autopoieticSystems (sistemasAutopoiéticos)(*)

" Blind monks examining an elephant ", by Hanabusa Tcho, 1888. Ukiyo-e woodcut (xylograph) illustration of the Budhist parable about the blind monks examining an elephant. Each man arrives at a different conclusion in relation to the appearance of an elephant based on which part of the elephant he has examined.


Autopoietic Systems are multimedia interaction and retro-feeding machines (software+hardware) that generate an audio and visual response in direct relation to visual and auditory stimuli from the environment.

This body of works emerges in response to a series of concerns in connection with the synchrony between the sonic and the visual dating from my studies in Paris during 2002/2003 at CCMIX Centre de Création Musicale Iannis Xenakis. These works provide an organic solution to a series of questionings that have marked my trajectory as a visual artist and musician. These systems have as referent a series of conceptual proposals by visual and musical avant-garde movements of the nineties and raise a series of issues in connection to the work of art, questioning the very notion of what a work of art is by converting the process of making itself into the work. In this sense, the work of art only exists during its interaction with the environment or, to put it in autopoietic terms, in the course of the structural coupling of the system and its environment.


After realizing a series of multimedia works and having studied the possibilities of interaction between the sonic and the visual, I began to produce interactive works where various processes modulated sounds and the visual. In these works synchrony gave priority to sound, with the visual being dependant on the Audible impulses of the system through the microphone.

The piece titled Dha Tra (2005) for Hindu drum, computer and video, was presented at Camilo Mori square, Santiago, Chile, in December of 2005 and is representative of this first stage (it is possible to see a video of the presentation online at Dha Tra 2005).
Initially, I used sound and pre-recorded videos as the basis for transformations and mutations in order to generate works of a precise synchrony, where the visual and sound complement each other, reinforcing the overall concept of the piece.

In the development of the piece <métodoEntropia1> of 2006 (see fig. No2) I was able to program a feedback filter .This simple code consists of a loop that permanently compares and regulates the input volume of the microphone. This feedback filter allowed me to control the sounds of the environment and permitted me to modulate and use them as the sound basis or raw material from which to compose and structure a process-based piece.

Imagenes Metodo entropia

Fig. nº 2  <métodoEntropia1> 2006, 2006Algorythmic Piece sensitive to the Audible environment.  
Duration: minimum 4 minutes, maximum: indefinite. This piece has been shown at: Música e Imágenes en Vivo, Bellas Artes Underground Station and at the Video and New Media Biennale 2006, Santiago; SAT Gallery, Montreal, Canada 2008. Casa Encendida, Madrid, España 2008

The piece <métodoEntropia1> generates a response to sound information, affecting the video and audio sequence. The system generates a direct response to the interaction of the viewer, performer and/or environment and is sufficiently close as to define its own character.
Sounds are captured by the microphone connected to the computer. These sounds are filtered and manipulated by a series of algorithms, returning the modified sound to the environment, where it is captured again and then re-processed. The system includes a granulation algorithm that modifies the pitch (refinement) and duration of the sounds, the quantity and length of the sound granules is modified in real time by the position of the cursor and is in turn controlled by the wacom tablet (
The visual aspect is sensitive to the intensity of the sounds, the higher the volume the greater brilliance of the image, also the intensity and density of the sounds affects the stochastic process that modulates the variation in size of the videos. Two programming languages were used for this piece: SuperCollider for the audio and PixelShox for the video.

In an in-depth exploration of the concepts proposed by <métodoEntropia1> and application of the concepts utilized in the sound part to the visual part we have the basic concepts that define Autopoietic Systems. The sound basis of the piece is the resonances of the space hosting the system and the visual basis is what the video camera captures. All voluntary and involuntary, visual and sonic events that take place while the system is active function as triggers for the audio and visual processes that define the piece; the system responds to the environment by sending audio and visual signals, which in turn become new triggers for the processes.

With the purpose of experimenting with and exploring these ideas in depth, in 2008 I realized a FONDART funded project which I titled “seis estudios para una obra vacía” (six studies for an empty piece)(*v).
(See Fig. nº 3)

Imagenes Seis Estudios

Fig. nº 3 six studies for an empty piece. Fondart Project 2008; still images taken from the videos.

This project consisted in the design and programming of six different processes of interaction in real time video, audio and environment. These pieces do not utilize pre-recorded sounds or film. All the material used for their coming into being is contributed by the specific visual and acoustic environment that surrounds them.
Each one of these studies (re-designed and adjusted) captures information from its environment for 4.33 minutes (a quote to the piece 4.33 minutes by John Cage).
The takes (of audio and visual information) were stealthy, with the purpose of not altering the environment and thus creating a (free) acoustic and visual portrait of the city of Santiago.
This project utilized two object-based programming languages; the audio in SuperCollider and the visual or video processes utilizing QuartzComposer.

The Audible and the Visual

The various experimentations I have carried out have led me to propose the theory that there is no direct correlation between the visual and the sound, and instead that the eye and the ear function as two independent and parallel brains. We inhabit a series of parallel worlds that are the result of how our senses are made up and it is the central nervous system that establishes the relationships or links between senses in direct concordance with the specific neurological network that each individual has created as a result of his/her personal experiences. Bryan K, Robbin G, and Terry R. (2003) (v).

In order to capture the environment’s visual and Audible complexity, I developed each one of these two universes independently, utilizing specific object-based programming environments.

In matters relative to sound, I have used SuperCollider, one of the most ductile and open sound programming environments to program the possibility of sound in connection with computers. This is an open source language that can be downloaded free of charge at and

In the visual aspect, I initially worked with the PixxelShox language ( ) and later QuartzComposer, which is part of the Xcode development environment for Apple computers, both programming environments are free.


The Audible
In connection with the Audible, the series of works titled Audible EcoSystemics by the Italian composer Agostino di Scipio, under whom I studied at CCMIX, Paris in 2003 is a close referent to some of the concepts of the Autopoietic Systems. At the time, he was beginning that series and those ideas were extensively discussed. Audible Ecosystems work with the acoustics of the place where they are presented, several microphones are distributed throughout the concert hall in order to capture the sound of the room’s resonance; di Scipio generally adds traditional instruments to his compositions, mixing the sounds of the instruments with those of the concert hall, creating a process of controlled feedback. Another important referent is the polemic piece by John Cage titled 4’33’ of 1952 where the performer executes silence, allowing the natural sounds of the environment and the public to become the protagonists of the piece, accenting the process of listening in the listener rather than the issuer of the sound. Both composers develop a body of work where the process and the interrelation with the environment is fundamental.

The Visual
The visual formulation of Autopoietic Systems is articulated and gains form on the basis of a series of experiments, as can be appreciated in the project “Six Studies for an Empty Piece” mentioned above and also Autopietic System III which I presented in Cordoba, Argentina in 2009, which had a duration of 40 minutes and was structured in different visual and sound parts that succeeded each other in relation to fixed periods of time, that is, approximately every 15 minutes, the system changed the visual and sound parameters(See Fig. nº 4).

Imagen Sistema Autopoietco iii

Fig. nº 4 Performance of autopoiéticSystem III, Chateau CAC, Córdoba, Argentina, 2009.

The visual dimension of Autopoietic Systems emerges from the idea of developing a process of visual construction that is in direct relation and synchrony with the audio and the environment. The experimentation and evolution of the visual possibilities responds to the search for non-linear parallelism between the visual and the audible. In concert situations, luminosity is on the whole low, creating an additional problem in connection with what the video camera can capture.

The first piece that lays the foundations of the more definitive visual concept of these systems is <métodoEntropia1> (2006) referred to earlier. In this piece the system is articulated in such a way that it provides a very rapid, organic and unpredictable response to external stimuli, where the audible and the visual are coherently articulated, resembling the behaviour of a living being, thus the name Autopoietic Systems given to this series.

In this piece, the visual dimension is given on the basis of an “error” in the programming of the video see Fig. nº 2 y Fig. nº 5). 

The on-screen projection of a video requires two processes, on the one hand the frequency of reproduction of the video, 29.9 frames per second in the NSTC system, and on the other hand the “refreshment” frequency of the screen. Altering this equation originates a visual result that is different to the common screening of a video
In this piece, the screen has a refreshment frequency lower to that of the video and as a result the frames on the video overlap each other. Also, the size of the video is altered in relation to the sound of the environment, which generates an onscreen drawing of the video in connection with the sonic events. The visual result is similar to that of a scanner of the audible, allowing the spectator to link the form adopted by the onscreen video drawing with the recollection of the sound events he/she has listened to. This way of constructing an image is directly linked to my training as a painter and particularly with the type of painting I do, where the final image is the outcome of a process of construction by layers where even “errors” remain as part of the strata of the work.(v***). 

Imagen Sistema Autopoietco iii

Fig. nº 5  Performance of autopieticSystem V at tyhe Centro Cultural de España, Santiago, Noviembre 2009


The characteristic that differentiates Autopietic Systems from other multimedia interactive systems is their absolute dependence on the environment in which they are presented, displacing the paradigm of composing an interactive piece to composing processes of interaction, quoting Agostino di Scipio with reference to his piece Audible Eco-Systemic intrerface  “..described as a shift from creating wanted sounds via interactive means, towards creating wanted interactions having audible traces”(*x). Consequently, it is the processes of interaction that define the response of the system to the stimuli provided by the environment and it is these same processes that give each work its unique characteristics.

Each one of the instances of the Autopoietic Systems has been designed with a different interaction or structural coupling system. In “Six Studies for an Empty Piece,” each one of the studies operated autonomously during the 4.33 minutes, that is, there was no human intervention, the programming of the system included the temporal behaviour and it disconnected automatically upon reaching the 4.33 minutes, and the experienced was recorded on video. These videos may be seen on the Internet at

For live presentations, the programming of the system includes control elements that can be manipulated and altered during the performance. In order to give each one of these works a distinguishing character, I have studied and analyzed the performance of each configuration and I have designed scripts that specify sounds, vocal articulations, gestures, actions and camera movements that activate and modify the system’s response, creating a structured but sufficiently open performance that allows for the interaction with the environment to give life to the system.

The presentation of the Xii Sistema Autopoiético-iv at the “Oscillations” exhibition at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Chile, Santiago 2008, consisted of a simple system with three microphones, one video camera and five loudspeakers. A record of that performance can be seen at

The basic flow chart for a prototype system (see Fig. nº 6)  cconsists of: one microphone and one video camera as inputs, one filter for the microphone to control the incoming signal and various algorithms, for granulation or fine tuning, etc. It is at this point where the sound characteristics of each system change.
In the visual part, a series of algorithms modify the signal of the video camera, adjusting parameters of colour, temperature, saturation and others, many times dependant of or in relation to the sound parameters.
The audio and visual signals emerge from the system in parallel, the audio signal through a soundcard leading to eight loudspeakers that are distributed throughout the room, spatialized in real time by the performer with a device conceived for this purpose. The visual part is projected onto a wall or backdrop.

 Sistema Autopoietco  Flow Chart

Fig. nº 6 Diagram for a Simple autopoieticSystem


The Autopoietic Systems are the result of multiple experiments that hace derived in other types of works that could be considered mutations of the original idea.
In the realm of the purely visual, in 2008, I created two pieces utilizing the process of alteration of the screens’ refreshment frequencies. The piece titled Anicca (see Fig. No7), which consisted on an installation of 17 inkjet triptychs measuring 90 x 24cm each. Anicca is a program created using the Pixelshox programming environment, which paints the screen by means of brushstrokes or sweeps. The sweeps or brushstrokes are carried out on the basis of an image that evolves over time, allowing for changes in texture and colour. The system includes a series of stochastic processes involving changes of movement, colour and dispersion. The process continues indefinitely and never repeats itself. A device was designed that took screen shots every nine seconds when “Anicca” was active. Fifty one of these screen shots were selected and printed. This piece was commissioned by BIP Computers, Santiago, Chile and was exhibited on occasion of the inauguration of their offices together with the program in action. The prints were sponsored by Epson Chile.

 imagenes Anicca

Fig. nº 7  Anicca, cuatro imágenes de la pantalla de Anicca esta en acción.

The piece titled “Imago” (See Fig. Nº 8) is an installation of 77 inkjet prints in 30xx40cm sheets of synthetic paper. Imago is a software programmed in PixelShox that draws on the screen following a series of stochastic processes. Seventy-seven images have been selected from screen shots of “Imago” in action. “Imago” was exhibited in 2008 at Galería Animal in Santiago, Chile. This piece is proposed as a series of random drawings, an exercise for the development of imagination..

 imagenes Imago

Fig. nº 8  Imago, 2008, detail of inkjet images printed on synthetic paper

In the field of sound, I developed the piece titled “Dilei”for the Alejandro Caceres Contemporary Dance Company. This piece consists of a system of sound interaction using five microphones and eight loudspeakers. In this piece, the dancers create the sound as they dance using the rooms’ resonant. This piece was presented in August of 1910 at Queens Theatre in the Park, New York, and at the La Guardia Performance Center, Queens, New York, USA. In Chile it was shown for the first time in the Aimaako Festival, on the White Night, Goethe Institut, Santiago, Chile, in December of 2010 and it was programmed for a month at the Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral in 2011. Dilei

The installation m:n:m::l (See Fig. nº 9) The installation m:n:m::l (see Fig. No9) shown at the CCU Gallery, Santiago, Chile in 2010 consisted on a visual and sonic interaction installation that derives directly from the Autopoietic Systems. See catalogue on the Internet at m:n:m::l catálogo and a video recording at m:n:m::l

 imagenes mnml

Fig. nº 9 m:n:m::l , synthetic paper origami boxes, microphone, two computers, three interactive programs, two projections, visual and sound interactive installation, CCU Gallery, Santiago, Chile. This work was presented at the Gallery AC Institute New York, Feb - March 2012.


The Autopoietic Systems engage a series of issues that have defined my biography and which pose new possibilities of study and development. From the time of my studies of Biology at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Chile, where I studied under Maturana and Varela, I draw on the problems of perception, cognition, the origin of life and the definition of what it means to be a living being. From my music studies at the School of Music at the Catholic University and then in Paris at CCMIX Centre de Création Musicale Iannis Xenakis, I draw on post-avant garde contemporary music and the possibilities offered by computers. From my training as a visual artist, I draw on the fact of having been able to access various communities of programmers on the Internet who have generously collaborated and shared discoveries and achievements. This line of work is in a process of full development and offers an open field of unforeseeable possibilities.

 imagenes st

Fig. nº 10, s/t, 2009, Screen shot of experimental software developed by the author.


(*) Autopoiesis:
                  (from Auto: unto itself; and Poiesis: (greek, creation, fabrication, construction) Literally, autopoiesis means self-organization. Concept that comes from the field of biology through the work of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (1973) and which designates a process by means of which a system (for example a cell, a living being or an organization) generates itself through its interaction with its environment. An autopoietic system is operationally closed and structurally determined. A defining characteristic of living beings.
According to Maturana and Varela, systems are autopoietic when they include a network of processes and operations (which define it as such and make it distinguishable from the other systems) and which can create or destroy elements of the same system in response to environmental disturbances. Even though the system may change structurally, the network remains unchanged throughout its existence, maintaining its identity. Living beings are autopoietic systems and remain alive only while they are in autopoiesis.

(**) Feedback is a condition of sound reinforcement applications that occurs when the sound captured by the microphone is amplified, radiates to the speaker and then is captured again, only to be re-amplified. Eventually the system begins to issue sound and continues to howl until the volume is diminished. Feedback occurs when the sound coming from the loudspeaker reaches the microphone is loud or louder than the sound arriving directly from the original source (speaker, Singer, etc.).

(***) All architectural spaces possess certain characteristics of their own that cause sounds to behave and filter differently. These spatial resonances are rescued and utilized in different audio programs to reproduce sound qualities that are characteristic of those spaces. That is, it is possible or at least conceivable that one could purchase the resonance of the Milan Opera House, for example, and process sounds with that resonance (see in

(*v) See in Internet “seis estudios para una obra vacía”,

(v)Plasticidad de la Mente y Comportamiento (Brain Plasticity and Behavior)
Bryan Kolb, Robbin Gudd, and Terry E. Robinson
en Internet

(v*) See in Internet

(v**) See Experimental Music, John Cage en Internet  en

(v***)See in Internet

(*x) ” Sound is the interface’: from interactive to ecosystemic signal processing, pag. 3

(x) Spatialization is a term used in electroacoustic music to define the movement of sound in space in configurations of four or more loudspeakers.

(x*) According to the mathematical model, stochastic processes are processes of probability where it is not possible to predict the expected outcome, but the probability of its occurrence and therefore there is an element of uncertainty.ático


• Bryan K, Robbin G, and Terry R. (2003)
Brain Plasticity and Behavior American Psychological Society, 12, 1, 1-5.
(Obtained January 2011)

• Cage John  (1958) Experimental Music
(Obtained January 2011)

• DiScipio A. (2003) Sound is the interface’: from interactive to ecosystemic signal processing Journal Organized Sound Volume 8, issue 3, Cambridge University Press New York, NY, USA
(Obtained January 2011)

• Lazo F.(2005) Dha Tra,
• Lazo F.(2006) <métodoEntropia1> ,
• Lazo F.(2008) seis estudios para una obra vacía,
• Lazo F.(2009) SistemaAutopoiético iii, Cordova, Argentina
• Lazo F. (2008) Xii autopoieticSystems iv , en Oscilaciones)
• Lazo F. (2010) m:n:m::l, en youtube
• Lazo F. (2010) m:n:m::l, catálogo en Internet,

• Maturana H., Varela F. (1973)  De Maquinas y Seres Vivos
Autopoiesis: La Organización de lo vivo, Ed Universitaria.
(Obtained January 2011)
(Obtained January 2011)
(Obtained January 2011)




This article describes the concepts and background of the Autopoietic Systems. These systems are multimedia interaction and feedback machines (software + hardware) that generate an audible and visual response in direct relationship to visual and audible stimuli from the environment. The piece only exists when it is interacting with the environment or, to put it in autopoietic terms, in the course of the structural coupling of the system with its environment. It includes several works developed under these concepts, a flow chart and works that depart or mutate from the general concept.

Key Words

Autopoiesis, Interactive Art, Multimedia, Structural Coupling, Process Art, Digital Art, Code Art


Félix Lazo
flx (at)

M.Ed. M.A. Teachers College, Columbia University, NY, USA
Universidad Mayor, Santiago, Chile
Universidad Inacap, Santiago, Chile

January, 2012