© 2016 Willa Downing

Willa Downing, Artist _______________________________________________________________________________________ _______________________________________________________________________________________

Complex Systems



Some of my recent research/artwork has been focused on the relationships found in complex systems – both natural and artificial. A new area of study in science and mathematics, the field of complexity examines phenomena as disparate as fractals, information theory, evolution, genetics, and urban sprawl, to give just a few examples. Complex systems are self-organizing and non-linear. There is a spontaneous emergence of order and pattern from ‘democratic’ and local interactions of component elements i.e. bottom-up rather than top-down. The new emergent properties are not reducible to the properties of its individual parts; for example, the behaviour of an ant colony cannot be understood by looking at individual ants.


Rather than being reductionistic, the goal of complex systems research is to study relationships among the different elements of a system rather than the nature of the elements themselves, with the ultimate goal of developing a conceptual framework that encompasses all complex systems. The derivation of universal principles may not be possible, but I find the idea intriguing.


In the Flow series based on photocopied maps, rivers and roads resemble arteries, neurons, branches and roots; human settlements become cellular and subcellular entities. In another body of work (Line Drawing, Flock, Trace), road networks cut out from maps and collaged onto paper represent other systems such as lines of force, flight of a flock of birds, neurons, lines of communication. Though not the same, the common forms and patterns of these different entities are beyond metaphor.


To suggest that a river network is the same as a neural network would be wrong, but the similarities of their patterns and the similarities found in so many unrelated complex systems opens up an exploration of relationships among nature, ourselves, and our impact on the world.