In an interview from 1997, Douglas Adams, author of the acclaimed saga Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, explained his fascination with evolutionary biology and computer science in the newly emerging discipline of artificial life: “Life is the most powerful phenomenon on this planet, and now that we are discovering that there is a way to create life beyond life, artificial life will be one of the most powerful phenomena we’ve ever created”.
Since that interview, this claim has been backed up by a great number of scientific developments. The exploration of life is at present without doubt one of the broadest fields of study, offering the most challenges to researchers, comparable only to the exploration of the cosmos. Because of its social implications, it is also one of the keys to understanding today’s culture, given that this field of study has been one of the fastest-growing in popularity in the last decade. Meanwhile, advances in computing and access to fast and cheap calculation methods have skyrocketed, thus opening up new avenues for examining ecosystems and their complexities. Access to these technologies and the rapid dissemination of knowledge helps research to move quickly into different areas and different communities. The art world has taken part time and time again in the study of artificial life by designing devices and creating arguments that reflect on the variable, autonomous and adaptive qualities of living systems.
Throughout its extensive history, VIDA has painted this unique creative landscape which is inspired by the desire to understand and generate life. By promoting new ways of understanding artificial life the contest has, over the years, been able to show that this concept has not only changed but has also broadened. The winning projects are undeniable proof of this. For years we have been receiving and evaluating many works which are based on classical bottom-up design proposals, such as simulations that consist of software and hardware. Recently we have observed an increasing influx of works that have been constructed with biological components and what is known as wetware. This is not unlike what takes place in the discipline of artificial life itself, in which there is a debate over the use of new biological components to replicate living systems. At VIDA we would like to raise the issue of the direction that the study of artificial life is going in and ask what the conditions are that support the claim by Adams that creating other forms of life is one of the most powerful phenomena of our time.
To put this reflection into context I would like to take a look at a conversation that took place in early 2013, when a group of experts invited by VIDA met to discuss the direction that the study of artificial life is going in. It was an opportunity to discuss and research the key points, the objectives and the new techniques being adopted in this discipline through art. As a starting point we wanted to use the issue that “while the artists who have entered the VIDA contest have presented in their projects the type of biological and informational systems that have characterised the competition from the outset (such as emergent behaviours, cellular automata, evolutionary simulations, etc.) it now seems that we are facing a re-evaluation of “wetware” at the expense of “the well-established alliance between hardware and simulation”. It appears that the informational or computational dimensions, or simulations, that are key factors in current artificial life research are starting to be considered redundant in certain circles. Thus, we would like to ask ourselves: in what direction are we being taken by the complexities arising from current research into artificial life and how we can find it in the artists’ work? (Nell Tenhaaf).
Taking artistic practice based on artificial life as a starting point – a fundamental issue that is explored by VIDA – Joe Faith, a member of the inaugural VIDA 2.0 jury, proposed the discipline as the attempt to encapsulate, model or capture some of the aspects of living things in artificial systems (Joe Faith). VIDA celebrates the use of these technologies and the compression of the living systems comprising them in the form of artistic expressions. It is a refreshing approach to artificial life, shared by Simon Penny, who objects to the exclusive use of computational models in art involving artificial life.
We have commonly given recognition to projects developed with artificial life for their use of the simulation, this being a discursive and technological benchmark that has served to approve the works selected in VIDA. Simon Penny, a member of the jury on several occasions, focuses on this aspect to question the inclusion of projects from the field of artificial life under this term. Penny believes that the act of expressing artificial life as a fundamental process of simulation is to propose an incomplete understanding of living processes. As a counterpoint, he encourages that the contest accept those projects that broadly reflect upon the organisation of life, which is expressed through the ways in which the dynamics of the pieces are key components of life, regardless of whether or not they are represented using computational techniques. Art based on artificial life is interested in the dynamics – whether they are expressed computationally or through mechanical means – of living tissues and biological systems. The essential thing is that art should always reveal its expressive power, regardless of the means it uses to achieve this (Simon Penny).
Nell Tenhaaf, founder of VIDA and the current president of the jury, believes that this perspective contextualises and thus helps us to understand some of the award-winning pieces in VIDA that deal precisely with a return to materiality. There is no doubt that we are in the middle of the shift towards materiality, which is nothing more than a dialectical oscillation produced by the long awaited linguistic shift, reinforced by what we call the computational or informational shift. This is starting to be felt in a variety of fields and is being discussed at length (Nell Tenhaaf). VIDA cannot be restricted to hardware and software simulations, since artificial life is showing that its scope is not limited to these media, and it is expanding to include the current ideas on wetware. The context in which VIDA operates is shown in its richness and variability and is something we need to consider. It is interesting that, even though it is not truly made clear to the artists and often they do not seem to be fully aware that this is happening, it nevertheless ends up being embodied in their work.
Jane Prophet, a jury member and an award-winning artist for her Technosphere – a piece that represents the first online virtual ecosystem – expresses her optimism about research into artificial life in art by proposing a framework for discussion involving the major issues in the dynamics of life and art and which should not be determined by a preconceived artistic category. Clearly the practices involved in the so-called “new media” are many and varied. However, if there is one common feature it is an interest in examining living things and the circumstances associated with dynamics.
Artificial life today can allow us to focus on a very important discussion on the changing effects that determine life, its hybrid and mutating nature and its reach beyond the organic, the mechanical or the computational. It allows us to think broadly about an idea that underlies contemporary art as a whole: the condition of continuous variability in systems and the creative exploration of living dynamic processes.