Notes on Attempts at Self-Organization

On relevant texts:

There are 3 texts that have been deeply influencing or informing my sense of how forms and their organization are loaded historically, philosophically, and in Augustine’s case, morally.

Plato’s Timeaus

Plato, Timaeus and Critias, trans. Desmond Lee (London: Penguin Books, 1977), 111.

I first read Timeaus about twenty years ago and it has been working on me ever since. Plato proposes minute geometric forms as kind of proto-atoms, which in different combinations compose all matter, and also people, emotions, societies. The distinctive qualities of each shape determine all the varieties of temperament and feel, and the state of the forms, whether they are perfect triangles say, or blunted, are the cause of our health, disease or death.

St. Augustine’s Confessions

St Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. Albert Cook Outler (New York: Dover Publications, 2002), 243-46.

I also read Confessions over twenty years ago, and it has had a profound effect on me. In Augustine’s search for the source of evil and sin, he lands not on a kind of entity or force, but instead posits the source in the nature of form and matter itself. He envisions an axis that stretches on one end from unchangeable divine form through degraded and mutable form to a primordial formless matter on the other, where the distance traveled toward mutability, each step one might take toward change, disorganization, imperfection of form, is a step away from God, and that is the source and essence of sin.

Stephane Leduc

Leduc, Stephane, The Mechanism of Life, trans. W. Dean Butcher (London: William Heinemann, 1914).

This text was a recent and revelatory discovery. Leduc’s treatise presents the physics that governs osmosis and dispersion as responsible for particle circulation in emulsions, which he posits is the basis for life. He created chemical gardens by manipulating osmotic pressure using inanimate elements, and watched as these elements self organized into systems that were akin to living systems, in fact, his view was that the line between animate and inanimate was at best blurred.

On marbling:

The foundational layer of all the paintings in this series is a marbled pattern that I achieve using traditional techniques, and gouache paint. This pattern is very particular in that it involves chemical reactions that create little radiating bursts, due to an addition of potash in one of the paint colors. Called “Tigers Eye” or “Sun Spot”, it may have come from Germany in the early 1800s, although the history I have read is not definitive. I am drawn to the association with explosions and mitosis, and use it in the center of concentric orbs of color, that when packed together tend toward the hexagonal or isometric grid. During the marbling process, the paint is floating on the surface of a liquid size, and the pattern is worked upon by the physics of fluid dynamics, and is subject to myriad distortions and tides- almost like its own weather. Leduc had a fascinating take on the action of pigments in solution, as one of his experiments involved the way ink self-organizes in emulsions: that it created rings, sections, membranes and exhibits many of the functions of a cell. He did not see it as an illustration cell dynamics, but a version of the thing itself.

On mirroring as a form of repetition:

Mirror symmetry differs from other forms of tiling in that the symmetry- the tiles facing each other as they repeat, has an element of self-regard as well as self- replication. Perhaps in this way there is an implicit association with consciousness? Recognition of oneself in a mirror is one test of consciousness. It also has a biological association, as biological reproduction tends to involve mirror symmetry, as does biological growth.

In the series I work with both physical mirrors, which I observe, and a kind of conceptual mirroring, in which I redraw the form flipped the opposite way. These various forms of mirroring have ramifications in how they move, and how they feel, and tend to fall along the axis from insularity to expansiveness. The mental mirroring- flipping the repeat in a flat way- is the most expansive, almost colonial or imperial.

The small vegetative tile is the most aggressive, being able to fill space completely and infinitely in any direction. This creates a kind of crystalline plane, almost effervescent feeling, very stable, and completely homogeneous. There is no movement, as the lattice feels almost architectural, but there is a sense of upward unfolding or bubbling. The shapes of the vegetation are almost geometric, as the leaves are so young as to make the type of plant indiscernible between cultivar and weed.

Leduc speaks of the state of equilibrium or balance in a solution as the point when the system dies. The engine of life in the system is the drive toward harmony and equilibrium, and that is what pulls the molecules across membranes and around fluids, organizing them and creating pumping mechanisms. If this sought for balance is actually achieved, the movement stops and so does life.

Is that what is happening with the small vegetative structure? It doesn’t really feel that way. It still feels like a state of becoming, but with a much more established order, a kind of staking claim to a territory. The pattern can fill any area that is not sealed off by an enclosed structure, for example one of the microcosms.

The next most expansive mirrored element is the little shapes of changing density.

This is a flat mirror, done with a conceptual rather than observed flip, and it can expand indefinitely in space. However, because the bits are so dense on one side of the mirror, the way it is forced to flip to keep symmetry leaves a gap in how it is tiled, and necessitates a certain orientation to how it can flip. Also, about half the mirror is very sparse so it leaves lots of room for other organizations. These are two limits to its aggressiveness. It is also dynamic and fluid feeling. There is a definite movement in the change of density, and in the fact, as I mentioned with Leduc, this change of density is the foundation of particle movement, leading to organization, thus life, according to his theory.

This structure of bits creates centers of gravity or concentration, or bursts of expanding particles- depending on what direction you interpret the movement going, and can definitely serve as the foundation or driving dynamic of a work or other elements. The tininess of the shapes adds to the flexibility, as the shapes can flow between, over, or underneath forms. The shapes themselves are more fixed than the vegetative ones, in that they feel like rocks or embers, that won’t grow on their own. Yet, they are not perfect platonic forms, but irregular ones, and one could imagine them breaking further apart into shards, congealing together, or fusing. They seem to emit an internal heat.

The most fluid of the fields is the gilded linear thread. It feels like vibrations of energy, like a radiating pulse, and the gilding makes its visibility change depending on where you are standing. It can be visually dominant or almost disappear. The direction is infinitely expansive, radiating outward, and it is very dimensional.

Because the thread is observed in a dimensional mirrored construction, there are many gaps in the mirror, and there is a defined outer edge. This structure cannot repeat infinitely, filling space and taking territory. It can flip as a single tile and repeat that way. The grid of triangles diverges from the isometric grid, because they were observed receding in the mirror. As they recede the triangular shape warps slightly in perspective. Thus they increasingly fall off of the perfect grid the farther from the center they are, and if tiled they form large gaps.

In the center triangle of the construction is an actual piece thread observed from above and organized in a wave pattern. The mirrors expose the way the thread moves through space and is distorted as it appears in each receding layer of reflections. This is the source of how the gilded lines become less organized in each concentric set of triangles from the center.

This structure can feel singular, like a drop with radiating ripples that dissipate, or it can link together to form an imperfect field. There is an intense activation to the field, an almost ecstatic energy. This field can pass through or over all the other fields, but moves behind the mirrored microcosms.

Mirrored Bits

The little pink diamond repeat is somewhere between the more figurative elements and the fields. It moves across the page, and can move infinitely far, but cannot fill space. It moves with a flipping conceptual mirroring, and because the bits in the mirror are not evenly dispersed, it cannot move in every direction, or fill in completely, and still maintain symmetry. So it snakes around like a vermicular[1], creating an edge, border or membrane. This can separate fields, stop the expansion of the little triangular aggressive field, and create the shapes required for the other figurative elements to insert or inlay themselves.

I wonder if this is a prime example of Leduc’s theory that the unevenness, the inequality, is the source of dynamism and motion? Here, the bits being concentrated in some parts of the mirror provide a limit to motion, but also a distinctive type of motion, a variation, and a necessary lack of homogeneity. This creation of a snaking vermicular motion creates a border or membrane, which in turn creates different fields, with more space for different dynamics. Less equality equals less stasis.

Also, the bits are a manifestation of that line between representation and abstraction. The shapes are both and neither abstract forms or things, and this nether region is another preternatural state- a state of becoming? This element is an homage to the Forney collection[2].

The microcosms and the more figurative elements differ from the fields in key ways. Most are made from dimensional mirrored devices that are painted from observation. All of them have an internal structure of repetition through mirroring. (This is also true of the gilded threads).

The dimensional mirrored devices are in the form of platonic shapes- the cube, the pyramid, the pentagonal solid, and the hexagonal solid. Each creates discreet microcosms that exist in their own atmosphere. They have their own internal organization, generated by the shape of their mirrors. The angle of the mirrors creates the distinctive enclosure or orb, while also adding more information about the element. Even as one sees more views or aspects of the central element as the iterations are reflected at various angles, the elements are also transformed and distorted by the mirrors.

Mirrored Cubes

The cube was the first device of this type, which I built and observed in 2009. I had the expectation that the mirrored space would be a kind of ideal infinity, all shiny and perfect. I filled it with platonic forms that I had made from paper and gilded, and thought the landscape in the mirror would be an infinite mathematical paradise of glittering perfect forms. What I in fact saw was a shadowy landscape in which the forms were increasingly unfamiliar as they receded into the mirror. The distance was veiled in a dark green murk, and the forms arrayed in various angles were also more imperfect, distorted and warped. This mysterious, brooding landscape was the result of actually being embodied, the shift from an intellectual idea of a mirror, to a physical mirrored space. The problem of matter. The problem of error. The problem of expectation and the longing for the ideal imagined state.

Mirrored Hexagons

The hexagonal mirrored construction was surprising too. The triangle in the center, the space for the real, becomes part of an insular orb in the mirrors. The angle of the mirrors bends the reflections into a self-contained form, with a surrounding atmosphere, like a little planet. When placed in the garden over very young growth, the result is a full ecosystem, with relationships revealed as the mirrors show different angles and distort and bend into shadowy horizons. I have regarded the arrangements of harmony and competition in the garden as varying models of societal organization. These sealed orbs definitely strike a libertarian chord.

Detail of Mirrored Pyramid

The mirrored pyramid was also a surprise. The single feather, once placed inside the device, became a kind of creature-like form. The shape of the mirror transformed the feather into an iris shaped subject (who knew that is how an iris is formed!) and the feathering fronds seamlessly became a single entity, at once other worldly and beastly, and becoming, blooming, like some kind of angel fetus.

I had been wondering how to bring a more animal/mammalian element into this array that tended toward more rudimentary forms of matter and life. This feather seems to cross into that terrain, as a complex form, and a kind of life form, although a preternatural one.

Perhaps this ties into Plato’s description of youth- the youngest most vigorous creatures having the sharpest triangles that can cut up other matter. This pyramidic mirror could operate in that dynamic, as it feels more like a singular entity, as opposed to the diamond shaped mirror with bits, or the triangular vegetative structure.

Mirrored Pentagon

The pentagonal mirror was also surprising. When I poured water into it, the water settled into a pyramid. I didn’t know that pyramids were nestled into the places where the pentagonal planes met. The water pyramid has its own orb, but an almost immaterial one. All reflection and refraction. The smallest dimple on the surface, or vibration, yields a change in the observed pattern of light and reflection. It is a mysterious stormy gem-like form, containing internal light, sparks, rainbows. What is it? Makes me think of energy as a particle versus a wave. As a wave, it might look like the gilded threads. As a particle, it might resemble this water pyramid inside the pentagonal mirror. It is also similar to the thread in that it is observed, complex, but very elemental, almost immaterial. Not the distinct forms of matter like the solids in the cube, the vegetation in the hexagon, the feather creature in the pyramid.

The last two elements, the rock figure and the Rorschachs, both involve the mind seeing into, completing the figure. The rock figure was drawn years ago from observation at the Natural History Museum in NYC. I recognized then the aspirational nature of this form- as the rock was attempting to be made of perfect cubes. It longed for it. This desire, and the distance from that desire and all its complex manifestations are why I drew it to begin with. Here again is the problem with matter, the longing for perfection.

This rock formation has become very figurative for me, almost larval. In the hexagonal mirror, the pose and its reflection remind me of the posture of the Muses.

Regarding oneself in the mirror. In that way it has an internal psychology, that and the desire for perfection. This mirror is a conceptual one of flipping the form, though the form itself is observed. The way it is settled into the mirror, and the posture of the mirrored pose, limits the way it can repeat, creating gaps if it was to keep repeating, and tending toward pairs. Almost like a bonded molecule, with weak side attachments and strong attachments in the mirrored pose. Maybe that is one way of approaching the configurations- as strong and weak attachments that can be broken down or added to?


The Rorschachs, of which I made my own versions, are psychological images by design. The way they function is to be on the edge of form and indiscernible matter, so that the mind finds the form. This emergence, this recognition, is the test. The mode by which the form is created or inferred, the internal structure that makes the mind look into it, is mirror symmetry. That is the source of the blot’s power and evocative nature.

All these aspects make Roschachs familial to the other elements in the series. They seem to fall on the rather unformed side of the spectrum, yet they are also figurative. They are created with a physical mirror, the pressing of ink into folded paper, so somewhere between the conceptual flipping and the observed optical mirrors. They are a discreet form with an internal mirror structure that doesn’t have a set way of repeating on the larger scale, except to have a set orientation via the vertical center line, like the cube.

The three figurative elements then are the Rorschachs, the rock figure, and the feather creature, and strangely the most convincingly alive- the feather, the one to have most crossed the line from object to subject, has the least internal psychology. It feels opaque as to its internal consciousness, pre-conscious, fetal, in the act of becoming. The other two feel like objects of psychological projection. More of a sense of consciousness, but not internally driven in that they do not indicate further transformation. They are the glimmering of consciousness in matter, or a reflection of the viewer’s consciousness.

The next big question is how these elements can/should be arranged. The underlying isometric grid dictates some limitations and structure, yet this grid is very flexible too. As I noted, 2 elements, the cube and the Rorschachs have to be oriented on the vertical axis.

One organizing principle is that of inlay or interlocking elements. This was the mode I discovered/used in the first error cube series. As the elements started layering, they could align and form negative spaces that were opportune housing for other elements. Two of the current complex paintings function like this- where an intersection or negative shape fits perfectly with the shape of another element.

This is essentially a cooperative model, a harmonic one. The spaces are literally made for each other. Nestling in. It is an opportunistic one too. But there is not a sense of domination. Also, it seems like a biologically feasible one. Do viruses implant that way? Finding the right shaped receptor? Maybe fetuses too?

Clues for other dynamics to explore seem to be in texts that I have been thinking about for years, like Plato’s description of aging and death as the breaking up, by the more vigorous triangles, of elements that are less vigorous, or perfectly formed. The young and healthy triangles have sharp triangles that break apart other matter, which then eventually get worn and blunted and finally get broken themselves.

When looking at the early paintings in this series I notice I was allowing the elements, like the hexagonal mirrors, to form their own constellations. How might elements these develop and bond, almost like complex molecules? Perhaps there may be weak bonds, where the structures may be broken. My guess is that the feather is the youngest most vigorous element. But perhaps the little pink diamond can also do some cleaving?

The Rorschachs tend to self organize along the center line like a string of beads. The cube tends to jog back and forth, or in steps like a diagonal formation, but how flexible is it?

Plato also describes a great sorting and sifting, where bigger shapes create negative shapes for the smaller to fall through, thus organizing matter into like to like, or layers, or sediments. Is there a specific dynamic to this sifting? Perhaps the toggling back and forth aspect of the isometric grid could be involved? Do unified layers form?

Another organizing dynamic is created by differing density, as described by Leduc. The theory was that the change in density in a solution creates a pull that carries particles across membranes, creating currents of movement driven by the desire to achieve an even dispersal of matter, the way particles are evenly dispersed in a gas. How would the other elements be governed or react to this dynamic? Is this a similar sorting to that of Plato? Leduc theorized that harmony equals the total evenness of density, concentration, space and energy, which equal the end of the engine that creates the pump, the movement, the impulse for self organization, which equals death. Death is the completion of the goal, and it is a compositional impulse toward equal spacing and dispersion. Inertia.

The arrangement of matter:

This has been a subject since the late 90s with the microfossil project, when I was working with Victorian slides of microfossils dredged from the first deep sea explorations. The slides were logged into the collection of the London Museum of Natural History, and the arrangement of fossils was the only difference, the transformative element between them being unknown and known forms.

Alchemy- also nudges the matter, through elaborate manipulations, into some arrangement that transforms it into beatified matter.

Augustine- the arrangement of matter, the degree of organization, is the transformative element between god and sin.

Plato- the arrangement equals life and death, but also the creation of every element, including psychological states, and the political state.

Leduc- the arrangement is the transformative element between life and death.

The premise I have been working with in my work is that the form of organization, the arrangement of repetition and form is as important as the image. In the crowd series, that played out as laws governing the elements in a societal way. In Attempts at Self-Organization, it is even more fundamental- states of being: life, death, harmony, aggression, disease, and sin.

[1] A vermicular is an ancient pattern composed of meandering curvilinear lines, so named after worms eating through wood.

[2] In 2012-2013, I was awarded Fulbright Research Scholar's Grant to work with a rare collection of gouache paintings for textiles entitled Dessins originaux pour impressions d'étoffes et broderies. Recueil de dessins, gouaches et empreintes. XVIIIè - XIXè siècle, at the Forney Library in Paris, France. My research involved drawing the paintings in pencil in the same scale from observation in order to train my hand to become fluent in their language of mark making and form, and produce a kind of atlas of drawings that serves as a foundation and catalyst for new work.