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  • Writer's pictureCogito

Conversation with Steven Durbach

I got introduced to the work of Steven Durbach (aka Sid) by a good friend, colleague, and science communication pioneer, Luke Steller. In one handheld video, a pen was swinging chaotically across a piece of paper taped to the floor. Its motion was dictated by the metal wire coiled around it. The other end of the wire wrapped around some sort of pendulum. Even amidst the apparent randomness, patterns slowly start to appear on parts of the page. Intrigued by Steven's artistic exploration of chaos and order, something I study systematically in the lab, we got in touch and Sid was invited to speak at our university.

Grab a cup of coffee (or a drink of your choice) and allow me to share the highlights of our conversations and the photos I took of Sid and his latest work, the Evolver.


Despite having held an academic position in genetics for more than a decade in South Africa, Sid now works as a full-time artist based in Australia with the goal of creating conversations that bridge science and art.

"I was thinking about other stuff", Sid recalled when I asked him why he made the transition from academia to art, "I started doing it seriously since 2003...and it took over."

Portrait of Steven Durbach in front of his temperamental machine, the Evolver. Credit: Cogito's Journey
Steven Durbach and the Evolver

Despite switching paths, the principles and practice of science remain a big inspiration for Sid and his work. His background in evolutionary biology naturally led to questions about the nature of order and disorder. An element of rigour, though not to the point of scientific scrutiny, is something Sid strives for in his art.

Besides traditional pen and paper, Sid also builds mechanical contraptions which he calls temperamental machines to manifest the motifs in his imagination and tap into the elements outside his control. His most recent work is the Evolver, a machine Sid considers a manifestation of his mind or even himself.

Steven Durbach's temperamental machine, the Evovler. Credit: Cogito's Journey
The Evolver

Two turntables control the motion of a first pen via a Y-shaped metal arm. The pen moves across a circular piece of paper, itself on top of a third turntable. While the three turntables may be out-of-phase, their motions are regular, leading to patterns on the page more often than not. As such, the first pen represents order.

The Pen of Order. Credit: Cogito's Journey
The Pen of Order

A metal wire coils around the first pen, coupling its motion to a triangular frame. This wire frame, which hangs from above like a pendulum, is connected to a second pen through an even longer piece of wire full of twists and kinks. The non-rigid parts, the pendulum, wires, and triangular frame translate the orderly motion of the first pen and add to it unpredictability or randomness. Hence, the second pen likely represents chaos.

The Pen of Chaos. Credit: Cogito's Journey
The Pen of Chaos

In Sid's words, the Evolver "measures the room". As he places the Evolver in different settings, the machine reacts to Sid, the audience, and its surrounding. The machine then uses this feedback to produce a different pattern every time.

"It can't be tuned", Sid pointed to the Evolver during the seminar, "like me".

Yet from my perspective, the Evolver is less of a measurement device and more of a recorder. As the Evolver travels with Sid, every bump on the road manifests itself on the metal wire, bending the angles and tweaking the kinks in unpredictable ways. Every time he assembles the Evolver for a performance and dismantles it after the show, his hands, jittering or calm, changes the machine. The culmination of these changes that build up after every adventure leads to a different artwork each time.

Seeing how the second pen incorporates chaos into the orderly motion of the first, it is not hard to draw a parallel between the Evolver and (biological) evolution itself. It is common for new traits to get incorporated into members of a species due to random mutations. Yet, environmental and social pressures serve to "tune" or select only the favorable ones. In some cases, the changes accumulate past a critical threshold, leading to new species.

When I asked Sid how the Evolver came to be, he told me it had been a response to an artwork. The concept of feedback permeates not only Sid's work but also his approach toward art. Feedback is also the mechanism that enables the transition from chaos to order (i.e. self-organisation) and chemistry to biology.

The predator-prey or Lotka-Volterra model shows how the interactions between predator and prey lead to patterns in their populations. Credit: Cogito's Journey
Predator-prey or Lotka-Volterra model

One of the simplest examples of these phenomena is the prey-predator or Lotka-Volterra model. Let's say a pack of lions and a herd of sheep live on the same bountiful grass plain. When lion numbers are low, the sheep thrive, and their number increases. The excess of prey allows the lions to thrive which, in turn, causes the sheep population to decrease. As the number of prey decreases, so too does the predator. Through these simple interactions or feedback, one can imagine how the two populations follow an orderly pattern, in this case, an oscillation.

As Sid and I stood at the campus entrance, we shook hands and promised another meetup in the future. It is exciting to think about how our collaboration will unfold. I'm sure Sid feels the same way. Seeing how we were lucky to have a mutual connection to introduce us, it makes me wonder how different science communication and engagement would be if encounters between artists and scientists are commonplace.


Greetings, Cogito here. Thanks for reading. I am currently finishing up a manuscript for publication. Just one more month, hopefully.

Photography has been a hobby of mine for a long time, but it was not until recently that I started seriously considering it as a tool for content creation. I'll probably add a new tab on the website for photography in due time.

See you in the next post!


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