Exploring forms and norms – “Terminal” installation at the Sackler Gallery, DC

One of the things I sometimes consider on this blog is how design and interactive art can help us to explore our relationships to technology and how we see the world. “Exploring forms and norms” is an occasional series of posts on this topic.

By now the phrase “we’re all connected” has become almost synonymous with network maps showing the links between different people or nodes. Whether the maps show who interacts with whom within an organisation or which scientists around the world collaborate together, network diagrams start to add a systems perspective to our own interactions.

However, one thing these network maps don’t really describe is the consequence of all this connection – the sometimes subtle cause and effects of our inter-relatedness. If that department over there is closed down or these two friends of friends meet, then so what for me – or anyone else in the system?

The ultimate link fest! Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/chanceprojects/4388266976/

The Net of Indra metaphor

In Buddhist philosophy the metaphor of the Net of Indra encourages us to think about the consequences of interconnection. According to the myth, the god Indra wove a web of many multi-faceted jewels, each threaded together with cord. Every jewel was perfectly reflective – meaning that if you looked into the face of one jewel you could see all others reflected in it. Rather like a hall of mirrors at the circus, or an elevator which has mirrors on all four interior walls, this produces the somewhat disconcerting effect of seeing endless reflections to infinity. What it also means is that any blemish on a single jewel is captured and repeated infinitely too i.e. any suffering in one part of the system may be felt across the whole system.

In the Net of Indra threads in a new are punctuated by jewels that reflect all the other jewels in the system.
Image credit: author’s own

(Of course a perfect net with equally connected nodes is not the same as infrastructure networks today where redundancies or alternative routes are often designed into the system to prevent catastrophic systems failure, but you get the idea…!)

A twist of perspective

When I saw Terminal, an exhibit at the Sackler gallery in DC, it instantly made me think of the Net of Indra. Each gold column acts as the node for multiple strands of thread that criss-cross between the columns. Walking through the exhibit between the glitzy cairns you can see yourself reflected many times in the metal, which also creates the curious effect of being able to see yourself simultaneously from multiple perspectives.

Multiple reflections each with a slightly different perspective. Image credit: author’s own

While this riffs on the Net of Indra myth by reminding you that your actions may be reflected or spread many times across the system, the different perspectives add a twist. You only partially control how anyone else in the system sees you – or the effects of your actions. In the image above, I held out my phone to take a photo and that was shown face-on in the orb immediately in front of me. But the additional reflections seen in the orbs above now show the view from different angles, with different details visible (e.g. note the person dressed in black leaving the exhibit who disappears the higher up the column you go, or the fact that you can no longer see that I’m wearing an orange jumper in the top orbs).

How does this mimic your communications in a complex system of different stakeholders? How much does your message get reinterpreted from different standpoints? What is the effect of removing one of the columns in the system – do you lose a valuable interpretation or weaken the system as a whole in some way?


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