Robotic superstrings: making a unique generative artwork from the superstring installations DVDs.


Prof. Mauro Francaviglia.

Department of Mathematics, University of Torino,

Via C. Alberto 10, 10123, Torino, Italy.



E.S.G. (Evolutionary Systems Group), University of Calabria,

Via Ponte P. Bucci, Cubo 17b, 87036, Arcavacata di Rende, Italy.


Dr. Marcella Giulia Lorenzi, Ph.D.

E.S.G. (Evolutionary Systems Group), University of Calabria,

Via Ponte P. Bucci, Cubo 17b, 87036, Arcavacata di Rende, Italy.


BATS (Biblioteca Area Tecnico-Scientifica), University of Calabria,

Piazzale Chiodo, 2, 87036, Arcavacata di Rende, Italy.



Dr. Michael Petry, Director.

(MOCA) Museum of Contemporary Art, London Project Space,

113 Bellenden Road, SE15 4QJ, London, England.






The pictures and videos shooted during the three occasions the Superstrings Installation was realized will be part of a DVD that will be produced only in a limited edition, in few copies. The DVDs will be then part of a generative art installation presented during the GA2006 conference. A small robotic artifact will be programmed so to trace on the DVD surfaces space “visual superstrings”, which will change depending both on the interaction with the public and the configuration of the DVDs on the floor. At the end, a unique artwork will be generated.

1. Installations, art and life.

Installation, as a generic term, covers a large area of practice and enquiry within contemporary art. It is suggestive the notion of ‘exhibition’, or ‘display’, and of an actual activity which is today as widespread as any other way of making art. […] Installation, as a hybrid discipline, is made of multiple histories; it includes architecture and Performance Art in its parentage, and the many directions within contemporary visual arts have also exerted their influence. By crossing the frontiers between different disciplines, installation is able to question their individual autonomy, authority and, ultimately, their history and relevance to the contemporary context. [1]

The prominence of installations in specific non-art sites also continues to figure among the concern of installation artists. The activation of the place, or context, of artistic intervention suggests a localized, highly specific reading of the work, and is concerned not only with art and its boundaries, but with the continual rapprochement, or even fusion, of art and life. Installation must therefore also represent the artist’s desire to extend the area of practice from studio to the public space. […] Installation, in the sense proposed by the book of one of us [MP, 1], is a relatively new term. It is really only on the last decade or so that it has been used to describe a kind of art making which rejects concentration on one object in favour of a consideration of the relationships between a number of elements or of the interaction between things and their context. […] RoseLee Goldberg gave a 1975 article the title “Space as Praxis” and it is this sense of space in active dialogue with things and people it contains, in all its ramifications, that lies at the heart of the subject.  Procedures which activate the potential or repressed meanings of a specific place, which play real space and time off against the imaginative dimensions of the various electronic media, which question the cultural ‘truths’ reflected in patterns of collection, scholarship and display in the priviledged spaces of art, and which relate the social space in which they operate to the sense of public, private and communal found in the language of architecture, all fall within the term. […]

[…] What is needed, rather, is the drawing of certain ideas out of the history, particularly the notion that space and time (that is, the actual duration rather than the abstract notion of time) themselves constitute material for art. We must also take note of the tendency, observable throughout modernism, for art to merge with life.[1]

Jonathan Crary affirms that “unavoidably, our lives are diveded between two essentially  incompatible milieus; on one hand, the spaceless electronic worlds of contemporary technological culture and, on the other, the physical extensive terrain on which our bodies are situated. Much installation art affirms that experience (and art) is constituted out of the paradoxes and discontinuities of this mixed heterogeneous zone”.[2]

Though technology has become an integral part of Installation art, it is the way in which artists have appropriated these advances that it is important. These ‘tecniques’ have been integrated into their work by artists, often highlighting the artificiality of the medium. […] The artists revel in the artificiality of their environments, pointing out that the parallel and simulated worlds of gaming are of greater interest than their real counterparts.[2]


2. Artificial Life and Art: from genetic algorithms to autonomous robots.

Since Artificial Life’s self-declared inception in 1987, artists began to apply its techniques and concepts. As Mitchell Whitelaw [3] observes, “In a process mirroring the expansion and diversification of artificial life science, a-life art has to come to encompass work in a wide range of forms, reflecting diverse intonations and perspectives.” From its key process-artificial evolution- mostly used at the beginning, in the following decade artists began to generate aesthetic objects drawing on other elements and forms: ecosystem simulations, cellular automata and behavioral robotics. “These techniques are applied across the gamut of ‘new media’ forms: digital image, animation, interactive installation and CD-ROM, on- and off- line virtual environments, and static, robotic and biological-robotic sculpture. Less obvious, though perhaps more important, is a correponding diversity of conceptual approaches. Some artists endorse and play out a-life’s aim for the synthesis of living systems; they reflect some of the progressive, futurist tendencies of a-life and the cultural discourse it has inspired. Others approach a-life critically, questioning the assumptions that underpin its techiniques as they turn those techniques to creative ends. Still others draw on the technical resources of a-life only to alter them, reconfigure and reeingeneer them to serve particular aesthetic and conceptual concerns.

Contemporary new media artists use a-life in a variety of contexts, to a variety of ends: some works pursue an absolute, self-sufficient autonomy; others use an appearance of autonomy to provoke empathy or raise questions about human agency. Many of the artists using a-life strive for a supple, engaging form of interactivity and a work that draws the audience into an active relationship; others present artistic artifacts that arise through their own intense engagement with a-life processes. Some set about creating whole artificial worlds, others seek out a complex, dynamic relationship with the physical ‘outside’ world.” Some artists exploit genetic algorithms to create digital images or music [4], many other draw on arficial intelligence, other work with robotics, avatars or artificial agencies, generative processes or simulated worlds, etc. [5].

Other artistis, such as the so called “breeders”, operate in a coded computational interior world. Mitchell Whitelaw [3] notes “In cybernatures, that computational space begins to open outward in both form and content: the outside is drawn in through the user’s interactive involvement and mirrored, awkwardly, in these toy worlds”. Artists that pull away from the inner window provided by a computer screen and consciously occupy physical space often build a variety of physical systems: interactive robotic creatures, technological and biological composites, installed robotic ‘ecosystems’ and ‘communities’. “In placing their works in the room with us rather than in the ‘elsewhere’ of a virtual or simulated space, these artists are able to explore an open, transparent form of interactivity that in a sense requires no interface, the weight and presence of a ‘body’ brings with it an immediacy that screen-based works often lack. This sense of ‘being with us’ is at the core of the concerns articulated by these artists.” [3]


3. Superstrings Installation I-II-III

Superstrings Installation is a conceptual art work by one of us (MP), that was realized for the first time in Torino (during the “Art, Complexity and Technology: Their Interaction in Emergence” Workshop, held in Villa Gualino, at the ISI Foundation, from 5 to 6 May, 2005 (see [6]).) and later in Cetraro (during the “Mathematics, Art and Cultural Industry Conference” held from 19 to 21 May 2005 (see [7]), and finally during Generative Art 2005 (Milano, from 15 to 17 December 2005) [8]. This was at the same time an exquisite demonstration of how a clever mix of Art and Science is feasible and also a clear example of the cultural challenges offered by the fascinating and fast growing field of “Emergence in Art”.

The artwork was in fact a creative and generative process, that - by means of physical interactions involving both the artist and the public - generates, step by step, an installation that is never ending, continuously changing and dynamically oscillating in space and time.

The “Standard Model” (the current theory of Particle Physics) postulates the existence of four elementary “fundamental” physical interactions that are in turn carried by “elementary particles” grouped, according to precise symmetries rules, in suitable “families”. A different framework has been later proposed in Theoretical Physics, which tries to replace standard particles with so-called “strings” [6] and “superstrings” [7]. These are “extended objects” having one dimension, like real tiny elastic ropes which fill infinitesimally small portions of space. Strings which might be “open” or “closed” - continuously vibrate in space-time and their vibrations generate observable excitations of the physical fields.

In much the same way, virtual strings formed by elastic ropes filled the space in the Exhibition Room, by means of an infinite process in which the public helped to generate intricate and never ending patterns. In essence, the room became wrapped in miles and miles of elastic string, going from floor to wall, ceiling to door, wherever anyone wanted to attach two end points. Attendees were able to enter and bounce around the space, the visual metaphor of the bound room being a pattern for space, like a “Wormhole”, i.e. a loop in space-time where we could as we exited one, see ourselves enter it. As a final output Art and Science merge through the emergence of the artwork itself.

This installation is therefore a true and genuine “generative process” that allows to intertwine Art and Complexity, giving space into Contemporary Art to the modern physical notions of “Strings” and “Superstrings”, which are among the most fascinating and challenging issues of current Physics of fundamental interactions.


4. Robotic superstings

The pictures taken and the videos shooted during the three installations have been collected in a DVD produced only in a limited edition, in few copies. The DVDs were then part of a generative art process presented during the GA2006 Conference. All the copies were put on the floor, forming a matrix, within a limited space. A small robotic artifact, built using Lego robotics kit and RCX computer-brick and code, was programmed so to trace on this space a “visual superstring”, which changed depending both on the interaction with the public and the configuration of the DVDs on the floor. i.e., whenever a participant has chosen a direction it left a trace on the DVDs surfaces; in addition it behaved in different ways when the space changed because somebody has taken a copy of the DVD.  At the end, a unique artwork was generated.


LEGO Mindstorms - Robotics Invention System let people design and program real robots that do what they want them to do. At the heart of the system is the RCX, an autonomous LEGO microcomputer that can be programmed using a pc. The RCX serves as brain of the robot, while a number of sensors can be added to take physical inputs from the environment. After processing the data, the robot behaves in interaction with the environment, fully independent from the computer. A new, more powerful release is LEGO Mindstorms NXT, that also provides a kit to build “Alpha Rex”, a small humanoid robot, walking on two legs. LEGO robots are usually used, apart from entertainment, as educational technologies to teach/learn complex theoretical contents [11, 12], in an engaging and hands-on way. [13,14]

We decided to build a “roverbot” with four wheels, to give it the stability to perform its task. The robot was then programmed to go from one point to the other in the “arena” (the delimited space formed by the DVDs matrix) interacting with the public (who chose the initial position) and changing its direction when meeting an obstacle. Meanwhile, a marker, connected to some sensors, would draw a ‘virtual string’ on the surface of the DVDs. Of course all the process depends on the initial and subsequent positions and behaviour, so that each string is unique. This is a new, different way of representing the superstring idea. In addition, a physics, one of us (MF) was there also to give all the explanations about the related scientific theories, made easily understandable referring to the installation itself.


5. Conclusions

In “Principles of research”, Albert Einstein stated that the artist and the scientist each substitute a self-created world for the experiential one, with the goal of trascendence”. [15]


In the past centuries the relation between Art and Science was very strong, but then the two disciplines were separated, and it is only recently that the two are intermingled in new, different ways. [16]

Marvin Minsky points out the importance of artistic representations to better undestand scientific concepts: “No matter what one’s purposes, perhaps the most powerful methods of human thought are those that help us find new kinds of representations. Why is this so important? Because each new representation suggests a new way of understanding-and if you understand something only one way, then you scarcely understand it at all. Perhaps this is the way the arts so often precede the flowerings of culture” [17]

Moreover, Wilson pushes the concepts even further, demostrating through a rich variety of examples that “The role of the artist is not only to interpret and spread scientific knowledge, but to be an active partner in determining the direction of research”. [18 ]



[1] N. de Oliveira, N. Oxley, M. Petry, with text by M. Archer, Installation art. Thames & Hudson, London, 1994 (Reprinted 2004).

[2] N. de Oliveira, N. Oxley, M. Petry, foreword by J. Crary, Installation art in the new millenium. The empire of the senses. Thames & Hudson, London, 2003.

[3] Mitchell Whitelaw, Metacreation. Art and Artificial Life. MIT Press, 2004.  Cambridge, MA.

[4] E. Bilotta, P. Pantano,V. Talarico, Synthetic Harmonies: an approach to musical semiosis by means of cellular automata, Proceeding of Artificial Life VII, Portland, Oregon, MIT Press, 2000.

[5] E. Bilotta, M. Lorenzi, P. Pantano,A. Talarico,  Art Inspired by cellular automata, NKS 2004 Conference, Boston 22-25 April 2004.

[6] “Art, Complexity and Technology: Their Interaction in Emergence”, Workshop held in Villa Gualino (ISI Foundation, Torino, Italy), 5-6 May, 2005 - Web Page:

[7] “Mathematics, Art and Cultural Industry”, Conference held in Cetraro (Calabria, Italy), 19-21 May 2005? - CD-rom of Proceedings by M.G. Lorenzi - Web Page:

[8] M. Francaviglia, M. Lorenzi, M. Petry, The Space Between: Superstring Installation III, 8th Generative Art Conference 2005, “8th Generative Art Conference, GA2005, Milano, 15-17 December 2005”; C. Soddu Ed.; (Alea Design Publisher, Milano, 2005), pp. 265-276

[9] Il futuro della teoria delle stringhe; una conversazione con Brian Greene, Le Scienze 424 (Dicembre, 2003), pp. 44-49

[10] D.J. Griffiths, Introduction to Elementary Particles, John Wiley & Sons (New York, 1987) ? See also the web page:

[11] F. Martin, Building Robots to learn design and engineering”, in Proceedings of the 1992 Fontiers in Education Conference, Nashville, Tennessee, November 1992.

[12] F. Martin, Cuircuits to control: learning engineering by designing LEGO Robots, PhD dissertation, MIT, Cambridge, MA, 1994.

[13] Bilotta, E., Pantano, P.,Talarico, V.,( (1998),Learning Math concepts by visually programming Robots, Quaderni del Centro Interdipartimentale della Comunicazione, 6, UNICAL, Cosenza.

[14] E. Bilotta, P. Pantano, P. A. Bertacchini, L. Gabriele, R. Servidio, Apprendere con le mani: strategie cognitive per la realizzazione di ambienti di apprendimento-insegnamento con i nuovi strumenti tecnologici, Franco Angeli, Milano, 2006.

[15] A. Einstein, Essays in science, Philosofical Library, New York, 1934.

[16] M. Francaviglia, M.G. Lorenzi, P. Pantano, Art & Mathematics – A New Pathway, in: Proceedings of the Conference “Communicating Mathematics in the Digital Era” (CMDE2006), Aveiro, 15-18 August 2006; E. Rocha et al. Eds.; A.K. Peters Ltd. (Wellsley, Mass. - USA, to appear - 2007)

[17] M. Minsky, The future merging of science, art and psychology. IN: Timothy Druckrey with Ars Electronica (edited by). Ars Electronica. Facing the future, 1999. Cambridge, MA.

[18] S. Wilson, Information arts. Intersections of art, science and technology, MIT Press, 2002.  Cambridge, MA.