THE SCIENCE AND ART
OF COMPLEX SYSTEMS
Txt: Jeremy Levine
This text is the first of a 5 essay series, written by Amercian interaction designer and theorician Jeremy Levine entitled "Products of Negotiation & Spaces of Possibility: Quantum Systems and Interactive Media Art". The text was translated in Italian for Digimag, according to the author, and first pubblished for an art-critic magazine
Within quantum mechanics, "reality" is an evolving state that
includes the interaction of the observer as a component of
the system under observation. The same thing can be said
of any interactive work of media art. Human behavior
contributes complexity to any interactive system of which it is
a component, whether it reside in quantum space or
From this perspective object-based art is akin
to classical particles, while interactive media art is more like
the quantum particles whose form is always evolving. In
both cases our intuitive understanding of "objects" with
discrete boundaries, separated by space is challenged by
our experience of non-locality and entanglement, both real
and perceived. In both cases, the choices made by human
beings are injected into the structure of the system under
observation, resulting in a single complex system.
It is important to clarify in exactly what way interactive media art and quantum systems
function as "complex systems" rather than merely "systems". For science writer Philip
Ball, the misuse of complexity has lead to a visceral reaction and a warning.“When I hear the word “complexity,” I don’t exactly reach for my hammer,
but I suspect my eyes narrow. It has the dangerous allure of an
incantation, threatening to acquire the same blithe explanatory role that“adaptation” once did in biology” 
Ball’s frustration stems from the inconvenient fact that there is no single universally
accepted definition for complexity or complex systems. Stephen Wilson echoes Ball’s
sentiments, “Artists and those outside the sciences toss these terms around carelessly,
understanding their precise meaning is useful in considering artists who are inspired by
the theories” .
From the perspective of biology, complexity is a product of living systems, which are
assembled from a large number of parts. It is the interactions of these parts that cause
the emergence of the novel behaviors commonly associated with complexity—I.E. selforganization.
It is no surprise that, "life"–as a form of self-organization- is often held up
as the model of complexity…and holism. It is for this reason that the words "organic"
and "holistic" are often used synonymously. Digital art and complex living systems both
depend on a code based structure: computer code or DNA. Both types of code act as
instructions that provide the organizational unity to their systems.
An alternative to the biological model for complexity and complex systems emerges
from information theory where complexity does not depend on a large number of
moving parts. Instead the emphasis is on the “dynamics causing the change of the
system (state)”. The info-theoretic approach is not concerned with the number of
variables, as much as it is “the fact that these variables are all interrelated.”. This leads
to the emergence of holistic properties. Complex systems have to be understood
holistically because they “exhibit behavior on scales above the level of the constituent
The emergent behavior of complex systems is hard to comprehend, because it does not
come apart easily under analytic reduction. As physicist Alberto-Laszlo Barabasi has
points out, “we continue to struggle with systems for which the interaction map between
the components is less ordered and rigid” . Interactive media art and quantum
particles under observation are two examples of such systems.
Herbert Simon‘s “How Complex Are Complex Systems?” characterizes complex
systems in similar terms, but puts an emphasis on complexity as a relative term.“Systems in which there is much interdependence among the
components are generally regarded as more complex than systems with
less Interdependence among components.
Systems that are undecidable may be regarded as complex in
comparison with those that are decidable” .
On the other hand, physicist Masanori Ohya‘s definition of complex systems digs into
the texture of complexity as a hierarchical structure.“(1) A system is composed of several elements. The scale of the system
is often large but not always, in some cases one.
(2) Some elements of the system have special (self) interactions
(relations), which produce a dynamics of the system.
(3) The system shows a particular character (not sum of the characters
of all elements) due to (2).
….A system having the above three properties is called “complex
system”. The ”complexity” of such a complex system is a quantity
measuring that complexity, and its change describes the appearance of
the particular character of the system” .
2.0 Entanglement, Complexity, and Non-linearity
The entangled state cannot be considered as two separate electrons prepared
independently. Instead, entangled states are more intimately connected than classical
mathematics allows . Entangled states of quantum systems, like the interactions of
all complex systems, cannot be reduced to a simple linear equation. A linear system is
predictable because it breaks apart easily into separate components “that can be
analyzed separately and solved, and finally, all the separate answers can be
recombined—literally added back together–to give the right answer to the original
problem. In a linear system, the whole is exactly equal to the sum of the parts” .
This is the antithesis of a complex system, in which the whole is not equal to the sum of
the parts. “The whole system has to be examined all at once, as a coherent entit” .
This is the state of holism that we find in quantum systems.
|Photo: entangled photons|
Entanglement of distant components can give rise to what Ilya Prigogine calls the “long
range order”  of complex systems. Prigogineʼs ʻlong range orderʼ is a metaphor for
the linking between nodes in any system or network. However, the entanglement of two
distant elements in a quantum system, like the linking of two spatially separated nodes
in a network, does not yet give us complexity. For that we need to “move beyond
structure and topology and start focusing on the dynamics that take place along those
The entanglement of two or more sub-systems produces the non-linear behavior we
associate with complex systems. Entanglement as a "throughput" function results in a
geometric expansion in the state space that the quantum system can explore. The
capacity for the non-linear exploration of possible outcomes is, another layer in the
connective tissue between quantum systems, complex systems, and interactive art.
[There is a] dramatic discrepancy between the number of states
available to a quantum system and the number of states available to its
classical counterpart. Crudely speaking, the classical counterpart can
occupy any one of a complete set of orthogonal quantum states,
whereas the quantum system can occupy not only the orthogonal states,
but also any linear superposition of the orthogonal states. (Carlton
When we combine two systems capable of complex behavior, the result is a new
system: an entangled system. Though entanglement is normally used to describe
quantum systems, it is also apt metaphor for our encounters with interactive art: the
entanglement of two systems- human and non-human- creates a third system.
Entanglement is a metaphor for the interdependence of the components of any system.
From the macroscopic perspective of classical physics, you and the chair you are sitting
on are distinct objects separated in space. However, from quantum perspective, you
and the chair are two interacting systems of energy. From the quantum perspective,
 your wave functions are entangled and impossible to separate. From the quantum
perspective, you and the chair are a single complex system. Again it all boils down to a
matter of perspective: macro or micro, classical or quantum. If we cannot achieve, as
cyberneticist Norbert Weiner says: “a sufficiently loose coupling with the phenomena we
are studying,”  then we must consider ourselves as part of that phenomena—that
|Photo: Eduardo Kac|
Interactive New Media Art as Complex System
Eduardo Kac’s “"Uirapuru"  is an installation that consists of a telerobotic blimp that
can be controlled by both visitors to the gallery and remote participants linked via the
net. The telerobotic blimp floats over a forest of robotic birds that sing in response to the
networked traffic, as it streams a live feed of audio-video onto the net. All the
participants merge in a virtual space of a VRML forest. Such a network of interactions,
in both physical and digital space, cannot be understood as an art "object", but is much
more akin to a complex system.
In the monumentally important “Autopoiesis: The Organization of the Living” Chilean
philosophers of science, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, define coupling “as
a result of the mutual modifications that interacting unities undergo in the course of their
interactions without loss of identity…however, coupling leads also the generation of a
new unity that may exist in a different domain from the domain in which the componentcoupled
entities retain their identity” .
This new unity is a single interacting system
with well-defined "boundary conditions". Thus quantum systems and interactive art
systems exist in multiple domains as a result of strong coupling that produces a
recognizable structural unity over time. The continuity of organizational integrity over
time is emblematic of all complex systems. The element of "time" is critical in our
understanding of how the human agent affects those systems in which it plays a
dynamic and constructive role. The very notion of dynamics or "change" must be
registered with respect to both space and time. A project like Kac’s “Uriaparu” has an
existence as an autopoetic system because of the strong coupling of digital and human
components, though each retains a level of independence.
Of course, the notion of entanglement applies to our phenomenological encounter with
any aesthetic system: painting, sculpture, or video. The medium is irrelevant. However,
for non-interactive art, this entanglement is limited to level of cognition rather than
physical action. Our entanglement at the cognitive level does not cause the aesthetic
system to physically respond or change in any observable way.
On the other hand, our interaction with quantum particles and interactive art occurs at
the physical or haptic level. In both cases, our interaction with the non-human systems
under investigation leads to a strong coupling that has non-linear effects on that system.
A complex system that includes the human agent as an entangled component is
capable of an even greater range of behavior than those systems that are not. Non-
linearity, as defined by Norbert Weiner in his seminal work, “Cybernetics”, is the result of
any “combinations of functions other than addition with constant coefficients” .
Given that one of these "functions" is human behavior, as is in the case of interactive art
and quantum systems, then we can be sure there is nothing "constant" about the
coefficients. Equally, there is nothing linear about the outcomes (measurements or
visual display) that result form of our entanglement with works of Interactive art and
quantum systems. The emergence of non-linear behavior through the entanglement of
the components is a feature of all complex systems, but human creativity is a non-linear
multiplying function that is impossible to fully quantify. Our inability to fully predict the
outcomes of quantum behavior and the output of interactive art is one the defining
features as complex systems.
“The basic principle is feedback. The artifact/observer system furnishes
its own controlling energy: a function of an output variable (observer’s
response) is to act as an input variable, which introduces more variety
into the system and leads to more variety in the output (observer’s
The installation project “bb write”  by the artistic duo known as Limitazero consists of
four linked Blackberry devices which turn the e-mail messages sent by visitors into an
audio visual environment, “dynamic and reactive like a single organism” . Without
human input “bb” has a rather mundane existence. The complex behavior of “bb”
emerges from it’s connections to the networked human components who participate in
|Photo: Claudia D’Alonzo|
Interactivity, Permeability, and the Network
"Interactivity thus radically transforms relations of man and
machines….A hybridization then appears between the work and its
receiver. It associates a “human subject” and a machine in an intimate
way and sets up an absolutely unprecedented relationship between man
and man-made automatic artifacts” .
All systems can be categorized on a sliding scale of interactivity based on their relative
permeability to ʻoutsideʼ input. A living organism sits at the far end of the openness
spectrum, whereas a rock sits at the other end. In terms of art, we can say a painting
whose aesthetic properties were fixed in advance by the artist, with the intent that they
remain unchanged, is a closed system. On the other hand, interactive new media,
which exchanges information, matter, and energy with the visitor, is an open system.
“The role of the artist in interactive art is not to encode messages
unidirectionally but to define the parameters of the open-ended context in
which experiences will unfold” . (Eduardo Kac)
Eva Schindling’s "L-Garden" , uses interactivity to generate/emulate the non-linear
behavior of biological systems…formerly known as "living things". L-Garden allows the
visitor to input numbers into various variables that control the growth and reproduction
of digital life forms which evolve on the screen. Like all open complex systems a work
of interactive art such as “L-Garden” is physically sensitive and responsive in a way that
a closed system, such as a Rothko painting, is not. Like all complex systems, “LGarden”,
exhibits non-linear behavior.
“Small changes in the rules can cause large effects in the output yet still
retain overall functionality. A process similar to the L-system seems to be
the effector of growth and form patterns in nature” . (Schindling)
"L-Garden" is an open system, at least compared to a Rothko painting, but it’s
"openness" to a range of input possibilities– is relatively circumscribed compared to a
project such as "Text Rain"  by Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv. Visitors to “Text Rain” interact with animated letters projected on a wall, inhabiting a hybrid space
that is both physical and digital. The visitor’s body becomes a digitized presence in the
wall to which the falling letters react. “Text Rain” allows a nearly unlimited range of
creative expression by the visitor, as they construct words, sentences, or pure
Within the parameters of the artist’s designed software, Margot Lovejoy’s “Turns” and
Warren Sack’s project “Agonistics” (http://artport.whitney.org/gatepages/artists/sack/)
create an aesthetic experience out of complex networked interactivity. Christiane Paul
describes both art works as systems in which the visitor becomes both producer and
consumer of content.
“While both Turns and Agnostics enable participation and filtering on the
basis of rules that are established by the artists (and the algorithms they
use) and can be performed by participants, they create an enhanced
awareness of an individual’s “positioning,” be it in a social context or in
the ways they express their opinion” 
|Photo: Eva Schindling|
In a complex system the whole is not equal to the sum of the parts. “The whole system
has to be examined all at once, as a coherent entity” . Epistemologically speaking,
complexity and all “emergent phenomena represent a challenge to a science based on
strict reductionism” .
The Internet, like a quantum system, is a dynamic structure (as opposed to the static
nature of a painting or a classic particle), which reflects the interactions of the human
element within ʻits causal structureʼ as it evolves. As physicist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi has eagerly notes, “The finding that real networks are rapidly evolving dynamical
systems has catapulted the study of complex networks into the arms of
physicists…”. New media art that utilizes networked components to receive input
from remote human participants is not unlike a quantum system that is probed by a
physicist with their experimental apparatus. Many new media artists share with
quantum physicists an interest in the interactive dynamics of complex systems.
“Artists who focus on underlying algorithms or systems are in some ways
working with methods more common in the sciences and engineering,
than art. They are attempting to understand underlying principles and
then to apply or extend them” .
“Measurement does not passively reveal the already existing attributes of a quantum
systems, but it changes the probability distribution for future events as well as what
actually exists” . At the same time the act of measurement changes our own
probability distribution. What we learn from an observation— the information
obtained— affects how we think and consequently how we act.
Interactive media art and quantum particles challenge our understanding of objectivity
by revealing and exploiting the inescapable and reciprocal effects of the subject upon
the object. This relationship is the basic unit of a system.
The aesthetic experience of a work of interactive art, like the output of a quantum
experiment is a product of the relationship between components: one of which is
human. Our role as active participants inside each system introduces a non-linear,
unpredictable, input that produces a predictable outcome: complexity.
1 . Philip Ball, “Material Witness: Designing with Complexity”, (Nature Materials, 3:78, 2004).
2 . Stephen Wilson, "Information Arts: Intersections of Arts, Science and Tech" (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2002), 209.
3 . Masanori Ohya, “Complexity in Quantum System and its Application to Brain Function”, ( http://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/0406225 ), 30 Giu 2004, 2.
4 . Warren Weaver, “Recent Contributions to the Mathematical Theory of Communication,” Introduction to Claude Elwood Shannon’s, ” The Mathematical Theory of Communication”, (The University of Illinois Press ,1949) 4.
5 . Wilson, 209.
6 . Albert-Laslo Barabasi, “Linked”, (Penguin Books, New York, 2003), 238.
7 . Herbert Simon, “How Complex are Complex Systems?”, (Philosophy of Science Association, Volume 2, 1976) 1-2.
8 . Ohya, 1.
9 . Parafrasando Leonard Susskind, “The entangled state means that when we measure one thing we discover something about the other. Here again we see the importance of information theory. The exchange of information is an interaction with real consequences for physical matter.”
10 . Steven Strogatz, “Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order”, (Hyperion Books, New York, 2003),181.
11 . Strogatz, 182.
12 . Gregoire Nicolis and Ilya Prigogine, “Exploring Complexity”, (W.H. Freeman and Company, New York, 1939), 11.
13 . Albert-Laslo Barabasi, “Linked”, (Penguin Books, New York, 2003), 102.
14 . Carlton Caves, “Brief Research Description”, (1o Dic 2005) ( HTTP :// INFO . PHYS . UNM . EDU /~ CAVES / RESEARCH . HTML ), 1.
15 . Norbert Weiner, “Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine”, (The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1948), 163.
16 . Eduardo Kac, http://www.ekac.org/uirapuru.html
17 . Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela “Autopoiesis: The Organization of the Living”, (D. Reidel Publishing, Dordrecht, Holland, 1980), 107
18 . Norbert Weiner, “Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine”, (The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1948), x.
19 . Roy Ascott, “Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness”, (University of California Press, 2007)
20 . http://limiteazero.net/bb_write/index.html
21 . limitazero, http://limiteazero.net/bb_write/index.html
22 . Edmond Cuchot, “Media Art: Hybridization and Autonomy”, (Questo scritto è stato presentato in occasione della conferenza REFRESH!, la prima conferenza internazionale su media art. scienze e tecnologia, Banff Center, 29 Set – 4 Ott 2005, 5.
23 . Eduardo Kac, http://www.ekac.org/Telepresence.art._94.html , 2.
24 . HTTP :// EVSC . NET / V 6/ HTM / LGARDEN . HTM
25 . Schindling, HTTP :// EVSC . NET / V 6/ HTM / LGARDEN . HTM
26 . HTTP :// WWW . CAMILLEUTTERBACK . COM / TEXTRAIN . HTML
27 . Christian Paul, "Digital Art / Public Art: Governance and Agency in the Networked Commons", (nelle edizioni di Sandra Braman e Thomas Malaby), Command Lines: The Emergence of Governance in Global Cyberspace, First Monday, Peer-Reviewed Journal on the Internet, Special Issue #7, November 2006), 6.
28 . Strogatz, 182.
29 . David Larrabee, “A Reductivism Based Challenge to Strong Emergence”, (URL: HTTP :// WWW . ESU . EDU / PHYSICS / LARRABEE /P APERS /M ETANEXUS 2007. PDF ), 17.
30 . Barbasi, 225.
31 . Stephen Wilson, “Information Arts”, (MIT Press, Cambridge Mass, 2002) 337.
32 . Tarja Kallio-Tamminen “Quantum Physics: The Role of Human Beings within the Paradigms of Classical and Quantum Physics” (Academic Dissertation, facoltà delle arti dell’università di Helsinki), 278.