Jon McCormack: Turbulence: An Interactive Installation Exploring Artificial Life

  • ©1994,

  • ©1994,

  • ©1994,


    Turbulence: An Interactive Installation Exploring Artificial Life


Creation Year:



    Interactive Installation


Artist Statement:

    “Who dwells in a realm,
    magical and barren,
    Without a before, and after,
    or a when …
    To be forever;
    but never to have been.”
    From “The Enigmas”
    Jorge Luis Borges

    “By the middle of this century, mankind had acquired the power to extinguish life on Earth. By the middle of the next century, he will be able to create it. Of the two it is difficult to say which places the greater burden of responsibility on our shoulders.”
    From “Artificial Life”
    Chris Langton

    Turbulence is a menagerie of computer-synthesised forms based on the new science and philosophies of artificial life — the formation of life-like forms and processes from materials other than those found in nature. The work looks at poetic relationships between logic and purpose, and their relation to fundamental arguments about vitalism, destiny, and human consciousness.

    Using “genetic” algorithms to produce artificial life forms whose shape, form, and behaviour repre­sent “algorithmic ecosystems,” Turbulence develops and exam­ines abstractions of life-like processes. Such processes are manufactured from a determinis­tic set of instructions applied mil­lions of times by the digital com­puter. These synthetics are con­textualised within the categorisa­tion and classification of life by biological science. In many ways, the work is a type of futuristic natural history museum — a docu­ment of a type of life that exists only within the abstract space that becomes visible with the syn­ergetic combination of mind and machine. Everything develops in a space somewhere between com­position and adventure, between chance and destiny, between intent and invention.

    The installation operates within an enclosed space and is decorat­ed to (in some ways) resemble a natural history museum from the previous century. There are two main components inside the space: an interactive multi media program and a projected anima­tion from a video laserdisc con­trolled via a small touch-screen interface.

    Viewers enter an enclosed, dark­ened space. Along the walls are specimen jars that contain pre­served examples of organic bio­logical life: flowers, insects, organs, photographs of people, the components of living organ­isms. Many of these objects relate in some way to the video sequences on the disc. The jars are dimly illuminated internally. The overall impression created by the space is that of a strange nat­ural history museum.

    Farther along the entrance pas­sage is a screen which runs the informational multimedia compo­nent of the work. Here, users can interactively evolve their own simple 3D organisms and learn about the processes and concepts of artificial life and its relation to the work on the disc. Sections also contain associated explanatory text, giving background infor­mation on the organisms, facts about reproduction, possible observations, and reactions. At this point, the user is introduced to the “logical” components of the work. What lies beyond is a poet­ic interpretation of these ideas.

    Turning a corner, the viewer enters a dark space with a small plinth facing a projection screen. The plinth contains a touch screen, which controls the display of high-quality video segments from a laserdisc. Words and images float and spiral on the touch screen. Touching a word usually displays a section of ani­mation on the projection screen. Collections of animated segments are grouped both thematically and by imaginary “species,” linked by their genetic relatives. It is important to remember that all the organisms are fictions, evolved by a software program during production of the project.

    There is no start or end to the work, but as the user progresses with the interaction the software “learns” which areas the user is exploring and responds with inter-related options (i.e. the work tries to adapt to the per­sonality and whims of the user). The nature of the interactivity allows different users to begin and end at any point within the work and quickly establish where they are within the structure.

    Apart from its conceptual and thematic ideas, the presentation style is highly theatrical in nature. As has often occurred throughout the history of science, there is an apparent conflict between what is scientifically defined and what is undefinable within the conscious­ness of the individual. Science keeps coming up with ways to disprove our beliefs. The further down this spiral we travel, the less “human” we become.

    The notion that a type of “life” can be synthesised by a machine and the potential of this current research has many important repercussions for our own evolu­tion and our understanding of what life is. Despite all the “how,” paradoxically, science has got no closer to a “why.” These are the key issues that are examined here. Questions are not looked at from the purely mechanical or scientific view — the underlying context is the conflict between the logical view of life as the summation of discrete processes and the actuality of human consciousness.

Other Information:

    Produced in association with the
    Australian Film Commission

    Jon McCormack
    software, script, animation, music and direction

    Gary Warner
    Museum of Sydney

    Special Thanks:
    Wavefront Technologies, Inc.
    major commercial sponsorship

    commercial sponsorship

    Silicon Graphics Australia
    commercial sponsorship

    video and animation facilities Monash University

    For further technical information refer to:
    McCormack, J.P., Interactive Evolution of L-System Grammars for Computer Graphics Modelling, in Complex Systems: from Biology to Computation, David Green and Terry Bossomaier, eds., ISO Press, Amsterdam 1993.