Video Feedback Loops vs. Life and Memetics
January 28, 2010
I vividly remember seeing my first “video feedback loop” (VFL) some 18 years ago while I was round at Mike and Penny Leander‘s home on Devonshire Street in London. Basically I knew their sons Luke and Rudi via school and, because we shared that mangled lust for “living-it-large,” we kindled a friendship that was forged over many good times, wild experiences and grooves of saturnalia. Though while I won’t divulge too much about our hedonistic escapades, lest I digress into a wild nostalgic stroll down memory lane and thereby forget the reason for my writing, I will “briefly” set the scene… As it seemed that an array of natural events were conspiring to posit an idea about the way in which the universe functioned as a whole. For it was this very idea that became a powerful defining aspect which shaped the rest of my life…
To be precise, my first “VFL” experience occurred about three or four months after our G.C.S.E. exams had finished. Summer was over and it had became very clear that winter was prematurely reaching out through autumn’s colorful spectacle, dragging us reluctantly back into her dark and frosty embrace. The 92₃ term of A-Level studies was already well underway by then, and notions of chemistry, physics, economics and math were weighing more on the mind than they normally did. Every morning, while drawing the curtains, I couldn’t help but notice the varying circadian patterns of wild ice crystals that has grown in the cold of night before over the single paned windows… And, as I marveled at their structure before heading off to the gym, I couldn’t help but notice how similar they were to ferns… These in turn resembled many other structures that I had recently become aware of through my studies. So I began to wonder whether there was some kind of mold that interlinked everything together in an intricately ordered, yet probabalistic way. As a direct result of viewing these ice crystals, I felt compelled to do some research into why these beautiful structures came about. And having just studied the phsyical chemistry of water in class i.e. hydrogen bonding, I had found out that chaos was beating at their heart. Thus I went to the school book store and ordered the first book that appealed to my senses: “The New Scientist Guide To Chaos,” which had been published earlier that year.
Having read both Darwin’s “On The Origin Of Species” and “The New Scientist Guide To Chaos”, much began to spin through my mind… Was there really a key to the order of the universe, one that could give rise to infinite diversity? Could there be such a rich and complex divergence of natural chemistry so that it never quite repeated itself exactly, giving credence to Darwin’s “theory” of evolution, allowing natural processes to slowly generate new wondrous bio-mechanical machines that were interlinked from the dawn of life to the present moment in a long chain of progeny and modification? All my teachers were saying “nonesense” to me. But still these ideas came back even stronger… Then all of sudden, almost as a tonic to this internal philosophical monolog, one of those much needed half term breaks sprung up… Needless to say it provided me with a deep sigh of well earned relief… So off we all scampered, heading to wherever and/or whomever would have a marauding mischievous teenager, or two, for a week!
I myself went home to see the parents. And having spent most of the week in their sanguine company, eating and walking our way through the country side, I began to grow restless for some company of equal stature to my own growing appetites. I needed to put family business to one side and reclaim the reigns to the torrent of the questions I had been pondering over before this holiday. Thus, at the end of the week, I rang Luke and Rudi to find out what they had planned for their “last weekend of freedom…” And the very next day I found myself on a train heading up from the country side to the great city of London, where an assorted company of “friendlies” awaited my arrival before the games and revelry of the weekend began. All the journey I began to imagine fractal patterns in the bustle of human life. And any conversation that I overhead began to yield shapes of self-similarity through out their syntax… Self-referencing was key to the transition of conversational subject matter. Could this be associated with the M-Set too? Churning over these ideas in my mind, I marched down from Baker Street tube in a gleeful stride of exuberance, and pressed the intercom on the front door of the Leander’s residence. Eventually the silence gave way to that electric crackle, and I could hear, behind the muffled inquiry as to who it was from Luke, a clamorous wild cheer of a salute! No doubt the day’s events spiraled beautifully upwards from there on in with an updraft of good company and vivid imaginations. As I launched some of my ideas into the general conversation’s flow, I was inspired by new insights and suggestions from the others.
On the whole, the night went very well… Luke, Rudy, Clay, Amy, Lucy, Cheds and myself were all smiling hard through out. But as all good things do, the adventure finally came to an end as twilight began press through the gloomy neon glow from the clouds above… We had foraged deep into the city’s heart and explored the myriad of lives unfolding in the realtime rhythm of London’s never ending pulse… Swaying from fatigue, we were justly full of sumptuous new experiences, feeling content and alive from all the noctural action. Home was on our minds… And the idea of a comfortable pad to hide from the harsh “reality” of the coming day was a warming thought. So when we arrived back inside, it was with a hearty sense of lightheaded and youthful joy that we declared it was now time to chill out and relax… Somewhere in between putting the kettle on and the cups of tea that followed, we decided that the Orb’s “Adventure’s Beyond The Ultraworld” and the KLF’s “Chillout” would provide the perfect soundtrack to our morning’s laid back groove. And so it was…
But as young restless minds go, banter never ceased for one moment, and wacky ideas, games and practises kept coming out… The party, it seemed, didn’t take well to lying down. Eventually some of the energy did dissipate, and Rudi decided it would be a good idea to interview us all with their new video camera while we all lounged languidly into the “sofa Sunday” that lay ahead. What insights these interviews yielded into our states of mind, I cannot honestly remember. But after our parley, we decided it was a good idea to play back the footage to check our responses for any incriminating evidence that might give us away to any parental veiwing. And it was here that the magical moment unfolded… Sometime in between connecting the camera up to the television and playback, Rudi managed to point the it’s lens back at the flickering screen. And something amazing happened… Patterns started cascading across the television’s screen… Light, reflected from the sparsely lit room, was being picked up and thrown back into the screen’s gliding image… Like a kaleidoscopic array of lights that flickered through interlinking present moments to form a familiar spiraling shape, they slightly modified their position into nearby zones of similarity, evolving into ever changing eddies of wondrous delight in a dream like sequence of order. Every tilt of the camera cast a direction for new pattern to follow, and I was instantly hooked on these beautific arrangements… Nothing could tare away my gaze from the majestic tapestry of Escher-esque delineations that ran across the screen like rain glitters from leaves while streaming down through bright sunlit forests. I had fortunately seen the M-Set for the first time earlier that year, when Emily Mander had sent me three postcards, containing various assorted zooms into the M-Set, down from Manchester. I still don’t quite know what inspired her to send them to me but, as all good friends do, she knew they contained something that would allure me… Thus I immediately recognized the similarity between the two patterns and all the thoughts about evolution, ice crystals and ferns joined to together in one big loop. After that moment, rarely did those images leave my mind… I came back to them time and again, wondering about their beauty and familiarity. It was almost as though the universe was offering up this obvious pattern to which many were so oblivious.
Many years passed as these trains of though grew and grew into an ever deeper understanding about the whole… And it wasn’t until I finished university and had moved into my own home, that I got a chance recreate these mesmerizing visual patterns for myself. After a landing a steady job and a lot of saving, I eventually I got myself a secondhand television set from the local sound and vision centre in Epsom, Surrey. And after a few months more of penny pinching, I purchased a cheap, but decent, digital video camera off eBay… On the day that the camera arrived, I switched off my cellphone and set up my first VFL! Not once did the thrill wear off… And over the next few years, right up until I sold my television set, I would get up in the middle of the night and film new footage of heterogeneous self-organizing patterns, using nothing more than the “cathode ray tube” (CRT) television as a canvas, a mirror and a Canon XL-1 video camera for the visual feedback “brush.” The “reams” of looped feedback patterns that were generated all resembled the fractal structures I had witnessed in the M-Set and throughout life’s journey so far. No doubt it was a key to understanding nature’s process.
To date I have amassed well over one hundred hours of video feedback loops, all recorded onto DV tape, using various sources for initiating the patterns i.e. neon lights, lava lamps, pictures, people dancing, etc… To initiate a pattern, all one does is simply place the light object in between the CRT and the video camera… And off they flow. One day I will get around to transferring these cascades onto my YouTube account for everyone’s viewing pleasure. But for the moment, the bulk of my feedback loops will remain in the musical domain.
As a sort of note about the inspirational chord that was struck within me, I wanted to post the following video which discusses how feedback loops tie into what Alan Turing was working on between 1952 and his untimely death in 1954 i.e. morphogenesis and the math of pattern formation. Reason being is that I feel it ties into the essence of all things within this universe flow, including all the Life here on earth. In 1952 Turing published one paper on a then unique and previously unheard of subject. It was entitled, “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis,” which put forth the Turing hypothesis for pattern formation. However, it wasn’t until well after his death that the scientific community began to realize the full importance of his work within the domains of the biological and evolutionary sciences. Since then, science has realized that Turing himself single handedly set the foundations for a new and refined understanding about how Life might “simply” have come about as a result of nothing more than natural phenomena.
In my humble opinion, it is in this powerful realization that Life suddenly finds a new perspective of relevance i.e. that We, as human beings, are nothing more than the result of billions of years of pattern formation that has arisen from all the star dust found here on planet Earth. We are fortunate to be a part of this wild and unfolding universal beauty… And it is Chaos’ hand that makes everything similar and yet uniquely different. No doubt there are many planets/worlds where these wondrous moments of Life have never been fortunate enough to have had a chance to arise i.e. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. And it would do us immense good to remember this whenever/however we can i.e. whether we are reminded through feedback patterns from video art, OR through the more commonplace and daily memetic feedback loop created through the media industries’ reporting of current events which guide our minds into the current belief systems that we use to understand the world around us. For when we begin to see this humbling truth, we can then begin to realize the danger that a single story can pose from humanity i.e. one religious doctrine, and how it might exclude other important ideas from the evolutionary game of memes and natural selection. After all, mankind’s Life is currently highly dependent on ideas… And, if these ideas never evolved, then our memes/ideas/technology/art/language/etc… would be still very much like the single celled cyanobacteria of Proterozoic times.
Life is a loop… And it feeds back onto itself… Just like a VFL. Much in the same way that some leaves might use feedback regulation between the plant hormone auxin and its efflux carrier, which is a basic chemical feedback loop, to create the wondrously beautiful and varied leaf venation patterns that we all can see throughout the plant kingdom… So mankind uses the memetic feedback loop of media and current social modes of understanding to define its relation to the surrounding and ever changing enviroment. Always shifting, ever iterating, developing into new heady modes of survival and creative means of Being, we continually do our best to better ourselves as a part of the whole that we come from, so that we may realize our true potential for understanding and carrying on “healthy” patterns of creation.
If you would like to learn more about Dr Graham McDonald at Salford University, please click here.