Abisko Conference Trip Report.

In May 18-23, 1998,  I attended the 1998 seminar in Abisko, Sweden, on Art and Complexity.  The seminar was organized by the Swedish Council for Planning and Coordination of Research (FRN), sort of the Swedish NSF equivalent, along with John Casti of the Santa Fe Institute.  This has been an annual meeting for fifteen years, organized around different themes relating to complexity and non-linear phenomena. I believe this was the first year specifically focused on the relation of science and the arts, and as a consequence some artists and musicians were invited along with the usual complement of physicists, mathematicians and science writers that make up the usual attendees, about 20 of us in all.

The meeting took place, as every year,  in a spectacular place: the Abisko Scientific Research Station, in Lappland, north of the Arctic Circle.  This station has been there for almost 100 years, making meterological, botanical and astronomical observations; by now it's quite a cozy spot, with modern rooms and labs for visiting researchers.  The seminars are always held this time of year because the station is relatively empty. Most of the researchers come in the short summer, which hasn't yet arrived. In May it's already light 24 hours a day, but spring has not yet sprung. The lake was still frozen solid, it snowed from time to time, and the reindeer wandering around were still in their white coats.

I have drafts of some of the presentations, if anyone's interested in looking them over. Some of the highlights:

Murray Gell-Mann opened giving an overview of the field of complexity studies (which he's trying to get everyone to call "Plectics", but it doesn't seem to be catching on.) His talk served as an introduction to the field,  providing some basic definitions and common vocabulary, and setting the stage for a theme that cropped up again and again in discussions throughout the week: does it make any sense to think of the art creation/perception process as a complex adaptive system? Do the formalisms of complexity science offer any insight to the cultural process?

John Casti touched on several areas, addressing the question of whether formal, measurable complexity -- what's called the "algorithmic information content" -- had anything to do with aesthetic value.  The most interesting aspect of his talk was the presentation of the work of several "evolutionary" artists, which many of you certainly are already familiar with:

Karl Sims evolved abstract drawings through aesthetic selection of lisp programs used to create them:

Komar & Melamid used public opinion research to design hilarious "most wanted" and "least wanted" paintings of different national populations:

William Latham develops 3-D animations using evolutionary techniques; the most interesting aspect of his work is the incorporation of these evolutionary techniques as just a set of tools among others in a graphic design environment. There's now a slightly "dumbed down" version of his system commercially available:

Gail Wight, a conceptual artist from the SF Bay Area presented her work, which deals with the line between neurochemistry and affective states, while offering often very funny critiques of the culture of science. She distributed cards to the participants, requesting that they send to her samples of sweat from their brow while thinking, and that they also report with their submission what they were thinking about when the sample was collected.

Jim Crutchfield, from the Santa Fe Institute, talked about his current interest: the question of how any new pattern can ever emerge in the first place, and his attempts at some rigorous description of the conditions under which such emergence can take place. He's particularly interested currently in how this applies to the very act of understanding itself, and if we can find a way of understanding the dynamics of spontaneous re-coding that occurs when new patterns arise. The second part of his talk was about the "Turbulent Landscapes" show at the SF Exploratorium,  which included works dealing with various turbulent and chaotic phenomena. 

Tor Norrelanders, a Danish science writer, discussed his participation in an unusual art/science collaboration project called Mindship. In Copenhagen, and later this year in LA, small groups of artists and scientists are thrown together for intensive one or two week collaborations, working together every morning and separately in the afternoons. This idea of meeting on essentially neutral turf was an interesting one -- certainly creating  a different environment than that at any artist-in-residence program at a technical or scientific institution.

I presented a short history of american experimental music, with an eye to that thread of the tradition -- through Charles Ives, John Cage, David Tudor, onto contemporary electronic and computer music -- which has been concerned with creating  unpredictable and wild systems of interaction. I also discussed my own work which specifically dealt with the emergence of new musical patterns in systems of interconnected musical computers. (email me if you want a transcript.)

Other presentations focused on more personal discussions of the creative process -- Bobo Hjort, an architect, spoke about the value of undirected sketching in creative work; Jan Allen, a cool bebop trumpeter, discussed various aspects of musical improvisation, Marcia Southwick, an american poet, the incorporation of randomness in her work method.

As might be expected with such a grand subject, not much coherence was reached. Those who tried for the grand synthesis ended up pretty much reduced to windy platitudes; the most interesting presenters just plunged ahead on their own subjects without worrying to much about fitting into the big theme.