Complexity Science and the Arts
zingmagazine 10, 1999
As we round the millennial corner of a new era of aesthetics, journalists and reviewers scramble to find a way to apply the “new physics” to contemporary visual arts. Unfortunately, most writers merely reiterate postmodern notions about the uncertainty of our knowledge and the fictitious nature of all interpretations. What the new sciences have actually given us is a revised, more positive understanding of indeterminacy  and stochasticity as resulting in order and complexity. Complexity Science integrates nonlinear dynamics with the principle of adaptive evolution, illustrating how transcendent order is not a mere fiction but an effectual natural product of chance.
All “laws” of nature are really more like rules of thumb. Causality comes into being over time, so that, while the individual event is indeterminate, the average of individual events is often constrained to such a degree that one may say it is determined. The principle of indeterminacy (as well as entropy and uncertainty) has generally been viewed in a negative light because it was not understood how it can actually lead to order and complexity. Countless art projects in the past fifty years have tried to “express” the concept of indeterminacy in one way or another, but most have tried to show disorder only. Until recently, science had not yet given us the mathematical tools needed to explore the subject, and a gross misunderstanding led to gross expressions. For example, chance operational art represents only the most general disordered conditions and is, arguably, uninteresting by definition. Humans recognize patterns and are interested in them; they tend to ignore noise. There are advantages to this and disadvantages. ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s aesthetics tended to dwell exclusively upon the disadvantages, and encouraged the production of noise, which seems intellectually unsound, to me. If one pays attention to noise, however, one might get the chance to recognize a radically new pattern and create a new order out of it.
Complexity science can help us understand many different things, from atomic processes to everyday events. A simple narrative can describe the behavior of any “complex adaptive system,” for example, the big red perpetual hurricane on Jupiter, the first life forms that arose from the primordial soup, social collectives that arise out of anarchy, or art that comes from life. In any random environment, small islands of order will spontaneously develop: although there are more ways for an assemblage to be in a state of disorder, ordered states are possible too, and there is nothing to prevent it from randomly falling into order. Fortunately for us, order has a tendency to be self-reinforcing. An individual is affected by its neighbor, and it, in turn, affects its neighborhood. A stable predictable environment develops, and stable law-like behavior emerges. The indeterminacy continues, but odd events don’t have much effect on the average (just enough to keep things interesting). Due to the relative sameness of the interacting parts, what has happened once–or something like it–has a greater possibility of happening again than something very unlike what has gone before. Stable systems continue to acquire stability and greater diversity through natural selection.
The dominant aesthetic of indeterminacy of the past several decades has represented reality as radically unstable system, perpetually heading toward more and more disorder. This isn’t necessarily the case, however many artists and curators of chaos are invested in the idea that it is. To take a good example, in the fall of 1998, the Guggenheim SoHo exhibited their attachment to old erroneous ideas when they featured Thomas Hirschhorn’s Very Deviated Products. The storefront windows along Broadway were replaced by temporary Plexiglas constructions, as if the museum had gone bankrupt and been closed for demolition. The windows were then filled with heaps of trash. If the point of the exhibition was to illustrate the effects of indeterminacy, it was somewhat misleading, in so far as it relates to the world in which we actually live.
If the universe were such an unstable system as Hirschhorn represents, life would be as precarious as walking a tightrope, and the smallest error would have severe consequences. Most experiments would end in failure, and one would have little chance of evolving. We know from the fact that we exist that this is not the case. Our system is relatively stable, more like a walk through a valley, wherein the inevitable false step is not so noticeable, but where an advantageous step is.
How can complexity science help us construct philosophies and appreciate art? For one, it shows us that there is no a priori order, other than the order that is inherent in the sorting actions of chance. Therefore, one cannot assume that what happens in the world happens according to any kind of logic or according to any notions of what is best or just or beautiful. Efficiency is the most powerful directive, but the most efficient way is not always the best way, and what is considered best depends on one’s goals.
Secondly, the fact that our world is at bottom indeterminate should not lead one to despair that “life has no meaning” or that “there is no reason for anything.” Indeterminacy is not nihilistic, as some suppose. If the world were entirely determined, there would be no opportunity for change or growth. Indeterminacy is actually what enables complexity to develop over time. It may technically impossible to represent what cannot be said even to occupy space or exist in time in a particular way, but many artists and scientists continue to try to describe indeterminacy. 19th century physicist and geometer, C.S. Peirce sketched out the original chaos in “A Guess at the Riddle,” he writes,
“The existence of things exists in their regular behavior. If an atom had no regular attractions and repulsions, if its mass was at one instant nothing, at another a ton, at another a negative quantity, if its motion instead of being continuous, consisted in a series of leaps from one place to another without passing through any intervening places, and if there were no definite relations between its different positions, velocities and directions of displacement, if it were at one time in one place and at another time in a dozen, such a disjointed plurality of phenomena would not make up any existing thing. Not only substances, but events, too, are constituted by regularities. The flow of time, for example, in itself is a regularity. The original chaos, therefore, where there was no regularity, was in effect a state of mere indeterminacy, in which nothing existed or really happened.”
Pure indeterminacy is rather boring because it is so random that every event appears equally senseless. But Pierce goes on to describe the effects of indeterminate actions over time. That’s when things get interesting. As noted above, in any totally random environment, a regularity might suddenly occur, as they do sometimes by chance, such as when someone wins the lottery with numbers that correspond to, say, one’s height and weight. In an evolving environment, where each move of the game changes the rules and affects subsequent moves, regularities have a slightly better chance of persisting than not. What this means is chance can be considered the “first cause” for the beginning of regularity and time. We can now avoid having to fall back upon conceptions like God, or Spirit or Essence, without succumbing to meaninglessness.
Indeterminacy is good news. Those who interpret it otherwise reveal their limited knowledge of indeterminacy or their irrational preference for determinism. Indeterminacy is better than sliced bread. It’s quite like manna from heaven. It’s a “free lunch,” as the cosmologists say. In terms of constructing an aesthetic based on knowledge gained from the “new physics,” art must incorporate new material while maintaining a fairly stable arrangement if it is to survive. Old tools must be put to new uses. New tools must be tried for old problems. The wholesale dismissal of conventions and traditions–even prejudices and mistakes–will result in chaotic interaction, making it almost impossible to form or maintain an identity distinct from the environment. Both adaptability and identity-conservation distinguish life from non-life. I would argue that art is distinguished from non-art in the same way. This aesthetic is vague enough to include a rich variety of art forms. In fact, it calls for diversity. Different degrees of skill and luck are required in order to travel both along tightropes and in valleys. For the visual art of the next millennium, I imagine a hybrid of conservative and experimental art, which would also include familiar signs and symbols that have come to affect the body as if they were sensual objects. Though we can imagine some of what might inform future art, no one can predict what the outcome will be. I have seen harbingers here and there–hard to describe in our present vocabulary. The art I look forward to is suggestive, above all; it is not a disorganized jumble, but it is fluid and complex; it’s not concrete, but it does hold itself together by its own surface tension. In this aesthetic, exactly what the optimal degree of fluidity might be is left entirely to the artists and their audiences.
Of course, all this begs the question, Why has art of disorder been so successful despite its antagonism to our intuitive understanding of the world? My guess is that many have wanted art that’s cheap and easy to manufacture for the purposes of entertainment and profit. Contemporary philosophers have also had a role in promoting cheap and easy art, but one cannot but admire their work, literally performing miracles of interpretation–creating meaning ex nihilo–relying on neither the artist nor the work, but on imagination alone. However, the time has come for art critics to exercise their intelligence on something other than dull models of disorder. But more importantly, artists should be expected to show some imagination and intelligence. This doesn’t mean that I expect artists to know physics; I do expect them to make sense of chaos in a way that’s never been done before.
I hope that those who have mutely accepted disorder packaged as art–because they didn’t understand indeterminacy–will be less inclined to do so once they understand its positive, potentially creative tendencies. Atoms may not be capable of behaving according to logic or what they feel is best, just, or beautiful, but people can and probably should. If we do not exercise preferences, which we have evolved over time and which are the valuable complex gifts of our experience, things will tend of themselves toward the cheapest and easiest. The cheapest and easiest art is literally garbage.
–Victoria N. Alexander, President Dactyl Foundation, 1999
1. “Indeterminacy” is used very loosely in the Humanities, often referring merely to the stochastic activity of elements in random but causally determined motion. Technically it should refer to that which is entirely uncaused. It’s probably impossible to describe any thing in nature this way. Perhaps quantum noise may qualify since in the quantum world past states are not predictive of future states.