Autopoietic art


Robert Genn


December 4, 2012


Dear Rodney,


"Autopoiesis" might just be a new word to you. It means "self-creation." The term was introduced in 1972 by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. In the understanding of biological cells, for example, the components of a cell interact and are their own support system. Autopoietics have since been expanded to describe some types of machinery, social systems and corporations.


You can get an understanding of autopoiesis by knowing what it isn't. A frequently given example of its opposite (known as "allopoiesis") is a car factory. All the components in a car factory are fed by time and place into a system that pops out the desired item at the end--a car. In autopoiesis, on the other hand, the various components may be randomly fed in and the end result may not be known until it exists.


Autopoiesis is useful in the making of art. Think, for example, of a painting as a living organism in which the introduction of parts suggests the introduction of other parts. The end product, while not pre-visualized, still becomes a tangible thing of its own.


What good, some might ask, is such a system? Apart from its brilliance as an exercise, autopoiesis simply and handily creates new forms and can be used as a legitimate art-production method. As well as its obvious value in abstract work, remarkable realistic forms can also evolve before your eyes.


How to do it: Take a canvas and place on it a significant gestural splodge with as big a brush as possible. It might be one stroke of mixed colours and textures. This initial mark, while perhaps arbitrary and meaningless, may suggest whatever the next mark might be. Just as oxygen is drawn into the biological cell to excite the nucleus, the next elements you put in are automatically attracted to and become part of the initial commitment. Your image bank, unique stylistic flourishes and personal processes make their contributions. A previously unseen image begins to appear. An autopoiesis canvas has a journey of its own.


Best regards,




PS: "Things do not exist until they begin to appear." (Humberto Maturana


Esoterica: One of the conundrums for those of us who might work in abstraction (or realism, for that matter) is the frequently felt need to run processes in the same manner as a car factory. That is, we start out with an end product in mind and bend our tools and timely consciousness toward that end. In autopoiesis the creator lets the work itself determine the nature and artistry of the end product. Surrendering thus, the artist might even accept that a higher power is moving her hand. Seems a bit woo-woo, I know, but if you're looking for uniqueness, visual magic, and the breath of life in a work of art, give it a spin. You have, as they say, nothing to lose but your chains.  "Quidem te est," said the great Roman philosopher Kjerkius Gennius (36BC)--"It is in you."