patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘The Beer Game

Metamodernism, Oscillation and the Beer Game

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In Luke Turner‘s Metamodernist Manifesto he says “oscillation is the natural order of things” and he, along with Robin van den Akker, Nadine Feßler and Timotheus Vermeulen, sees this oscillation ( “between a modern desire for sens and a postmodern doubt about the sense of it all, between a modern sincerity and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy and empathy and apathy and unity and plurality and purity and corruption and naïveté and knowingness; between control and commons and craftsmanship and conceptualism and pragmatism and utopianism”) as an indication of the emergence of a new cultural dominant – metamodernism.

I feel sure that I am mixing metaphors as I attempt to question the naturalness of oscillation by referring to a business simulation known as the Beer Game, invented, I believe, at M.I.T by Jay Forrester and referenced by Peter Senge in the opening chapter of his book The Fifth Discipline.

Four ‘players’ take up the positions of Factory, Distributor, Wholesaler and Retailer, making up a production and distribution system, the product being crates of beer, represented by coins or counters, that make their way from the factory, to the other sectors and ending up as sales to external customers.

There are some system conditions: no communication takes place between the sectors other than the placing of orders and the receiving of product (silence), and there are delays in production and  transportation as well as in processing the orders. Orders are made by external customers and they are re-acted by each sector concluding with the factory that places orders with its own workforce. The decision-making required by each sector, at the end of each week, is how many crates of beer to order from their supplier upstream.

The activity spans a simulated year, at the beginning the system is stable, customers are ordering 4 crates of beer per week and each sector has 12 crates of beer in their respective inventories. Each sector aims to minimise costs by keeping inventory down at the same time as preventing backlog.

In conducting this simulation (as I have done with groups over 100 times in the last two years) we always find that when external customer orders are stable, the system becomes unstable, with sometimes wild oscillation, (as well as amplification: the oscillation pattern becoming more pronounced the further upstream you go).  A flat line could represent the orders from customers whereas this graph shows the oscillating pattern of orders placed within the system.

Getting back to the Metamodernist Manifesto, if we were to think of orders from customers as the external environment or  ‘nature’, we might conclude that oscillation is an artificial experience. It is not the ‘natural oder of things’ so much as the invented and exaggerated response to external stimuli. We do it to ourselves (that’s what really hurts, apologies Radiohead).

Then again, we could say that it is ‘natural’ in the sense that it is the repeated and predictable response: it seems to come naturally to us.

Maybe what I am saying is that although oscillation may indeed be ‘the natural order of things’, the natural order of things is not itself natural. Whilst the territory is flat, our maps oscillilate wildly.

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why systems thinking?

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Someone said that they would like to know more about the link between systems thinking and my abstract paintings.

beer game set up

Set up for The Beer Game, a simulation (devised by Jay Forrester) that helps teach systems thinking in organisations

Berkeley Square 1

Berkeley Square 1, marker pen on post-it notes on board, 122cm x 122cm, by Andy Parkinson

For some, in the late 1960’s, systems art seemed to point beyond the impasse of late modernism.

This impasse was seen to be the result of a reductionist approach where art was divesting itself of all that was unnecessary to its specific characteristics. The art critics Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried were great proponents of this reductionist grand narrative, and their heroes were the Abstract Expressionists (Pollock, Newman, Motherwell, Rothko, Gottleib, Frankenthaler, etc)  and later, so called Post-Painterly Abstraction, and colour field painting (Stella, Louis, Noland, Olitski etc)  that had supposedly shown the way beyond Jackson Pollock’s all-over painting via the staining technique that they claimed to have learned from Helen Frankenthaler’s watercolour Mountains and Sea.  However, where could you go to beyond the (monochromatic) colour field?

Systems thinking outside of the art world had been catching on for some time. Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory (1968) brought together much that he had been working on for years previously, concentrating on how systems are structured. In 1948 Norbert Weiner published Cybernetics, focussing on how a system functions, regardless of what the system is. A group of systems thinkers from different disciplines, including Weiner, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, John Von Neumann and Warren McCulloch had been meeting every year between 1942 and 1951 at the Macy conferences.  In 1961 Jay Forrester applied systems thinking to the economy, urban industry and housing. Donella Meadows and the Club of Rome applied systems thinking to problems of pollution and ecology, resulting in the publication of the influential book The Limits to Growth in 1972. Much later (1990) Peter Senge applied systems thinking to management and organisations in his book The Fifth Discipline. The work of W. Edwards Deming is also an example of systems thinking applied to business and management. I would also argue that Karl Marx was a great systems thinker long before the term was coined.

(I came to systems thinking through my work with people in organisations not primarily as an artist. In relation to painting I had more or less given up on it, after all where else could you go after the monochrome colour field?)

Systems thinking was largely a reaction against reductionism in science and an attempt to unify its various disciplines. It argued that real systems are open to, and interact with, their environments, and that they can acquire qualitatively new properties through emergence, resulting in continual evolution.

Rather than reducing an entity (e.g. the human body) to the properties of its parts or elements (e.g. organs or cells), systems theory focuses on the arrangement of and relations between the parts which connect them into a whole. This particular organisation determines a system, which is independent of the concrete substance of the elements (e.g. particles, cells, transistors, people, etc).

From http://www.istheory.yorku.ca/generalsystemstheory.htm

It was only a matter of time before someone in the visual art world would notice that systems thinking promised an alternative approach to modernist reductionism.  One such ‘someone’ was Jack Burnham.

Jack Burnham’s systems aesthetic took issue with late modernist painting, offering five key insights:

  1. That there has been a transition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture.
  2. That art does not reside in material entities.
  3. That art is not autonomous.
  4. That art is conceptual focus.
  5. That no definition or theory of art can be historically invariant.

For many involved in systems aesthetics this spelled the death of painting (one day I must blog about painting’s many deaths). Burnham and others majored on the context in which art takes place: the system of art production.

For me, these five insights can be appropriate to painting itself. Rather than emphasising objecthood, materiality and autonomy, painting can be systems oriented, serial and conceptual and this is one of the ways in which I think of my paintings as systems. I am interested in the ways that the parts relate to each other in the whole that is the painting, and in the larger whole that is the viewing experience. I am interested in the system: artist/painting/viewer(s) and particularly in the ways in which viewers can have differing perceptions (physically, emotionally and conceptually) of a painting.