The Planetarium

Black Shoals Stock Market Planetarium is an art project created by Joshua Portway and Lise Autogena.

The project takes the form of a darkened room with a domed ceiling upon which a computer display is projected, like a planetarium. Audiences are immersed in a world of real-time stock market activity, represented as the night sky, full of stars that glow as trading takes place on particular stocks.

In Black Shoals each traded company is represented by a star, flickering and glowing as shares are traded. The stars slowly drift in response to the complex currents of the market, while outlining shapes of different industries and the huge multinational conglomerates like the signs of the zodiac. The movement of the stocks is based on calculated correlations between the histories of each stock and those of its near neighbours. The stronger the correlation between the histories of the stock prices of any two companies, the more powerful the gravitational attraction between them. Although they start out randomly distributed in the planetarium, over time the stars clot together and drift into slowly changing constellations, nebulae and clusters. Through this technique different industries naturally start to emerge as galaxies. Any general disturbance in a section of the market will have a visible effect on the sky – the collapse of Enron, for instance, would have caused a sort of black hole - all the companies affected would glow very brightly due to the level of trading and would be pulled in to a single point in a very powerful vortex.


Within this environment, a complex ecology of glowing amoeba-like “artificial life” creatures emerge. The creatures live in a world composed entirely of money and they feed on trading activity. Whenever a stock is traded its’ equivalent star produces food for the creatures – the bigger the trade, the more food is produced. For these creatures the heaves and surges of the world economy are like Earths’ tectonic plates. Just as humans are only aware of the constantly shifting and unstable plates that make up the earths crust under our feet when there’s an earthquake or volcanic eruption, the creatures have no way of knowing what lies “underneath” their world – they only know that sometimes there are explosions of money and sometimes there are famines.

Every creature has a unique 'DNA' code that determines its bodily structure and behaviour - a genetic program. Over time evolutionary pressures will tend to breed successive generations of creatures that will be better at coping with the conditions in the strange world that they inhabit. A time of slow trading will be a difficult time for the creatures as they desperately search out any signs of food. During these times of famine many of the creatures may die of starvation. The creatures who survive will be those who's behaviour and knowledge about their world allows them to find food more easily. The final results of this process are impossible to predict, but we can guess at the likely course of evolution. It's likely that early on creatures will develop simple “beliefs” about the world - for instance, that a stock which is proving fruitful today will probably also produce food tomorrow. Later, more sophisticated behaviour may emerge, for instance some creatures will probably develop "grazing" techniques - based on the belief that similar stocks (those in the immediate vicinity) will be behaving similarly. Still more sophisticated models may develop - such as the ability to recognise periodic movements or patterns of cause and effect. Predators and parasites may eventually develop, perhaps even "farmers". The possible range of creatures is very wide - maybe a shark-like species of creatures will develop, that can swim very fast to pick up flashes of food as soon as they appear. Maybe large slow moving creatures will be better able to survive the cycles of glut and famine, of population explosion and crash. Most likely a combination of different forms of life will develop to fill different ecological niches: lots of small fast scavengers able to survive on little flashes of food, and a few larger, slower, more heavily defended creatures that will be able to monopolise a consistent source of food, and a few predator creatures that cruise the space looking for easy prey. As successive generations of creatures evolve to adapt to their surroundings they form models of their universe that will help them survive and predict the changing seasons that wash through their world. The evolution of the creatures is open ended and we have no idea how sophisticated they may become – perhaps eventually creatures may evolve who will attempt to predict where the trading will occur before it happens.

The creatures evolve from first principles, so the ones that are released into the world when the system is first switched on can’t even move - they just shiver hopelessly and then die. During the Tate Gallery exhibition, the first creatures that were able to move appeared after a couple of days, and after three months a wide range of species developed in the dome - from some very sophisticated creatures that actively search for food using primitive "eyes", to other which "hibernate" until food passes by then spring to life and swarm over it, and others which are unable to move but simply spawn thousands of offspring and literally "throw" them in all directions in the hope that one of them lands on a source of food.



“Black Shoals” Stock Market Planetarium was originally designed to be installed in a restaurant next door to the London Stock Exchange. Our idea was that traders would be able to eat underneath the dome – that it would be a kind of ironic “Mount Olympus” from which they would be able to look down and oversee their creation during their lunch time. Of course, this was 1998, and the myth of the dot com boom was at it’s peak. Times have changed, the world has also changed – and many new layers and meanings have accreted around the project. This web site is intended to reflect this evolving nature of the project. As the Planetarium moves around the world geographically, we hope that this site will function as a constantly evolving archive of the many meanings, thoughts and translations that it gathers along the way.

The planetarium responds within a second or so to any stock trade taking place anywhere in the world, so if one of the stars flickers slightly you know that someone, somewhere has probably just spent several million pounds. Immediacy means power in the world of money, which is why the real-time information used in Black Shoals requires security clearance from the New York Stock exchange even though the information is only valuable for a few seconds. After a minute or two it's worthless. The dome attempts to recall the feeling of the panopticon, that all this information and power gathered from around the world has been focussed in the room. We’re interested in the double effect this has – the feeling of power accompanied by the vertiginous feeling of powerlessness when confronted by such overwhelming amounts of information. We wanted to explore the aesthetics of information - this feeling of the sublime that accompanies such visualisations of huge quantities of information (from medieval maps of the world to representations of the human genome) - where that beauty comes from and why people desire it.


The title of “Black Shoals” (a “Shoal” is a large group of fish swimming together) refers to the “Black Scholes” formula, a mathematical formula invented in the seventies by three young mathematicians (Fisher Black, Myron Scholes and Robert Merton) that won them the Nobel Prize for economics. The formula attempts to accurately estimate the current value of a share option, and thereby reduce the risk of investing. Based on the formula Myron Scholes and Robert Merton set up a company called "Long Term Capital Management" which was spectacularly successful. It collapsed equally spectacularly in 1998, and with more than a trillion dollars invested, it nearly brought the US markets down with it. There are many theories about the cause of the crash, but the main reason seems to be that their formula had no self-reflexiveness - they didn't take into account their own impact on the market. For instance, because they were so successful, other investors would copy what they were investing in, which led to a kind of "feedback effect" often seen in biological systems. This kind of effect is often the precursor to chaos in complexity theory, and the company had to ride closer and closer to this edge of chaotic collapse. In the end they lost a billion dollars in two days, when everything finally did collapse. We saw this story as a kind of Icarus parable for those attempting to control complex systems.

The year of the collapse of Long Term Capital Management, 1998, was also the year when we first started to develop the Black Shoals Stock Market Planetarium. When we started we understood almost nothing about the world of the stock market. Watching the news we would hear that the FTSE100 had slipped today, and we knew that meant bad things would happen in the future, but the connections were invisible and mysterious, like the forces the ancient Babylonians thought were exerted on our lives by the stars of the zodiac. These were the times of the boom and the height of media interest in all things stock market related – a time where the market was often equated to a kind of ecosystem with a life of its own, and where the internal dynamics of the markets appeared to be more important than its’ ties to the real world. “New Economics” was predicated on this idea that somehow the concept of money and the system of the market had finally transcended its’ origins in the flesh and blood world of human labour. So, Black Shoals was designed as a kind of parody of the trading desk of the übermensch - the Mount Olympus from which they would survey their creation.

Because the stock market has the kind of cybernetic properties of biological systems and other complex phenomena (feedback loops etc.), it can be studied in the same was as biological systems. This tends to give rise to a sense that the market is somehow a "natural" expression of some fundamental forces. One of the lessons we learned in our long journey to understand something about the operations of big finance is that the market is only a natural expression of the particular artificial world model that it embodies - in the same way that the artificial life creatures in Black Shoals Stock Market Planetarium are natural expressions of the computer program that they exist in.


While developing the project we were approached by hundreds of interested specialists from all over the world, from many different research areas, professions, institutions, companies, political convictions and cultural backgrounds.

We initially set up thematic discussions around the project on our developer website where many contributed ideas on how to develop the project. Based on these discussions we invited a group of nine artificial life researchers to join us for a weekend brainstorming at the musician Peter Gabriel’s Realworld Studios, near Bath in England. The outcome of this weekend worked as the backbone for the implementation of the project. Based on our original ideas and the research of English Alife researcher Cefn Hoile, we defined the first sketch ideas for the design of the ALife and the architecture of the system.

It became necessary to develop collaboration strategies and collaboration software in order to coordinate the many people who advised us and worked on the project, as well as the large community of interest that built up around it. The programming of the first stage of the project took most of a year, and was carried out by a network of programmers who developed the project over the internet. Since mid 2003 we started work on the second stage of development, with a much larger projection system, constellations and improvements to the ALife creatures. In 2015 we started developing the third iteration of the project: Black Shoals; Dark Matter.