Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

Complementarity: An Archipelago, by Robin Parmar

Comments Off on Complementarity: An Archipelago, by Robin Parmar

Complementarity: An Archipelago, by Robin Parmar

Robin Parmar is an intermedia artist whose practice incorporates electroacoustic composition, sound installations, improvisation, radiophonics, sonic ecology, poetry, performance art, theory and photography. Works have recently appeared in Ireland, England, Portugal, Germany, Spain and Sweden. Read more at

“The opposite of a true statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth is usually another profound truth.”

— Niels Bohr1


An archipelago is a sea containing scattered islands. In this paper the term is describes a scattering of texts embedded in a particular context; a cluster without overt pattern but with some as-yet-not-fully-determined connectivity. The context the reader brings to this collection is the axis about which the islands spin. Thus the archipelago is a generative system embedded in a process greater than itself.

From quantum mechanics we know that particles also act as waves, depending on what we are observing. We can see light or an electron in one or the other aspect, but to get a full appreciation of their characteristics we need to balance both concepts in our mind at the same time. Niels Bohr called this duality complementarity.

Quantum Foam

To start with, we will combine two things we know into a third thing which seems impossible, but is nevertheless true.

The first thing we know is that nothing cannot come from something. This principle is embodied in several physical laws, for example the law of conservation of energy. To wit, the total amount of energy in an isolated system remains constant. Energy (which is equivalent to matter) can neither be created nor destroyed.

The second thing we know is the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics. This states that certain paired properties of elementary particles cannot be measured with arbitrary precision. For example, the more we can say about a particle’s momentum (where it is travelling and how fast) the less we can be sure about its position.

Planck’s constant is a precise value used to quantify this interaction. In Joule seconds (J s) this value is 6.626 0693 x 10-34. This is a profound number, representing exactly how unknowable the universe is.2

At extremely small distances and time scales the uncertainty principle allows for a particle and its corresponding anti-particle to come into being, so long as they immediately annihilate again, so that conservation laws are preserved on a higher scale. Look at a region of space and it may seem there is nothing there. But look closer and you will find a chaotic turbulence of particles being born, living and dying. This is known as quantum foam, the stormy sea of nothing within and around everything.

Numbers In The Dark

Through statistics we know exactly how unknowable Planck’s constant is. The standard uncertainty is 0.000 0011 x 10-34 J s. The digits we know with exactitude are 662606.

When my brother and I were very young, we used to stay up after bedtime and scare each other with spooky stories. I don’t remember any of these tales and don’t recall being too scared by them. (My nightmares of hordes of atomic bombers filling the skies were always more terrifying.) Except that sometimes, as an incantation, one or the other of us would chant the following numbers as a prelude to terror: “606… 606… 606…”

Did we recite those numbers because we somehow knew they represented the limits of our knowledge of the universe? Did our desire to be scared by the unknown extend to being scared by the very principle of uncertainty? As those who tell scary stories are glad to be scared, were we secretly happy to inhabit a world in which unknown and unknowable things can exist?

The Sound Of Music

Timbre is an expression of the quality of a sound. It is what allows us to distinguish between different musical instruments, even if they are playing the same pitch at the same amplitude. As music is a time-based medium it follows that timbre changes over time.3

If we want to know the exact properties of sound at a particular moment, we need to take a slice through the changing spectra and produce a frequency spectrum, a map of the intensity of each frequency of sound. But frequency itself is the rate at which the sound wave oscillates over time.

The more precise we make the time measurement, the less we can say about the frequency, since our slice becomes too small with respect to the wavelength. If we want to be arbitrarily precise, the frequencies themselves effervesce and disappear into the space between things. If you listen closely you will hear the chaotic sound of waves being born, living and dying in this space. But this sound is noise, the remainder after all else has been subtracted.

The Pigeonhole Principle

Last week I was at a house-warming party, a dynamic engagement of people in a room. Some of the participants had met each other previously, some had not. We can state that being acquainted is a symmetric non-reflexive relationship. The symmetry comes from the fact that if I am acquainted with you, you are acquainted with me. The non-reflexivity is due to the fact that one acquaintance relationship is not the same as another. All friendships are different.

The Pigeonhole Principle states that if there are N pigeonholes inhabited by M pigeons, and M is greater than N, there will be a hole containing more than one pigeon. From this apparently obvious principle, we can conclude that there are two people in the room with exactly the same number of acquaintances.4

Simple statements, when combined, can lead to surprising conclusions.

Musical Chairs

When I was six I played the following game at a friend’s birthday party. A number of children stood around a circle of chairs. Someone’s parent put a record on the player and the music started. At this cue the children walked in a circle around the chairs. Suddenly, the tone arm was lifted and the music stopped. All of us scrambled for a chair, leaving one child standing. This person left the circle, taking a chair with them. We continued this game until there was only one child remaining, who was subsequently declared “the winner”.

This game works only if, for each round, there are M children and N chairs, where M is greater than N.

In German this game is known as “Reise nach Jerusalem” or “Journey to Jerusalem”. In Romanian the name translates as “Birdie, Move Your Nest”. In Swedish it is played as “The Whole Sea Is Storming”.5

People Are Different Sizes

In A Pattern Language Christopher Alexander and his research team found in our urban environment 253 patterns, ranging from large-scale interactions at the level of the state to specific recommendations for arranging plants and furniture in the home. Pattern 1, Independent Regions, states that “Metropolitan regions will not come to balance until each one is small and autonomous enough to be an independent sphere of culture.”6

Section 251, “Different Chairs”, warns “People are different sizes; they sit in different ways. And yet there is a tendency in modern times to make all chairs alike.”7

Alexander’s work has been widely read, commented upon and praised, this section not excluded. Yet has no-one noticed that one thing we do not lack for is chairs? Is it not true that every designer hatched from any of the myriad of schools dedicated to the task firstly and lastly makes a chair? In considering their twenty-fifth anniversary, Taschen published an entire book of chairs, one thousand of them as the title attests.8 Take a sub-category, say the folding chair, and you can buy a poster containing 196 different models.9 Want to re-upholster a chair in funky designs?10 Make a Welsh stick chair?11 Rethink culture through the form of the chair?12 Well, you can.

It could be said that the chair is the totemic design object. So why are they all so uncomfortable? Perhaps because a bit of irritation is good for us.

I hope you are reading this sitting down.

Telegraph Rock

In 1978 Wire released the album Chairs Missing, a radical collision of experimental recording techniques, punk energy, enigmatic lyrics and musical minimalism. The band proper was joined by producer Mike Thorne, who became both an unwitting accomplice and a willing foil to the band.

A wire consists of one or more filaments of flexible metal, woven together to increase strength.

Thorne writes about how the recording process was often based on unexpected interactions between participants, to the degree that one could not make sound without the other:

The guitar solo in “Sand In My Joints” is played by Colin and Bruce both through the ring modulator on the classic Synthi AKS. Unless there is a sound present at each of the two inputs to this device, nothing comes out. When there are, the single final sound is one modulated by the other. It was a very social occasion for the two of them.13

As in any social structure, there were conflicts within Wire, but these were incorporated into their operations in a manner unlike other rock groups. When drum machines began to dominate the recordings, the drummer retired to a farm. In accordance, the group retired a letter from their name, becoming Wir. The group has disbanded twice and a multitude of solo, internal and external collaborations have arisen from these voids. The existence of Wire permits the concept of the non-existence of Wire, and in this negative space creative energies can flow.

A wire is often used as a conductor of electricity, a channel of flow for energy from a high to low potential zone.

Wire are more a game system than a band. Their lyrics are acrostics; the song titles are jokes and missing links; the live shows incorporate performance art in place of rock’n’roll. Wire are not so much about playing songs as they are about playing at songs. They don’t dictate but rather telegraph intent.

Try to pin them down and you won’t know where they are going. Determine their next path and you’ll discover you don’t know where they are right now. They define themselves by what is absent (the chair is missing) and question endlessly.14 “Is it too late to change my mind?” they repeat excitedly as Chairs Missing comes to an end.

To wire is to send a message over the telegraph system. To telegraph is to unwittingly indicate one’s intention, without explicit statement.

The Observer Pattern

The field of software engineering has taken on board the idea of patterns as exemplified by Alexander. Design Patterns, written by the so-called Gang of Four (no, not the rock band), popularised the concept of finding generally applicable solutions for commonly occurring problems in computer programming and design.15 A design pattern is not a specific code implementation but rather a way of describing commonly encountered relationships, so that when you see a similar pattern later (at a party, for instance), you will discover that you are already acquainted with it.

The observer pattern describes a situation where one or more observers watch a subject, waiting for a particular event to happen. Following the detection of this event, they perform some action. In order to implement this pattern, one must modify the subject so that it can track the observers. The act of observing changes that which is observed. Even more, the very possibility of future observation requires that the subject be structurally and functionally different from an object that will never be observed.

As subjects ourselves, consciousness is our preparation for this always-fulfilled potential. We have consciousness only because we are aware of the observer pattern and recognise that we are subject to it.

Cybernetic Solipsism

In 1937 Claude Shannon’s landmark paper on Boolean algebra made possible a rigorous application of electromechanical relays (and later, computer circuits) to solving algebra problems. A decade later, working from some ideas of Norbert Wiener, Shannon laid the foundation for information theory. His other significant papers developed cryptography and digital sampling theory. It may not be too extravagant to call Shannon the father of the computer age.

Shannon also had a strong interest in games, was an expert juggler and avid unicyclist. He created a machine to solve the Rubik’s cube, built a motorised pogo-stick and wrote famed papers on chess programmes. In the early fifties Shannon built “The Ultimate Machine”. As described by Arthur C. Clarke, this was a simple wooden box with a switch on one side. On triggering the switch a mechanical buzzing is heard. The lid opens and a hand slowly emerges, reaches down, turns off the switch, and returns to the box. The lid closes and the box is silent once more.16

We turn the machine on so it can turn itself off. This is a mechanism for changing our mind.

Out of nothing something is born, lives, dies, goes back to nothing.

Suggestions For Further Research

Visit as many furniture stores as possible. Collect all of the chairs you find that fits your body. Put these in a room and invite people to sit on them. Collect all of the people who fit the chairs.

Create a device for playing a song. This assemblage should consist of at least three people and at least three means of sound production. Encouraged numerous interactions between people and processes over a time span no less than three years. Call this device a band; give it a clever name.

Invent a game to be played by a varied group of people at a party. This should have the following properties: there are M of one thing and N of another, M is greater than N, the game should be played in rounds, at least one item should be eliminated each round. Pigeons are optional.

A complement is something which makes the original complete. A compliment is an expression of praise, congratulation or encouragement. As often as possible in your daily discourse, confuse these two terms. Stop this process only once you are challenged or corrected.

Build one thousand Ultimate Machines. Place these in a room, arranged so that each can reach the switch of the next. Flip the first switch.

Find the emptiest, quietest space possible and stare into the void. See the particles dancing there. Sing along to their music.

Write a paper in the form of an archipelago, with as many obvious and not-so-obvious connections as possible. This paper should encourage its readers to form further archipelagos.


“The absolute rule is to give back more than you were given. Never less, always more. The absolute rule of thought is to give back the world as it was given to us — unintelligible. And, if possible, to render it a little more unintelligible.”

— Jean Baudrillard17

1 – Ken Wilbur quoted in David M. Harrison, “Complementarity and the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”, 2000, available at: [retrieved 27 August 2006].

2 – This is the 2002 Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA) recommended value based on data available through 31 December 2002. See:

3 – Except for that simplest of harmonic oscillations, the sine wave.

4 – Alexander Bogomolny, “Pigeonhole Principle”, Interactive Mathematics Miscellany and Puzzles, 2006, available at: [retrieved 29 August 2006].

5 – “Musical chairs” entry in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2006, available at: [retrieved 28 August 2006].

6 – Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, Oxford University Press, 1977: 11.

7 – Ibid.: 1158.

8 – Charlotte J. and Peter Fiell, 1000 Chairs, Berlin: Taschen, 2005.

9 – “Designboom Illustrated Folding Chairs History”, Poster, 2006, available at: [retrieved 22 September 2006].

10 – Catherine Tully, Funky Chairs, Bath: Southwater Publishing, 2001.

11 – John Brown, Welsh Stick Chairs, Ammanford, UK: Stobart Davies, 1998.

12 – Galen Cranz, The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design, New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.

13 – Mike Thorne, “The Making Of Wire’s Chair’s Missing”, The Stereo Society, 2000, available at: [retrieved 29 August 2006].

14 -As an example their 1991 album The Drill consists of nine versions of the same song, of which  seven titles are interrogative.

15 -Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson and John Vlissides, Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, Boston: Addison Wesley, 1995.

16 – Arthur C. Clarke, Voice Across the Sea, New York: Harper Collins, 1975.

17 – Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime, translated by Chris Turner, London: Verso, 1996: 105.

Comments are closed.