Ebon Fisher's Media Organisms

Peter Boerboom
MUTE Magazine, London, 1997

The neighborhood of Williamsburg is directly across the oily East River from New York City, on its more battered Brooklyn bank. Their geographical proximity is deceptive though, for as you ride the L train beneath the silent weight of the water or cruise over the looming Williamsburg Bridge, you cross a cultural schism. On one side Wall Street's financial engines hum endlessly, on the other empty warehouses and factories lie abandoned. On one side the energy of commerce drives human interaction, while on the other the ethic of neighborhood still binds communities. On one side the established art world is slick and lucrative business, on the other, up from between the cracks in the concrete and through the windows of the abandoned warehouses, grows a vibrant creative community.

Toiling in this fertile soil for the past seven years, Ebon Fisher has bred media organisms, invoked teeming ecologies of people, art, machinery and mustard seed, and incubated a world with manifestations in physical and virtual dimensions.  


In 1981, long before landing in Brooklyn, Fisher asked nine psychologists to diagram a brain cell. By juxtaposing and re-presenting the very distinct interpretations of these putatively objective individuals, he began to explore the fuzzy boundary between scientific fact and opinion.

9 Neurons drawn by 9 Psychologists

Compiled at Carnegie-Mellon University, 1981

In a series of spray paintings in Pittsburgh, Fisher then rendered nerve cells on abandoned cars, golf courses, and bridges. At a time when science has replaced religion as our culture's paradigm for self-definition and as the map which it uses to chart its course, this act of dragging the language of science into a public and populist light takes on something of the character of heresy. As when religion was at the height of its political power, one of the scientific community's central beliefs is the infallibility and superiority of its methodologies, if not its findings. It has made sacred its version of truth in order to maintain its dominance. We trust the statistical study, the dissection, the categorization, the pinning down of facts like so many species of butterfly. But what do we make of our truths when they start to move? By painting nerve cells in public spaces in Pittsburgh, Ebon Fisher tacked up a reminder that truth is always moving. Within the involuted vaults of self-justifying logic it may appear fixed, but as soon as it's free in the ecology of culture it starts to wiggle away. The neural graffiti stands as a challenge to science to reassert the principle that resides at its core: exploration without prejudice.

Neuron on Abandoned Car
Boundary Street, Pittsburgh, 1981



Since 1992, Fisher has been cultivating the bionic codes. Each code is a stand-alone program designed to trigger patterns of behaviour and processes of thought. In other words, the bionic codes act as moral operators on biological operands. They are modules designed to hack into culture's core and rewrite some of its basic routines. Unlike many moral systems, the codes do not indulge in dogmatism. They do not demand allegiance, nor do they make promises. Above all they make no claims of exclusive truth. As routines available to the operating system of society, they assert themselves as beneficial options.

As part of an object-oriented program, none of the codes are dependent on any others. There is no heirarchy, and no linear execution order. In combination, the codes feed off of each other's outputs and back into each other's inputs, spontaneously tracing new patterns and encouraging reinterpretation. But each can settle comfortably back into isolation, stable and still resonant on its own.


The visual component of the codes is constructed from simple geometric primitives arranged and connected to convey structure, motion, energy, and meaning. Computer languages have evolved over many years from the low-level machine language that the computer uses to communicate internally to higher-level languages that facilitate human control, but must be translated back into language the machine understands. Symbolism is the machine language of human communication: the raw encoding of concept unmediated by layers of verbal abstraction. The skillful manipulation of this low-level instruction set results in highly compact and easily transmittable messages.  

By coupling these striking symbols with a corresponding verbal version, a bionic code binds the entire attention of its target, simultaneously penetrating the preverbal mind with its symbolic prong and projecting its verbal component onto the abstract conciousness. Immobilized, the receptor is infused with message: seeping from above and probing from below, impregnating and pervading, dividing and intertwining, and then finally, spawning comprehension.  


Marvin Minsky, the Artificial Intelligence pioneer, has advocated 'sloppy' corrective programming when fixing bug-plagued computer code. By this method, rather than repairing the offending instruction, one compensates with additional code for the situation that caused the error. The goal is that the program will become robust in a wider range of circumstances. This notion of improvement by accretion is characteristic of systems that grow, in contrast to those that are built. Over the years of their development, the bionic codes have grown to become an increasingly resilient network of meaning. New codes are birthed, compensating for and enhancing others, and ultimately contributing to the web of their interaction.

The individual codes have evolved even as their network has grown. One incarnation extols a ãprogram for equalized seduction,' which later reappears as a ãprogram to equalize seduction'; this new language reveals an understanding that there is no stable state of equalized seduction, but rather that there is always flux, that any system is prone to waver in the face of various and varying forces. Instead of a 'program for,' with its sense that the program is indifferent to its own utilisation, the phrasing 'program to' is activist. The program is not only capable of transforming human attitudes, but now seeks actively to do so.

Any manifestation of a bionic code - on a sticker or a t-shirt, in a gallery, on a monitor, or as a tattoo - is an instantiation. Planted in media, it exhibits the current mutation of the living, quivering and changing pattern of information that governs its growth: the code behind a code.

Equalize with Other Beings
Installation at Test-Site, Brooklyn, 1992


In an installation at Test Site, an art/performance space in Brooklyn, the bionic code "equalize with other beings" was projected from the ceiling onto people below who had triggered motion detectors. Illuminated within one of the circles that compose the code, these impromptu participants were thrust into interaction not only with other beings, but with the code itself, and with the mechanism of its display. Such active exploration of the relationships between humans and the systems which they create and with which they interrelate has been a pervasive and persistent goal of Fisher's work. His multimedia rock ensemble Nerve Circle performed biologically-themed events that intermeshed musical and visual instrumentation. He has engaged in guerrilla street theater and has staged performances centered around the bionic codes. These live events are all about collaboration and convergence; they are an attempt to compress people, technology, art, and ideas into a cultural reaction chamber.

Human Suction/Reflection System
Installation at the Flytrap, Brooklyn, 1991

One of the most memorable of these was the Organism web jam, which for twelve hours transformed Brooklyn's Old Dutch Mustard Factory into a thumping, pulsing incubator of interaction:

"That was a creature which I initiated to explore new systems of creativity. The social algorithm I employed was the 'Web Jam,' a hybrid of ancient nature worship, emergent behavior theory (via robotics), and down and dirty urban partying. One hundred and twenty artists and musicians collaborated by spreading their individual creations weblike throughout the area. The objective was to absorb the audience into the belly of numerous systems, one blending into another, including the audience, and the very soil, mustard seeds, and the oxygen of the site."
An experiment seeks to control variables, a jam invites uncertainty and thrives on the challenge of adapting to and shaping the unpredictability of its inputs. It risks catastrophe for the opportunity to fuse a few moments of resonance from the chaos of its components. It is a provocation of the systems and experiences that we normally expect to remain stable÷an attempt to excite them to a state of enlightened alignment by feeding them energy, attitude, and love until the whole snarl leaps to a different level. The moment may be fleeting but it resonates in its participants long after, lingering as a glimpse of a potential state of being where we act in synch with each other and the systems with which we are intertwined.


Art. Science. Religion. Technology. Western culture has contributed to its own sclerosis by trying to cleave to clean a distinction between its various tissues. Each generation indulges in rediscovering the endless interconnectedness that thrives at the vital core of culture, and it would be merely indulgent to proclaim that Fisher's enlightened work heralds an enlightened age. But as the frontiers of physics and math flirt with timeless zen truth, as technology accelerates cycles of evolution, and as networks of communication spread nerve-like over the surface of a planet, it is worth speculating that the bionic codes are part of a program of morphogenesis, integrating and synchronizing the specialized organs and systems of some vast but embryonic organism.

-- Peter Boerboom