Digital poiesis

Rachel Kent examines the art of Jon McCormack

Jon McCormack, Turbulence

Jon McCormack, Turbulence

“the object is that through which we mourn ourselves”
Jean Baudrillard

The rise of the cabinet of curiosities, or wunderkammer, in 17th and 18th century Europe brought with it a keen interest in the collecting of natural history specimens and exotica. Prompted in part by colonial expansion and the establishment of trading routes into the New World, the collection and display, study and scientific classification of rare and unusual plants, seeds, shells, rocks and exotic fauna offered a microcosmic glimpse of the natural world to the viewer. Computer artist Jon McCormack’s Turbulence: an interactive museum of unnatural history likewise offers contemporary viewers a glimpse into a strange and exotic world. Unlike the traditional wunderkammer, however, Turbulence proposes a digital alternative in which computer-generated organisms inhabit the virtual space of Artificial Life.

Known as AL to its adherents, Artificial Life aims to replicate biological evolutionary patterns within the computer via simple numerical codes or algorithms, the digital equivalent of DNA. Computer scientist Christopher Langton describes this process succinctly:

“Artificial Life is the study of man-made systems that exhibit behaviours characteristic of natural living systems. It complements the traditional biological sciences concerned with the analysis of living organisms by attempting to synthesise life-like behaviours within computers and other artificial media. By extending the empirical foundation upon which biology is based beyond the carbon-chain life that has evolved on Earth, Artificial Life can contribute to theoretical biology by locating life-as-we-know-it within the larger picture of life-as-it-could-be.” Christopher Langton, Artificial Life

Artificial Life is premised upon the notion of life as dynamic form rather than material embodiment, taking a ‘bottom-up’ approach to the modelling of its organisms. That is, it starts with simple, recursive rules out of which more complex structures can then evolve, branch out and randomly mutate. This represents an alternative strategy to that often taken in traditional biology, which works downwards from organic complexity to underlying simplicity in search of the so-called ‘building blocks’ of life.

While the study of Artificial Life is by no means new in itself and can be linked to the emergence of cybernetics in the late 1940s, the development of more recent high-end computer systems has enabled both scientists and artists to experiment with the many possibilities it offers. McCormack’s work represents one instance of this, the results of which are both conceptually rigorous and visually startlingly beautiful. Other contemporaries in the field include English computer artist William Latham and American Karl Sims.

Turbulence takes the form of a video laserdisc upon which a menagerie of synthesised organisms, exhibiting life-like behavioural patterns, are stored. Images are accessed by a touch-screen computer and projected via an overhead projector onto a large screen before the viewer. Echoing conventional systems of biological classification, life forms are grouped thematically into five imaginary realms entitled ‘Signals’, ‘Flow’, ‘Spaces’, ‘Organisms’ and ‘Metaroom’. Almost 30 minutes of computer-generated animation is accessible through these groupings, each sequence representing a particular organism and its environs. Thus we see a pulsating, translucent creature with thread-like tentacles in an aquatic garden, a strange, ant-like creature scuttling through the sands of an imaginary desert and a livid green plant splitting open in a sudden, violent burst to project its spores into the cosmos. An evocative soundtrack by the artist accompanies each sequence, adding to the overall impact of the work. Within the constructed world of Turbulence, nature is both beautiful and terrible, meditative and destructive.

Writing about Turbulence McCormack has described the work as dual lament and celebration:

A lament for things now gone. A celebration of the beauty to come, and the fact that we can appreciate and create it (Turbulence) heralds a new evolutionary landscape made possible by technology: a digital poiesis. Jon McCormack, The Beauty to Be

The rapid destruction of the natural world which we inhabit, coupled with the desire to establish alternative spaces for beauty and contemplation, is a driving force behind the creation of Turbulence. Alternatively, it is the ability to create forms so close to, yet so dissimilar from ‘nature’ as we know it that motivates the production of the work. As one recent publication suggests, we are living in an age when nature teeters on extinction yet, at the same time, its exact definition as a category of representation becomes increasingly problematic (G. Robertson et al eds, Future Natural: Nature, science, culture). Endlessly reproduced and analysed, mediated by technology, economy and politics, what constitutes nature anyway?

Created over a three-year period between 1991-94 with financial assistance from the Australian Film Commission, Turbulence is the recipient of several international multimedia and film awards. It has been exhibited at the 1995 International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA) in Montreal, the 8th Tepia Multimedia Art exhibition in Tokyo, the Berlin Interfilm Festival and at ACM Siggraph in Orlando, Florida. The work was previewed before Australian audiences in 1995 at the Australian Film Commission conference The Filmmaker and Multimedia: Narrative and Interactivity and has since been exhibited at the the Ian Potter Gallery, The University of Melbourne Museum of Art, in 1995 and at Science Works Museum. Turbulence was displayed at the Ian Potter Gallery in a large, darkened amphitheatre, next to which a room of dimly lit zoological specimens provided an eerie biological counterpoint to the synthesised creatures of the interactive.

Audiences in Sydney also have the opportunity to view Turbulence between 5-20 October at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where it is accompanied by two film screenings on the 5th and 12th. Collectively entitled Elastic Light: an international retrospective of computer animation, the screenings have been coordinated by the Sydney Intermedia Network (SIN) with individual works selected by McCormack. Many of the works included within these screenings have never been seen by Australian audiences. The seminal 1969 documentary Experiments in Motion Graphics, based upon the work of animation pioneer John Whitney Snr, forms the centrepiece around which a selection of more recent works are assembled. Animations by Australians Ian Haig and John Tonkin can be seen alongside Michelle Robinson’s When I was Six (USA), Kazuma Morino’s Stripe Box (Japan) and Ian Bird’s acclaimed Pet Shop Boys video clip, Liberation (UK).

As a philosophical meditation upon nature and its multiplex forms, Turbulence questions traditional definitions: what constitutes life and how can we define it? As ‘digital poiesis’, it represents a unique and breathtaking fusion of sound, imagery and poetry.

Jon McCormack, Turbulence, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Oct 5-20

RealTime issue #15 Oct-Nov 1996 pg. 18

© Rachel Kent; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1996