surfacecollider.net is home to an ongoing research project by Artist James Irwin. James is a Researcher with the Contemporary Art Reseach Group, Kingston School of Art.

*** UPDATE, November 2023 ***

This site is a work in progress. Images, animations, texts and sounds which tap the ‘digital black box for signs of life’ will be added over the coming months.

When Code becomes Image. Tapping the Digital Black Box for Signs of Life.


This PhD tracks the resuscitation of dead, flat digital sounds and images through the latent potential of electronic systems. If silicon-based life is evolving, and we are forced to widen biocentric definitions of what constitutes living matter, then what do we look and listen for to identify digital life? Which processes provide digital media with vitality? Through web-based artworks, artificial intelligence and computer generated sounds and images, this practice-based research works to probe at the aesthetic potential for silicon-based system-objects to inherit, from us, a life-like force.

I have taken a cybernetic approach throughout. When making digital sounds and images, I have mined the black box of the machine for flickers and tendrils to hook onto as pathways of emergence to follow. In this sense, vitality is characterised by how it is channelled as visual and audio output through computer displays and audio speakers. These are the surface effects of complex underlying processes and interactions.

I’ve chosen the text-based language of computer programming to form and shape these electronic entities. Working in this way allows me to work with the building blocks of digital life in a similar way to how biological life can be modified through genetic engineering. I see the use of code in this context as intrinsically physical — code embodies matter in action. As scripts compile within machines, chains of physical processes are enacted that bring about the emergence of electronic beings as tangible, sensory forms through digital sounds and images. There is no software. The artworks that emerge can be seen as the flowering or fruiting of these inner, hidden workings; outward facing signifiers of inner electronic vitality. Like mushrooms to mycelium networks.

I work according to a cyborg methodology. As I work, the boundary between my body and the machine dissolves. In place of discrete, separate entities, a recombinant body is formed that merges human wetware with different forms of hardware, their mechanisms, and their combined intelligence. Within this cyborg body a transaction occurs between the wetware and hardware that channels the production of electronic life. At this vital time within the development of Artificial Intelligence, this PhD uses the critical time and space offered by Contemporary Art to meditate on the inter complexities of our relationship with machines. The carbon-silicon-based artworks that emerge from the project are born from these ways of working.