By Alex Adriaansens [exhibitions] and Angelica D. Schmitt [conference].

Today’s pictures of planet earth are showing a mesh of satellites being in orbit. It represents the largest surveillance and information distribution infrastructure mankind has ever created. Anything and anybody can be connected to everything wherever it is located. All information flowing from one place or person to another is passing this grid of satellites or follows the fibre optic cables that has been buried in the ground in all streets of our cities and crossing all oceans. Out of this technical infrastructure social and cultural networks spontaneously emerge, and grow and diminish through interaction, but at the same time this infrastructure facilitates extreme surveillance and control mechanisms. Interaction in this context is the formation of connections and networks, and the bringing about of organisation and structure. Interaction thus changes bodies and objects that ‘inform’ themselves via these interactions that generate diversity and variation of ‘bodies’ and objects. To better understand the working principles of networks, its performative character and its underlying interactions as new fields of interest within the arts, artists are researching and experimenting these principles in very divers ways. In ‘The Conversation’, a work by the German artist Ralf Bäcker (D), an autonomous apparatus incorporates an analogue (99 solenoids/magnets, rubber bands) and a digital part (computer/software) that together create a network of interrelated elements. These almost inseparable elements in the network try to adapt to each other. As the process does not perform a linear program it is not obvious which part controls whom. The machine has 99 solenoids mounted in a circle pulling three rubber bands (that function like attractors) in the centre of the circle. Each magnet works autonomously and tries to adapt to the forces in the network. The aim of the system is to keep a balance of forces. The rubber band, to which all solenoids are connected, acts as mediator between the single solenoids. The work Jose Manuel Berenguer (ES) takes a different approach, here the issue of self-organisation of autonomous agents in networks is the research objective. He studied communities of fireflies as a starting point for his work ‘Luci – No Name and No Memory’. In specific groups of fireflies the male start to flash individual light signals to attrack females, there is no pattern but a chaotic flashing at first, after a short while all fireflies get in sync with each other and start to flash in rhythms at the same time. In the installation itself there are no fireflies; instead Berenguer used 60 electronic and 64 computing elements that follow the principles of self organisation within a network. The individual conduct of each agent, whether analogue or computational, gives rise to Luci: No Name and No Memory and generates a subtle audiovisual experience.

Understanding how basic forces work and what kind of structures spontaneously arise through self-organization is one of the underlying topics in the art works presented at the Metamorf exhibition. In the art works this is expressed in the design of networks and interaction in and between them; the relationship between power, control and self-organization in technological systems and in social networks; the issue of diversity and variation; and the question of form finding principles of organic and non-organic materials. Form in this context can be described as structured and informed matter of any kind. Form can develop itself without conscious human intervention, or through processes which are designed and controlled by us but parallel also follow their own organising principles. Within this context the Metamorf exhibition has an emphasis on the transformative and manipulative forces of technology instead of its symbolic and representative qualities an issue addressed in many events in the nineties. The transformative force of technology is probably best expressed in the works of Jonathan Schipper titled ‘Lie’ and Herwig Weiser ‘Lucid Phantom Messenger’.

In the work of Schipper we see a car slowly crashing against the wall of the exhibition space, it takes about two weeks before the crash is completed and the car gets its final shape. In this work the car, as a symbol of modern western life style, crashes in a sublime visual spectacle. The forces the car is exposed to via a pulling system, are absorbed by the car. One cannot really see that one is witnessing a car crash since all is performed in extreme slow motion. ‘Lucid Phantom Messenger’ by Herwig Weiser, is also performing itself in time but with varied temporalities and in a much more complex setting of forces working upon each other. The work uses electro-chemical processes, programmed through an electronic control system to generate sculptured-images in an electro chemical fluid. From degenerated materials like crystals, silicon, glass fibre, salts a.s. an object/ image emerges out of a complex process of interactions. The results are large surrealistic sceneries that ‘grow’ in a Plexiglas box, the process one can follow over time reminds us to forces in the cosmos like gasses, plasmas and matter, that mingle and interact and from which after billions of years life spontaneously emerged.

The messy process described above is somehow opposite to what one could call the logic and politics of reduction and abstraction that has been strongly embedded in our Modern way of thinking. Breaking up reality in small particles and study them in isolated and ideal laboratory conditions gives us a different picture of reality then we experience outside of the Lab where things are messy and full of complex interactions. Today we know how limited this reductionist world view and according lifestyle is, we just have to look at its devastating effects on the environment, bio diversity, natural resources, urban planning and population control, agriculture and refined food production, or the issue of diversity in general. We now know that the processes that sustain and shape our lives cannot be simply controlled from the top down within a reductionist worldview: they work from the bottom up always achieving more complexity and diversity via messy interactions. The works of Tuur van Balen take a clear position in this respect, it is a research in how all modest activities on a micro scale interact and coalesce into the macro systems governing our tangible world. He takes a designer approach in which he’s not looking at the functional aspects of design but at how design products and concepts might evoke drastic change once released into the real world. For this he focuses on user-product interaction that is embedded in a complex context of social, psychological, philosophical and cultural factors. The project ‘My City = My Body’, one of his works that are exhibited, looks at how the rise of bio-technologies might influence our future interaction with the city, it is an exploration into future biological interactions within an urban context meaning that what we eat, drink and inhale and excrement is making us who we are. Michiko Nitta who also has a design background, has a different approach and is proposing scenarios to open up debate on environmental issues as well as social relations in our technological culture in general. These scenarios are in between fiction and reality. Her project ‘Extreme Green Guerrillas’ takes current green trends to the extreme in the areas of communication, food, and death. As environmental damage becomes the top of almost every government’s agenda she questions the green trends and the rise of eco-consumerism which means that problems we generate are becoming economic investment projects which don’t really question the underlying issues that caused our environmental problems. EGG isn’t meant as a real solution but it contributes to possible solutions by provoking us by proposing extreme scenarios that are performed by the fictive EGG community. Like Tuur van Balen also Michiko Nitta comes up with bottom up scenarios addressing questions about technology, biology, culture, environment and social factors as being closely intertwined with each other.

Reading the above it might be clear that research and innovation have become keywords in the vocabulary of a.o. the arts, they express the way we understand ourselves and the world around us as being fully entangled and interacting, meaning that they shape and change each other over time and through interaction. Technology in our Modern worldview has until today mainly been a tool for reduction and abstraction, purifying nature from a state of randomness and messiness into one of cleansiness, controllability and perfection. Our contemporary interest to understand the working principles of interaction and how structure and form emerge out of that is looking at technology from a reversed direction, it is about connecting, sharing, and weaving instead of separating, reduction and alienating.

Contemporary research and innovation within the above mentioned context characterises itself through transdisciplinary collaborations and by sharing knowledge and experience between until recent separated knowledge domains like for example art and science. These kind of transdisciplinary collaborations have in the meantime become more rule then exception, they define the basis for social, cultural, economic and political innovation in general. Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts who directs SymbioticA, a research centre within the School of Anatomy and Human Biology at The University of Western Australia, cross the disciplines of art and the life sciences as the basis of their artistic work. In the work NoArc II shown at Metamorf they encourage a better understanding and articulation of cultural ideas around scientific knowledge and bring about an informed critique of the ethical and cultural issues of life manipulation. Zurr and Catts suggest and offer a new means of artistic inquiry, one in which artists actively use the tools and technologies of science – not just to comment about them – but also to explore their possibilities. Within the SymbioticA program an opportunity is also provided for scientific researchers to pursue curiosity-based explorations free of the demands and constraints associated with the current culture of scientific research while still complying with regulations. The research undertaken is speculative in nature. SymbioticA strives to support non-utilitarian, curiosity based and philosophically motivated research. In broad terms the research ranges from identifying and developing new materials and subjects for artistic manipulation, researching strategies and implications of presenting living art in different contexts, and developing technologies and protocols as artistic tool kits.

How we perceive and understand the world, how we construct models of the world through media and technology concerns our playfield for social, economic, political and cultural acting and interacting today and tomorrow. We have to encounter the realities constructed by technology, not solely by asking questions but also by proposing new models to understand and experience the realities we live in.

Alex Adriaansens (curator)
Angelica D. Schmitt (conference curator)