Emergent design typically lays claim to overcoming preconception and promises the ability to generate something that cannot be conceived of in an a priori way. Reverting this claim, Kokkugia holds a more modest and productive aspiration – to tease out the inherent qualities of systems. Design is less an act of invention than one of systemic orchestration. But what is it that they wish to orchestrate?
There exists an intrinsic relationship between the behaviour of a modelling process and the formal characteristics that are generated by this. Modelling in clay produces certain tendencies; modelling in sheet, others. This is also true of digital tools. Choosing to model in Non Uniform Rational B-Splines (NURBS) or meshes is to choose between different sets of constraints and opportunities. Unlike what one might expect, the computer is not benign. Rather it is a thing that has a character and attitude. This is akin to the idea of “self.”
In its search for the physical presence of the self, neuroscience has found evidence elusive. Our short-term memory can only hold a thought for ten seconds before randomly moving on to the next. Where then lies our sense of self, our point of view? Neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer describes the self as the thing that emerges from the “flickering chemicals and ephemeral voltages” that we are.
Objectively, the sum of the parts of any agent-based system can be understood. The roles of individual agents and the relationships between them can be easily catalogued, the resultant behaviour of the whole not so. This is the ghost in the machine that science so vehemently denies. In presenting a lecture on the work of Kokkugia in March 2010, Roland Snooks quipped that each project that emerges from the systems Kokkugia orchestrates has to be run through their custom-written computer code about eighty times before they are satisfied with the results. What is it that they are searching for with such fervour? They are searching for the self of the systems they have designed. But how do they know when they find it?
The first public performance of Igor Stravinksy’s The Rite of Spring caused a riot. Audience members attacked each other with canes and umbrellas and the police were called. Having worked tirelessly to invent chords and tonal relationships that were unfamiliar to the ear, the ruckus was evidence to Stravinksy that he had achieved the new. In his 2007 book Proust was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer outlined how neuroscience has uncovered how our brains distinguish understandable sounds from the chaos of all noise that enters our ears. He described this as the learning of patterns. Citing the above example, Lehrer demonstrated that when these expectations are frustrated it is because we are hearing something truly new.
In deciding which of the eighty-odd behaviours to choose from as they emerge, Kokkugia cautiously watches for immediate value judgements. Is it interesting? Is it beautiful? Is it efficient? And so on. When these apply the result is not accepted – as one might expect – but rejected. When describing this act of assessment Snooks says, “If something can be immediately valued it generally means that this something is within the known sphere of judgements that one is capable of making. If something is strange it typically means that it sits outside the series of judgements that you have previously made.”
If ugliness is beauty that we are yet to understand, then the project of Kokkugia is to approach this understanding by revealing the strange architectural self within the tendencies of agent-based systems.
Published online: 1 Jun 2010
Words: Johan van Schaik
Artichoke, June 2010