While thorny in theory, Emergence is pretty in practice

For those who missed the Chicago Humanities Festival’s big day in Hyde Park last Saturday, here’s a second chance.

By Eylul Kayin

For those who missed the Chicago Humanities Festival’s big day in Hyde Park last Saturday, here’s a second chance. In keeping with the festival’s theme, Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC) currently hosts The Emergence Project, an exhibit as challenging as the festival itself.

The project, a creation of U of C physicist Mark Hereld and artist Daniel Sauter of the UIC School of Art and Design, is a digital art piece that reaches across many disciplines to reflect upon the phenomenon of “emergence.” Emergence refers to the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a combination of relatively simple interactions.

Hereld and Sauter transpose the concept into art daily by capturing Festival-related presentations, discussions, and blog entries, and analyzing them in a way that creates a dynamic visualization. The resulting work superimposes several layers of information in digital form, denoting the day’s ideas in an utterly fresh manner.

At the simplest level, the formless, multi-dimensional images that appear on the white screen set up at the Jackman Goldwasser Catwalk Gallery are just a lot of words standing in for ideas. When processed, however, they become amalgams of oral, written, mathematical, technical, and spatial data, echoing the notion of emergence.

The system set up by the artists selects the most commonly used terms in the Festival-related sources and creates word clusters or strings of sentences based on the terms and their synonyms and antonyms. Both the word clusters and the statistical information derived from them are depicted on the white screen through color and shape.

When the word clusters—or “families,” as the artists call them—start to become larger in size, the ideas related to them are displayed more prominently on the screen because they are assumed to have enveloped other, smaller ideas. The ideas are represented by words in quite large fonts, recalling the Festival’s central theme, “Big Ideas.”

The images are compelling for a number of reasons, ranging from the capricious nature of the forms to their rich color scheme to the intricate mathematical theorems and formulas that allow statistical information to be represented in such beauty.

“Different people are interested in different aspects of our work,” Sauter said at the Artists’ Talk on Saturday. “Some people ask us to talk about the physics of it for hours, where some are only interested in colors.”

However, the project’s most impressive quality is that it provides a new medium for representing ideas, an alternative to written language. Snapshots of Emergence would provide the same information offered by simple text; however, Emergence is unique in that it has qualities of both literature and visual arts often thought to be exclusive.

The exhibit pushes boundaries in other aspects as well. In an uncommon presentation style, a whole side of the HPAC building serves as a screen, allowing a view of the work from the outdoors.

Emergence’s simultaneity with the Festival proved to be a challenge for the artists.

“We only laid the foundations of the way in which the flow of information would be processed,” Hereld said. “The rest, we cannot explain.”

Emergence’s accidental and interactive nature is astonishing: Once a blog entry is submitted, for instance, it immediately appears as part of the work. The content of the work depends not only on the artists, but also on the external contributors and on the viewers themselves.