Emergent group behaviour among artists working with technology


For a more detailed version of these ideas please see the published paper from 2007: Emergence and complexity: some observations and reflections on transdisciplinary research involving performative contexts and new media (The International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media, Nov. 2007)


  1. Abstract
  2. Terms
  3. 11 statements about artists working with technology
  4. Emergent behaviour in groups of artists
    1. Individual behaviour
    2. Group behaviour
    3. Threats to emergent behaviour
    4. Cliques
  5. Possible personal requirements for emergent behaviour
    1. Confidence
    2. Sensitivity/responsiveness
    3. Communication
  6. Possible environmental requirements for emergent behaviour
  7. Examples of emergent behaviour in live art


This essay from 2006 was very much a work in progress, originally developed from a proposal for an artwork in 2002, with inserts, notes and 'holding' links to information requiring further research. It explores the possible prerequisites and conditions that encourage or discourage emergent behaviour among groups of creative individuals, using some terms from the field of complexity theory. It is based on observations and experiences with several such groups, and seeks to create a tentative framework in which to place and research these observations. It expands on an embryonic project proposal originally drawn up for consideration for a US conference on art and complexity.

Terms (within the scope of this document):contents

emergent behaviour:
the unpredictable yet self-organising outcome of a series of interconnected activities.
basin of attraction:
(or centre of gravity) a dynamically stable focus of activity resulting from collective attention.
exoteric group:
collective activity, virtual or literal, organised and undertaken consciously.
esoteric group:
an implied group formed from individuals undertaking similar activities, who may or may not be aware of each other.

1. Statements about artists working with technology:contents

On collaboration:

  1. Usually need other people for collaboration, as one individual rarely posesses the range of skills required to undertake every facet of the work.
  2. The potential of an individual is significantly enhanced through group interaction only when already functioning adequately as an individual practitioner; otherwise unaddressed issues may become exaggerated or highlighted through group activity; it is then an individual's task to work on those areas. (on qualities for individual creativity: see Hugh Macleod: How to be creative)
  3. Effective collaborators recognise that the individual is limited in scope, so participation in groups of effective individuals (i.e. those able to contain personal defensive behaviour within limits defined as safe by the group in which they function) is a viable model for extending art practice.

On groups:

  1. Through being excluded from the mainstream (until around 2002-3) they have formed historical groups which sometimes exchange skills and information
  2. The web and other communications technologies have enabled a kind of distributed group behaviour to emerge, where participating individuals may or may not physically meet, and where outcomes are not always predictable; this is likely to increase.
  3. These groups of artists working with technology exist explicitly and implicitly as exoteric and esoteric groups:
    actual groups either at a physical location (e.g. university department) or via digital networks (in a culture where communication technology is commonplace these are to be regarded as explicit groups, since the individuals communicate in a real sense and may display group network behaviours);
    individuals who may not know each other personally still belong implicitly to the group 'artists working with technology' and therefore share certain qualities, problems and knowledge. This group is not limited by geography or personal connection, and is part of a wider cultural development.

On trans-discipliniarity:

  1. Artists working with technology will connect to other disciplines in order to develop their work - this is as true historically (to name the obvious, DaVinci, Dürer) as it is today.
  2. Many artists are also practitioners or at least informed hackers in other fields specific to their practice (for instance: computer science, philosophy, maths, engineering).
  3. Some individuals are both artists and scientists, and it is recognised that combining disciplines often leads to innovation (examples). Yet specialism - which Robert Heinlein has popularly said is best left to insects - is still essential.
  4. Inquiry into any particular area is enhanced when insights from one discipline are brought to bear on another through co-operative inquiry or by crossing diciplinary boundaries (examples to follow); it follows that environments that support this kind of activity require the same qualities as the individuals they seek to serve.
  5. Some ability to synthesise initially disparate threads at a meta level is essential - the aim being to create new connections that open communication between previously unconnected elements. This is as true of specialists and practitioners as it is for university departments and organisations.

2. Emergent behaviour in groups of artistscontents

2.1 Individual behaviour

Individual artists often:

  1. follow working methods that produce unforeseen outcomes, which they value;
  2. pursue several lines of inquiry simultaneously;
  3. are sensitive to the significance of slight initial differences in producing significantly varying outcomes;
  4. assess several of these slight differences in parallel in order to adjust them towards a result that - while perhaps remaining indefinable - is nevertheless perceptible to them and possibly to others.

2.2 Group behaviour

The traditional model of the artist allows for several modes of behaviour, which overlap. For the purposes of this line of inquiry, these can be roughly grouped into three key modes:

  1. individual, heroic, solitary
    (the 'traditional' model of the lone artist: Beethoven, Picasso, Pollack, O'Keeffe, more recently, working with technology, Harold Cohen);
  2. reactive, revolutionary, challenging
    (the 'revolutionary group' model: historically, Dada, Fluxus, shock art (Hermann Nitsch, Zhu Yu's 'Eating People', Genesis P-Orridge, (more mildly: 'Sensation' in the UK, particularly Marcus Harvey's Myra Hindley; Sarah Lucas's toilet tribute to Duchamp at the ICA, Gottfried Helnwein);
  3. synthetic or collaborative
    ranging from the hierarchical roles of the artist and assistant, to the peer-to-peer collaboration network required to complete work requiring input beyond the artist's skills (historically, Bauhaus; more recently, (to pluck one out of the air) Greyworld, web art e.g. rhizome.org, sci-art; events: Ars Electronica, CAiiA-Star, Creativity and Cognition, etc.) and trans-disciplinary creators like Thomas Heatherwick.

Each of the three modes of activity listed above has emerged to address the specific needs of artists to:

  1. research and hatch creative ideas while protecting them from excessive interference during the process (the individual);
  2. respond and react to environmental influences, and test new ideas against existing ideas (the reactive);
  3. extend territories and interactions with others, and thereby extend the boundaries of practice (the synthetic).

Triple models offer many parallels. For example, here's a little paradigm hop: each of these 3 areas has a close relation to the qualities of the integers one, two and three or - in 3D space - the associated properties of point (initiation), line (polarity) and plane (field of activity):

  1. the single undifferentiated point or vertex represents an individual;
  2. the line or edge represents interaction between two points; behaviour can fluctuate between (e.g.) response and reaction, research and practice, withdrawal and expression (to use another analogy, the sine-wave illustrates simple polar activity);
  3. the plane or surface is formed when two points are joined by a third; an embryonic network can be formed, a stable extensible structure can be built - as with the triangle (or, by adding waves at other frequencies, the regularity of the single sine-wave is disturbed and becomes unpredictable).

…It may also be possible to equate these 3 with a 'feedback loop'-type model of development:
input > process > output

  1. input: origination (action)
  2. process: feedback (interaction)
  3. output: adaptation (growth)… creating a new value for the next input…

Plus, psychology tends to spawn useful triple models, too…

NOTE: also see Alderfer's existence - relatedness - growth Hierarchy of Motivational Needs (or see this brief non-academic summary); also McClelland's Achievement Motivation Theory with it's learned needs of power - affiliation - achievement.

NOTE: the fascinating integer 3 can be seen as completing the odd-even number polarity in which we are currently stuck. Spend some time playing with the patterns formed by the digital root of integers and you'll see what I mean. Or look into the robust and efficient nature of ternary data structures, ternary computers and Knuth's 'flip-flap-flop' quip about the future of computing. But that's another ramble.


Because of the complexity of the interactions, group behaviour amongst artists and their collaborators is ripe territory for the generation of unpredictable outcomes, and the emergent behaviour of such groups is likely to be all the more unpredictable because of the way individual creative practitioners and thinkers already work.

Group behaviour may evolve around one or several centres of gravity or basins of attraction: for emergence to occur, areas of inquiry and interest need to remain dynamic enough to allow for escape into other regions outside (or even within) the group, as determined by emergent behaviour.

2.3 Threats to emergent behaviour

This emergent behaviour can be threatened by factors inherent in group behaviour types (a) and (b) above:

in (a) too dominant an individual is likely to attempt either to: force the emergent behaviour in an individual direction that does not respect the group's (usually multiple) basins of attraction; become competitive rather than co-operative. In both cases the emerging qualities will be skewed towards certainty;

in (b) where dialogue between two group members or two sub-groups (or basins of attraction) becomes formalised, behaviour may become rigid, stereotyped or locked into an action-reaction cycle and therefore isolated from interaction with other emerging dynamics.

Yet without either strong individuals or robust dialogue, a group of individuals simply working together may not display the complex behaviour likely in (c). It may be that a complex fusion of all three modes of practice - individual, reactive and synthetic - is most likely to encourage emergence, just as in a well-balanced team.

There are also psychological factors that may discourage emergent behaviour. Fear and insecurity generally produce defensive formalised behaviours that do not permit much modification, without some commitment to personal development on the part of the individual. To make matters worse, these qualities are often masked under such cloaks as 'professional integrity', 'current debates', 'coolness' or fashion, the agenda-driven needs of funding organisations, or other formalised methods of defining mental and cultural territory. Emergent behaviour demands no restriction on it's emergence, and where a rigid agenda is set the outcome is likely to be too heavily coloured by that agenda to qualify as truly emergent.

2.4 Cliques

Cliques may be viewed as a sub-type of the solitary behaviour model (a) extended to a small in-group, and having a similar influence. They can form through collective defensive behaviour, whether from collective shyness, lack of confidence, arrogance or other masks of fear. The difference between cliques and basin of attraction or centres of gravity is that centres of gravity are neutral and responsive, while cliques are likely to:

  1. isolate themselves from other group members, or exclude new participants by creating 'them and us' scenarios or constricting interaction to acceptable, formal exchanges;
  2. conceal knowledge, skills and outcomes or use obscure language* or jargon;
  3. attempt to control outcomes without being sensitive to or aware of the 'feel' of others, or of the group as a whole.

Effectively, by cutting off the essential elements of real communication, the clique risks either becoming too rigid for change, or forcing an issue. In either case, emergent behaviour is stifled or (if the group or the clique is strong enough) the clique is ejected - or ejects itself - from the group.

* Every discipline evolves its own language, but that language can become exclusive if its proponents do not make the effort to keep it open to non-specialists (plain English does not imply simplistic thought). Challenges to emergent behaviour arise where such language is used as an attempt to gain validation, rather than because it has evolved in order to expresses an idea well. This is a psychological issue because such usage - where it does not arise from habit or lazy thinking - is likely to be based on fear of exclusion/desire for approval, where that fear/desire is coupled with lack of self-esteem. Name-dropping is a trivial indicator of similar issues.

3. Possible personal requirements for emergent behaviourcontents

3.1 Confidence

[this is a stub] Potential prerequisites:

  1. the ability to maintain views that may not be popular, without feeling the need to impose them on others or 'gain converts';
  2. a willingness to risk trying things out without worrying about failure, embarrassment or loss of face;
  3. ability to focus and edit out non-essentials.

3.2 Sensitivity/responsiveness

  1. sensitivity to other influences, individuals, sub-groups; without being driven by a requirement for approval or inclusion.
  2. Awareness of simultaneous threads, both in the ideas of individuals, and in the multiple outcomes of the group.

3.3 Communication

multiple parallel two-way connections stimulate emergent behaviour (retaining information or failing to communicate for whatever reasons means the connection is broken and the necessary interactions - or interations - cannot occur).

4. Possible environmental requirements for emergent behaviourcontents

[this is a stub] Provisional list:

  1. a stable framework or matrix (from the actual meaning),
  2. awareness of communication facilitation needs,
  3. a feeling of security but not complacence,
  4. technical expertise with 'translators'.

NOTES: see Turner and Edmonds: Towards a Supportive Technological Environment for Digital Art; recommendations in the disability & Technology study from Arts and disability interfaces for Arts Council England; apply findings from from psychology and therapy e.g. Roger's Core Conditions (for details specific to groups and education, see core conditions and education), Maslow's hierarchy of need, or adapted versions listed here by Alan Chapman, or Alderfer's 'existence - relatedness - growth' Hierarchy of Motivational Needs and Herzberg's Two-Factor Theory (see models of motivation); etc.

5. Examples of emergent behaviour in artcontents

[this is a stub]

NOTES: documented examples, some CCRS and former Gallery of the Future artists (see early GoF lecture notes - scroll down to Gallery of the Future); Live Art Archives and Digital Performance Archive; my own Emergency Art Lab; etc.

© Dave Everitt 12/8/2000 (revised 16/2/2001, 28/01/2006, 10/09/2006)