Vibeke Sorensen & Karlheinz Essl

The Genesis of MindShipMind

The Mindship Foundation was created in 1996 with the purpose of establishing an international collaboration and communication forum for artists and researchers, coinciding initially with the city of Copenhagen, Denmark's reign as Cultural Capital of Europe during that same year. The first project was "Third Culture Copenhagen" which included 3 separate seminars with about 70 participants over a 3 month period: "Map the Mind," "Order Complexity and Beauty," and "The World-View of the Third Millenium." These seminars were held in a wonderful old building at the historic naval base called Holmen. It housed a light-filled meeting and presentation room called "The Blue Room" (because the floor was painted a luminous dark aqua color) where all of the talks were held, computer facilities for the participants to continue their work, offices for the staff, and dark interior rooms used for media projection and art galleries. It also had a Canteena where participants could eat together and socialize with the public (for a while becoming one of the "hottest" restaurants in the city), and a large, high-ceilinged room with long, vertical windows called the "Kettlesmith," where public lectures and performances were held. Tor Norretranders, the founding director of the Mindship, interviewed most of the participants for a series of television programs, and produced publications (including this one) based on it. The Mindship now stands as one of the best, if not the best example anywhere and at anytime, of art-science interaction. As Mindship International, it now has ports in other countries, including in the United States in Orono, Maine, where the headquarters are located, and at the University of Southern California's Annenberg Center for Communication in Los Angeles.

  MindShipMind is a multimedia computer installation which was started in summer 1996 during the interdisciplinary 3 week seminar on "Order, Complexity, and Beauty" at the Mindship in Copenhagen. In order to capture the beautiful and chaotically ordered mind of this event, Vibeke Sorensen and Karlheinz Essl asked the participating artists and scientists (including biologists, mathematicians, physicists, composers, visual, installation and performance artists) to write statements describing their points of view on this theme. Combined with additional commentaries prepared by Sorensen, all these texts were algorithmically processed by a markov-chain based computer program in order to deconstruct and reconstruct them into new "meta-texts". New texts are generated from these text particles using random operations which create strange and mind-challenging meanings, often revealing "secret wisdom" about the mysteries of "order, complexity, and beauty".

This textual layer is further combined with images provided by the participants, including original artworks of Vibeke Sorensen (San Diego) and the research imagery of scientist Karl Grammer (Vienna). The images of artist Joseph Jean Rolland Dubé (Quebec), and objets trouvées found on the World-Wide Web, including famous philosophers and mathematicians, popular films, scientific computer animation, and fractals. As with the texts, the images form material from which elements are chosen according to probability and randomness, and merged into the text layer. Finally, realtime composed music by Karlheinz Essl and computer-generated speech are included. All these elements are combined by a computer program written by Karlheinz Essl which constantly changes the content.

The result is that of constantly shifting meanings arising from constantly shifting relationships between the given elements and the user. It is also a kind of collective consciousness of the Mindship and its participants, hence a "MindShipMind."

MindShipMind exists in three different forms: as a room installation for several computers, a version for the World-Wide Web, and finally as a multimedia piece on a CD-ROM.


  One thing I wanted to write about is my motivation for the piece to begin with - as a kind of "social work". I remember that even though I was most interested in discussions of science and art and took copious notes on every talk I attended, I became increasingly concerned with the interaction between many of the scientists who said that the other fields descended from their own. In one scenario, philosophy was on the top, then mathematics, physics and finally biology. Of course, there were disagreements about the order, but there was a "pecking order" being established. In short, my assessment was that the first week was really about the establishment of a social and scientific hierarchy, and the dominance of world view. I felt that it had very little to do with the goal of enlightened transdisciplinary communication, and was actually alienating the artists and starting to inhibit the transfer of information. Even though this kind of interaction may be common to the sciences, it is generally not so in the arts. Therefore, I was surprised and reacted strongly, negatively, to it. I felt that unless it changed, it would be difficult for us all to work in the spirit of openness, and as Tor suggested, to "Say 'yes' before you say 'no.'" I remember thinking "I am going to fix them - I am going to level their hierarchy and make everyone, and their respective fields, equal. I will ask everyone, artists included, for position papers and mix them all up. Using chance and random computer processes to actually mix the text, it will go beyond everyone's conscious limitations and force the crossover of the fields. At times confusing and contradictory, it will also be insightful and enlightening. It should free people to be open to other points of view by showing them their texts transformed by those of the others, through a constantly shifting context beyond anyone's conscious control. It should become a collective stream of consciousness of the group. "


  We asked each participant to write a short and concise position statement, at least one paragraph, and send it to us via email or on paper for transcription. We explained that we were making an artwork with their texts, to be shown in the last week of the seminar. Almost everyone sent us something, even though they did not know what form the piece would take and how their materials would be used. This would be a surprise for us all, especially given the use of random algorithms to recombine the text. We wanted the piece to be structurally reflexive, to use randomness theory both as content and form, thus a (pseudo) random piece about (pseudo) randomness, and operating on the theories of all of the fields represented in the seminar. And the lively response from the participants was truly a sign of goodwill. People wanted to communicate and learn, and I began to feel better and better about the group and what it could achieve.  

  At this point Vibeke came to me asking for a program to mix up all the diverse statements of the participants. Just before I came to the Mindship I started to work on a piece called Lexicon-Oracle - an infinite text composition that creates obscure reflections on the problem of contemporary composition using computers in a postmodern situation. In this project I used different articles about my realtime composition Lexikon-Sonate which I fed into a computer program that analyzes the texts according to transition probabilities using a markov chain algorithm - something I started to explore in the middle eighties together with my friend Gerhard Eckel and which I used for the composition of In the Cage (1988) and the radio piece Zungenreden (1990). The result of the analysis was a huge multi-dimensional matrix from which numerous reading-throughs of the original texts could be generated. Using random operations, the program would read itself through the matrix creating new texts - constantly jumping between the different texts by maintaining a meaningful syntax. The original meaning itself, however, was completely destroyed: new words, phrases and sentences were emerging of a strange and fascinating beauty which challenges the reader to understand the hidden meaning, just like an oracle. 

Now we started to apply a similar procedure to textual fragments which we collected from the participants: the short personal statements on "order, complexity, and beauty", were fed into the computer. The result was amazing: obviously contradicting and opposed meanings where mingled together in a completely unforeseeable manner as if an art historian with the analytical mind of a mathematician was reflecting on the beauty of endangered unspoiled Scandinavian bogs by taking into account considerations of set theory applied to the infinity row in conjunction with the mating behaviour of the Golden Section. 

The result - a huge text file - was split up manually into small text particles such as phrases and sub-sentences. Each phrase had the potential to be linked with any of the others, creating new sentences of a somehow fragmented, but poetical prose. (This, however, may only be possible in the english language due to its compact and simple syntax.) 

In order to free the words from their written bondage, we had to transfer them from their visual domain (generally a more analytical perceptual modality) into the world of listening (which probably provides a more direct access to the unconscious). By using Text-to-Speech techniques, the text is now spoken by a computer program. We selected a soft whispering voice which sounds so hypnotic and demanding that we could hardly resist.

  Like Karlheinz, I had been working prior to our project with text and image, most recently with the performance art duo, [THE] on a kind of neo-dada absurdist piece, "Panini Stickers," which employed chance processes. The performers, Ed Harkins and Phil Larson of the University of California, San Diego Music Department, created a new language based on the words of body parts and, syllable by syllable recombined them. I recorded and edited video of the performers and other materials (such as public domain films including Eisentein's "Oktober," Rene Clair's "The Italian Straw Hat," Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," and turn of the century Russian animation) based on gesture and rhythm, using chance processes to select the material. I had been wanting to use algorithmic computer processes to automate this process, to arrive at continuously changing, never repeating sequences of image and sound elements. But instead of recombining syllables, I felt that whole phrases should be recombined. They should remain internally, structurally intact in order to retain the basic ideas drawn from the texts. The phrases would be within a larger structure based on English grammer, but would change constantly. A dynamic meta-structure of text, there would be multiple files of digital grammatical elements, including lists of independent and dependent clauses, prepositions, declarative statements, etc, to be used as databases for traversal by weigthed probabilities and random algorithms. All deconstructed from the original complex texts, this would form an ever changing exposition of ideas and thoughts, as though coming from a single person, with changing language structures of seeming internal consistency. It would be unpredictable, but familiar.

While I had worked for many years with computers and various programming languages for animation and music, I had not used the MAX language myself, but I was aware of its capabilities and knew that it would be the best language for this project. I was delighted that Karlheinz knew it so well and had it on his computer. And as a result, it would be possible to realize "MindShipMind" as conceptualized.

Group portrait of the Mindship participants in the Blue Room

  Each day, talks started early and ended late. I always felt that the room in which the talks were held, the Blue Room, inspired people. It was like floating between the blue of the sea and the blue of the sky. I loved that room. My head was full of new thoughts and ideas, and I noticed that the mixed up texts of our work-in-progress functioned very similarly to the way the thoughts mixed in my head. I became aware that in this way, our project was becoming an experiential reflection of the seminar, if not a document. At night, when all of the day's activities were over, when people wanted to relax and sleep, that is when Karlheinz and I went to work, feverishly. Neither of us had our immediate families along, so we did not have to go home. We usually left late at night between 2 and 3 AM only to return at 8:30 AM. Soon afterwards, George Markowsky would walk by and ring his bell and call us to the first talk of the morning.

George Markowsky
calling everyone to talks in the Blue Room

We processed the text and found ourselves laughing at the outrageous and amazing textual contortions and constructions. I edited the resulting "mangled" texts, and put the appropriate word sets into separate files for later recombination. We decided to use anagrams as a way of shifting the text of the titles of each section, to make a list of new combinations of the letters of "Biology of Beauty", "Concept of Complexity" and "Beauty of Boundaries". Now, it was a letter by letter rearrangement of the text, and again, there were fascinating results which were often very humorous, relevant and revealing.


Anagrams for the changing titles of the MindShipMind computer installation 

The mixed up texts started to fit together. They made much more sense the more we worked with them. The project seemed to flow without effort, although clearly we were working hard. I had the sense that it was a special moment of creativity, where all of the chance elements fit perfectly together as if pre-designed. There was something magical about the project, and it inspired us. We worked really well together, as we had similar perceptions and orientations. It was a wonderful collaboration. And as the seminar progressed, we became more and more energized, and the piece began to take shape.


  Of course we needed images and animation. Besides using my own visual artwork (computer animation and video), we mostly used found images on the World Wide Web as raw visual material. I found fractals, portraits of famous philosophers and mathematicians, symmetrical animals and plants, natural phenomena, stills from feature films and other mass media, etc. I made QuickTime movies out of them that were to be stepped through forwards and backwards, at varying frame counts for varying dynamics. The constantly changing rates and direction would mean that only rarely would an animation sequence ever be completed. It would keep the directionality always in question and the process (especially in the case of the automobile crash) constantly incomplete. Karlheinz programmed it using the MAX programming language and then we designed the visual layout and temporal structure. We decided to have 3 sections, each based on the 3 themes of our seminar, "The Concept of Complexity," "The Biology of Beauty," and "The Beauty of Boundaries."

The Concept of Complexity

  In "The Concept of Complexity" I selected a variety of categories of images. The first one was famous philosophers, mathematicians and physicists. This included photographs of (statues of) Aristotle, Euclid, Plato, Pythagoras, Socrates, Descartes, Heidegger, Kierkegard, Newton, Leibnitz, Voltaire, Einstein, Bohr, Darwin, Marx (in honor of our lone Marxist writer, Kjartan Fløgstad from Norway), Sartre, Nietzsche, and others. They would flash on the screen like subliminal images, an omnipresent reminder of dominant canons of western philosophical and scientific thought.

  I was especially inspired by the brilliant and passionate presentation by Danish physicist Holger Bech Nielsen on "Random Dynamics" and quantum physics. He shared his view of the standard model hierarchy, explaining it while drawing a staircase on the overhead projector. It started with macroscopic physics of the everyday, moved through molecules, atoms, electron nuclei, elementary particles, quarks, and Tao particles. He flew around the room with his handwritten notes and diagrams projected over his entire body. He spoke rather loudly as if to ensure that he would hear his own thoughts. It was a visual, aural and intellectual performance of the first order. He was provocative and poetic: "Weak assumptions work on everything." " There is nothing but banalities in all of science." "The truly existing is not relevant, so it may not be needed. Our concepts are interpretations of the next higher level of a quantum staircase." "Like in a singing bell, where the longest parts of a wave die out slowly, there is a 'survival of the fittest' wave. The others die out and all that is left are the long waves. Eventually, they will all become sine waves." "It is not only to understand nature, but to describe phenomena." Unfortunately, he did not write a text for us, as he could only join us for the first few days. But the dynamic layering of information in his talk was certainly related to the dynamic layering of the information in "MindShipMind." To me, he represented a prototypical physicist, and so the images of the physicists are dedicated to him.
  Greg Chaitin also spoke loudly and passionately. He said "All possible histories interfere with each other. Integrate them and when summed, you get all possible outcomes." He talked about complexity theory, and why randomness cannot be calculated: "Information measure is in bits." "We are looking for the smallest possible description needed to construct something." He explained that a repeating pattern can be represented by a rule that describes it, and therefore this rule is the information content of that pattern. A random image with no repeating pattern cannot be reduced to a simpler description, and therefore its information content is higher than that of a repeating pattern. (It also takes up more memory on a computer disk, a common reality for people like me who make computer generated images.) So, like others, I became convinced that randomness is more complex. He said: "Irreducible mathematical facts cannot be proven. They are axioms, and reasoning cannot achieve them." "Things are true because they are true by accident." He even told us that the arts should strive to be more realistic by incorporating more accidents. (John Cage, the late contemporary music composer, would have been very happy to hear this.) Greg generously wrote a statement for us, and as he wished, we added randomness to almost everything we did in our piece.
  During our search for illustrations, we came across a computer animation of a car crash - obviously a demo for Quicktime. This small movie shows two cars approaching a crossing, and in the middle they inevitably crash. Instead of just playing the movie sequentially frame by frame, I experimented in applying a sort of one-dimensional random walk to it using the original sequence of frames merely as material. Now the cars would move back and forth in ever-changing speeds, in a constant mode of approaching and deviating which - unforeseeably - could lead to the climax: the crash. By freely moving on the time axis, the simple causality of a teleological process was completely destroyed, and instead a highly complex situation was created. For us it seemed like a metaphor for the situation at the Mindship: artists and scientist approaching from different roads, in a constant strive to interact, and "hitting" each other.

car crash

Crashing cars:
a metaphor for the complex relationship between artists and scientists


  In the evenings, I was studying the book "On Sonic Art" (Amsterdam 1996) written by the British composer Trevor Wishart, who also participated in this Mindship seminar. On an enclosed CD I found numerous recordings of his own voice demonstrating the different sounds that he could produce with his mouth, lips, cheeks and tongue and which he used for his electronic masterpiece Tongues of Fire. This piece had an unforgettable performance during one of the Mindship events in the Kettlesmith, using a dozen loudspeakers that were suspended all over the space. I asked Trevor for permission to use some of his primordial vocal sounds as material for the MindShipMind. I fed them into Amazing Maze (an infinite realtime composition for sampled sound particles - a work-in-progress which I started several month earlier) using its built-in structure generators to process them by a sort of granular synthesis in a meso-time domain. 

Now I started to include this realtime sound generation unit into our MindShipMind computer program: whenever those two cars crash this would trigger sounds that were generated in realtime by algorithmically processed and randomly selected vocals sounds supplied by Trevor Wishart

The Biology of Beauty

  Karl Grammer provided us with morphing faces of women for our section on the "Biology of Beauty." He originally seemed shy or hesitant, but in the end generously offered to let us include his work. To be honest, I was fascinated, though uneasy, with the morphing women's faces. It seemed strange to have such a preoccupation with female attractiveness. I wondered, in general, how aware the biologists were of the socio-economic and political issues related to images of women, especially gender and power relationships, the exploitation of women's images in the marketplace, and the "male gaze" upon women which is seen repeatedly in the history of western visual art and media. What about the influence of 20th century mass media in shaping public taste, behavior, and opinion? Is this research a high-tech effect of cultural stereotyping or does it really reflect what is "in our genes"? Were any of these hypotheses tested without the influence of western media culture? Is the research fair or democratic in its review of both men and women?

In biology, symmetry is considered the most attractive and thus, "beautiful." However, in 20th century art, symmetry is not generally thought of as "beautiful." On the contrary, asymmetry has been preferred. This separation between artists and scientists and our disagreements about the definition of "beauty" led us to distinguish between "beauty" and "attractiveness." We concluded that the evolutionary biologists were really talking about "attractiveness" and not "beauty." That helped the artists. And what about faces? Certainly, to many people the most interesting are the unusual or slightly asymmetrical. One of the most interesting points that Karl Grammer made was that there is a kind of template in the brain for the most perfectly symmetrical and proportioned face. But it turns out that we remember on the basis of difference from the template. Amazingly, the more attractive or "beautiful" the face, he said, the more forgettable it is. So, I wondered, why do we remember asymmetry and in this century, prefer asymmetrical art? What are the cultural reasons? What are the evolutionary reasons? Is this the result of randomness and chaos? Is it because we need new information, mutations, to continue to evolve? Is it an "emergent system?" We learned that an organism exhibits toxic and environmental stresses through its morphology. A healthy individual is symmetrical, and an asymmetrical individual could be stressed or diseased. Perhaps interest in asymmetry is a way to survive exposure to an environment filled with toxins, or maybe if not too asymmetrical, it represents healthy variation in the gene pool. And what about other survival needs, such as the need to overcome hardship in unfertile lands, such as mountains and deserts. The preference may not be primarily based on morphology, but intelligence. This may have very little to do with how symmetrical a person is. Maybe some asymmetry is preferred because it represents another point of view, which could be an indicator of intelligence.  

face morph face morph face morph face morph face morph face morph

Face morphing:
Is the notion of beauty a cultural phenomenon?

© 1996 by Karl Grammer (Institute for Urban Ethology, University of Vienna, Austria)

  Even though I had concerns about the social imprinting effects of mass media and distrusted its affect on visual preference, I was fascinated by the work of the biologists. In fact the morphing female faces that Karl Grammer had presented did function like an attractiveness magnet for men. I observed this when I installed "MindShipMind" at the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California, from February 6-8, 1998. A security guard standing nearby the show said he had been looking at the screen for hours, and felt that all of the faces were the most beautiful he had ever seen. With excitement in his eyes, he said that he wanted to watch them forever.   

The Beauty of Boundaries

  For "The Beauty of Boundaries," I chose the film loops from Luc Besson's "Léon the Profi" because of the intensity of the facial expressions of the male and female actors, and the visual relationship between them. Out of context of the original film and in the new narrative of our piece, the suggestion is that the man gazes at the woman through a keyhole while the woman is very distraught and intense. In another scene he nods and gestures "no" to her, and she responds with fear and anger. Their relationship is affected by the variation in the order and combination of the scenes as they are displayed on screen. The repetition of the scenes causes us to think about the subtleties of the facial expressions of the characters and their gestures, as well as their meaning in the new context of the computer. The keyhole represents the detached view of the "male gaze" of western media, and through transfer to the computer, represents the potential of computers to repeat the same problems that exist in other media. The point is that this new technology is used to gaze in new ways upon women's bodies, and many women feel extremely uncomfortable and even angry about such a stereotypical use of women's images. It is also an unconscious way of controlling women's behavior and men's attitudes about it through direct visual suggestion. Without discussion, these suggestions work unchallenged in powerful ways that people do not understand but implicitly accept. So, in the context of and as a comment on the Mindship seminar, it suggests that even though there was important scientific research being undertaken, the potential for unconscious use of advanced knowledge to reinforce cultural stereotypes was a danger.

Léon the Profi Léon the Profi

Screen shots from the movie Léon the Profi
© 1996 by Luc Besson
featuring Jean Reno and Nathalie Portman

  There was another woman participant, Natalje Struve, a wonderful artist from Russia and Berlin who questioned the romance with revolution in a provocative installation/performance talk at the Kettlesmith. There was also a second woman, an anthropologist from Denmark, Lotte Broe. She did not give a formal talk as she was a working anthropologist and was there to observe. But, we talked with each other quite a bit in breaks and over meals, and became friends. While we were all there to learn about art and science, the social element was an issue for the women, not just because we were few in number, but mostly because of the male culture of the scientists seemed to be at best unconsciously disrespectful of women and at worst verbally hostile to them. Some ignored points that women made but acknowledged the same points when made by men. At other times they made rude jokes about women while in their presence. While this may have been normal male behavior ("locker room talk") and not specifically a reaction to our presence, it was a disappointing surprise and a sign that these men were not accustomed to having women in their professional environments. It created an unnecessary barrier between some of us, which saddened me. Fortunately, many of the male participants did not behave this way, and they became our friends.

  I decided to put the images of the symmetrical faces, animals and plants in the section on Complexity, to emphasize the mixing of information. There were also pictures of landscapes, such as the African Savannah and high mountains discussed by the evolutionary biologists. They said that we "like" whatever it is that we need for survival, including food and the environment. We are, after all, adapted to the lands of our ancestors. But the lands of our ancestors are disappearing quickly. " It could be a problem to be adapted to only one environment," given the rapidity with which our natural habitats are disappearing.

  I was moved by the clarity and sensitivity of Hans Bert-Schikora, the "spider man" from Germany who studies delicate and rare species in the most fragile environments. He described the incredible beauty of the few remaining pristine bogs, in Scandinavia, home to many endangered species. These habitats are being lost by overdevelopment and the encroachment of human activity. Tiny, rare spiders living in these habitats are not just living things that should have the right to exist, but are barometers of change in the earth's delicate ecosystem. Large scale enviornmental loss and destruction is a growing, global tragedy of enormous consequence. I considered his talk one of the most important we heard, and him one of the most open minded of the scientists. As I was working on a (computer animated/processed) film called "Earth Consciousness" about memory of nature and the loss of natural habitats (especially the wetlands of Southern California), I was very interested in his work. I was also impressed by him as a person. One night in the Kettlesmith during a formal presentation by another speaker, a large visible spider suddenly dropped down on a long thin thread from the ceiling high above, and Hans-Bert jumped up out of his chair and cupped his hands gently around it, rescuing it from the hundreds of human feet in attendance which could have crushed it. He gently rushed it out of harm's way and set it free. Totally by chance, this performance could not have been better staged.


  It is important to point out that some of the on-screen credits are serious and some are not. The credit for the film images "Leon the Profi" is serious. The small images we used were found on the World Wide Web. Since we used it as raw material in a collage meant to comment on film and computer media, in addition to the seminar, it is allright to use. We acknowledge the film along the bottom of the screen. The credits at the top of all of the screens are entirely ficticious. While the names really are those of the participants, the activities being credited are entirely made up. The names and activities associated with them are constantly changing. Eventually, all of the participants are credited for everything.

MindShipMind Installation 1996

  Our "MindShipMind" installation opened the last afternoon of the seminar, Thursday August 1. I included many physical "found objects" layered with additional text, in between the computer screens. The light was low, with only the glow of the monitors, candles and a few incandescent lamps. There was a ladder with small candles and phrases on each step, and a wire rope with a noose at one end, draped over it. It represented the futility of reason and thought over biology and death. A noose on the staircase of knowledge.


Premiere of MindShipMind as a multimedia room installation
August 1st, 1996 (Mindship Foundation, Copenhagen)

  On each step was a phrase:

  "Our joint appreciation of art and science grows as we rebuild the shared values that dominate by accident."

"We need to know our environment in order to maintain a stimulating or imaginative universe, wherein the listener contradicts the observer in the process of becoming the co-author of cross-sex attractiveness ratings of facial symmetry, because somewhere within opposites lies the idea of truth."

"Complexity (coming from the Greek pleko to plait or twine via the Latin complexus) is a measure of reproductive successes and failures in human evolutionary history."

"We perceive the world as a thicket of information, inspiration, and other wonderful things."

"Success in human evolutionary history applies to all domains of aesthetic judgement, from ideas, bodies, habitats, language, food and drink, where one is told - commanded - to eat, eat, more and more."

  Looking through the Mindship building, I found a detached door frame and door, and took it to the gallery, and placed it over black cloth hung on the wall. The door looked as though it had been opened to empty space, the "void of the great unkown." In it, I wrote:

  "The more we know, the more we know, the more we know the less we know."

  On an upside down trash bin garnished with a modest incandescent light source on top, I put:

  "In order to keep a certain order within the fruitful chaos, beauty will seldom confine itself to reason or accumulated randomness."

  I found a hot plate and fuel canister, and put a large rock on the hot plate. Attached to the gas can:

  "Symmetrical complexity is revealed in the origin of the universe."

  Then there was the wooden saw horse that already had text on it. It said:


  I read this as "Empty equals Time Zero." It made sense to me, and it fit in. The saw horse was a barrier between the unknown and the known, the beginning of measured time, or "time Ø"

  I then took the original written statements, unedited and on paper, and attached them to wooden writing boards with pencils attached by strings. These boards were placed on a table outside the gallery for people to read and write on. (these have all disappeared since the end of the seminar)

  There is the text one reads on the screen, the 4 computer voices (whispers) speaking different texts, and one's own thoughts in real-time, all mixing together. We chose to have the same exact voice on each computer so there would be another level of mixing, arising from walking around the space. The sentences and phrases would flow from one computer speaker to the next, so that at any position in the room, any number of text combinations would be heard. It transformed continuously, constantly shifting. It had a quiet, intimate qaulity, as though hearing one's own thoughts spoken by the voices inside one's head. The whispered texts and thoughts were mixing with our real, internal thoughts as we moved in the space. It was rich and dense, and the constant fragmentation and reflection of the participants, made it difficult for people to leave.

  The reaction to the installation was fascinating. Some people laughed and others stood quietly before each monitor for long periods reading everything. Peter Bastian, the Danish musician and physicist, compared the steps to Indian Chakras. When people emerged from the gallery into the adjacent room, they literally ran around the room, picked up objects, and made them into impromptu instruments. It seemed to open people up and make them less inhibited. Lotte Broe, the anthropologist, said to us later, "You should have done the installation 2 weeks earlier! You gave them permission to be free." I recorded some of the reactions on videotape.

World-Wide Web Version

  After three weeks of hard work on the "MindShipMind" installation, the seminar was finished. Although we had presented the piece to our colleagues, Vibeke and I had the feeling that we had just started with the piece, and so we decided to continue our collaboration over the net. Since then, an intense email-based discussion between Vienna and San Diego emerged.

At this time we felt the urgent need to free the piece from its material boundaries, and to make it accessible to anybody interested. So we started to re-design "MindShipMind" for the World-Wide Web.

  Before we parted ways, we talked about how to make the web version link to sites around the world. Given that we were all leaving for our respective countries within a few hours after the opening, the project would keep us connected across continents and at the same time reflect the international aspect of the seminar. Karlheinz and I exchanged hundreds of email messages over the next year and a half, and the piece grew into what it is today. I am very thankful that Karlheinz did most of the programming, with help from a few other people.

  Programming in MAX on the Macintosh is quite a natural thing for me - a sort of second nature where I can easily express my artistic ideas in the electronic domain. However, being confronted with the limitations of the Web was frustrating, but also challenging. The first attempt to implement the basic random algorithm in Java by a student of the Mindship participant Cristian Calude (a mathematician from the University of Auckland, Australia) failed.

Several weeks later I gave a lecture at Berlin were I met the comparative philologist Florian Cramer. We already had some email contact regarding algorithmic text composition using markov chains. Florian has put up a website about "classical" text machines, and when I approached him with the idea of porting MindShipMind to the Web, he was highly interested. Thanks to his support, a prototype of the algorithmic text kernel (written in Perl) was finished by the end of the year. I started to extend it step by step: adding randomly chosen pictures, music from Lexikon-Sonate which was generated algorithmically in real-time, and even the layout of each page was subjected to chance operations. Vibeke selected materials from the web for additional relevant pictures and animation, and also supplied new artwork she made. We worked hard on it in parallel, in permanent discussion via email. The piece transformed itself: it was no longer a computer-based room installation, but became a sort of infinite book that one could not only read, but also listen to. Thanks to the development of the Talker plug-in, text-to-speech technology was now also possible on a web browser such as Netscape: MindShipMind does not only play piano music that composes itself on the fly, but it can also whisper with the same soft voice that was haunting, that we were enjoying during the Mindship days in Copenhagen.

  We used much of the same visual and text material from the original installation version and added more to the databases. I also added phrases from the talks of the participants, drawn from the many notes I took at the time  of the seminar. The texts in web version are algorithmically processed by both distributed and remote computer processes so as to reconstruct them into "meta-texts."

The visual, textual, and audible elements are not pre-computed but instead change each time the user interacts with the site, through the use of pseudo-random functions computed in real-time. Random operations affect the appearance of the different components (text style, size and distortion of pictures, combination of sound structures) - all these components are not viewed as fixed entities, but rather as flexible material molded by chance. The links are the result of on-line computation of algorithms, and cause other programs to run at remote sites around the world. By taking input from the user, the user is then brought to sites on the network that are not predictable. Among other things, we link to an on-line anagram generator which takes input from text drawn from our piece and then returns a long list of variations for us to contemplate. We then seed searches using these results or randomly from phrases in our text files, and then link to a random entry in the list returned by the search. The result is that of constantly shifting meanings and associations, arising from constantly shifting relationships between the site elements, the network, and the user.

Like "free association" in psychological analysis, the relationships reveal something about our own thinking processes as we model them on the computer. In a sense, the computer is like an analyst who, by reflecting our thoughts and associations back to us, helps us to see their meaning and as a result ourselves. The computer reveals to us the precise elements that we select for each successive, associative link. This allows us to be highly aware of the associations we normally make unconsciously, and consciously explore them. The links and associations revealed to us through our own selection on-screen, triggers an internal, secondary layer of associations and thoughts in our minds. A resulting juxtaposition of layers of association then creates a new set of associations, which informs the next set of associations, and so on and so forth. It is like a vast labyrinth with doors connecting many large cities of which we only see a glimpse. As we increasingly engage the internet in this way, we become increasingly practiced in what I call "poetic" thinking. Poetic thinking is the ability to conceive of numerous interpretations to a single word or image, and hold multiple and often opposing meanings or viewpoints in one's mind at the same time. This is also the basis for tolerance, and therefore it has political implications. It is catalyzed by any medium which embraces associative thinking, such as the world wide web. Thus, associative linking of text, images, and sounds on the web is not only a poetic way of interfacing to the vast network of on-line computing, but it also has an important political role to play in the quickly growing culture that it shapes. Like a poem, this kind of thinking can deeply affect the reader, and works on many levels. As the late writer and philosopher, Alan Watts has stated, "The power of poetry arises from its associative rather than logical qualities."


from notre médium: le système (© 1987 by Joseph Jean Rolland Dubé)

  Through Florian Cramer I became acquainted with the Canadian writer and graphic designer Joseph Jean Rolland Dubé who created a series of 252 pictograms called notre médium: le système for the "Société de Conservation du Présent", founded 1985 in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Those pictograms - as simple as they appear - are full of puzzles and obscure meaning: perfect for challenging the fantasy of the beholder. We put one randomly chosen pictogram on the top of each webpage, similar to chapter initials sometimes found in printed books. Furthermore, we included also pictures from Dubé's LAB project where he inserts irritating and ironic text comments on photographs mostly found in commercial advertisements.

Using the World Wide Web, it was also natural to implement HyperLinks into our webpages. Vibeke started to collect a huge list of interesting websites dedicated to issues from natural science, art theory, mathematics, philosophy, etc. One of these links was randomly selected whenever a user was clicking on an image found on our webpages. So the "reader" of "MindShipMind" would be connected to external sources which would supply more information on topics related to order, beauty and complexity.

In this form, we submitted the piece to the ISEA '97, the International Symposium on the Electronic Arts, where it was presented as a multimedia Internet installation in September 1997 in Chicago, Illinois, USA.

  We set up the ISEA installation using the web version of "MindShipMind" only, with 4 MacIntosh computers hidden inside pedestals, monitors placed on top, and each computer was supplied with an internet connection and external speakers. It was in a black painted room in a gallery of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which hosted the symposium. R. Albert Falesch, a colleague from the new music world, provided invaluable help in setting things up and breaking things down afterwards. Karlheinz's music intermingled with the whispering text, and the glowing monitors and moving images illuminated the space between monitors and seemed to flow together with the sounds. When multiple people engaged multiple computers, they contributed to a larger text, sound and light environment that yielded a larger, more complex field of intermingling thoughts and ideas. It was as though one was standing inside a brain growing larger and smaller, as people came and left, and as if some larger entity thinking all of these thoughts was activated by the people.

I was not happy with the setting for this particular installation, however. The problems were that we were not given a sound isolated environment as we had wanted, and we were not provided with the monitors and speakers that we had requested. This seriously compromised our presentation and the mood we had worked so hard to create. The other problem was more in our control. People web surfed too far away from the home location of our piece. I sent email to Karlheinz about it and he made adjustments to the code from Vienna, which took effect almost immediately.

  In February 1998, an installation using both versions - the MAX programs made for the Copenhagen exhibit and our Internet version - was presented as a part of Italian writer and philosopher, Rosanna Albertini's seminar "We are Animals and Angels, and Reasonable Machines" at the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California. In this show, again we used 4 computers, but 3 were running the MAX programs and only one ran the web version. It was presented in the Library, which was sound isolated. We were provided larger monitors, fortunately, and the piece was installed as intended. Additionally, books related to the Mindship seminar were available on a coffee table in the center of the room. Ms. Albertini generously provided many of the books that I requested, while I provided the rest.

Installation at the Annenberg Center for Communication (ACC)
University of Southern California, February 7-8, 1998

  From January 11 - March 1, 1998, I mounted a solo art show called "Reconstructed Thoughts" at the Sweeney Art Gallery at the University of California at Riverside. Along with other works, I installed "MindShipMind." SONY generously provided 4 data projectors for this piece and Apple provided MacIntosh computers. We built a special platform to suspend the projectors from middle of the ceiling of a large gallery space. Images were then projected onto 4 surrounding walls. One of the projectors showed the web version and the other three showed the MAX versions. On the floor beneath each projection were 2 speakers for the voices and music. In between the projections, lit with gentle spotlights, were 4 other physical pieces: the Door, Ladder, Microscope, and Torch.

Installation at the Sweeney Art Gallery
University of California, Riverside, January 11 - March1, 1998

Prior to the installation, I had asked the Gallery Director, Katherine Warren, if she could help me find an old typewriter, a ladder, and a microscope. I also needed an old door frame and door. She and preparator, William (Bill) Galloway went to university surplus sale, and found some items for me. Virginia and Charles Field loaned me a beautiful antique microscope for the duration of the show. The ladder was extremely long. So long, in fact, that it reached from the floor to the ceiling of the gallery, which was quite high up. Although there was no rope with a noose at one end of it as there had been in Copenhagen, it was compensated for by the boundary of the ceiling. The ladder of knowledge connected the earth (ie. what we know) to the sky (ie. what we want to know), but was frustrated by the man made ceiling (ie. our intellectual and physical limits). I put text onto individual rungs as in Copenhagen, but slightly re-organized.

In the microscope where the slide was, I put a small photograph of the earth. When one looked at it through the microscope, one saw colored dots that appeared to be randomly arranged. From the outside, one saw order: a picture of the earth. In front of the microscope on the pedestal, I placed an engraved faceplate which read:

  "In order to keep a certain order within the fruitful chaos, beauty will seldom confine itself to reason or accumulated randomness."

In the Door: "The more we know, the more we know,
the more we know the less we know"

  I asked Bill Galloway to help me move a full sized wooden door from another part of the building to the back wall of the gallery, placing it between the projected images of the computers. He built a new frame for it and painted the inside black. The door was hung on hinges so it could swing open and closed. It looked so convincing that some people did not realize it was a piece. But for those who looked closely, on the black painted wall inside the frame, suspended in the void of the "vast unknown," a second plaque read the same as in Denmark.

Torch, made with a found "Olympia" typewriter

  I added a new piece made with the old typewriter. The typewriter had the logo "Olympia" already written on it. Because it referred to ancient Greece, I felt that it was appropriate for the installation, given the presence of neo-Platonist scientists at the Mindship in Copenhagen, and the focus of our piece on text. Using a computer, I made a collage from an image of my hand superimposed on a photograph of a landscape of cacti in the desert southwest (USA), along with an image of a dictionary page which included the word "Olympia." I made it appear to be burning, printed it out and placed it in the typewriter. I called it "Torch."

This led me to a wonderful surprise. While people came to the opening from diverse fields, including biology, chemistry, visual art, and computer science, several literature professors who came said that they were very excited about the show, and said that the dynamically changing text showed the potential for the creative use of computers in literature and poetry. They said they would send all of their students to the exhibit. I was delighted and so was Karlheinz, who unfortunately could not join us at the opening in California but received the news via email.

CD-ROM Version

  Vibeke wanted to set up part of the original MindShipMind room installation for ("Reconstructed Thoughts") at the Sweeney Art Gallery (University of California, Riverside). I took this as an opportunity to go back to the primordial project and to re-implement it in MAX, reflecting the experiences that we have gained through our collaboration.

At the same time I had the possibility to present this piece during a media art exposition at the SCHÖMER-HAUS in Klosterneuburg. As opposed to Vibeke's installation at the Sweeney Art Gallery, I had only one Macintosh computer at my disposal. So I started to put the three separate MindShipMind parts which originally were running on 3 different computers together into one program running on a single machine.

To the three original screens of the piece (as described above) two new were added: "About MindShipMind" (explaining the idea of the piece) and "Mind the Mind" where Dubé's pictograms are dancing on the screens, in a - naturally - random-controlled choreography. These five pages are changed randomly, and each page now has its own music and sounds:

    For The Beauty of Boundaries I took a recording of my chamber piece In's Offene! (1991) for flute, clarinet, violin and cello and separated the different "moments" of the piece (in the sense of Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Moment-Form") into 34 short sound files which - randomly combined - would serve as an ever-changing "sound track" to the aforementioned algorithmically processed Besson movie.

    In Mind the Mind the swirling pictograms are accompanied by electronic sounds which I have extracted from my piece Entsagung (1991-93) for flute, bass clarinet, percussion, piano and live-electronics. These sounds structures are also randomly chosen and superimposed so that new meta-sounds are generated on the fly.

    About MindShipMind includes two new computer animations by Vibeke ("bacterias") which are moving and crawling to the piano sounds of the infinite Lexikon-Sonate (1992 ff.)

    The face morphing in The Biology of Beauty are commented by realtime processed samples from Amazing Maze (1996 ff.), where the selection of the sounds are coupled with the morphing process.

    There are no changes regarding the music in The Concept of Complexity: whenever the cars are crashing, a short "crash" sound generated from Trevor Wishart's vocal material can be heard.


  Tor asked the question of whether or not "MindShipMind" is a reflection of the seminar or not. Of course, the answer is both yes and no. It is very similar to what happens inside the minds of people when listening to many people talking, as we all did during the course of the seminar. Things inevitably become combined, and each person hears something different. And the humor of our piece works on several levels. One is the absurdity of opposites being juxtaposed, resulting in preposterous combinations. The other is more subtle, the surprise of finding sense where we expect nonsense. Even though we feel that the computer is creating chaos out of our texts, there is actually an elaborate and constantly shifting pattern of connections. While using random processes, there is a sense of some kind of order. Sometimes the computer brain and our own brains surprise us and make logical connections, despite appearances. Through direct juxtaposition, unexpected relationships between opposing or unrelated ideas and concepts are brought to our attention. In this way, we can free ourselves from our conscious, intellectual limitations, helping us to be more open to new ideas. The computer has a kind of purity in its democracy towards data, never favoring one form over the other (unless specifically programmed to do so). Not only does this "level" a hierarchy of data or content, such as that mentioned at the beginning of this article, but it results in new combinations that extends our minds. Karlheinz and I knew from our previous experience with chance operations in art, that there was a real possibility for insight arising from these fluid, juxtaposing texts, where these new combinations would reveal some deeper truth and make more sense than the original material. Context is everything, and meaning is fluid. This aspect of MindShipMind was really a happy surprise to many viewers. Some even said that it functioned in a subversive way, opening them up to new possibilities, embedding new structures and strange, new ideas in their minds. In this way, MindShipMind is completely consistent with the spirit of the Mindship, to create an intellectual environment where many of the most innovative minds in art and science can mix, where new ideas can take root, where transdisciplinary creativity is stimulated, and where new ideas can be explored. As Carver Mead, visionary computer scientist and Professor at Caltech has said, "new fields arise from the synthesis of other fields." Many new fields may arise from the true richness of the Mindship seminars. We shall have to wait while the seeds grow tall and bear fruit. In the meantime, MindShipMind begins to explore the possibilities.

Backgrounds of the Artists

Karlheinz Essl

Karlheinz Essl was born in Vienna in 1960. He studied at the Wiener Musikhochschule with Friedrich Cerha (composition), Dieter Kaufmann (electro-acoustic music), and Heinrich Schneikart (double bass). At the University of Vienna he studied musicology and wrote his doctoral thesis on "Das Synthese-Denken bei Anton Webern" (1989).

Besides writing instrumental music, Karlheinz Essl also works in the field of electronic music, interactive realtime compositions and sound installations. He develops software environments for algorithmic composition (e.g the Realtime Composition Library for MAX) and acts as a performer and improviser. As a musicologist, he researches mainly about contemporary composition theory in conjunction with its philosophical and sociological implications.

Between 1990-94 Karlheinz Essl was "composer in residence" at the Darmstädter Ferienkurse für Neue Musik. In 1992/93 he was working on a commission at IRCAM (Paris). He is running a series of New Music concerts at the SCHÖMER-HAUS in Klosterneuburg. Currently he is teaching "Computer Aided Composition" at the Studio for Advanced Music and Media Technology of the Bruckner Conservatory in Linz.

One of the most important aspect of Essl's work is the collaboration with artists from other fields which started with a series of performances called Partikel-Bewegungen together with the visual artist Harald Naegeli (aka "The Sprayer of Zurich"). He was working together with the Austrian writer Andreas Okopenko on the multimedia CD-ROM version of his Hypertext novell Lexikon-Roman which was originally published in 1970 as a printed book. Among other artists with which Essl collaborates are the painter Hermann Nitsch and the architects Carmen Wiederin and Regina Freimüller.

Essl's works have been performed at the most important music festivals in Europe and United States; 1997 he was presented with portrait concerts and sound installations at the Salzburg Festival within the program "Next Generation". He is working with high-class ensembles like the Arditti Quartet (London), Ensemble Modern (Frankfurt), Ensemble InterContemporain (Paris), Klangforum (Vienna) and the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Vienna.

Vibeke Sorensen

Born in 1954 in Copenhagen, Denmark, Vibeke Sorensen lived in the United States from the age of 3 until her return to Denmark in 1970. She studied at the Royal Academy of Art and Architecture in Copenhagen from 1971-74, and at the Center for Media Study at the State University of New York at Buffalo from 1974-76 .

She is an artist working in experimental new media, including computer graphics and animation. From her early work with hybrid audio-video synthesizers in the early 1970's, through her long engagement with three-dimensional computer graphics, to her present internet based pieces, she has created a series of prints, installations, films, and interactive works while experimenting with and contributing to the development of new systems and methods. Her work has been shown internationally on broadcast and cable television, in galleries, in museums, and in live performance.

Her pieces primarily focus on the exploration of subjective space and time, including personal and cultural memory, dream, and perception. Her stereoscopic work "Maya" (1993), has been shown widely and is the subject of a major article in the Journal ISAST Leonardo. In 1996, Sorensen was commissioned by Absolut to create a new stereoscopic piece for their Absolut Panushka website celebrating experimental animation. Sorensen has also had a long engagement in visual/musical works, including MindShipMind, and her project The Global Visual Music Jam Session, a collaboration with composer Rand Steiger and computer scientist Miller Puckette. Supported by a three year grant from Intel, awarded in 1996, they have been developing a new system for networked, real-time computer animation and music, and experimenting with the effects of distance and latency on improvisational performance.

As asserted in her published articles on art and science, her strong conviction that artists have an important role to play both as critics and as innovators in the development of technology has led to many interdisciplinary research collaborations. She has worked with University of Southern California chemistry professor Dr. Mark Thompson since 1996 on the development of new display technology, supported by a grant from the Annenberg Center for Communication. She combined this work in a new set of installations along with MindShipMind in a solo show "Reconstructed Thoughts" at the Sweeney Gallery in 1998. From 1989-91, she received a National Science Foundation Grant for research in Interactive Stereoscopic Animation and Virtual Reality at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. Together with crystallographer Dr. Lynn Teneyck and computer scientist Phil Mercurio, they developed a real-time interactive system which she used to create Maya, subsequently used by scientists to visualize complex dynamic data. She was a Visiting Associate in Computer Science at Caltech from 1984-89, where she collaborated with computer scientists developing many of the fundamental algorithms for computer graphics. Among the many images she created during this period, "Fish and Chips" has been widely published, including in Newsweek Magazine, Encyclopedia Britannica ("Art of the 1980's") and on the cover of the book Digital Visions, by Cynthia Goodman.

Sorensen created programs and developed facilities for computer art at Virginia Commonwealth University (1980-83), Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California (1983-85), and California Institute of the Arts (1984-94). She also worked with Professor David Dobkin of the Princeton University Computer Science Department to create interdisciplinary courses and facilities for art and computer science students (1990-93). She is currently Professor and Chair of the Division of Animation and Digital Arts in the School of Cinema-Television at USC.

Updated: 19 Oct 2019