In the second part of the ART x RESEARCH x SCIENCE series, Heather Barnett talks us through her practice and helps us discover what it means to work with intelligent organisms or collaborate with nature.
Introducing: Heather Barnett
Heather Barnett’s art practice engages with natural phenomena, complex systems and biological design. Working with live organisms and imaging technologies, her work explores how we observe, influence and understand the world around us. Projects include microbial portraiture, cellular wallpapers, performing cuttlefish, and an ongoing ‘collaboration’ with an intelligent slime mould, Physarum polycephalum.
She is Pathway Leader on the MA Art and Science at Central Saint Martins (University of the Arts London) and chairs London LASER art and science talks.
Interdisciplinary by Nature
The MA Art and Science is an interdisciplinary studio programme recruiting students from diverse backgrounds across the arts and sciences. The course interrogates the meeting points between the two disciplines. My own practice is very much akin to those territories in between - art and science are often seen as polar opposites as modes of inquiry. There are clearly differences, but there are many similarities too… they are both concerned with observation, interrogation and experimentation. Both aim at increasing our understanding of the world we live in, but through different lenses. These connections and the collisions are where the interesting questions lie - and help avoid getting stuck in disciplinary habits.
As a child, I would stop and watch ants during family walks, much to their annoyance. I have always been interested in natural systems and phenomena - the things that are overlooked. Many artists who are interested in biology and living systems seem motivated to uncover what we might not notice in everyday lives, by taking something that is ignored and amplifying it - giving it new status. I was never interested in going down the route of a scientific education, but was always interested in how things work, what happens under the skin, below ground, out of sight. The first 'art & science' project I did was in a hospital twenty years ago. I was following the medical journey, as samples taken from patients were sent to laboratories to be analysed. I became interested in the fragility of identity within a medical setting, and how it might be fragmented through this journey from the ward to the laboratory. I also grew interested in microbiology and how you can create or influence a certain environment and have biological material respond in different ways. That is how I started using biological material, initially in a painterly way combining agars to encourage the growth of different organisms cultured from my skin - something a scientist wouldn't normally do. I worked in collaboration with George Hounsome at the Whittington Hospital, a microbiologist who was happy to explore beyond set protocols and when asked 'What happens if we do this?’, said 'I don't know, let's find out'. For cross-disciplinary exploration to work, you need both the artist and the scientist to be prepared to leave their comfort-zone.
The MA Art and Science is the first course of its kind, but I hope is now part of a wider broadening of disciplinary enquiry, some refer to this period as entering a post-disciplinary era. World problems are so complex that they can no longer be examined by just one discipline; different mind-sets need to address this complexity, providing multiple perspectives. There is also an increased desire to enter other territories. Some 'disciplinary silos' within institutions have been setup over a long period of time, so they might be difficult to dismantle - but increasingly, universities are breaking down those barriers, offering more liberal art and science degrees. Also, research funding acknowledges the benefit of cross-disciplinary approaches, as does the creative industry, asking for breadth-and-depth in graduates, without over-specialisation. Of course, we still need specialisation too, it is not one thing or another. You need someone to delve deep and someone to connect the dots. But flexibility in thinking and the ability to communicate across disciplinary divides will become increasingly important.
There are many ways in which creative practices can engage with science. Whether it is a subject matter that inspires and informs artwork, or appropriating processes and adopting scientific methods, or working directly with biological materials.
My background is firmly within the arts - primarily photographic arts, though also working with other media including film, animation, sculpture, installation, sound - plus performance and participatory practices. My practice focuses on working with living dynamic systems - that could be a group of people, a process, a single-celled organism, or a colony of ants. I’m interested in setting the conditions for something– a response, a behaviour – and then watching what happens and intervening. It becomes a two-way process, a feedback loop between me and the system I’m working with. I’m not in control of what emerges.
Much of my current work engages with slime mould. This might be something the general public is not really aware of, yet it is an extraordinary organism that has generated a global community of slime mould researchers and enthusiasts.
What is so special about it? It is an intelligent single-celled organism. It has no brain, no central nervous system, no sensory organs, a very basic structure... yet it can do clever things. It can solve mazes, anticipate events, it has some capacity to learn and to remember - with no hardware to apparently support these functions. So, it does a lot of things we assume is due to brain function, but with no brain. That’s why a lot of people are intrigued by it – exploring how it can do these things.
I first stumbled upon the slime mould through the creative microbiologist, Simon Park, a prolific explorer who works a lot with artists and runs a great blog called 'Exploring the Invisible'. I first met him when I visited his lab in 2008, he showed me bacterial paintings he had done with the artist Jo Wonder, using different bacterial pigments. As I was leaving, he gave me a petri dish with a yellow blob in it and suggested I might like to play with it: “It likes it dark and damp, and it eats oats.” And that was it. I took it home and observed it as it grew, started taking time-lapse studies and started to uncover some of the fascinating research linked with this little organism.
There are over seven-hundred known species of slime mould. The one I work with is called Physarum polycephalum. In nature, you would normally find it feeding on decaying vegetation, but as a model organism there are so many people from different backgrounds asking questions of it. I love how this little organism is encapsulating human curiosity, in a way becoming a metaphor for processes of enquiry. It is also a living material. As I work with it I have to negotiate with it - I can't control what it does. I work with it in mainly two ways: I explore its growth formation to produce visuals, but also use it as a metaphor to investigate ideas around different systems of cooperation and intelligence.
There are particular growth behaviours: for example, when looking for food it branches out – the kind of patterning we see in all scales and forms in nature: i.e. river deltas, blood vessels, lightning strikes, trees and roots. It has a familiar aesthetic. So, for me slime mould is a beautiful growth machine, and what I try to do is to influence it. My first experiment was to try and make it draw, but I soon realised that it would not perform for me; I can only manipulate its environment and try to influence its behaviour through introducing substances it likes or dislikes (it loves oats but hates lemon and salt), or positioning lights along its path (it prefers the dark). Essentially, it's about testing the behaviour of this biological creature as an image-making partner. We can’t really call it a ‘collaboration’ because I am utilising it and it’s not exactly choosing to work with me, but I do feel it is a labour of love, I need to take care of my studio pet - it's nomadic and needs to move house on a weekly basis and needs to be fed. I keep it in petri dishes in shoe boxes in my studio and make it porridge.
There is a growing trend of DIY biology and kitchen experiments. You can buy a Physarium Culture Kit from a biological supplier - it would have everything you need to get started and many protocols are available online for you to do things safely. Or you can try foraging... which can be fun.
I set up a network called The Slime Mould Collective - Slimoco for short. There is a connection between how slime mould works and how the world-wide web operates; they are both emergent systems with multiple interactions and no overarching control mechanisms. I decided to create the online network, not advertise it at all, and see what happened. Over time, as an 'International network of/for intelligent organisms', it has grown into a global resource for this community.
Quite a few interesting collaborations have come out of Slimoco, including a documentary feature called The Creeping Garden, which is about slime mould and those who work with it. It includes scientists, roboticists, musicians - there is a composer doing a duet with the slime mould - and myself. The organism has a natural pulsing rhythm, which is essentially where its intelligence lies: the vein-like structure carries a signal back and forth, which is visible under a microscope. The musician, Eduardo Miranda, hooked it up to some electrodes to extract this signal that would play a note on a piano. He would then play a note back, effectively playing a duet: translating vibrations between him and the slime mould.
Another way I work is by looking at slime mould as a metaphor for communication systems. It is many cells working together as one single entity. As a species, we humans are not very good at that – acting as a collective and being cooperative. So, I think there is a lot we can learn from this tiny little thing. This ‘lesson’ mostly happens in the form of workshops, where visitors are invited to either play directly with their own colony of slime mould, or to behave like slime moulds. I have worked in hack-spaces, community labs, science festivals and arts events, for example Genspace in New York, the first community laboratory outside of academia.
In the Being Slime Mould experiment, I focus on the behavioural aspects and non-verbal forms of communication as a group of people try to follow slime mould rules. I set them a task to do or a problem that they have to solve, like navigating their environment, but not like humans... as a mass super-cell, as one organism. And that is really challenging! You have to keep physically connected (without holding hands), as part of a mass-cell. You can't speak and have to communicate through vibrations. So, part of the scope is learning about this organism, but it's also an improvisation workshop, a means of creatively embodying nonhuman behaviours. It is not a hypothesis-driven experiment but very much an empirical, artistic exploration. Of course, in the best-case scenario we are going to make a poor impersonation of slime mould, as humans we are far too complex. But it's about exploration and investigation: about shifting our own subjective position and trying to move beyond anthropomorphic views of nature. The experiments sometimes involve four hundred people and usually end in chaos, but we always close the session with a discussion and participants make observations about how they responded to the task. It usually generates incredible insights, as people interpret in from their individual background: a psychologist might focus on the range of human behaviours, an urban planner on ideas for social agency… One of the most satisfying events was a Financial Times conference in Mayfair, where everything was very corporate and 'suit-y'. I was worried that they wouldn’t engage, but they really went for it, networking between giant oats. In this setting I focused on social systems and hierarchical structures within organisations, so they tuned into that discussion. It's a very malleable metaphor - something you can relate to in many different ways.
Exploring the Boundaries
Some of the work I do could be classified as conventional 'artwork', intended for a gallery exhibition, but I also use artistic methods to explore biological processes. I see part of my practice as creating an experience for people through playful, exploratory, and creative experimentation, taking inspiration from the biological world. Participatory practice may seem different from what people might imagine to be an 'academic route', but there are many theoretical concerns which can be explored through playful exploration. I am interested in questions related to non-verbal communication, embodied cognition, group dynamics, and social behaviour.
Sometimes my work can be difficult to talk about in relation to research. It borrows from science, from art, from social practice, and is very hands on. Academic research within the arts can be a nebulous grey area. In the arts, people talk about 'practice', which is what they do: painting a picture or getting people to behave like slime mould. Academic research is traditionally considered to be more scholarly and embedded within theories, philosophies, histories - a written enquiry. Lots of arts and design practices fall somewhere in-between; they are not conventionally academic and try to break conventions rather than reach consensus.
As an artist, I can run an experiment that is absurd and playful, but can also bring theoretical questions to it or write about it from a theoretical point of view.
However, to me it is important that I am not over-theorising what I am doing in practice. It comes from and is well grounded in a theoretical basis - but I still have artistic license to be open and exploratory. What matters is the enquiry, rather than the expected format. It may be easier for other disciplines which have a more rigid framework for research - the scientific method is very robust and there is very little room to deviate from it. In the context of arts universities – artistic research methods are in themselves difficult to define, art constantly tries to reinvent itself and does not try to reach a 'consensus' in the same way that scientific knowledge is formed. The institutionalisation of arts has shifted towards the academic, we are not an ‘art school’ anymore, but an ‘art university’ - and therefore we have adopted the academic model. This can be hard for researchers/practitioners whose work is into conventionally scholarly, at some point you have to translate what you do to fit into that model. It is not easy and it’s not straight-forward. A more interesting way of approaching it would be to ask what research actually means within the arts and to redefine a framework from that basis, rather than simply imposing a conventional scholarly model on something which doesn’t easily fit - which is what we do at the moment.
Some of the work I do could be deemed as research, some as practice. For me, the two are intertwined - there is not one without the other. What I do is grounded in theoretical discourse, but it embraces play, interaction, co-creation and serendipity as valid methods of enquiry. Often an output or an outcome cannot be defined beforehand - which creates a particular contradiction. Like many artists, I often work in an open-ended way. Research questions, however, are expected to be clearly defined with prescribed methods and approaches. There is a tension with overly predefining outcomes. I am interested in emergent processes of observing, learning, responding and understanding – this is after all the basis of empiricism.
If we go back to the Renaissance, there was no notion of art or science as we now know them, all enquiry came under the banner of 'natural philosophy'. Leonardo Da Vinci is an exemplary model of someone who would utilise diverse modes of enquiry - including spending hours observing the movement of water in streams with the same scrutiny he would use to depicts curls of an old man’s beard. His sketchbooks show a shift in gaze from one form to another. He was also looking at natural mechanisms as a source of inspiration for human invention, translating birds wings to flying machines, combining the thinking of an artist, an anatomist and an engineer. He was a true polymath, not only observing what existed but also looking at what could become. Today, terms like 'art' and 'science, 'research' and 'practice', are often defined separately. But really the important thing in art, in research and in education is curiosity and enquiry; how we observe, understand, interpret and invent.
Education has a responsibility here. A lot of interdisciplinary, thematic and integrated approaches occur at primary school, children looking at, say, the Egyptians connecting history, geography, architecture, engineering, sociology, ritual, costume, religion, gender, etc. In secondary school, however, we start being pushed towards mono-disciplinary pathways, based on the idea that you should be more specialist-orientated. So, you get carved-off as either an art or a science person and your view becomes progressively narrow. In our current education system, curiosity has little validity, with a focus on exam results. It becomes more difficult to see the connections between what you are studying and the world around us.
Here on MA Art and Science, we tend to get the students that were frustrated by that system - the ones that wanted to do chemistry and art and geography, but felt pushed in one direction.
What I try to do in my teaching and in my art, is to encourage people to look at things in diverse ways. Otherwise as humans, we often forget to look, to appreciate, to ask questions and to wonder.
Images courtesy Heather Barnett
Twitter - @HeatherABarnett