Complexity and Emergence in Everything is Going According to Plants
This paper examines the role of complexity and emergence in the proposed thesis project, Everything is Going According to Plants. By looking at the structural elements contributing to complex interaction and development of the system as a whole, it proposes the possibility of novel and emergent aesthetic possibilities facilitated by human interaction with and internal interaction within the software system and physical environment. Starting by laying out the imagined structure, it moves on to a discussion of the role of audience, performers, botanical specimens, and documented and live data sets as indeterminate agents in the development and shape of the final outcome. Focusing on the unknown and the phenomenological experience as the primary goals, it ends with speculation on some possible outcomes.
Although recent years have seen a growing interest in complex systems theory, investigations of complexity by artists is not a new phenomenon. John Cages Imaginary Landscapes series; David Dunn's chaotic oscillators, Mimopolyglottus, and more recent Sound of Light in Treesi; the works of Woody and Steina Vasulkaii, which led to James Crutchfield's Space Time Dynamics in Video Feedbackiii; and David Stout's Signal Fire, are but a few examples of complexity work done in recent decades, and a visit to the late Stephen Wilson's Intersections of Art, Technology, Science & Culture alone leads to a list of names that would fill this entire paper. But is it any wonder that this is such a popular subject of discourse? One can come from any discipline and find that complexity surrounds us everywhere: from the evolution of thousands of distinct languages and their resultant specialized perspectives on their native environments (Davis, One River 1997), to the astonishing variety of insect technics in every milieu (Parrika, Insect Media 2010) to the emergence of life, to the very fact that matter clings together at all, there is no shortage of in-roads to complexity thinking.
The role of plants, as the name of the project suggests, is a primary component. Michael Pollin, in his book and subsequent film of the same title The Botany of Desire (2002), postulates that perhaps plants are using us as agents and the human art of cultivation is actually a vegetative reproductive mechanism. Siting the tulip for it's beauty, Marijuana for altering consciousness, the potato for control and sustenance, and the apple for its sweetness, the implication is that the plants are learning to gratify our desires, just as each species of ficus tree develops a structure that can only be pollinated by a particular species of wasp, equally dependent on the ficusiv. This work is extended by Richard Doyle in Darwin's Pharmacy (2011), which specifically focuses on the ability of certain entheogenic or consciousness altering plants to remind humans that we are part of a larger environment, ultimately arguing for a recasting of entheogens as ecodelics. Drawing inspiration from these two researchers, I am also interested in the communication between ecodelic plants and humans. Why do they generate these particular compounds? How in the world did we discover them? Why is the phenomenological experience so common across imbibers separated by great distances in time and space? And why is to so hard for most of us to believe that maybe plants are exerting an influence upon us? This paper proposes a project that takes as a departure point the relationship between humans and plants and the consequent effects on the field of biological activity and awareness; specifically the improbable discovery of plants with entheogenic effects and their admixtures.
Everything is Going According to Plants, is an artificial life and synthetic ecology simulation focusing on the intersections of animal and plant communication. Meant to at once create a compelling aesthetic installation space while also acting as an evolving and transforming audio visual instrument, it asks both audience and performer to experience the project in the now-space, each moment a glimpse of something that is, is constantly becoming, and can never be again. Composed of abstract audio visual forms engaged in long term interactions, the aim is to create a system of structures and agents with a clear set of founding constraints, but no predetermined outcome. As an artistic and inquisitive “what if” machine, it is free from the pressures placed on scientists approaching similar problems to produce hard data, repeatable outcomes, or applications in the “real world.” Instead, it creates a space of exploration. As an installation, it focuses on mining the field for emergent audio visual vocabularies, aesthetic spaces, behaviors, and experiences, while as an instrument it challenges the performer to encounter a sublime unknown and to enter the jungle, encountering things strange and unfamiliar, forging a pathway in the moment, seeking with a goal not to discover what is known, but to ask the questions: What has become? What is becoming? and What might be?
The simulation will use a variety of techniques, including but not limited to: data visualization and sonification; machine learning; direct and indirect audience interaction; real-time sensing; bio-chemical structures and interactions including human and plant metabolic processes and genomic data; geological processes; evolutionary metaphors and mechanisms, including adaptability, sexual selection and pollination; currents; and migratory pathways. While this list is extensive, it is not exhaustive, and is likely to shrink at some edges while growing at others. These different elements will come together into both a physical environment and a virtual environment, each growing according to the constraints imposed around them. To allow for greater complexity and more extensive possibilities, the physical and virtual environments will both be permeable, endowed with the ability to act upon each other, creating an agent-structure feedback loop.
Envisioned to last from one to three weeks, most of the time it is an immersive installation environment for an audience to encounter, contemplate, and explore. The physical space will ideally be a combination of algorithmically controlled lighting design, live projection, and living botanical specimens of entheogenic plants. An activated space, sensors will monitor the activities of viewers and the state of the plants, using the data to control the environmental constraints that determine the growth of the virtual world. The virtual space, composed of abstract audio-visual forms and guided by an evolutionary metaphor, will unfold so that over time the entire vocabulary may (and hopefully will) undergo both imperceptible and dramatic shifts. A visit to the space one day could differ slightly or radically from the next. It may become unrecognizable over a period of weeks, or reach a sort of equilibrium for days at a time, only to transform in a moment as some unforeseen event changes the fabric of the virtual reality. The presence of the plants, however, provide a steady and grounding influence, existing in a time separate from the computer clock and the human observer.
However, more than just an environment, it is also a performable space, an instrument of unknown dimensions and changing boundaries. A few times over the course of the installation, a performer will enter the space and engage in a dialogue with the forms and their virtual milieu, coaxing and quelling certain behaviors, challenging and changing the space for an audience, and in the process altering the future development in ways that can only be seen in the time to come. The very act of interacting with it is an acting upon it; like all observations, observing changes the nature of what is observed.
The indeterminacy of the final product is a key part of the project, but in order to facilitate a truly emergent and surprising array of possibilities, it is necessary to clearly define the constituent pieces. This is an ongoing consideration, and to help in this process, I am breaking down the primary players or elements of agency into several categories: human agents, plant agents, virtual agents and information agents. The human agents group includes the programmers (myself and possibly others), the audience, and the performer(s) (again, myself and possibly others). In the plant agents group, a variety of legal to grow entheogenic botanical specimens such as, Banisteriopsis caapi (Ayahuasca), Salvia divinorum (the Diviners Sage) and Echinopsis pachanoi (the San Pedro cactus) cultivated throughout the development and presentation process. Virtual agents are the audio-visual population of the world, the a-life organisms being governed and guided by the previous groups. Information agents also play a vital role in determining the overall milieu and include things like weather, geothermal, seismic, and atmospheric data, both local and non. Each of these will play a variety of roles over the course of the project, sometimes changing depending on the context. Below I will elaborate on each of these groups and discuss some of the possible roles.
As the structural architect, the programmer plays a special role, developing the software framework that determines the range of inherent possibilities—the parameters of the simulation. As time passes, the role might shift to one of mediating interaction by supplying the performer and audience with new methods of intercommunication with the virtual forms and their governing environmental constraints.
Composed of many individual agents, the audience are observers, but through attention and interaction can also change the relationships of software agents in ways conscious and direct, and accidental and subtle. A person who spends a longer than average time near a particular plant might change the degree of influence that the plant in question exerts upon the virtual environment, or alternatively, they may change the currents and by extension the flow and interaction of virtual agents, or even act as pollinators carrying pieces of genetic or memetic information between otherwise distant organisms. Conversely, a quick survey of the space by an uninterested viewer might actually cause some influences to fade away or even negatively impact the virtual environment.
Perhaps the most active agent, the performer has a special role akin to that of the shaman in many different cultures. Possessing more information than a casual observer, the performer has a sense of how to interact with the system in meaningful ways, but is still unable to completely control or manipulate every aspect, often encountering the unknown in the process of a structured exploration. Also like the shaman, they can facilitate a special container for the experience of the space, but ultimately leave the primary experience and interpretation up to the individuals that constitute the audience.
Doyle and Pollin are certainly not alone in their belief that plants are exerting a great deal more influence on human systems than most of us believe. In One River, Wade Davis writes extensively about ethnobotany and the experiences that he, Tim Plowman, and their mentor Richard Evan Schultes, have had in the last century. In their encounters with native populations across Latin America, one consistent belief regardless of tribe or locale was that the plants are speaking to us. In a time when numerous languages die every year, and knowledge of plants unknown or with unknown potencies die with them, it is vital that we research them and take their role more seriously. While the exact species remain to be determined, living physical specimens of ecodelics are the main guiding factors in determining both the environmental constraints of the virtual environment and in the propagation of memetic information across virtual agents (see below). Sequenced genomic data and the chemical compounds responsible for altering consciousness will be used as a raw material of code that can be applied to other virtual agents. As humans interact with the plants, even by standing near them, the result could be anything from slow and long term shifts to radical and aberrant displays of appearance or voice that arise out of nowhere and are just soon as gone. In addition to the chemical properties, real time data from each plants best known point of origin will augment the environment.
Virtual agents are the abstract forms that populate the world. They move about, the emit sounds, they exhibit biological traits such as mimicry, predation, camouflage, and reproduction. Much of this behavior is passed on genetically, only passing from parent to child. However, another layer, a memetic layer, allows external influences to elicit changes to their behavior across blood lines and species, driving a sort of cultural development. The virtual agents are the human-plant dialogue manifest. While semi-autonomous and self evolving, they represent the ongoing development of the relationship between the human audience and performers and the plant agents; a way to see and hear the invisible connections, providing a tangible result.
There is an ancient human-plant connection that, whether ultimately pragmatic or mystical, has important implications for the history and future of human life. As tools develop new ways of understanding, old ways are dying. If we want to tap into some of the incredible power that may lie dormant within these alien neighbors, whether for ecodelic, medicinal (one and the same?) or scientific purposes, we must become better stewards of the world of plants. One important mechanism for this is to call attention to and cultivate fascination with them. My proposed project seeks to foreground the role of plants as a source of information while calling attention to their marginalization. Though the plants I will choose will all be legal to cultivate, none of them can legally be used for their entheogenic/ecodelic properties. What better indication could there be that something important lies within them than their systematic marginalization? By using abstraction and a complex set of internal and external interactions, the hope is to deliver a new type of phenomenological experience, simulating not only the growth of virtual words, but of the ecodelic state in viewers.
Davis, Wade. One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. Print.
Doyle, Richard. Darwin's Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere. University of Washington Press, 2011. Print.
Parikka, Jussi. Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010. Print.
Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World. New York: Random House, 2001. Print.