Systems Art & Interactivity

ART 608
Spring 2015
Digital/Experimental Media, Department of Art, Kansas State University
T/Th: 11:30am - 2:20pm, ROOM: Bluemont 117
Instructor: Carlos Castellanos Office: Willard 221 Office hrs: T/Th 2:30-3:30pm and by appointment

This course explores cybernetic and systems-based approaches to art-making and contextualization of information systems as art. Methods and techniques for use of information and natural processes in the construction of interactive systems will be presented. Concepts such as complexity, emergence and self-organization will be introduced and their meaning and relevancy within an arts context explored.

Content & Organization
Subjects addressed in the course include: systems theory, cybernetics, complexity, emergence, self-organization, natural systems as sources of artistic material, information mapping, artificial intelligence and artificial life. This is a lecture-lab and includes regular readings, discussions, exercises and projects. Topics are presented by the instructor, examples are shown and explained and exercises are assigned that coincide with the theme(s) covered. These are to be completed by students both during lab periods and outside of class. The first half of the course will focus on introducing the concepts mentioned above, and will include exercises and a small project. The second half will focus on developing a collaborative final project.

This course addresses conceptualization, design and production of interactive art with respect to systems and information. In addition to learning basic technical skills required to construct interactive systems, the course has the following objectives:

  • Demonstrate a working knowledge of systems theory, cybernetics, complexity and emergence
  • Learn to create your own systems and processes to incorporate into your art practice.
  • Learn to play with systems to figure them out.
  • Learn about the role and function of systems in society and culture.
  • Demonstrate awareness of systems concepts employed by artists

Required Materials & Text
Course Website: You're looking at it:

The course website is the most important resource of information for this course. In addition to this course description and the class schedule/syllabus, the website will have links to articles code tutorials and all kinds of resources related to the class. All assigned readings will be available online.

Required Text: none, readings will be assigned (TBA)
Optional: The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (Andrew Pickering, University of Chicago Press, 2010)
Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness (Roy Ascott, University of California Press, 2003)
Beyond Modern Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of This Century (Jack Burnham, George Braziller, 1968)
Cybernetic Serendipity (Jasia Reichardt, Praeger, 1969)
Cybernetics, Art, and Ideas (Jasia Reichardt, Studio Vista, 1971)

Students are responsible for all of the material presented in class. All assignments must be presented on the due date. Late assignments will be excepted no more than 1 week after the due date, but with a 50% grade reduction. Students are expected to meet with the instructor to review progress and discuss individual approaches. Students are expected to perform the necessary background research on topics and techniques appropriate to completion of the assignments and projects.

Assignment Grading

Exercises 15%
Research Presentation 10%
Small Project 20%
Final Project Proposal 5%
Final Project 35%
Journal/Documentation/Readings 10%
General Participation (attendance, critiques, etc). 5%

Project Grading Criteria
A. Research, Documentation, Presentation, etc.
B. Formal and Technical Achievement
C. Innovative Response and Conceptual Approach
D. General effectiveness of project

Your grade will be based on the percent of points earned in relation to the total number of points possible in the course. The percent scores on all activities will be added for the final grade, and weighted according to the scheme below.

Letter grades can be summarized thus:

  • A is a grade of distinction and excellence. You have far exceeded expectations.
  • B represents excellent work, above average.
  • C indicates average work.
  • D represents minimally acceptable work.
  • F indicates non-acceptable work, no credit is received.

Grading Scale

Letter A B C D F
Percent 90 - 100% 80 - 89% 70 - 79% 60 - 69% 0 - 59%

Grading Rubric for Major Project

GRADING percentage Exemplary Solid Passing Poor Failing
TECHNICAL: 25%Did you use the resolution, bit depth, and color mode the assignment called for? Are there mismatched shadows or other examples of poor digital craftsmanship?
AESTHETIC: 25%Are your final pieces compositionally balanced? Did you make good use of color? Does your piece lead the viewer’s eyes?
Does your final piece address the theme in a clear way? Whole more than the sum of its parts”? Does your final output address the themes proposed for this assignment?
Were you prepared for each class? Did you bring the rough sketches/ideas on the due date? Did you upload your image to the class blog on time? Did you work during work hours? Did you participate in demonstrations?

Your Grade:__________________________________

Expectations For Classroom Conduct
All student activities in the University, including this course, are governed by the Student Judicial Conduct Code as outlined in the Student Governing Association By Laws, Article VI, Section 3, number 2. Students who engage in behavior that disrupts the learning environment may be asked to leave the class.

Academic Honesty
Kansas State University has an Honor System based on personal integrity, which is presumed to be sufficient assurance that, in academic matters, one's work is performed honestly and without unauthorized assistance. Undergraduate and graduate students, by registration, acknowledge the jurisdiction of the Honor System. The policies and procedures of the Honor System apply to all full and part-time students enrolled in undergraduate and graduate courses on-campus, off-campus, and via distance learning. The honor system website can be reached via the following URL: . A component vital to the Honor System is the inclusion of the Honor Pledge which applies to all assignments, examinations, or other course work undertaken by students. The Honor Pledge is implied, whether or not it is stated: "On my honor, as a student, I have neither given nor received unauthorized aid on this academic work." A grade of XF can result from a breach of academic honesty. The F indicates failure in the course; the X indicates the reason is an Honor Pledge violation.

Students With Disabilities
Any student with a disability who needs a classroom accommodation, access to technology or other academic assistance in this course should contact Disability Support Services ( and/or the instructor. Students who require assistance during an emergency evacuation should discuss their needs with their instructors and DSS. DSS serves students with a wide range of disabilities including, but not limited to, physical disabilities, sensory impairments, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, depression, and anxiety.

Exercises, Research Assignment & Projects
There will be three small exercises, one research presentation, one small project and one large final project this semester. The exercises are designed to feed into the projects. The projects can be done independently but small groups of two or three are recommended for the final project.

Collaboration is an important part of this course. Students must plan out and document what their roles and accomplishments are in the final project so as to be graded individually in terms of both their technical and conceptual skills. All collaborations must be approved by the instructor.

Participation & Attendance
Attendance and involvement in the discussions, critiques, readings, class collaborations and presentations are critical for each student's success and for the success of the course as a whole. Class time will be devoted to this and it will make up a significant part of your participation grade.

Students may miss up to three classes before points will be deducted from their grade. Some classes will be designed as open labs. Students must attend critiques. A student who is absent on a critique day will drop one letter grade.

Research Presentation
This will entail an in-depth presentation on your ideas and current research. You will be disseminating information to the class in a manor that facilitates learning and comprehension of the topic. This research should lead directly to one or both of your projects. The research can be done independently or in small groups of two or three. Visuals are required and working hardware/software example demos are strongly recommended. Think of this as a template or prototype for your projects.

Journal & Documentation
You will be expected to keep an online journal/blog of your work in this class. Document your work. Include sketches, experiments, ideas, etc. Pictures, videos, etc are all fine. Think of it as a way to help yourself with your projects and a way to help others who take this class (now and in the future). The tricks you found that work, the pitfalls you hit, ways around them, sources for materials, reference material, etc.

You should also keep notes on the readings in your journal. The various readings include some theory, some practical applications, some experiments, etc. Write up what impresses you, what confuses you, what you agree or disagree with, and what project ideas come to you while you're reading. By about the middle of the semester, you should have a number of possible final project ideas online.

Your journal can be no-frills HTML, no need for complex sites. Blogs and wikis are fine. Please don't use Flash or other formats that are not text-searchable (except for embedding video and other media). Ideally, the journal will give you a head start on documenting your projects for future portfolio reference, and those who come after you a place to look for reference material.

A journal entry is part of the assignment for each exercise/assignment/project you do, and each set of readings. Feel free to do more entries as you see fit. The entries for the readings don't have to be long but they should convince me that you've read the material and engaged with it. Basically, you should have at least one or two journal/blog entries a week.

You should document your projects thoroughly. Plan in advance, perhaps as a group, to have what you need to document at least your mid-semester and final projects. Photos, video, drawings, schematics, and notes are all valuable forms of documentation.

Work on this as you go, do not put it off until the end.

Lab Fee Charge Notification
The lab fee for this course is $50. Lab fees are mandatory.


Note: subject to change



Due Tue, Week 2 (01/27)

Due Tue, Week 3 (02/03)

Due Tue, Week 4 (02/10)

Due Tue, Week 5 (02/17):

Due Tue, Week 6 (02/24):

Due Tue, Week 7 (03/03):

Due Tue, Week 8 (03/10):



Exercise #1, Due Th, Week 2 (01/29)What is a System?
Part I
Look for a good definition of what a System is and what it is not.
Bring in 5 example images/diagrams of systems on paper and brainstorm how these systems may be utilized in an arts context

  • One must be considered living, organic or "natural"
  • One must have more than 50 elements
  • One must have no more than 5 parts


  • look around your bedroom, neighborhood, city. Look for what might be a system by looking at elements and trying to discern relationships between them
  • don't worry too much about figuring out how the system works in any great detail. Don't worry about what the individual parts are doing, look at the system as a whole and think of ways you can use the output and/or ways inputs can affect it. Think of it as a black box


Part II
Create a web page or pdf that discusses several (at least 2 or 3) of the cybernetic and system concepts presented so far (see the Cybernetic & Systems Concepts page). Discuss how one or more of your diagrams from Part I can be used as an example of one or more of these concepts and explain why. Use simple descriptions to illustrate how your diagrams/images might be an example of each term. Be sure include the images/diagrams in your presentation.

Upload everything to your blog by the due date and be prepared to demo and explain it.

Exercise #2, Due Th, Week 3 (02/05)Organic Analogues

Look for some organic or quasi-organic material or living system that can be used as a substrate for the transmission of information and thus as some sort of cybernetic control system or organic “computer”. Research the material's properties and brainstorm ways that it can be stimulated or perturbed so that it grows, moves or otherwise changes state. Research and experiment with the material and diagram a possible cybernetic system that could be built with it. Examples include: ferrofluid, plants, copper sulfate, ants, bacteria, nematodes, slime mold, and more! Document everything on your blog by the due date and be prepared to demo and explain it.


List on your blog any materials and equipment that you think you will need going forward (we can get almost, within reason). Examples include plastic, wood ,sensors, bacteria, ferrofluid, slime mold, etc.


Exercise #3, Due Tue, Week 5 (02/17)The Making of a Complex System
Organize into groups (2-3) and discuss the terms and ideas presented in the first three weeks. Try to understand what is needed to make complexity and emergence. As a group create 2-3 demonstrations of complex systems. Use yourselves as agents and/or think of creative ways to generate and document something that is a complex system. Post your process and approach as well as your experiment online on your blog.Upload everything to your blog by the due date and be prepared to demo and explain it.
Research Presentation, Due Th, Week 7 (03/05)Present your research agenda for the rest of the course. Select an area of art/research related to cybernetics and/or systems concepts that you would like to investigate further. Think of this assignment as an example sketch or prototype for the work you intend to pursue the rest of the semester and present it to the class in that context. Tel us about the materials and the ideas you want to investigate and how they are related. Make sure you document your working process and be prepared to give a brief presentation to the class describing your methodology. Be prepared to explain your diagrams, sketches, software, demos, etc.Upload everything to your blog by the due date.

Project 1 - Small Project, Due Tue, Week 9 (03/24)Prototype for a Cybernetic Art System
Research an individual, group, creative field an animal or a natural or social phenomenon and perform a cybernetic/systems analysis on it; examples include the body, the political system, a company, the theatre, ants, sculpture, the art world, etc. Almost anything. Visualize how they behave and how they develop their work (their process); Create diagrams/visualizations showing the relationships between different components and use it as a basis for building a prototype of some artwork. Try and build a prototype or model of it in Max/MSP or use whatever methods and materials you feel are appropriate.Upload everything to your blog by the due date and be prepared to present it in class
Final Project, Proposal Due Tue, Week 11 (04/07), Project Due Tue, Week 15 (05/05)Final Project
At this point, through our critiques and discussions, some kind of theme or themes should be developing that could lead to a final project. This project is really open-ended. The only real restriction is that it must be some working prototype for a cybernetic art system, possibly related to the one you did for the Small Project. If you have not already done so, assemble into small groups and decide, based on your previous projects and research, what kind of project you'd like to do.Upload everything to your blog by the due date and be prepared to present it in class

Cybernetic & Systems Concepts
Diagramming/Mind Mapping Software
Paul Pangaro (Lots of great material on cybernetics & Gordon Pask)
Cybernetic Serendipity
Protrude, Flow (ferrofluid art by Sachiko Kodama)
How to Make Ferrofluid at Home
Fun With Ferrofluid
Make your own Ferrofluid in 5 minutes
Heather Barnett: What Humans Can Learn from Semi-intelligent Slime Mold
Slime Mould Collective
Physarium (Slime Mold) Music
Max/MSP Forums
Arduino Tutorials
Arduino Programming Notebook
cv.jit (Computer vision for Max/Jitter)
jit.freenect (Interface MS Kinect with Max/Jitter)
Leap Motion objects for Max
Max patcher files shown in class (wk 03)
Max patcher files shown in class (wk 04)
Jitter video tracking using jit.scissors
Petit Mal (robotic artwork), Simon Penny
Project Cybersyn
Student Blogs

Tiana Brooks
Devlin Caldwell
Megan Carry
Miriam Cox
Chad DeVore
Ben Dodge
Maxwell Fillingim
Samuel Fillingim
Timothy Folkins
Joshua Graham
Madison Hoffman
Jordan Johnson
David Kahler
Uriah Mansaw
Lathan Mastellar
Sarah McNutt
Shannon Nelson
Chad Ostermann
Robert Pifer
Alexis Pultz
Benjamin Webb
Cody Wilhelm
Joshlynne Ziegler