Complexity Joerael Elliott

Photo: Minesh Bacrania


I was invited to undertake a three-month artist-in-residency at the Santa Fe Institute to illustrate complexity science. Below are the results of this challenging & enlightening project. I hope these six drawings give you some insight into complexity science and also illuminate some of the research themes currently at SFI.
Title: "Invention & Innovation" This first piece in a series of six is infused with graffiti symbolism. I chose to utilize graffiti as a metaphor due to its nature as a global complex system/social symptom. If you consider a mental model of invention in terms of graffiti it could be viewed in the form of a TAG. So a writer or collective of writers could invent a style of TAGGING such as "Wickeds"—the Philly hand style. The style itself can be subject to evolve, change, go extinct, or become endangered like cursive penmanship. The act of TAGGING itself is an innovation of graffiti culture that defines the culture on some level and has no end in sight. I see graffiti culture as an innovation of the human condition—a voice in a chaotic modern world and a symptom of mass industrialization and population boom. TAGGING is an innovation of graffiti culture, but localized styles are invented and tend to change as neighborhood change (changing the world as a whole).
Title: "Computational Cultural Complexity" In my rendering, I revolved my focus around Los Angeles where I lived for four years. I inject symbolism that depicts the nature of conflict and alliance that arise to culturally shape neighborhoods and cities. I chose to render gang symbolism to illustrate the territorial complexity of systems that occur in metropolises such as LA.
Title: "Complex Economies" This rendering has the most destructive flavor of the series. Here you'll find severed hands, Mayan codex, Martin Shkreli, the Wu Tang Clans one-off album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, El Chapo, bark beetles, etc. Current economic models insist that an invisible hand changes the economy as a ghost-like outside force. Complexity Economics argues that changes in the market bubble up from a variety of complex circumstances. I rendered what I perceive as modern villains (such as Shkreli and El Chapo) to give thought to questions like: What circumstances create destructive agent-based models and how can these models affect global economies? How can people in different positions of power affect the velocity and forms of currency? What does that look like? How am I connected?
Title: "Architectures Of Complexity" My approach in this subject was a little more abstract. I created a mash-up of different metaphors of mental model tools (such as graphs and nodes/edges) to create an organic cloud. In my own mental journey into the young genre of complexity science I became fascinated with the idea of biologists trying to see the underlying architecture of complex biological systems. It is thought that the key to understanding how nature maps sequences of amino acids is not actually decoding nature’s chosen map. Instead, it’s in the underlying architecture that shapes and constrains such maps in the first place. The negative worm-like spaces depicted in the rendering symbolize the unseen architectures of complexity that silently exist and wait to be discovered to reveal shapes and constraints.
Title: " Computational Worlds" The shape of this piece is arranged after the mandala-like arrangement of the SETI satellite system. One day at the the Institute I was talking with researcher Dan Larremore. He told me about his collective computational road trip with his mother where they woke up early to go see a huge flock of geese in southern NM and then headed out to visit the SETI arrangement. This conversation with Dan gave me insight into how a complexity scientist "might" approach a quantitative undertaking by looking at behaviors in systems and seeing patterns. In this drawing I honed in on collective behaviors from graffiti writing, mass editing of Wikipedia pages, Burning Man, and Western Blue Birds protecting their territories from Cedar Wax Wings.
Title: "Mental Models Of Complexity" Just like an artist doing a stipple drawing and trying to render a pattern which represents an image or form, a complexity scientist does the same thing. The researcher uses various graphs by way of writing code, physics, quantitative data, etc., to render a model and communicate something purely mathematical. Being an artist at SFI and seeing the researchers' processes showed me multiple layers of commonality that artists and scientists share. One of the main commonalities is how it is necessary for us to create mental models to communicate what is complex in order to effectively cultivate deeper knowledge about a subject.
Created By
Joerael Elliott

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