The Science And Art Of Complex Systems

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 cyberspace.

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
” [1]

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” [2].

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)”[3]. 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.”[4]. 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 components” [5].

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” [6]. 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
” [7].

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” [8].

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 [9]. 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” [10]. 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” [11]. 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” [12] 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 links” [13].

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 Caves)[14].

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, [3] 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,” [15] then we must consider ourselves as part of that phenomena—that system.

Photo: Eduardo Kac


Interactive New Media Art as Complex System

Eduardo Kac’s “”Uirapuru” [16] 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” [17].

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” [18].
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 experience)” [19].

The installation project “bb write” [20] 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” [21]. 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 the system

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” [22].

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” [23]. (Eduardo Kac)

Eva Schindling’s “L-Garden” [24], 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” [25]. (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” [26] 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 nonsense.

Within the parameters of the artist’s designed software, Margot Lovejoy’s “Turns” and Warren Sack’s project “Agonistics” ( 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” [27]

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” [28]. Epistemologically speaking, complexity and all “emergent phenomena represent a challenge to a science based on strict reductionism” [29].

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…”[30]. 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” [31].

“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” [32]. 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”, ( ), 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,

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 .

21 . limitazero,

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, , 2.

24 . HTTP :// EVSC . NET / V 6/ HTM / LGARDEN . HTM

25 . Schindling, HTTP :// EVSC . NET / V 6/ HTM / LGARDEN . HTM


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.

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  • Jeremy Levine Jeremy Levine

    Jeremy Levine is the principal of Jeremy Levine Design, which specializes in sustainable, modern architecture.  Levine earned a Master’s Degree in Architecture from the Southern California Institute of Architecture where he won the Haskell Prize for Architectural [...]

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