A property is emergent if it is a novel property of a system or entity that arises when a certain level of complexity is reached. Emergence in a system is distinct from the properties of the parts of the system from which it emerges. One example is when a car is attempting to exit an informal car park such as at a festival. There are no rules in place for which cars should proceed where when, and how. It is therefore impossible to predict when an individual car will be able to exit. In other words knowledge of the future event, exiting the car park, cannot be predicted by a small set of reduced operations or objects, you can only wait. In another common example, ants and bees are seen as profoundly unintelligent individual organisms. Collectively however they constitute super organisms multiple orders of magnitude more intelligent than any one individual. The study of the emergence of complex systems asks the question how could evolution have produced such a contrast between their individual simplicity and their collective complexity. The principal here is that simple agents acting according to simple rules can self organise into sophisticated systems to solve system-wide problems. The project brief required students to create objects, behaviours and systems that demonstrated emergent properties. 

Felix Scholder, Rebecca Lardeur, and Qianhui Yu designed a system involving painted ball bearings falling through a black box. After dipping the steel spheres in yellow paint, viewers were invited to drop them through an aperture in the top edge of the box. As they fell they bounced off pegs inside the box, leaving yellow trails of their descent on the black interior and clear front panel. The whole process was well thought out; from putting on blue gloves, to dipping the balls in the paint, to dropping them in the box, to the sound they made while falling through – a rewardingly participative situation. The emergent properties of the system developed over time, and through group use of the object as the paint trails built up to form a pattern. More could have been made of the sonic qualities and a bigger version would have been more involving for users, but overall a deceptively simple solution to the brief.

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Petra Ritzer, Ashley Zhang, and Yasmina Salame constructed a game-like scenario intended to produce emergent behaviours in participants. They made a set of belts to which were attached threads and strings. When wearing the belts, participants were attached to each other in a series of rings. We were then asked to perform a series of set actions circling clockwise and counter-clockwise, during which some of the connective strings extended to triple their previous length. Then we were asked to throw tennis balls to each other whilst circling, introducing an unpredictable element into the system. The carefully elaborated scenario worked well to involve participants and the material elements, belts, harnesses, and strings well extremely well considered and finished. Improvements could be made by making instructions clearer, by coding the trajectory of thrown balls or by adding complexity in different ways. Above all the project would be enhanced by taking place in an open plaza or similar exterior space.

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Alex Taylor, Jaz Affleck, and Natalia Dovhalionok made a container of ferrofluid that responded by expanding and contracting in response to rapidly spinning magnets. The system was intended to be responsive to an individual’s pulse rate. There was an impressive amount of technical iteration and implementation in this outcome. Ferrofluid is notoriously difficult to work with. Add the challenge of a motor sufficiently powerful to spin the magnets and the delicate electronics to connect it to a pulse sensor and just one week to complete and it was an impressive. Where the project fell down was its overly fetishistic approach to technology. The mapping of ferro fluid to pulse rate was not legible at this scale and the whole installation was not robust enough to survive for more than a few minutes of operation. However, the elective certainly rewards risk taking of this kind and, even if not ultimately successful there was a significant amount of learning. One note of caution is that choosing such a technical route through the brief risks alienating less technically minded collaborators.

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Evan Reinhold, Chanel Van Eeden, Ruilin Quan and Yi Ru devised a street orchestra performance giving everyone in the group a different home made instrument to play whilst walking on the pavement outside the building. The simple rule was that if a player stepped on a crack in the pavement, they had to sound their instrument. This resulted in a cacophonous if joyous parade. A slight adjustment separating players into ranks created the conditions for emergence as patterns of different playing started to become discernible. The work was well considered and the attention to detail impressive with instruments all coloured similarly. It is difficult to prototype or rehearse such a work that requires a group of 16 or 17 players but some further thinking could have been done about groups instruments that complemented each other, and some deeper thinking about the relationship between pavement surface and the noise produced.

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