Hello Fungus

By Carla Rapoport October 15, 2018

Artists use all kinds of materials to make their art but slime mould, it’s fair to say, isn’t normally among them. What about a slime-based artwork that tweets from its own twitter account? The answer has to be ditto.


One of the real pleasures of the Lumen Prize is that each year, a project no one could have possibly dreamed up arrives as an entry and makes it all the way through to the awards night. I’m particularly happy to report that this year’s winner of Lumen’s BCS Artificial Intelligence Award is one of those projects, one that joyfully pushes the boundaries of artistic expression into pastures new.


 Degenerative Cultures isn’t easy to explain but hang it there because it’s a mind-blowingly elegant work with real import. In essence, it is a bio-digital hybrid in which living organisms, social networks and Artificial Intelligence are stitched together by the artists in an effort to undermine the human impulse to master nature.


Dreamed up by the talented Brazilian multimedia artist Cesar Baio and effervescent Lucy HG Solomon of the League of Imaginary Scientists (Lois) – who rallied artist Jeremy Speed Schwartz (also in Lois) and biologist Scott Morgans to join their efforts – the project essentially destroys books that deal with the human desire to control nature, using them as food for a colony of microorganisms.


Brian Runciman, Head of Content for the BCS – Chartered Instituted for IT, which sponsors the prize, and who served as a first-round judge, comments: “Often the most interesting work comes at the borders between disciplines. This is a witty discourse of modern disciplines with a huge satirical potential.”



“The world began with microbes and may end with them. But they won’t be alone.” comments Danielle Siembieda, Managing Director, Leonardo/ISAST and another first-round Lumen judge. This work addresses a critical area in A.I. and the modern Anthropocene age. If we create machines to augment intelligence – or perhaps replace it -how will it collaborate with microbial and other metamorphic systems?”



Here’s how it works:


In the installation of the work, a computer is set up next to the book being devoured by live fungi. An intelligent digital ‘fungus’ searches the internet and corrupts texts with the same predatory intent as the slime mould. These two systems, one organic and the other digital, communicate through a digital interface created by the artists. The digital fungus integrates Artificial Intelligence and generative algorithms (based on processes of growth of living organisms) with a Twitter bot, allowing anyone to interact with the system and help to destroy the texts. The readouts from the consumption of the book and the digital database are visible in the twitter feed of @HelloFungus and printed out on a thermal printer near the book.


And here’s the fun part – viewers can interact with the digital fungus on twitter, helping to spread “digital spores.” You couldn’t really make this up, could you?


But the aesthetic is important too, as Cesar explains: “Physarum polycephalum literally grows over the pages of the book and tweets what it ‘reads.’ It manages this because the slime’s growth feeds an algorithm linked to natural language analysis.”



Slime with a Purpose



Why Slime? These basic micro-organisms are very flexible and can be taught to grow just about anywhere, Lucy explains. “And by combining digital and living systems, we examine and challenge the technologies we use, because these networks shape our social interactions. What would happen if our technology worked in the same way as nature?”


Cesar comments: “How can we respond to a historical moment in which the symbolic and physical existence of humanity is challenged both by both climate change and A.I.? Through ‘Degenerative Cultures,’ we’re suggesting the need for a non human-centered mindset. Perhaps we should be less human.”


Slime mould, he continues, is a very ancient kind of intelligence, a pre-human intelligence. “But we are combining this intelligence with A.I. which is a post-human intelligence, so we are putting together this pre and post human into conversation with us to rethink what humanity can be.”


Lucy continues: “So much of our logic is based on trying to organise nature and not embracing it. This project is very much about opening up and reorienting our logic systems to this organic growth.


Amazing, right? If you want to know more, check out their website here. The work caused quite a stir when it was shown at  Brighton Digital Festival and we look forward to hosting it again in future Lumen events. In the meantime, the slime continues to eat away at human texts and you can follow its progress @hellofungus.




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