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Always Dead and Alive

#algorithmic #engaging #ephemeral #hypnotic #immersive

Materials and media

custom-code, cellular automata, 8K video environment, 5.1 sound



Always Dead and Alive is a hypnotizing audiovisual piece created from specific Cellular Automata rules. The project investigates modes of perception through creating video scenarios between geometric abstraction and minimalism that challenge our awareness of time and space.

Theresa Schubert’s Always Dead and Alive (2019) is an 8K video environment working with cellular automata (CA). In a coded architecture of abstract geometries, a sequence of self-generative patterns plays out, completed and enhanced by an abstract soundscape. It is an immersive and sensorial work intended to make a digital space experienceable in an organic audiovisual flow of light, color and sound, based on the mathematics of nature.

Cellular automata are mathematical models that can simulate the organic self-organization of cells. Because of having been formulated as rules, CA can be taken beyond the biological and transferred into the digital context. In other words, a cell is translated to a pixel, retaining the seemingly organic, self-generative capacity.

While the basic shape and framework of a pattern is defined by the artist, its actual appearance, motion and morphing are created by the cells or pixels themselves in the ongoing process. They constantly compute anew and adapt to the neighboring ones, leading to their systematic organization and thereby creating visible patterns. Before writing the code with Jörg Reisig, Theresa Schubert chooses the CA based on how capable they are of self-organization, i.e. at recognizing the state of the neighboring cell, adapting and shape-shifting accordingly. Essentially, all they need to know about the neighbor’s state is whether it is dead (0) or alive (1), in a simple binary information set-up. Contrary to the organic cell, a digital pixel can be both simultaneously.

Abstract geometries emerge, blend, morph, disintegrate, fade out and reemerge in a constant flow. The shapes are organically irregular; however, they always adhere to a geometric grid or another type of systematic structure like circles or lines. The visual dimension is enhanced by an abstract ambient soundscape which creates a mysterious, primordial, somewhat extraterrestrial atmosphere. Just like the visuals do, the sound, composed by Jan Skorupa, oscillates between organic and inorganic characteristics. At times, it appears like foaming liquid, bubbling water, trickling sand, cracking wood, rustling foliage, human breathing and secretive whispering, fluidly blending with bell-like chimes and resonant strings, shifting mass, metallic machinery moving through infinity, vastness made audible with minimal elements, an open emptiness interchanging with pixelated density. This ever-transforming soundscape acoustically describes the visual plane with pixels behaving like cells, like organic life breathing and evolving in a digital environment.

In Always Dead and Alive, organic processes unfold within a digital structure. Aspects of living matter (the cell) are applied to hitherto lifeless code (the pixel). The work is an artistic exploration of the interface between life and technology. It applies processual powers of biologic self-organization to intangible mathematical code, describable in zeros and ones, demonstrating the similarities and the possible interconnectedness of the organic and the digital.

Text: Kristina von Bülow


Artist: Theresa Schubert
Unity development: Jörg Reisig 
Sound composition: Jan Skorupa
Tech Support/Encoding: Poznan Supercomputing and Networking Centre (PSNC), Spin Digital Berlin

Developed during the Immersive Minimalism residency at the Poznan Supercomputing and Networking Centre with additional support by Spin Digital funded by STARTS EU. STARTS is an initiative of the European Commission under the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. S+T+ARTS – Innovation at the nexus of Science, Technology, and the ARTS

Further Info

  • Interview with PLATON TV, watch here
  • STARTS Blog:
  • Read more about the Immersify EU project here