Critical Transitions

Image from the movie "Critical Transitions"

Norwegian artist Tone Bjordam’s latest project is the result of a fascinating cooperation with Dutch musician Marten Scheffer. The movie Critical Transitions brings up questions about continuity and change, and on how we are to discern and assess processes of transformation.

Bjordam’s movie is “inspired by the scientific work on the way in which complex systems change.” It seeks to capture the notion that foreseeing critical transitions, or even fully realizing how they unfold, is immensely hard as these transitions are necessarily embedded in the very flux of events. Mostly we see their unfolding only as fragments and moments. Moreover, we too, as observers, remain embedded in the very same “omnipresent permanent flow of change.”

As they explain the project:

Dazzled by myriads of such minimal motions, how can we see that they sometimes erupt into transforming change? Emerged in chaotic and turbulent transformation, how can we see where we are going?

In their own words, the movie Critical Transition is “the result of a true art-science cooperation.” The composer and musician Marten Scheffer, who is also an ecological scientist, leads the SparcS, a “synergy program for analyzing critical transitions and resilience.” SparcS focuses on systems theory: it seeks to catalyze “novel insights in the mechanisms that govern resilience and critical transitions in complex systems ranging from the climate and ecosystems to society and the brain.”

Crucial for the project is to understand just when resilience gives way to a critical transition:

“Climate, forests, coral reefs, financial markets and even our minds occasionally reach a tipping point where they go through a radical transformation.”

Bjordam’s movie aims to conceptualize and visualize these processes, and takes the viewer on a remarkable travel, which I found to be as stimulating intellectually as it is aesthetically.

Of course, it can be noted that Scheffer’s direct comparisons between, say, the dynamics of ecosystems, the fluctuations of the financial markets, and even our brains, seem far-fetched and reductionist, tainted by the mechanist, morally detached schemata of systems theory:

“Stock market crashes and the meltdown of governments as during the Arab spring are striking examples of unexpected sudden change in society. On a more subtle scale, the dynamics of public attitudes to certain problems is characterized by incidental massive shifts.

Such descriptions offer little by way of social analysis. Furthermore, the movie cannot bring out the role of political will, social responsibility, critical culture, or ethical commitment, all crucial in fomenting social change. But then again, the movie is perhaps not meant as an explicit comment about society and ecology, or our role as individual participants in society and nature—and seeks not to explain why change occur, at least not when this change involves human agency.

In light of this, it is difficult to properly assess the full scientific dimension this art project, but then again, this is not at all necessary. Although it is easy to spot how Critical Transitions fits into the interdisciplinary SparcS project, the movie benefits greatly from its less explicit stance. As a subtle comment on the relationships between movement and stasis, continuation and innovation, and on quantity and quality, this movie—and its music—is splendid.

Bjordam’s Critical Transitions has a magnetic pull, and, much to my surprise, I found it to be inspiring.

You find the movie here.


[To watch the movie in HD (HIgh Resolution) and in large scale, please press HD and the arrows in the lower right corner.] 


Editorial Comment

Music composed and played by Marten Scheffer, percussion by Arthur Bont. Visual arts by Tone Kristin Bjordam. Finished July 2012. Premiere screening at ESA Conference 2012 (Ecological Society of America), 6th of August 2012 in Portland, Oregon, USA.

Find out more about this art and science collaboration by visiting SparcS.

Find out more about the artist Tone Kristin Bjordam on her webpage.