Emergent Constructions: Re-embodied Intelligence Within Recombinant Poetic Networks

Bill Seaman 1998

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Computer-mediated networks present an artistic medium that heightens the potential for an intermingling of the knowledge of the viewer with the "Re-embodied intelligence" of an author or authors. We will consider "networks" in an all inclusive manner, from the scale of a network of poetic elements housed within a single computer, to that of the distributed housing of the World Wide Web [Internet emphasis Seaman]. Such computer-mediated environments can potentially facilitate new forms of inter-authorship. These environments enable the user to engage with the "artefacts" of the consciousness of the author. Central to this interaction is an emergent experience that is unique for each subsequent participant. Given that computers can house "recombinant" digital elements of image, sound, and text, how can the artist become an "author" of responsive, self regulating systems which enable "intelligent" emergent poetic responses to viewer interactivity via the encoding, mapping and modelling of operative poetic elements? How can such an environment enhance or trigger particular "states" of consciousness in the viewer? To what extent can we "re-frame" aspects of the consciousness of the artist, via specific modes of "translation" of operative poetic processes and poetic elements of image, sound, and text, within functional computer-mediated networks?

I am interested in interactive art works that exhibit "intelligent" responsiveness to viewer input. In Thinking Machines, The Search for Artificial Intelligence by Igor Aleksander and Piers Burnett, the authors state:

"Rather than becoming embroiled in the controversies which surround the nature of human intelligence, the practitioners of artificial intelligence have generally chosen to define their goals in empirical or operational terms rather than theoretical ones. An intelligent machine, they suggest, is able to do things which, if done by people, would be judged to require intelligence. On this basis, a definition of intelligence becomes unnecessary: The researcher simply choses a task that seems to require intelligence (playing chess say or recognising visual images) and tries to build a machine that can accomplish it." (Aleksander, p13)

My research explores computer-mediated, re-embodied "intelligence" in the context of a new form of poetic construction and navigation which I call "Recombinant Poetics." Artworks which explore "Recombinant Poetics" are characterised by the interaction of a viewer with a system of meaning which carries compressed potential meaning constructed of language, image and sound elements, within an engendered technological environment. The term "Recombinant Poetics" was created by the author in 1995. (1) Emergent recombinant content is created and explored through poetic construction mechanisms. These mechanisms enable the viewer to access poetic elements which have been loaded into the system and carry fields of potential meaning.

Re-embodied intelligence can be defined as the translation of media elements and/or processes into a symbolic language that enables those elements and processes to become part of an operative computer-mediated system. The ability to "translate" the aesthetic conceptions of an author into a form which is potentially operative within a technological environment, is fundamental to the creation of interactive artworks. In a related sense we can consider a novel, the condensed translation of thought into text. this can be viewed as a re-embodiment of the focused perceptions of the author, presented via the technology of a book. In terms of contemporary forms of authorship, this "translation" process can now be examined as related to interactive media.

The definition of "embody" follows:

1. to give bodily form to; to incarnate; to make corporeal; to invest with matter; as to embody the soul or spirit; a form embodied.

2. to give definite, tangible, or visible form to; to make concrete; as his speech embodied democratic ideals.

3. to collect and include (material) in a book, system, statue, etc.

4. to make (something) part of an organized whole; incorporate; as our ideas are embodied in the committee's report.

Synonyms- methodize, systematize, codify, incorporate, aggregate, integrate, compact, introduce, enlist, combine, comprehend.

Each of the different spokes of this definition are explored in terms of my art practice, as they are applied to the term "Re-embodied intelligence." The notion of "giving bodily form to" and "incarnating" is explored in my work in that I include my digitised voice. This presents a paradoxical examination of presence/absence as related to the sonic artefacts of the body via the presentation of emotive spoken language. Poetic language, image , and sound elements are given "definite," "tangible" form within the operative networks which characterise my work; they form a "collection" of variables within a "system;" like a "statue" the works embodies aesthetic, representational elements; and each work is presented as a particular "organisation" of media material.

Central to a technological history relevant to Recombinant Poetics, is the notion of viewer association triggered via "conceptual machines." A "conceptual machine" can be defined as a machine engendered by language and in some cases via images. Such language can be in the form of a description, a recipe, a poetic text (as in Duchamp's Green box, Fluxus Boxes and operative poetic works by Raymond Queneau), a working virtual model, as well as in the form of language "translated" onto a punched card (as in the Jacquard loom and Analytical Engine); via an algorithm or through the operative properties of computer code as linked to a graphical user interface and/or expressive external device (robot, videodisc, etc.).

In recent works I have modelled the artist processes of writing a sentence in The Exquisite Mechanism of Shivers; of writing a short poems(3) in Passage Sets / One Pulls Pivots at the Tip Of the Tongue; and of constructing a virtual "installation" or worlds (4) in my work The World Generator / the Engine of Desire. Each of these working processes would be considered "intelligent" based on the definition presented above. I have "translated" models of these activities, incorporating chosen/constructed recombinant elements, so that they can be explored within operative computer-mediated interactive art works. The generation of emergent compositions is enabled via the interaction of a user. It must be noted that re-embodied intelligence seeks to answer problems on an individual level of artistic production as opposed to the "universal" attempts of artificial intelligence.

In seeking the origins of the concepts which have come to enable this art practice,

we can make a "genetic" analogy to the principles which enabled the functioning of the Jacquard Loom. One can trace the genealogy of the computer from the initial patterns of weaves facilitated by this particualr loom, to the fabric of contemporary communication; images and texts comprised of pixels. Recombinant Poetic works are embodied within systems which propagate the inter-authorship of the programmer and artist, via symbolic logic. The result of this endeavour is finally manifested on the outermost level of the system of representation, as recombinant configurations of light and sound. Modular visual and textual elements which are operative within this technological system, have a punning function in relation to that system; outwardly they communicate to the viewer artistic content, while inwardly they perform as the functional connection to encoded symbolic logic.


A computer language is a notation for the unambiguous description of computer programmes. such languages are synthetic in their vocabulary; punctuation, grammar, syntax and semantics are precisely defined in the context of a particualr operating system. they suffer from an inability to cope with autonomous expression - an essential attribute of an organic language. The poetic of computers lies in the genius of individual programmers to express the beauty of their thought using such an inexorable medium. (Hamilton, 1997, p.309)


One can see the seeds of re-embodied intelligence within the Jacquard loom, which has been described as exhibiting "the selective powers of the human brain and the dexterity of living fingers." (BLUM, p. 41) The person who encodes the punch card, re-embodies an aesthetic conception, into a language which the analogue machine can read. In the book, The Loom Has A Brain, the author states:


This intricate process actually starts when an artist draws a sketch. When finished, it must look like the pattern will appear in the cloth...it is transferred by a draftsman to a ruled sheet similar to those used by engineers to show curves and graphs. Each tiny block or square sheet represents a tiny section of the fabric to he woven....With the design blocked out on the ruled sheet directly in front of him, the card-cutter works his way through the bewildering network of lines, paths of color-a perfect maze of passages and tracks, punching holes in the oblong cards. Each of these holes controls eight threads in a weave arrangement over the passing shuttle. Each has a meaning as to weave effects and color selection, and these all have to be translated so that the loom understands them. (BLUM, p.44)

This description shows one early relevant example of the translation of aesthetic practice to a machine-mediated process. We can extrapolate this idea in terms of contemporary computer-art practice making a direct analogy to the punch cards functioning as "conceptual machines" within the analogue mechanism of the loom, to the software/hardware paradigm in computers, where the code functions as a vehicle of the translated aesthetic conceptions of the artist. The computer enables not only the production of an image, but of entire artistic processes - the writing of a poem; the construction of a virtual world, the navigation of a poetic environment etc. Recombinant Poetic works may explore different levels of scale moving from the metaphorically atomistic to the molecular, to an assemblage of compound media elements all variously functioning as basic modules within differing works. A very interesting process can be enabled within such computer-mediated environments. Once a chosen "intelligent" process has been translated, the machine can perform "intelligent" functions in the manner of the author, producing unique new works of art. Thus the machine functions as an extension of the authorÕs sensibility, presenting a environment for the another mode of inter-authorship, via viewer interaction.

We can look at the computer code in Recombinnt Poetic works, in terms of a series of layers, on a number of levels. We start at the bottom, with assembly language. We then have various other logical layers which now enable the construction of an upper or outer layer of code that floats on the surface of the system, presented via images, sound, and text. A graphical user interface can potentially function in a non-hierarchical and non-linear manner in relation to the presentation of artistic content... Such code may also embody paradox, nonsense, play etc., any quality of aesthetic phenomena. I am examining computers as being expressive vehicles, housing and enabling the exploration of operative poetic elements via this series of interdependent levels of responsive "code" authoring. In terms of the connectivity of computers and the potentials of distributed interactiviy, such processes may function on various levels from the local to the international. The network of poetic elements can be housed on a single computer, or be distributed via numerous machines which are networked.

In terms of viewer interactivity with computer-mediated artworks, we are moving in the direction of computers functioning as "sensing" and "responding" devices. Such systems were envisioned by the founders of AI. Alan Turing speaks of "input" and "output" organs in his TuringÕs ACE Report of 1946 (Turing, 1986), suggesting notions of sensing in the discussion of an Automatic Computing Engine. Turing also projected the possibility of computers playing chess in that particular paper (an intelligent, rule based, combinational process). Much later the focus on "translated" sensing was re-investigated in terms of art practice by people like Myron Krueger. Many artists are now investigating this approach to computing. One must remember that even the "mouse" and "keyboard" can function as low level "sensing" devices in terms of viewer response. This is central to the functioning of the World Wide Web.

I am interested in the construction of devices which explore fleeting responsive housings for operative recombinant poetic elements, constructed via the encoding and embodyment of the perceptions of the contemporary "media" author. The goal is to have the computer function as a mediated extension of focused perception both in terms of "sensing" and "responding." The output of the system is not known in advance by the author but is a product of the interaction of the viewer with particular "recombinant" elements loaded in the system, as well as through construction and navigation processes which have also been translated and encoded, enabling inter-authorship.

Such a system metaphorically functions as a kind of synthetic organism which both "senses" and "responds." I am interested in how the machine embodies and extends thought and intellectual exchange, via particular operative processes as related to elements of image, sound and text. Attempting to make elaborate "translations" may illuminate certain operative qualities and characteristics of that which is being examined, translated, encoded, entered, and made operative within a computer-mediated system just as research related to artificial intelligence has helped to illuminate the workings of human intelligence.

Computer-mediated environments facilitate "States" of authorship. In terms of the computer, there is an intermingling of the system of authorship with the system or technology which houses that system of authorship. In computer-mediated interactive artwork, a viewer can intermingle with the operative elements of the system and interact with them via authored feedback mechanisms. This gives the viewer a chance to enter into a conceptual dialogue (if you will) with the "artefacts of thought" which the initial author has encoded in the system. These media artefacts enable the exploration of particular states of consciousness which are triggered within the experiential environment.

The qualities of inter-authorship take on different potential levels in relation to the "loading" of the system by the initial author. There is a delicate balance to be addressed in computer-mediated authorship, related to that which the initial author embues in the system, in terms of content, and that which the user contributes in terms of their input. Perry Hoberman states "In interactive art, we can find two seemingly opposite tendencies in the approaches to interaction: on the one hand a sharing (or even an abdication) of responsibility (or intentionality) on the part of the author; and on the other, a remarkable extension of the author's domain, an unprecedented attempt to control his/her audience and their response on every level." (Leopoldseder, 1996)

In tracing the genealogy of ideas related to Recombianat Poetics, the "notes" of Ada Lovelace prove seminal. Her work with Charles BabbageÕs Analytical Engine in the 1800Õs explored the manifestation of symbolic logic via the encoding of punched cards, a direct outgrowth from the Jacquard loom. The punched cards of the Analytical Engine function as a "translation" and encoding of symbolic language, and can function as a conceptual machine within a "physical" one. This is again analogous to the hardware/software paradigm. One can speculate on the relationship of symbolic thought in the history of poetry to that of computing, where Lovelace functions as a fascinating pivotal force, seeing the potential of "translated" symbolic language to be explored within the Analytical Engine, in relation to universal patterns and operations. "We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves." (BABBAGE, 1961 p245)

The mother of Ada Lovelace, in reaction to Lord Byron's bohemian sexual and intellectual behaviour, pushed her toward mathmatics, away from the realm of poetics for which her father is noted. One can imagine, in regard to such a gene pool, that it was the intersection of poetics and mathematical logic which enabled the intuition in Ada Lovelace that eventually led to what came to be called computer programming. In the year 1842, this was a very strange and imaginative understanding of the potential of language. In her Notes by The Translator written to clarify the work Sketch Of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage by L. F. Menabrea, Ada Augusta, Countess of Lovelace, made some very enlightened remarks.

The Analytical Engine is an embodying of the science of operations, constructed with particular reference to abstract number as the subject of those operations... Again, it [The Analytical Engine emphasis the author] might act upon other things beside number were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptions to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine. Supposing for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expressions and adaptions, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent... It may be desirable to explain, that by the word operation, we mean any process which alters the relation of two or more things, be this relation of what kind it may. This is the most general definition and would include all subjects in the universe. ([Lovelace as found in ]Babbage, 1961, p.249)

In this note we see a number of foci related to the salient characteristics of both Recombinant Poetics and re-embodied intelligence; that of the ability to perform multiple operations upon chosen abstract entities as well as the potential of those entities to be aesthetic in nature, i.e. that the machine might act upon and compose and perform "music." Also relevant to Recombinant Poetics is the pun. Lovelace chose the word "Translator" in her title, which in this instance could referer to her being the literal language translator of text by L. F. Menabrea, a "translator" of thought into readable code as in the analytical engine, and the translator of Babbage's ideas about the Analytical Engine into an understandable as well as extended form.

From the perspective of the present, also relevant to these areas of research is the potential of the computer to enable "generative" music (as coined by Brian Eno) also referred to as "Recombinant" music as coined by Seaman. This music is based on sonic variables and parameters entered into the system, as well as operative processes which act upon those variables producing various sonic output. Such a system is activated and experienced via the interaction of the user. Recombinant Poetic works also explore notions of re-embodied intelligence via sonic relations, and is relevant to a number of my past works (see notes 2,3,4,).

Ada continues:

In abstract mathematics, of course operations alter those particular relations which are involved in the considerations of number and space, and the results of operations are those particular results which correspond to the nature of the subjects of operation. but the science of operations, as derived from mathematics more especially, is a science of itself, and has its own abstract truth and value; just as logic has its own peculiar truth and value, independently of the subjects to which we may apply its reasonings and processes. Those who are accustomed to some of the more modern views of the above subject, will know that a few fundamental relations being true, certain other combinations of relations must of necessity follow; combinations unlimited in variety and extent if the deductions from the primary relations be carried on far enough. ([Lovelace as found in ]Babbage, 1961, p.249)

These ideas are cental to the functioning of Recombinant Poetic works. This enlightened note was published in 1842 almost 100 years before Turing would pick up on its potential ramifications.

(1)"Recombinant" can be defined as follows, "Any new cell, individual, or molecule that is produced in the laboratory by recombinant DNA technology or that arises naturally as a result of recombination".(Parker) Recombinant DNA technology can be defined as follows, "In genetic engineering, a laboratory technique used to join deoxyribonucleic acid from different sources to produce an individual with a novel gene combination. Also known as gene splicing." (Parker) Subsequent research has shown a related metaphorical use of the word "recombinant" by Mitchell in his discussion of "recombinant architecture" (Mitchell 1995). Other artists and researchers have used the term 'recombinant' in a metaphorical manner including Arthur and Louise Kroeker (KROKER,1994) and Diana Gromala who is working on a book called Recombinant Devices: Ideologies of Virtual Design. The notion of modular, recombinational systems can be witnessed in my work as early as 1981.

(2) The Exquisite Mechanism of Shivers c 1991 Seaman

(3) Passage Sets / One Pulls Pivots At The Tip Of The Tongue c 1995 Seaman

(4) The World Generator / The Engine of Desire c 1996/97 Seaman

ALEKSANDER, I and BURNETT, P. Thinking Machines - The Search for Artificial Intelligence, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, 1987), pp13 and 108

BABBAGE, C. (1864) Passages From The Life of A Philosopher. Longman, Green, Roberts, & Green

Joan Baum

BAUM, J. (1986) The Calculating Passion of Ada Byron, Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, p.1

Herman Blum

BLUM, H. (1970) The Loom Has A Brain. Littleton, New Hampshire: Courier Printing Co. Fifth Printing, pp.41-42, p.44

Deleuze & Guattari (1987) A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press p.21

Richard Hamilton and Eche Bonk

HAMILTON, R. & BONK, E. (1997) The Typosophic Texture in Politics/Poetics: Das Burch Zur Documenta X. Cantz p. 309

KROKER, A. and Weinstein, M. (1994) Data Trash : The Theory of the Virtual Class. New York: St. Martins Press p.28

LANDOW, G. (1992) HYPERTEXT: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press PP.17 AND 18

(Leopoldseder, 1996)

LEOPOLDSEDER, L AND SCH¬OPF (1996) Prix Ars Electronica 96: Free Choice or Control by Perry Hoberman. New York: SpringerVerlag p. 53

LOVELACE, A. (1842) Notes By The Translator (of Sketch of the Analytical Engine by L. F. Menabrea) Biblioteque Universelle de Geneve, October, 1842, No. 82

MITCHELL, W. (1995) City of Bits. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press

PARKER, S, editor in chief (1989) McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific and Technical Terms. Boston: Kluwer Boston.

Turing, A. (1986) Volume 10 in The Charles Babbage Institute Reprint Series for The History Of Computing: A. M. TuringÕs ACE Report of 1946 and other papers. Cambridge: MIT Press p.36