From Brain to Environment: The Second-Order Cybernetics of Katherine Bennett’s Art

Katherine Bennett, Then Ether, responsive light and sound environment, speakers, lights, microphones, custom electronics, custom programming

Katherine Bennett, Then Ether, responsive light and sound environment, speakers, lights, microphones, custom electronics, custom programming

From Brain to Environment: The Second-Order Cybernetics of Katherine Bennett’s Art

by Charissa N. Terranova

The “all-over” may answer the feeling that all hierarchical distinctions have been, literally, exhausted and invalidated; that no area or order of experience is intrinsically superior, on any final scale of values, to any other area or order of experience. It may express a monist naturalism for which there are neither first nor last things, and which recognizes as the only ultimate distinction that between the immediate and the un-immediate.

                                                                                                           Clement Greenberg[i]

Variety and possibility are inherent in the human sensorium – and are indeed the key to man's most noble flights – because variety and possibility belong to the very structure of the human organism.

                                                                                                           Norbert Wiener[ii]


The “all-over” quality of art has taken on new dimensions in contemporary media art. Temporal, lived, social, gadget-driven, and a matter of software coding, they are qualities that are omnipresent in the oeuvre of media artist Katherine Bennett. Similar to the ways in which Clement Greenberg used the term, Bennett’s all-over media art work is a hammer to any vestiges of age-old hierarchies connected to medium-specificity, material, scale, and composition within art.

Doyen of twentieth-century abstract art and art critic extraordinaire, Greenberg coined the term “all-over” in 1948 to describe a new kind of non-figural objectless painting in which composition had disappeared in favor of the expressive luxury of paint dabbed, dripped, scribbled, slapped, and thrown across an open field. Painters like Jackson Pollock, Mark Tobey, and Janet Sobel worked, sometimes even danced, through space, brushstrokes in hand making marks choreographed by chance. While the parameters of this field were radically open in process, they were ultimately closed by the canvas usually located at its center collecting those marks. An instance of the “all-over” mid last century, painting had suddenly become quintessentially time-based: a record of the artist’s existential and un-plotted engagement in real time with paint in an environment where a canvas happened to exist. With the advent of all-over-ness, art’s tight binding to hierarchies of scale and composition within painting had been irreparably untwined.

Katherine Bennett, Aural Outpost, Interactive light installation, felt, custom electronics and programming (Asterisk, Unix, Max/MSP) 

Words like “time-based,” “real time,” and “environment” similarly describe the all-over-ness of Katherine Bennett’s media art, however, they function slightly differently. Take for example Bennett’s “The Depository: Aural Outpost” (2012), a work consisting of eight felt cocoons containing speakers using custom electronics and software programming mounted asymmetrically on the wall. “Aural Outpost” builds on a related project by Bennett called “The Depository,” in which individuals in emotional need are invited to call a phone number and “deposit thoughts.” Triggered by human movement in the gallery, the audio files from “The Depository” are regularly updated and played randomly through the speakers imbedded in the small fuzzy nests that make up “Aural Outpost.” This piece is at once time-based and a matter of real-time engagement. Humans roving through the space of a gallery activate in real time the recorded sounds of human voices. The voices unfurl across space and time, so many electronic tendrils weaving an immaterial web that wraps around the percipient. “The Depository: Aural Outpost” is a dynamic and changing sound-based immersive environment.    

Katherine Bennett, Transmissions from the System (2016) Light, LCD, Micro-controllers, MP3 player, Electronics, Custom Programming, WiFi

Katherine Bennett, Transmissions from the System (2016) Light, LCD, Micro-controllers, MP3 player, Electronics, Custom Programming, WiFi

Bearing elements of craft, code, and installation, the work embodies well Bennett’s polymathic sensibilities. Bennett holds university diplomas in psychology, sculpture, and art-and-technology, or media art, providing her with a rich bailiwick of skills to interrogate and study the ways in which communication technologies impact social interactions. Bennett has been developing her acumen in the realm of cybernetics, a term to which I return in detail below, for over fifteen years. Highlights of her career as an artist include an MFA from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago (2007), BFA from Wolverhampton School of Art & Design in England (2001), her current position as Visiting Assistant Professor of Integrated Digital Media Technology, Culture and Society at the prestigious Tandon School of Engineering at New York University, and several provocative exhibitions. In 2000, Bennett’s “Sleeping Thoughts” was installed in the Eagle Works Gallery located in Wolverhampton, a small town in the West Midlands of England just north of the old industrial hub of Birmingham. The piece was Bennett’s first large-scale immersive light installation. Bennett’s goal was at once intimate and astronomical. She wanted viewers to feel as if they were “walking through (or being amongst) a field of stars.”[iii] In 2007, Bennett oversaw the installation at G2 Gallery in Chicago of “Then Ether,” another large-scale responsive light and sound environment in which she used custom code and custom circuits in order to materialize a space bearing its own memory. With speakers, lights, microphones, custom electronics, and custom programming, she created a space that was self-learning, or autopoetic, through feedback loops. Through strategically placed devices, the piece records and plays back sounds in response to the presence of people. As Bennett explains, “at times, the installation space is relatively calm and quiet. At other times, the space swells with sound, triggering many ‘memories’ (sound files) at one time, creating a mild cacophony that will exist within its walls.”[iv]  

Bennett’s careful crafting of experience through conventional and avant-garde materials – woven and built, soft- and hardware – knows little bounds, be they geographical, intellectual, or in sheer reverie. In 2016, Bennett showed “Transmissions from the System” in an exhibition, If This Then What, at the ODETTA Gallery directed by Ellen Hackl Fagan in Brooklyn and participated in the Spatial Sound Hacklab at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany (ZKM). “Transmissions from the System” focuses on the failures of voicemail transcription in Google Voice, while the piece Bennett collaboratively developed with members of Team AAK’D (‘acked) in Germany explored experimental music and narrative story-telling performed in pitch darkness.

In their expansive integration of space and time and autopoetic abilities, Bennett’s works are cybernetic. The two italicized words – autopoetic and cybernetic – are key here and thus beg careful definition. The first term is an adjective which comes from the word autopoiesis, a word that bears roots in the cognitive and biological sciences. The term autopoesis became popular over the last decades in the development of computers, computation, artificial intelligence, and artificial life. Both adjective and noun formations come from term Greek auto-, meaning "self," and -poiesis, meaning "creation, production,” and literally mean "self-creation.” Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela introduced the term autopoesis in 1972 to describe the basic qualities of life and the living organism. Aptly communicating the work of Bennett, Maturana and Varela combined “autopoesis” and “machines,” defining an autopoetic machine as “a network of processes, production, transformation, and destruction of components that produces the components which…regenerate and realize the network of processes…that produced them…”[v] Bennett makes autopoetic machines. In plain terms, an autopoetic machine is self-generating and self-stabilizing in the way that a scab grows over a wound, heat generates sweat, or cold creates shivers. The conceptualization of autopoetic machines was rooted in careful observance of the cognitive and behavioral systems of humans, forging not simply a relationship but an elision between humans and machines. Humans built autopoetic machines that functioned like humans from which humans would learn about themselves in a cybernetic feedback loop.

Many media artists and theorists use the second word – “cybernetic” – synonymously with the digital. While this is a correct use of the word, it is somewhat limited. Its origins, effects, and affects bear a much more capacious meaning, and thus give material ballast to the word “cybernetic” as a footing, framework, and comprehensive philosophical point-of-view. Just as Greenberg was lamenting the ‘crisis in easel painting,’ MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener coined the word “cybernetic” to refer to self-equilibrating dynamic systems. He arrived at this word in 1948, after years of experimentation during World War II in radio wave technology and the development of anti-aircraft machines and ballistics. Wiener derived the word from the Greek kybernetes, which means “steersman,” and refers to the feedback loop coursing through and between the steersman or pilot, ship, and environment.[vi] Art historian Thomas Dreher explains, “in controlling movements the ship, the steersman communicates simultaneously with the ship and with its environment.”[vii] While digitally based cybernetic systems in the form of smart devices abound in the twenty-first century, simpler analogue forms include household thermostats, toilet flushes, and, Wiener’s preferred lodestar, Scottish scientists James Clerk Maxwell’s feedback mechanism known as a centrifugal governor, or simply “governor” (a Latin perversion of the Greek kybernetes), invented in 1868 to regulate steam engines.[viii]

Katherine Bennett, Turn Me On, (2005) Interactive light installation; Lights, metal, fabric, custom electronics and custom programming

Katherine Bennett, Turn Me On, (2005) Interactive light installation; Lights, metal, fabric, custom electronics and custom programming

Autopoetic cybernetic systems, as both defined by Norbert Wiener and made in the form of art by Katherine Bennett, are significant not simply because they bear the seeds of an automation revolution in manufacturing that is upon us now, but also because of the blow they deal to Cartesian dualism. Cartesian dualism refers to the idea that the mind is everlasting and embedded solely in the brain and wholly separate from the body, which is but a material, temporal, and evanescent husk of the brain and mind, both timeless, soul-like essences. A full and correct understanding of cybernetics further rectifies another misunderstanding of the digital similarly connected to Cartesian dualism. Cartesian perspectives within computer science prioritize the digital over the physical; the digital emphasis on information encourages the domination and subjugation of the physical by the mental. By contrast, the digital understood properly in terms of autopoetic cybernetic systems denies this duality in favor of understanding living organisms according to embodiment, situated-ness, and multi-vectored relationships. A shift from Cartesian dualism to complex biological systems occurs by way of cybernetics. Cybernetics is not simply digital technology but, in the greater scheme, a monist perspective, not unlike that mentioned in Greenberg’s opening quote, in which the organic and inorganic are fundamentally fused in a nature that arises from the unnatural. Autopoetic cybernetic systems inscribe a physiology of brain-body holism in which the mind is not contained simply within the brain but is extended across the sensorium and body through site-specific fields. Mind changes according to various environments and interactions. In each of Bennett’s arrangements, in every one of her interactive and immersive environments, this extension of mind is attuned and felt through sound, touch, and time-based envelopment. In Bennett’s art, brain, mind, and the digital are never above the body or transcendent but embedded within it, immanent, and flowing across fields of matter.

Bennett’s practice is part of the rich and tantalizing history of cybernetic machines, many of which were created by founding cybernetician-scientists. In the early days of cybernetic experimentation directly after World War II, figures such as Wiener, Ross Ashby, and Gordon Pask designed interactive robotic brains, which are fascinating in their carefully crafted mechanical autopoesis and aesthetic sensibility. In many ways, these experimental machines bear the qualities of art and are part of the deeper history of media art. They are the forebears of Bennett’s contemporary practice. Wiener designed “Palomilla,” a robot functioning as a moth-cum-bedbug that had tricycle wheels and several photocells giving it sensitivity to light and dark. Through feedback with its environment, Palomilla moved either pro-phototropically or anti-phototropically. “The feedback involved, from light source to cell to tiller, and back,” could be construed as willed, or “voluntary, for,” according to Wiener, “voluntary action is essentially a choice among tropisms.”[ix] In 1946-47, just prior to Wiener’s construction of Palomilla, the British cybernetician and psychiatrist Ross Ashby introduced the Homeostat, a mechanical model that functioned as an example of ongoing homeostasis.[x] With several knobs enabling the balancing of voltage fluctuations, Ashby’s Homeostat played out the first rule of cybernetics, or Ashby’s “law of requisite variety.” Bearing the basic ideas of Wiener’s thesis in the introduction above on life defined according to variety, Ashby’s law states that "variety absorbs variety, defines the minimum number of states necessary for a controller to control a system of a given number of states."[xi] In simple parlance, this means that in order to deal properly with the diversity of problems the world bears, one needs to have a repertoire of responses which is as nuanced as these problems. The most striking incarnation of both the law of requisite variety and art was British cybernetician and artist Gordon Pask’s “Colloquy of Mobiles” (1968), which was shown in the pivotal exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London curated by Jasia Reichardt in 1968.[xii] Pask’s interactive sculpture was a large mobile made up of a series of dangling orthogonal and bulbous shapes which responded to each other’s rotations and passersby in the gallery. A computer-controlled set of electric motors turned the orthogonal shapes, which were gendered male, and the plastic bulbous shapes, which were gendered female and designed by artist Yolanda Sonnabend. Pask embedded light-sensitive devices and mirrors at the core of these forms, which, as light reflected and refracted from the mirrors at the heart of each dangling shape, generated movement in the opposing form.

Katherine Bennett, Sonic Webs (2013) Light and Sound Installation; Felt, conductive thread, LED's, radios, custom electronics

Bennett’s practice and work is at once part of this history and on its edge, bringing the rubric of cybernetic art full-throttle into the twenty-first century. Bennett’s expansion of this field takes place around the shift from brain to environment: she seeks not to make smart objects or brains but smart environments and fields of experience. Moving beyond the groundbreaking robotic designs of Wiener, Ashby, and Pask, all of which were intended to approximate artificial brains, Bennett designs wholesale cybernetic ecologies. Works such as “Sonic Webs” (2013), “Antenna Clouds” (2007), and “Turn Me On” (2005) are device driven but not device centric. Meaning exudes from these works because of environmental, ecological, and spatial ambiences created by devices rather than the devices themselves. Bennett is no fetishist of the gadget; she is a cartographer of events across spaces and an impresario of fields of action.

Katherine Bennett, Antenna Clouds (2007) Responsive light and sound installation; Lights, speakers, sensors, custom electronics

In final conclusion, the power and persuasion of Bennett’s art comes precisely from this realm, that is to say, inside systems and not from outside of them. Her message is that there is no outside-the-system, only inside-the-system. Her works navigate fields within cybernetic systems. They are built, crafted, and constructed from the perspective of second-order cybernetics. Bennett explains:

I create systems to reflect these systems we exist within - social structures, technological networks + applications, political systems. There is always an input and output and flow within these systems. They are constantly flexing and changing. Computers and code enable what Roy Ascott refers to as "an instrument for the magnification of thought, an intelligence amplifier” in expressing the concepts I explore within my research practice. The ideas I explore aren't static. They are moving, changing and evolving.[xiii]

“Sonic Webs,” with its felt clouds capturing sounds from the surrounding airwaves, “Antenna Clouds,” a responsive light and sound installation emerging from a strip of lights, speakers and sensors on the floor, and “Turn Me On,” a tongue-in-cheek interactive light piece that rapidly cycles through would-be romantic relationships, place the percipient within the cybernetic system rather than without it. This placement inside of the system denies the viewer of a pure, rational perspective from an Archimedean Point, instead placing her in the more realistic maelstrom of complex systems that is cybernetics within cybernetics, or second-order cybernetics. In this realm, the percipient, art-devotee does not have agency ex nihilo but among others. She is always already navigating the flows of other agencies alongside her own. As Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro write, if “first-order cybernetics is the ‘science of observed systems’,” then “second-order cybernetics is the ‘science of observing systems’.”[xiv] Conventional cybernetics is a science of biological or mechanical systems based on the human nervous system, functioning according to the flows of feedback loops. Parts are interrelated, but contained in a closed system. According to this model, the system is to be observed from the outside. By contrast, with second-order cybernetics there is no outside from which to observe: the system is a part within another system, ad infinitum, creating what author and systems-thinker Arthur Koestler described in the mid-twentieth century as series of “holons” and a “holarchy.”[xv]

[i] Greenberg, Clement, “The Crisis of the Easel Picture” [1948], The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 2: Arrogant Purpose, 1945-1949, John O’Brian, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988) 224.

[ii] Wiener, Norbert, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (New York: Da Capo Press, 1988 [1950]) 52.

[iii] Interview with Katherine Bennett 10/28/16.

[iv] Information from; Accessed 12/10/16.

[v] Maturana, Humberto R. and Francisco J. Varela, Autopoesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (Boston, MA: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1972) 135.

[vi] Wiener, Norbert, Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,1948) 11.

[vii] Dreher, Thomas, “Cybernetics and the Pioneers of Computer Art,” unpublished paper. Accessed through 12/10/16.

[viii] Wiener, Cybernetics or Control and Communication…, 11-12.

[ix] Information from; Accessed 12/10/16.

[x] Ashby, Ross, Design for a Brain: The Origin of Adaptive Behaviour (London: Chapman & Hall Ltd., 1952) 100-101. See also Dreher, 7.

[xi] Ashby, Ross, An Introduction to Cybernetics (London: Methuen, 1956) 206.

[xii] Dreher, 16-17.

[xiii] Interview with Katherine Bennett 10/28/16.

[xiv] Dubberly, Hugh and Paul Pangaro, “How Cybernetics Connects Computing, Counterculture, and Design, in Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia, curated/edited by Andrew Blauvelt (Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2015) 132.

[xv] Koestler, Arthur, “Beyond Atomism and Holism – the Concept of the Holon,” in Beyond Reductionism: New Perspectives in the Life Sciences, eds. Arthur Koestler and J.R. Smythies (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1968) 192-232.