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Cellular Automata: Microcosmic Gazing

May 26, 2023 Spring 2023

A knitted animation following cellular automata rules, made by participant Hayley Mortin (@dazy_chains on instagram).

Over the last 5 weeks, 38 participants gathered online to learn rules of code and cellular automata. Each week, the class engaged in the different ways these rules can be applied and ways they can relate to their own backgrounds.

This is the first time SFPC offered Cellular Automata and I am excited to see how this current iteration may move towards news forms. The course was created and taught by Murilo Polese with the assistance of Yadira Sanchez (me) - we are both SFPC alum.

Like most computational fields, cellular automata has centered the contributions of english speaking white men, underwriting the contributions of other people who don’t fit western dominant culture. The Cellular Automata curriculum was constructed to be an instrument in addressing and reframing these dominant conceptions of computation.

Photo of a watercolor painting showing how colours change depending on the neighbours - following cellular automata rules; made by participant Eric Rannestad (@erannestad on instagram).

Over the course of these sessions, Murilo and I shared the possibilities of framing the content into a more expansive context by working through in-class hand on activities and homework. To allow participants plenty of room and space to consider cellular automata as a decentralized, interdependent and decolonial practice of and way of thinking about computing.

This class helped participants ask questions like:

  • What are rules and initial conditions?
  • How can we introduce and develop another kind of science that is based on much more general types of rules beyond mathematical equations?
  • How does cellular automata provide insights into the behaviour of complex systems in nature?
  • What kind of behaviours are possible and how can they be represented?

The class also highlighted the concept of space as language and nondeterminism. To start breaking out of the English centric world and engage with non verbal forms of designing, representing and executing rules by exploring spatial programming languages like splat in the splaty code platform.

Made by participant Nay Saysourinho (@nayolithic on instagram). “The ruleset was merely connecting three A’s together in any fashion, and they would reveal part of a path. But if the A’s didn’t connect, no path would be revealed. There are two series of three A’s that create either a flood or a fire, and as you fill out the page, the randomness of the pattern will sometimes create floods/fires as you keep building your path. I wanted to use the rule of 3 to illustrate how repetition is contextual, and the context reveals the story.”
Made by participant Helen Shewolfe Tseng (@wolfchirp on instagram). “Inspired by Nay’s homework from Week 3, I played around with the sim and added rules to try to simulate carrying capacity in an ecosystem, which means that a given ecosystem can support some amount of “predators” (less) and “prey” (more) at a dynamic equilibrium, rather than the two being necessarily in competition. I also added plants that spawn or degenerate randomly in relation to the two animals; the plants also provide neighborhoods for breeding for the two animals.”

Another highlight of the class was the invitation to gather and gaze at the microscopic reality and its wonders, watching and imagining the mechanisms that make the observable reality emergent.

With the help of microscopes and natures’ moss, the class was invited to be part of microcosmic gazing as a gathering.

As the sessions unfolded, we held space to have conversations that inspired and challenge us to explore the possibilities and limitations of computation through cellular automata. The creative potential through cellular automata are vast and we hope this continues as we look forward to continue towards our collective imagination and creativity grounding us.

We invite you to delve deeper into this space and check the course’s archive website. You can follow this link to access the archive.