Playing With Fractals

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Anthologies on 1 January 2002

I first encountered Sarah Sze - whom I hadn’t yet heard of - at a cocktail party in New York. She was about to leave for Paris to do an installation “with ladders.”

“Ladders you can climb?”I asked. “Like a jungle gym?”

She smiled, politely. No, one couldn’t climb them. Not physically, anyway. For Sze’s sculptural works are, indeed, playgrounds. Monkey bars for the mind. Invitations to play, and, in doing so, to comprehend the nature of play in an entirely new context. These are seductive and deceptively unthreatening vehicles for transformation. They force to re-evaluate the role of play in the evolution of species, culture, and spirit.

We can’t reckon with the implications of Sze’s transformative energy by getting abstract or exploring historical precedents. No, we’d just get lost in the morbidly retrograde cartography that passes for contemporary art criticism these days - a booby prize if ever there was one. Instead, we have to go inside, to our own experience, and trust that what we’re feeling and thinking actually matters. And when we go there - to that place Sze’s work takes us if we let it, something remarkable happens.

Sarah Sze’s work helps us make sense of the world in which we live through the fanciful celebration of the utilitarian. Her pieces allow the manufactured objects of our everyday reality to transcend their intended contexts, and find a new, organismic relationship to one another, and to us. Sze is both discovering and developing the kinds of repetitive patterns that give human beings the reference points they need to resonate playfully rather than strategically with the material and visual world.

Or, to put it much more simply, Sarah is recreating nature out of the unnatural - and beholding these natural systems - these imaginative playscapes - changes us forever.

Perhaps the best metaphor I can use to explain the odd reassurance I feel on encountering one of Sze’s installations is that of a fractal. Fractals are the computer-generated graphic representations of non-linear equations. Unsatisfied with the over-determined and oversimplified techniques of traditional linear math and reductive calculus, new math theorists sought to find ways of representing the genuine complexity of our physical world in the perfect language of numbers. They found that by representing the fractional dimensionality of the real world, they could reckon with the roughness of reality.

Of course the billions of calculations required to iterate fractals must be accomplished using a computer. They are products of the computer age. Yet, surprisingly, they yield forms that exemplify the most natural of living systems.

Fractals are self-similar. This means at one level of magnification, you will be able to see certain shapes that are repeated again at much higher levels of magnification. Just as the shapes of veins in a leaf reflect the shapes of branches in a tree or trees in the forest, computer-generated fractals reflect the self-similarity of numbers. As above, so below. The networked systems that fractals represent also tend to have what are known as “remote high leverage points.”Although these systems might be extremely stable, profound change can come from extremely remote places, if conditions are right.

My own work in cultural analysis has been largely informed by these discoveries and intuitions. Like the ocean and the weather, our society has been networked together through the media, economic, and telecommunications infrastructures. We experience ourselves in a kind of fractal, with our television screens displaying images of television screens with television screens. And our interconnectedness allows for remote high leverage points: a single, tiny media event in a remote location - like a camcorder capturing the beating of a black man by white Los Angeles cops - can lead to full-scale rioting in 12 American cities.

A fractal sensibility helps one orient to the modern, mediated and non-linear landscape. As humans, we strive to find patterns in the world around us - especially in the seeming chaos. Just as the regularity of waves turns a threatening ocean into a reassuring rhythm, our ability to perceive patterns and self-similarity in the manufactured world of cities and objects helps us understand that there is an order to our existence. A plan. A design.

Sze introduces these sensibilities to all who encounter her work. Our only choice is whether to revel in them, or reel back in horror - our critical presumptions about the shortcomings of the man-made forever altered.

For Sze’s pieces are, themselves, fractal in nature. She takes a common household object - something known more for its high frequency than its scarcity - and iterates it with others, thousands of times. Dozens of cotton balls, lined in little rows. Matchsticks, glued together in strands like ladders - no, like DNA helixes, the component codes of cellular reproduction - the genome-based time machines that nature uses to communicate the qualities of her creations through the eons.

Sarah serves as the computer. Instead of churning numbers through equations, however, she arranges objects in sequences. In an ode to obsession that would make HAL proud, Sze constructs fractals out of mankind’s most plastic and mass-produced objects - and then these constructions take on the qualities of natural phenomena.

Consider Still Life with Flowers(1999) Swirling ladders of matchsticks and rulers, interspersed with photos of sharks, mice, monkeys and other species, living twigs, and the tiniest components of artificial plants. We can’t look at the piece without thinking about the artist herself, repeatedly breaking the heads of matchsticks and gluing them together - those hours, days, maybe weeks of cyclical, repetitive tasks.

The result of her toil mirrors the DNA molecule - an evolutionary tree explicated by photos of the various species along its branches. Yet this genomic map is only secondary to fractal, natural, and fertile quality of the installation’s overarching form. This is the primary fruit of Sze’s labor: no matter how manufactured these objects may be, when they are iterated enough times they produce natural meta-forms. Fractals. In a nod to remote high leverage points, Sze places C-clamps or spring clips at critical junctures. These tiny and quite deliberately disclosed lynchpins are what hold the whole world together.

Or take a look at her studio piece, Untitled, 1996. A stepladder-as-skyscraper overlooks an urban grid of everything from Hershey’s Kisses and Lifesavers to photo slides and tennis shoes. Again, chain ladders of matchsticks and toothpicks grow upward from the two-dimensional grid as if groping for three-dimensionality. Climbing up the stepladder and through the air, like creeping ivy.

This delicate, dynamic, and fractional dimensionality; this teetering at the brink between worlds of factory-made and spontaneously alive - this is what we get when we push through chaos to the other side of order.

And, most strikingly, this new order is utterly unrecognizable to those who refuse to play. A cartographer, who can only understand the ocean as a series of longitude and latitude lines, cannot even converse with a young surfer who understands this same water as a pattern of waveforms. In fact, he will assume the surfer is hopelessly lost. Yet the surfer, by immersing in the water, experiencing the waves, and turning this interaction into a game of balance and motion, ends up with a much more intimate and lasting understanding of the ocean’s very personality - its life.

As an artist teasing us into re-examining our relationship to the manufactured physical world, Sze surfs her materials in much the same way. Like a skateboarder re-contextualizing the curbs, banisters, and benches of the urban terrain as an obstacle course, Sze uses the multitude of objects passing through our hands each day as Tinkertoy. And her play - I mean, her work - yields forms that exhibit the repetitive, self-similar, and networked properties of nature. Manufactured objects + iterated play = fractals.

Part automaton, part god, Sarah is both a slave to her taskmaster vision, and the human hand intervening in its mechanized execution. She is the delightfully autonomous being who dares to create worlds within worlds, and the autistic match-gluer who churns out the sorts of iterations most suited to a Pentium chip. As our eyes dance over the results of her labors, forced to retrace the swirling lines and self-similar visual echoes manifesting at every possible level of detail, our only choice is to play along. We are engaged in the interdimensional game, incapable of maintaining our objective vantagepoints, yet rewarded in our surrender with something so much greater: the reassurance of pattern recognition - of nature - in a realm where we’d least expect it.

This is what makes Sarah’s new work on the Bard campus so very compelling. The three excavations sneak up on you, disguised as little work zones marked with cones and protected by disheveled tarps. Yet once you approach and peer inside, you find multi-tiered cities of plastic, wood, tubing, and water. Entire worlds, and worlds within worlds - a seeming infinity of detail, and in each detail, yet another world, and another world still.

No matter how microcosmic these craters of infinitesimal plastic civilizations, it is still impossible for the viewer to stand outside them. For to look down into one of them is to be surrounded by the others. There are three of these tiny meta-cities, each throbbing, pulsing, and gurgling in its own corner of the grassy knoll. Seemingly linked – networked to one another and in constant communication - the replicated plastic galaxies challenge our arbitrarily superior vantage points. Who is the artificial stranger, here, and which is the life form?

Sze’s latest works most directly explore the relationship of the fabricated to the natural, and the utility to the toy. By inverting one for the other, she demonstrates how the manufactured object reaches the realm of the natural when utility is exchanged for play. Play is portal from the lower, survival-based levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs , to the romantic, nurturing, and spiritual realms at its top.

It is play that fuels the marathon iterations of Sze’s labor-intensive creations. Play that transforms matter into life. Play that leads life forms to reproduce, create their cultures, as well as the many artificial and manufactured forms within it. Finally, it is play that - when taken too seriously - recedes from our view as surely as God himself has withdrawn from human affairs. And it is play that returns when we topple the tyranny of utilitarian survival with the dangerously revolutionary spirit of fun. Jokes are what bring down holy empires, because they let everyone see what’s really going on. Playful humor serves as a fractal, adding dimensional perspective - drawing a proscenium arch around a social construction that seemed so very real, and turning it into a divine comedy. Play is the source of life.

Sarah’s hand-made fractals allow us to experience the cogs of our highly artificial culture as the seeds of an entirely natural system. They make us question the foundations of this very distinction. For what, ultimately, is not natural? Bees make honey, beavers make dams, and people make plastic. Why should our structures have any less geometric intention than a honeycomb? Or any less right to a place in the ecosystem of physical reality? Is human culture any different, fundamentally, from a yogurt culture? If there is a difference, it lies in our human ability to see the similarities - to recognize the patterns.

Sze’s creations are not imitations of life, but living forms. Not metaphors, but self-organizing and artfully contagious thought structures. Sze’s work is alive.