VIDA New discourses, tropes and modes in art and artificial life research

The panel brings together two artists and two theorists who reflect on the fact that A-life art, like all art, is engaged with representation, but with an added challenge that faces any area of knowledge engaged with dynamic processes: how to make representations that capture and correspond to the dynamics of the continuously variable.


VIDA New discourses, tropes and modes in art and artificial life research

ECAL 2011 (the European Conference on Artificial Life) in August had the bold theme and title "Back to the Origins of Life", which carries on the mission of the 2009 edition to reflect on increasingly blurred boundaries between living and non-living processes. The US-based Artificial Life XII, in 2010, reiterated its core mandate of “identifying and synthesizing the critical properties of living and life-like systems.”

The VIDA competition is held with these A-life research events in view, but much more fundamentally, it responds to what artists are doing and what cultural theorists are thinking about. The panel brings together two artists and two theorists who reflect on the fact that A-life art, like all art, is engaged with representation, but with an added challenge that faces any area of knowledge engaged with dynamic processes: how to make representations that capture and correspond to the dynamics of the continuously variable.

Theatres of/ as Art and Artificial Life

Sally-Jane Norman, University of Sussex


Staging artificial and hybrid lives is the art of theatre, which has generated a legacy of puppets, effigies and other synthetic agents, some corporeal and others born of intangible energies. These creatures can provide frameworks that help set art and artificial life into broader cultural perspective, and offer sounding boards for our notions of liveliness and liveness. Some art and artificial life work borrows models directly from existing theatre: robots and automats prolong the lineage of proto-automats found in ancient Egyptian tombs, or that of puppets animated by Athenian nevrospasts (neuron = sinew, tendon). Artists meshing early traditions with current creations seek to reinvigorate the cultural stockpile formed by our conceptions of artificial life, harnessing new tools and techniques to remediate old narratives.

Use of recent means to revive existing lore is exemplified by Petrushka's Cry, an interactive automat installation which Åsa Unander-Scharin based on the story of Petrushka’s unrequited passion for his fairground puppet booth neighbour, the Ballerina. When the spectator winds up the dancer with a crank handle, signals released by the pirouetting figure drive her admirer's computer-choreographed movements and falling tears, while controlling a remix of Stravinsky’s piano score. Choreographic software maximises affective qualities of the lovelorn puppet's gestures through subtle spine, head and arm movements. In contrast to the obliviously upright spinning of the female figurine, Petrushka's movements emphasise emotional responses as he reaches yearningly for his idol, straightens hopefully, then sighs and slumps, resigned to his limits. The ostensible mechanics and principles of this elegantly crafted work are as simple as the metaphor of dependence it embodies. Its cranked circularity goes beyond the tedium of clockwork and of déjà vu precisely because its repetition - at technical and cultural history levels alike - is key to the pathos conveyed by this pitiless pas de deux.

Art and artificial life techniques are widely used to postulate novel kinds of theatre. Digital worlds are spawning many kinds of strolling players or actors who, like their forebears Thespis and Tron, roam the networks in search of the limelight. Wetware is setting the stage for drama (dran: to do, act) arising at richly shifting boundaries of what used to be discrete domains. The erosion of previously convenient dichotomies makes biology and technology, and art/ artifice and life, co-evolving domains for the modelling and emergence of new actors and behaviours. Thus, for example, past fantasies of synthetic creatures that invade our everyday lives are realisable with autonomous, responsive devices that sustainably seek out their own energy, creating domestic and street theatre for 21st century publics.


Urban Parasites by Juan Gilberto Esparza Gonzalez are small robots built from recuperated materials which survive on Mexico City power cables by scavenging stray electricity. They are equipped with sonic sensors that prompt motor reactions to traffic noise, proximity sensors making them react to street movement, and audio transmitters which relay their "bird on the wire" world to car radios below. Passers-by are intrigued by these creatures which have no obvious function or provenance, and are endowed with startlingly "natural" behaviours. Yet these whimsical aerial tricksters trigger deeper reflection. Born of waste and sustained by the same leaky grid provision that powers nearby vendor stalls, they like the vendors appear as socially positive parasites, as entertaining techno-fauna that perform for free, for the inhabitants of a generally indifferent city.

Daedalus's invention of mechanisms to liberate and animate sculpted figures was uneasily viewed: Socrates likened dedalian statues, which ran off mindlessly, with errant philosophers, and Athenaeus condemned puppet master Pothimos for sullying the amphitheatre with surrogate actors. Today's art and artificial life endeavours prolong our equally uneasy and archaic, transgressive, theatrical drive to create beings and realms of being that can extend and challenge our own.

Dualisms: Complexity vs. Reductionism alongside Biology and Post-biology

Paul Vanouse, University at Buffalo


This talk will address a few thorny issues key to VIDA’s mission and my own work in emerging technologies of art: the tensions between complexity and reductionism, emergence and determinism, living and non-living alongside another dualism, Biology and Post-biology.  Central to this discussion are two of my artworks Relative Velocity Inscription Device (a VIDA prize winning project, 2002), and Ocular Revision (2010).

Relative Velocity Inscription Deviceis a live scientific experiment in which DNA from my own family’s skin color genes are literally “raced” against one another in a DNA Fingerprinting gel, implying a valuation of their speed such as “genetic fitness”.  The project playfully set up a tempting seduction—that the speed of one’s DNA in a polarized electrophoresis tank is analogous to one’s fitness or genetic potential.  In actuality the speed of DNA in such a gel simply reflects the molecular size (number of base-pairs) of each isolated genetic excerpt.  My critique here of the timeless aphorism of “DNA as destiny” echoes Henri Bergson’s critique of radical finalism in evolutionary discourse.  Bergson emphasizes, that evolution is an “impulsion from the past”, not an “attraction for the future”.

In Ocular Revision, the notion of “Genetic Mapping” is turned upside-down, as I create satellite-like images of the Earth’s hemispheres by inserting uniquely processed E. coli DNA into a custom, circular electrophoresis apparatus.  The DNA in this case is not mapped, but is rather the substance that creates the map.  As in RVID, this work plays with a favored motif of fixity, regime, colonization and permanence—the map.  E Coli DNA in this work is processed into fixed sizes so that they might migrate over time into the iconic, but extremely temporal hemispheric image.  However, another layer to this work involved the circular electrophoresis gel itself, which I believe to be the first ever built.  This circular apparatus is at odds with the strict, grid-like, Cartesian format of contemporary DNA science, which is always based on x, y coordinates (even the screen upon which it is inevitably diagnosed).

My projects reflect upon epistemic differences in the life sciences between the Biological and the Post-biological periods. Whereas Biology defined the cell as the basic unit of life and thus took upon itself a new object, life itself, Post-biology shifts the focus of the life sciences to non-living matter, DNA.  Furthermore, this Post-biological turn takes a further cybernetic twist as the non-living matter of DNA is increasingly treated as a pure code, rather than a material substance. The differences are not simply a matter of scale in which more powerful tools allow us to “look deeper”, but rather a shift from the primacy of vision altogether toward a hyper-rationalized, statistical observation.  I believe that these issues reflect a changing vision of organic life, a topic fundamental to emerging artistic practices and the VIDA mission.

DNA determinism (epitomized by the “notion that DNA is destiny”, the idea that “we are our DNA”, or the term “DNA is a blueprint”, or “life is code”) is of course not new.  It is primarily a new “medium” for Biologically determinist ideas that had gone out of favor following the absolute condemnation of Eugenics following World War II.  However DNA as code facilitates the cybernetic fantasy in which the infinite complexity of the wet organism is finally humbled by the easily quantifiable genetic code that supposedly exercises total control over the flesh. So while computer code offers a unique medium to ponder life itself, we have to be conscious of facile analogies to DNA.

I find that the most interesting work with Artificial Life, both physical and theoretical, is also aware of the overly tempting simple analogy between control code and DNA.  Examples of conceptual differences include:  emergence rather than destiny; DNA as catalyst rather than control; under-determinism rather than deterministic; open versus closed systems. 

The optimist in me recognizes many new research programs in the sciences that are also moving beyond the overly simplistic, post-biological, frame.  These emerging research areas are being referred to as “Relational Biology”: research agendas that examine complex things such as epigenetics, stem-cell differentiation, bi-directional signaling, etc.  Epigenetics, for instance, is the study of heritable changes in gene expression or cellular phenotype caused by mechanisms “other than” changes in the underlying DNA sequence, and like these other areas it examines complex interactions of interlinked systems.  Likewise, an often-referenced recent study of the human epidermis found that an average of 182 species of bacteria live at any one time on the human forearm, and that almost three quarters of the total number of species differ between individuals.  Which leads to the reflection that individual’s non-human flora is far more unique to them than their own DNA, which is 99.99 percent the same between most individuals. In each of these new research programs, life is not monolithic.  I believe that such contemporary scientific endeavors as these, with their concurrence with chaos and complexity theory, may dethrone the reductive idea that DNA is the dictator of all things and may loosen the metaphor of life as code.



Performative Spaces and the Body as Interface. Sensing spatial experiences. The essential nature of things

Sonia Cillari


Our own body is in the world as the heart is in the organism: it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive, it breathes life into it and sustains it inwardly, and with it forms a system (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 1945).

Recent achievements in physics have confirmed dramatically that all the concepts we use to describe nature are limited, that they are not features of reality, as we tend to believe, but creations of our mind. Our notions of space and time serve to order things and events in our environment and are therefore of fundamental importance in our everyday life: behind its mechanistic appearance, there is no absolute space and time independent from us.

In quantum field theories, indeed there is not a sharp distinction between particles and the space surrounding them, and the void is finally recognized as a dynamic quantity of superior importance. Physical space that surrounds us is not an empty space, but is the place where the most complex fluctuations of energy are happening.

Our bodies are in constant interaction with such environment; they inform and redefine each other into one single continuos existential experience. Human beings experience physical reality by means of their sensory system. Sensorial inputs enable our consciousness to map the world around us. As the process of ‘becoming aware’ becomes true by the acquisition of information through sensations, our modes of perception 'must' be stretched to physical reality in a deeper way.

It is important to enrich our perception with a different spatial sensibility, because our perception doesn’t identify the external world, as it really is - organic, fluid, centre of probabilistic waves - but only in the way we are 'allowed' to recognize it.

To create higher levels of dynamic physical interactions with our environment, new spatial behaviors and stimuli need to emerge; we need to apply multi-sensory immersivity to expand our experience of spatial sensibility and actuate the evolutionary ‘refinement’ of perception.

Contemporary art tends to neglect 'human' qualities in terms of possibilities for enhanced spatial experiences. The observer becomes detached from an incarnate relation with the environment through the suppression of the other senses, in particular by means of technological extensions of the eye (Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin, 2005).

The task of the ‘performative spaces’ is to enable us to experience ourselves as complete embodied and spiritual beings. These are all of our experiences that determine how things exist to us and how we make experience of the immense ‘non void’ that surrounds us, in which we are immersed as ‘body’ and as ‘agents of emotions’. 

This challenging task needs the artistic pursuit of sensuality coupled with scientific concepts. The artist enquires into the essential nature of things.


Art and Artificial Life in Latin America: the historical legacy takes on the artistic establishment 

Jose-Carlos Mariátegui


During the 4th edition of VIDA, in 2001, a new category was created: the Incentive for New Productions focused in Latin-America, Spain and Portugal.  In contrast to the VIDA competition its aim was to stimulate research, development and production in Ibero-America.  Seeing it in retrospective, the “Incentivos” (as it is colloquially called among VIDA jury members), has been growing in terms of proposals submitted, and at the same time, in terms of their quality; and, as it has grown, the bursary prize quadrupled since its establishment.  Most notably, the effects of it have enabled the pursuit of new trends in art and technology in Latin America in the last decade.  In the next paragraphs, I will briefly illustrate four trends along with some emblematic works that are cardinal examples of such accomplishments.   

First, the relationship between living organisms and bio-information in an ever information exploding universe offer particular forms of data profiling in order to generate awareness of the current state and propagation of environmental indicators.  Most of these works create a hybrid ensamble which is no longer natural nor artificial, such as Nomadic Plants by Gilberto Esparza (Mexico, 2010; VIDA 13.0) which brings together organic matter and technology to inhabit and confront areas of 'ecological disaster'; in the same realm, Nanodrizas by Arcangel Constantini (México, 2009; VIDA 11.0) proposes an emerging mode of environmentally engaged media art practice, which, by means of a 'tactical eco-tech' agent impinges upon a specific local concerns by reporting the pollution levels.

The second consists of robots that integrate artificial behaviours into real and virtual spaces, which is closer to the traditional notion of A-Life (i.e., robots and agent driven artefacts). However, this can also make us aware of the world we live in and understand, through a techno-deterministic lens, new angles of robotics.  Ciudad Nasca by Rodrigo Derteano (Peru, 2010; VIDA 11.0) is a project inspired by the lines of Nasca and that consists of adapting and programming a small tractor, so that it draws up a map on the surface of a Peruvian desert as part of an urban imaginary experiment which unite two confronting visions: order (planning) and self-organized (emergent) behaviour.

The third one is the encounter between the organic and the technical through purely synthetically and artificial artefacts, which generate spaces that seem to be part of our real world engendering illusion and aversion. These works might consist of organic components so that machines try to emulate in a metaphorical sense the speculative perception of something that seems “alive”.  The intention of such works is to make us aware of the ambiguous limits between reality and artificiality. Mariana Rondón, developed Llegaste con la Brisa – 2 (Venezuela, 2009; VIDA 8.0, 2005) an installation which intends a critical view of machines and their association with genetic engineering: images of organisms struggling to survive are projected inside each receptacle conforming the metaphor of a “genetic imagery” and non-existent luminous spirits.  Similarly, Paula Gaetano’s Alexitimia (Argentina, VIDA 9.0, 2006) consists of a hybrid robot in the form of a colloidal matter passively inviting the audience to resort to touch, so as to satisfy an inevitable curiosity about what it is made of an which responses through autonomic body phenomenon: sweating.

The final trend is based in mixing the online and the offline worlds, through the interoperability of information, a key element in contemporary life that is relevant in mixed-reality experiences and artefacts.   Ambiente de Estereo-Realidad 2 by José Carlos Martinat and Enrique Mayorga (Peru, VIDA 7.0, 2004) prompted thermal printers connected to the internet to act as subversive editors, independent and autonomous publishing texts from cyberspace, sending them from the roofs of buildings in the of Lima’s downtown.

Latin America’s contribution to A-Life has been connecting these futuristic topics with more grounded considerations of how it is possible that technologies might have an impact in people’s lives.  Most notably, they come from situations, perspectives and particular local contexts, exploring different relations between contemporary social life and their connection to art, science and technology. It is about a culture clearly based on needs that are connected to other realms that go beyond the art world and much closer to notions such as development, sustainability and knowledge. These practices are the ones generating new content that establish links and platforms that expand the notion in which nowadays we consider the projects of art and technology in the region. 







References and Notes: 

Note for Sally-Jane Norman's paper:
Cited works can be consulted online at Vida 9.0 (2006)

Reference for Paul Vanouse's paper:
Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution, [1907] trans. Arthur Mitchell (Dover, Mineola, 1998), 39.
Zhan Gao, Chi-hong Tseng, Zhiheng Pei, and Martin J. Blaser. "Molecular analysis of human forearm superficial skin bacterial biota". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, February 20, 2007 vol. 104 no. 8 2927-2932

Notes for Jose-Carlos Mariátegui's paper: