After the fundamental shift towards abstraction in artistic practice that started in the middle of the 19th century, another profound and far reaching change around 100 years later has literally transformed the experience we have with artwork. Advancements in science, technology, and mathematics have for the first time in history opened up a pathway for two-way communication between the observer and a work of art.[1] To enable some form of real-time response, communication, and thus to some degree a level of intelligence on the side of an artwork, it turned out the key was to first form a new theoretical and mathematical understanding of not only what enables similar faculties in humans and other organisms, but also what these entities are in the context of behavior, interaction, and processing of information. Abstraction, this time not as an artistic, but rather a logical and mathematical practice, has been used to conceptualize and define this new understanding in the form of systems theory and cybernetics. While both approaches are multidisciplinary and highly interlinked, cybernetics defined by Norbert Wiener in 1948 book Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine [2] provided the framework necessary for shifting from one-way contemplation of either static or causally predetermined dynamic works of art to interacting with artworks that can respond and thus a two-way communication can be established. Building on logic for organization and assembly of mechanisms and their relations that systems theory deals with, cybernetics have applied a similar high-level approach to control and signal processing. 
A key concept that enables responsive behavior in dynamic systems is a feedback loop. While its use in a wide range of technological applications since the Second World War cannot be understated, the way that feedback loops have been utilized in art deserves not only deeper analysis but also new perspectives that would help uncover its potential for new forms of art in the 21st century and even beyond.
Dynamical Systems
Well known sculptural works of kinetic artists such as Jean Tinguely serve as an early example of shift from static to dynamic form of art. However, the inherent predictability and inflexibility of behavior of these artworks is far from the promise of some form of an intelligent response or a two-way communication. Artists who wanted to explore this long-sought potential could turn to concepts used in design and analysis of complex dynamical systems. What are these concepts and how can they be applied to artistic practice? While feedback loops are often considered a key feature of dynamic systems, especially in the context of engineering or study of living organisms in the scope of cybernetics, they may be an even more fundamental concept when applied to art. Outside of art, systems that utilize feedback loops are usually designed to serve a function, deliver desired behavior and stability of a system in relation to its environment or its internal functioning by dynamically feeding part of the output back into their input. The complexity of the input/output relationship in these systems can vary from trivial closed loops in the thermostat to enormous open multi-level feedback structures of a living organism. Feedback loops enable most systems to function and in some more complex systems can even be considered an elementary and essential relational unit, so how could they be even more fundamental In the context of art? To attempt to answer this question it is necessary to look at them from various perspectives and try to identify key concepts that make them loop not by themselves, but in creative interchanges of men and machines.
Composing With Feedback Loops
An early champion of cybernetic vision in art is Roy Ascott. He provides important insights into the role of feedback in modern art in his 1966 manifesto: Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision. He considers feedback as a basic principle of the participational, inclusive form of art making the loop an integral whole of the artist/artwork/observer triad[3]. While this understanding aims to elevate the feedback loop from input/output mechanism to a uniting principle of relationships and behavior, its meaning starts to resonate more strongly if we link with other notions from his text. Specifically, that artist is “...taking endless risks as he plunges into the unknown territories of Form and Idea.“  and that the concern of Modern Art is the initiation of events and forming of concepts of existence in contrast to the deterministic aesthetic of the art of the past[3]. While these three Ascott’s insights may seem rather abstract, especially when they are not presented in their broader contexts, they can provide valuable perspective for analysis of concepts involved in Dan Graham’s Time Delay Room installations. Borrowing Ascott’s concepts Graham’s approach can be described as composing with observers’ spatio-temporal existence by placing him and others in multiple, infinite time-delayed feedback loops, where all elements integrate to form the whole triad as a manifestation of pure form and idea. In other words, Graham and eventually in some form also the observer is composing not only with feedback loop systems, but also with time and space as well as perception and reality. Formally, the components, processes, and concepts may be separated but it is only together that their relations feed onto themselves and allow the totality of the experience to emerge.
Another perspective to look at feedback loops is to consider their materiality. Woody and Steina Vasulka have experimented with generating electronic feedback from different combinations of audio and video signals[4]. “We look at video feedback as electronic art material… it’s the raw material that you… build an image with...” [5]. While composing with material qualities and features of feedback loops to create assemblages can and in many cases does produce artistically very valuable results, the true potential of feedback in art can be difficult to find outside of works that do not embrace complex systems thinking and cybernetics. These approaches are important for the concept of emergence, which can also be described as creation of new behaviors from complex interchanges within a system.
Behavior of a material system enabled by negative and positive feedback loops is based on capacities of both individual components as well as the structure of relationships within the system. What a system such as interactive installation can do depends not only on ranges and thresholds of triggers that initiate events, but rather on patterns of behavior that emerge from feedback operations involving degrees of freedom available to the system. Even in a system with a limited number of degrees of freedom some form of emergence of new patterns is possible due to special conditions on the borders of thresholds and ranges. While it is mostly desired that the behavior of a complex nonlinear system follows trajectories that enable it to achieve its function. In the context of cybernetic art, the opposite may very well be what artists seek when conceptualizing new art forms and new experiences. New behaviors are initiated by events that actualize complex previously virtual capacities of the system in response to external intervention. “An event, in creating new patterns and thresholds, restructures the virtual” [6]. Cybernetics and their role in modern art can be looked at as means to enable the interplay of actual and virtual in real-time confrontation of the artwork and participant. In many computer-based interactive artworks this interplay is achieved through mainly negative feedback operations with variables - values usually within some range, or in other word quantities. In time, virtual capacities are actualized in the form of change of qualities of the system by change of quantities. This change takes place at singularities. As Manuel DeLanda explains in New Materiality: “...singularity (is) … a special event in which a change in quantity becomes a change in quality.” [7] Artists or modelers of complex systems can compose with not only the distribution of singularities to create patterns of behavior through actualization of previously virtual capacities of the system, but in the first place also with the choice of interesting variables. Such choices in this context can be understood as “composing the composition” to borrow a phrase used by Dan Graham in "Subject Matter" that he attributes to Karlhanz Stockhausen. If we follow complexity theory modeling principles, the chosen variables become dimensions in a phase space, where its actual state is represented as a point. As time progresses, a trajectory of this point moving through the phase space emerges. While this trajectory represents the behavior of the system, it is its shape called the attractor that reveals patterns of this behavior. External events can initiate new patterns if change of variables reach a specific threshold as defined by intertwined layout of singularities and attractors in the phase space. While negative feedback is normally used to stabilize the behavior of systems and make sure it is following patterns that make it function as desired, it is conceivable to imagine a process or modeling of a dynamic non-linear system - an artwork where composing with intricacies of interlinked nature of variables, patterns of behavior, and singularities will produce completely new experiences. Roy Ascott already saw an enormous potential of art conceived as a system: The system Artifact/Observer furnishes its own controlling energy; a function of an output variable (observer response) is to act as an input variable, which introduces more variety into the system and leads to more variety in the output (observer's experience).[3] However, his view that: “Cybernetics …is the science of the organization of effects, and of the automatic control of effects.” [3] can be challenged. The issue in this statement is the focus on effect rather than process and the experience of two-way exchange or communication between the artwork and participant. Effect simply does not reflect the complexity of artwork/participant relationships that cybernetics and systems theory bring into modern art. Artist David Rokeby provides a different perspective of this relationship: If culture, in the context of interactive media, becomes something we “do,” it’s the interface that defines how we do it and how the “doing” feels. [8]
Rokeby’s insight is important in that it elevates experience above effect in a straightforward way. Although the notion of cause and effect is already more complicated in cybernetic systems that embody feedback loops than in casual structures that do not involve them, some form of effect certainly takes place. However, as non-linear dynamic systems such as interactive installations utilizing feedback are often described as being more than a sum of their parts due to the many complex relationships of their components and their spatio-temporal intricacies and emergent behavior, effect can be attributed as only being one of those parts in cybernetic system. The inherent inseparability of parts in the context of these systems poses further challenges not only in their analysis and description, but also in their design. Does an artist design or compose an experience or a system that creates experience through enactment by the participant? The latter definition seems more suitable and may be applicable in many, but not all cases. Lodato provides additional important insight about a visual feedback loop: “Externally, the visual feedback loop is a conceptual object.”[9] While this definition comes from his extensive study of specifics related to visual feedback loops rather than more general feedback in the context of systems, conceptual approach to design is nevertheless essential also for complex art systems.
Strategies for Design of the Complex
What kind of tools can artists turn to when composing a complex composition? Systems theory and cybernetics model functional systems using mathematics, logic, and in most advanced cases also using topology. However, some techniques may help to approach the inherent complexity in a more user friendly way and are widely used in other fields to simplify at least some part of the design work. In general, two main approaches are at hand: visualization and simulation. Graph diagrams of components represented as nodes and their relationships visualized as links between the nodes can serve as an initial map of the system that also allows for addition of arrows and specifics of data flow within the systems. In a limited form, feedback loops can also be included. For systems with more complex structure and larger amounts of interesting variables, such visualizations may not represent sufficiently the pathways they can behave in relation to dynamics of their relationships and capacities. Design of network topologies employs graph visualizations extensively even in interactive forms displaying real-time data flows and providing interfaces for controlling their properties. For artists it is, nevertheless, essential to have as much freedom in the creative process as possible. Simulation, especially a real-time one can provide more freedom in composition and provide valuable insight in a modeled system and its behavior. However, ultimately it is necessary to design and build the actual system in real-time. The inherent complexity and the need to design the system as a whole as its behavior only emerges once all components play together requires its actualization in the process of creation. Intuition and experimentation like in any other artistic practice can be tapped into in this process.
Recent project cellF led by artist and researcher Guy Ben-Ary challenges most if not all that has been mentioned about cybernetics and systems theory and can provide a form of window into the future, where complexity and feedback take dramatically new forms. In simple words: “CellF is the world’s first neural synthesizer.”[10] At its center is a biological neural network grown from transmuted cells taken from Ben-ary. This neural network is grown directly on a silicon chip equipped with 64 electrodes that can both read electric signals produced by the network and stimulate it at the same time. It resides in a petri dish in a special cultivation chamber and is electrically connected to a neural interface that translates the signals into an analog synthesizer, which interprets them into sound. Multi-channel audio system then outputs sounds into the room. Electrical stimulation of the network is provided by a signal from a performer captured by a microphone. The network thus takes input from the performer and provides a response that is output to the audience. While it may seem that the structure of the system is simple, the central subsystem - the biological neural network is in a way by itself a pure manifestation of complexity. It embodies all the aspects of complex non-linear dynamic systems and what is more it behaves and it literally makes up its own mind and responds in an ordered, self-organized but highly unpredictable way. Feedback loops inside this network - a subsystem of cellF are as complex as it gets, but its output as a whole is only fed back through the response of the performer who through his own neural network responds to how the much simpler neural network interprets his musical composition. Complexity can be found in all aspects of this project including its creation process, however, the experience of performances for the audience is, as one would expect, not too different from experiencing an experimental concert. As John Protevi states: “...complexity theory moves from complex to simple.” [6]. 
Feedback loops have been used in many forms of art by many artists, especially since the 1960s. However, more than 70 years after Norbert Wiener defined the foundations of cybernetics, the shift “to a future shaped by a Cybernetic Vision” [3] is both present as well as it is not. While there are fascinating examples of interactive art that employ feedback loops in systems so complex that one’s experience of them and within them is mind blowing, “the art of the past.. (with its) wish to transmit a clearly defined message” [3] still prevails. In fact so much that some artists that have spent years or decades experimenting with new forms inspired by cybernetics, turn back to the creation of static objects. One issue is the economics of complex interactive artworks compared to traditional art forms such as painting and sculpture. While the costs of powerful hardware, sensors, and other advanced technologies have been steadily decreasing, it is very rare to see interactive artworks being commissioned by cultural institutions to ensure their long-term operation and preservation. Talented painters are simply better positioned in the current art market than cybernetic artists. However, there is also some good news for creators who want to tap into the potential of composing complex responsive systems. One of them is the proliferation of artificial intelligence. Probably the most common cybernetic system or rather subsystem in interactive art is a mechanism for tracking of participants in a specific area or a room in real-time. Only a few years ago this required complex sensors such as 3D scanning devices or motion capture camera setups as well as high-end computers for real-time analysis. Nowadays, it is possible to utilize a simple camera and an already trained algorithm downloaded from the internet to enable similar and in some cases even more advanced functions at a dramatically lower cost not only financially and computationally. That also means expensive computers can be replaced with small computing units that can be dedicated or even embedded inside systems or objects. The path for “making art behave” is thus more open than ever before. Furthermore, the skyrocketing pace of development of open-source software is probably even more important for cybernetic artists as mathematics and logic are their brushes that enable complex behaviors. While it may seem that the palette is there and the somewhat stalling cybernetic future may finally be arriving, it is important to also look at the aspect of education in relation to art and mathematics, logic, and programming. Creation of complex systems utilizing feedback loops beyond simple input/output operations requires universities and art schools to involve more interdisciplinary modes of learning where mathematics and programming take a central role. There is no other way. The reward, however, would be worth it. Feedback loops are everywhere - they are profound not only in that they literally enable our existence, but also that they can through creative processes change how we can experience the same existence and our understanding of being.
Jakub Grosz, 2021
[1] Burnham, Jack. “Beyond Modern Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of This Century.” (1968): 313.
[2] Wiener, Norbert. “Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.” (1948).
[3] Ascott, Roy. “Roy Ascott: Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision.” (2005).
[4] Shanken, E., B. Clarke and L. Henderson. “Cybernetics and Art : Cultural Convergence in the 1960 s.” (2012).
[5] Yalkut, Jud. “Electronic Zen.” Unpublished Manuscript, 28-30
[6] Protevi, John. "Deleuze, Guattari and Emergences." Paragraph 29, no. 2 (2006): 23. Accessed August 24, 2020.
[7] Delanda, Manuel. “The New Materiality.” Architectural Design 85 (2015): 16-21.
[8] Rokeby, David. “The construction of experience: interface as content.” (1998).
[9] Lodato, Thomas James. “A treatise on the loop as a desired form: visual feedback and relational new media.” (2010).
[10] Ben-Ary, Guy. “cellF” (2014) Accessed August 30, 2020.