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IEET > Security > Biosecurity > Life > Enablement > Innovation > Implants > Vision > Bioculture > Technoprogressivism > Contributors > Rachel Armstrong

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A Matter of Feeling (exploring interzone materials between “inert” and “alive”)

Rachel Armstrong
Rachel Armstrong

Posted: Sep 2, 2012

All matter squirms. This is the fundamental reality that underpins our cosmic fabric. Introductional essay for the Meta.Morf 2012 conference.

The cosmos is composed of many different species of stardust and despite our advanced, secular knowledge we imagine these primordial substances give rise to a universe, fashioned in our own image. Meta.Morf is a reflection on a new kind of image, which is evolving in a diverse set of arts practices at the start of the twenty-first century. Intriguingly, its portrait of our universe is far more autonomous and sensitive than the one that has historically relied on human reason for instruction. All matter squirms. This is the fundamental reality that underpins our cosmic fabric.
Our ideas of ‘brute’ materiality that required rational instruction, were forged during the Enlightenment when Galileo and Newton set out the mathematical principles of the universe world, which became known as the ‘natural laws,’ while Rene Descartes cleaved our understanding of the world into an ephemeral mind and mechanical body. Currently the modern world wrestles with these imposed polarities of being where natural events are explained in terms of geometrical functions and displayed on computer screens. Recently Markus Covert compiled data from more than 900 scientific papers to account for every molecular interaction that takes place in the life cycle of Mycoplasma genitalium – the world’s smallest free-living bacterium – to create a digital model of how it works [1].

This follows in the wake of J.C. Venter’s exploration of this same ‘minimal life form’ where a ‘host’ body was activated by an artificial genetic code using a form of biological computing called ‘systems genomics’ [2]. Both Covert’s organizational topology and Venter’s ‘Synthia’ embody an Enlightenment view of matter, which is inert, insensitive to its environment and requires external instruction to perform tasks. It is symbolized by the machine worldview, which imagines that the world is made up from component parts of fundamental particles, called atoms, which can be instructed by ‘code’ that may be digital or analogue.  Attempts to vitalize this brutal image of matter such as, Hans Driesch’s notion of ‘entelechy’ or Henri Bergson’s ‘élan vital’ only plays to the machine metaphor, rendering the vitality of the material world as an afterthought.

 We are currently witnessing a change in the way we imagine the ordering of the world away from the Enlightenment ideals. Boundaries that were once consolidated by duality –machine/human, man/woman, and organic/inorganic – are now incontrovertibly blurred. We live in a world of definable probability that is entangled in networks of continuous exchange in which life and matter evolve continually. This is more than an intellectual fashion but has been precipitated by infrastructural changes in the way we live. We find ourselves at the event horizon of a generation of globally connected, digital natives whose day-to-day understanding of reality is complex, strange, disobedient and full of paradoxes. The Internet has provided us all access to a reality enframed by complexity, in which abstracted representations have created the language of possibility of a new way of imagining the world. Online, contradictions seamlessly coexist and are an extension of our natural selves. We can be in two places simultaneously, or inhabit different characters without confusion and although it does not matter if you are a dog, a tin man, or a chat bot – it does matter just how well we’re connected.

The scientific understanding of these networks has been termed ‘complex systems’ and has developed over the course of the twentieth century in the disciplines of theoretical physics, mathematics, cybernetics and ecology.  Yet its significance has only burst through the fabric of our mechanistic reality with the rise of modern computing. The information highways of cyberspace have provided the infrastructure that made complexity ‘real’ by enabling us to describe, diagram, image and imagine how this new world is constructed. With advances in processing power and speed we’ve documented network topologies and have started to observe recognisable structures such as, veined mushroom clouds of connections that explode upwards to the megascale and downwards to the nanoscale.

Complexity can be seen in the mapping of many kinds of everyday systems, which may be as diverse as – the metabolism of cells, air traffic flight patterns or the movement of people around cities. Its unique qualities are more than simply speculative connections between things – they are embodied in these relationships. Theoretical physicist Albert-László Barabási has characterised the behaviour of complex systems as being surprisingly stable, conservative, robust and resilient. Yet they also have the capacity to be ceaselessly creative and unpredictable. Complexity is a conservative force with revolutionary potential.

While the tools of cyberspace allow us to glimpse at the information structures of this world, quantum physics has facilitated an understanding of how complexity functions in material terms. At very small scales, atoms do not always behave according to Newtonian mechanics. Quantum physics provides a new understanding of the behavior of matter through an appreciation of the qualities that made up the atomic substance. The consequence of this new perspective has enabled the possibility of materials that behave unpredictably, are lively and even entangled with the measuring equipment they are observed with. Quantum physicist David Bohm proposed that ‘elementary particles are actually systems of extremely complicated internal structure, acting essentially as amplifiers of ‘information’ contained in a quantum wave’. He called this universal, connected network of matter the ‘Implicate Order’ where fundamental particles such as, electromagnetism, neutrinos, gravitons, gluons, muons, quarks, bosons provide the adhesive material of the universe and are bound up in strong, weak and strange forces.

Bohm’s Implicate Order with its milieu of networks creates an undivided flowing movement of matter without borders that permeates reality at many scales of operation. When its fabric is disturbed the vibrations ripple out in waves that are enfolded into each other. Henri Lefebvre’s Rhythmnalysis explores the notion of rhythms underpinning the mundane world where everyday happenings are connected and interwoven in events such as, the circadian rhythm of a cell, the sound of the street or the diurnal variation of a city. Although the Implicate Order implies that we are potentially connected to everything, in practical terms our sphere of influence is more limited. We can shape our local surroundings by editing the connections of complex systems in which we’re embedded and imbue these processes with meaning.

Jane Bennett has coined the phrase ‘vibrant matter’ to appreciate the importance of non-human and inanimate matter in shaping our connected world and seeks to elevate its status. She draws inspiration from Bruno Latour’s notion of ‘actants’ – bodies that can exert influence on their surroundings, which may or may not be human and may or may not be alive. Non-human actants have a relatively weak influence on our everyday experience but their effects are amplified through recruitment. Bennett uses Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s term ‘assemblage’ to describe the cumulative pressure that materials or bodies can exert independently from, or participating within our realm. Although matter is not autonomous as it depends on other actants to exert its effects – it becomes creative and convincing through bottom-up forms of interaction, whose outcomes – according to the laws of complexity, can be surprising. Bennett’s proposition enables material to operate in a lively manner, which escapes the Newtonian tenet of vulgar materiality and allies their influence with biological systems. These materials exhibit life-like qualities being capable of unlikely characteristics such as, movement, innate intelligence, environmental sensitivity and change with the passage of time. These ‘living’ systems work in concert with the biological world so that, as Richard Lewontin observes, organisms and their environments ‘co-evolve’.

Indeed, Vladimir Vernadsky argued that no living organism exists in a free state on Earth. He proposed a conception of Nature that combined geochemistry and biogeochemistry, which embraced both non-living and living systems that continuously connected them to the biosphere through processes such as, feeding and breathing. Although minerals are more limited in their capacity to generate change by forming new compounds or making assemblages when compared with biotic materials, they still offer a portfolio of choices from which Charles Darwin’s notion of Natural Selection, can operate.

The mineral world also possesses a kind of memory through the production of crystals and compounds that also have the capacity to shape events. Sometimes these find stable configurations and postpone Erwin Schrodinger’s notion of life by evading the decay towards thermodynamic equilibrium. For example, Stuart Kauffman’s notion of ‘autocatalytic sets’ described groups of chemicals that are capable of forming a closed loop of interactions where the by product of one chemical reaction becomes the substrate for the next. Stephane Leduc [3], who coined the term ‘synthetic biology,’ also used a variety of mineral systems to demonstrate their potential for dynamic growth that he called ‘osmotic’ structures, which he likened to the growth of fungi. Physical chemist A. Graham Cairns-Smith, proposed an even more intimate connection between the mineral domain and living matter by proposing that the first life forms originated from clay minerals [4] and contemporary research has confirmed that clays, such as montmorillonite, may have been key to biogenesis [5]. Soil scientist William Bryant Logan observes how little of the potential of the mineral world we’ve explored and regards ‘the clay code’ as being ‘more complex than either the genetic code or human language’. [6]

Minerals have contributed significantly to setting the conditions for life to flourish and continue to do so. The role of iron pyrites in removing sulphur from the ocean and producing atmospheric oxygen has recently been established as being much more important than was previously thought [7]. Living organisms are therefore compelled to collaborate, by varying degrees, with non-living actants and material assemblages from the mineral world. Ultimately these collective forces impact on the genetic identity of creatures that subsequently forge new relationships with their environmental actants and are enjoined in the process of evolution. These relationships are completely compatible with the complex infrastructures that underpin the biosphere, despite the diversity of these relationships or the variety of material configurations they may adopt.

From a technological perspective, embodied complexity offers the potential to forge systems that behave in ways that are different to modern machines. Martin Heidegger regards technology in a way that is not strictly bound to its instrumentality but considers how its interventions reveal truths about the world. At the heart of Heidegger’s quest is an ecological project where he seeks a ‘free’ relationship between technology and human to promote a relationship with the world that is not ultimately self-destructive. When complex systems are positioned in the role of Heidegger’s ‘technological truth’ and orchestrated through human intervention they provide a platform, or milieu for the development of new kinds of technology. In particular the new science of synthetic biology, which involves the design and engineering of living things, can forge new kinds of ‘actants’ using a variety of methods based on the principles of physical network interactions. These have not evolved spontaneously from biological processes but include new technological expressions of complex systems such as, the synthesis of novel genomes or life-like chemical assemblies that harness the force of molecular interactions. The incredible parallel processing capabilities of biology provides technologies that bind us to our ecology in a similar way to how the Internet has connected us to each other through cyberspace. Yet, to date, we have not witnessed the full extent of the technological novelty that synthetic biology is capable of since it has been subsumed within industrial modes of production that have confined its unique qualities within centralised manufacturing processes.

When a new model of the material world enables technology and nature to be reconciled and not opposed through binary divisions, then functional unity with the biosphere is possible, which is embodied in synthetic processes. However, these new technological configurations will only perform according to their potential if the appropriate infrastructures support their development such as, liquid environments that can enable the free movement of molecules around complex, organizing structures. When maintained by new systems of organization, complex technologies will perform differently to modern machines since they possess fundamental complexity – being uniquely robust, responsive to their context, operate flexibly and are capable of unpredictable behaviours.

My research explores the formally unclassified ‘interzone’ between materials that are ‘inert’ and those that are formally recognised as being ‘alive’. Their remarkable behaviour seems more familiar to the realm of science fiction such as, J.G. Ballard’s Crystal World, where a strange forest transforms organic matter into minerals, however their qualities are real, not imaginary. Although these systems are not technically alive they possess striking life-like characteristics such as, the Traube Cell, which converts violet crystals into a brown, expanded, seaweed-like mass, or Stephane Leduc’s ‘osmotic’ structures that are twisted into crystal-skinned balloon sculptures and the stunning Belousov Zhabotinsky reaction, which behaves like an embodied Julia Set by constantly changing colour and pattern.

Perhaps the strangest chemical systems in this twilight zone are ‘protocells’ [8] [9], which offer a striking example of what kinds of possibilities exist within a universe of lively elements. These incredibly simple chemical assemblages consist of few different chemical species yet they behave in the most remarkably life-like way – despite not possessing any DNA, or centralised organizing chemical code. Instead they exhibit a unique ‘distributed’ agency around which they self-organise as a consequence of their molecular properties. Protocells are compelled to explore their environment in search of food and energy sources, yet this is no simple reflex. The dynamic droplets possess sufficient complexity to succumb to temptation along the way – especially with respect to their desire and affinity for each other. When droplets are drawn into proximity they ceaselessly explore each other with liquid interdigitations. First the probing is timid but becomes bolder and more relentless. However, they remain conservative in their boundary exploration and generally, the droplet bodies resist fusing with each other. It is also uncertain whether the droplets are exchanging small amounts of matter at the interface, or whether the chemical boundaries remain in tact. The exact nature of this compulsive exploration, curiosity and sensitivity that these non-living entities display towards each other is not clear.
Although protocells do not break any physical or chemical laws with their seemingly social behaviours, their phenomenology cannot simply be reduced into discourses about concentration gradients, or positive and negative feedback loops because from time to time the behaviour of the system changes entirely – to display flocking behaviours and swarming colonies that change their shape in concert with their form. Protocells are embodied examples of emergent phenomena, which cannot be neatly collapsed into empirical observations, or reduced into linear narratives that for example, relate amplitudes to frequencies. These strange chemical assemblages appear to be uniquely sensitive to the presence of each other, which speculatively – due to the reluctance of droplets to move far from each other, seek each other out and circle one another neurotically – might even hold some kind of intrinsic ‘protocell’ meaning. Observing the spectrum of protocell behaviours is compelling viewing and it is impossible to resist anthropomorphising their interactions. For example, the constantly squirming droplets seemingly ‘sense’ their surroundings by following invisible trails of unidentified chemicals in the medium and when they collide, they exchange a strange kind of ‘kissing’ action, devouring each other with the fervour of Salvador Dali’s ‘Autumnal Cannibalism’.
Protocells may be considered as a model system that indicates how the performance and environmental impacts of other advanced combined technologies may differ should they be coupled through complex infrastructures. This is new experimental ground where fresh forward-looking perspectives are effectively dealing with an empirically un-testable future, which is the traditional strong-hold of science fiction. For example, the ‘cyberplasm’ project combines synthetic biology and robotics to produce a programmable device with a metabolism [[10]]. Yet already, hybrid scientific disciplines are emerging from these fertile environments of shared ideas, such as ‘morphological’ and ‘unconventional’ computing practices. Even funding infrastructures appear to be changing to support the development of these eccentric research partnerships. A NSF (National Science Foundation) sponsored report has been particularly influential in precipitating a new kind of scientific approach suggesting unification of the sciences as a common goal through converging NBIC (Nano, Bio, Info, Cogno) technologies with a brief to greatly benefit humanity and industry. Centrally supported funding initiatives through the EU (European Union) are also encouraging traditional scientific disciplines to adopt this more openly speculative approach to scientific research in ambitious “sand pits” of expert exchange. This has opened up new avenues for further exploration as research groups from non-scientific disciplines share equal stakes in the outcomes of these new fusions.

The Meta.Morf 2012 artists are part of this new exploration, working with new material possibilities within the structure of complex systems to explore alternative entanglements of technology and being. Some investigate the connections between bodies and environments using multiple materials and approaches such as Stelarc, while others reconfigure the relationships between biological systems and the environment as in the work of Kianoosh Motallebi, Guto Nobrega and the open source Protei project (Cesar Herada, Etienne Gernez, Gabriella Levine, Kasia Molga and Sebastian Müllauer). Other exhibitors such as, Philip Beesley, Ralf Baecker, Xandra van der Eijk, Jessica De Boer, Øyvind Brandtsegg and Wim Delvoye explode the notion of a sensitive environment using different kinds of computation and material performance and artists such as, Markus Kison, Zimoun, Erwin Driessens, Maria Verstappen, Antony Hall and Peter Flemming examine complex machine actions that display a unique kind of sensibility.

Meta.Morf 2012 proposes that at the end of an industrial, mechanised age of separation, it is time to reconnect with the uniquely quivering expanse of sensitive matter that makes up our universe to facilitate these new fusions and midwife a Cambrian Explosion of technological species into existence. Accompanying the exhibition is a series of talks that discusses the reinvigoration of matter. Stelarc, Neil Harbisson and Takashi Ikegami explore how Entangled Bodies inspire creativity, while Philip Beesley, Rachel Armstrong and Klaus-Peter Zauner discuss how Inconstant Contexts shape the performance of complex, living systems.

The magic of our reality is not that absolutely anything is possible – but that there is a great deal of untapped potential that already exists that can be experienced through new arrangements of existing technologies as well as de novo syntheses. By framing our understanding of matter we may be able to get a whole lot more from it, not as a dead or inert things to be controlled or consumed by machines, but by co-evolving our future in partnership with sensitive matter that works alongside us.


1. Stanford University News (online) ‘Stanford Researchers produce first complete computer model of an organism.’ Available at:  Accessed: July 2012.

2. Gibson, D.G. (2010).“Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome”. Science. 329 (5987): 52-56.

3.  Leduc, S. (1911). The Mechanism of Life. Translated by W.D. Butcher. New York.

4. Cairns-Smith, A.G. The Life Puzzle. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1971.

5. Hanczyc MM, Fujikawa SM, and Szostak JW. 2003 Experimental models of primitive cellular compartments: encapsulation, growth and division. Science 302: 618-622.

6. Logan, W.B. (1995) Dirt. The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, London, p.127.

7. Weizmann Institute of Science News (online) Fools gold found to regulate oxygen. Available at: Accessed: July 2012.

8. Hanczyc, M. M., Toyota, T., Ikegami, T., Packard, N., & Sugawara, T. (2007). Fatty acid chemistry at the oil-water interface: Self-propelled oil droplets. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 129(30), 9386 – 9391.

9. Toyota T, Maru N, Hanczyc MM, Ikegami T, Sugawara T. (2009). Self-Propelled Oil Droplets Consuming “Fuel” Surfactant. J. Am. Chem. Soc., 2009, 131 (14), Pp. 5012–5013.

10. Cyberplasm : a micro-scale biohybrid robot developed using principles of synthetic biology. (online) Available at: Accessed: July 2012.

Rachel Armstrong is a TEDGlobal Fellow, and a Teaching Fellow at at The Bartlett School of Architecture, in England.
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