S Y N O E T I C   S Y S T E M S

a r t i s t  s t a t e m e n t s

“Synoetics” is a term coined in 1960 by the visionary mathematician and engineer Louis Fein. In making a comprehensive projection of the growth and dynamic interrelatedness of the ‘computer-related sciences’, Fein included specific mention of the enhancement of the human intellect by the cooperative activity of men, mechanisms, and automata. For Fein, synoetics described “the cooperative interaction, or symbiosis, of people, mechanisms, plant or animal organisms, and automata into a system that results in a mental power (power of knowing, consciousness) greater than that of its individual components.” (Fein, 1960) Fein hoped that synoetics would be an academic subject, taught in an integrated fashion. Fein’s theories emerged out of post-war agendas set by Vannevar Bush, J.P.L. Licklider, and Douglas Engelbart. Their theories sought to emphasize human cognitive evolution as the central force in cybernetics, engineering, and computer science. These scientists made many recommendations in an effort to facilitate the redirection of US post-war agendas in scientific research, but most notably was the charge that research in computational systems shift from the replacement of human workers with computers to building machines to augment individual human intellect.

"A Synoetic System—Everything all at Once", pigmented prints, 2006-present

The layers of images, diagrams, and forms that make “Synoetic Systems—Everything all at Once” are sampled from a variety of scientific sources, ranging from astronomy (topographical maps of planet surfaces, Hubble telescope images) to images of genetic sequences and nanoscopic sources, to models from particle physics, including the Higgs bosom and the Theory of Everything. Each work in the series is divided vertically by a thin stripe representing an international news feed gathered from a single day. This broad array of elements are composed in ways that suggest symmetry, color theory, and sacred geometry.

“Synoetic Systems—Everything all at Once” is a series of pigmented giclee prints by artist and Lorain County Community College professor of Digital Design Gregory Little. Each is printed with HP Vivera pigmented inks on 100% cotton primed canvas, sealed with UV protecting Eco Print Shield. The combination of pigmented ink and acid free canvas is rated by Wilhelm Imaging Research at 150 years before fading or shifts in color balance occur. Each work is mounted on a durable wooden panel measuring 32 inches wide X 66 inches high X 2 inches deep.

A Synoetic System--An Interactive Installation, Adrian College, Stubneitz Gallery, Adrian Michigan--2003

One’s mind and the earth are in a constant state of erosion, mental rivers wear away abstract banks, brain waves undermine cliffs of thought, ideas decompose into stones of unknowing, and conceptual crystallizations break apart deposits of gritty reason ... The earth’s surface and the figments of the mind have a way of disintegrating into regions of art. (Robert Smithson, 1974)

In September of 2003 I began developing an installation for exhibition at the Stubnietz Gallery at Adrian College in Michigan, USA. My goal was to create a prototype of a synoetic system, and to begin to address some of the questions arising from this concept of synoetics by seeking an understanding of the response of visitors to the gallery who interacted with the system. The installation design involved different ‘fields’ of information together with a variety of methods of interactivity, creating a multi-nodal recursive loop. Projected onto a 1 x 2 metre bed of salt on the floor of the darkened gallery was a composite image of a male body foregrounding a geological map of the world. The male body was derived from a three-dimensional laser scan of myself, and animated through motion-capture data; producing very slow movements suggestive of a dreaming or contemplative, preconscious state. The dark skin of the virtual body was covered in fissures, craters, valleys, and embossed texts, reminding some visitors of a charred topology of language and tissue.

A chair is positioned at the foot of the projection.  Resting on the seat is a simple biofeedback interface that measures skin galvanization (moisture) in the palm of participants, and generates an audio tone.  The pitch of this audio tone, inaudible within the space, varies according to the moisture in the palm and controls the speed, positioning, and transparency of the body animation. The more moist the palm of the participant, the more restless the body becomes as the animation speeds up, the calmer the participant, the slower the body’s movements become.

Behind the figure a map of the world illustrating the history of recorded earthquakes, with live updates of seismic activity streaming into the gallery every twenty minutes.  A large shadow inched slowly across the map representing the transition from night to day.  Current earthquakes are depicted as animated red concentric rings, and past earthquakes are colour-coded according to date.  Richter-scale measures are represented by the size of the rings, and international time is given in the lower right corner of the map.  The map is a real-time representation of a global seismic monitoring system found on the US Geological Societie's website, and collected from various sites and transmitted to IRIS servers by satellite.

A theremin hangs upside-down from the ceiling, positioned over the head of the projected figure, at about shoulder height. Participant proximity to the theremin controls the volume of pre-recorded, dual channel, remixed audio samples of actual earthquakes.  A theremin uses the natural capacitance of the body to cause variations in the frequency of radio waves generated by the instrument.  The recordings have been speeded-up to bring their pitch into the audible range.  These extremely low-pitch, eerie, and oddly rhythmic rumbling sounds are silent unless interactors come into the range of the theremin.  The interactors’ proximity to the theremin affects the volume of the earthquake sounds .

Prior to the installation in February 2004, I visited the gallery and met with the curator. I learned that the building, built in the 1850s, had served several functions: hospital, church, residence hall, and classroom building. The building was a stop on the underground railroad prior to and during the US Civil War in the 1860s, and acted as a safe haven and pick-up/drop-off point for escaped slaves making their way north toward freedom.  Like many such stops, this building is considered to be haunted by a number of ghosts, most notably a Confederate soldier who died in an accident while chasing a runaway slave.  Knowledge of this anecdotal oral history added another potential ‘field’ to the synoetic system, of at least anomalous, if not paranormal sentience.  I began researching ways to potentially engage with the paranormal and bring its presence into the interactive loop.  I found a number of possibilities in common use among ghost hunters, including magnetic resonance sensors, dousers, and verbal provocations.  Ghost hunters often attempt to address the spirit world verbally, by directing spoken questions toward a specific ghost, and then letting audio recording devices run for several hours after the provocations.  Ghost hunters commonly report that responses from the spirit world that can be heard on tape are inaudible without electronic, specifically magnetic, equipment.  I subsequently recorded several friends and family members speaking questions to this particular ghost, and played them constantly during the hours the gallery was open.  Upon daily closings the gallery attendants turned off everything in the exhibition, and turned on audio recording equipment, which recorded each evening. The tapes were dated, and the reels were changed each morning.

My goal was not to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts; rather my goal was to create a context where participants must experience all these fields: the seismic, the kinesthetic, the biometric, and the anomolous, simultaneously.  Referencing work ranging from Engelbart to Tellegen, I was interested in learning if the integration of this synoetic system into the constructed field of personal identity had any behavioural or cognitive effects on people visiting the installation.  A number of participants reported in conversation and in questionnaires distributed during the installation a simultaneous feeling of vulnerability and aesthetic pleasure.  They described a sense of the dismantling of fundamental tenets of identity, especially regarding wholeness, control over their environment and their sense of safety and well-being.  Seeing themselves as dependent upon a dynamic, unstable earth, possibly surrounded by parallel planes of paranormal existence, with biometric and difficult to control, sometimes autonomous internal states mirroring seismic events; caused in many, at least for that moment, a movement from a self-reflective, narcissistic sphere of safety and unity to a larger, planetary self where boundaries between internal and external forces of body, earth, and imagination became squishy and uncomfortably redefined.  However, for many the aesthetic qualities of the work (tone, texture, colour relations, light, surface, and interactivity) allowed participants to be able to sit with the vulnerability and experience a sense of reintegration.