|Img: courtesy by Robert Hodgin|
QUANTUM PARTICLES AND DIGITAL ART
Txt: Jeremy Levine
This text is the fhird of a 5 essay series, written by Amercian interaction designer and theorician Jeremy Levined 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
Just as a quantum particle has both a virtual and a physical dimension, so does a work
of digital art, which exists as both invisible code and visual display. The dual nature of
matter in quantum mechanics is mirrored by the dual nature of a work of digital art. Just
as a photon is both a particle and a wave, a work of digital art is both a set of
instructions and the execution of those instructions. Digital art, software art, or any work
of art that utilizes media as its medium- is both a set of structural relations (a system of
process) and a set of discrete objects in space. This is conceptual dualism rather than
physical dualism. But how does one make sense of diametriclly opposite models of
the same thing without suffering a bit of cognitive dissonance? Neil’s Bohr, one of the
father’s of quantum mechanics, points the way out: embrace the paradox.
2.0 The Paradoxical Nature of Matter and Complementarity
The infamous "double slit experiment" shows that when a beam of light, composed of
individual photons, passes through two slits cut through a screen it produces a wave
like interference pattern on a second distant screen. These interference patterns are
identical to those produced by waves as they lap over each other. But that is impossible
given our classical understanding of an individual particle. The ontology of individuality
says that no two particles can occupy the same point in space and time. The
fundamental point/mass of classical physics is a hard irreducible "thing" that occupies
space and moves through time. According to the classical physics the observed
interference in the two-slit experiment is the result of some atoms going through one slit
and some going through the others, resulting in collisions when they meet again at the
The "double slit experiment" has another surprise in store. If we modify the light source
and shoot one photon at time at the double slits, we will still see the exact same wave
like interference pattern on the distant screen. But for this to be possible each photon
would have to pass through both slits. Clearly this is impossible if we believe subatomic
particles to be "objects" with distinct physical properties.
As if that weren’t
strange enough, if you try to determine which slit the photon passes through the wave
pattern disappears. The detector interacts physically with the photon, such that its
position becomes fixed. The wave of probability disappears and is replaced by the
registration of a single particle. The quantum world violates our expectations at every
turn. Our classical logic, which separates the world into binary categories of "either/or"
stumbles when we encounter quantum phenomenon, which stubbornly resists being,
An electron can be reduced to a fixed mass point in space: a particle; or a field of
probability- the quantum wave function. These alternate states of being are mutually
exclusive yet equally valid, depending on oneʼs frame of reference. Our frame of
reference, which includes our position, momentum, and choice of measurement
apparatus, must be included in any description of a sub-atomic particle. No single
frame of reference is capable of a "complete description" because other perspectives
have an equal claim on the "truth", hence we have electrons behaving in contrary
fashion- either particle or wave-depending upon the scale of our observation. We
cannot exhaust the ontological possibilities of the "thing" being described
Niels Bohr, paradox and complementarity
Unable to square the circle of contrary atomic description, physicist Neils Bohr proposed
something radical: embrace the paradox. Bohr proposed the notion of
Complementarity in order to deal with the cognitive dissonance caused by the
paradoxical nature of matter.
Complementarity tells us we can hold two simultaneously contradictory descriptions
about the same phenomenon by acknowledging their mutually exclusive contexts.
Columbian physicist Jairo Roldan describes the elusive notion of complementarity this
way: “Two experiences or phenomena will be complementary if they are mutually
excluding and they have the same quantum object” . The conceptual dualism of
complementarity applies directly to the behavior of electrons.
According to physicist
From the quantum angle, an electron is not simply an electron. Shifting
energy patterns shimmer around it, financing the unpredictable
appearance of photons, protons, mesons, and even other electrons. In
short all the paraphernalia of the subatomic world latches on to an
electron like an intangible, evanescent cloak, a shroud of ghostly bees
swarming around the central hive.
|Img: courtesy by Electron Microscopy Center|
Davies describes the electron as a complex system rather than a point mass in space
as Newtonian mechanics might have us believe. Nevertheless, Newton’s mechanical
principles are in fact just as correct, only they have a limited frame of reference. From
within the classical world electrons are best treated as individual particles. This is
Newton’s world. But from the sub-atomic perspective of quantum mechanics, electrons
dissolve into fields.
All matter, as it turns out, has a dual nature: both particle and wave, depending upon
how we choose to measure it. The dual nature of matter is a product of our interactions
with matter, rather than some intrinsic property of a "reality" with an objective,
independent existence. “Virtual states are part of the realm of potentiality in physical
reality because they contain the future empirical possibilities of the universe" . This is
eerily reminiscent of ethe way invisible software contains the potential for the future "empirical" (quantifiable) audio-visual outputs it displays in response to human
Complementarity is the conceptual tool we use to simultaneously hold both descriptions
of matter, particle and wave, as equally "real", but mutually exclusive because of the
independence of their contexts. From the sub-plank length quantum perspective, subatomic
particles and the observer –along with their experimental apparatus — must be
considered a new system rather than separate "individuals". It is the context of the
observer that determines what description to use. A model of discrete parts makes
sense when describing the mechanics of the heart, but it tells us nothing about the
mystery of "life" itself. Life, like intelligence or the color red, is an emergent effect that
cannot be reduced to their constituent components: cells or photons. But quantum
mechanics reveals something much more fundamentally odd about the character of "reality": the observer cannot look at a quantum particle without affecting it.
The process of measurement translates the virtual to the physical. When
the ensemble of quantum mechanical possibilities (the wave function )
breaks down, one of the various possible outcomes becomes reality.
When detection happens, new information is put into the world.
This is not an epistemological issue, but rather ontological. There is a virtual invisible
dimension to reality that directly affects the material "visible" dimension in a way that is
impossible to completely quantify
|Img: courtesy by Christa Sommerer e Laurent Mignonneau|
La duplice natura dell’arte digitale
“Software is an abstraction that is experienced through its instantiation during
runtime” . Conceptual dualism and holism are paradigms that appear again and
again in works of digital theory, which must balance the discrete states of bits…
“”By its very nature, digital representation requires the breaking apart of
phenomena and their representation by symbolic bits.
…with the dynamic processes of systems.“In that a discrete data object (datum) can be considered a (unity), it is a
unity having parts (or the potential for parts) and yet is simultaneously a
part. The datum is a prehension of its antecedents and concomitants
and, by degrees, acts to prehend a larger system which prehends
Scott Snibe’s “Fuel” is downloaded to the user’s desktop where it turns the IP nodes
of your network into a field of glowing stars that react in real time to your on-line activity.
The immaterial information provided by the separate and discrete nodes of your network
are recontexualized and processed into a single visual display. Geographically distinct
components are linked into a single viewing space through the interaction of human
input with Snibe’s software. On one level, there is the ontological dualism of material
data vs. material visualization, but there is also the ontological dualism of part versus
whole, object versus system.
The project "A-Volve" by Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau, translates the
physical input of visitors interacting with a giant touch-screen into a digital ecosystems
of strange luminous creatures fighting for survival. With multiple visitors drawing on the
same giant tabletop screen, we have the input of many human components with the
artists’ designed algorithms that lurk invisibly behind the scenes. These algorithms
function as the ʻlaws of natureʼ and hence have both an ephemeral existence as
concepts and an empirical existence through their affects on the behavior of "things" in
There is a peculiar relationship between the mostly hidden backend of
code which constitute a convergence of language and mathematics- and
the multi-sensory "display" it can produce: an identity in the sense of a
sameness in different instances (code/results), each of which takes a
very different form yet, on one level, is one and the same. (Christiane
|Img: courtesy by Natalie Jeremijenko|
The manipulation of invisible data into a visible display is at the heart of the web based
work of Robert Hodgin. His web site, "Flight 404" , explores the dynamic variability
and liquidity of form of digital physics.
Some digital artists exploit the medium’s dual ontology by deploying multiple levels of
interactivity in a single project. The result is a blurring of boundaries between the virtual
world of the Internet and the physical world of our bodies. The same blurring of
boundaries– the same ontological dualism—appears in quantum mechanics, which
describes a photon as both quantum wave and sub-atomic particle.
“one trees” by Natalie Jerimenko consists of hundreds of trees planted around the
San Francisco Bay area linked together through the internet to virtual trees, creating a “networked instrument” that monitors the health of the environment. As “one trees” is
not simply an object we can locate in any one place, though it has object like
components, but also needs to be understood as the sum of the interactions of these
components: the biological trees planted in different locations in physical space, along
with their digital tree counterparts in cyberspace, and the human social network that is
created by the project’s human participants. “one trees” reveals another conceptual
dualism: “art can be propositional and computational as much as visual or
Reynald Drouhin "des frags" asks the visitor to upload an image from their
computerʼs library. After the visitor selects amongst several options, “des frags”
executes its program. “des frags” criss-crosses the globe in a mere instant, tearing
through ““web windows” – a continuous breakage whose splinters, far-away and
indeterminate, are recomposed….”(Drouhin). A few minutes later an original work of art
is sent to the visitor by e-mail. The result is an abstract mosaic suitable for printing on a
single sheet of paper- or, as Drouhin calls it, a “Defragmentation of the Internet by
Because the visitor’s collaboration with ”des frags” produces a physical object, the work
offers the experience of crossing the boundary between the virtual world (a world of
possibilities) and the physical world. This is not unlike our interactions with a quantum
system in that the collapse of the quantum wave function- a virtual entity- produces a "observable outcome" – a physical entity.
Quantum tunneling is the idea that all objects also have a wave like character that is
spread out in time and space. Throw a tennis ball at a wall until the end of time and
eventually it will pass through the other side, as if violating the laws of physics. Yet
there is no violation, only a statistical rarity. What some might call a miracle is perfectly
plausible within the bounds of quantum physics. Victoria Vesna’s "quantum
tunneling" plays on the idea that "objects" – including the visitors to her installationalso
have a dual wave-like nature that goes urecognized except at the quantum level.
A "tunnel" connects two identical spaces in which images of the audience
are projected and distorted. The visitor swipes a finger over a specified
surface, leaving a genetic trace. While doing so, the visitor’s image is
captured and presented in conglomeration with the face of another
visitor. The recognizable faces are juxtaposed and become distorted.
When another visitor passes through the tunnel, the facial images are
again disturbed and altered, fractured into particles and waves.
|Img: courtesy by Victoria Vesna|
What good is analytic reduction when entanglement –a form of strong coupling- lends
more reality to a composite system that to its parts.” But what is really meant by
this notion of "more reality"? In quantum terms, “reality" simply means a quantum state
according to our definition”.
But perhaps it is more useful to say that "holism"
constitutes another "order of reality". The composite or higher (hierarchical nesting) "order of reality" of holism that we find in works of interactive media art and entangled
quantum particles, is a challenge to the reductive “either/or” logic of classical physical
dualism. Holism is an ontological property that emerges from conceptual dualism.
There are material "things" we can clearly measure and is also the relationship between
these "things" as a non-material condition that is equally "real", but much more difficult
and at times impossible to fully quantify. Both aspects of reality are equally valid
depending upon our perspective and our context. In order to grasp the immaterial
materiality of digital media we need the "both/and" logic of conceptual dualism of
A work of interactive media — like a quantum system– is both
material and immaterial, static (the code) and the dynamic interpretation that code (the
running program), just as a photon is both a measurable object (a particle) and a swarm
of virtual particles (the probabilistic wave function). Roy Ascott proposes “art has shifted
its concern from the behavior of forms to forms of behavior”. Clearly art has not
forsaken its interest in form, but it is equally true that new kinds of art, such as
interactive digital media, require a new set of criteria.
This does not invalidate
formalism, nor does quantum mechanics invalidate Newtonian mechanics. It all
depends on the context of the observer. Different criteria apply in different contexts.
The emergence of complex phenomena, such as cognitive thinking, exists at the level of
the system, rather than the level of the object. We require conceptual bifocals.
Complementarity is a model for understanding the conceptual dualism of both the
physical and the virtual.
1 . Jairo Roldan, “Complementarity, Knowledge, and Reality”, (pubblicato per “Transdisciplinarity and the Unity of Knowledge”, Symposium, Giugno 2007, Philadelphia , PA, USA, sovvenzionato dal Metanexus Institute, URL: WWW . METANEXUS . NET ), 28.
2 . Paul Davies, “God & the New Physics”, (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1983), 162-163.
3 . Lothar Schafer, "Non-empircal reality: Transcending the Phisyical and Spiritual in the Order of the One", [Zygon, vol. 43, no. 2 (Giugno 2008)], 334.
4 . Antoine Suarez, "Classical Demons and Quantum Angels: on Hooft’s Deterministic Quantum Mechanics", (arXiv:0705.3974, Volume 1, 2007), 11.
5 . Brad Borevitz, “Super Abstract: Software Art and a Redefinition of Abstraction,” (in read_me: Software Art & Cultures, Edition 2004, Olga Goriunova & Alexei Shulgin Eds., Center for Digital Æstetik-forskning, , 298-312. ], 307.
6 . Stephen Wilson, "Information Arts: Intersections of Arts, Science and Tech" (MIT Press, Cambridge , MA , 2002), 631.
7 . Joel Slayton e Geri Wittig, “Ontology of Organization as System”, (URL: HTTP :// WWW.C5CORP.COM/ RESEARCH/ONTOLOGY.SHTML), 8.
8 . http://www.snibbe.com/scott/fuel/index.html
9 . http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/a-volve/
10 . Christiane Paul, “Not Just Art”-from Media Art to Artware”, (Aminima magazine, URL: http://aminima.net/wp/?p=393&language=en ), e ( http://newmediafix.net/aminima/christianepaul.pdf , 104.)
11 . http://www.flight404.com/version7/
12 . HTTP :// WWW.NYU.EDU / PROJECTS / XDESIGN / ONETREES / INDEX . HTML
13 . Roy Ascott, “Turning on Technology”, (saggio scritto per l’esposizione, “Techno-Seduction” presso Cooper Union 15 Gen-17Feb, 1997, http://www.cooper.edu/art/techno/essays/ascott.html ), 4.
14 . HTTP :// DESFRAGS.CIC’.FR /
15 . Victoria Vesna, http://nano.arts.ucla.edu/i_quantum.php#
16 . Vesna, http://nano.arts.ucla.edu/i_quantum.php
17 . Philippe Grangier, “Contexual Interactivity and Quantum Holism”, http://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/0301001, vol. 2, 3 Gen 2003, 3.
18 . Grangier, 1.
19 . Ascott, 1.