December 8th – 22nd
Signal / Noise
“Some say it’s conversation
But you hear incoherent cries
Like static between two stations
William insists it ain’t just noise”
P. Blegvad – Blue Eyed Wiliam, 1983
All human activity and experience is organised in space and time. Yet we understand little of the origin of space and time. That is to say that we can trace, in part through technologically enhanced forms of observation, the points of origin of existing things, while we cannot trace the origin of existence itself. Bound by the finitude of our own existence, as mortal human beings, we are prone to extend this specific experience of time, the passing between birth and death, to a cosmological scale. To understand as it were what it was that gave birth to our universe, to all universes (existing and possible / potential).
Mother, that which gives birth, the point of origin, sits at the heart of the word ‘matter’ in the Latin root of the word, ‘mat’, signifying ‘mother’ – that which gave birth, the point of origin. An origin that is lost after our inception into this existing universe. The moment of its final loss, when mother dies, invariably is a moment of absolute existential crisis: the loss of origin is an absolute ‘terror’ (an existential fear), a point of absolute darkness, quickly blotted out by the light of existence.
Despite this overexposure by what actually exists, the here and now, a nagging feeling remains behind, vaguely discernible in the background noise of daily flows of activity. Where is the lost origin? How did I come into existence, how did all that which actually exists come into existence? What preceded this point of origin? Similar in kind and significance to the analysis of background noise in cosmic radiation, which might give us clues as to the origin of our existing universe. And yet the answer to these questions eludes us for the infinity time.
Can we get closer to the point of origin by examining these noise patterns, looking for traces, signals from a prehuman past? Is there meaning, semantics, in these emanations of noise of activity and radiation? Can we make them intelligible? Can we create technological perceptual protheses that are adequate to the scale and intensity of cosmic data generation?
A curious effect of such perceptual machines is that they very quickly start to operate at a scale and intensity (speed) that transcends the limits of the human cognitive apparatus. To see requires time, a minimal exposure time, beneath which nothing is visible at all. These perceptual machines, operating in a machine time of ultra-short duration, exceed and disappear from human perception. In doing so they render whatever it is that they perceive entirely obscure to us. We have no access to their operations because their duration is too short for the human cognitive apparatus to perceive anything at all.
All these questions are at the heart of the artistic quest that the works of Katarina Petrović encircle – principally without offering us an answer.
We might ask, is this quest for the point of origin and its own coming into being, therefore a principally absurd undertaking?
The answer is “Yes!”, but the undertaking is nonetheless an inextricable part of human existence.
“These noises, do they serve a purpose?
Or are they merely arbitrary?”
P. Blegvad – Blue Eyed Wiliam, 1983
Eric Kluitenberg is a cultural and media theorist, writer, educator and curator, living and working in The Netherlands.
Probably the most fundamental problem in the whole of science is the origin of the universe. We have increasingly detailed theories of how the primordial energy generated in the Big Bang developed into atoms, molecules, stars, planets and living organisms. But a theory of the ultimate origin must explain how the cosmos emerged out of emptiness. Yet, how can nothing be a cause for something? Present-day cosmology evades the problem by viewing the origin of the universe as a mathematical “singularity”, i.e. a point where time, space, and natural law cease to exist. This means that we cannot extrapolate backward to what came before the Big Bang.
At the level of quantum physics, we do not really need a cause, though. For example, consider a radioactive atom. At some random instant in time, it will disintegrate into smaller particles. What caused the atom to decay at that particular moment, and not at another one? According to quantum theory, it is impossible to say: there is a fundamental uncertainty built into such microscopic processes.
This uncertainty principle even applies to empty space, or what physicists call the “vacuum”. By definition the total energy of the vacuum is zero, since there is nothing there to hold energy. Yet, according to quantum theory the local energy of the vacuum is actually uncertain, and for sufficiently short time intervals, it can take on arbitrarily large values. These unpredictable variations in energy are called “quantum fluctuations of the vacuum”. They appear as virtual particle-antiparticle pairs. These are called “virtual” because they are so short-lived that we cannot directly observe them: the newly created particle and antiparticle almost immediately annihilate each other again.
To create a universe out of nothing, we need an additional mechanism: one that would separate particles and antiparticles, positive and negative energies, so that the zero-energy vacuum would acquire a differentiated structure. An example of such a mechanism is Hawking radiation: if the antiparticle is absorbed by a black hole, it can no longer annihilate its particle partner, which is now free to travel away. Therefore, black holes (harbouring negative energy) appear to emit or radiate particles (carrying positive energy). But this mechanism requires the existence of a black hole, and therefore it cannot explain the ultimate origin.
The quest is on to understand how a cosmos could emerge from the primordial chaos of the quantum vacuum. Such understanding will require a fundamentally new conceptualization of spontaneous creative processes. These are the processes that generate differentiation in an initially homogeneous medium, providing it with a meaningful structure. My own research in theoretical physics, systems theory and cybernetics has been focusing on such processes of “symmetry-breaking” or “self-organization”, and the feedback mechanisms that fuel them. An example of self-organization is the formation of crystals in an initially homogeneous salt solution that evaporates.
The artistic work of Katarina Petrović is an exploration of such processes, conceptually as well as physically. For example, one of her installations, “Origin”, attempts to create a physical vacuum in a glass container, while generating a sound through the feedback between a microphone and a loudspeaker. Another work, “Lexicon Liber Novus”, uses an algorithm that generates an ever-expanding text from a few seed words. And “Cosmologicus” lets the cosmos produce its own poetic text, using a similar algorithm to convert intensities of radiation emitted by the planet Jupiter into words. In this way, Petrović probes the “heart of darkness”, the no-man’s land between science and art, philosophy and spirituality, where the ultimate origin remains hidden.
For more details:
Heylighen, F. (2010). The Self-Organization of Time and Causality: Steps Towards Understanding the Ultimate Origin. Foundations of Science, 15(4), 345-356. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/bb79/dccdcc7c832badcae98ffdecf163945255ed.pdf
Petrović, K. (2018). On Cosmogony (ECCO Working Papers No. 2018-02). Retrieved from http://katarinapetrovic.net/on-cosmogony.pdf
Francis Heylighen is a cyberneticist and theoretical physicist. He works as a research professor at the Free University of Brussels (VUB), where he directs the transdisciplinary research centre CLEA.