1972 - 74 Homeostasis
"Prior to entering the Slade, I had produced experimental works relying on the physical properties of light and water...At the Slade, I took these interests in systems and participation forward...producing a body of work that modelled and visualised homeostatic systems "
The Machine (now lost) was an interactive art work comprising hardware that modelled a homeostatic system. Homeostasis was represented as a square and, when destabilised by the viewer, the system would undergo a series of state changes before returning to a stable state.
Prior to entering the Slade, I had produced experimental works relying on the physical properties of light and water (see the 1969-72 Natural Systems section of this website). I saw these phenomena as co-creators of the work, which was in part determined by my constructions, i.e., three dimensional screens, containers and baffles, and partly by the interaction of the phenomena with these things. In one of the light pieces, I also included the viewer as a co-creator in the experience: here, projection screens and projectors were systematically arranged such that the beams between one and the other could be interrupted as the viewer moved around the exhibition, thereby affecting the overall arrangement of colours.
At the Slade, I took these interests in systems and participation forward but with a focus on models of natural systems rather than the phenomena itself, producing a body of work that modelled and visualised homeostatic systems (Ross Ashby, 1972 & 1973); systems, that is, that return to a stable state following disturbance by an environment. I built a hardware system that implemented a simple four-part homeostatic system, where each part consisted of 10 states. Under equilibrium, each part has the same state, i.e, 1, 2, or 3, etc., represented in the piece as a square. However, when one is moved to another state by an environment, the parts in the system interact such as to arrive, once again, at a stable state.
User's view of the Machine
Concealed hardware stack and display and panel wiring
The Machine appeared to the viewer as above, with the display over representing its changing states and the environment or user control panel under.
The rows of the control panel matrix(each comprising light emitting diodes above off/one switches below) represented the four parts, one of which could be disrupted by entering a four bit number between 1 and 10. The chosen value was set by switching on the appropriate diodes associated with the selected part. For example, PART A could be set to 10, by switching on the aligned diodes labelled 2 and 8; or to 5 by setting the diodes labelled 1 and 4. The selected part could then be activated by using the appropriate switch as the far right of the panel.
Above is an incomplete sequence of the changes in state from equilibrium to agitation and back to equilibrium.
A computer plot of the transitions of a disrupted homeostatic system from stable state back to stable state. This drawing, along with 7 others, is held in the V&A British Computer Art collection.
Whilst constructing the Machine, I also taught myself how to program in FORTRAN, modelling a variety of homeostatic systems and different ways plotting them.(see above). The obvious benefits of a mainframe computer (the only form of computer readily available at the time to academics) were the ability to alter program variables, e.g., the starting state of disruption, and to reprogram system behaviour.
Ross Ashby, W. (1972). Design for a brain. Chapman & Hall Ltd: London. (1952)
Ross Ashby, W. (1973). An introduction to cybernetics. Chapman & Hall Ltd: London. (1956)