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Image by Benjamin Blättler


Lab Author: Nora Khan 

Live simulations of artificial beings let loose, algorithmic rulesets determining their moves, interact in unexpected ways. They produce unintended and unpredictable effects. Moving with them, we learn to navigate emergent properties, which are a result of our interactions with all systems -- technological, simulated, cognitive. Thinking through simulations helps us train into systems thinking, manage complexity, both adhering to coded guides while allowing for variables that cannot be controlled. In entraining ourselves into the unexpected outcomes of system processes, we become better prepared for delayed and non-linear effects, for outcomes to be explainable only after they appear.

Image: Sahej Rahal, finalforest.exe, 2021. Hosted and curated within the 2021 transmediale program:

Image by Benjamin Blättler


Simulations change and challenge a linear sense of time. As one moves through planes, strafes through three dimensions, space unlocks in relation to a fictional time. As a player, agent, protagonist, one can hold multiple mappings of time and space scales in mind here. This time is mapped, pinned to mobility and the emergent map. The spatial world of the game is multidimensional; the temporal is defined by the reactivity or openness of the space, the environment. Fictional time shifts and collapses many scales; it expands and contracts, and moves with one’s movement through space. 

Image: Flux-Intersection Plate, screenshots taken of Jules Litman-Cleper’s simulation art - which is live:



Image by Benjamin Blättler


In “On Rigor in Science,” one of Borges’ many fictional quotation-stories, a “Suárez Miranda” writes of an age and empire in which “the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province.” In other words, the map made the territory; the map was the territory, in a terrifying 1:1 overlay. Imagine a map the size of the entire world. How do we think of ourselves living amid the ‘tattered ruins’ of this map in the West today, as Suárez Miranda writes? What impact have the many overtly political choices of mapmaking had on our lives, our health, our access to resources? How does the illusion of the map’s objectivity, and the rhetorical power, get disappeared in mapmaking? These questions about maps as Rhetorical Illusions become more urgent as we live in a world produced by the representational power of simulation, in which models do not match 1:1 but stand in for groups, movements, bodies of people. A simulation’s power is in concentration and metaphor, the way individual agents are metaphors for larger scale movements and actions in the world. These representative and rhetorical choices produce reality by taking on the appearance of truth. Our challenge in the coming years is to be able to read the ‘tattered edges’ of simulation as well.

Image: The 2015 GEO-5 Simulation of Hurricane Katrina, as it approached the Gulf Coast.

Image by Benjamin Blättler


In walking simulators and dungeon games, the map of the world emerges with each step. We can never see the entire map because the world’s cartographic representation is made through walking, its edges unfolding with each chance step. Poets and writers have long written of the ways an ambulatory practice develops ideas, the ways a psychogeographic landscape, unfolding, holds and helps threads of thinking unfold. Each new insight is an anchor, a stake in the landscape, the fertile grounds of the mind. Elizabeth Bishop, in The Map, wrote: “Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West./More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.” How might we focus more on our own internal map-maker’s colors, their palette? An ambulatory practice, becomes a practice of semantic mapping. The environment forms the drama of the psyche, especially as links between cognitive development and movement in space to create a sense of space and time, are made more evident. Take up each choice of tone, each choice to look away or delve in, each step, each next narrative entry, as the drama of the wandering mind, creating a system of representation. The map blooms at our feet, with each step, each turn, each dip and rise.

Image: A screenshot from Dear Esther (2012), a famed walking simulator in which the protagonist walks all over an island in the Scottish Hebrides.

Image by Benjamin Blättler


We can more and more readily understand simulation as a fundamental cognitive act. From our earliest days in which we might have been aware of a ‘tomorrow,’ we have simulated ourselves, a virtual version of ourselves, in the future, along with the near-certainty that the environments and life world we know can be projected into the future. In order to survive, one must be able to practice vicariance effectively, an act that allows us to hold virtual mental images of us acting and moving and deciding, in our mind along with our present reality. With treatises like Alain Berthoz’ The Vicarious Brain, Creator of Worlds, one might understand virtuality, replacement, substitution, as the truest foundation of our capacity to engage with complexity. In understanding how the brain models reality, and deploys those models to engage with the strange, we become sharper, more equipped to storytell about uncertain, wildly changing futures. To train in vicariance would mean to train in better holding multiple avatars of ourselves, enacting multiple rulesets and contradictory paths to survival, across contradictory possible future outcomes. 

Image: A screenshot from Alex Ankina’s tipu_tiger:, in which a model of Tipu’s Tiger, a famous mechanical automaton made by Tipu Sultan of Mysore, and now held in the V&A Museum, is loosed in a digital wild of birch trees, walking forever.

Image by Benjamin Blättler


One of the most devastating aspects of mismanagement of the Hurricane Katrina disaster was the absence of people in the many NASA-developed and military simulations of the coming tides. The simulations did not show a single person, and so, as critique and revision has narrated extensively, it was impossible for those watching and preparing to imagine and visualize how the water would affect human beings on the ground. This capacity to imagine -- directly shaped by the choice of representation and occlusion in the simulations -- then directly impacted the non-response of officials and under-preparedness. The impact to come did not seem real because of a crucial lack of communication. In their seminal book Computer Simulation, Rhetoric, and the Scientific Imagination, Aimee Roundtree details this case study as a moment for understanding how profoundly collaborative and team-based an official simulation or model - epidemiological, climate-related, astrophysical, to begin - is. Its final form, delivered, has the aspect of truth, rather than the noisy result of many debates and conflicts in interpretation. What would it mean to insist on the collaborative aspect of simulation, the fact of multiple competing models vying for expression on the road to the ‘final’ the public receives? This year has made the need for circumspection and intelligent comparison of multiple epidemiological models. In the process of debate and conversation on the way to a simulation that will produce reality, real action and consequences in the world, we might insist on a frame that looks at the noise of its making. Each point, each choice, the product of ten to twenty voices, of ten to twenty separate histories, sets of memories, and methods of interpretation, to open up a process of revision, editing, and refinement.

Image: Marlene Creates, a poet in Newfoundland, who has a long-running practice of semantic walking maps on the boreal forest, six acres where she has lived for years. In Spots of Memory: what I remembered during one month away after six years on Blast Hole Pond Road, Newfoundland 2008 , she tries to imagine the forest while away by revisiting details of it in memory:

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