Creating black boxes: Emergence in Interactive Art


Session Title:

  • Spaces, Bodies, Emergence, and Data in Interactive Art

Presentation Title:

  • Creating black boxes: Emergence in Interactive Art




  • The idea of the black box, in engineering, is that of a device in which one knows what to put in and what comes out, but not what happens on the inside. When it comes to modern scientific knowledge, black boxes are there to be opened and scrutinized. But other approaches can be undertaken. From the early cybernetics to scientific disciplines such as Chaos Theory or Artificial Life, systems in which important features remain unexplained, at least in some sense, have been studied and experimented with. These unexplained properties or behaviors have come to be known as emergent. In an artistic context, where explanation is not usually the main issue in the creation process, the experimentation with the concept of emergence can be understood in a close analogy to that of the creation of a black box.

    In this paper, we analyze different approaches to the concept of emergence in philosophy, science and digital art practice in order to build up a working definition of emergence that is useful for the creation of emergent systems and behaviors in the context of interactive art.

    After summarizing the approaches in non-artistic fields, the focus will be mainly on Artificial Life Art. It is within this discipline that the idea of emergence and emergent behavior has acquired a central role. Indeed, in ALife Art the creation of black box-like systems has been a central concern. According to the general approach of the scientific Artificial Life, ALife artists have sought to create systems composed of simple elements from which complex behaviors emerge.

    Although the creation of artworks with emergent properties is not something new, more often than not the term emergence, when used in an artistic context, is at least too loosely defined. The aim of this research is to contribute to the clarification of the concept in order to make it usable for the artistic practice and analysis, both for Alife Art and for Interactive Art in general.