The Wobably Wobally is too Wobbly Probably
(before I get going.. I must thank Jean Kearney and Rachel Ann Buch of the Illuminating Waffles/// their beautiful aim is to bring art to public spaces.. look out for them)
So I got asked by the Illuminating Waffles if I would like to do a performance art piece at the Glebe Markets… and without really thinking about it I said.. sure… why don’t I build a machine…. I was feeling very excited at the time about the idea of circles and persistence… this is the idea that for anything to persist in the world.. at least persist in a way that we – an observer – are able to see it.. there must be a circle aspect to it. By circle aspect I mean it there must be movement and there must be return – thus the circle.. i.e the movement has to return periodically to where it started if there is to be any hope of persistence.. i.e. things that don’t do that just dissipate… if things persistently repeat in this circly way.. there is a possibility to build on it.. ie.. something else can come and collect around this persistor. There can be some sort of growth.. / accumulation. I was excited by this idea and I was also thinking that that is also all that evolution is… except that what keeps returning to the start point is the repetition of generations.. and when it does that there is some action upon it which allows variation… this introduces the important idea of the wobble… I had been interested in this periodic behaviour with the possibility of introducing irregularities for a while.. ever since my collaboration with the quantum physicists… I loved my – The Atom machine – .. the two record players that drew… and since they were out of phase the patterns reflected that. I was into the idea that it was really interesting that such a simple behaviour (just two spinning circles) could produce a reasonably complicated image. Maybe this idea had some relevance to a living system? I really did not know if this was true or not, but what I do know about living systems and probably anything reasonably complex.. it usually starts out as the repetition of simple steps, and in this process, subtle irregularities are introduced which may amplify over time. The machine as I had it – The Atom – was very regular – not much irregularity.. Then I started to play around with ideas on how to introduce irregularities… The first generation of such a machine I called Evolver. I allowed the pen of The Atoms’s turntables to smash into the corners of a suspended tri-angled mobile.. which was made of bicycle wheels and umbrella bones. The mobile could rotate but was also pendulous. I analyzed the movement in drawings and the data looked chaotic. At least.. since it was localized in the structure.. it could return, but when it returned it did not seem predictable. I became excited by the idea that a very regular action (which The Atom has) can generate disordered motion in another system that interacts with it. I liked this metaphor for evolution. Where the regular return of the turntables has an unpredictable outcome.. at least if you record the motion of the pendulum / mobile. I showed off this creature at the CSIRO Innovation Day in late 2016 and enjoyed a thrilling moment when an elderly physicist – who seemed less than impressed – witnessed the drawing arm coming apart. I noted to him that like any system it has a catastrophic point – which may not be obvious when that is going to happen, i.e. every system has some / many possible breaking points and he was fortunate to witness one such point.. funnily enough I think that got him on board – although I may just be being optimistic about that, but nonetheless I liked the metaphor that for some really hard to determine – reason, the system can just suddenly collapse – a CATASTROPHIC POINT.
So by the beginning of this year (2017) I was really excited to build such a persistence machine. For the persistence the core idea was Circly… an action that repeats in time (and space – for that matter).. like a wheel.. The first such machine… I called my!machine. It had.. at its mechanical core a part of a bicycle spliced to a steel chair. The bicycle was the mechanical core because the pedal that drives the back wheel is what powered my!machine. The regular mechanical wheel had an umbrella stripped of its material attached to where the other pedal should have been. This umbrella had a lot of motion (revolved with main core wheel) but also a little bit free to rotate – (although I have subsequently reduced that freedom, by clamping it more securely).. the umbrella arms have flexibility to their movement and they in turn interact with other components coming off the bicycle and chair frame. Much of the interaction is spring-based. Springs allow a certain flexibility of movement, but with this property of a return to where it started. Springs themselves hold to this circly principle. Initially an unwound wire has far fewer -is it degrees of freedom? – than a spring coiled up, which has more freedom in its movement (is this true? Is it not the other way around?? – springs are more constrained.. and have therefore less degrees of freedom.. but the energy constraint means much more of its possible energy is directed in a very specific way!). I was again, interested here to see what kinds of irregular motion this regular wheel could generate. I started using the roof scaffold of my studio to extend the size and complicatedness of my!machine. This allowed structures to interact with my!machine which were technically not physically attached to its core but could interact with it. Not unlike the pendulum of Evolver. It made me realise that things don’t have to be physically attached to anything to be part of it. In this way a community, for example, are just an extension of an individual. If one thing can quite simply cause the motion of another thing it can be said to be part of that thing. This reality would be enhanced if the interacting thing fed back to the core structure in the nature of its motion. In some sense there could be said to be some feedback in my!machine’s componentry, in that the behaviour of one connected spring will receive a signal from a preceding bit; have a responsive behaviour that will affect the connection to the preceding bit; and affect how it receives a signal from its receiving bit. However, since the system is ultimately dissipatory – the peripheral bits will always have much weaker motion than the initial core because of the entropic nature of the system (much of the movement is lost due to the necessary flexibility of connection). For this reason, the feedback is too weak to have much effect – most likely. This point was made to me by Tibor Molnar – science philosopher, over a coffee. Probably the most important building principle applied to the construction of my!machine was the idea that all connecting bits should be flexible – which I later called the wobble. The Wobble, is a beautiful idea. All living dynamic systems that can change need to have a wobble at their zones of interaction. To organize and facilitate a successful interaction, which at its heart is uncontrolled, the motions need to cover the potential space of interaction comprehensively and erratically to encounter the unlikely moment which accommodates the two components connection. This is not necessary in our world dominated by the machines we make, which goes along with a very different design principle, which is highly engineered to spec, because we know what we want from it we know what we want it to do. Most natural machines /systems are not teleological in that way so it is maybe a hard principle for us to get our heads around. As I built my!machine I noticed, viscerally, that I was making a self portrait. I felt it was a far more convincing self portrait than those that I have drawn in the past. I felt it approached, not what I looked like, but pointed rather to, and uncovered the nervous probing wiry architecture that lies a step removed from our physical selves. It is somehow, more the idea of what we are. The architecture. Its jangly motion. Where it probes space at its peripheries feels true. I like the idea that we are driven by a mechanical process, but that mechanical process drives many other process that are far more jangly, far less determinable. Evolution may have favoured those processes that make the jangliness more likely to encounter a solution – but where the specific solution itself is impossible to have hardwired because our ecological interaction with the external world is impossible to predict at the lower levels and it would require a determinism that is hard to justify that is in keeping with the principle of least action. It may even be fair to say that evolution is the process of tailoring the jangliness to make it seem much (much) less jangly… and organized.
The Wobably Wobally is too Wobbly Probably (WWTWP) then became the next machine, conceptually the same as my!machine and Evolver. The idea became to evolve the machine in a public space and with public participation if the public so wished! It was a terrifying prospect. I am happy to paint in public. A painting can fail but they rarely fall over! (they do, I guess, but it’s harder to tell). The WWTWP on the other hand.. had as its objective, to enunciate The Wobble. I figured, it’s The Wobble I am interested in. I am no builder and when I build, wobble is a natural consequence. Why not celebrate it? Make the point that any living system without a wobble is probably not a living system. Too little wobble, well if it’s mechanical then it is a watch – complicated for sure, but no more interesting than that. Too much wobble, the system will too readily discover its catastrophe. I was quite curious to open the system up and see if people liked a wobble or rather tried to favour order. The structure needed to be built so it could be set up outside.. and be easily transportable. I set it up between two ladders with metal struts behaving as the roof struts of my studio. The regular mechanical aspect, was set up with two wheels created by fusing parts of 2 bicycles (I called this ‘The Horse’ – I had just listened to Patti Smith’s Horses) and this was linked together by a modified chain. My primary design component was the spring. I recognised that standard springs return the system through a regular movement to where it started, so I designed irregular springs (by folding, at short regular intervals pieces of wire – randomly or in irregular patterns. I wanted to see if this could quickly introduce an irregularity. My biggest criticism of The Wobbly – his nickname, was that the roof-strut behaved strongly as a pendulum and absorbed a lot of the potential irregular movement’s energy, regularizing it in line with the simple pendulous action – at least this is what I think was happening – which may have reduced the potential for genuine irregular wobbling. The Horse was linked by springs to 4 moving parts. The irregularity of the spring was intended to generate irregular wobble – but I do think the fulcrum (like the pendulum) is a stabilizing issue. These things need to be worked on, but besides that TWWTWP was beautiful in the way it grew and in what it did and how it engaged with the people that engaged and the people who looked on. I set it up with a sign that read:
I am a geneticist.
I am interested in systems that can evolve
Like living systems
All evolving systems have a regular repetitive aspect
But they also need some irregularity to allow them to change / adapt
I call that The Wobble
Too little Wobble; the system is too regular / no change
Too much Wobble.. the system will CRASH!!!
This WOBABLY WOBALLY is an evolving thing… we are its agents of change [and I maybe should have said this too… its components are also its agents of change -which I think has some interesting truth in it]
Please come and help me find its BEST WOBBLE
To get involved, please come and build a Wobbly Bit and add it onto The Wobably
I should run through the events of the day for the most part, for me to try sort out in my own mind, what this is and where it is and where it is going. I say ‘what this is’ from an aesthetic point of view. I am an artist – I can say this because I have often made paintings and many in a public setting. From this I have a sense of what a good successful painting is. You can see the craft in it you can see how the composition holds together. But what is the WWTWP and why does it matter? The question comes from the point of my unease in assessing it. When I am presented with a painting, I have many cues and references with which to see the object and classify it and therefore place it somewhere in the catalogue of my mind that makes sense. But The Wobably does not want to sit in that same catalogue. It is like an evolved phenomenon trying to inhabit a niche that feels to me, undefined. A niche is an ecological opening that is defined by the properties of potential occupant that can inhabit it and by the properties of the ecological space – the interaction between the two. This is partly why I want it to inhabit places of science (social, biological, physical, systems). I walked past the Power Institute at Sydney Uni the other day and thought it should sit there. It would have a lot to say about the unintended consequences of wielding power. As a phenomenon.. or.. really.. a thing.. the only useful criteria with which it should / could be judged by: ‘is it transformative?’ Does it affect / change the way we see / feel about evolved / evolving things? – like ourselves; Do we get empathy and understanding.. through it.. of such things? That is what I would like my Wobblies to achieve.. I can’t impose that. But that is the result I seek.