I tried something a little different for this blog post, in response to being invited to participate in the Perpitube exhibition at Pitzer College art galleries, curated by Pato Hebert and Alex Juhasz. The exhibit focuses on YouTube, social media and its convergence or impact on artistic practice, which is the focus of Juhasz’s recent work. By curating a selection of YouTube clips and editing them together to illustrate a text, I experimented with collecting this open source material to make a point about the phenomenon of emergent complexity and its relationship to socially-engaged artistic practice.

Some material is reiterated from a previous blog post, and I am indebted to the work of Steven Johnson and his book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, as well as the peerless work of Michel de Certeau.

Below is the text:

Every chance I get, I climb above the city and take in the panorama. Los Angeles is particularly filmic – the infinite density and natural beauty ensures that every view is both picturesque and overwhelming. When I view my city from this perspective, I am reminded of Michel de Certeau’s poetic article “Walking in the City.” Just as de Certeau wrote about the crests and undulations of the “urban island” of Manhattan, I find myself admiring the long Wilshire district of steel and glass and occasional brick and the city beyond. The light-studded hills of Hollywood loom to my north, the post-industrial orange street lights and boxy structures spread to the south, with the rising terrain of Bunker Hill to the east and the long wide boulevards to the ocean, due west.

De Certeau asks, as I always do, “Must one fall back into the dark space where crowds move back and forth, crowds that, though visible from on high, are themselves unable to see down below?” He calls this “an Icarian fall.” He means that the city cannot remain frozen in our view forever, and the pleasure of totalizing the city into a vista is merely a temporary delight. This divide between the wholistic conceptualization of the city versus the messy, complicated morass of spatial practices and feelings and people and overlapping communities and spheres of knowing challenges any visionary that wishes to effect social justice or change by engaging the political. There is always the discouraging Icarian fall, and the struggle to hold on to the totalizing vision that binds all the uneven fragments together. I remember this divide as I think about socially-engaged art practice, artists who orchestrate participatory works, and especially those with a social justice prompt or goal in mind. When one’s material is so unknowably complex, when one is addressing neighborhoods and communities and a morass of social relations into one’s art practice, how can any pre-conceived goal be possible? How can any moral right be universal? How can order ever be claimed from such chaos, and a better, higher order at that?
From my perch, however, I can glimpse the patterns that do in fact arise from the chaos. Or, more accurately, they emerge. De Certeau’s distinguishing of the chaotic dark space of crowds down below versus the totalizing beauty of the panorama is better known in science as emergent complexity. When we gaze at the panorama, we glimpse patterns and a coherence that defies the sum of its parts, or indeed the will of any one leader, no matter how powerful. Defined by Jeffrey Goldstein as “the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems,” emergence is when order unwittingly emerges from complexity. Like starlings, or other swarms, like how neighborhoods gain their characters such as Little Ethiopia, or the jewelry district – emergence is a self-organized aggregation that evolves and adapts to its surrounding conditions.

Emergence is everywhere in nature, but has more recently been harnessed in decentralized, bottom-up software that organizes internet communities like youtube and social media sites. However, though we employ and encounter this kind of self-organization every day, it remains difficult for us to think in terms of the collective. We assume that complex formations – like anthills and swarms, are directed by some higher intelligence, some authority.  We look for the author, the artist, the creator, rarely understanding that the power of creating self-organizing systems is not that someone is in control, creating rules and pulling the strings, but rather that the absence of rule is what gives these systems their adaptive capacity, their ability to grow smarter over time and respond to a complex and changing environment.

This difficult way of thinking strikes me as particularly applicable to socially-engaged art practices, particularly those that are of long duration and seek to intervene into the complexities of a community or neighborhood or organizational system to catalyze some change – like the Watts House Project, Project Row Houses, or Future Farmers in San Francisco to name just a few. Although each has an artist founder one can point to, the success of such projects depends less on the  known skills of the artist but rather on his or her ability to create emergent systems – to embrace the unknowable, instill an elastic adaptability into the created structure, and encourage an aggregation of forces. These projects live in a myriad of small interactions, and I contend that no collective or artist can direct these interactions towards a desired result. They can, however, understand those limitations and set up structures like horizontal organizations, feedback loops that determine aggregate actions, and organizations indistinguishable from their communities that are highly dynamic and adaptive to on-the-ground situations. These bottom-up methods are often oppositional to the top-down hierarchies of our cultural institutions and are thus difficult to archive or totalize in any meaningful way as art, but their coherence can be perceived in the ongoing vibrancy of changing spaces and communities. So we must welcome the Icarian fall, the descent into chaos, and give over control to our fellows in the hopes that from the aggregation of our small conversations and inspirations and actions will arise a coherent and operative whole, a higher and better order than what came before.