Ecologies and Technologies


Janine Randerson


Andrea Polli: The University of New Mexico, US

Janine Randerson: Unitec Institute of Technology, New Zealand

Su Ballard: Art History, Visual and Media Art, University of Wollongong, Australia


This panel examines specific moments in which theories of complex systems, cybernetics, and chaos have contributed to the conceptualisation and production of works of media art. From the 1960s onwards, many artists found a resource, in scientific ideas of instability, mutual causation, transformation, and openness, for the questioning of established aesthetic values and cultural institutions. Complex systems, as a subject of conceptual thought and scientific investigation, intensified following work by Weiner, Prigogine, Lorenz, Bertalanffy, Bateson, Varela and Maturana and so forth in the mid-twentieth century. These recalibrations of scientific thought ignited artists’ interests in science, shifting attention away, as they did, from ontology (things as they are) to ontogenesis (how things emerge) – from deterministic and mechanistic forms of thinking, to a sense of the world as indeterminate, dynamic, non-linear, and filled with behavioural complexities.

By drawing together art historical studies in open systems and cybernetics with contemporary thought about ecologies, the various papers will suggest that history remains a viable lens for understanding the development of particular strains of contemporary art. We test this claim in relation to specific artworks, and most importantly, we extend this argument by examining the environmental import of art produced under the sign of open systems. The panel will focus on a selection of art and technological activity in the 1960s-70s, for example: Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue, Fluxus, British structuralist filmmaking, the Harrisons and critical developments in permaculture and hacker culture networks. The focus is on works in which the artist is but one agent, alongside other natural and technological phenomena, in the system of which he or she is a part. As a panel of writers and creative practitioners, we propose that these historical works anticipate, by other means and through concerns avant la lettre, contemporary ecological approaches to media art.


Andrea Polli: The Open: Mediating the Human and Non-Human Interface

Both Heidegger and Agamben referred to ‘the Open’ as forces unknown, those of art and of everyday experience. According to Heidegger, to be open is a strictly human experience. A nonhuman organism is closed off from anything except the strict routine of sustaining life. Agamben disagreed with this view and redefined ‘the Open’ as a reconciliation of the human with animality. In this presentation, several contemporary artists examine ways in which humans interact with nonhumans through cultivating the ‘other’ and integrating the bodies or remains of nonhumans into their work. In many cases, human and nonhuman organisms have been mediated. While Heidegger and Agamben use the human/nonhuman dichotomy to define what it is to be human, many of the works in this presentation tend towards Harroway’s notion of the inextricable connection between co-evolved species: man, animal and others. Like Harroway, most of these artists engage bioethics and biopolitics in their work.

Questions to consider:
1. What is in the gap separating human and nonhuman? What is the role of language, cognition and consciousness in this gap?
2. Does technicity play a role in what Agamben calls “the central emptiness that separates man and animal” ?
3. Can an artwork disrupt Agamben’s notion of the anthropological machine by inventing ways to reconcile human and nonhuman life?


Janine Randerson: Cloud Systems

In the 1960s and 1970s weather systems were adopted as media for art in non-objective, performance and early televisual works. Emergent systems theory reflected and advanced the circular causal nature of the weather as dynamic, ‘real-time’ material for avant-garde artists. Art critic Jack Burnham’s Systems Esthetics’(1968) aligned complex systems in cybernetic and environmental art with the biological and meteorological analogies for contemporary life in Gustav von Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory (1968).

This presentation suggests that artworks such as Yoko Ono’s Sky TV (1966), Hans Haacke’s Recording of Climate in an Art Exhibition (1970), and David Behrman, Robert Watts and Bob Diamond’s Cloud Music (1974-79) are ancestors to a significant strand of contemporary art practice that binds weather, emergent technologies and the observer-participant.  Such projects freed technical instrumentation (meteorological devices, cameras, synthesisers, video analysers and circuitry) from their conventional usage in communication or science. It will be argued that the highly variable patterns of weather provide a live, improvised score where hierarchies between artist or composer and audience, as well as human and non-human became unsettled. As a cultural ‘dialectics of transformation’ (Burnham, 1975: 131), these works suggest an analogy between changes of state in physical systems and the possibility of rethinking human-technology-nature relations.


Su Ballard: Nam June Paik and cybernetics: Art machines at play in the land of flux

Jasia Reichardt’s Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA in London and Jack Burnham’s Software: Information Technology. Its New Meaning for Art at the Jewish Museum in New York were propositional exhibitions that suggested a future for relationships between art and cybernetics. Together they prefigured an artworld that would become concerned with relations between human and non-human entities. Relationships of communication and control pointed towards a shared place for humans, objects, and machines. One artist included in both exhibitions was Nam June Paik. Paik’s works brought together a commitment to indeterminism, a deep knowledge of information systems, and a playful attention to the materials of communication.

This paper will begin by focusing on a selection of Paik’s art practices that engage ideas of communication and control in the machine (and subsequently the network). The flux suggested between a human as a machine and a machine as a human presented fertile ground for imaginative couplings. In his writings Paik identified the way that Norbert Wiener’s ‘sensory members’ might contribute to art machines that would inhabit the forces of entropy and the realm of the more-than human.

The second half of this paper will look at the legacy left by Paik’s playful, imperfect and often ambiguous use of cybernetics. In an age when it is essential to temper aesthetics with ethics, and when visual data are quickly distributed via multitudes of networks, artists are again questioning the utopian dreams of the very materials we work with. As Paik said: “the real issue implied in ‘Art and Technology’ is not to make another scientific toy, but how to humanize the technology and the electronic medium.”