Anarchy in the Organism

Anarchy in the Organism


Video monitors, applied vinyl, soundscape

dimensioned to the architecture

  • Site specific installation at the UCLH Macmillan Cancer Centre, London, April 2012 - July 2013
  • Live performance at the John Lill Music Centre, University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield, 15 July 2012
  • Anarchy in the Organism Symposium at the Wellcome Trust, 22 June 2012
  • Live performance at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 18 November 2013, with the Goldfields Ensemble
  • Live Performance at Kings Place, London, 12 January 2014, with the Goldfields Ensemble

ANARCHY IN THE ORGANISM (Cancer as a Complex System)

Artist: Simeon Nelson

Software: Nick Rothwell

Music: Rob Godman

Patient representative: Gilly Angell

Consulting psychologist : Monia Brizzi

Consulting scientist: Simon Walker-Samuel

Curator: Guy Noble

Commissioned by UCLH Arts

Wellcome Trust funded Artist Residency and installation at the UCLH Macmillan Cancer Centre, London
March 2011 to July 2013.

Anarchy in the Organism (AITO) questioned contemporary attitudes to cancer and mortality by asking: Is cancer an aberration or is it an embedded aspect of being a complex organism? AITO had a significant impact on the patients, carers, oncologists and other collaborators and audiences who came into contact with it. AITO was supported by a Wellcome Artist Grant, and by UCLH Arts who commissioned the work to be shown in the new Macmillan Cancer Centre, London alongside work by artists such as Peter Blake and Grayson Perry.

Anarchy in the Organism began as a Wellcome supported commission for the  Macmillan Cancer Hospital, London and ended as a touring electro-acoustic concert work. It brought complex systems theory, geometry, existential psychology, sociology, bio-physics, geography and computational biology to bear on the experience of cancer by sufferers and their loved one music and art to confront the meanings of cancer from a scientific, an ethical and existential perspective for patients, their loved-ones, carers, researchers and those interested in the wider implications of cancer.

We reconsidered cancer within this wider ethical, ontological and epistemological context to address the question: Is cancer an aberration or is it an embedded aspect of being a complex organism?

This project was guided by one of my abiding conceptual interests, complexity theory  and systems science which provide an integrative framework for understanding relationships and processes in disparate phenomena within a relational and holistic world view. I used it as a  manifold into which music, sculpture, algorithmic and time-based art, the physics of biological systems and the psychology of the human experience of cancer could plug into. The emergent processes of cancer, oncogeny, angiogeny and metastasis were considered topologically in relationship to   emergent processes of cities, societies, trees  for underlying isomorphisms. System science describes and maps out how these parts of the world conform in their own unique ways to the dynamics of homeostasis, autopoiesis, emergence chaos and entropy.  Visualising this underpinned the aesthetic of the artwork.

This project brought patients, carers, oncologists and other cancer researchers into contact which had profound and lasting effects on both parties, initially rancorous, the meetings became more collaborative and both parties gained real insight into each others perspectives.

All participants felt that the encounter deepened and challenged their thinking and attitudes to cancer. Serious misunderstandings in the interaction with cancer patients, some of whom initially found the work very confronting and difficult to understand. It demanded much rigour and care to be responsible for the impact of the artwork on patients to carry this unfamiliar way of conceptualising and representing cancer unflinchingly to the completion of the project.

The artwork consisted of algorithmic organisms on video screens living out their life cycles germinating, growing, mutating and decaying, unavoidable  aspects of being alive. The computer generated organisms developed cancer to varying degrees. Coded within the parameters of complexity theory, their survival rate was similar to that of human populations. They looked ambiguous, they could be streetscapes of evolving cities disrupted by the successive impositions of a changing social imagination.. Music generated from the same code and played through window-mounted transducers haunted the streetscape.

It was an interdisciplinary collaboration with oncologists, a computer scientist, a psychologist, a composer and others.  Participants felt that it deepened and challenged their thinking and attitudes to cancer. A challenging aspect was the interaction with cancer patients, some of whom initially found the work very difficult. It required rigour and care to be responsible for the impact of my artwork on patients and to confront cancer unflinchingly to create a new way of conceptualising and representing cancer.


Note on the Coding by Nick Rothwell
Initial illustrations of corporeal structures and city maps led to early software designs based around the generation of abstract, line-based tree forms. The application of Lindenmayer algorithms to simple initial data sets resulted in the generation of assorted tree-like forms, but we were limited by their primitive point-and-line structure: one of the appealing aesthetics of city maps is the dualism between the road system and the solid geometric areas which are defined by the roads which surround them - an appearance resembling two-dimensional images of cell structures, pertinent to the theme of the artwork. Eventually, an engineering shortcut suggested itself: use the branching points of the trees as seed points for a Voronoi tesselation, resulting in a plane of geometric regions with an organic, cell-like structure. The cells form a duality with the tree, and "growing" a tree from its root results in a cell-based growth animation which is both natural-looking and strangely intriguing.

Note on the Music by Rob Godman
Initially, I had investigated using the same biological models to create the sound for this work – it was the most obvious thing to do, the technology we use could have made 'sense; of the data and 'converted' it into sound. But somehow it seemed to avoid the issue of what Anarchy in the Organism is all about – the appalling contradiction between the apparent beauty and self-destructive strength of the cancerous cellular growth and the affect of the cancer on the sufferer and their families. Therefore, the music became more organic in its approach with the idea of multi-layered duality and interaction becoming increasingly important.
The music for Anarchy in the Organism exploits our perception of time. I love the fact that machines are able to measure time incredibly accurately, yet human perception of time is deeply inaccurate and dependant on emotion and physiological matters. Central to the concept, is the idea of interruption, interference and disturbance – all elements that are analogous to the introduction of a cancerous cell into a system. The music uses a rhythmic technique I am calling (somewhat erroneously...) Pulse Time Modulation (PTM) - the idea being that a repeating sound (a pulse) is subject to a constantly changing tempo creating a shifting accelerando/rallentando effect.

The project would not have been possible without:
The cancer patients who generously offered their experiences
The patient carers and doctors
The researchers who informed the scientific knowledge of the work
A special thank you is due to Monia Brizzi for expanding and deepening the thinking and feeling behind the work.



Related Links
  • Huffington Post Interview
  • Interview with Professor Nelson
  • Installation and development shots
  • Book
  • London Laser Talk 
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