Thursday, March 27, 2008

Self-Organised Phyllotaxis

Like Mr Smith, I'm being a bad host, but trust me, there's some good stuff in the works. Meantime, like Smith, here's something else entirely. In this case it's a little generative sketch I recently dusted off, some source code, and a side observation about Processing culture on the web.

While at CEMA last year I was working on a project with spirals as a kind of required element. I was talking to Jon McCormack about this, when he said something like "Oh, anyone can code up a spiral. What you want to do is make a system where spirals emerge." This is a classic a-life approach, of course, but also for me seemed technically daunting. Jon pointed me to Ball's The Self-Made Tapestry as well as to the literature on spiral phyllotaxis, a fundamental structure in plant morphogenesis. Douady and Couder published a brilliant paper on this topic in 1995 [pdf], so I set about implementing their model.

It's a beautiful thing - buds, or "primordia", are spawned by a central ring of "base" points. Douady and Couder show that you can create phylotactic spirals with a model where primordia inhibit the budding process in their neighbourhood; the result is that when a primordium forms, the next one to emerge will pop out some distance away. By simply changing the growth rate and the inhibition threshhold, you get a variety of self-organised spirals, but also other less predictable complex systems traits.

As it turned out I didn't use this for the "spiral" project - more on that soon - but rediscovered it recently when I was asked to reproduce an old drawing of a sort of abstract lotus-flower structure. In the image above the bases are invisible, and the primordia are drawn as circles that expand over time - instant lotus generator (more images).

Have a play with the applet, or just grab the Processing source. Let me know if you use it, too.

Which leads me to a side point. What's become of the applets-on-the-web side of the Processing community? Maybe it's just me, but it seems to be diminishing; instead there's tons of (web-compressed) video, with relatively sparse documentation and source. Is it because of the increased interest in using Processing for generative motion graphics (and other exotic, large scale, non-applet-friendly things)? Maybe I'm over-reliant on ProcessingBlogs, which now seems to be all Vimeo, all the time. Any thoughts?


Friday, March 07, 2008

Notes on Transmateriality

At the recent UTS symposium I gave a short presentation titled "After Inframedia: Presence and Transmateriality." The presence stuff I covered earlier, but the second idea - which I touched on very briefly in this 2003 paper - is much less developed. So here goes.

The relationship between matter and "information" or "the digital" has been a recurring theme in new media theory for more than a decade. We could sketch it very roughly as follows. In the early to mid 90s, as digital hype was gathering pace, artists and cultural theorists began to critique the apparent drive towards disembodiment in technoculture. Simon Penny's 1991 text "Virtual Reality as the end of the Enlightenment Project" is a good (and early) example, even if VR now looks a bit like a straw figure in these critiques. This critical project of grounding the digital in the material (and the body) has continued. In 2000 Felix Stalder wrote of the "ideology of immateriality" underpinning the so-called "new economy." Around the same time Katherine Hayles published a more complex investigation in How We Became Posthuman, asking "how information lost its body" but also considering the inevitably embodied effects of this supposedly immaterial stuff (this is well covered in her paper The Materiality of Informatics).

Hayles introduces a conceptual pair: inscription and incorporation. Inscription is "normalized and abstract ... a system of signs operating independently of any particular manifestation" [Posthuman 198]. Inscription refers to the properties of a text, for example, that can be transcribed without regard to its specific embodied manifestation - digital computation thus relies on inscription, in moving patterns of data through various substrates. Incorporation is its flip-side, referring to the inescapably embodied aspect of a sign. Both inscription and incorporation are verbs - practices or processes - rather than ontological states; and they oscillate, a bit like presence and meaning for Gumbrecht: "incorporating practices are in constant interplay with inscriptions that abstract the practices into signs" [199].

Today I came a cross a more recent paper by Matthew Kirschenbaum, who pursues this investigation into the materiality of the digital, and like Hayles is approaching it from the perspective of textuality. In “Every Contact Leaves a Trace” (pdf) Kirschenbaum critiques the neo-Romantic, screen-focused tendencies of digital textual theory that tend to emphasise ephemerality and instability. He uses digital forensics to moves us from the screen to the hard drive, showing exactly how data is embodied (as in this image: a magnetic force microscopy image of a hard drive surface, from Pacific Nanotechnology). In the process he introduces another pair of concepts: formal and forensic materiality. Formal materiality refers to machine-readable data that reveals material specificities - in Kirschenbaum's paper, the use of a hex reader to discover traces of not-quite overwritten game code on an old Apple II floppy disc.

Forensic materiality refers to the material residues or byproducts that mark out one digital instantiation as different to another; for example the physical instantiation of copies of a file on two different hard drives will be different due to the material specificities of the drives - as when a misaligned write head again leaves traces of overwritten data. Yet these files are, for the computers concerned, formally identical. As Kirschenbaum writes, this shows how

"computers ... are material machines dedicated to propagating a behavioral illusion, or call it a working model, of immateriality."
This really nails it for me. It's exactly the functionality of this immateriality that earlier critiques of the disembodied digital overlook. It is an illusion, but it's an illusion that (mostly) works, and so is easily maintained: this is a hard-working model.

I'm developing an idea of transmateriality (sorry about the coinage), that draws on Hayles and describes exactly the "conundrum" that Kirschenbaum poses here; but that also has, I think, some wider implications, specifically for the media arts. Briefly, it proposes that the digital is, of course, always and inevitably embodied; that concepts like "data" are functional abstractions for describing the propagation of material patterns through material substrates. But that at the same time these material patterns - and here I mean everything from optical pulses to hard disk substrates, luminous screens and speakers pushing air - these material patterns, and the sensations and aesthetics that result are profoundly shaped by data acting as if it were symbolic and immaterial. Transmateriality is an attempt to "ground" the digital without losing sight of its (let's say) generative capacities. It also seems to resonate with a lot of current work in the media arts - but more of that later.