Symbiotic Art as a new type of game recombining art, science and philosophy

Leonel Moura

Henrique Garcia Pereira


Art in the context of massive techno-capitalism

Walter Benjamin, in his decisive 1931 essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”1, anticipates a constellation of characteristics that apply to contemporary ‘works of art’, altering the classic Western aesthetic conception established during the Renaissance:

  1. The demise of the halo of originality
  2. A coexistence of many copies of the same image
  3. An undermining of the concept of the artist as a ‘genius’
  4. New challenges stimulated through the independence of the art work from originality
  5. Democratization of the art market place
  6. Contemporary possibilities for new social meanings of art

In the sequel of the central argument of Benjamin, referring to the erosion of the uniqueness and singularity of the work of art, questions of authenticity and origin - which fundamentally grounded the aesthetic experience of modernist contemplation - became completely displaced.

In fact, Dada announced Barthes’s “death of author” when a group of individuals - Hausman, Grosz, Baader, Herzfeld - ‘signed’ his artworks under the multiple name of “Christ & Co. Ltd.” This concept of multiple authorship under a common ‘label’ reappeared in 1994, in Italy, where a set of writers founded some kind of a ‘literary factory’ denoted by the collective name of ‘Luther Blissett’ and aimed at “building narratives”. Along the same lines, a ‘private firm’ providing ‘narrative services’ in a variety of media was launched in Bologna in 1999.

This ‘firm’, labelled ‘Wu Ming’ (a Chinese ‘logo’ that means “no name”), is a ‘lab of literary design’ that puts emphasis on ‘brainwork’, the most important post-fordist ‘production factor’. Furthermore, Wu Ming does not avoid ‘spectacular’ publicity, as it was the case with previous avant-garde groups, namely the Internationale Situationiste (IS), that considered any concrete democratic acquis or any popular culture achievement as prone to be “recuperated” by capitalism, strengthening by this means the ‘spectacle society’, as coined by Guy Debord, the most important IS theoretician.

On the other hand, in regard to another IS concern - the end of copyright -, contemporary dissent movements linked to the fight against neo-liberal globalisation agree completely with the situationist attitude, enlarging it to every existing communication medium, like the Internet. But the practice of sampling the work of others is hardly new. For centuries, artists have plagiarised their predecessor and contemporaries, since all collective endeavours involve a constant process of re-processing (Lautréamont is a notorious plagiarism supporter). If intellectual property had existed in ancient times - in fact it stems from the Enlightenment individualism -, humanity would not be acquainted with Mahabharata, Sun Tzu, The Odyssey or The Arabian Nights. The information/communication technologies have made the ‘sampling’ practice much easier and more aesthetically pleasing, suppressing by peer-to-peer networks the distinction between ‘original’ and ‘copy’.

This had very deep consequences in contemporary art, since aesthetic experience can no longer be isolated from the social conditions which have made its production, dissemination and reception possible.

In regard to this peculiar linkage of art and society, the situationist critique may be seen as “the most radical gesture” against the invasion of “everyday life” by Fordist (mis)conceptions, when industrialism made its appearance in the ‘leisure’ realm. In addition, public skepticism towards the military-industrial complex after May 1968, the Vietnam war, the mounting ecological concerns, all contributed to problematizing the artistic use of technology within the context of modern techno-capitalism. The Cybernetic Serendipity held in ICA, London, August-October 1968 - that may be viewed as the event that inaugurates the proto-history of computer-based art - marks also a turning point in the linkage of aesthetics to political contest. It is a curious coincidence that the starting of ‘computer art’ corresponds to the ending of the art/politics linkage.

From this turning point onwards, the contemporary individual is no longer tied to any kind of transcendence (neither theological nor political). Hence, it is very intricate to invent a language that could express, through art, the ethos of this period, while remaining distinct from it. Moreover, the temporal acceleration of our times abolishes the gap between any ‘subversive’ avant-garde proposition and its social appropriation by the media, publicity and the like. Furthermore, in contrast with previous intellectual pursuits, the achievements of contemporary culture are not marginal disputes between any group of “happy few”, but affect the lives of everybody on the planet. This leads to a generalized aesthetic obsolescence of artworks - these are rapidly and easily ‘transduced’ into some kind of merchandise.

Nowadays, art is everywhere, as artists always wished (even in commercial products and in decentralized ‘mediatic’ and ‘mobile’ exhibitions that fly from one country to another2). What is important in contemporary art has nothing to do with the object that is produced, but with the underlying creative process: indeed, what the artist does is to reprocess ideas ‘extracted’ from his Zeitgeist3. Since the contemporary world is driven by the information/communication revolution, it is not astonishing that the art of our times has became ‘digital’.


Art and philosophy

Since Kant asked the question “Was ist Aufklärung?” - that is, what was his own actuality - philosophy gained a new dimension.

According to Foucault, this new dimension is to tell us who we are in terms of the present we are living in. By this token, a new relationship between philosophy and contemporary art emerges.

However, having reached the current state of affairs where anything can be “art”, the point is to confront the philosophical questions raised by artistic production. In Derrida’s 1978 text La verité en peinture, he asks the reader what would be his reaction to the putative impossibility of putting a frame in his artworks. And all Derridean analysis of art is always focused on the issue of the “frame” (how to bound the space of the oeuvre).

In reality what is important in contemporary art is the interpretative plan, which gives meaning to artistic objects. As noted by Arthur Danto, contemporary art brings to an end its former search for essence, emphasizing its extensive, rather than intensive character. Once vanished all its intensive conditions, “art is now the totality of life”. But, some decades before, situationists had already envisaged a society not merely of ‘plenty’ but of outright excess. In particular, Constant - with his New Babylon project that is an infinite container for mass-produced environments, fabulous technologies, and endless artistic exchange4 - puts forward a similar idea: “New Babylon ne s’arréte nulle part (puisque la Terre est ronde); elle ne connait point de frontiéres (puisque il n’y a pas d’ecónomies nationales, ni de collectivités (puisque l’humanité est flutuante)”.

As reported by Pierre Cabanne in 1968, Duchamp’s aim consisted above all in “forgetting the hand”, inflating his artistic objects by embedding them in language. Hence, it is not surprising that most artists since then do not deal with conventional artworks, but with conceptual thinking5.

For Arthur Danto, the role of philosophy is to remove the artist’s hand from the processes of art, as claimed by Duchamp, who was interested in an entirely cerebral art. The roots of such a discourse about art are found in the Greek ekphrasis, the verbal description of art works. Diderot made of this kind of narratives a literary canon, aimed at ‘explaining’ to the public (and art patrons …) his contemporary painter’s tableaux.

The relationship linking the artwork to all discourses that it evokes is also a concern of Derrida, namely in his consideration of the ‘double bind’ brought by the movement of the discourse to the intrinsic immobility of the artwork.

Also, some views of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on ‘difference and repetition’, as interpreted by Deleuze, may be seen as predecessors of contemporary art, considered as an open field of possibilities where critical standards do not rely on any kind of ideology. In fact, those views favour difference over identity, as opposed to the classical philosophical scrutiny of artworks (from Plato to Hegel), based on their characteristics of uniqueness that stems from authorship authority.

On the other hand, the concept of ‘diagram’, as exposed by Deleuze’s reading of Foucault, is a good framework for understanding, in philosophical terms, the conceptual foundation of contemporary art. In fact, this ‘abstract machine’, as opposed to any transcendent Idea and to any kind of economic infrastructure à la Marx, is the instable and fluent mapping of a series of relationships that give rise to a new entity by a self-organizing process leading to a sudden ‘cooperation’ between previously disconnected elements, when a critical point is reached.


The ArtSbot project in unmanned art


Fig. 1: Robot (coined Mbot)

Mario Perniola proposes a porous way of thinking which does not anchor itself within methodological safe limits. In fact, Perniola puts forward the idea of transit, the trespassing of one thing into another, of one field of knowledge into another, without ever defining the borders between internal and external limits. From the work of Perniola, one can draw the concept of the thing who feels, the thing that plays, and, a fortiori, the thing that interacts with the environment in an arty way. This line of thought can be derived from the original idea of Asger Jorn that individual creativity can not be explained purely in terms of psychic phenomena. In his critique of Breton’s surrealism, Jorn made the point that explication is itself a physical act which materializes thought, and so psychic automatism is closely joined to physical automatism. What is surprising is that this attitude goes along the fresh approach developed recently by Rodney Brooks in the field of robotics. Conversely, it is worth noting how Brooks’s approach influenced computer-based art in its ‘materialization’ aspect (at least, since the 1993 Ars Electronica Conference). In fact, the MIT researcher considers that human nature can be seen to possess the essential characteristics of a machine6, even though this idea is usually rejected instinctively by our putative uniqueness, stemming from some kind of “tribal specialness”.

In this context, taking Ronald Brooks’ methodology for behaviour-based robotics as a tool, a FCT funded project was launched in November 2003, under the scope of the “Art and Science” program, aiming at producing unmanned paintings by a group of robots. The background and results of the project are given elsewhere (cf. Moura, L. and Pereira, H.G., 2004: Symbiotic Art, Ed. Institut d’Art Contemporain, Collection Écrits d’artistes, Villeurbanne, France), but some examples of the artworks that the group of robots has ‘painted’ are shown in Figs. 2 to 5.


Fig. 2: Painting “010304”, 195 x 130 cm


Fig. 3: Painting “070404”, 100 x 100 cm


Fig. 4: Painting “090404”, 100 x 100 cm


Fig. 5: Painting “110504”, 400 x 500 cm


This is the first experiment of collective robotics in the artistic realm. The basic algorithm that is behind the interaction of the group of robots with the environment (the canvas) is uploaded into the microcontroller of each robot, prior to each run, through the serial interface of a PC. Such algorithm contains two modules - the random module, which is activated whenever the colour sensor “sees” white, and the positive feedback module, which drives a given robot towards any coloured point, trace or patch left on the canvas by another robot. The first module produces a trace with a pre-defined small probability and the second reinforces the range of colour found in the environment, leading to some form of ‘clustering’.

The aforementioned rhetoric of excess has a magnifying effect that may be spotted in the roots of the ArtSBot project positive feedback, but that can hardly be reached by conventional painting.

In the scope of the ArtSBot project (Fig. 1, above), it can be stated that if an idea becomes a machine that makes the art, then there is no point in imitating Nature, but to perceive the “beauty of the idea”, as stated by Sol LeWitt. If a self-referential art that does not care for objects is to be made, then the point is to simulate those artificial features of life (as it could be) that are driven by creativity. And creativity, as Debord put it as early as 1957, is not the capacity of arranging objects and forms, it is the invention of new laws on that arrangement. Hence, the point is no more to create objects, not even ‘contexts’ in Duchamp’s terms.

Now, in unmanned art, not only the artwork depends on the idea that generated it, but a complete symbiosis occurs between the artist and the machine7. The human being behind the idea is the Symbiotic Artist, the one who brings about the conditions for ‘situations’ to be constructed.

If the ‘arcade game’ paradigm is discarded, it can be noted that Symbiotic Art may be considered as belonging to the realm of a new type of game, directed to the sense of spontaneity and playfulness.

In fact, the ArtSBot experiment may be viewed as a non-zero-sum game inspired by the surrealist cadavre exquis. This artistic game involved a group of persons that contributed to the final outcome (the eventual artwork) of which they only knew their individual part. When one of the players finished his contribution, the sheet of paper upon which he had drawn was folded, in order to prevent the next player from seeing the previous composition, except in a small part, which was the starting point for his input to the collective artwork. Similarly, in the ArtSBot experiment, each robot does not have the ‘general picture’, he must rely on the clue left by a previous passage of another robot.



1 in Illuminations, Ed. Hanna Arendt, Schocken Books, 1978. Due to its intrinsic ambiguity, this is probably the most disputed basic text referring to modern aesthetics. In fact, Benjamin does not present a clear-cut position, moving perpetually from a certain nostalgia for the ‘aura’ that enveloped pre-modern artworks (stemming maybe from his form of messianic thought) and a rupture on linear time and homogeneity, leading to the emergence of a new attitude approving the serial artworks’ production, the ‘anonymous author’, the technological conditioning of art and its fragmentary character. The abyssal fall into immanence felt by Benjamin obliterates his praise for the ‘unique’. Hence, an ambivalent denial of anthropocentrism takes place, giving rise a fuzzy idea of man’s immersion in Nature’s flux.

2 The artists themselves are nowadays increasingly delocalised, linked by worldwide networks (Cf., for example,

3 Hence, as Duchamp put it, “everybody can be an artist”, in the vein of the “self-proclamation theory”. As an example of this, the “Society of Independent Artists, Inc”, founded in 1916 in New York with Duchamp’s involvement, accepted as a member anyone who pays a fee and exhibits an artwork, without indicating how artists are recognized as such, since exhibiting was no problem, given the famous rule “No jury, no prizes” (Cf. The definitively unfinished Marcel Duchamp, Ed. Thiery de Duve, MIT, 1992.

4 New Babylon construction, floating 16 m above ground, represents a sort of extension of the Earth’s surface (Cf. Constant, une retrospective, Musée Picasso, Antibes, 2001).

5 It can be claimed that the ‘Cultural Software’ of contemporary aesthetics is represented by ‘Conceptual Art’. In reality, the obvious striking parallels between Conceptual Art and developments in systems theory and computer information processing were disclosed by several authors (e.g. Shanken, “Art in Information Age”, in Invisible College: Reconsidering “Conceptual Art”, Ed. Michael Corris, 2001).

6 A multi-use machine whose adaptableness allows simulating the environment, in addition to respond to its stimuli (cf. Brooks, R., Flesh and Machines: How robots will change us, Pantheon Books, 2002).

7 Human and robot bodies are ultimately related to a common ground: Deleuze & Guattari’s “Machine phylum”. In the late 1960s Deleuze realized the philosophical implications of three levels of the phase space where man and machines co-evolve. These are specific trajectories, corresponding to objects in the real world; attractors, corresponding to the long term tendencies of those objects; and bifurcations, corresponding to spontaneous mutations occurring in those objects (Deleuze & Guattari, Mille Plateaux, Paris, Minuit, 1980).