Laboratory of Babel
Who has never looked up at the stars in the dark and felt very small and wondered “is there anything else in the universe? We have all experienced it at least once, this moment of plenitude. And it is certainly because the question of unknown universes is beyond us, that it fascinates us all; Lior Ben Gai, computer artist, is captivated by the universe of virtuality; “What is out there ?” This is a question that haunts him and to which he may well find answers through his research into the behaviours of the computer programs he creates.
First, we need a computer; a real physical object that we touch, and that will be our portal to this new universe. Once turned on, we enter a virtual world, and write a computer program (or code); it comes in the form of sequences of instructions, like a mathematical equation, and orders the computer what to do. Finally, something visible happens.
The programs Lior is interested in are those of the “cellular automata” family.
They have the particularity of developing complex behaviours, because each cell reacts according to its neighbouring cell, which will react according to its neighbour, etc.. Then we just let them be. The more they multiply, the more they interact, causing them to adopt a classic example of emerging complex behaviour, which is similar to those of schools of fish, or flocks of birds. These behaviours do not come from the code, they emerge from the interactions between cells. In other words, nothing tells them to act the way they do, they end up becoming independent.
If this flocking type of behaviour has been identified before (Craig Reynolds, Boids, 1986), Lior has the intuition that something else is to be discovered. So he designs a new code syntax that will allow him to create more abstract structures and modify the aesthetic aspects of it.
Instead of using computing to simulate those behaviours, he experimented by modifying the parameters to see what happens, and a whole new set of behaviours spontaneously emerged from his experiments. Never seen before, it’s an infinite universe of behaviours that is hidden behind the pixels of our screens! From that point, his research began to make sense, and Lior found the motivation to continue designing the tools that allow us to explore these worlds.
His research becomes more complex as he tries to encourage programs to flourish. He even sees himself as a farmer, rather than systematically creating new species of behaviour, he spends his time cultivating existing ones and encouraging them to develop. The more complex the behaviours, the more interesting they become; it is a matter of seeing a group of cells interact with their environment until they evolve into an ecosystem.
During one of his experiments, some cells proved to be temperamental, and only grew when Lior gave them the necessary attention, for example by spending time with his mouse on the screen. On other occasions, he even went so far as to assemble programs, from which a new species of program was born, and so on.
We could easily assimilate them to new natural species; hence the creation of a mini series of playful animal documentaries where we can observe these virtual creatures, evolving in their natural environment, with a background of voice-over.
The fruits of his labor, Lior tries to pass them on in many ways to all those who wish to contribute or create; “utomata” is a program to be used as an exploration tool, for which tutorials will be soon available. But the bulk of his work is the Laboratory of Babel. Directly inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “La biblioteca de Babel“, he seeks to create a platform, like a vast virtual bazaar, in which he will list and archive all the existing or future behaviours identified in computer programs.
In the line of Christopher Langton, Lior acts for a more poetic future of science; for him, computation should also be used to explore those emerging behaviours, not only simulation or problem solving. He is rather comfortable with the fact that there are only lines and dots that move around on a screen. This form of detachment gives him the ability to explore all possible behaviours in an infinite space and to study “life as it could be”. (C. Langton, Artificial Life, 1989).
In this sense, Lior considers himself as an artist rather than a scientist, because he does not seek to explain these phenomena. Nor does he seek to implement them in a practical way. These structures are in their own right, they exist and evolve in an infinite virtual world.
So, what is out there ?
Thanks to computers, we can both make sense of the world around us, and at the same time open the door to a universe of accessible and largely unexplored phenomena. Like others before him, Lior feels that there is something to be discovered and exploited in these computer programs.
There is a parallel universe right here, in our hands, with possibilities to build a different future, and one that Lior intends to be a part of.
“If you don’t like what you are doing, try something else!”. This sentence could be Lior Ben Gai’s motto. It took him no less than a decade to find his way, given his atypical career path and its many happy accidents. Almost without diplomas, but almost an architect, trainer, adventurous freelancer, lecturer, Lior is literally a jack of all trades!
He has shown curiosity, optimism, and audacity; those attitudes led him to his research PhD in digital arts.
His work focuses on the universe of computer programs: a language in the form of a series of numbers and symbols. For anyone who experienced mathematics as a nightmare at school, the mere sight of a code could make you wince. This has actually been the case once for young Lior, who collects bad grades in maths, causing him to drop out of high school before taking his degree.
However, this event does not prevent him from thinking about his ideal profession, a discipline that could satisfy his technical side and stimulate his creativity. At the age of 22, Lior finally graduates and turns to architecture, full of hope. He excels in some classes, and fails in others, mixing feelings of satisfaction and frustration; he feels an unexplained interest for blueprints, 3D modelling, and digital tools. After 2 years of study, he quits architecture, and starts to animate Adobe Flash courses.
To deepen his knowledge of the software, he enrols himself in the training courses, but gets into the wrong group, and ends up in an advanced level course. This mistake turns out to be a real revelation because at the end of the 2 months of training, Lior finally knows what he wants to do: computer programming.
Now a freelancer, he is developing his skills, taking on all sorts of assignments, and learning on the job. He adopts a bold method: he accepts all proposals, and then trains himself to the new elements he will be confronted with during the project. For 5 years, he takes on a series of jobs in which he positions himself between technical and creative work.
It is only in 2014 that he finally has the courage to apply to Goldsmiths University in London; he begins a Master’s degree during which he discovers an article by C. Langton on Artificial Life – it is love at first sight. He decides to dedicate himself to it by continuing his studies in PhD. He reconnects with maths by understanding its true, more abstract nature; it’s not just about calculation like we learn in school, but rather about converting values from a numerical world to a real world, and vice versa. Lior needed a framework in which to thrive, and finally finds it here. Moreover, he is encouraged in his decision to stay at Goldsmiths when, overnight, he is offered a position as an associate lecturer which he keeps for 3 years.
All these years of teaching have allowed Lior to gain confidence. Rather than seeking recognition, he chooses to defend and advocate for programming literacy.
Lior now lives in Tel Aviv, where he flourishes as a digital artist. He continues to work on his PhD remotely, while teaching at Shenkar University – Engineering, Design, Art. In parallel, he is collaborating on an outdoor Science Museum project for the Weizmann Institute, with a team of scientists, artists, programmers, and designers. Their main challenge is to bridge the gap between scientific facts and the physical experience of visitors. Lior then gets involved in his favourite field: the creation of a programming language for the general audience, all age groups. This last project is a high note; it brings together all the criteria, skills and knowledge acquired during these 10 years of joyful jumble.
Although painful, his decision to quit architecture was certainly the best one of his life at this stage; by freeing himself from the conditioning of studies, Lior was able to accept himself as a generalist (without specialisation), to privilege and to be enriched by the experiences he had.
As the perfect self-taught man, if Lior could give us one piece of advice, he would say “Whatever you learn, any experience, never goes to waste“.
There was a time when specialising was not so important, as it was quite common to mix disciplines according to your needs.
For example, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek ; a well-known Amsterdam draper, who wanted to ensure the quality of his fabrics by counting the number of threads in the cloth. In 1668, he created an instrument with a small polished lens that allowed him to see objects up to 300x magnified. Curious, he began to look at everything he could with his microscope and discovered a multitude of tiny animals everywhere, thereby becoming the father of cell biology. In studying these new findings, he made a major discovery that changed the course of history.
Although less formal, exploration is an important aspect of science; you have to be able to go beyond the scientific limits and listen to your intuition. Lior does not use his computer as a simulation tool, but as a gateway to another universe. And with no complexes, he positions himself between science and art, striving to bridge a gap between the two concepts ; one relies on knowledge and tools while the other seeks to explore unknown territories. If our school education teaches us to separate these approaches, Lior encourages us to unite them.
Often when artists take over the scientific realm, they lead the way in democratising tools; the pioneers of electronic music in the 1960s were engineers. After the Second World War, they were left with high-tech equipment. So if you wanted to create a piece of electronic music, you needed an engineering degree. But if you were curious and enthusiastic like Lior, you didn’t need any initial training. Today we can create any music from our computer with software. Lior imagines a similar future for his field; research into complex behavioural systems remains in the hands of scientists for the time being, but thanks to the creation of tools such as utomata, artists will enrich this universe, ultimately giving it the possibility to spread to the rest of the world.
Virtual reality is on the horizon, our screens are bigger, our devices more connected, our digital footprints are growing. We fear artificial intelligence, the superstar of science fiction, moulded in the image of humans and becoming increasingly powerful. However, it operates by solving problems and is used for simulation purposes, unlike Lior’s creations. He prefers to project himself into a world where science merges with design and generative art. These practices are similar to his approach which consists of letting programs create artworks on their own, and exploring their alternatives, depending on whether or not they have been pre-recorded.
According to Lior, this is an example of a possible future, as technologies continue to develop. We already spend a part of our reality in virtual spaces, and at the moment it still looks like paper. As the boundaries between these spaces become thinner, virtual reality will take on a different form, and these worlds will need to be populated, thanks to new tools.
So if we still look up to someone like Antoni van Leeuwenhoek today, it is likely that future generations will do the same for Lior Ben Gai.