by Jason Lipshin
The previous talk I attended for the digital studies symposium was a lecture by Paul Dourish titled “Bits and Atoms,” but it could equally apply to this week’s presentation by Chandler McWilliams – an artist likewise working at the intersection of the organic and the computational. Although this merger has, of late, been tied to some ethically dubious practices in genetic engineering, silicon-carbon wetware, and even DNA computing, thankfully McWilliams conceptualizes his convergence on a slightly more benign, experimental plane: how can the simplicity of code beget the emergent complexity of organic structures? In a stunning, cross-disciplinary gesture, McWilliams’ uses everything from Deleuze and Nietzsche, computer science and myrmecology (the study of ants) to search for his answer.
Key to McWilliams artistic and theoretical practice is a respect for the agency and materiality of the machine in itself; a position that situates him in the theoretical tradition of Bruno Latour. For McWilliams, software cannot simply represent or express, unproblematically, the intentions of the artistic individual, but instead creates the possibility space for both the representational and the non-representational, generativity and machinic-becoming. Software is, of course, “written” by individuals we call programmers, but increasingly, as in the case of John von Neumann’s cellular automata and experiments in artificial life research, self-reproducing algorithms are allowing software to write other software more efficiently and elegantly than any human could ever fathom. McWilliams situates this understanding in his installation piece, “John Henry von Neumann,” in which he races with an old school computer in trying to perform calculations via marks on long reams of paper. After a day of calculations, the computer had, of course, bested McWilliams, with the machine producing miles and miles of calculations, and the human producing little more than a few feet.
But, as McWilliams repeatedly points out in the talk, computers are not to be seen as mere calculators either, nor is code meant to be seen as a concept specific to digital technologies. In addition to computer code, there is, of course, a long genealogy of legal code, recipes, and directions which performs similar functions: providing a set of instructions and guidelines for the completion of an action in a certain context. In this sense, McWilliams even notes that one of the most algorithmically complex and interesting activities operating in a non-digital context may be your grandmother knitting a scarf! From repetition to recursion, modularization to transformation, the simplicity of computer code, thus, provide a wonderful platform for generating complexity – even if that complexity can only merely simulate the more infinite granularity of “life itself.”