Gordon Matt Clark.jpg

1. Introduction



Image: Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical Intersect, 1975.


Slide 1: It is said that the Renaissance (1400 – 1700) was the time when Europeans changed the focus of their attention from the heavens to the world around them. For example, the use of perspective focused on the observer's position in space. The invention of moveable type (1450) may have been the most disruptive change, for it expanded communication between individuals and made reading central to what it meant to be educated; we shifted from an oral society to a literary culture. The discovery of a new continent with new plants, animals and other, fully formed civilizations, (c. 1500 - 1600) meant we were not alone. The invention of the telescope and microscope (c. 1600) meant there was much that the ancients had no knowledge of. When Newton published The Principia (1687), which explained that gravity was a universal force and that the “laws of motion” were essentially “mechanical,” he also seemed to prove that "human reason" was god-like. The Enlightenment philosophers (1700-18500 embraced Newton’s “clockwork universe” and attempted to bring about the end of suffering by means of reason. By the 19th Century, science and industry had lit the streets, coal and oil made labor-saving machinery possible, and science replaced religion as the dominant influence on humanity This became known as the era of "Positivism". Nature was regarded as a resource, continuous progress was expected, and despite two wars, and a global pandemic, as well as fierce resistance to the hegemony of the industrial state (as it dreamed of empire), trust continuous progress, reductive reasoning remained dominate in the 20th Century. However, by the mid-20th Century, Complexity Theory had emerged as a new “holistic,” organic, or systems approach to understanding our world. This ecological approach to understanding also gave us access the wisdom of pre-scientific, traditional, or mythic thought. Because Complexity Theory embraces the idea that we live in a highly connected creative universe, that -- reduced to its fundamental elements -- becomes meaningless, complexity theory is both a recent and a very old world view. And, has been a worldview that artists have maintained as central their process of making work.

Slide 2: This is not an art history course, although it relies heavily on the work of art historians. This is not a history of science course, however, we will rely heavily on science, as well as the history of science.  We will regard artworks and scientific theories, not as static objects but as important "events" that we can experience on many levels of understanding. From physics to chemistry to biology, and to our human social structures, this course will regard concepts and artworks as emergent forms of "embodied" understanding.

Slide 3: A common thread that runs through Complexity  Theory is the idea that no structure (physical or social) exists independently of some form of energy that brings it into existence and also to maintain it. Consider that a tornado's vortex structure emerges from chaotic energy; when moist air meets dry, hot air meets cold, and high and low pressures come into conflict they create an energized "phase transition." This disruptive, turbulent state will involve feedback loops and bifurcation, to self-organize into a vortex; the most efficient structure to dissipate the very same energy that produced it. The vortex generated by the highly energized conditions, will disappear as soon as the energy dissipates. All material material structures, (and we will see later that ideas or concepts, and including artworks), require energy both to brings them into existence and to maintain them.

Slide 4: The vortex structure of a tornado is evidence of "Fractal Scaling." which also shows up in how a flock of migrating birds function as if they were one living form with a singular purpose; appearing to make decisions although no one is in charge. When living creatures follow simple "local rules" at one scale, which then produces a new form of order at a higher scale is called "hive mind". Hierarchical fractal scaling occurs in the social relations of bees, termites, ants, and birds, as well as forest and desert ecologies, and human beings. Scaling occurs within dynamic systems, including tornados and social groups, when those systems interact in efficient ways to channel the energy by means of the feedback loops that results in unexpected forms of self-organization. 

Slide 5: To understand Complexity Theory, it is essential to understand that self-organization can take place only in an energized state, "Far from Equilibrium" (Prigogine). In the 17th Century, Natural Philosophers such as Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton were seeking to discover the "Laws of Nature," the telescope and the microscope had just revealed an infinite, stable, and knowable Universe. By the mid-20th Century, this dream became untenable. Atoms were not solid building blocks, they were made of smaller parts that did not have mass; the structure of matter was probabilistic. The universe was unstable, it had a beginning and it is not just expanding, it is accelerating, and it will have an end. We live in a dynamic, not a static universe where "things" are dependent on "energy" that is "chaotic," and "chance," is fundamental. The "positivist" deterministic history of the universe is now understood as a history of "frozen accidents". 

Slide 6: The "Big Bang" is when our new origin story begins. Before the 17th Century, and the beginning of our new scientific age, the stories of how the cosmos and human beings came into existence -- told in scripture and in myths -- were dynamic and fluid. In an important sense, although these stories we did not meet the standards of today's scientific, these origin stories have qualities we are finding again. When history was narrowly defined by only what was documented in writing, history could only go back to Summer 5,000 years ago. In the late 20th Century, a revolution in the accuracy of dating expanded what we could now define as our history. New dependable methods for determining when things happened in the deep past meant that we could now construct dependable timelines for our human origins, the first beginnings of life on earth, and even a dependable time when our universe came into existence 13.7 Billion Years Ago. A new, astonishingly complex origin story is now possible to tell; "Big History".

Slide 7: Complex Systems emerge at multiple scales: All physical forms are made up of parts in highly energized relationships (all structures require energy to exist). From fundamental relationships at the nuclear level, unpredictable elements emerge (physics), which scale up as dynamic interactions among elements (chemistry), which scale up to biology, ecologies, then bodies with brains, and consciousness. To become the deeply meaningful physical and social worlds we, as human beings experience and normally simply take for granted. 

Slide 8: Here is a searchable History of Complexity that can be downloaded from this website.

Slide 9: A Metaphor for our seminar on complexity is the Turgot Map of Paris, the first modern city. The philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 - 1716), who may have had the first general understanding of complexity, believed that knowledge was like coming into a large city (such as Paris after the medieval walls had been removed by Louis IX (1638-1715), because however one approached Paris, each route provided a different view of the same city. Therefore, depending on what road you traveled, the same city could have a very different look. Each of you are encouraged to approach complexity from your own perspectives, although we are all converging on the same body of knowledge.

Slide 10: Complicated vs. Complex: things that are complicated have a logical link between the parts that make up the whole. Complex structures are made up of parts that have a non-linear path to an emergent whole. For example, two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (two gasses) form the molecule H20, however, one molecule does not make water, the phenomenon of water requires many molecules interacting. Water's "quality" of wetness, for example, is not predicted by the parts; "more is different" (Anderson, 1972).

Slide 11:  Julie Mehretu's painting, Stadia II, 2004 is complex. It was produced by a layering process. It invites us to perceive it as a meaningful whole, as an experiential meaning-making event.

Slide 12: Agnes Martin's painting, Peach, 1964, appears uncomplicated as an object, however, as an artwork it incites human meaning-making experiences that are complex.

Slide 13: Overview of lectures