/ / / / / /Sympoiesis
Earlier this year I took part in M21, an event run by John Wood and Attainable Utopias. Two design teams were holed-up in the carbon ‘negative’ Pines Calyx and tasked with formulating alternative currencies. We were Guinea-pigs beta-testing ‘metadesign’ tools, systems and techniques intended to catalyse and enhance collective problem solving— working out how to utilise the ‘hive mind’ and harness the power of ‘assemblage’.
Beyond the prescient brief, the weekend highlighted two particular qualities of assemblage, that of sympoiesis and synergy. Sympoiesis is a word I’ve not encountered before and I am still trying to get my head round it. Apparently it was coined to distinguish itself from ‘autopoiesis’, Maturana and Verela’s concept of self-organization. Very crudely, a sympoietic system is the result of collective interaction; it regularly reproduces ‘self-similar’ patterns of relations within its numerous components. However, unlike autopoiesis, it does not have a self-produced boundary or ‘membrane’. It is rhizomatic and borderless. Natural forests are often presented as classic sympoietic systems.
What I find so interesting about sympoiesis, is the absence of boundaries and resulting emphasis on linkage. Systems are no longer defined by their edges but by their RELATIONSHIPS. Identity becomes relational and not a function of the border, the ‘exclusive’ logic of inside and out give way to a new ‘combinatory topology’. Such an associative approach has fascinating implications, for all species of assemblage. How would sympoietic type, place, belief or community organize?
Synergy was another term heavily used at M21. Attributed to Buckminster Fuller, it is essentially the idea that the ‘whole is greater than the sum of the parts’. It is an attempt to understand the erratic and un-predictable nature of group collaboration. How groups or ‘actants’ inevitably exhibit emergent behaviour and generate un-foreseen and fortuitous results through their interaction. ‘Benchmarking’ and formularising synergy still strikes me as somewhat paradoxical, especially when you adhere to Kevin Kelly’s dictum that systems are required to be ‘out of control’. Having said that, certain heuristic interventions like ‘steering’ or ‘swerving’ can prove to be highly effective.
Both sympoiesis and synergy have radically transformed the way I view collaboration and co-authoring. In the early naughties I was part of a creative organism known as Vaux, a chaotic and ‘raggedy-arsed’ bunch of writers, artists, designers, djs and social entrepreneurs. The project was essentially an exercise in open-source theology— a monthly site of exchange where the group learnt through ‘doing’. Roaming Babel’s ground zero, Vaux would hang its parasitic web from whatever was available. Christianity provided the exoskeleton, both physically and conceptually. It became a resource, a vast playground to re-pattern faith. The swarm bored through the body, riddling it with a thousand flight holes and stigmata.
Now here’s the disavowal. At the time I was obsessed with designs modernist legacy and wanted recreate Vaux in Basel’s image. One could spin this as lament or hauntology, but to be honest, it was more to do with practicing a covert strain of modernism! It’s not surprising the cloths never really fitted. The groups structures, ideas and relationships where elsewhere. Classic identity systems (the ones still revered today) are from another century— top down, border-conscious, homogenous and obsessed with unity. There is no place for assemblage, multiplicity or becoming— let alone specific spaces that factor and nurture synergy. You play in the agencies closed world and operate to its set of rules.
Vaux needed to grow its visual identity, discover it from within its own organization and practice. Often its emergent behaviour was disastrous, yet sometimes, what crept from its zones of proximity was beautiful and profound. Vaux needed something that harvested its turbulent synergies and worked with its topological, borderless form. It’s visual expression could have benefited from an articulation of sympoiesis and synergy, learnt from the groups own practice.