The art of complex systems
Art has collided with science in a unique drawing experiment coordinated by Victorian College of the Arts Masters graduate, artist Briony Barr, and astrophysicist Dr Andrew Melatos, from the University of Melbourne’s School of Physics.
Ms Barr, who based her Masters in Fine Art on exploring drawing as a process, has taken her artwork outside traditional forms, and is focused on interactive installation.
Science and in particular the evolution of complex systems, has been her inspiration.
“There are complex systems all around us and of which we are part. Our own neural network, the structure of the galaxy, an ant hill or the stock market are just a few examples of these kinds of rich, interconnected systems,” Ms Barr says.
“They involve interactions between individual parts which taken as a whole network, form patterns and structures that are more than the sum of their parts. The rules for the system are often very simple but many parts are needed in order to reveal higher order patterns,” she says.
Hence the connection with Dr Melatos’ field of expertise became an inspiring source of material. Dr Melatos studies the emergence of patterns in physical systems from the very small (whirlpools in quantum fluids) to the very large (collapsed stars like neutron stars and black holes).
“Physics is a very obvious field in which to find complexity but the same principles apply to many systems in the world around us,” Dr Melatos says.
“Complex systems have many interacting parts, where patterns emerge spontaneously and organically in time and space. They are fascinating.”
Dr Melatos says examples include biological organisms (slime moulds, ant colonies, humans), earthquakes, weather patterns, financial systems, the Internet and, of course, art, which is broadly concerned with emergent forms.
“The collaboration with Briony to engage in a drawing experiment to explore the nature of complex systems from a fresh perspective has been immensely enjoyable.”
The project began as two interactive drawing classes for primary school children at the City of Melbourne’s ArtPlay (part of the Big Draw Festival 2011), followed by a larger project of two drawing experiments titled ‘Drawing on Complexity’ funded by the Australia Council for the Arts.
The drawing experiments involved two weekend-long collaborative art experiences for around 50 artists, scientists, and members of the general public, who produced two large-scale floor-drawings. The participants, described as ‘agents’, used coloured tape and followed simple rules to create the artwork. They then removed the tape lines, creating other objects as a new stage of the drawing – the “undrawing”.
In the first drawing participants battled in their colour-teams to reach two goal points within the boundaries of the drawing.
“It was our intention that the participants themselves be as much a part of the system as the lines in the drawing,” Ms Barr says.
“Some rules created opportunities to work together. Others resulted in a single participant getting stuck in one area, repeatedly layering lines while waiting for another altruistic participant to rescue them with an intersecting line.”
Dr Melatos believes connecting with creativity is a crucial element in understanding complexity in science, and indeed in the world more broadly.
“Complexity teaches our students to think of the world as a system of networks and offers them a huge diversity of systems to engage with in their studies,” he says.
“Some of our best physics research students have concurrently pursued undergraduate studies in the arts via breadth subjects.
“The concepts in this art project apply naturally to the study of complexity in the physical world. A lot of our physics students go on to get jobs in bioinformatics, neuroscience, environmental consulting, and the world’s financial markets.”