British artist Andy Gracie creates bio-robotic composites, systems that play out a tightly-coupled symbiosis between biological and technological elements. Gracie recently asked me to write about his work, and the text below was an initial response - a longer essay will be out later in the year.
New media art is overrun, now, with monsters, hybrids, chimera and cyborgs, with real and figurative mixtures of the made and the born, the "natural" and the "unnatural". Miscegenation - the archaic taboo on inter-racial breeding - is revived here in a kind of inverted form. The transgressive thrill of mixing "bio" and "tech" is a recurring theme, and while cyborg art is now relatively old (Stelarc), it maintains its visceral effect because it accesses a primal (turned cultural) mechanism of identity-formation. This is me: that is not me. Artists use this effect as a tactical hook, but by focusing on the cyborg / monster, work like that of Stelarc, Piccinini or SymbioticA can have a kind of renormalising effect; as long as the chimera is objectified, it remains (safely) other, over-there. My humanity is never at issue.
In the late 1960s, art practice began to come to grips with the emergence of post-industrial capitalism, a social order characterised by increasing connectivity and interdependence. Influenced in part by the emerging field of cybernetics, artists turned to the figure of the system - a dynamic, real-time, abstract network of causally intertwined entities and forces (more). In "Systems art" the work itself is a real-time system, a process that performs some quality of system-ness or "systemacity," and in doing so it alerts us to the complex, networked systemacity in which we continue to find ourselves.
Gracie's work reflects the concerns of the chimera tradition, contemplating technologised life, or living technology. However its great strength is that it does so through the methodology of systems art. It breaks open the monstrous figure and reveals it to be not a thing but a process, a coupling, a coming-together, a co-negotiation. Others, such as Ken Rinaldo, have explored similar hybrid systems; Rinaldo seeks to exemplify a mutually-beneficial symbiosis between biology and technology. Gracie's work is less idealistic, but potentially richer in its implications, for symbiosis lies on a continuum with parasitism, and the dynamic networks of real ecological relations operate not in pursuit of some overarching "harmony," but locally, specifically, functionally. Gracie's work plays out the externalised character of ecological relations; his robotics illustrate what is machinic about all ecologies: networks of functional connection. In Fish, Plant, Rack the connections are played out: fish (sound) robot (nutrients) plant (video) fish. None "recognises" or is "aware of" the others, but all are coupled into an adaptive network of mediated stimuli and response.
Fish, Plant, Rack
Here mediation is not a representational process, but a concrete connection, a way of coupling an agent with its physical envirionment. Gracie's earlier Samplebot demonstrates this, as its piezo-electric pickup transduces its physical environment into sound, and interprets that sound as instructions for its behaviour; the "program" here is only partly digital; it is largely embedded in, and comprised of, the robot's environment. This is the beginning of stigmergy, the biological phenomenon where the environment acts as a shared medium which shapes, and is shaped by, organisms within it.
Stigmergy, like symbiosis and parasitism, is beautiful in the way it obliterates conventional thinking about agency, subjectivity and environment. Agency is not local and internal, but distributed and external, embedded in the environment. Agents are not independent but interlinked, and not like the consenting adults of the social realm, but through partial, contingent, concrete channels of input and output. Agents don't recognise each other, but selectively and adaptively mis-recognise; nonetheless they become inextricably, functionally, coupled. Here is the real, important, monster: agency is systemic; systems have agency. Gracie's work diagrams the systems that we are ourselves enmeshed in, and explores the hybrid, emergent and collective agencies that must be latent in these networks.
update: for more on Gracie's work, including some technical detail on Small Work for Robot and Insects, see this paper co-authored with Brian Lee Yung Rowe.