Notes from Self-Organizing Systems

Self-Organizing Systems: rEvolutionary Art, Science, and Literature was held on April 30, 2004 at UCLA.
First, some contrast with last week’s UCLA conference, also organized in part by Katherine Hayles. This was a much larger crowd, helped no doubt by the association with the Electonic Literature Organization. The audience at Narr@tive consisted almost entirely of panelists.
An audience of 100-120 endured four sessions in the UCLA Design | Media Arts department’s EDA space. I don’t know why, but they configured the space so that the entrance was stage left of the projection screen, which discourages people from wandering in and out of a presentation in progress.
Despite being held in the Design | Media Arts space, there was a notable lack of DMA faculty in both the audience and on the panels. Well, nothing to be too concerned about.

I’m going to run through the presentations. Unfortunately I don’t see any grand illuminating theme to what was going on here; as a self-organizing system, this conference lacked viability — no to say that there wasn’t some quality here, but in the space of cellular automata it is difficult to find the right balance of behaviors, to find the gnarl, as Rudy Rucker likes to say. If there’s not enough cross pollination, the system dies out. Too much cross pollination and you get too much talk, too much white noise.
Panel 1: Self-Organizing Processes
Jean-Pierre Hebert – Randomly generated Black Square art, which might be neither black nor square. As a formal, theoretical concept I can see where it has a certain charm; as a method of producing art it falls flat. Having computers create art falls into my “job for machines” category — a category for things like automated grocery checkout lanes and touchscreen cashiers at the movie theater, the all-too-Marxian automation of capital production. Computers don’t need jobs, and they don’t need your help to get jobs.
Charles Ostman – Yeow! Who invited the transhumanist? “Nanotechnology is here, today!” he shouts. Ostman is a fervid advocate for nano research, but that’s because he is a snake oil salesman for the nano industry.
Nathan Brown – Can’t remember what this one was about… oh, yeah, the IBM logo spelled out in atoms, and some post-post modern poetry. English department windbaggery.
Michael Dyer – An interesting analysis of the artmaking process, then subjected to some contrived theorizing about which artforms will be “taken over” by computer code in the near future. The pairing of Dyer and Hebert on the same panel was one of only two sensisble pairings of thematic material for the day.
Panel 2: Evolving Systems
Michael Chang – undergraduate from the UCLA Design | Media Arts department. An enthusiastic but otherwise badly informed presentation on cellular automata.
Casey Reas – Casey has spent many many months of his life being hypnotized by cellular automata and flocking algorithms. Hey, I like CAs too, but shouldn’t you, you know, do something with them instead of stare at them all day?
Brian Attebery – At the top of the conference, Hayles encouraged the panelists to present their work in the form of a rant. Attebery was the first to do so. I’m not sure what he talked about — though I think he said something about The Thirteenth Floor being a vastly underrated movie. There’s a terrible irony is this kind of ranting, the nature of which is left for the reader.
Kate Marshall – Critical reading of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. Not having read this particulr work, I didn’t take much away from the presentation. Except that DeLillo’s most recent books are weighty and bleak.
Panel 3[4]: Cultural Worlds
Bill Tomlinson – Some shallow remarks about intelligence arising as a way to detect honesty/deception in primates. There are always problems with trying to connect cause and effect relationships to complex systems. While it is valuable to make observations about what people do, how communities interact, I don’t think there is much science to be found in blind speculation about their origins. Hm.
Colin Milburn – A nice presentation of “nano” in popular discourse. The people next to me were scoffing and giggling at this presentation. I think they were transhumanists.
Nicholas Gessler – one of the conference coorganizers. I think he was the one who mentioned “cultural algorithms”, which are similar to genetic algorithms except that agents have a shared memory of their environment. I’m not sure who the UCLA Human Complex System Program is, which Gessler is a part of. Sounds like windbaggery.
Simon Penny – Showed videos of two recent installations. The technological aspects of Penny’s work is always highly refined, working with camera systems, robotic controllers, and video projections. The installations themselves have an industrial feel to them, grim reminders of the dirt and steel you would never see on a movie screen. Art for machines.
Panel 4[3] – Emerging Minds
Dario Nardi – Does perverse experiments on his students, using things like Myers-Briggs classifications.
Brooks Landon – A rant about science fiction, much talk of brains. Landon’s idea of sciencce fiction is a little different from mine, he appears focused on the golden age, cold war stuff.
Rudy Rucker – Read a short story about patterned paint. The pairing with Landon was the second sensible pairing for the day.
Sue Lewak – Got into a bit of a scuffle with Ostman (the dread transhumanist) over an analogy of science to the collapse of Alice’s dreamworld.
Well, there you go, sixteen presentations summarized on the back of a postcard. I would that English students read books, and artists make art. Po-tee-weet.

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One Response to “Notes from Self-Organizing Systems”
  1. brooks landon says:

    So, what’s your idea of SF?