DEAF04 - Affective Turbulance

V2_: DEAF04 - Affective Turbulance


Contextualizing Open Systems - Remco La Rivière

3 Nov 2004 , essay

"In a very real sense, reality is a single matter-energy undergoing phase
transitions of various kinds, with each new layer of accumulated "stuff"
simply enriching the reservoir of nonlinear dynamics and nonlinear com-
binatorics available for the generation of novel structures and processes."

Manuel DeLanda in
A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History

What do we have to take into account when we discuss the fairly abstract concept of open systems? What is the concept's applicability in theorizing process-based phenomena such as electronic art? Let's go on a trans-disciplinary quest to find some answers to the questions above in order to contextualize the concept of open systems.

Academic discourses

The quests starts with a brief overview of the academic discourses that are involved when qualifiying a phenomenon in reality as an 'open system'. A thorough analysis of these discourses lies beyond the scope of this essay.

When speaking about open systems terminology, an obvious field of enquiry is systems theory. As Fritjof Capra points out in his excellent work 'The Web of Life', systems thinking was pioneered by biologists in the first half of the 20th century. In particular, the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy who proposed to think of living creatures as open systems, is now regarded as one of the co-founders of systems theory. The idea of 'open systems' was soon taken up by other scientific disciplines such as physics and economics, thus adopting a contextual, or ecological, way of thinking. Since every system is seen as a manifestation of underlying processes, process thinking is important too in systems theory.
    A system consists of multiple components connected with each other through specific relations. Unlike Cartesian science and physics, systems theory doesn't operate through a reductionist mode of analysis. Thus, for the sake of further study, systems cannot be merely reduced to their components because the components' interlinkedness and interactivity contribute to the system's functioning. This also explains the inherent non-linearity in mathematic models that represent a system; the functionality of the system cannot be derived proportionally by way of a calculation based on single components.
    This non-reductionist view of systems and the non-linear mathematics that describe them, draws the attention to specific features that rise out of a system's functionality, features that are circumscribed as emergent. A systemic property is termed 'emergent' when the property can't be reduced to the essence of one single component. To illustrate this, let's consider the properties of an airplane. Flying, which is clearly a quality of the system 'airplane', is an emergent property because it can't be reduced to the wings, or the kerosene or the aviator. Flying is rather the result of both a complex internal interaction between the components within the system 'airplane' as well as the interaction between the environment of the system and the system itself.
Cybernetics is another discipline that developed an extensive body of knowledge dealing with systems. It proposes a slightly different approach to the concept of open systems: where systems theory focuses on the systems' structure and principles of organization, cybernetics mainly addresses the systems' function or goal. Part of the cyberneticists' program consists of the development of theories that can accurately reflect on how control and communication are manifested in machines and animals and the behavior of living structures pursuing some goal. Since a goal is something to be reached in the future, cybernetic theory had to offer a structural solution to this temporal problem: circular causality or feedback.
    Feedback, in terms of systems theory, has to be thought of as a process of assigning the role of input to the system's output. The latter affects the system's state anew, hence the circular character. There are two typical ways in which the system's state can be affected. While the positive feedback-loop intensifies previous outcomes which results in an increase of the difference between the actual state and the previous state, the negative feedback loop decreases this difference.

Let's return to the pivotal academic discipline for systems thinking: biology. Similar to any other academic discipline and despite decades of development, contemporary biology is still asking questions that have dominated Western science and philosophy for centuries. Questions concerning the study of substance and the study of form, respectively, 'what is it made of?' and 'what is its pattern?'. Capra tackles this Pythagorean division between matter (or substance, structure) and number (or form, pattern) and states that the polar tension should be overcome and synthesized into a comprehensive theory of living systems.
    The relevance of Capra's perspective for contextualizing open systems, is the emphasis on the importance of pattern, other than structure. Focussing on structure implies a reductionist mode of analysis, thus neglecting the system's surplus. Pattern, for that sake, is defined as the configuration of relationships between the system's components. The definition is built on the premise of non-reductionism, favouring emergence. Studying patterns means mapping the relational configuration of concrete, specific systems in order to identify a universal pattern, an ultimate constituent of life-forms. Capra identifies this universal pattern as a network pattern capable of self-organization.
    Note that the term 'network' in network pattern indicates the way in which the relationships in the system are being organized. The  concept of network in general has to be thought of as the replacement for the concept of system. Unlike a system, a network is scaleless which makes it easier to apply as a concept in theorizing abstract phenomena. In their theories, researchers don't have to specify and justify a scalar dimension to which the very phenomenon relates. On a functional level, whenever a system's organization is being disturbed, the system will not remain the same. Opposed to the system, the network persists whenever a part of the organization of the network has been changed or even removed. For this reason, networks can be seen as open organizations while systems are closed organizations.

Here some fundamental concepts of systems theory and cybernetics merge into a useful framework, a broader context for the concept of open systems. Because the relationship between systems' components are organized by way of a network pattern, their interconnectedness is non-linear and may even become cyclical, functioning like a feedback loop. In this way, several components in the system become self-referential and will be able to regulate themselves in the typical way of cybernetic systems. In any system these internal feedback loops operate on a local scale and the interconnectedness of components allows this local ordering process to become  global (i.e. affecting the total system), a principle rather common in molecular physics. To offer yet another perspective on the concept of open systems and to elaborate on the concept of self-organization, I will now turn to thermodynamics.

Thermodynamics, an academic discipline within the realm of physics, is the theoretical field that deals with energy, heat, work and entropy. Much like general systems theory and cybernetics, thermodynamical theories deal with systems. In thermodynamics, three types of systems are distinguished: the isolated system, the closed sytem and the open system, differences between the systems are founded on the types of exchange between system and environment. Isolated systems do not exchange energy or heat with their environment, closed systems only exchange energy with their environment and open systems exchange both energy and matter. An important premise in thermodynamic theory is that every system tends toward disorder (entropy) unless active intervention by an external force is undertaken. In fact, this reflects the second law of thermodynamics which states that in every isolated system the disorder de facto increases.
    The work of the chemist and physicist Ilya Prigogine, is oriented on systems operating far from thermodynamic equilibrium. Prigogine was determined to discover under what conditions non-equilibrium situations may be stable. In his theory of dissipative structures, he offers a new perspective on how change and structure co-exist in systems. The key to understanding this seemingly paradoxical concept is Prigogine's claim that the dissipation of energy, opposed to the usage of the concept in classical thermodynamics, is productive instead of a waste. Dissipation, Prigogine argued, has to be thought of as a source of order, producing the conditions under which dissipative structures emerge spontaneously. This spontaneous emergence, this self-organization, only happens in systems where a constant flow of energy and matter is possible because the energy needs to dissipate. Thus, for dissipation to occur, the system needs to be open. This can be seen analogous to a cybernetic system that needs to interact with its environment for feedback to occur.

As a tentative summary, one could say that the various disciplines offer a broad context for the concept of open systems. A general system consists of multiple components, each interconnected through a particular configuration of relationships, a pattern. To discover how a system functions, a system cannot be analyzed by first reducing the system to its components and then study each component. In doing so, one neglects the primary role of the interaction between the components that the pattern brings about. The network pattern, one of the many possible patterns, implies a non-linear configuration of the relationships between the system's components. This non-linear quality culminates in the cyclical, self-referential relationship that turns particular components into a locally operating cybernetic system. What emerges in systems organized through a network pattern is self-organization which, as thermodynamic theory points out, can only occur in open systems.

Theorizing electronic art

Now let's turn to the last question I posed in the introduction:  what is the applicability of the concept of open systems in theorizing electronic art? To answer this question, let's determine what pivotal concepts in the aforementioned disciplines should be common to the academic vocabulary of the theoriy of electronic art. What appears then, is that the concepts system, network and interaction/exchange are the most common, but nonetheless important concepts in the diverse disciplines since they respectively designate how a phenomenon should be treated while analyzing it theoretically, how a phenomenon is configured both internally and externally and through what process a phenomenon can be altered. For the theorist, this means that electronic works of art should be treated as a system configured internally (relations between components) and externally (related to other systems) by way of a network pattern allowing interaction and exchange to alter the state of the work of art. These are the main concepts that I will now use to elaborate on the applicability of the concept of open systems.
    A first, very blunt statement would be that the concept of open systems, when introduced into an already existing theoretical paradigm, can only be put to meaningful use when electronic art projects are indeed functioning like open systems, i.e. process-based art projects that allow (groups of) individuals to participate and interact, altering the system's state accordingly. However blunt this statement may be, it touches on the much discussed changed role of the public, no longer passively consuming art but actively participating. While this change is partially caused by technological developments in the realm of electronic art, the change has a much broader, historical context. In her article Openness in Installation Art, Céline Pourveur relates the changed view of the role of human activity that quantum physics brought about to the shift from what she calls 'contemplatory art' to participatory art. Quantum physics pointed out that measuring inherently means altering the state of the physical phenomena being measured; the activities involved in measuring a concrete phenomenon is constitutive for that very phenomenon being measured. This view is exemplary for the changed role of the public in art. When we take these shifts into account in terms of systems theory, it shows yet another shift mainly due to the network pattern through which the works of art are configured internally and externally.
    That shift shows the disappearance of the seperation between content and context typical for hypertext (Lovejoy, 2004), caused mainly by the non-linear, non-predictive way the sytem's state may possibly be altered. To gain insight in this particular disappearance we have to examine the problematic status of the relation between the work of art and the individual; this relation raises questions about what exactly can be thought of as 'the system' and what should be considered its 'environment'. Other than the individual experiencing traditional, static works of art, the participating individual in electronic works of art becomes a constituting component of the system. The moment the individual starts interacting with the work of art, that very individual is integrative to the system's functioning thus changing its status from 'environment' to 'component'.  As a component, the individual is interlinked with other components, and in this way (inter-)active participation obtains a conditional status in shaping the aesthetic experience as an 'ongoing, transitory process of communication and exchange itself' (Broeckmann: 2004, 381-382). Content and context thus become interchangeable, allowing context to become content and vice versa.

Applying the concept of open systems in theorizing electronic art also involves meaningfully conceptualizing self-organization, the emergent property unique to the open system. Without any problem, the individual can be thought of as a self-regulative component, continuously interacting both with other components within the system and with itself through the logic of feedback. But, in the context of electronic art, how should the thermodynamical concepts of energy and matter, constitutive for the notion of thermodynamical exchange in open systems, be effectively operationalized? But then again, when we know how to operationalize 'energy', how does it dissipate and how should the equivalent of a dissipative structure in an electronic work of art be conceived? For now, only the cybernetic concept of feedback as a form of self-regulation seems useful for meaningfully conceptualizing self-organization, because we don't need to further transpose theory-specific concepts as is the case with thermodynamics.

All these considerations aren't just another iteration of the same old argument, instead they show how many lines of thought are involved in theorizing electronic art. The considerations lead to a kind of closure, a line of argument that isn't new to the field but certainly testifies to the applicability of the concept of open systems. An important contribution to this line of argument can be found in Manuel Delanda's book Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. Aiming to describe french philosoper Gilles Deleuze's world, he elucidates Deleuze's ontology. Deleuze rejects essentialism because essences, being timeless categories, define entities in a static way. For Deleuze, an entity is affected by historic processes which explains why Deleuzian ontology favours morphogenetic processes. Postulating morphogenetic processes has the advantage that, in defining an entity, they take into account all processes that effectively change reality. Furthermore, morphogenetic processes emphasize the inherently dynamic character of an entity. No longer the essentialist ontological status 'being'  appropriately defines entities, instead we should use the Deleuzian equivalent 'becoming'. This line of argument knits together the interchangeability of content and context, the changing role of the public and perhaps this is even the key for operationalizing thermodynamics: 'a shift of perception form stability to instability, from order to disorder, from equilibrium to non-equilibrium, from being to becoming.' (Capra, 1997: 175). Applying 'open systems' once again makes us aware of the process-based and transitory character of electronic art in particular and unstable media in general.


Broeckmann, Andreas, "Public Spheres and Network Interfaces", in: Graham, Stephen (ed.) The Cybercities Reader (New York/London: Routledge, 2004)

Capra, Fritjof, The Web of Life (London: Flamingo, 1997)

DeLanda, Manuel, Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy  (London/New York: Continuum, 2002)

Heylighen, Francis, "Complexiteit en evolutie", on:, last checked: 27-09-2004

Lovejoy, Margot, Digital Currents: art in the electronic age

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