of 12 x 3 meters that forms a triptych. The wide horizontal screens immerse the viewers mentally into a virtual picture of the water garden. 8 to 10 glass amphorae hang from the ceiling of the room; their form reminds one of old Greek or Eg yptian transport vessels. They are completely transparent and contain water plants such as lilies, lotus, bamboo, cypress and other aquatic plants. Through the glass one can also see the roots of these plants.

Interaction When the visitors approach the amphorae, their presence is recognized by the plants, causing virtual water plants to be drawn on the large projection screens. We used the same sensor technolog y as in our Interactive Plant Growing installation from 1992. The electrical potential differences (voltage) between the user’s body and the real plants are captured by the plants and interpreted as electrical signals that determine how the corresponding virtual 3D plants grow on the projection screen. For Eau de Jardin we modeled specific water plants that resemble the real plants as lilies, lotus, bamboo and other riverside plants. Additionally, images of the virtual plants are also “reflected” through a virtual water surface, and a merging of the virtual plant imagery with the reflected plant images takes place on the screen. The more visitors interact with the real plants, the more the virtual scene of aquatic plants builds up – all changes in their interactions are translated and interpreted, leading to constantly new water garden images.

Reality-Virtuality Reflection The virtual pond in Eau de Jardin becomes a mirror of the “reality” of virtuality. Just as Monet succeeded in creating two layers of virtuality by blurring the borders between “real” interpreted plant images and their reflected image in the water’s surface, Eau de Jardin tries to create several layers of virtuality by blurring the borders between real plants, virtual plants on the screen and their reflected virtual image on the virtual water’s surface.

Eau de Jardin


Eau de Jardin


Eau de Jardin


Eau de Jardin


Eau de Jardin

54 Iveracive Pldq Groweg 1992 Christa SOMMERER & Laurent MIGNONNEAU

Interactive Plant Growing is part of the permanent collection of the ZKM Media Museum in Karlsruhe.

One of the first interactive computer art installations to use a natural interface instead of the then-common devices such as joysticks, mouse, trackers or other technical interfaces is our installation Interactive Plant Growing (1992). In this installation, living plants function as the interface between the human user and the artwork. Users engage in a dialog with the plants by touching or merely approaching them. The electrical potential differences (voltage) between the plant and the user’s body are captured by the plant and interpreted as electrical signals that determine how the corresponding virtual 3D plants (which look similar to the real plants) grow on the projection screen. Through modifying the distance between the user’s hands and the plant, the user can stop, continue, deform and rotate the virtual plant, as well as develop new plants and plant combinations. The growth algorithms are programmed to allow maximum flexibility by taking every voltage value from the user’s interaction into account. The virtual plants resulting on screen are always new and different, creating a complex combined image that depends on the user-plant interaction and the voltage values generated by this interaction. The user’s hand distance from the real plant generates voltage values that increase the closer the hand is to the plant. We employ 5 different distance levels to control the rotation of the virtual plants, their color values, the place where they grow on screen as well as the on/off growth value. The final result of the interaction is shown on the screen as a collective image of virtual plants grown by several users.

Interactive Plant Growing


Susanne Witzgall Interactive Plant Growing


Susanne Witzgall Interactive Plant Growing


Susanne Witzgall Interactive Plant Growing


PhoYtropy 1994 Christa SOMMERER & Laurent MIGNONNEAU

Phototropy was first developed and exhibited at Artifices 3.

Reference Duguet, Anne-Marie; Boissier, Jean-Louis [eds.], Artifices 3 exhibition catalog (Saint-Denis, France: 1994).

Phototropy is a biological expression to describe the force that makes organisms, such as bacteria or plants, follow the light in order to get nutrition and, hence, survive. The interactive installation Phototropy deals with virtual insects that can be fed and reproduced through the light of a lamp, held by the visitor in the installation. The real physical light of a lamp nourishes virtual insects, giving them life-supporting and lifeenhancing energ y. These artificial living creatures struggle for light, follow it and try to reach its focal point. The creatures will follow every movement the visitor makes with the lamp’s beam, in order to get the maximum light nutrition. An in-house light detection system was developed to measure the position and intensity of a spot of light shone from a flashlight upon a large projection screen. As the user of the system moves the light spot to different parts of the screen, virtual insects appear and follow the light’s beam. The user can “feed” the creatures with light or eventually even kill them when he or she provides too much of it. The actual position of the flashlight’s beam is communicated to the virtual creatures, which in turn alter their behavior patterns according to the light intensity of the light spot. The operation of this system is very intuitive and natural, since everyone knows how to switch on a flashlight and how to shine light onto the screen.

Light: Source and Danger When the insects acquire a certain quantity of real light they can start to reproduce by exchanging their genetic information. Two creatures produce an offspring that carries the genetic code of its parents. Carefully moving the lamp on the projection wall (a normal white wall is used as a projection screen), one can increase the insect population within seconds, creating a swarm of flying insects whose movement very much resembles the behavior of butterflies. The life and existence of these insects are exclusively bound to the light source: without light the organisms fade away immediately. When the lamp is switched off or when they do not attain sufficient light, the insects die and float elegantly to the ground. In Phototropy light is the motor and source for life, growth, reproduction, evolution and movement. However, when insects reach the very center of the light beam and stay too long at the “hot spot” of the lamp, the light becomes dangerous and burns the insects to death. The installation visitors thus have to be careful with their lamp. Although it is very easy to use, the visitor’s responsibility and care for the creatures is required. If he/she moves too fast, the insects will scarcely follow and will thus have no time or occasion to reproduce. If he or she moves the lamp too slowly, the insects will reproduce rapidly but also reach the center of the beam too quickly: they will burn and die as fast as they were born. The visitors therefore become responsible for their creatures, their evolution and survival. Phototropy deals with metamorphosis and life. The work links the artificial life of the insects to the real life of the visitors. Real light is used as the connection between real and unreal, or real and virtual, worlds. Light is also used as a metaphor for energ y and life: most animals and plants cannot survive without it.



Susanne Witzgall Phototropy


Susanne Witzgall Phototropy


Susanne Witzgall Phototropy