Self-Organizing Systems: rEvolutionary Art, Science, and Literature

Friday, April 30, 2004, 8:30 am – 5:30 pm

EDA Room, UCLA Kinross Building
11000 Kinross Avenue
Westwood, CA 90095
Parking and Directions

Live streaming video available at Requires RealPlayer. Video of the event will be archived and available approximately a week later at

Organized by Nicholas Gessler and Katherine Hayles

Speculations about spontaneous creation – of awareness, self-organization and evolution – have recurred across cultures, through time, and over space. In the last half-century, we have developed the algorithmic and computational technologies that can bring life and form to these ideas – as digitally inspired reactive and intentional entities inhabiting galleries, laboratories, and literature.

The conference will bring together artists, humanists, and scientists for panel discussions about the present and future of these trends.

8:30-9:00 am: Coffee, Juice and Pastries
9:00-9:30 am: Introductions

* Katherine Hayles, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research, UCLA (conference co-organizer)
* Roberto Peccei, Vice Chancellor for Research, UCLA
* Nicholas Gessler, Co-Director, Human Complex Systems Program, UCLA (conference co-organizer)

9:30-11:00 am: Panel 1 – Self-Organizing Processes
Moderator Nicholas Gessler, UCLA

* Jean-Pierre Hébert, Artist in Residence, UCSB Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics. “Art Is/As Algorithms: rEvolution of Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ from 1915 to the Present and Other Examples”

Additional examples include Jean Tinguely’s “Meta Malevich” and “Meta Kandinski,” sculptures and conceptual art, as well as current perspectives on these and other works.

* Charles Ostman, Institute for Global Futures. “The Emergent Evolutionary
Eventstreams of NeuroAesthetics: The Intersection of Biological Metaphors in Computing and the NeuroAesthetic Influences of Nature”

For millennia, in virtually every indigenous culture known to exist, humankind has probed, explored, and even amplified the apparent aesthetic potential of the natural world via the lens of artistic expression. Recently, this mechanism of “aesthetic nourishment” has been translated into the realms of computing, particularly in the arena of computation that utilizes biologically inspired processes and algorithms to manifest a new form of aesthetic nourishment, via the lens of exploration into the realms of “virtual nature.” This poses the question of a new realm of evolutionary influence upon our current and future cultures, catalyzed by aesthetic influence from realms beyond the boundaries of organic nature.

* Nathan Brown, UCLA Dept. of English. “Imagining Materiality at the Limits of Fabrication”

From Derrida’s graphic materialist to more recent work by Johanna Drucker, N. Katherine Hayles, and Steve McCaffrey, the materiality of writing has been figured and refigured—tracked through its unstable modes of participation in an emergent medial ecology—over the past forty years. But what happens when we resituate scriptural materiality in relation to, and as an element of, condensed matter research at the “limits of fabrication”—at the intersection of physics, solid-state chemistry, and molecular genetics enabled by nanotechnology? I want to suggest that such a structural coupling of “art” and “science” constitutes the site of irritability at which the ethico-political stakes of technologically producing self-organizing solids should be imagined.

* Michael Dyer, UCLA Dept. of Computer Science. “The Death of the Static Visual Artist”

Evolutionary programs could remove the division between the artist (as producer of art) and the viewer (as consumer of art) by turning everyone into a producer of art through the application of selectional pressure (i.e., taste). This “death” won’t happen for literature or the visual performance arts because there are few artificial generators in these areas (and they are very primitive) and also the process of applying selection pressure in these areas is too slow and tedious.

11:00-11:30 am: Break

11:30 am-1:00 pm: Panel 2 – Evolving Systems
Moderator Margie Luesebrink, Electronic Literature Organization

* Michael Chang, UCLA Dept. of Design | Media Arts. “Cellular Automata and Morphology”

Computers have become more and more capable of producing simulations. Future art, science, and research using evolutionary programming can take advantage of simulating “cellular morphogenesis.”

* Casey Reas, UCLA Dept. of Design | Media Arts. “. . . —. . .”

The creation of self-organizing systems as a contemporary artistic practice has roots in works dating back over forty years. Working with modern digital computers introduces new possibilities and methodologies for working within this domain. A range of current works based on scientific research and simple behaviors build a foundation for an exploratory and aesthetic approach to self-organizing systems.

* Brian Attebery, Idaho State University Dept. of English. “Literature as a Self-Misregulating System”

Literary production and criticism all too often form a closed loop: writers write variations on what they have written before, and the critics praise them for meeting expectations. Generally these expectations have to do with writing about the moral dilemmas and psychological turmoil of characters that just happen to resemble those same writers and critics. To break out of the loop, literature needs periodic infusions of new ideas from history, politics, and especially science, which can question the most basic assumptions of human nature. The writers who have successfully integrated ideas from genetic engineering, nanotechnology, or neuroscience into science fictional narratives may be among the most important writers of our era, although you wouldn’t know it from most critical discourse.

* Kate Marshall, UCLA Dept. of English. “Non-Productive Waste and Systemic Interrogation in
Contemporary Fiction”

Popular and critical accounts of contemporary fiction form a literary system inflected by the distinction between productive and non-productive forms of Bataillan “expenditure.” As a test case, Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel Cosmopolis, panned by critics for its inability to escape the destruction it portrayed, both formally and thematically enacts a form of waste that refuses to reroute negative expenditure into productive meaning. While DeLillo has been considered a “systems novelist” by Tom LeClair for taking the principles of self-organizing systems as his thematic concern, Cosmopolis and the texts that surround and constitute it provide a way of examining how a work functions as, rather than merely describes, the system.

1:00-2:00 pm Lunch

2:00-3:30 pm: Panel 4 – Cultural Worlds
Moderator Carol Ann Wald, Electronic Literature Organization and UCLA Dept. of English

* Simon Penny, UC Irvine ArtsComputationEngineering Program. “Living with Agents: Experiments in the Aesthetics of Behavior.”

Over the last decade, the technical complexity of intelligent or autonomous agents and their possible interactions has developed rapidly, yet by and large, HAI (Human Agent Interaction) is unexplored, the idea of the socially intelligent agent is underdeveloped, the concept of a culturally intelligent agent remains shapeless. Complex communities of agents ‘in silico’ remain, for the most part, graphical traces, images or text, locked behind the screen like fish in an aquarium, to be influenced by the mouseclicks and keyboard strokes of a solitary sedentary user. Modalities of human interaction with agent systems has remained constrained by conventional notions of interface and limitations of commercial sensor/effector technologies. I will present documentation of several works utilizing custom sensor scenarios, in which an agent or agents share physical space with a user, whose bodily gesture and dynamics perturb the system.

* Bill Tomlinson, UC Irvine ArtsComputationEngineering Program. “Communities of Agents”

A lone autonomous agent may find out about its world by exploring; a community of agents, on the other hand, can exchange information among its members, thereby becoming a distributed learning system. This system breaks down, though, when certain agents provide incorrect or deceptive information. Computational social relationships can help agents remember the weak links and keep the distributed learning process on track.

* Colin Milburn, Harvard Dept. of English. “The Horrors of Goo: Nanotechnology and the Logic of

Nanotechnology’s spectacular rise to prominence over the past several years has been accompanied by increasing concern over the potential dangers of self-organizing nanosystems, such as the emergence of hostile artificial intelligences or the worldwide destruction of the biosphere in an apocalypse of “gray goo.” These fears embody a cultural fantasy, endemic to modernity, that our technology will somehow get “out of control,” run amok, and take over the world. Such fears negatively impact public moral support for nanoresearch, as well as the venture capital and governmental funding made available to nanoscientists. I will talk about some recent popular representations of nanotechnology that have contributed to public perceptions of nanotechnology as a science “in control” and in no danger of giving way to “gray goo.” Taking a psychoanalytic approach to these texts, I hope to briefly suggest that nanotechnology becomes a “safe” science not by any feat of intellection or engineering, but rather by a rhetorical logic of control that appeals to scientific authority.

* Nicholas Gessler, UCLA Human Complex Systems Program. “Artificial Culture: It’s Agents All the Way Down”

Bertrand Russell was once confronted by a woman who claimed that the Earth is carried on the back of a giant turtle, standing on the back of another – “turtles all the way down.” Today, from nanoscience to cosmology we are confronted with the problem of how smaller “computational turtles” (John Smart) give rise to a pyramid of turtles of increasing sizes. “Old turtles in new shells” are reappearing in conferences on “computational synthesis,” “dynamical hierarchical synthesis” and “dynamic ontology.”

3:30-4:00 pm: Break

4:00-5:30 pm: Panel 3 – Emerging Minds
Moderator Katherine Hayles

* Dario Nardi, UCLA Dept. of Anthropology. “Agents Are Systems Too”

Over 2,500 years in various cultures, similar patterns in individual behavior have been repeatedly identified. Until recently, people called these patterns “types”—essentially static boxes without scientific grounding in the reality of human diversity. But today we understand that a finite number of attractors—dynamic patterns—necessarily appear in many (all) highly complex systems. Agents, as individuals, self-organize within the systems of which they are a part. I will argue that psychology’s current trait-based ideology is hopelessly mired in 19th century statistical tools. A new understanding will add tremendously to the realism of our models and simulations, and also act as a critical counterpoint to our individual biases as model creators.

* Brooks Landon, University of Iowa Dept. of English. “More Brains: The Magnificent Arrogance of Science Fiction”

A good part, if not the greatest part, of science fiction is not as much about science or technology or the future as it is about finding ways of getting smarter. Indeed, SF might be considered the literature of radical auto-didacticism with learning machines—of various shapes, sizes, ontogenies, and ontologies—the recurring subject of SF narratives, while those narratives also present themselves as learning machines. In these terms, the self-organization of knowledge, ideas, cognitive processes—always an important aspect of literary experience—becomes the organizing principle, defining characteristic, and primary agenda of science fiction.

* Rudy Rucker, San Jose State University Dept. of Computer Science. “The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul”

The title embodies a dialectic triad: (thesis) we can computer-model a personality by an interactive super-blog that I term a lifebox; (antithesis) we feel like we have a soul or spark that can’t be captured by a program, but (synthesis) it may be that certain kinds of naturally occurring computation are in fact rich and unpredictable enough to behave like a mind. Examples of these rich computations are the cellular-automata-like rules that create the markings on cone shells and, more generally, activator-inhibitor rules which produce spots, stripes and scrolls. I would also submit that the textures of events within a novel are themselves driven by activator-inhibitor computations in the author’s mind.

* Sue Lewak, UCLA Dept. of English. “‘I’m sure those are not the right words’: The Language
of ‘No-Sense’and Self -Organizing Systems in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, approaches the idea of self – organization through the dissolution of macroworld rules. Indeed, it is through Alice’s negation of conventional rules that she develops the ability to “form” a coherent microworld system. Thus, as Alice’s gradual acclimation into the wondrous language of “no-sense” indicates, self-organization at the microscale lies in the ability to perceive an existing system, rather than in the creation of a new one.

Self-Organizing Systems: rEvolutionary Art, Science, and Literature is sponsored by a DiMI Grant from the University of California, UCLA Human Complex Systems Program, UCLA English Department, UCLA Design | Media Arts Department, Electronic Literature Organization, and the Center for Digital Humanities.