Non-locality: Myths And Metaphors In Networked Art And Quantum Systems


Quantum particle systems seem to possess the ability to communicate instantaneously with each other, defying our classical understanding of space and distance. This feature of the quantum world, known as non-locality, is often used to describe the World Wide Web, and particularly interactive networked art, which seems to collapses space into mouse clicks and links. But is it really applicable?

Non-locality and quantum systems

According to Newtonian mechanics no two objects can communicate faster than the speed of light. This fact has been elevated to the gospel of law, like the law of gravity or the second law of thermodynamics. So naturally it comes as a shock to learn that there is experimental evidence that suggests quantum systems violate this law of locality- a law that is central to our understanding of space as an objective medium. Locality imparts uniqueness and individuality to things by fixing them with a unique location in space/time.

According to Newton and by empirical verification through our senses we find that no two objects can occupy the same space in time, or we must assume that we are actually observing one object. And that is exactly what quantum mechanics is telling us about entangled particles and quantum systems. No matter how much space is placed between two entangled particles, they will communicate with each other as if there is no space at all. This is impossible in the classical world to which our senses have evolved, but not in the quantum world for which evolution has left us both perceptually blind and cognitively unprepared.


The feature of non-locality was always an unstated aspect of the orthodox or Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics proposed by the four of the godfathers of the new physics: Niels Bohr, Max Born, Werner Heisenberg and Pascual Jordan, and presented in the Solvay Congress of 1927. Yet non-locality had no means of empirical verification. This was not merely a technological limitation, but rather a limitation of the quantum model itself. Or so it seemed. In 1965, a crack opened into the black box of quantum locality, when John Stewart Bell published his so-called “Bell inequality”. The Bell Inequality gives a limit for the highest degree of correlation one can obtain in experiments involving pairs of particles, if one assumes a completely local and deterministic universe.

With incredibly subtle logic, Bell teased out a violation of random probability as an explanation for the correlated behavior of entangled particles. Bell showed that according to Quantum Mechanics entangled particles separated by enormous distances communicate instantaneously with each other. No lag time. Not even a billionth of a
billionth of a billionth of a nano-second. But instant communication between particles was a relic of the Newtonian world. This was exactly what Einstein had overturned with his theories of relativity. This violation of the speed of light limit provoked Einstein to call such correlations ʻspooky action at a distance.

Einstein was convinced that the Copenhagen interpretation proposed by Bohr and his followers was missing some vital piece of information -hidden variables that the particles contained when they left their source- that would explain the phenomenon in classical terms. Einstein was wrong. This didn’t happen very often so it’s important to
understand why he got it wrong. The answer lies in the Einstein’s inability to accept the premise of ontological dualism: the existence of non-physical holism, which implies a non-physical element of reality that is outside time and space. Anton Zeilinger warns philosophers with only a casual acquaintance with the spooky correlations of quantum mechanics, that they run the risk of becoming “terminally puzzled” [1] if they dig further.

Since 1982, numerous experiments have been conducted by Alain Aspect and others verifying Bell’s inequality. In 1997, Antoine Suarez and Valerio Scarani proposed an experiment subsequently carried out by Nicholas Gisin and his collaborators at his Group of Applied Physics at Geneva University, which is crucial to understand this
feature of non-locality in quantum systems. The experiment took photon pairs, and shot off in opposite directions at the speed of light. The two photons were then measured in regions far away from each other. For each photon the outcome of the measurement was one of two alternative values (say either + or -). What the Gisin and his fellow physicists discovered was not only that the outcomes the photons produce are correlated, but also that this correlation originates from outside of space-time. The results show that “it is not possible, even in principle, to distinguish which measurement is the independent and which is the dependent one” [2]. In other words there is no way to distinguish “before” from “after” as independent space/time regimes. We are a long way from Kansas, Dorothy.


Not to beat a dead horse, but if the speed of light limit is not violated, then non-locality points toward something truly profound: quantum holism. “In Nature there are connections happening faster than light and without propagation of energy. This is the quantum mechanical non-locality assumption” [3]. The connections Suarez speaks of
should not be interpreted as a violation of the laws of classical physics. The classica laws hold. Einstein’s speed of light limit holds. But only for the macro-objects that form the physical observables of our world. There is also an invisible non-physical level of “reality”: a quantum reality. This sub-atomic world plays by a different rulebook.

Einstein’s frames have no effect on “spooky action”, even though we cannot use this fact to establish an absolute time. So what Quantum Mechanics actually implies is that in case of space-like separated measurements the connection the correlations reveal does not correspond to any real time ordering and, consequently, is not tied to any experimentally distinguishable frame” [4].

Non-locality describes the underlying connections between parts that ignore our perceptions. However, neither the “long range order” of complex systems, nor the “spooky action at a distance” of entangled particles should be understood as instantaneous transmission.

“If the meaning of “quantum non-locality” is unclear to you, quantum holism has the huge advantage that it does not suggest any kind of “instantaneous transmission”, but explicitly refers to the existence of global properties that are not contained in the properties of the subparts” [5].

Non-locality is the indivisible property of a system that gives it an identity that is more than the sum of its parts. The “quantum potential’s instantaneous dependence on all features of the whole experimental apparatus” [6] requires us to accept that our notions of “space and time” are constructions rather than discoveries. The notion of discrete
objects separated in space is not only challenged buy our understanding of quantum mechanics, but also by our experience with many kinds of new media art

What good is analytic reduction when entanglement –a form of strong coupling- lends”more reality” to a composite system that to its parts” [7]. But what is really meant by this notion of “more reality”? In quantum terms, “reality” simply means a quantum state according to our definition” [8]. 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 art and entangled quantum particles, is a challenge to the reductive, binary logic of classical physical dualism. Instead we need to adopt a conceptual dualism where the components of the system
have one reality, while their organized relationship with one another constitutes another reality.

Richard Wickers, 15×15 (2006), Screenshot


Non-locality, Media Art and World Wide Web

Our encounter with a Rothko painting in a museum has a short-range character, but our encounter with a work of art that is networked can connect us to elements of the system that are thousands of miles away from each other.

Networked new media art existing in the public space of networks – be it internet art or art involving mobile media such as cell phones and PDAs – can be understood as a new form of public art. Compared to more traditional forms of public art practice, Internet art, which is accessible from the privacy of one’s home, introduces a shift from the site–specific to the global, collapses boundaries between the private and public, and exists in a distributed non–local space” [9].

The non-locality that Christiane Paul speaks of is a function of the Internet’s elision of our sense of distance or spatial separation. Instead of geographic space, we have network space. “The computer is a connection machine. A lot of new media art, especially network-based work doesn’t have spatial dimensions per se, but nodes and
levels of connection” [10]. Regardless, as Antoine Suarez points out in an e-mail to this author, “the concept of quantum non-locality does not apply to interactive art in the same technical sense: the interaction in art happens always via internet, and therefore not faster than light.”

Non-locality is a metaphor for what Barabasi calls the “small worlds” property of networks. Barabasi asks us to imagine a circle strung out with nodes, separated by short links like pearls on necklace. “Yet thanks to the long bridges they form, often connecting nodes on the opposite side of the circle, the separation between all nodes
spectacularly collapses” [11]. Cyber theorist Manuel Castells describes the modern character of networks as “The space of flows…[which] links up distant locales around shared functions and meanings on the basis of electronic circuits and fast transportation corridors, while isolating and subduing the logic of experience embodied in the space of places” [12] The “space of flows” concept is a metaphor for the non-locality of the modern telecommunications networks. Freed from geographic limits, a work of networked art can glow on the screens of thousands of computers at the same time.

Richard Vickers helps Warhol keep his promise of future fame, in “15×15″ [13] which allows anyone in the world with a web cam to upload their live feed, becoming part of a grid of videos from visitors to the site. Vickers helps Warhol keep his promise. Vickers manages to collapse 15 different locations into the space of your browser window while encouraging visitors to become participants. Maciej Wisniewski’s, “Instant Places” [14] utilizes the non-local experience of the Internet to connect different computers to form a matrix that was free from the constraints of geography, time, and place. Instant Places featured predators (hawks) and prey (mice), which were able to move between different data places and communicated via instant messaging.” [15]

Maciej Wisniewski, Instant Places, 2002, netzbasierte Installation, Karlsruhe 2002, Img by F. Wamhof


Telepresence technology utilizes the Net to challenge the notion of a localized self trapped in its organic container. The tacit laws of proximity that give greater relevance to those things that are physically closer to our bodies is turned upside down by the non-locality we can experience through telepresence art. This is the affect of Eduardo
Kac’s “teleporting to an unknown state”

The installation Teleporting An Unknown State creates the experience of the Internet as a life-supporting system. In a very dark room a pedestal with earth serves as a nursery for a single seed. Through a video projector suspended above and facing the pedestal, remot participants send light via the Internet to enable this seed to photosynthesize and grow in total darkness” [17]. The visitors to Kac’s project share responsibility for tending the plants, creating a virtual community of “telegardeners” that are oblivious to the physical location of any individual.

Will Pappenheimer‘s “search for you” [18] uses interactive web cameras with mounted searchlights to probe a dark room in search of human contact. The beam of light is not merely a tool for surveillance and illumination, but instead functions as a “virtual avatar”. The light becomes a projection of one’s self. The implications of “non-local” technology are just beginning to be felt.

“Our private sphere has ceased to be the stage where the drama of the subject at odds with his objects and with his image is played out: we no longer exists as playwrights or actors but as terminals of multiple networks. Television is the most direct prefiguration of this, and yet today one’s private living space is conceived of as a receiving and operating area, as a monitoring screen endowed with telematic power, that is to say, with the capacity to regulate everything by remote control” [19].


The “collapse” of physical distance that one experiences in art that utilizes high speed the communication networks is evocative of the behavior of entangled, spatially separated quantum particles, which seem to communicate as if there was no separation at all. Non-locality describes a state in which we have information about spatially disconnected components of complex systems. Quantum particles are “points of intersection’ of certain relations” [20]. The exchange and manipulation of information without regard to distance is one of the dynamic variables of both quantum systems and interactive media art. Whether literal or metaphoric, our experience with these interactive systems reveals the holes in our intuitive understanding of space. For both quantum systems and interactive networked art, space is always relative to the perceiving subject. In both cases, our experience of non-locality is a product of our interaction with virtual phenomena: invisible communication networks or the immaterial probability wave.

Though the speed of light limit is not broken during our web-mediated interactions, we often experience an immediacy that erases distance, creating a “confounded sense of place and proximity” [21]. But as we’ve seen, non-locality is more than a phenomenological challenge to our intuitive sense of space: it is an indication of a
“deeper” virtual realm outside of space/time– a holistic dimension, which is stubbornly recalcitrant to our scientific investigation.

Will Pappenheimer, Search for you (2004), Installation render


The great physicist Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) wrote about the limits of the scientific method: “We should suspect an intention to reduce God [ultimate reality] to a system of differential equations. That fiasco at any rate [must be] avoided. However much the ramifactions of [physics] may be extended by further scientific discovery, they cannot from their very nature trench on the background in which they have their being…We have learnt that
the exploration of the external world by the methods of physical science leads not to a concrete reality but to a shadow world of symbols, beneath which those methods are unadapted for penetrating” [22]

Reality is more than “pointer readings” and differential equations consequently we need to rely on other means of understanding- to provide us with complementary models: enter the artist whose techniques of understanding are not limited by the need to quantify analytically, but rather the will to poetically synthesize. The full implications of
non-locality may be beyond our grasp, but artists that utilize modern telecommunications networks are able to evoke aspects of the phenomenon. Here art fills the gaps in our scientific understanding of the world.

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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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