in Features | 01 SEP 10
Featured in
Issue 133

Artist Project: Unknown Unknowns

A conversation between Agnieszka Kurant & Nassim Nicholas Taleb about the benefits of uncertainty

in Features | 01 SEP 10

Agnieszka Kurant  Physicist and Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine tried to reconcile the notion of irreversible time in philosophy with how it's perceived in physics, in determinist theories in which there are no events, no automatic distinction between past and future - a continuity, not an arrow of time. It was an attempt to introduce time into a world that has no time. I think it's a perfect example of a contemporary 'outlier' - a statistical term that means an observation that deviates from the rest of the data. Your 'Black Swan' theory of extremely rare, unexpected events is one, turning our knowledge of reality on its head. How can we benefit from our lack of knowledge and uncertainty?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb  My problem has always been chance and the misunderstanding of knowledge. My project is about how to domesticate the unknown, exploit randomness, figure out how to live in a world we  don't understand very well. While most human thought (particulary since the Enlightenment) has focused on how to turn knowledge into decisions. My idea concerns decision-making during conditions of uncertainty, dealing with incomplete information and living in a world that has a more complicated ecology than we assume. 

Political Weather, 2007. Inspired by how the weather influences politics and vice versa I hired a company working for feature films to create a special effect for a future sci-fi movie to come - black snow operated with remote control. An activity once common in USSR was influencing the weather (using cloud-busters etc.) to ensure sunshine for the communist parades. It is also practiced currently e.g. in contemporary China forced by the Olympic Games Committee to clear the sky over Beijing from pollution which resulted in the Chinese causing artificial rains and snow fall which were often black. 

AK  How does Black Swan relate to the principles of logic?

NT  The Black Swan is not simply a problem of logic but an empirical matter concerning the occurrence of unusual events: an outlier with a big impact. David Hume said inductive reasoning [a series of observations that infer a new claim] is justified because causation is an experience of past regularity that creates an expectation of continuing regular activity. But how can you make generalizations from particular observations of the world that result in theories and predictions? Having spent my life as a Wall Street trader making decisions in a highly random environment, I felt alienated from modern philosophical treatments of induction, which I dub ‘Mickey Mouse’ owing to their highly naive attributes. Alas, the texture of real life is more sophisticated and more demanding than analytical philosophy can apparently handle. The dynamic of modern luck relates to the ‘intractable’ variety of uncertainty; it produces large-impact unpredictable events that I categorize as ‘Black Swans’, with small but incomputable probabilities.

There is a remarkable regularity to these ubiquitous Black Swan dynamics. They are visible across disciplines and human activities. They are pervasive in biology, economics, sociology, linguistics, networks, the stock market and culture. Literally anything that contains luck will be subjected to it. The spread of ideas and religions, the success of innovations and developments in art, all follow these dynamics. Black Swans are a serious epistemological quandary. I used them to attack the results derived from modern statistics; they are truly and non-measurably unpredictable in the sense that, conditional at the time of occurrence, their probability is not measurable, which implies a weakness in our statistical methods.

AK  The concept of Modernity, especially with its social Utopias, neglected the possibility of rare events. This is especially visible in the Modernist need to control form, meaning and authorship, and in the way Modernist architecture and urban planning often ignored the emergent bottom-up self-organization. All elements of reality appear as the result of bifurcations in complex systems, which exist in physics and chemistry, but also in history – historical events, with civilizations flourishing as suddenly as they disappear, or the emergence of figures such as Christ or Lenin. The bifurcations of society are not predictable. Is science hopeless at imaging the future?

NT  The only way you can imagine a future ‘similar’ to the past is by assuming that it will be an exact projection of it, hence predictable. The notion of a future mixed with chance, not a deterministic extension of your perception of the past, is a mental operation that our mind cannot perform. Chance is too fuzzy to be a category by itself. There is an asymmetry between past and future and it is too subtle for us to understand naturally. The first consequence of this asymmetry is that, in people’s minds, the relationship between the past and the future does not learn from the relationship between the immediate and distant past. There is a blind spot: when we think of tomorrow, we do not frame it in terms of what we thought about yesterday or the day before yesterday. Because of this introspective defect we fail to learn about the difference between our past predictions and the subsequent outcomes. 

AK  Just like sci-fi literature, which imagines the future only on the basis of the past and present. It seems the idea of futurology as a source of knowledge is totally wrong. Because the present is obsessed by predicting the future and by imagining it, we produce it to some extent, but in fact anything might happen.

NT  When we think of tomorrow, we just project it as another yesterday. Just as autism is called ‘mind blindness’, we should call this inability to think dynamically, to position oneself with respect to a future observer, ‘future blindness’.

AK For my piece Future Anterior a clairvoyant who works for the police, Interpol and government organizations to provide business and political forecasts. About 70% of his forecasts occurred. I asked him what he thought would happen in the year 2020. Then I approached journalists from The New York Times to write up his predictions as though they were actual news reports written in 2020. They were printed in the format of the newspaper using an ink that appears and disappears. In the year 2020 the status of the piece will change; some facts will become fiction and some might be real. 2020 is a sort of pun on the ‘2020 vision’ in optometrics – an optimal objective vision.

NT  You seem to be referring to what I call retrospective determinism. It’s a vicious mental process, also called ‘hindsight bias’, in which Black Swans become explainable (less random) after the fact, owing to the unconscious use of posterior information. Scientists, economists, historians, policy makers, businessmen and financiers are all victims of illusionary patterns. They overestimate the value of rational explanations of past data and underestimate the prevalence of unexplainable randomness in those data. But history is distilled even when current events are incomprehensible, through both an illusion of understanding of current events, a retrospective distortion of historical events, the overestimation of factual information and an overvaluation of the intellectual elite. People tend to concoct explanations for these events after the fact, which makes them appear more predictable and less random than they are. Our minds are designed to retain, for efficient storage, past information that fits into a compressed narrative. This hindsight bias prevents us from adequately learning from the past.

AK  In April this year, a ‘Black Swan’ hit Poland when the presidential aeroplane crashed in Smolensk, Russia – where 70 years earlier 20,000 Polish generals, mostly intellectuals, were murdered in the woods by the Stalinist NKWD. Some commentators felt the plane crash reflected Marx’s concept of history occurring first as tragedy, then as farce. A second national trauma happening at the same place seems improbable but according to the Black Swan theory, it was, in fact, just as probable as it was the first time, and as it would be a third time.

NT  It’s a typical example of narrative fallacy – our tendency to create explanations to give ourselves the illusion of understanding the world. Alas, the rarer the event, the more theory you need to explain it and the worse its inverse problem. What I call the narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at facts without weaving an explanation into them or, equivalently, forcing a logical link upon them. Explanations bind facts together; they make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.

AK  I think your notion of narrative fallacy is interesting in terms of thinking about memory as another complex system.

NT  Conventional wisdom holds that memory is like a recording device. In reality, memory is dynamic – not static – like a paper on which new texts (or new versions of the same text) will be continuously recorded, thanks to the power of posterior information. Like a palimpsest – a type of parchment on which old texts can be erased and new ones written over them – memory is a self-serving dynamic revision machine: you remember the last time you remembered the event and, without realizing it, you change the story at every subsequent remembrance. So we pull memories along causative lines, revising them involuntarily and unconsciously. We continuously re-narrate past events in the light of what we assume is logical after these events occur. By a process called reverberation, a memory corresponds to the strengthening of connections from an increase of brain activity in a given sector of the brain – the more activity, the stronger the memory. While we believe that the memory is fixed, constant and connected, all this is very far from truth.

AK  I’m working on a project that involves creating a fictional word and then making it infiltrate society until it enters the dictionary. It’s a word with no etymology, no history. There are a lot of new words constantly being added to the dictionary, but most of them are slang words that are synonyms for existing ones. Other new words that appear tend to be jargon for new technologies and scientific discoveries which are specific to certain groups of users. I’m now working on the creation of a new word that describes the reality we live in, in a new way. There is no word for the temporary future we invent and which exists in the present but then becomes obsolete. Bruce Sterling is the expert inventor of neologisms. He came up with ‘spime’, for example, which is a neologism for a ‘currently-theoretical object that can be tracked through space and time, throughout the lifetime of the object’. But it did not become a popular word; I’m thinking of a word we could hear on TV and newspapers and on the street, but which is not a synonym for some other word or jargon.

NT  People are lazy and remember words that they have used in the past, so the more a word is used, the more likely it is going to be used in the future, causing a snowball effect. This causes concentrations in the vocabulary, with some words being used far more frequently than others. Ideas spread like an epidemic but with some restrictions. Ideas do not spread without some form of structure. Just as we tend to generalize about some things but not others, so there seem to be ‘basins of attraction’ directing us to certain beliefs. Some ideas will prove contagious, while others won’t; some forms of superstitions will spread, but not others; some types of religious beliefs will dominate, but not others. The anthropologist, cognitive scientist and philosopher Dan Sperber has proposed that what people call mêmes – ideas that spread and compete with one another using people as carriers – are not like genes. Ideas spread because the carriers are self-serving agents who are interested in them, and interested in distorting them in the replication process. We humans are not photocopiers. So contagious mental categories must be those in which we are prepared to believe, perhaps even programmed to believe. To be contagious, a mental category must agree with our nature.

AK A good example is what has happened to the même of the fall of the Berlin Wall; it became the symbol of the fall of communism in Europe even though it happened after other politically important events. But the Wall coming down was considered sexy and worked as an iconic image, a même.

NT  This proves that a même is something people are programmed to believe in.

AK  Do you think that science and economics have much to learn from art in terms of methodology or conscious erring?

NT  Over the past three years I have become obsessed with the notion that, under epistemic limitations - some opacity concerning the future - progress (and survival) cannot take place without redundancy. You don’t know today what may be needed tomorrow. This conflicts sharply with the notion of teleological design we have from reading Aristotle that an object has a clear purpose set by its designer. Yet anything that has a secondary use, and one you did not pay for, will present an extra opportunity should a heretofore unknown application emerge or a new environment appear. The organism with the largest number of secondary uses is the one that will gain the most from environmental randomness and epistemic opacity! Take aspirin. Forty years ago, its raison d’être was its fever-reducing effect. Later it was used for its pain-reducing effects and its anti-inflammatory properties and now it is often used as a blood thinner to avoid heart attacks. The same thing applies to almost all drugs – many are used for secondary and tertiary properties. Objects seem to have invisible but significant auxiliary functions that we are not consciously aware of, but that allow them to thrive – and on occasion the auxiliary function becomes the principal one. So when you have a lot of functional redundancies, randomness helps, but on one condition: that you can benefit from the randomness more than you can be hurt by it. This is certainly the case with many engineering applications, in which tools emerge from other tools. We should be prepared for the fact that the next large technological or historical surprise (or what some people call ‘unknown unknowns’), will not resemble what we have in mind. In other words, we have to learn to be abstract, and think in second order effects rather than being anecdotal – which I show to be against human nature.

AK  These auxiliary, invisible functions of objects you talk about make me think about the surplus value, especially the surplus value of art works. I recently collaborated with Andrzej Nowak, Professor of Psychology at the University of Warsaw, who has written about extremely rare events. He often uses the example of how the idea of functional analysis emerged from the unexpected meeting in a cafe in the Polish city of Lwów in the 1920s between several mathematicians and an artist-philosopher Leon Chwistek, who explored multiple realities in his paintings. The work of this group before the World War II was more important to the development of Polish science than the millions of zlotys spent on research grants and research institutions. It’s an interesting example of how ideas appear, often accidentally, within conversations. They sometimes also remain within the space of these conversations and are never materialized, because none of the participants can claim authorship.

Occasionally these ideas result in what Brion Gysin and William Burroughs called ‘the third mind’. In some ways, art is similar to mathematics in the sense that it also creates ideas and concepts that at the moment of their discovery might not be clearly useful but that at some later point may be introduced into society and change its perspective. Art is a sort of catalyst that influences reality, but in a non-linear, unpredictable way – as a positive Black Swan. Artists should be paid not for their finished works but in advance, for tinkering and serendipity, for their conscious erring. The Bell Labs did something along these lines in 1967 when Billy Klüver, Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman were joined by John Cage and others to create E.A.T. – Experiments in Art and Technology. They bridged the gap between Dada, Fluxus, the happenings and actions of the 1960s and the generation of arts for whom multimedia is the norm.

Flying Ministry, 2010.

NT  It’s impossible to predict who will change the world, because major changes are the result of accidents and luck. But we do know who society’s winners will be: those who are prepared to face Black Swans, to be exposed to them, to recognize them when they show up and to rigorously exploit them.

AK  Do you agree that art has the power to exceed the logic of the reality we live in, and that it sometimes reaches conclusions that are absent from science and philosophy because it allows for errant thinking?Artists are ideally carrying the least cognitive baggage or preconceptions. That’s why they can be more open to positive Black Swans.

NT  Art requires a certain cognitive error. A large part of the Great Sucker Problem (GSP) is the confusion between the unobserved and the non-existent, the unproven and the erroneous. Art is an imagined one-sided conversation with the unobserved. So far I haven’t concentrated on visual art – my focus has been more on literature – but the process is similar. In the arts, Black Swan can correspond to a piece of work that, unexpectedly, captivates interests, spreads like wildfire and dwarfs other contributions. Examples include Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980), Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869), J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997–2007) and even the wild success of The Beatles. What all of  these have in common is that they were not necessarily expected to generate any meaningful interest at the time so they were ‘locally unexpected’. Marcel Proust, for instance, initially could not find a publisher for In Search of Lost Time (1913–27).

AK  Would you agree that many ideas appear in art as abstractions before they are discovered by science?

NT  Many paradigms of history, sociology and social sciences were first invented by literature. There are many zones of indiscernibility between literary and scientific paradigms. Art and literature critics tend to impart over-causative explanations after the fact. What is important are the extrinsic attributes of the work of art, as opposed to intrinsic ones. The role of these extrinsic attributes (social contagion, say, or informational cascades) implies that the piece was successful for reasons that lie outside its own qualities. This is what I call the ‘fooled by randomness’ effects of overestimating the analyzable and neglecting the non-explainable. Discoveries are possible only when individuals leap out of what is comfortable and accepted, and wander out into unknown spaces. It sometimes takes a long time for a new idea to enter society.

AK  There is a broad discussion in philosophy regarding invisible factors of reality. But what Giorgio Agamben, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt tried to diagnoze philosophically as dispersion of the ‘invisible’ power that results in average citizens having next-to-no influence on important changes in the world, you are narrowing down to nobody in the world having any power at all in light of rare events. The unobservable or invisible elements of reality are usually more important than what we can see and measure. For example, factors such as the weather or a rumour can affect the stock market or political decisions. The cloud over Iceland caused huge losses in the world economy.

NT  My core idea is about the effect of non-observables in real life.

AK  In my work I often pose the question of whether any part of reality still eludes politics. Not only is the weather unpredictable, despite the efforts of forecasters, but politics may also change the weather. Russian communists influenced the weather, ensuring sunshine for May Day parades by using cloud-busters. This year, the Russian government has spent 45 million roubles on cloud-busters for the World War II anniversary parade. China was forced to clear Beijing’s polluted sky before the Olympic games and did so by spraying gases to produce artificial, dirty, black rain. In 2007 I made Political Weather, using a special effect from a sci-fi movie – black snow falling, like a negative of reality. We are trying to manipulate every factor of reality, even the weather, but reality is uncontrollable because of extremely rare events. There is more fiction in reality than we think.

NT  People need fiction more than truth. It takes extraordinary wisdom and self-control to accept that many things have a logic we do not understand, that is smarter than our own. The tragedy is that much of what you think is random is actually in your control and, what’s worse, vice-versa.

AK  It’s crucial to understand what you have control over and what you don’t. It’s very easy to lose control in the complex system of reality but it’s interesting in relation to the content and meaning of works of art. A radical change in meaning can happen through a misunderstanding, or change of context. I’m interested in losing control over form and meaning. That’s another reason your book was crucial to me. The authors of ideas have to accept and take advantage of the loss of control. I incorporate this loss of control into many of my works. For example, Ready Unmade, which I created for Frieze Projects in 2008, was essentially three macaws that were taught to bark. The piece changed once people started talking to the birds. When the birds heard and saw the outside world, their ‘language’ was disrupted and they started to repeat other sounds. So, in a way, the piece only lasted for three days. It initially appeared as something very illogical and unusual, then revealed itself to be a language – a sort of truth – and finally it ceased to be even this. Ultimately nothing is true and nothing is false.

NT  Ferreting out antilogies is an exhilarating activity.

AK  In much of my work I have tried to imagine a logical reality different from ours; a sci-fi, schizophrenic world. I was interested in what Slavoj Žižek and Paul Virilio call ‘de-realization of reality’. I want to create fictions that will act against other fictions that we accept as reality. Many of my works function as elements which do not match the surrounding reality; they create a confusion through fiction that becomes temporarily true.

NT  Nothing is more permanent than ‘temporary’ arrangements, deficits, truces, relationships; nothing is more temporary than ‘permanent’ ones.

AK  Like the rumour of whether or not the first steps on the moon were in fact shot in Stanley Kubrick’s studio. Or like Orson Welles’ adaption of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898) as a CBS radio drama in 1938 when people briefly believed that Earth was being attacked by extra-terrestrials. Exploring delusions, illusions and confusions is essential to your work and mine. Could you elaborate on your idea of the truth being overstated, which I totally agree with and which is very relevant in terms of contemporary art and politics. Why do you use fiction in non-fiction books?

NT  We need fiction more than truth; except for a few applications, truth is rather irrelevant. Fiction is a certain packaging of the truth, or higher truths. Indeed I find that there is more truth in the writings of Proust, which are officially fictional, than in the babbling analyses of The New York Times that give us the illusion of understanding what’s going on. Newspapers have officially the right facts, but their interpretations are imaginary – and their choices of facts are arbitrary. They lie with right facts; a novelist or an artist says the truth with wrong facts. You can replace lies with truth; but myth is only displaced with a narrative.

AK  The human mind is wired for stories and has difficulties with facts and abstractions. I have often asked myself why. Wouldn’t evolution favour species that can deal with facts instead of fiction?

NT  Ideas come and go, stories stay. The narrative has aesthetic powers; it can be effectively used for the right purpose To me fiction is not about ideas. It is above ideas.

AK  I find it very significant that you use fiction to talk about very serious matters such as economy. It’s a new way of thinking and a new type of discourse. So far fiction hasn’t blended well with serious debates. Now most important economists are relating to your book, which is partly a fiction. This is really crucial to me. Many of my ideas are derived from my interest in how activities generally considered to be fictitious or paranormal are gradually being accepted as reliable sources in the political arena or in science, beyond the logic of the reality we may know. Do you think the objectivity of science is ending?

NT  No, alas, the fiction of the objectivity of science has endured the 20th century.

AK  For me, it’s very challenging to try to occupy and investigate the limits of science. My work Language is a Virus from Outer Space (2007) – a crystal plate engraved with the message ‘Wow’, received by the radio telescope ‘Big Ear’ in 1978 – was precisely about that. It referred to the limits and the solipsism of logic in human science. 

It is the best example of an extremely rare event. All accidental sources of the ‘Wow’ signal have been excluded. There are only two possible sources of the signal – either it comes from another civilization or the message was sent from Earth, then encountered some planet or object and was reflected returning to Earth and distorted to such an extent that we no longer recognize it. This shows how much ‘alien intelligence’ comes from Earth. Since science considers only repeated acts as phenomena, this single signal is useless from the point of view of scientific logic. How do you see contemporary knowledge?

NT  The error of rationalism is, simply, to overestimate the role and necessity of academic knowledge in human affairs. It is a severe error because not only much of our knowledge is not explainable, academizable, rationalizable, formalizable, theoretizable, codifiable, Sovietizable, bureaucratizable, Harvardifiable, etc. But, further, this kind of knowledge plays such a minor role in life that it is not even funny.

AK  Knowledge may not be explainable but it’s perfectly commodifiable. The utility value of knowledge though, as a commodity, can never be completely controlled or measured due to its immaterial form. What Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello have termed ‘artistic critique’ of capital has been integrated into capital itself: virtuosity, creativity and performativity are now the basis of production. The neoliberal paradigm of cognitive capitalism gets into trouble because controlled access to knowledge goods and information creates new global differences in power, new forms of resistance and subversive practices. The unknown unknown can serve to question technocratic knowledge production. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari had a concept of the ‘plurality of intelligences’ – a multitude of knowledge forms which is in opposition to the Cartesian dualism of thought and action. Knowledge in this theory is produced not merely in academic systems but rather in societal, action-oriented forms; art is referenced as being a special and interesting  mode of knowledge production that includes various cognitive, sensory and technical abilities. Badiou talks about the ‘truth-event’ which shatters the order of knowledge.

Nowadays Sarat Maharaj talks of xeno-episteme – knowledge not avoiding contradiction, xeno as strange, foreign, other or non-knowledge. This kind of anti-matter knowledge can stimulate science as being something illogical, irrational, a détournement of ready-made knowledge systems. ‘Non-knowledge’ is about generating new forms of thinking, and unknown circuits of consciousness where anything might happen. Visual arts produce this kind of non-knowledge, often on the verge of logic. Dematerialized and expended art practices intervene in many fields other than the traditional art sphere, such as politics, economy, science. These days we talk a lot about ‘super-hybridity’, in terms of artists accelerating and diversifying the number of cultural contexts they draw from. Do you think that art could change the logic of science and change the notion of knowledge in general?

NT  The field of art has become a field of possibilities, exchange and analysis. It acts as an intermediary between different fields, modes of perception and thinking as well as between different positions and subjectivities, a field for alternatives, proposals and models. Art is definitely a place where things can happen.

AK  Certain new ideas of high impact can be positive Black Swans. How do new ideas come about?

NT  Many of them are accidents. A lot of things in medicine that we thought were discovered by design in fact came about by serendipity and were dressed up later as design. The technologies that run the world today (like the Internet, the computer and the laser) are not used in the way those who invented them intended; people find what they are not exactly looking for. Even discoveries we claim come from research are themselves highly accidental. They are the result of undirected tinkering narrated after the fact, when it is dressed up as controlled research. What I call tinkering, or bricolage, is the progress coming from the second type of randomness. Our psychology conspires: people like to go to a precise destination, rather than face some degree of uncertainty, even if it’s beneficial. And research itself, the way it is designed and funded, seems to be teleological, aiming for precise results rather than looking for maximal exposures to forking avenues. Most ideas came from serendipity, and you want to maximize serendipity. Your brain is most intelligent when you don’t tell it what to do. In my next book, Tinkering, I’m calling for more bottom-up tinkering, less top-down theorizing.

AK  Artists produce dubious knowledge about knowledge’s other, the unknown unknowns of the society, its ideological unconscious, repressed knowledge. But critical intentions have their own unconscious, their own ‘unknown unknowns’. You seem very self-confident with your theory, but its logic indicates that there is also an unknown unknown, a Black Swan of the theory of rare events. There must be some exceptions to this theory, swans of colours that we don’t see with our current optical devices. A swan of colour impossible to see by human eyes, an invisible swan.

NT  Your question is what is beyond uncertainty and unpredictability?

AK  We may never learn. I like to think of conversations as invisible exhibition spaces where things happen in-between and the authorship is complex and often not trackable. So here are the surplus pages (133–4). It’s a design error that can be transformed into an extra ‘off-screen’ space, two potential pages of this conversation. We need to develop ways of thinking that contest the capitalization of time through a thinking that is unproductive rather than productive and commodifiable. Thinking is more volatile than knowledge.

NT  How long do these two pages last then?

AK  The timing can vary because it may include silence, which is impossible to write down. When we spoke for the first time, you said you would love to do something with me if it lasted no more than 30 minutes.

NT  So these are the extra 30 minutes we can add each time anew in the middle of this conversation.

AK  Yes, exactly. So it is a changing conversation, it has a mobile element.

NT  It is not an error.

AK  It is a controlled error. You talk a lot about the errors. For me sometimes errors are interesting not only because they lead to an invention or discovery, but also because with this process something valueless can suddenly be transformed into something invaluable. And in art it manifests itself interestingly through the phenomena happening to the so-called aura of art works. Some mistakes or errors become valuable; a destroyed object has more value than the same object when it was intact.

NT  Yes, we love imperfection, the right kind of imperfection; we pay up for original art and typo-laden first editions.

AK  Often, destroyed objects or things produced with errors gain more value then the flawless ones. They acquire this extra value from initially being valueless. In my current project Errorism I’m tracking different forms of errors and mistakes in the history of politics, economy, design and art that gave birth to new important things; ideas discovered ‘by accident’. In art, an interesting example is Russian artists who watched the images of Futurist art in black and white and totally loved it and were inspired by it to develop Suprematism and Constructivism, except that they didn’t totally get the point because they looked at black and white images, which inevitably changed the feeling and meaning of the original paintings. Sometimes micro-accidents can cause the system to fall apart, and sometimes they can become an important catalyst for the system to fluctuate and mutate. Very often, errors and accidents cause these creative mutations.

NT  My focus is on the errors which have results: how the way we should act is affected by things we can’t observe. Sometimes small errors pass unnoticed until the whole system crashes.

AK  I have explored how small errors can disrupt the system of the city from inside. I did a project called Lavoro Immateriale (Zero Zloty, 2009). I erased the number one on zloty coins and replaced it with a zero. The coins were dispersed in Warsaw and are now in circulation and causing confusion in the city.

NT  The city is a good place to observe non-linear phenomena because people mutually influence each other.

AK  I’ve recently been working on the phenomena of Black Swans in the city. You are stating that rare events occur and that they can disrupt our lives or complex systems of politics, economy, the city or the weather, but my point is that people actually need rare events, not only the positive Black Swans but also to some extent the negative ones as well. In our project for the Polish Pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, which is a collaboration between myself and the architect Aleksandra Wasilkowska, we are referring to both contradictory and complementary needs that people have. We have this need to feel that we are living in a system that we can trust, that there is a tomorrow, the feeling of a secured, certain future and that it’s predictable and it’s ordered. But people also have the need for wilderness, uncertainty, risk and danger.

The ‘unknown unknown’ is crucial. We can be scared of it, but imagining a totally controllable world where nothing can surprise you is even more scary. Societies need irrational factors such as rumours or urban legends. Our project for Venice is about how to integrate risk, unknown futures and unknown needs into the politics of architecture and urban planning. The reason why Black Swans are important for us in terms of the complex system of a city is because they mould public space and influence how some places become more or less popular destinations. Sometimes it’s completely irrational and illogical, because all of a sudden in a certain part of a city there is a rumour, an urban legend, a catastrophe, or something unusual, and this becomes a Black Swan and suddenly turns this place that would never be suspected of having potential into an economically or politically important part of the city. And it’s entirely unpredictable. So our piece for the Polish Pavilion is a kind of portable hole, a machine to perforate the system and to open up to the ‘unknown unknown’. Namely it’s a hybrid structure between a ski jump and a diving board with a hole-window at the top through which the visitors can jump out into the sea of clouds they see beneath, not knowing what they are going to fall on. It’s developing Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void (1960) into a fictional urban sport.

The city dwellers often give vent to their need of risk and desire for the ‘unknown unknown’ during urban exploration – going to catastrophe sites, ruins, abandonments, subterranean tunnels etc. All these places, often created through a rumour, often attract more people then places planned by architects as public squares. Even after the catastrophe in Smolensk, people are now organizing tours to see the site of the crash. This kind of dark energy gathers pace like snowball. Having perfect control of urban transformation seems impossible because of Black Swans which make deterministic methods of planning the city ineffective. The growth of urban tissue is nonlinear and we can’t predict it. Architecture should develop dynamic strategies and porous structures that can incorporate and absorb unknown mutations, unexpected needs and self-organisation. And rare events may actually aid the city to organically develop.

NT  Cities are a good example of complexity. Consider their logic: how did Rome, with a population of 1.2 million in the first century AD, end up with a population of 12,000 in the third? How did Baltimore, once a principal American city, become a relic? How did Philadelphia come to be overshadowed by New York?

AK  Can you tell me more about the idea of silent evidence or silent heroes in terms of intellectual production?

NT  Much of the analyses and explanations of the success (and attention) usually focus on the piece itself taken in isolation – the critics usually fail to include the losers, the ‘cemetery’ of unpublished, unexhibited or forgotten works which I call ‘silent evidence’. Often the failures have the same ‘qualities’ attributable to the winner, but these are concealed and hidden, tucked away from the observer’s scrutiny. There is a similarity between the exaggerated attention given to a particular oeuvre and the financial bubble dynamics that constitute the core pathology of the capitalistic system – indeed every single model of fads and mania can be mapped to its equivalent in intellectual and artistic appreciation. The occurrence of the winner-take-all effect in any form of intellectual production has been accelerating along with the speed of reproduction and communications. This seems to have started with the alphabet. The Phoenicians invented the alphabet but apparently did not produce any literature. Commentators state that their race and culture was more interested in commerce than story-telling. Is it true or could it be that their works have been destroyed and we got someone else’s literature? The chains of cause and effect that were seen by commentators concerning the attributes of the Phoenicians and the resulting literary expressions are distorted – but distorted in a systematic way: they overestimate causation and the neglect of silent evidence. Consider the thousands of writers and artists who have now completely vanished from our consciousness: their record did not enter analyses. We do not see the tonnes of rejected manuscripts because these have never been published. To understand successes, the study of traits in failure need to be present. Any form of analysis of art that does not take into account the silent initial population becomes close to pure verbiage.

AK  You once compared it to the idea of unread books.

NT  You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we also have to stand knowledge itself on its head. Note that the Black Swan comes from our misunderstanding of the likelihood of surprises, those unread books, because we take what we know a little too seriously.

AK  I’m now working on a Phantom Library project with imaginary books by different authors. Many writers – the most obvious examples are Laurence Sterne, Jorge Luis Borges, Stanislaw Lem, Italo Calvino, Philip K. Dick – describe these phantom books within their books. So I’m now realizing this library of fictional books as physical things, as an installation. If there are any fictional books in your writings I can also include them.

NT  I could give them to you in our extra 30-minute conversation.

Agnieszka Kurant is an artist who lives in Warsaw, Poland. She is interested in the ways in which 'trying to interpret the world logically can lead us to experience a fictional version of reality'. Her work often changes and dissapears after it has been created. Kurant is representing Poland (with Aleksandra Wasilkowska) at the 12th Venice Architecture Biennale, which runs until 21 November.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a Lebanese-born essayist, scholar and former Wall Street trader. He is best known for his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007, revised and completed 2010) in which he expounded his 'Theory of Black Swan Events', an exploration of the cultural and social role of high-impact, hard-to-predict and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectation. Taleb is Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University's Polytechnic Institute and a visiting professor at the London Business School, where he runs experiments on the cognitive errors in the estimation of 'Black Swan Events'.