Imagine a fabric, illuminated by a constellation of neon bodies and particles. Their movements animate the mesh, and your movement catches one the thinner fabrics, the crenulated folds catch the multiplied light of the projected body. It swims past you in a helical spurt, searching for food.

This is project Gaia, an interactive installation by four undergraduate computation arts students at Concordia. It was installed in a variety of venues in 2011, including here, in the EV building.

The space is inhabited by a variety of actors:
– Herbivores, who collect and feed on small particles that / and who reproduce asexually with enough nutrition.
– Predators, who search out and devour herbivores, leaving their bodies for
– Scavengers, who are not fully integrated into the cycles of feeding and birth: they turn the bodies of dead predators and herbivores into nutritious particles.
– And infared cameras, who map the human movement in physical space to the digital: providing additional resources and temperments to the local actors.

Gaia stages an encounter with the human and non-human, and gives the participant an opportunity to question what happens to our notion of space when our presence palpably animates it, and dissolves the boundary between the audience and the installation.

This installation intersects with Bennett’s work on Vibrant matter in two principal ways: Immersion and emergence.
An emergent system is one where simple rules combine and lead to consequences unpredictable from those rules. (Bogost “Unit Operations” 95)
Immersion, asJanet Murray defines it, is the ability to construct new beliefs through interaction with computational media.

Eating appears as a series of “mutual transformations in which the border between inside and outside becomes blurry .. it complicates the notion that non-human material is essentially passive stuff” as human participants witness and facilitate these digestive processes.

Like the worms that Darwin described and Bennett contexualized,
The actors in Gaia are not governed by any central head. The digital actants (the creatures inhabiting the virtual space) were programmed with specific materialities.
This programming is structured with the “strange structuralism of vital materiality,” that Bennett describes, ” a structuralism that includes the aleatory” (119)

The actants in Gaia participate in heterogeneous assemblages in which agency has “no single locus, no mastermind, but is distributed across a swarm of various and variegated vibrant materialities”

A human presence amplifies the reproduction of nearby herbivores, and their numbers grow, undetected until a small pack of predators happens upon them, hunting them down and reproducing until a large force of predators amasses, and extinguish the local herbivores.

Reactions like this act as “an indeterminate wave of energy, a force that traverses bodies without itself being one”.

The border between the human and nonhuman actants is porous here:
Spend more time observing the grazing habits of the herbivores, and risk accelerating their growth quickly enough to attract predators.
Move around, and your motion creates new threads of flight for the swarms of creatures that coexist in these overlapping layers of digital and material space.
In this sense, Gaia enacts Bennett’s call to action: “Perhaps the ethical responsibility of an individual human now resides in one’s response to the assemblages in which one finds oneself participating” (37).

Bennett describes a field that lacks “primordial divisions”, is not a uniform or flat topography. Where “portions congeal into bodies, but not in a way that makes any one type the privileged site of agency. The source of effects is, rather, always an ontologically diverse assemblage of energies and bodies, of simple and complex bodies, of the physical and physiological”

I can think of no better description of Gaia than that.

Works cited:
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. Print.