An atom can express itself as either a wave or a particledepending on how we measure it. The atom has some built in variability– an ontological indeterminism– that isresponsive to outside interactions. We find the same 

dynamic at work within interactive media art, whose softwareis open to input of varying degrees of freedom. The collapseof a quantum wave function is not fully determined, but isinstead contingent upon our interactions. The uncertain evolution of the quantum wave function in response to ourmeasurements is a metaphor for grasping the variable andevolving nature of interactive new media art. In a traditional art object, the intentions of the artists are locked up in itsmaterial conditions: usually a fixed form meant to resist the ravages of time. On the other hand, interactive media art, like the ephemeral wave function, is a process, open to newinput. Interactive media art and quantum mechanicsembrace the uncertainty of unseen possibilities, rather thanthe certainty of known quantities.

1.0 Introduction: The Uncertain Human Quantum Mechanics

Werner Heisenberg‘s famous “Uncertainty Principle” articulates the idea that we cannever completely eliminate the influence of the subject from any description of quantumparticles. The reason is simple: because we are part of the very system beingdescribed. It is impossible to accurately predict exactly how an electron will behavewhen we measure it because of the sensitivity of its wave function to our presence orthe presence of a detection device, which we put into place. The act of measurement causes an uncertain change in the thing being measured.

The entanglement of our wave function with the wave function of a moving electronconstitutes a complex system; and all complex systems behave with an unknown levelof uncertainty. “It is not enough to know the micro-architecture. We also have to understand the network properties that arise from the micro-architecture, and so farthat’s not at all obvious” [1]. Complex systems cannot be merely reduced to mechanicalinteractions of their components, but instead exhibit surprising or uncertain emergent effects, for example: life itself. There is not any sign of life in any single atom, but putenough of them together in a certain pattern and something unexpected .emerges’: life. In the macroscopic world of our senses, objects behave (or rather .seem’ to behave’) according to the rules of Newtonian physics.

But in the quantum world, .objects’ don’t move with the surety of billiard balls because their wave functions (which all objectshave) become entangled, leading to non-linear and non-deterministic outcomes forboth.onda (che ogni oggetti possiede) interagiscono, portando a risultati non lineari e non deterministici per entrambi.

Photo courtesy by Scott Snibbe

In classical physics the elemental ingredients are tiny invisible bits ofmatter that are idealized miniaturized versions of the planets that we seein the heavens, and that move in ways unaffected by our scrutiny, whereas in quantum physics the elemental ingredients are intentionalpreparative actions by agents, the feedbacks arising from these actions, and the effects of these actions upon the physically described states of the probed systems [2].

To understand the behavior of the microscopic features of our world- those much vaunted quantum particles– we need to adopt the perspective of quantum mechanics, which includes the unpredictable actions of human agents as part of the system underobservation. The quantum wave function is ultimately a description of our lack ofknowledge about the uncertain nature of our interactions with quantum particles. As it turns out, quantum particles, like intelligent software, are capable of making their ownfree decisions, spontaneously responding in ways that are not completely predictable.

2.0 Superposition and the Wave Function in Quantum Mechanics

The magnetic spin of a sub-atomic inhabitant of the quantum world can be said to pointboth up and down at the same time. Quantum particles thus exist in .virtual states’, which are unthinkable within the classical paradigms of objective certainty. Instead we are “left with a system represented as a mixture of various possibilities, like being in twoplaces at once” [3]. This state of superposition, a state of unrealized potentia, ismaintained until that quantum bit interacts with something beyond itself…for instancethe detectors of quantum physicists. In the quantum world objective measurement is afiction. Measurement is an interaction or, as physicist Antoine Zellinger says, .an act of
creation’ [4].

Adopting a digital metaphor, we can say the act of measurement is the variable input into the quantum system. The interaction between the measuring device and thequantum wave function of the particles under investigation is the .throughput’ function: the quasi-mythological collapsing wave function. The output is a piece of oncreteinformation: either the location or the velocity of a sub-atomic particle. As per theUncertainty theory we find these two measurements to be negatively correlated.

Like .superposition’, the quantum wave function is a mathematical abstraction that describes our information about the possible states of the quantum system. As opposed to classical particles, quantum particles change in response to even our mostdelicate investigation. Consequently the mathematics needed to describe the behaviorof a quantum system must include the behavior of the physicist in the act of measurement.

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3.0 The Quantum Wave Function as a Model for Interactive Media Art

The evolution of superposition or the quantum wave function from one state to anotheris a useful metaphor for grasping the immaterial and variable character of interactivenew media art.

“Drawing upon the transportable qualities of digital data, the difference between media forms can be generalized as being a matter of theconversion of that data into a variety of output options. Especially asexemplified by digital media, formation is the active principle that governs art’s emergence from relations in its field. As reflected in convergencemedia, where no singular or essential form need assume primacy, what might be called a transitional state takes precedence” [5].

If we click on the Internet project, “Tripolar” [6] by Scott Snibe, and drag our mouse theblack lines on the screen respond by vibrating as if alive. However, the moment we let go of our mouse “Tripolar” flips into a new .fixed’ form or static state. In quantum terms, the visitor’s interaction is like a measurement that causes a .field of possibilities’ to .collapse’ into an .observable’. Tripolar’s .observable’ is a visual display, whereas the quantum .observable’ is a piece of quantified information: velocity or position. Just as in quantum mechanics, the visitor to “Tripolar” is not .really’ interacting with the visible .object’, but with the invisible system that lies beneath. The quantum scientist probesinvisible sub-atomic particles, whereas the visitor to “Tripolar” probes the invisible software.

Both “ten clicks” [7] by LimitaZero and “Poemador” [8] by Leonardo Solaas exist in astate of superposition-like entangled quantum particles- without clear resolution oridentity. Our interactions cause both systems to respond by spinning off in new directions. This is not unlike the collapse of the quantum wave function, which evolvesin response to our measurement. Because the measurement is an interaction, newinformation is injected into the system. “Ten clicks” and “Pomeador”, behave like quantum systems, in the way that their virtual components process the input of theobserver. “Code, when running, is in a continual state of becoming, in that the values ofits parameters are changed as a result of its execution, creating a multitude of possibleoutcomes” [9].

There is an uncanny similarity between this description and that of the collapsing quantum wave function, which evolves from one non-linear equation intoanother, each with a .multitude of possible outcomes.’ The software that lays hiddenbeneath all works of digital art is a metaphor for the laws of nature that lies hidden behind quantum particles.


4.0 The Uncertainty of Interactive Media Art

Human behavior injects .uncertainty’ and .indeterminacy’ into all holistic open systemswhether they reside in quantum space or in cyberspace. Many works of interactive artrevel in the aesthetic appeal of uncertainty and indeterminacy. As Joanna Drucker describes, the “Errors, random effects, unexpected and unpredictable elements [which] remain the sign of a romantic individualism-or alternately, of a non-human, chancedominated
world” [10]. Interactive art’s entanglement with the human agents, whetherthrough direct or indirect interactivity, results in a formal indeterminacy requires an aesthetic “paradigm shift from fixed to variable media” [11].

Interactive art offers different levels of engagement and feedback. The level of .openness’ of each art system is a reflection of the freedom granted to the visitor as anentangled element in the system. Digital artist Alan Peacock describes interactive art as”a site of Uncertainty, problematized actions, and entropic effects” [12]. The exact same thing could be said of quantum systems. In both cases, the human subject’s freedom of action means that neither quantum measurements, nor the aesthetic effects (of interactive media) are predetermined qualities. Both require the participation andcreative input of the human subject interacting with an invisible component: quantum ordigital. In both cases, we cannot predetermine the outcome of these interactions withabsolute certainty.

In a project of evolving form, such as the Internet art projects “communimage” [13] bythe collective Calc & Johannes Gees and “gridcosm” [14] by Ed Stastny every visitor isasked to leave their creative .mark’ on the piece, it is the artist’s intention we leave our virtual fingerprints on the work for the next person to experience- and in turn respond. “Gridcosm” depends on the human agent to make a creative contribution to the work. Since our creative actions are unpredictable, so is the evolving form of “Gridcosm”. This is diametrically opposed to the strictly .hands off’ policy that shadows our encounterswith traditional art .objects.’

In a traditional art object, the intentions of the artists are locked up in its materialconditions: usually a fixed form meant to resist the ravages of time. On the other hand, interactive media art is ephemeral and responds to the passing of time. Interactive media art treats .change’ as an essential quality of the work. The historical
antecedents of interactive media art are the art movements of the 60′s such as conceptual art and performance art which reveled in their rejection of .object making’ “on the grounds that the materially bounded object was obsolete as an aestheticcategory” [15]. Clearly history has proven them wrong, and yet interactive media artcontinues the exploration in which the aesthetic experience is “constituted in a dynamicexchange, not as static artifacts” [16].

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When interactive artist, David Rokeby, describes his project, “Very Nervous System” [17] as if it has “its own agenda”, he wants us to understand the nature ofinteractive art is not to simply echo or “mirror” our intentions. There is somethingrecalcitrant about the internal logic of interactive art that is akin to the recalcitrant natureof quantum systems, both of which resist complete objectification. Without completeunderstanding of a system we are left with a feeling of uncertainty about how bothinteractive art (networked or otherwise) and quantum systems will respond to ouractions.

“It is important to understand that “Very Nervous System” is not a control system. It is an interactive system, by which I mean that neither partnerin the system (installation and person) is in control. “Interactive” and”reactive” are not the same thing. The changing states of the installation are a result of the collaboration of these two elements. The work only exists in this state of mutual influence” [18].

This state of mutual influence is also a metaphor for our entanglement with quantumsystems. Rokeby’s art moves “beyond the linear work cycle of machine driven KineticArt and establish[es] complete behavior patterns that are not clearly predictable, butneither are they pseudo-random events” [19]. This theme of uncertainty is mirrored inhuman interactions with quantum systems.

Interactive media art and quantum systems produce unexpected information as a resultof our interactions: a variable audio-visual display or measurement. The collapse of thewave function creates a unique data object. But unlike classical particles ourmeasurement of quantum system does not give us a consistent answer. There is a
level of uncertainty about the outcome, because of our very participation in theproduction of that information.

The project “soda constructor” [20] by the digital collaborative Soda is an on-line, openlaboratory for the fabrication of digital life within a virtual world. This is interactive art as a form of .play’. Visitors to the project web site can intervene to create artificial life forms. The actions of the visitors spin the existing creatures off into unpredictable
directions as Soda member Ed Burton describes in an interview with Margaret Wertheimfor Cabinet Magazine.

“This is an example of the community going through a process ofexperimentation and creating something and analyzing it and improvingon it. They weren’t just revealing something I’d hidden in the software;
they were genuinely discovering new potential I hadn’t even suspected” [21].

Art historian Henry Sayre describes such .process art’ as “alwaysengaged…undecidable. Its meanings are explosive, ricocheting and fragmentingthroughout the audience. The work becomes a situation, full of suggestivepotentialities, rather than a self-contained whole, determined and final” [22].

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5.0 Conclusion

Quantum mechanics is a theory about choice. Both physicists and quantum particlesact in ways we cannot completely predict. Both are probabilistic entities. We cannot predict the outcome of any single event involving either physicists or quantum particleswith absolute certainty. The insertion of a particle detector forces the quantum systemto produce a physical quantity out of its virtual probability waves. We collaborate and
participate in the creation of new information through the very act of measurement. Without uncertainty our choices become predetermined and the universe becomes agiant clock, ticking away in mechanistic fashion.

Choice is equally fundamental to the behavior of interactive art. By using digital mediawith it’s fluid responsiveness artists could “create dynamic works in which the audiencefunctioned as cocreators; the behavior of the work depended on the choices made bythe viewer” [23]. This echoes the productive dynamic at work in our interactions withquantum systems. Our physical engagement with a work of interactive media artproduces an aesthetic event out of the unseen possibilities made possible by theinvisible software we engage. Interactive media art and quantum mechanics embracethe uncertainty of unseen possibilities, rather than the certainty of known quantities.


1. Roger Lewin, “Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos”, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1999)

2. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, Henry P. Stapp, Mario Beauregard , “Quantum Physics in Neuroscience and Psychology: A New Model with Respect to Mind/Brain Interaction”, 33-34.

3. Anton Zeilinger, “Split World: Book Review of Decoherence and the Quantum-to-Classical Transition” by Maximilian Schosshaurer, (, 2.

4. Anton Zeilinger as paraphrased by Suarez in, “Classical Demons and Quantum Angels”, 11.

5. Vince Dziekian, “Beyond the Museum Walls: Situating Art in Virtual Space”, (Paper for Fiberculture Journal-Distributed Aesthetics issue), 15.




9. Brad Borevitz, “Super Abstract: Software Art and a Redefintion of Abstraction,” (in read_me: Software Art & Cultures, Edition 2004, Olga Goriunova & Alexei Shulgin Eds., Center for Digital Æstetik-forskning, , 298-312. ],Brad Borevitz, “Super Abstract: Software Art and a Redefintion of Abstraction,” (in read_me: Software Art & Cultures, Edition 2004, Olga Goriunova & Alexei Shulgin Eds., Center for Digital Æstetikforskning, , 298-312. ], 308.

10. Johanna Drucker, “Interactive, Algorithmic, Networked: Aesthetics of New Media Art, (in Art at a Distance, edt, Annemarie Chandler and Norie Neumark, The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2006), 47.

11. Joline Blais & Jon Ippolito, “At the Edge of Art” (Thames & Hudson, London, 2006), 211.

12. Alan Peacock, “Toward an Aesthetic of the Interactive” (www.soundtoys.Net/journal), 4.



15. Drucker, 43.

16. Drucker, 44.


18. David Rokeby : Lecture for “Info Art”, Kwangju Biennale, (URL: HTTP://HOMEPAGE.MAC.COM/DAVIDROKEBY/INSTALL.HTML)

19. Jack Burnham, “Beyond Modern Sculpture”, (Braziller, New York, 1968), 333.


21. Margaret Wertheim, “Evolving Out of the Virtual Mud: an Interview with Ed Burton”, (Cabinet Magazine, Issue 19, Spring 2005) and online @ publications/cab19-sodaplay.html

22. Henry M. Sayre, “The Object of Performance: The American Avant-Garde since 1970″ (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 7.

23. Stephen Wilson, “Information Arts: Intersections of Arts, Science and Tech” (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2002), 333-334.

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