Expanded Cinema Lorenz Attractor

Expanded Cinema: 20th Century Encounters with the Machine.

This essay is based on a paper written for the symposium on Expanded Cinema, which was held at the Tate Modern in April 2009. It is written from the perspective of my own art practice, which was heavily influenced by the structural materialist film theory at the London Film Makers Co-operative[1], where I began making landscape films and installations in the early 1970s, and by cybernetic and systems theory at the Slade where I came into contact with some of the pioneers of interactive technology and computer driven art forms. It also reflects my renewed interest in Expanded Cinema that developed with the transition to digital technology, following the completion of my last film in 1993.

I am particularly interested in using the computer as a flexible multifunctional projector that is capable of responding in real time to input from its immediate or remote environment. Unlike my early weather–driven film works, which are recordings of retrospective interactions between the camera and the weather, my current practice uses combinations of live weather data and live video feeds to create the work in the real time space of the gallery or site-specific location.

Much of this work, and all of my new media installations, are based on a non–dualist cybernetic model, in which the relationship between technology and nature is articulated as a collaboration between two interrelated systems. My original premise was primarily of a philosophical nature, grounded by a deeply felt love of landscape, and motivated by my rejection of dualism and of the technological domination and “enframing”, as Heidegger[2] called it, of nature that was characteristic of the enlightenment project.

Forty five years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring[3], which was the first scientific description of the coming environmental crisis, the consequences of enframing can no longer be ignored and I now find myself inadvertently thrust into a position of renewed relevance, together with a much younger generation of “weather artists”, as we begin to experience the social and economic implications of the unfolding environmental crisis. Donna Haraway describes it as:

“The violation of a nature outside and other to the arrogant ravages of our technophilic civilization, which, after all, we were taught began with the heliotropisms of the enlightenment projects to dominate nature with blinding light focused by optical technology?[4]

[1] LFMC: London Film Makers Co-operative.

[2] “Enframing” see Heidegger Being and Time, 1927.

[3] Rachel Carson. Silent Spring. Boston: Mariner, 1962.

[4] Donna Haraway. The Promise of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Dualism, the formerly dominant model in the sciences, suggested a window through which unruly nature could be controlled and re-configured into a sanitized representation of its former self. In keeping with the notions of Galileo and Keppler, measurement was considered a primary component of nature and not something attributed by the observer. Rene Descartes postulated that creation consisted of an extensionless thing that thinks (res cogitans) looking through a window at a thing with extension that does not think (res extentia). When the famous “Two Slits” experiment[1] demonstrated the problem of decoherence, in that any measurement on a quantum scale is affected by the very act of taking the measurement, the idea of a representational “other” became problematic, along with the realization that measurement is not primary or absolute, but partial and constructed.

Physicist Andrew Pickering, a member of the Max Planck Institute, who now works in the field of science studies, described the need for a new ontology of scientific practice in a November 2008 interview broadcast on the CBC program Ideas[2] entitled How to think about science. He identified the beginnings of a shift from the “representational“ models of the late 19th and early 20th century to the computer driven “performative” models of systems and chaos theory and the new cross disciplinary sciences which followed.

In a parallel process with the sciences, 20th century art history can be seen as a loss of pictorial certainty, as the static representational framework of the 19th Century gave way first to abstract painting and then to the performative, time–based practices of the 20th Century, by the realization that representation is problematic: is always selective and incomplete.

This essay is an attempt to trace the trajectory of that transition in both the arts and the sciences and to examine how the “Expanded Cinema” movement was part of a paradigm shift, away from the enlightenment project, with it’s vision of a deterministic universe and it’s mandate of control and domination of nature.

I will begin in the first decade of the 20th Century, with the shift from the representational models of classical science to the abstract probabilities of quantum mechanics, and the analogous shift from the static pictorial traditions of the late 19th century through abstract painting to the time based art forms which flourished from mid–century onwards. Next, I will provide a brief sketch of early chaos theory and how it coincided with the use of generative systems in music composition, Expanded Cinema and film installations. I will then attempt to trace a continuity of ideas from the interactive systems developed by the early cyberneticists, and the performances of the Cinema Action Group, to some of the more interesting new media art of the early 21st century.

[1] Two Slits Experiment, first performed by Prof. Claus Jönsson, Universität Tübingen in 1961.

[2] CBC Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Radio 1 Ideas: How to Think About Science Hosted by Paul Kennedy. Episode No. 4: Ian Hacking and Andrew Pickering, CBC Podcast: http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/features/science/#episode4

Relativity and Cubism

The technological developments of the late 19th and early 20th century left artists and scientists scrambling to make sense of the rapidly transforming world around them. The introduction of a high-speed rail travel network in Europe transformed the landscape into a series of moving viewpoints and the introduction of photography and film suggested ways in which this visual montage of space and time could be represented.

To Albert Einstein, who was then working at the Swiss patent office in Bern, these developments, including the synchronizing of railway networks, would have been a familiar subject. It is not surprising, perhaps, that his Special Theory of Relativity dealt with the issue of space and time, and introduced an observer with multiple viewpoints into his representation of the subatomic structure of matter.

In the arts, Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon was first exhibited in Paris in1907, just two years after the publication of the Special Theory of Relativity, and bore some striking resemblances. In both works, the pictorial frame remained intact but the space beyond the frame had been fractured by introducing time as an additional dimension into a previously static universe. Cubism challenged the stability of Euclidean space by emphasizing the temporal aspect of representational space. Introducing multiple viewpoints into the otherwise timeless picture plane, it transformed the static viewpoint of Renaissance perspective into a multipositional dialectic of space and time.

Both Einstein and Picasso refused to embrace the idea of total abstraction, and as Einstein insisted that “God did not play dice”, Picasso’s cubism remained firmly rooted in the pictorial traditions of the 19th Century. Still, Picasso’s work anticipated the abstract painting and experimental film and video works to come, and while Einstein’s special and general theory of relativity did not form a consistent representation of nature as a whole, it set in motion the search for a grand unifying theory that would connect the very small world with the very large that was left to his successors in the field of quantum mechanics.

The Collapsing Frame in the Sciences: Quantum Mechanics and the Problem of Measurement.

By the early 1920’s the idea that nature could be reduced to a finite number of deterministic principles was running into a number of fundamental problems. Beginning in the1960s, this dominant ideology of mainstream scientific practice was being challenged by its own version of the counter culture. Reductionist methodology had failed to provide a complete or consistent description of nature, and even in the hallowed halls of post-Einsteinian physics something of a “court revolution” was in the air.

In the strange field of quantum mechanics, the chance–like behavior of subatomic matter turned out to be extremely resistant to reductionist methodology. In particular, it was the question of “decoherence” that was vexing to those who insisted that matter should behave consistently as a particle or as a wave.

two slits experiment

The Two Slits Experiment 1961.

In the now–famous “Two Slits Experiment”[1], an electron is fired at a perforated metal plate. Newtonian Physics predicts that, as a particle, the electron should pass through one or the other of the two apertures in the metal plate. As a wave, on the other hand, the electron should pass through both Slits at the same time.

However, in the world of quantum mechanics, the electron reaches the other side of the plate as both a particle and as wave. The problem is further compounded because obtaining an accurate position in time affects the position of the electron in space, and obtaining a position in space affects the position of the electron in time. The experiment demonstrates that, at a quantum level, the very act of taking a measurement alters the system that is being measured.

It follows that, in the subatomic realm, the spatial and temporal coordinates of matter can only be expressed in terms of probabilities. Werner Heisenberg’s “Uncertainty Principle”, first formulated in 1926, challenged the framework of an objective viewpoint that had been at the core of classical physics, and laid the groundwork for a shift of Western scientific practice from a descriptive science toward one that articulated relationships between particles as an abstraction based on mathematical probability. The window separating the experimenter from the experiment had collapsed, along with the collapsing wave fronts of subatomic matter.

Mathematician Mitchell Feigenbaum explains the problem in his characteristically laconic manner:

“When you look at this room – you see junk sitting over there and a person sitting over here an doors over there – your supposed to take the elementary principles of matter and write down the wave functions to describe them. Well, this is not a feasible thought. Maybe God can do it, but no analytic thought exists for understanding such a problem. [2]

This celebrated mathematician and chain–smoking eccentric of the sciences, was one of the few people who, at the time, was capable of understanding the full significance of the problem, and his insight would cause him and his colleagues to abandon representation in favor of a new performative science capable of revealing the structure of chaos itself.

[1] Two Slits Experiment, first performed by Prof. Claus Jönsson, Universität Tübingen in 1961.

[2] Mitchell Jay Feigenbaum, (b.1944): mathematical physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, is a major contributor to the field of chaos theory. He is quoted here from: James Gleick. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin, 2008.

The Collapsing Frame in the Arts: Abstract Painting,
Experimental Film and Video, Performance Art and Gallery Installations.

As in the case of Cubism and the Theory of Relativity, once again, in the 1950s the arts again mirror the sciences, and the abstract expressionism and colour field painting dispensed with pictorial representation in favor of the material trace or recording of a previous reality. By mid–century, performance art happenings and environments took this a stage further by blurring the lines between the making of the work, its presentation, and its reception. Within a few decades, theatre, dance, literature and music had all re-examined their own versions of the frame and, although mainstream cinema remained resistant to these ontological “re–thinks”, experimental film makers and structural filmmakers in particular, responded to the changes that were taking place across the rest of the arts.

Structural film shifted the emphasis away from the non–problematized pictorial representations of cinema towards a materialist practice where sprocket holes, frame lines, grain and emulsion became the equivalences to the brush stroke and raw canvas of abstract expressionism and colour field painting. Expanded Cinema extended these parameters by further removing the medium from its movie theatre infancy, away from the proscenium window with its curtains and 19th Century representational ideology, and into the arena of 20th Century Art.

While the Expanded Cinema movement manifested itself in various contexts, it is generally seen as part of the larger social project of 60s and 70s counter culture, and as having evolved in the U.S. from the light shows and happenings on the West Coast. The art form itself, however, dates back to the first two decades of the century. Paris was the hub of the European avant-garde at that time, and experimental film and performance art flourished in that milieu. In1925, Oskar Fishinger combined five film projectors and slides in what is arguably the first Expanded Cinema performance. Fishinger and his wife later emigrated to the West Coast of the U.S., where his work soon influenced experimental film makers Jordon Belson and Harry Smith, as well as composer John Cage, who worked for a time as his assistant.

By the early 1970s, Expanded Cinema was identified as a genre by Gene Youngblood in his eponymous book, and was exemplified in the work of Stan Vandebeak, Paul Sharits and Ken Jakobs. By the mid 70s, the movement had re-connected with its European roots and was given a more radical expression in the UK, initially by a small group of students from St Martin’s School of Art in London. They were mentored by Malcolm le Grice, who was also a founding member of the LFMC and a leading proponent of Structural Film.

Cinema Action, as they came to be known, used the printing and processing facilities at the LFMC to created a material–based and more rigorously theorized form of Expanded Cinema. Their now–legendary projections still challenge our assumptions about what cinema is and what it could be by taking the structural materialist ideas that dominated the LFMC during the 70s and applying them to the projection/reception of the film: the image is no longer tied to a single screen, the machinery is foregrounded, the artist is physically present, and the space between projector and screen is part of the mis-en-scene. Finally, the narrative of making and exhibiting the work takes place in real time and either disrupts or replaces altogether the primacy of any pre-recorded narrative events.

Artist and filmmaker Malcolm Le Grice, paraphrasing the Kino Eye Manifesto, states the credo for Cinema Action:

I have considered the situation of the audience politically and ethically, and have reacted strongly against the passive, subjectivity to a pre-structured substitute and illusory reality, which is the normal situation for the audience of the commercial film. [1]

In a performance by Cinema Action, the static viewpoint of the cinema seat is removed, and the viewer is encouraged to move about the space and change viewpoints, rather like the viewer of a Cubist work or the observer in Einstein’s model of the subatomic world. In this way, they engage directly with the creative aspect of viewing, and of co-creating the work.

Many of the Film Action performances foreground the experience of making the work, and the filmmaker often takes an active role in the projection, panning and tilting the projector as if it were a camera. In some cases, as in Guy Sherwin’s Man with a Mirror, the filmmaker is physically present and is also featured in the pre-recorded footage used in the performance. In other cases, like William Rabans 2’45” for example, the film’s production is not separated from post–production, which in turn is not separated from its public presentation. The viewer experiences every step in the making of the work, from loading the camera to shooting, processing the film stock, editing and projection. The creative process is not hidden but is shared with the audience who participate in the dynamic realization of each unique presentation of a particular work of art.

[1] Malcolm Le Grice. Real Time/Space. Art and Artists Magazine, December 1972.

Guy Sherwin: Man with Mirror

Guy Sherwin “Man with a Mirror 1976”

As it had happened with the “quantum sciences”, the authority of a single, objective window on the world is no longer assured. Multi–screen projections, panning projectors, and hand–held mirrors render the proscenium of the conventional cinema redundant. In Anthony McCall’s delightful Line Describing a Cone, there is no projection screen at all and the viewer is invited to interact with the projector beam. This is emphasized by the graphic simplicity of the image (literally a line describing a cone) and the use of a smoke machine. Pre-recorded images are often no more than equal, or secondary to the projection event. In the work of Robert Whitman in the USA and Marilyn Halford in the UK, the filmmaker mimics his or her prerecorded on–screen actions, and thereby crosses the Cartesian divide, forging a link between observer and observed, viewer and viewed that parallels the relationship between experimenter and experiment in quantum science.

The following three statements illustrate this striking similarity in approach. The first two were made by artist/filmmakers, and the third, by a physicist:

“In other words, the Real TIME/SPACE event at projection, which is the current, tangible point of access for the audience, is to be considered as experiential base through which any retrospective record, reference or process is to be dealt with by the audience. This reverses the situation common to the cinematic language where experience of the real TIME/SPACE at projection is subsumed by various aspects of manipulated retrospective ‘reality’.” [1]

Malcolm L Grice

The construct or shape of the film is not primary but rather the film is a record (not a representation and not a reproduction) of it’s own making it asserts it’s real duration and it’s ‘coming into presence’ through the mental activation of the viewer. “[2]

Peter Gidal

“I think it makes sense to say that everything in the world—cats and dogs, rocks and stones, all engage in performative interactions with their environment. …Dances of agency have their own inner dynamics and an emergent quality- in dances of agency we find out how to react to the unexpected; their trajectory takes shape in real time, rather than being structured by pre-existing causes or whatever….“[3]

–Andrew Pickering

[1] Malcolm Le Grice. Real Time/Space. Art and Artists Magazine, December 1972.

[2] Peter Gidal: The Theory and Definition of Structural /Materialist Film BFI Structural Film Anthology. London, 1976.

[3] Andrew Pickering. Against Human Exceptionalism. Written for workshop “What Does it Mean to Be Human?” Exeter University: Department of Sociology and Philosophy. See also: Andrew Pickering. Brains, Selves and Spirituality in the History of Cybernetics. Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. November 2007. Berlin, 2007.

These real–time encounters with the mechanics of filmmaking are, at the same time, encounters with the consciousness of the artist who ‘steers’ the experience moment by moment, like a performance artist or a jazz musician, or like the steersman on a white water rafting trip.

The projector, rather than being hidden in a soundproof box, is very much present; heavy, smelling of hot metal and dust and, on occasion, eating the film. The sound of 6 16mm projectors creates a dramatic real–time sound track with its own inner structure, like waves or traffic or even the phased structure of a composition by Steve Reich.

Experimental film, like it’s younger sibling video art, is now generally regarded as part of the history of the moving image of the larger discourse of contemporary art. The Expanded Cinema movement, which flourished during the 1960s and 70s, took experimental film out of the conventional cinema space and into site-specific locations, public spaces and the art gallery. As such, it established the moving image as a truly contemporary art form by extending its range to coincide with the developments in other 20thCentury forms, and by establishing a strong conceptual foundation for the moving image gallery installations of the 1980s and 90s.

Chaos Theory: The Founding of a New Non-dualist Science

While the well–funded main stream of sciences pursued its reductionist goals, some of the more original thinkers from the mid–Twentieth Century managed to open up a new way of thinking about the world, and their ideas are now having far–reaching effects across both the sciences and the humanities. Chaos theory laid the foundation for the new cross–disciplinary science which is used to model the emergent properties of a range of phenomena including animal migration, traffic congestion, arrhythmia in heart patients, the role of cognitive processes in evolution as well as the oft-lamented unpredictability of the weather and the international money market.

During World War II, mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz was employed by the US military to figure out ways to forecast and, if possible, control the weather. Fortunately for all of us, his research concluded that although it was possible to affect the weather it was not possible to control it, or to predict the outcome that any intervention might have. The reasoning behind this conclusion had an enormous effect on a generation of forward–thinking scientists. In 1968, using newly available computer technology, Lorenz discovered a mathematical formulation which seemed to approximate the way that the weather remains unpredictable within a set of parameters like seasonal cycles:

Expanded Cinema math formula


Although these three differential equations are individually deterministic, when run in sequence they give rise to what Lorenz called “deterministic non–periodic flow.” In other words, when the equations are mapped in three-dimensional space, the abstract image they generate repeats itself—but with slight variations. It is important to remember that this is not a representation of anything that exists in nature, but is a mathematical model which behaves in a manner similar too the behaviour of complex systems, such as weather, electrical grids, or traffic jams.

The mapping of those equations produces an endless set of permutations known as the Lorenz Attractor:

Expanded Cinema Lorenz Attractor

The Lorenz Attractor

The point where the two shapes intersect corresponds to an instant of spontaneous change such as the moment when a cloud begins to dissipate in the upper atmosphere or the moment when a freely spinning wheel pauses momentarily, and then begins to rotate in the reverse direction.

Shortly after Lorenz’ famous discovery, Michell Feigenbaum, using nothing more than a Hewlett Packard calculator, discovered the universal constant for functions approaching chaos via periodic doubling.[1] The Feigenbaum constants can be used to predict when the moment of spontaneous change will occur in complex systems e.g. when to expect spontaneous chaos in systems such as the electrical grid or the human cardio–vascular system. Periodic Doubling has also been used to account for the flicker effect, a phenomena which is well known to every filmmaker.

[1] The Feigenbaum Constants are two mathematical constants that can be used to predict when chaos will arise in dynamic system. Unlike physical constants, a mathematical constant is defined as being independent of physical measurement.

(See also: Salamanda and Man Daniel W. Crevier and Markus. Synchronous Periodic –Doubling in Flicker Vision. The Journal of Neurophysiology, Vol. 79 No. 4 April 1998, pp. 1869-1878)

Loops and Repetition: Generative Systems in the Arts

Movie projectors do not run at a constant speed. Consequently, multiple projectors never truly run “in sync” with one another, and there are numerous examples of moving image installations and expanded Cinema performances that make use of this lack of predictability. One could argue that the three equations of the Lorenz Attractor operate like a multiple screen projection: multiple loops of film—unchanging when viewed in isolation—can create an almost infinite number of image combinations when projected side by side.

Chris Welsby Shore Line 2 Tate Gallery 1976

During the period immediately preceding Lorenz’ discovery, there had been wide–spread interest in using machines as generative systems, in areas ranging from mathematics to computer programming, from music to performance art and Expanded Cinema. Works such as Paul Sharit’s Shutter Interface (1975) and Steve Reich’s Composition for Six Pianos (1973) and my Shore Line #1 and #2, all developed from the premise that small differences in initial input can generate an unlimited number of complex permutations. It is worth noting that fifty years later this strategy remains part of the contemporary repertoire, in works such as Tim Head’s computer–driven, Treacherous Light (2008) and Anthony Mac Calls Between You and I.

Image Anthony McCall Between You and I

Cybernetics and Homeostasis

The term ‘cybernetics’ comes from the Greek word kubernetes, meaning governor and steersman. It conjures up an image of early sea voyagers in small wooden ships with oars and a single sail—the most advanced technology of the ancient world—depending on their mastery of that technology and the ability to negotiate the hazards of uncharted oceans and unknown shorelines to survive. The image, then and now, is one of humans and their machines in an encounter with the vast and unpredictable world of nature.

Norbert Wiener’s Theory of Cybernetics, published in 1948 coincided with the early days of mass communication systems and computer technology. Wiener’s ideas were anti–representational, as this often quoted statement of his confirms: “The only good copy of a sheep is another sheep, preferably the same sheep” Some of his ideas about the relationship between people and machines passed into the art world through his colleague, engineer Billy Klüver, who participated in the 1966 event 9 evenings of Theatre and Engineering in New York City, that re-established the link between the sciences and arts, and provided a venue for exploring their interrelationship. Klüver and others provided technical resources to composer John Cage (himself the son of an engineer and inventor), to filmmaker Robert Whitman (one of the pioneers of Expanded Cinema), choreographer Yvonne Rainer, and well-established gallery artists like Robert Rauschenberg. During the 9 Evenings event, Billy Klüver and John Cage used photoelectric sensing devices triggered by the audience as an element of composition in Cage’s composition Variations #7.

Klüver also participated in the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at the ICA London in 1968. Another major contributor to this important—though often overlooked—event was British cyberneticist Gordon Pask, whose ideas also bridged the gap between the arts and sciences. His Aesthetically Potent Environments[1] were based on the idea that a work of art could either evolve independently, or in interaction with a participant—an idea that soon passed into the art world and did not go unnoticed by the small group of media arts students (including myself) at the Slade School of Art.

Image: Threads growing in a chemical computer Pask 1959

In the UK, Pask, together with fellow cyberneticists Stafford Beer, used simple electro–chemical devices to model the complex homeostatic processes of natural systems. Their version of cybernetics was anti–dualist and anti–representational, and their models didn’t differentiate between human and nonhuman systems.

Beer once stated his position with regards to representation by describing a photographic image of water in motion as having:

“… a very subtle message for us all: It is that Natures computers are that which they compute. If one were to take intricate details of wind and tide and so on, and use them…. as “input’ to some computer simulating water-what computer would one use, and how express the output? Water itself: that answers both of these questions.” [2]

The group also proposed a number of socially engaged projects such as a design for a factory, which would be run using homeostatic principles to balance input and output, and in the late 1960s, Stafford Beer became an advisor to the government of Chile and, at the invitation of Socialist president Salvador Allende, redesigned the ‘nervous system’ of the Chilean economy using a homeostatic model; a project that came to an untimely end with the Pinochet coup of 1973. The connection between cybernetic theory and the mysterious workings of the economy are now a well-established field of mathematics and as we shall see, this particular connection between arts and sciences has recently been re -made in a new media installation by Liz Autogena and Joshua Portway.

From a cybernetic perspective, the significance of Expanded Cinema lies in the way it changes our ideas about the use of technology. Traditionally, cinematic experience is split along dualist lines: production is separated from presentation, the narrative and content is confined to the frame of the projected image, and the filmic experience is unchanging from one screening to the next. Expanded Cinema, by contrast, is non–representational inasmuch as the experience of making, projecting, and viewing the work is inclusive and open–ended, responding to changes in the immediate environment. In many cases the production, projection and reception of the work takes place in the same space and timeframe as the viewer’s. It is fair to say that Expanded Cinema operated in a manner that was analogous to the homeostatic systems described by the early cyberneticists, and shared Cybernetics’ ontology and a history.

The ideas and work of Pask and Beer, as well as the work of Cinema Action, were exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art within the same decade, and although both events were largely ignored by the British art establishment at the time, it is now widely recognized that Cybernetic Serendipity [3]played an important role in the history of new media art new media in the UK.

[1] Gordon Pask received a Bsc Geology and Mining from Bangor and Liverpool Tech., a BA and MA from Downing College, Cambrige, a BA. Psychology from UCL 1964, and was awarded the first Doctorate of Science and Cybernetics from the Open University in 1974. He published over two hundred essays and six books including An Approach to Cybernetics in1961, and Conversation Theory: Applications in Education and Epistemology in 1976. Quotation from A comment, a case history and a plan, published in Cybernetics, Art and Ideas, edited by Jasia Reichardt. Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society, 1971.

[2] Hans Blohm, Stafford Beer, David Suzuki. Pebbles to computers : the thread. Toronto : Oxford University Press, 1986.

[3] “Cybernetic Serendipity” was an exhibition of computer art by Jasia Reichardt, shown at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London in 1968, which subsequently toured the United States.

The Santiago Theory of Cognition

Gregory Bateson, a polymath whose 1972 Steps to an Ecology of Mind was widely read in art schools on both sides of the Atlantic, influenced both the arts and the sciences. His writings influenced diverse fields from anthropology and linguistics to ecology and systems theory, and he was closely connected with cybernetics groups on both sides of the Atlantic. His writings on schizophrenia were a major influence on RD Laing, whose controversial Kingsley Hall clinic was run on principals of homeostasis[1], and inspired the so–called Santiago Theory of Cognition in1975, which may be the most fundamental challenge to dualism to date. It proposes that consciousness is a highly complex form of cognition and that evolution itself is the result a complex web of cognitive processes connecting every level of organic life.

The theory was developed in the early to mid 70’s by the Chilean neuroscientist Humberto Maturna, and is based on the idea of autopoesis. Proposing that “Living systems are cognitive systems, and living is a process of cognition,” it asserts that “This statement is valid for all organisms, with or without a nervous system.” In cybernetic terms, the description of such a system bears a striking resemblance to today’s interactive media projects in that “an autopoietic system is, at the same time, the producer and the product of it’s own production. It uses inputs from its environment to maintain itself, but also transform some of these inputs to produce specific outputs.” [2]

At University College London, these ideas filtered across the divide between the arts and sciences via the Slade School of Art’s Experimental Media Studio, which was established by systems artist Malcolm Hughes and was home to a mainframe computer and electronics workshop facility. Just down the corridor from the Slade, the shelves of the physics department’s electronic component store were regularly raided by art students looking for sensing devices and electronic components which were used to feed environmental input into computerized drawing machines, and the soldered circuit boards which were used to drive interactive installations and sonic environments.

My own wind–powered film “Anemometer” (1976) was based on the cybernetic concept of negative feedback and was driven by such a circuit board. I soldered it myself, laboriously following a circuit diagram drawn on the back of a beer coaster. The drawing was made by Chris Brisco, a pioneer of early digital animation, and interactive technology and co-founder of the Slade’s Experimental Studio—the precursor to the Centre for Electronic Media, which is now flourishing under the direction of new media Artist Susan Collins. These early interactive systems, and the hand made circuit boards that drove them, were the precursors of the modern MIDI interface and the MAX/MSP programming environment, which drives many contemporary new media projects.

By the 1980s and 90s, the widespread availability of computer–based media closed the gap between film and video. Non-linear narratives and interactive installations from this period re-formulate the experimental narratives of the Expanded Cinema movement. By the turn of the current century, the various threads of time-based media converge under the umbrella of new media. Generative works, using software like Max/MSP and Jitter, encourage further exploration of the relationship between artist, viewer and screen.

[1] Andrew Pickering: forthcoming book on the early British cybernetics. Chapter 5: Bateson and Laing: Symmetry, Psychiatry and the 60s.

[2] Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Autopoiesis and Cognition : The Realization of the Living. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1980.

Interface as Content: Expanded Cinema and New Media

Expanded Cinema operates in many ways like an analogue version of today’s user interfaces, ceating an open-ended connection between the artist, the mechanics of production and the viewer that links it to contemporary new media practices, and sets it apart from Virtual reality, which peddles the same old disembodied fantasies drawn along familiar Cartesian lines. While the entertainment industry, in step with the dominant ideology of reductive science, struggles to produce ever more convincing and seamless representations of the world, the more promising developments in new media practice— like the Film Action performances of the past—explore the question how the interface shapes our experience of content, and thus becomes itself content.

New media artist David Rokeby and Malcolm Le Grice have expressed this idea in their writings and, despite the generational differences, both these artists emphasize the significance of the real–time experience of the interface and its ability to shape content.

“… the rush to stuff content into interactive media has drawn our attention away from the profound and subtle ways that the interface itself, by defining how we perceive and navigate content, shapes our experience of that content. If culture, in the context of interactive media, becomes something we “do,” it’s the interface that defines how we do it and how the “doing” feels.” [1]

Malcom Le Grice writes:

…. In other words, the Real TIME/SPACE event at projection, which is the current, tangible point of access for the audience, is to be considered as experiential base through which any retrospective record, reference or process is to be dealt with by the audience. This reverses the situation common to the cinematic language where experience of the real TIME/SPACE at projection is subsumed by various aspects of manipulated retrospective ‘reality’… [2]

[1] David Rokeby – The Construction of Experience: Interface as Content. From:

Digital Illusion: Entertaining the Future with High Technology. Clark Dodsworth, Jr., ed. ACM Press, 1998.

[2] Malcolm Le Grice. Real Time/Space. Art and Artists Magazine, December 1972.

Materializing the Body in Digital Media

“Bodies configure digital culture through rhythms of variation driven by place habit, history and accident. They are the chaos and interruption with which the machine cannot dispense. A set of expansive forces that challenge the pace, interaction and relations we have, and are capable of sustaining, with informatic media.”[1]

The early cyberneticists explored the physical interaction between human and non–human systems and, significantly, their ideas coincided with the Expanded Cinema movement, which flourished in the U.S. and in the UK during the 1960s and 70s. One of the guiding principles of the Cinema Action Group was that the artist should be present, often wrestling with recalcitrant projectors, and armed with a tape splicer, and always actively engaged with the making of the work. Annabelle Nicholson’s Reel Time and William Raban’s 2’45”, combine the previously separated activities of production and projection in the here and now of the gallery. Malcolm Le Grices Horror Film and Guy Sherwin’s Man with a Mirror combine performance with the real time projection of the work and Marilyn Halford’s performance works confound the lines between live action and pre-recorded performance.

Image: Malcolm Le Grice Horror Film 1 1971

Twenty five years later, these ideas are re-surfacing in the work of a younger generation of artists, such as Canadian artist David Rokeby, whose VNS (Very Nervous System) driven artwork was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2002. In the introduction to the VNS, Rokeby seems to echo the embodied philosophy of the Cinema Action Group:



“Because the computer is purely logical, the language of interaction should strive to be intuitive. Because the computer removes you from your body the body should be strongly engaged. Because the computer’s activity takes place on the tiny playing fields of integrated circuits, the encounter with the computer should take place on a human- scaled physical space. Because the computer is objective and disinterested, the experience should be intimate.” [2]

[1] Anna Munster. Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics. Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2006.

[2] David Rokeby VNS Artists statement, 2000.. See: http://homepage.mac.com/davidrokeby/vns.html

The Body as Part of a Larger System

The emphasis on the human body is an important part of contemporary media work and, I believe, an essential antidote to virtual reality, whose quintessentially Christian vision is of a non–corporeal world, free from the anxieties of the body and it’s life supporting connection to the larger body of the planet. And yet I am concerned that the emphasis placed on the human body in contemporary theory and practice may, by privileging human beings, once again set us apart from nature, and perpetuate the dualist ideology of human exceptionalism. As Andrew Pickering points out:

“According to Descartes, there are two kinds of stuff in the world: brute matter, which behaves in a machine like fashion, and human souls which don’t. This tiny and even extensionless thing, the soul, is what makes us special-what makes us different from all the rest of creation, what makes us exceptional. And it seems to me that the human sciences since Descartes have picked up with this exceptionalist doctrine and run with it…. [.and this]…. has always been the object and the raison d’etre of the human sciences.[1]

This essentially pre-Darwinian position is a justification for the exploitation of “brute matter” by technology, and for the kind of industrial development which has caused the escalation of environmental problems which now threaten to plunge us into an era of unprecedented social and economic inequalities, as well as the violent conflicts that will inevitably ensue.

The early cyberneticists had a different way of thinking about our position in the world, and their ideas about the relationship between people and machines is a much needed respite from the dualist–inspired mandate of control. In1974, in an essay on the effects of technology on post–formalist sculpture, the American writer and art historian, Jack Burnham, wrote the following paragraph on Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty:

“ Systems–oriented art… will deal less with artifacts contrived from their formal value, and increasingly with men enmeshed with and within purposeful responsive systems. Such a change should gradually diminish the distinction between biological and non-biological systems, i.e. man and the system as similarly functioning but organizationally separate entities. [2]

This kind of cybernetic thinking has since become very influential across a range of disciplines including: psychiatry, architecture and anthropology, and these ideas continue to resonate in the work and writings of contemporary new media artists such as Simon Biggs, David Rokeby, and Lise Autogena.

The internet now makes it possible to create works that place human activity within the context of the planet as a whole. Two examples of this are my installation Tree Studies, which was exhibited at the Gwangju Biennial in 2005, Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway’s Black Shoals planetarium, which was first exhibited at the Tate in 2001. Both works foreground the body of the planet, but in strikingly different ways:

Tree Studies is a wind–driven gallery installation that was first exhibited at the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea in 2006. The three–screen installation uses live weather data, relayed in real time via the internet from weather stations around the planet, to edit a series of pre–recorded sound and moving image files of a tree.

By using the world–wide web as a quasi–planetary nervous system, the installation operates like a wind–actuated editing suite, which harnesses the thermal energy of the rotating planet to generate new and unexpected combinations of image and sound. The flickering, ephemeral nature of the projected image, in combination with the changing winter light, creates an uneasy equilibrium between the power and presence of the tree, the transitory nature of the light and the clouds, and the fleeting human presence in the winter landscape.

Image: Chris Welsby: Tree Studies Gwangju Biennale 2005

In the wonderfully ironic Black Shoals, the body of the planet is also engaged, only—in the true spirit of Pask and Beer—it is not the climate but the international money market that gets to play nervous system. The purpose of Black Schoals’ algorithm is (or was) to minimize risk to monetary “investement” by using a formula based on chaos theory to predict possible future scenarios.

“Black Shoals Stock Market Planetarium is an animated night sky that is also a live representation of the world’s stock markets, with each star representing a traded company. Fed by massive streams of live financial information, the stars glimmer and pulse, immediately flickering brighter whenever their stock is traded anywhere in the world. The stars slowly move across the sky, clustering together or drifting apart in response to the shifting affinities of their respective companies, growing or shrinking as the company’s fortunes change. Digital creatures, a form of artificial life, inhabit this world, feeding on the light released by the stars, breeding, dying and slowly evolving – while trying to learn to live in this strange artificial ecology into which they’ve been born.[3]

Image: Black Shoals Planetarium Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway

[1] Andrew Pickering: Against Human Exceptionalism. Written for workshop: “What Does it Mean to Be Human?” Exeter University: Department of Sociology and Philosophy. See also: Andrew Pickering: Brains, selves and Spirituality in the History of Cybernetics Max Planck Institute for the History of Science November 2007 Berlin.


[2] Jack Burnham. Great Western Salt Works: Essays on the Meaning of Post-Formalist Art. New York: George Braziller,1974.

[3] Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway. Black Shoals planetarium official web site- http://www.blackshoals.net/description.html

Recent Developments: 2001 and beyond

Curator and author David Curtis uses the term “projector films” to describe Expanded Cinema. This term translates well to the field of new media, where the internet takes the place of the projector, and geographical space takes the place of the gallery. The concept of working in real time is revisited as geographical space collapses on the internet, where data including sound and image is transmitted at nearly the speed of the light. Susan Collins expresses this approach:

“….my original interest in making Transporting Skies was not so much Landscape per se (at that point) rather to try and reveal the poetry of distance, and the absurdity of transporting this sky (which essentially transports itself) by electronic means. That work came out of a desire to illuminate the mechanisms of connectivity, it was the pixilation, the artifacts appearing in the transmitted image due to the compression and decompression that I was initially keen to explore and it was through this process that I became steadily drawn to this larger, weightier, timeless subject of Land-scape.”[1]

Expanded Cinema screenings took experimental film to a new audience by taking the work out of the movie theatre and into the art gallery, or into disused industrial spaces. In a similar way, the internet opens up opportunities to reach a new public and to invite their participation. Although the online gallery is not tied to any particular location, work that uses the internet for streaming can often be site–specific and may reach a public who would not normally visit screening of experimental film or art galleries. Internet–based projects often function like public sculpture and evolve over long periods of time.

Image: Susan Collins Fenlandia 2006

The idea of making work specifically about duration was explored by Structural Film makers on both sides of the Atlantic, and by early film installation artist such as Paul Sharits, Anthony McCall, and myself. Installation artists and the Cinema Action group used duration as an explicit process–based or performative element of the projection event or installation, taking film into new territory, and inviting comparison with the other performing arts.

Examples of durational of work include Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music, or Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Sternklang Park Music for five groups (1969 -71), and performance works such as Stuart Brisley’s ‘ZL 65 63 95 Cwhich was made over a continuous period of seventeen days and nights in 1972, at Gallery House, London, and Anthony Howell’s A Waterfall, performed by the Ting Theatre of Mistakes at the Hayward Gallery London in 1976.

The interest in durational work such as Guy Sherwin’s Man with Projector (1975) and  William Raban’s 2’ 45”, or Cages’ ASAP (1968), is finding new expression in a range of contemporary new media projects, such as Susan Collins’ Seascape (2009), in which web cam imagery of the South coast of England is transmitted, pixel by pixel, over the internet, recording the slowly changing effect of light and tide. Another example is Thompson and Craighead’s Light From Tomorrow in which tomorrow’s light is transmitted by data cable from the Kingdom of Tonga, across the international date line to the San Jose Museum of Art in California; or Adrian Stellingwerff’s Eternal Sunset, which uses a global network of webcams to transmit local sunsets to a web site where they can be seen in real time, from anywhere on the planet.

The twin–screen Expanded Cinema classic River Yar, by William Raban and myself, took filmmaking into the landscape where, as in the work of artists like Richard Long and Ian Hamilton Finley, the slowly changing face of the landscape became a real–time element of the work. Since then, a new kind of time–lapse device has emerged in the form of the digital computer, with its limitless patience and superhuman memory. The prodigious capacity of the computer to accurately perform repetitive functions over time, and to sample images, sounds and raw data, has given rise to a new kind of time–lapse projects which blur the differences between biological and non–biological forms.

Simon Bigg’s Babel, for example: “offers a highly dynamic interaction between sampled information and online viewers. When they log on to the site, viewers are confronted with a 3D visualization of an abstract data space mapped as arrays and grids of Dewey Decimal numbers. As they move the mouse around the screen they are able to navigate this 3D environment. All the viewers are able to see what all the other viewers, who are simultaneously logged onto the site, are seeing. The multiple 3D views of the data-space are montaged together into a single shared image, where the actions of any one viewer affect what all the other viewers see. If a large number of viewers are logged on together the information displayed becomes so complex and dense that it breaks down into a “meaningless” abstract space.”[2]

Image: Simon Biggs Babel 2001

Another important element in the Expanded Cinema movement was the sampling of found footage. Works based on this strategy by artists like Martin Arnold and Douglas Gordon received critical and curatorial attention in the 90s. In recent years, these ideas have re-surfaced in the work of new media artists such as Thomson & Craighead. Their work Horizon, for example, uses a kind of time–lapse sampling which is combined with real time sources on a global scale. They describe it as

a narrative clock made out of images from web cams in every time zone around the world. The result is a constantly updating array of images that read like a series of movie storyboards, but also as an idiosyncratic global electronic sundial”. [3]

Returning once more to the representation of time passing in the landscape, Susan Collins’ Fenlandia (2006), Seascape (2009) and my own digital seascape Taking Time (2008), or my proposed Doomsday Clock Project, use the power of the computer to relay tiny increments of pictorial information over extended periods of time, making it possible to record the long–term changes of the natural world indexically within in a continuously evolving image.

The image in these works is neither a still–photograph nor a movie image, but a new hybrid form, capable of recording the very gradual changes that take place in the natural world. The image is never complete and updates itself continuously in response to the changing conditions in the landscape. Consciously referencing the immediacy of digital technology, the image in these works is as transitory and ephemeral as the light reflected on the surface of the ocean.

[1] Susan Collins: Interview with Lorenzo Marchi, Publication pending.

[2] See: http://hosted.simonbiggs.easynet.co.uk/webmenu.htm

[3] See: http://www.thomson-craighead.net/docs/lftdoc.html


The work created at the LFMC during the 1970s stands as one of the major landmarks in the history of the moving image, combining the modernist medium–specificity of the first half of the century with the rigorous formal enquiry of its own time. As part of this project, the Cinema Action Group, heeding the warnings of the Kino Eye Manifesto, freed the moving image from its ties to the ideologies of the 19th Century theatrical tradition. In their performances, cinematic representation is freed from limitations of the fixed frame and, parallel with this, the viewer is freed from the passive state of the static observer.

Tracing the transition from the representational arts and sciences of the late 19th century to the performative sciences of the present, I have attempted to position Expanded Cinema at the center of that transition. While the early film installations and Expanded Cinema performances were largely ignored by an art community which at that time was still dominated by painting and sculpture, they soon developed a strong momentum of their own, and the ideas from that seminal mid–century period are as fresh and pertinent today as they were when Cinema Action first stole the cinema away from the proscenium and severed it’s roots in the dualist representations of the 19th century.

Amongst the flickering lights and whirring of machines of Expanded Cinema performances, there were signs that a shift in consciousness was taking place. The counter culture of the 1960s may have failed to achieve it’s immediate socio/political objectives, but chaos theory predicts that small differences in input generate significant differences over time, and there are signs that in the new cross-disciplinary sciences a new ontology may be emerging. As Andrew Pickering puts it:

“Dualist understandings foster a worldly stance of domination and enframing, as Heidegger called it. Nondualist ontologies point instead to an experimental openness to what the world can offer us, a stance much less prone to evoke the sorts of social and environmental catastrophes that are coming to characterize the 21st century.”[1]

[1] Andrew Pickering. New Ontologies- Sketches of Another Future: Cybernetics in Britain, 1940-2000, 2008.

First published by Intellect Ltd. Welsby, C. (2016), ‘Expanded cinema: Notes on twentieth-century encounters with art, science and technology’, MIRAJ, 5:1&2, pp. 88-107.