Roots (Roman Kirschner) is inspired by an old persian image: a bush growing heads. In an aquarium filled with a brownish fluid, iron crystals grow steadily. Bubbles ascend like jellyfish. Branches break off and sink to the dark ground. They start to dissolve and become thick clouds hovering over the scene. Electricity is pulsed through the sculpture. Growth changes the flow of the current. The modified flow changes the growth. The voltages at each wire are put through a resonance filter and transform into sound.
The Austrian artist Roman Kirschner created a piece called Roots. Wires hang in a brownish-greenish liquid. The liquid is a special mixture which has to sit for two weeks prior to the exhibition so that the correct ingredients can sink slowly to the bottom. Within this mixture, a kind of iron crystal grows steadily from the wires. The wires forge connections, intersect, and sometimes separate again. The constellation of iron crystals slowly changes and adapts under the influence of the environment and the connections that have been made and lost. The whole thing has an organic feel. Bubbles rise to the surface like jellyfish (as Kirschner wrote). The network of iron crystals resembles a bush. Now and then pieces break off, or whole branches, causing thicker and thicker clouds of dust to rise, gradually throwing a shadow over the scene.
Electricity runs through the sculpture of wires. The current causes the wires in the liquid to grow and transform. The process is an interactive one: the growth of the network changes the routes and directions of the electric current, which has consequences for the development of the network. It is not a process in which one actor acts on another and that actor subsequently reacts, but rather one in which the various actors continuously influence each other. This process plays out in a liquid that functions, one might say, as the surroundings, the environment, that makes specific interactions possible.
Kirschner makes the process of the network's growth (and deterioration) audible. The wires are connected to a computer, and the voltages at the ends of the iron crystals are sent through resonance filters, which convert the current into sound. With the visual connection to the iron crystals in the fluid, it creates the impression of an orchestra of bubbles rising to the surface -- even though a 4/4 pulse is programmed in the software.
Roots' background and the implicit statements it makes about the development of technology and its links to the philosophy of technology may also be of interest. The idea of an environment could be a reference to the ideas of the French philosopher Simondon, who outlined an very idiosyncratic view of the development of technology in Modes des existences des objets techniques (1958). Simondon considered the development of technology to be an evolutionary process comparable to biological ones -- with which he sees parallels as well as differences. In contrast to most techno-philosophy of his time, he did not consider nature and technology opposing terms. For Simondon, technology is never just an instrument or a machine. Rather, it consists of ensembles: relationships between instruments and machines, between people and machines, between people and the environments in which they use machines, and between people and the materials they interact with. Interaction between an open or closed system and its environment is also central in his view. Maturana and Varela would describe a similar process in the 1970s as 'autopoesis'; Simondon used the term 'individuation.' He emphasized that it concerns a process of continuous change, influenced by formative and informative impulses from the environment, and adaptation to it. Technology, likewise, is not a finished product but a continuous process that forges new connections again and again, and reconfigures and re-produces its relationships with the environment and people. Simondon's philosophy does not assume that there are stable systems, nor even that systems search for equilibrium; rather, he assumes a situation in which everything is metastable -- stable on the verge of instability.
In this context, unstable is a positive term: it denotes a system or network that is able to change, adapt and continuously develop. This is how it manages to survive. The outcomes of processes in such a network are not fixed -- they depend on interactions and exchanges between the (changing) elements in the network and (new) elements from outside with which the network enters into a relationship.
What Simondon approaches in a philosophical manner, Roots shows in an artistic way. Kirschner himself explicitly states that he owes a debt to the work of the excentric English cyberneticist Gordon Pask, who died in 1996. Pask's ideas -- for example, his theory of conversation, knowledge construction, and interaction between actors -- are currently being rediscovered, mainly by artists. In 1961, in An Approach to Cybernetics, Pask argued that it was possible to build chemical computers. Specifically, he argued that chemical computers are made possible by the fact that an active evolutionary network develops out of interaction between electrochemical processes. In the 1950s, Pask built machines with sensors that made them sensitive to outside influences. He regarded a computer as an open system. Kirschner's Roots is a homage to this idea of Pask's, and a concrete representation of it -- what takes place in the tank of liquid is an electrochemical process through which a network evolves. It is also a tangible reminder of an era in which people were far from certain what a computer was or what it should do, and dreamed of computers coming to life.
Roots by Roman Kirschner, DEAF07 (2007) from V2_ on Vimeo.