The Emergent Art Lab
creating conditions for emergent outcomes in live digital art
(March 2002)

(The original brief outline behind this document was drawn up for consideration for a US conference on art and complexity, but was never implemented (see a PDF of the proposal). The proposal continues to evolve as an essay Emergent group behaviour among artists working with technology)

‘The use of metaphor, in as simple a form as in naming a situated activity, is a generative process. Any given label is also an invitation to see an object as if it were something else; through the resonance of possible connotations, new contextual meaning can be created’
— Michael R. Lissack

‘As with all new paradigms, investigators need the latitude to be speculative at first … the concepts of chaos, nonlinear dynamics, and self-organizing systems can allow investigators to explore a variety of areas from new and promising angles, ones that many may have never before considered.’
— Scott Barton

‘The merging of disciplines in the field of complex systems runs counter to the increasing specialization in science and engineering. It provides many opportunities for synergies and the recognition of general principles that can form a basis for education and understanding in all fields.’
— Yaneer Bar-Yam


This is an outline proposal to form - as a documented and exhibitable event - a group of artists in an environment that demonstrates how conditions for emergent behaviour in such a group might be optimised. The author has intensive experience in the UK as artist, event/conference organiser, and visiting artist/researcher at the Loughborough University (UK) Creativity and Cognition Studios.

The artists involved will already be working in the area of science/technology. For the purpose of descriptive brevity, in this proposal they will be called sciartists.

Outline proposal: [ read the expanded essay in progress ]

The methods of sciartists as individuals are already complex. Even small groups working in collaboration or in a common environment (virtual or actual) can arrive at outcomes that exceed the boundaries and expectations of individual possibilities. They often push the technology they use into new adaptations, and their interests and research lead them to cross boundaries into territory far beyond the traditional artistic role. The author has noted that such behaviour - where it may tentatively be labelled emergent - depends upon certain prerequisites. The intention is to create a situation where these prerequisites are deliberate preconditions, then to invite monitoring and documentation of the outcome from experts in the relevant areas of Complexity Theory. The role of the artists will be to engage in the creative process as a group, while also sustaining individual works if desired. Through communication and collaboration, these ‘artists as adaptive agents’ will be invited to embody the emergent behaviour of the group as actual artworks. Several outcomes are possible, and the nature of the emergent art lab event will be designed to maximise this unpredictability. In order to facilitate this process the emergency art lab will ensure that the prime prerequisites for effective communication exist, and even introduce ‘noise’, should any behaviour within the group become stereotypical, defensive or isolated in an uncommunicative ‘basin’.

The Emergent Art Lab is intended to foreshadow a new kind of human inquiry; to extend or step outside the current meaning of ‘art’ into areas without clear boundaries, and to give tangible expression to concepts that explore collaboration and cross-pollination in the disciplines involved.


Barton, S. ‘Chaos, Self-Organization, and Psychology,’ American Psychologist, January 1994, 49 (1), 514.
Lissack, Michael R. ‘Complexity — the Science, the Theory, and its Relation to Organizations’
Bar-Yam, Yaneer, ‘Complexity rising: From human beings to human civilization, a complexity profile’
Murray Gell-Mann's home page at the Santa Fe Institute