Monthly Spotlight: Becoming-Other, Becoming-Slime

Charlie Mills
Feral Horses | Blog
7 min readSep 11, 2017

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From Slime-Mould to Silicone Valley, a look at the art of Jenna Sutela.

In a competition to best optimise Tokyo’s railway network, pitted against a vast team of Japanese experts from the fields of engineering and design, who would you choose to help win the project?

I choose a piece of mould.

Physarum poluycephalum to be precise. This single-celled collective organism — or slime mould — given its favoured environment — dark, wet and concealed from light, with plenty of bacteria and fungal spores to munch on — will ooze and promulgate its dendritic body in a garish, toxic yellow. And whilst possessing absolutely no brain, nervous system or any means of centralised regulatory function, displays a resounding capacity for intelligent behaviour.

The worming blob of cytoplasm grows and extends as individual spores merge from their molecular to molar aggregate through an unpredictable and entirely environmental set of sensory-feedback loops. Through some sense of extracellular spatial-intelligence — “a kind of living hard drive”[1] — individual amoebas are directed toward one another and synergise into an amorphous, unicellular whole. It then engulfs bacteria and other microbiotic prey into its cell membrane and secrets enzymes to digest them.

Physarum, whilst having been previously lumped into the fungal taxonomical camp, has now been classified as a Protist, a special place reserved for those biological anomalies that are at the “odds and ends of the natural world [and] don’t fit in with the rest of our taxonomic grouping system.”[2] Arriving on the Earth a good billion years ago, this slime is perhaps the most resilient and hardy of terrestrial species, coagulating into a hardened sclerotium under adverse environmental factors, or else deploying an army of haploid spores, both of which under more favourable, moist conditions will deliquesce back to its active, plasmodium vitality. In other words… its immortal.

For a few months or so back in the early 2000s, nature and technology columnists were captivated by the work of Japanese researcher Toshiyuki Nakagaki. Along with his team of microbiologists, Nakagaki placed some Poluycephalum inside a labyrinthine structure with some crumbs of oatmeal at different ends. Almost intuitively, and with a precision and speed that most humans would doubtful replicate, the slime mould managed to established the shortest and most efficient tubular network possible from one piece of food to the other, it’s tendrils of protoplasm slithering into dead ends and back out of them, hunting for its meal.

In a second experiment, with the grains placed in the approximate location of Tokyo and its neighbouring 36 towns, the rhizomatic slime produced a cartography remarkably similar to the existing railway network. One which, it has been remarked, unaffected by political biases, could actually be more efficient, cost less, and be more fault-tolerant that the current one. Indeed, the logistical genius of this mould has been extended in similar experiments to road networks in both the United Kingdom and the Iberian Peninsula.

Even more bizarrely, the mould has shown signs of memory. In a controlled environment, Physarum has been proven to anticipate and react to set-interval environmental changes, and has also been shown to exhibit a rudimentary form of learning called ‘habituation’: upon encountering a bitter but harmless substance in its path to a food source, whilst originally met with hesitation, the slime mould would eventually begin to pour over the substance with increasing determination, forgetting and re-learning this information with different time-frames of exposure. More recently, it has even been used to control robot facial expressions.

Learning without a brain, storing without a memory, cognition without a thought.

For the last few years, Finnish artist Jenna Setula has spent her time observing and researching this curious specimen. As for all of its primitivism, this alluring slime poses lots of interesting questions for both biological and computational science — the current development of ‘soft robotics’ — robots that function through ‘genetic’ algorithms, adapting and learning through real-time feedback-loops — have been greatly inspired by these decentralised organisms (in fact, a research group based in Japan actually named one of their soft-bodied robots, ‘Slimey’). And it is generally thought that the combination of variable, morphological feedback-systems, coupled with Big Data information-technologies, will be the foreseeable future of artificial intelligence.

Now, whilst it is quite easy to jump to the recognisable An/Com political considerations of an organism, that through a decentralised, lateral and rhizomatic ‘network’ of nuclei within the aggregate whole, exhibits extraordinary capacities for long-term species perpetuation, meticulous and efficient energy consumption (with further complex nutrition equilibration), and predictive ecological planning. It is important to remember, however, that the current impasses of neoliberal co-optation have led to a jettisoning of such naïve proclamations of messianic technological and deterritorialized affirmation.

Faced with the endless swamp of digital content, the bottom-up structures of ‘hip’ corporations that function through a horizontal ‘collaboration’ of semi-autonomous agents — all responsible and determined to optimise their own intellectual and affective labour — and the increasing hyper-connectivity of life — where the unemployed are told to upload their CV to LinkedIn for better business opportunities, and through which “new geopolitical forms parasitize the traditional geometries of state sovereignty”[3] — it is no wonder that these examples of micro-biology lack a certain political poignancy.

Fortunately, I don’t think that is the point the Sutela is trying to make.

Her ongoing series on the life-form is centred around the working title Orgs — Organisation, Organism, Orgasm — and hosts an array of petri-dishes, yellow slime, performances and technological charts. One of its latest iterations, taking place last year at the Future Gallery in Berlin, was her work Orbs (2016). Housed in the gallery’s dark and murky basement, three transparent orbs were lit up with infrared tubes, illuminating the tenebrous maze of glass conduits that Setula’s Physarum crawled through. Each orb contained its own individual design, from a 3D model of an early 20th century Japanese charcoal drawing — a supposed map of the limits of anthropocentric knowledge, made by a royal naturalist who collected slime moulds — to an example of blockchain technology and a Holocratic organisational chart.

Even more recently, at the Centre Pompidou last spring, Sutela inhaled some of the slime mould before conducting a peformative reading, as if the organism were hacking and programming her speech itself — a ‘becoming-slime’. In reference to her titular semiotics, she explained the words’ connotative links: “Orgasms may induce a brief loss or weakening of consciousness, la petite mort. According to Professor Nakagaki, by focusing on the level of unconsciousness, we may find clues to the similarities between the information processing of humans and other forms of organic and synthetic life. […] Artificial intelligence has been trapped on the level of consciousness for too long.”

Now, while this may seem like a rather vogue techno-lusting for non-human cognition, I would suggest that Sutela’s sensibility is a little closer to that of Rachel Pimm’s in her 2015 performance at the Chisenhale Gallery, London. In that performance, Pimm, using similar semiotic playfulness, explored the taxonomical etymology of the worm, through an assemblage of agencies from entropic subterranean annelids, to architectures of cerebral activity: “Vermin? Worm. Or Verm? Vermi? Vermis — the Latin worm, the ancient, original worm, or the cerebral neural worm-shaped pathways that carries the sense of what one’s own body is, alongside and in relation to, and touching neighbouring things. Like a direct wormhole to stuff, to other matter.”

Similar to Pimm, Sutela is bringing attention to the other-worldliness of the assemblages and systems of knowledge that humans are always-already enmeshed within. Recent developments in materialist posthuman philosophies have called attention to the myriad ways in which autopoietic, intensive assemblages of species and nonhuman actants co-constitute life. For example, it has been proven that Omega-3 fatty acids help improve human moods, combats stress and depression, and increase female libido. That gut bacteria influence infant brain development, viruses make up about 5% of the human genome, and that quantum mechanics is responsible for a robin’s navigational systems, photosynthesis and all the world’s enzyme systems.

Amongst all of this, the world simply gets weirder and weirder, and the interplay of forces that shape it — human, bacterial, geological, divine — converge and unravel, full of relentless production and bottomless entropy. The ecology of species, bodies and affects, of computers and algorithms, all radically inter-connected and co-dependant. For all of our cosmic dreams of life beyond this earth, perhaps we should start by considering all things alien, right beneath our noses.

[1] Jamie Sutcliffe, ‘Jenna Setula: Nam-Gut,’ Art Monthly 408 (2017): 31

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/19846365

[3] https://frieze.com/article/other-minds

Written by Charlie Mills

Writer and Curator based in South London

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