Anarchy in the Organism

Anarchy in the Organism

2011-14

Video monitors, applied vinyl, soundscape

dimensioned to the architecture

Exhibitions

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.

The organisms on the screens demonstrate growth, mutation and decay as normal aspects of being alive. Is cancer an aberration or is it an embedded aspect of being a complex organism? By situating cancer within a wider context of complex evolving systems from cities to trees to landscapes, this work attempts a reconciliation of cancer as a normative part of being in the world.The computer generated organisms develop cancer to varying degrees. Coded within the parameters of complexity theory, their survival rate is similar to that of the general population. They are ambiguous, they could be street-scapes of evolving cities disrupted by the successive impositions of changing social imaginaries. Music generated from the same code and played through window-mounted transducers haunts the streetscape.

Anarchy in the Organism (AITO) questions contemporary attitudes to cancer and mortality and by situating of cancer within a normative framework. Is cancer an aberration or is it an embedded aspect of being a complex organism? By situating cancer within a wider context of complex systems from cities to trees to societies, this work attempted a reconciliation of cancer as a normal aspect of being in the world. 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.

This project extended one of my conceptual interests, complexity theory (CT), an integrative way of looking at disparate phenomena, to underpin the thinking and aesthetics of the artwork. I used CT 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.

AITO was created in collaboration, consultation and with oncologists, a computer scientist, a psychologist, a composer and others. It was an interdisciplinary project and 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 artist would like to thank:
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 to Monia Brizzi for expanding and deepening the thinking and feeling behind the work.

 

 

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