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Copyright 2011

Allison Kudla
In presenting this dissertation in partial fulllment of the requirements
for the doctoral degree at the University of Washington, I agree that the
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Biological Systems Art:
Artistic Research into the Algorithms of Living Systems

Allison Kudla
A dissertation
submitted in partial fulllment of the
requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
University of Washington
Program Authorized to Offer Degree:
Digital Arts and Experimental Media
List of Figures ...................................................................................................................... ii
Introduction ......................................................................................................................... 1
Section One: Material and Meaning ................................................................................ 3
Systems Art and Land Art ...................................................................................... 8
Phenomenology....................................................................................................... 12
The Paradigm of the Screen .................................................................................. 15
Emulation................................................................................................................ 17
Section Two: Biological Systems Art .............................................................................. 18
Behavioral Aesthetics : The Poetry of Biological Systems...................................... 20
The Search for Luminosity..................................................................................... 25
The Society for Plant Neurobiology....................................................................... 29
Encoding Information into Organisms.................................................................. 38
Capacity for (urban eden, human error)................................................................ 43
Modulation and Cell Differentiation..................................................................... 48
Section Three: Tending to Wild ..................................................................................... 61
Growth Pattern....................................................................................................... 64
Botanical Abstractions............................................................................................ 71
Sampling Nature into Homogenous Units............................................................. 74
Generative and Processual Art in a Biological Context ........................................ 79
University of Washington
Biological Systems Art:
Artistic Research into the Algorithms of Living Systems
Allison Kudla
Chair of the Supervisory Committee:
Professor Shawn Brixey
This dissertation offers an innovative, practical and theoretical approach to ideation and creation
in the emerging contemporary eld of biological art. Throughout art's history, materials and
technique have played a profound role, both directly and indirectly, in shaping the content and
form of a work of art. This dissertation proposes to look at biological art in a similar capacity but
also as a system, allowing the narratives of cell differentiation, circadian rhythms, growth and
decay, predictability and emergence, evolution, and other biological agencies to become
intertwined with the material used and meaning created within the work. Furthermore, there is a
relationship created between archetypes and actual life: Metaphor and reality come together in a
signicant union of science and reverie materially evidenced in a living work of art. This shaping
of nature for artistic or scientic purposes is not without its moral and ethical dilemmas and
implications. This dissertation will also touch briey on the contemporary state of engineering
biology by examining these issues from the perspective of a practicing artist. Analogies between
computational paradigms, biological behaviors and artistic systems will be amplied for the
purpose of expanding and reevaluating what it means to be digital. In the authors artistic
practice, she experiments both metaphorically and scientically, with the materials she chooses to
work with and by choosing to work with biological materials she am brings to light a possible
approach for developing what could be called behavioral aesthetics or the poetry of biological
systems. Additionally, the author's specic practical aspects of this theory will be thoroughly
described and documented within this dissertation, including detailed analyses of The Search for
Luminosity (2005-8), Capacity for (urban eden, human error) (2007-9) and Growth Pattern (2008-10).
Finally, a structure for looking at ways of archiving and preserving living bio-art systems will be
Figure Number Page Page
1. John Linnell, Primrose Hill........................................................................................................... 4
2. Video still from The Search for Luminosity..................................................................................... 25
3. The Search for Luminosity, As presented for Artbots........................................................................ 51
4. The Search for Luminosity............................................................................................................... 51
5. Capacity for (urban eden, human error), Growth and Placement Diagram...................................... 52
6. Capacity for (urban eden, human error)............................................................................................ 53
7. Capacity for (urban eden, human error)............................................................................................ 53
8. Capacity for (urban eden, human error)............................................................................................ 53
9. Capacity for (urban eden, human error)............................................................................................ 54
10. Capacity for (urban eden, human error).......................................................................................... 54
11. Growth Pattern.......................................................................................................................... 55
12. Growth Pattern.......................................................................................................................... 55
13. Growth Pattern.......................................................................................................................... 55
14. Growth Pattern Process..............................................................................................................56
15. Growth Pattern Process..............................................................................................................56
16. Growth Pattern Time-lapse Documentation..............................................................................57
17. Growth Pattern ..........................................................................................................................57
18. Growth Pattern Symmetrical Fungal Growths...........................................................................58
19. Growth Pattern Symmetrical Leaf Growths..............................................................................58
20. Growth Pattern New Leaf Growth............................................................................................59
21. Growth Pattern Final Decay.......................................................................................................60
22. Manicured Field: Diptych.............................................................................................................60
23. Decorative Growth Pattern ...........................................................................................................61
24. Decorative Growth Pattern ...........................................................................................................63
25. Documentation of leaf tissue curling in the smaller scaled petri dishes.................................69
26. Karl Blossfeldt, Forsythia suspensa..............................................................................................72
27. Left: Tobacco Field. Right: Growth Pattern...............................................................................74
28. Left: Tobacco plant in aerial view. Right: Analogous abstraction, Growth Pattern...................76
29. Description of tools needed to produce Growth Pattern............................................................81
30. Protocol used to produce Growth Pattern..................................................................................82
31. Greet Clerx at the University of Hasselts greenhouse...........................................................83
Throughout the process of working on my PhD at the University of Washington in Digital Arts
and Experimental Media (2004-2011), I have been very fortunate to be surrounded by an
amazing group of intellectually curious, inspiring and encouraging artists, scientists, philosophers,
mentors, professors, students, staff and friends. This support also continued outside of the UW,
where I met and worked with amazing curators, collaborators, engineers, producers, educators,
and colleagues from all over the world who shaped my practice in ways I never could have
expected. My work was only made possible by the time, energy and care of so many people and
though I could not name every single individual, as every place I exhibited, worked and inquired
during the process of development and research lead me down a new and fruitful path, shaping
my ideas and my work as it went along, I would like to name a few major places and the people
therein to give my most gracious acknowledgement of their support.
The University of Washington, Seattle, USA:
My dissertation committee: Shawn Brixey, Juan Pampin, Paul Berger and Elizabeth Van
Volkenburgh. Shawn Brixey, for being an inspiring artist, mentor, and also my committee chair.
His unique art-science practice and his visionary idea of emulation radically changed how I
approach making art. Without his patience, energy, clarity and guidance this dissertation would
not have been possible. Elizabeth Van Volkenburgh, for letting me have a place in her bio-lab,
being encouraging of my decision to work artistically with plants, and for the many thoughtful
conversations that occurred between us. Richard Karpen, Juan Pampin, and Shawn Brixey for
proposing and starting the PhD program of DXARTS at the UW. Douglas Ewing, Russ Noe,
Cynthia Caci, and all DXARTS faculty, students and staff.
Srishti School of Art Design and Technology and NCBS, Bangalore, India:
Geetha Narayanan, Yashas Shetty, Gabriel Harp, Zack Denfeld, Mukund Thattai, and Navneet
Friends, curators and colleagues around the world who supported and challenged my career
through their thoughtful dialogue and practical support:
Melissa Urcan, Ryan Wolfe, Lele Barnett, Erich Ginder, Joel Kollin, Susanne Jaschko, Lucas
Evers, Roman Kirschner, Monica Bello, Karen Verschooren, Bose Krishnamachari, Elise Foster
Vander Elst, Michelle Cherian, Jurij Krpan, Sandra Sajovic, Petra Milic, and many others.
Thank you to Artist Trust for honoring my work with a GAP Grant in Emerging Arts.
And also to the Vida Competition for Art and Articial Life for honoring all three of the major
works I describe in this dissertation with Special Mentions.
Thank you to all of the staff at LABoral in Gijon, Spain and likewise to Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium
for facilitating Growth Pattern. Additional thanks to the University of Oviedo, Spain and University
of Hasselt, Belgium for allowing me to produce the work in their labs. Special thanks to Norma
Yague of the University of Oviedo and Greet Clerx of the University of Hasselt for collaborating
with me in the lab.
And a nal thank you to my family, especially my brother, Thomas Kudla, who proofread the
majority of this dissertation.
Throughout the history of contemporary art, we can see evidence of artists trying to generate
novel experiences and systems with agency, rather than objects and images, as a way of surpassing
the representational pitfalls of depiction. Jack Burnhams writings in Beyond Modern Sculpture [18]
very clearly demarcate this transition from object to system. This dissertation proposes to actively
take the positives of simulative art and its creation of a nonlinear, interactive, and engaging
environment, yet remove the limitations of representational depiction so often found in
simulation-based work, thus generating the emergence of an artwork that is occupying a place in
reality just as we do. The art owns a communication system that allows transactional and
transcendent sign processing to occur between the art and us.
The rst section of this dissertation will briey consider the transition from traditional materials
like painting and sculpture to new and experimental media such as cells and algorithms by
stepping through systems art, land art, screen-based art, and phenomenological and emulative
arts practices. In this transition, the process of making art is newly reinstated as a marker that
physically manifests an experience that takes the perceivers to their own edges so as to see
themselves freshly, as open systems within a vast and interweaving nonlinear network.

Biological Systems Art is grounded in the ideologies of Emulation and Systems Art but applies
algorithmic thinking specically to biological systems and the larger physical systems that
surround them. Although biology is subject to the laws of physics and is made of matter, a
biological system has behaviors and characteristics that make it qualitatively different from
nonliving matter. From cells to whole organisms, the processes going on within a biological system
are subject to greater individual variables involving, to name a few: communications, permissions,
cycles, genetics, growth, and decay.
Whether it be cells differentiating or whole organisms making decisions, biological systems are
actively developing, choosing, and shaping themselves based on their external environment. A
path chosen by a biological system will change its development, its progression, and its eventuality
-- in some cases even altering its genes for future generations. Although biological systems have
been proven to have a great deal of plasticity, the reversal of state changes when it comes to life
are challenging to say the least. As a result, living systems have a very complex embedded poetry.
To integrate living systems into a time-based visual work of art by analyzing, regarding, and
acting consciously around the knowledge of behavioral aesthetics leads to a very powerful practice
and certainly the foundation of a radical new form of artistic and scientic research.
Material and Meaning
Watercolour was the ideal medium for the spontaneous recording of transient atmospheric
effects, given the speed with which it could be applied and its inherent luminosity ([47] p
- Lyles and Wilton referring to the stormy landscapes of J.M.W Turner and
Thomas Girtin from the end of the Enlightenment Era, circa the end of the
eighteenth century.
Just as watercolor's malleability lent itself to the creation of Turner and Girtin's Romantic
landscapes, so did its uency allow for the content of the work to become less about visually
recording nature in a direct and singular moment as photography eventually does, but rather
more about capturing a shifting and emotional state within the picture plane that is felt by the
artist as he gazes upon the landscape. Watercolor as a medium has essential properties in common
with the water in the atmosphere that the artists were aiming to record, thus the communication
between material and content allowed the work of art to express itself and thus, impacted its nal
outcome. The medium serves as a support system and also as a direct inuence on the work. The
support system is reinforced and rened by the work it makes, creating a feedback loop between
material and content, medium and message[48] or back-end and front-end. Turner and Girtin
were working at an interesting time, just as Romanticism was coming into focus, at the end of the
eighteenth century. Rather than working to record reality in a matter of fact way, just as a camera
would, these artists were developing with layers of paint and water as though they were sculpting
with the phenomena, the very atmosphere, they observed. Consequently, the idea of sculpting
with fog itself as a medium initiated in these atmospheric Romantic watercolors. The practice of
observing the constantly changing and moving atmospheric conditions of fog and capturing these
movements into the picture plane is almost alchemic in nature. Alchemy for these artists was the
transmutation of transient weather conditions and atmospheric effects created by water in the
atmosphere and visceral interchanges of light against surfaces into the picture plane where they
superimposed layers of varying luminosity paints to create ltered sensations of light and
atmosphere. Inside of their dreamy watercolor landscapes, these artists sought to commune and
create with what they saw and experienced in reality. As the atmosphere moved in reality, became
more and less dense, shone less and more light, etc., so did their paint, water, and paper imbibe
this physicality.
Throughout art's history, there are examples of how physical material used to create a work of art
alters not only the works eventual form, but also its meaning. Some materials are better suited to
representing certain phenomena than other materials. The continuing dialogue between matter
or material to content and concept creates meaning in a work of art. As artistic motivations grow
in complexity and dimension, and the cybernetic system between material and content grows to
reect that, the materials used to translate ideas and even the ideas themselves evolve. The
content feeds back into the material, as the work comes closer to being what the artist imagines it
to be. As an example, the dialogue between the materials of watercolor and the intent of the
Romantic landscape has a clear connection to artwork I will describe in a further portion of this
dissertation. In these works, artists such as Otto Piene and Rockne Krebs are directly
manipulating fog and light in the physical landscape to create sublime and monumental
Fig. 1. John Linnell, Primrose Hill, 1811. Pen, brown ink and brown wash with white highlights on paper. The
Fitzwilliam Museum
A contemporary to Turner and Girtin, John Linnell was an English landscape painter making
work in the early nineteenth century. He was inuenced by Albrecht Drer and creating work just
before and in parallel to John Constable and the Barbizon School. Although he was considered to
be a Naturalist, and worked with people who were making prototypes for what eventually became
photography, his paintings often held in them a sensitivity to something else more impressive and
emotional, despite that the scenes could be considered banal in content, making his work an
interesting selection to analyze. Taking a look at Linnell's Primrose Hill, we see a precision and rigor
in the pictorial expression of a landscape's order within the canvas. He does this by very tightly
repeating a pattern and accentuating only the light and shadow that denes this naturally
occurring pattern within the landscape. As Lyles and Wilton claimed, the painting demonstrates,
Linnell's new understanding [post adopting a new spiritual practice] of the landscape and its
meticulous organisation as direct proof of God's existence ([46] p 134). His recording of light
and shadow using lines of ink and washes of light and dark is aptly served by its presentation on a
lightly colored paper. Even though Linnell was working with experimental prototypes for
photography, it is particularly in this work, in his choice of subject matter, that something greater
is presenting itself. I identify this example because Linnell's connection to wanting to project the
inherent, and what he saw as divine, order in Nature into a watercolor is similar to my own artistic
motivations in wanting to create a scenario for perceiving patterns of order in biological systems.
For Linnell, by stripping the picture plane of any idiosyncrasies or dramas, like a twisted tree or a
broken fence ([46]p134), the viewer is indirectly entreated to look carefully at only the organic
algorithm of repetition occurring in nature and attend to marveling in its structural organization.
Similarly, in subsequent sections of this text, I will describe how my artistic works are extending
the concept of observing order in nature by creating a very prescribed scene for witnessing
patterns in botanical behavior and expression. In Linnells work, the mid-light tone of the paper is
what is carrying no ink, and what shines, blazingly, are the added white highlights of sunlight
dening the repeating patterns of the sloping hill. These edges take on an illuminated presence,
while the ne lines of the pen give a shadowy sense of the soft and complex texture of the grass.
Linnell is framing this small portion of visually repetitive nature, and through his sensitivities with
materials, he has coaxed and brought this otherwise inconsequential scene to a place where light
and shadow in a natural landscape are the carriers of a divine, ordered, repeating, observable,
and even algorithmic pattern.
Another way of looking at material and its relationship to content can be understood by the
phrase briey mentioned in the beginning paragraph, back-end and front-end. Although this
terminology comes directly from computer software programming lingo, it essentially references
the structure of a software application that runs on a personal computer. The back-end is the
computer code or written script that creates the front-end, which is typically an interactive screen.
Often back-end computer software developers are computer scientists and engineers who
understand not only the fundamental ways a computer functions, but also various syntaxes for
explaining how to run processes within computers running on a variety of operating systems.
Some computer scientists know certain languages better than others, and as a discipline, the back-
end of getting a computer to perform as one desires it to is a specialized area in and of itself. Also
in the computer software world are the front-end designers. These individuals often have a
background in graphic design, with a specic grasp of computer graphics. They essentially handle
what the viewer sees and also communicate with the back-end designers to determine how the
software should function. Of course, this is a generalization, and sometimes it is a team of people
or sometimes one individual who knows both front- and back-end, but my point is to conclude
that the material or medium for a work of art is essentially its back-end, and its front-end is what
the viewer sees; its content and form. The art is the gestalt of both the front- and back-end of the
work, uniting in value and purpose to create the work. I deliver this point for the purpose of
getting across the system or process involved in the translation from imagined idea to work of art.
There is always a dialogue happening between material and content, back-end and front-end. In
some cases, learning the science of a material is required to be able to properly express an idea
and often in the process of learning the materials, the most ideal content or application for that
material emerges. In the past, artists have typically been knowledgeable of both their material and
their content. Believing this to still be essential, in my progression through my dissertation work I
determined what back-end or material was essential for me to be learning so as to create the work
of art most closely related to the front-end that I wished to experience. Conversely, in the process
of learning about my materials, the content for the work shifted, and, in a recursive feedback loop
of researching and creating, a system or process was eventually generated that tightly intertwined
the front- and back-end of the work. In some ways, my work in experimental media and digital
arts is contextual research. I am directly looking at ways of taking existing metaphors borrowed
from computer science and algorithmic processing to create new exploratory research into living
biological systems art.
I have emphasized the importance of the dialogue that occurs between material and meaning,
and looking further into choosing the right medium to converse with one's artistic message, it is
very clear how it is only in the implementation of a living system, open to variables, that the
veracity of the concepts for my three primary works, The Search for Luminosity, Capacity for (urban
eden, human error), and Growth Pattern can be fully explored and rendered. The intent of my research
trajectory is to artistically frame and build poetic systems around the predictability and emergence
inherent in biological and specically botanical systems. If my work was painted or displayed on a
monitor, even if programmed to behave in a way similar to the way actual biological materials
behave, it still could not properly or entirely embody my works primary thesis. Furthermore, the
direct and tangible relationship we would feel to the living organic materials would be lost if
prescribed in a computer simulation or depicted in paint or ink.
Systems Art and Land Art
In looking at three-dimensional assemblage such as Man Rays Object to be Destroyed (1923) and
other works assembled from manufactured or machine parts, we see more ways of medium being
an essential factor in dening the work of art. The medium became a tool for engaging directly
with the culture in which these parts assembled came from and referenced. As stated by Barbara
As a construction an art assembled from parts collage can be said to encode machine
technology ([77] p xiii).
Some notable works came extremely close to an autonomous embodiment, and in many ways
such works centered on creating a dramatic experience that the viewer took part in. The drama
was embodied in the works formal existence and therefore existed in part in the same reality as
we do and thus made possible a dialogue or interchange to occur between the human being and
the work itself. The poetry was actually embedded in the physical instantiation and behavioral
manifestation of the work, and is completed by its existential presence in our reality. The drama is
lived, and the poetry is material. The outcome and description of the work is continually
changing and engaging depending on external circumstances and the internal logic of the
systems response to those circumstances.
An exquisite example of this kind of work is Nouveau Raliste Jean Tinguelys Homage to New York
(1960). Tinguely managed to amass an outdoor kinetic sculpture for the Museum of Modern Art
in New York, consisting of chaotically assembled mechanical and industrial materials like motors
and wheels as well as entropic chemicals all poised to self-destruct as soon as the work was
powered on [66]. This action of self-destruction and the embodiment of entropy is a useful
example of an emerging phenomenon in art: the attempt to make works of art that carry a
physical or biological agency or have some specic action or behavior that animates them and
guides their existence within the human frame of reference. Another quality of such assembled
works is that the work is made of a sum of parts and only when all of the parts come together
does the work become whole, and transcend to create an artistic and poetic experience. Tinguelys
Homage to New York may have contained unessential, latent, or loose elements within the parts that
made it up, however, it is an assortment of pieces that happened upon a one-way behavior of
destruction. To the spectator, the self-destructing evidential behavior of the work, which
happened as a very real event, came across loud and clear. The work even evoked a team of civil
reghters to come and put the re out, which its existence and pursuit of destruction had
managed to ignite.

The idea of art that is a physical system resonated with many artists in the 1960s and 1970s.
Rising alongside the systems art shift was also a move towards interdisciplinary practice in the
arts. Art began to not only appropriate objects of industry as part of their material creations but
also began working directly with engineers and architects to create these technological works of
art. A trope of this type of collaboration is E.A.T or Experiments in Art and Technology. This
nonprot organization was founded in 1966 by engineers Billy Klver and Fred Waldhauer and
artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman [38]. Two prominent shows of their history
included nine evenings at the Armory in New York in 1966 and the Pepsi-Pavilion Expo 70 in
Osaka. Jack Burnhams curatorial work Software at the Jewish Museum in 1970 is another relevant
example of artists collaborating with engineers and, through the process of working together, they
too become engineers and vice versa. It is likely these collaborations are the instigations of the use
of functioning, integrated, and organized technology in art so as to generate not only formally
grounded representations but also exploratory real-time behavioral representations. It also links
object and system and re-imagines the audience as more than simply a spectator but as an actively
engaged participant. To quote Jack Burnham,
All of these interests [referring to the movement away from art objects] deal with art
which is transactional; they deal with the underlying structures of communication or
energy exchange instead of abstract appearances. ([17] p 10).
Burnham further states: Our bodies are hardware, our behavior software([17] p 11). This
reinforces a previously explored theme in the history of painting: the shift from the vernacularly
based towards the formal[40], and then a stray within the formalist structure towards content.
The system, or mingling of hardware and software/body and behavior, becomes a way for
artwork to communicate with the world it resides within thereby giving us a tangibly grounded
reference point without having to rely on depiction and illusory imagery. It was work that
combined motivated and self-referential forms and structures, but also a behavior or logic system
that guided its animation and existence in time and space.
Land Art emerged symbiotically with Systems Art in the 1970s. Commonly known for being
large-scale sculptural works that are embedded within a landscape, terraforming that particular
site, these works directly shape a future trend of artists being the creators of systems that are open
and depend on the environment in which they reside as forces in the work.
Acclaimed Land Artist Robert Smithson is most well-known for one of his works, Spiral Jetty
(1970). In an interview by Moira Roth with Smithson on Marcel Duchamp in 1973, he discusses a
clear difference between his work and the work of Duchamp. He refers to the work of Duchamp
as being mechanistic and Cartesian[71]. He emphasizes that Duchamp seems to be focusing
on the spirituality of manufactured objects, whereas Smithson is keenly grounded in the
changeable aesthetics of nature, and he makes work that comes in contact with the same forces of
nature as our reality. He emphasizes the effects of time on his art, and when he critiques
Duchamps valise full of souvenirs, he is pointing to a contrast in its long-term vitality.
Thats a work [Spiral Jetty] thats very much involved with the processes of nature insofar
as it goes through all different kinds of climates, dates, and seasonal states. Its involved
with a kind of ongoing process. Its very much in the actual landscape. Well, getting back to
Duchamp again, hes involved more with the notion of manufacture of objects so that he can
have his valise full of souvenirs. Im not really interested in that kind of model-making
the reiteration of readymades. -Smithson ([71] p 86)
Smithsons work portents a time scalar; it will undoubtedly manage to outlive the manufactured
object, as his art is open to change and the ongoing process of time. Smithson claims his work
to be dialectical, and in many ways it becomes clear that in works like Spiral Jetty (1970), he is
engaging in a dialogue with a Cartesian view of reality. So as to say that the manufactured and
man-made evidence is no more to be exalted than the entropic qualities of natural materials. By
creating this dialogue, a transfer of meaning occurs between the industrial object and nature. In
this action, Smithson is leveling the value eld in assembled art between the manufactured and
the natural and blurring any real distinction between the two. Additionally, he is invigorating a
sense of wonder of nature and mans operation of it since he utilizes the very tools of
manufacturing and industry to build and even view his works. Smithson was claiming nature to be
all pervading, while simultaneously arranging, manipulating, and making art with its substances
and properties. In a sense, he is opening up collage to include choreographing and composing
interactions with nature and the environment as well. Although here it is only in early stages, this
references the process of the use of nature and biology as agency within a work of art. Although
Smithsons work is essentially a point of contact rather than a system for discovering thorough and
shared communication, it does point towards an artwork that is in a dialogue with time and to an
extent the physical properties of the natural elements it is actively incorporating. It is an
important paradigm to the work that I pursue, and can be seen as an extension of Assemblage, a
common element in Systems Art and Conceptual Art, an essential motivator of Earth Art, as well
as a property of an emerging area known as Emulation Art[15], to be described in a subsequent
portion of this section.
Just as the pictorial dilemma guided vernacularly styled painting towards abstraction and
formalism, similar forces have also guided visual art towards the generation of physical,
phenomenologically, and bio-technologically based artistic systems. Taking art into new territory,
it is no longer an illusory representation of an idea but an actual instantiation of its beauty and
signicance. The process of making art is newly reinstated as a marker that physically manifests
an experience that takes the perceivers to their own edges so as to see themselves freshly, as open
systems within a vast and interweaving nonlinear network.
Painters like Turner and Girtin were manipulating the luminosity of water and paint as though it
were the very physical particles they attempted to depict. Washes of water and tint were pushed
around the canvas as though the artists were sculpting with actual fog, clouds, sunlight, and other
atmospheric effects. Otto Piene is the most prominent and originating example of an artist staking
his claim that his medium is the very sky itself. The largest canvas we have is the sky. Sky art is
telecommunication, is ying objects, is art transported and displayed in space.[28] He also quite
directly deals with natural and atmospheric elements in his earlier works such as his smoke
drawings and his light ballets. In his smoke drawings, he uses stencils to create an ordered and
manufactured grid that is then disrupted or modulated by the presence of the natural material,
soot, and the way it is carried and moved by heat and air. His light ballets are extending the
notion of movement within a continually shifting visual composition by generating a light-based
animation that is not only time-based but can also be recorded on light sensitive diazo paper[29].
It is in these early works (1959) that a direct reection of an artist wanting to move away from
depiction, off the traditional and still canvas, and towards using the actual materials and
phenomena in their inherent states of ux, is cleanly presented. His sky art works, most notably
his large-scale inatable sculptures, like his 1978 Milwaukee Anemone, that mingle somewhere on the
border between otherworldly clouds, stars, and biological creatures exist at a scale and position in
space that almost tricks the perceivers perspectives while simultaneously working within the
tradition of visual composition[56]. His interventions into the landscape being temporal and awe-
inspiring, his sky works carry on the tradition of the sublime. Other artists at the time were also
working from a similar perspective and contributing to the trajectory of using the actual
atmosphere--the sky, light, and fog--in their works. Washington artist Rockne Krebs worked on
sculpture minus object[60] in the 1970s, by using mirrors, gases, and lasers to create
monumentally-scaled artworks in the sky that were often in dialogue with buildings and other
architectural elements that surrounded his laser works. Friedrich St. Florian also made an
interesting work with the sky as his canvas. Fascinated by the procedure for air trafc control
above busy airports,([65] p 53) he used lasers to identify the perimeter of the invisible air
controller waiting room in his work Imaginary Room (1969)[65]. This work has an interest in
exposing or visualizing hidden data, something that eventually becomes a key paradigm for
computational and algorithmic artistic practices. Otto Piene worked with both of these artists
during his time as director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) at M.I.T from 1970
to 1993. There he also worked with and inuenced Shawn Brixey, the co-founder of DXARTS
(the Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media at the University of Washington, USA), who
at the time was working as a graduate student at CAVS, M.I.T.

Shawn Brixey carries on a very interesting approach to phenomenological art, or art that
incorporates physical phenomena while also impacting the structure of consciousness of the
perceivers of the work. One example is his work Eon (2003). Eon developed novel high-energy
ultrasound, sonochemistry and plasma physics to explore the creation of material poetry, art
formed from only the discrete interaction of matter and energy.[14] Brixey approaches his work
with physical materials at the molecular and atomic level, often in a way beyond a lay persons
understanding of the science behind the works. The sophistication, depth, and breadth he has for
understanding the complex physical systems he engages with by comparison makes playing with
fog and soot seem like only the most nascent steps of a much more advanced trajectory for which
his art-science research practice embodies. A quality he brings to his works is not only the
investigation of the cutting-edge mysteries of physics, but also his ability to locate and directly and
perceptually affect the human or the audience within these systems in a way that is not co-opting
of human agency but rather is startlingly empathetic to it. The systems he creates seem to be for
the purpose of making us feel more alive, more empowered, and more aware of our important
position in the Universe. Eon does this by collecting messages in multiple languages from the
audience, messages which are then translated into a brilliant and never-before-seen starlike light.
His work Altamira (2004) does this by physically connecting the patterns seen by modulating
electro-phosphenes in our retinas to our ancestral dialogue with the pulsars or collapsed stars
whose recordings generate the composition which is viewed in our minds eye through the
introduction of a neuro-prosthetic he and his researchers invented[6]. As he put it in an interview
about his work Eon and the creation of the DXARTS program, We are developing strategies for
injecting human expression ... into the fabric of the universe.[44]
The Paradigm of the Screen
A popularized medium of systems art can be seen in the nonlinear network that emerged at the
end of the twentieth century in new media art. The advent of screen-based art; whether taking
the form of Internet art, virtual reality, or simulations-based modeling, etc., were concerned with
developing nonlinear representations of reality. The implicit edges due to the nature of the
screen and the limitations of computing present nite possibilities and easily recognized
repetitions of patterns. The limited scope in screen-based work gives rise to boundary pushing.
That, in conjunction with an increasing technological accessibility, allowed for the possibility of
artists to begin engaging with natural and mechanical materials within a system-based paradigm
to emerge.
In many ways, a data-driven computer screen or projected moving image is more often associated
with new media art than most other technologically engaged mediums. The screen became a
denitive scaffolding to aid artists in presenting their ideas. Although the screen is used in many
varying ways, the focus in my research arc is on screen-based simulations or data visualizations,
specically graphical programming.
The desire to unravel the formula of nature by modeling reality connects simulative spaces with
the physical world. From the perspective of my own artistic trajectory, the programming of
behaviors onto graphical representations of objects, forms, or patterns, creates a clear step
towards the current direction in my work. One example being sound waves causing pixel-based
computer-driven wallpaper to ripple in a sine wave (thats nice (2002)). The attempt was to use
computational technology to manifest or make visible seemingly unknown aspects of our
universe, by using actual existing forces of nature that lay just outside of our operational
awareness to guide the animation. Thinking of the celebrated Milkdrop Cornonet (1957) of Harold
Eugene Doc Edgerton and the inuential action sequences of Eadweard J. Muybridge, this
artistic research shares a commonality: All were interested in the pursuit of developing a scientic
or technological apparatus for uncovering reality that was otherwise indiscernible by our
physiology. These photographs made the invisible visible; however, in my work, the graphics
served the purpose of embodying the agency or operations of these invisible or underlying
properties. The presence of a virtual environment allows us to reexamine the reality of our
current environment, thus invigorating new media towards the creation of live processes. Further,
by seeing the virtual environment as only a part of a larger system, the output is no longer so
clearly on a screen or emanating from a projector. Through technological systems, the live
invisible processes of biology and the whole of the physical universe can be witnessed by humans
in real-time.
Clearly, to see any form of new media as primarily a screen-based output or a display technology
for example, would only reinstate the pictorial dilemma, as artists would then be dealing with a
system with which they are creating content for. Simon Penny elucidates this connection between
formalism and digital media in an article titled Systems Aesthetics and Cyborg Art: The Legacy
of Jack Burnham,
Many of the experiments in digital media are formal explorations in which the
manipulation of media components are the work. In a manner analogous to minimal
sculpture, the modalities of the technology become not a vehicle but a substance to be
modeled, manipulated and juxtaposed with the viewer in various ways. And if the
technological combination is the work, then its ability to carry narrative content is a
secondary issue and somewhat superuous. [55]
The paradigm shift that emulation art suggests is the inevitable result of hybrid art research
praxis at the intersection of scientic discovery, informatics and aesthetics, as we seek to
understand the universe as an operating system in which we perpetually engage on both a
microcosmic and macrocosmic level. [15]
This quotation comes from a formative paper written by Shawn Brixey and James Coupe in 2005.
This paper addresses the shift away from simulation and towards emulation. As stated in the
quotation above, the work is not residing and operating on the connes of the computers
operating system but rather views the work as running on the operating system of the Universe
itself, thus enabling the artist to push the limits of their own work to reference points outside of
animated depictions coming from a computer screen and towards an experience of fully inhabit
[ing] the vast continuum which humans have inherited[15].
This theory is the most substantial realization of the trajectory I described earlier, and the type of
work I have been developing in recent years. Shawn Brixey has given these ideas the name of
Emulation Art. The commonalities resonating with my own directives as an artist reside in the
communication of an invisible reality outside of our operational awareness, yet still fully
embedded with motivation within the reality we inhabit. In my recent work, this communion is
seen in the use of biological and physical knowledge to generate these directed relationships
through artistic experiences. As much of the rest of this dissertation is founded on this principle, I
will segue into the next section, which focuses specically on the signication and aesthetic
language of biology, its motivations, and the use of engineered information and articially
intelligent systems to embed knowledge. Succinctly phrased, the transfer and adoption of
coded information between living and non-living things. This denition comes from the word
metagenics, rst coined by Shawn Brixey in relation to his emulative practice, specically the
work Alchymeia (1998), in which human hormones are used to alter the growth of ice crystals,
thereby creating a new entity through a synthetic intervention [14].
Biological Systems Art
The previous section discussed the fundamentals of Systems Art, and in this section, I will focus
on discussing a specic type of systems art that I call Biological Systems Art. Systems art
essentially refers to art that, during the process of viewing, is actively involving many interacting
components which form a whole. This type of work can include cybernetics, signal processing,
network theory, feedback loops, generative art, processual art, algorithmic art, etc. Emulation is a
specic kind of systems art that is interested in encoding algorithmic thinking onto real matter.
Biological systems art is grounded in this ideology but applies algorithmic thinking specically to
biological systems and the environments that surround them. Though biology is subject to the
laws of physics and is made of matter, a biological system has behaviors and characteristics that
make it qualitatively different to nonliving matter. While from a biological perspective, something
is considered living if it is able to grow and reproduce, a host of other characteristics are also
often associated with the qualities of life. From cells to whole organisms, the processes going on
within biological systems can be subject to individual variables involving, to name a few:
communications, permissions, cycles, genetics, growth, and decay.
Biological systems art is running along a parallel track to algorithmic computational art, but
instead of expressing the modulation and output of these algorithms with digital computers, the
output is emulative because it is expressed with genes, cells, and organisms. The cycles required to
run to produce a particular effect or change of state are not dependent on CPU clocking speeds
or frame rates but on the actual biophysically constrained time it takes for a biological system to
evolve, grow, die, etc. These cycles of expression can vary greatly from one organism to another,
and the cycle speed is embedded in the organismic and cellular cycles of mitosis, circadian
rhythms of waking and sleeping, and senescence processes of disease and death. The output from
these systems have to be observed and analyzed to be recorded and they are always dependent on
external variables which serve as the support systems and ecologies or environments for these
biological systems. This parallel track to algorithmic art pushes computational art to the real and
connects more closely to the human, and undoubtedly biological, observer. Consequently, the
understanding of the world through a computational lens of feedback loops, systems, and
algorithms lends biological systems art contextualized resonance, existing as a foundational
partner and also a parallel track to computational art. Embedded within biological systems are the
poetry and dialogue of the predictable versus the emergent. Within biological systems, there is
always repetition, which is perhaps why it becomes so attractive to consider biological systems as
machines or as being like clockwork. However, precisely what makes biological organisms
fascinating is their variability and the at times unpredictable or seemingly random way this
variability can be expressed inside of a prescribed and recursive system. Such a dynamic is
essential to my research arc and the artistic work I have composed in pursuit of exploring these
Behavioral Aesthetics: The Poetry of Biological Systems
In a way, the embryo is just a microcosm of the cognitive world that we inhabit, the world
of signals that insistently urge us to travel to one destination rather than another, eschew
some goals in favor of others, hold some things to be true and others false; in short, that
moulds us into what we are. ([45] p 42)
The above quotation comes from Armand Marie Lerois book Mutants. This quotation reinforces
what makes biological systems different from physical systems like water and re. Whether it be
cells differentiating or whole organisms making decisions, biological systems are actively
developing, signaling, responding and shaping themselves based on their external environment. A
path chosen by a biological system will change its development, its progression, and its eventuality
-- in some cases even altering their progenys genes. Though biological systems have been proven
to have a great deal of plasticity, the reversal of state changes when it comes to life are challenging
to say the least. As the biological sciences continue to learn more about how biological systems
function, new mechanisms, behaviors, and possibilities are presented that offer new territories for
generating intellectual curiosities and aesthetic experiences. To analyze, regard, and act
consciously around the complexities of living systems is the foundation of a radical new form of
artistic and scientic research that I am actively part of developing.
In Gaston Bachelards The Psychoanalysis of Fire, he goes into thorough detail about what re
means to human beings from a poetic and symbolic perspective. Looking at the various ways
human beings come to understand re, he touches on how the narrative of re, the myth of its
existence, and its very meaning to us as a species, is irrevocably tied to metaphor, myth, and
archetype. He also describes how metaphor in many ways preceded the factual science around
re. In this book, he illuminates many histories and properties of re: its connection to sexuality,
its ability to create change, its dynamic of purity and destruction, and all of the many myths and
legends surrounding re as a phenomenon. I propose, as a biological systems artist, to analyze the
properties of the biological systems which fascinate us in a similar way. In the process of
uncovering those metaphors, archetypes, and histories, an aesthetic of behavior presents itself, and
it is an excellent strategy for generating outcomes and directions for artistic research. In this
dissertation, it is not my goal, as it was Bachelards, to write a book psychoanalyzing the biological
materials I make work with, both metaphorically and scientically, but rather to bring to light a
possible approach for developing what could be called behavioral aesthetics, the poetry of
biological systems, or what I called in an earlier essay biological agency in art.[40]
One example of an early attempt at the artistic framing of the metaphorical relationships found
in biology is Hans Haackes Chickens Hatching (1969):
Here, freshly laid chicken eggs were collected from a brooder, transferred to an adjacent
hatchery and distributed among a grid of eight small incubators. The hatching process was
controlled articially, via a simple feedback system of lamps and thermostat. [64]
He is assembling machine technology, data processing and biological phenomena, aesthetically,
and then presenting it in an artistic space as a way of exalting such a synthesis between machine
and birth. Another example of machine and computer technology being coupled with biological
agency in an artwork comes from the Software show of 1970, curated by systems art theorist Jack
Burnham. In the catalog for the exhibition, this work is referred to as Life in a Computerized
Environment, and titled Seek (1969-70) [6]. The Architecture Machine Group of M.I.T., while
under the direction of Nicholas Negroponte and Leon B. Groisser, created this project, which was
appropriately noticed by Edward Shanken, as being an early example of intelligent
architecture, a growing concern of the design community internationally [26]. In Seek, gerbils
are placed inside of a 5 x 8 glass box with several cubes or blocks that make up the gerbils
environment. There is a computer-driven mechanical arm that has a mental map or visualization
of the setup of the blocks, and it goes about making sure the blocks remain in the position of their
origin. It is unknown to the mechanical system that the gerbils are knocking over and shifting
these blocks, and so the machine is in a continuous feedback loop with the gerbils replacing and
reacting to these alterations in its mental understanding of the space it is monitoring. The
designers of the project state,
Today machines are poor at handling sudden changes in context or environment. This lack
of adaptability is the problem Seek confronts in diminutive. ([17] p 23)
If we take the notion that adaptability and entropy are essentially physical and natural qualities of
which the machine has little exposure or inherited understanding of, such early systems are
in their desire to transfer information from the living to the nonliving, although in
this system it is unclear whether or not this information is actually being remembered and learned
by the system. Regardless, the presentation of gerbils knocking over blocks in this computer-
monitored environment is an elegant framing of natural drives or biological agencies.
These examples of the formal assembling of organic and inorganic materials into systems of sign
exchange point to a common relationship developing. This relationship has components of
biological phenomena, technological communication systems, and the human being who creates,
witnesses, and utilizes the experience. The emphasis often lies in the nonlinear network that exists
between the two entities, and the transactions that occur amongst them, thereby enabling the
human being to enter into dialogues that we were previously incapable of accessing, as well as
impact areas of our development that were otherwise outside of our operational awareness. In
1926, Jakob V. Uexkll stated in his book Theoretical Biology, If we succeed in getting an animal to
produce a suitable sign-language by means of its organs, we can converse with it as with human
beings ([72] p 177). Such a proposition is not even remotely theoretical at this point in our
culture, but it does elegantly put forth the solution to the boundaries of separateness and the
translation of information between different species; in our culture we include synthetic and
nonliving systems within that scope.
Certain aspects of biological systems are fundamental to the study of their behavior. I will briey
outline the essential aspects I have found in my research into this topic and from that reference
point the reader can study my artistic investigations, which are documented through my artistic
practice. One critical element intertwined in the study of biological systems art is biological time,
or in the case of my artistic practice, plant-level time. Time is a complex subject and different in
many forms of time-based art, but in biological art, time can be broken down into many small
movements, changes, signals, and processes that are happening between organisms, in the cells of
an organism, or inside of the cells themselves. In some cases, especially with plants and at the
smaller scale of cells, these changes are imperceptible without the aid of technology. Sometimes
we recognize these changes as the passage of time, through larger state changes such as the
opening and closing of phototropic leaves. This is a cyclical process, or a circadian rhythm, and
an area I artistically explored in my work The Search for Luminosity and will discuss later on in this
Shawn Brixeys coined phrase meaning the transfer of information from living to nonliving entities.
section. Rhythms and cycles play an active role in our understanding of time when biology is the
medium for a work of art. Living systems have life-cycles, or generalized stages of growth and
decay, and also circadian rhythms that, like life-cycles, may seem almost clocklike in their
predictability; however, because they are living organisms, they are open systems and the
possibility for unexpected changes to occur within these behaviors is intrinsic. Another aspect of
my practice in researching biological systems art is the concept of differentiation of form. The
decision for a cell or group of cells to become a particular organ with a unique shape is a very
fascinating aspect of the emergent behavior of a biological system and also one explored in my
artworks Capacity for (urban eden, human error) and Growth Pattern, and discussed in subsequent parts of
this dissertation.
The are many aspects that help to dene the behavioral aesthetics of biological systems. The
following is only a sampling of biological processes that lend themselves to mythical meaning and
Catabolic processes
Circadian Rhythms
Waking and Sleeping
Nutrient Transport
Oxygenation (Breath)
Reproductive Processes
Symbiotic and Parasitic Relationships
Phenotypic Expression
Signaling and Response
Sentience and Intelligence
The Process of Death
Importantly, bio-art as a eld continues to expand and many new projects are continually being
launched. It is difcult to generalize where bio-art exactly is or where it is going at every point in
time, so rather than giving a laundry list of the types of projects that are being executed right
now, I am instead proposing a context for analyzing and ideating in this emergent eld by
analyzing the works I have created throughout my exploration of biological aesthetics and the
algorithms of living systems.
The Search for Luminosity
An endogenous drive within an organic life is a binding commonality in the practice of looking at
algorithms embedded in living systems or biological systems art. It resonates clearly with the issues
presented by Jack Burnham in Beyond Modern Sculpture [18], in his sections underlying the presence
of vitalism and organicism within modern sculpture. The complexity of these concerns
historically in scientic, philosophical, and artistic realms precludes this paper from going into
specic detail on every topic of this matter. However, we can break some of it down simply to
explain that vitalism implies an unknown life force guiding and motivating an organism and
organicism refers to optimally functioning organized systems. The concept of biological agency
refers to its life force and similarly the manner in which it, as a system, is organized. The
biological agency, endogenous drive, or life force is essentially the software, to use a
computational analogy, in my work. By using this agency as guiding factors within specically a
mechanical and processual work of art, the connection discussed by Burnham between the
mechanical-organic continues to develop.
The Search for Luminosity (2005-7), is a work of art that contains a feedback loop consisting of the
same two primary actors, united through communication via technology: the sun and phototropic
plants. The rst systems loop is counter balancing in behavior and the second is self-reinforcing.
The Search for Luminosity began as a
short video composed of time-lapse
footage taken over a span of a week.
In the system, a phototropic plant,
Oxalis regnellii, triggers an overhead
light source to turn off as soon as the
plants leaves reach their position of
fully awake, and then turning its light
source on as soon as its leaves fully close. This is a counterbalancing feedback loop, causing the
organism to continually be either waking itself up or putting itself to sleep, thereby altering its
circadian rhythms and mutating its cycles to shorter and shorter length days and nights. While
making the initial time-lapse video, at one point the mechatronic system failed to recognize when
the plant fell asleep, and thus it kept its light off. In the process of this systemic glitch occurring,
Fig. 2. Allison Kudla, Video still from The Search for Luminosity, 2005.
the plant acted independently of its light source and woke itself up regardless. In the last phase of
the video we see this act occur, and it becomes the poetic grounding point for the next phase of
the project.
After researching circadian rhythms, I found many life forms contain endogenous rhythms,
meaning in the example of the Oxalis that it is not always the presence of sun that triggers the
plant to lift its leaves in preparation for photosynthesis, but rather a programmed memory of sorts
that the plant has of its previously recorded routine. It is a biochemical memory and an organized
function of the system, but also a poetic example of life force and vitalism. Whether or not
science can explain the happenings of this movement is not the point of the work, rather the fact
remains that the plant does not need initial sunlight every day to wake itself up and therefore it
can be interpreted as an agenda of the organism to move its leaves in expectation of sun. My
work is exploring a living systems ability for change expectation.
Therefore, in the second iteration of the project, I developed a self-reinforcing cycle. In darkness,
as soon as the sensor recognizes the plant has begun to lift its leaves, it provokes its above light to
turn on, thereby putting the power of the sun rising in control of the movements of the plant.
The plants dramatic gesture of waking and sleeping becomes the signaling observed by the
technology that mediates the message to the acting sun in the plants universe. By equipping an
organism with the ability to make its own discoveries about itself and its environment, I am
generating a feedback loop that is centered on the organically algorithmic qualities of a living
system. The living systems ability to recognize, or expect change in itself and its environment and
then modulate its behavior or its environment based on that recognition, is at the heart of the
thinking in organic algorithmic art forms. It puts the living organism at the threshold for discovery
where it can imagine and actively create futures for itself. As the artist, I am opening a door to an
imagined or potentially future state that has yet to occur and creating situations or frames for us,
the audience, to observe how the organic algorithms embedding in living systems will adapt to
these complex and imagined scenarios. Such ideas are core to understanding the essential themes
of my artistic practice and research arc.
The nal version of The Search for Luminosity strategically incorporates multiple plants. Each plant
is programmed to have a different and complementary cycle of sleeping and waking. The cycle of
each plant continues over and over again. Much like contrapuntal composition, over time the
repetitive cycles shift and mutate as the organic mechanism and the mechanical plant
communicate more deeply with each other.
In this instantiation the nal format for viewing is not
a video but rather an autonomous biotechnological installation driven by the algorithms
embedded in the cycles of the living organic systems. By having multiple plants, the necessity of
time-lapse video is removed, as the viewer instantly sees the plant in several periods of its cycle
from fully awake to fully asleep. This particular iteration contains a custom-built scanner that
develops a visualization of the plants form, thereby allowing the plant to grow and move within
the scanners eld of view while still allowing the scanner to track its position. This information is
then transmitted to a data projection that provokes a reconnaissance of satellite imagery and
creates a dramatic shifting of scale as we look on at these fragile plants now able to communicate
across a vast landscape.
If one were to focus on the scientic aspect of how this hybrid form is generating itself, it may
seem to be a biology experiment linked with cybernetics and signal processing. However, several
key properties of the work are neglected in such a discourse. The decision-making process of the
work was focused towards creating a visual and time-based art experience that could create for us
a way of experiencing a biological systems embedded algorithms which are usually outside of
operational awareness. We connect with that behavior on an existential-level, seeing the pattern
of behavior as a loop that repeats differently each time and is open to change and modulation.
Creating that type of cognitive experience for the human is not the motivation of the scientist.
They generally do not build display formats for the existence of this form to be viewed, and they
dictate the light patterns in a predictive manner, with little concern for what the plant might want
or desire to compose. Therefore, the very notion that a plant might attempt to engage in
communication with the acting sun in its environment via the movement of its leaves is a
reverie. To build an (x, y, z) imaging system with an ultrasound sensor purposefully drew sharp
analogies to the cognitive visual process that is simply unchallenged through a human-scaled
video camera. We watch the sensor scan and draw, attempting to make sense of the visual signal,
whereas a camera would simply perch and reect. When the sensor becomes active, it becomes a
part of the plant, connecting it in signaling communication to the systems acting sun or light
source and being animated and learning or discovering in a similar fashion to the natural living
This complex dynamic was not fully realized at the time of its nal installation
and organic subject, again creating philosophical resonance by transferring biological information
to a nonliving system. Over time, the mechanism may begin to mutate its own movement cycles
of its motors as it links itself closer and closer to that which it is observing, aiding, and becoming.
Rather than accepting the organism as a closed system, we discover a reality where with the aid of
technology and the recognition of its own form and behavior, an organism might be able to
expand its own boundary conditions and regenerate its physical expression.
This work of art is grounded in a common natural agenda in life: circadian rhythms, with the
intent that the work of art begins to shape its own physical form and pattern. Here the attempt is
to generate a new hybrid form with all of its own meaning and signicance. The aim is to be able
to connect with the organism, as it potentially allows us to see our system and network in a
stripped down and decompressed version, re-examining the lenses we use to see ourselves, and
who we become as a direct result of our ability to cognitively process and subsequently alter our
environment. It is my desire to make art that is rather than just alluding to an idea or reverie, is an
actual instantiation of that reverie. Here we see how the plant through the mediation of a
common signaling process becomes able to locate itself and position its sunlight or energy source,
and the resulting waking and sleeping effect that it has on its physical form and its patterns.
Therefore, the actual body of the plant will mutate, or change its phenotypic expression, once it is
given this additional degree of control, thus allowing the inner complexity of the system as it
learns more and more about itself to externalize itself by the way in which the form and behavior
of the plant changes over time.
The Society for Plant Neurobiology
Concurrent to my artistic investigations into circadian rhythms in phototropic plants, The Society
for Plant Neurobiology was beginning. Although this Society at the time was outside of my
awareness, it came serendipitously to my view when I met Dr. Liz Van Volkenburgh at the
University of Washington, who holds the position of Chairman of the Steering Committee for
the Society for Plant Neurobiology. The Society for Plant Neurobiology marks a perfect catalyst
for an epistemological rupture and given its fairly new and directly related nature to my own PhD
practice, I have included material from an interview with Dr. Van Volkenburgh, covering the
genesis of the Society and her thought-provoking perspective on plant behavior. The Society and
the ideas coming out of it are a parallel afnity, running alongside the artistic research trajectory I
am actively exploring, and also a place where philosophical discourse is common ground between
an experimental scientist and experimental artist.
The Society for Plant Neurobiology also goes by the Society of Plant Signaling and Behavior. It
serves the community of scientists interested in sensory plant biology, signaling, and
communicative ecology in plants. It fosters trans-disciplinary interactions among plant molecular
biologists, plant cell biologists, plant physiologists, and plant ecologists. The goal of the Society is
to promote scientic research in this eld.
The Society was founded in the early 2000s when Post-Docs Franti"ek Balu"ka and Stefano
Mancuso were working with Tony Trewavas at the University of Edinburgh. Tony Trewavas is an
intellectually curious, provocative, and prolic plant cell biologist who studies hormones and plant
development. Balu"ka is a cell biologist who measures membrane trafcking inside of plant cells
and the carrying of hormone receptors inside of plant cells. Mancuso is an electrophysiologist or
biophysicist of specically plants, measuring electric signals of plants cell responses due to
hormones and gravity. Therefore, at the time, they were working on measuring plant signaling
and behavior using electrophysiological techniques. During that time, they went to the Society for
Experimental Biologys meeting in England. This Society spans all of biology, but they were
presenting in the Plant portion of the Society for Experimental Biologys conference. They found
that in sitting in on portions of the conference where biologists who study and measure
neurobiological behavior in animals, the measurements they used were similar methods that were
used and discussed in the plant sections. They then presented their work informally with the
scientists describing animal neurobiology, and this became the genesis of having plant
neurobiology. It seemed logical that if there is a connection in the technology and measurements
being created, and the data being analyzed, that whether it is from an animal or a plant is
secondary. The rst conference for the Society for Plant Neurobiology happened in Florence in
2005, but prior to that they established a journal.
In the process of establishing a formal scientic journal, a debate had already formed on the
determination of how the journal should be named. A number of renowned scientists were
contacted, one of which was Dr. Van Volkenburgh, asking for input on what to call the journal.
They had already found a publisher, Landes Biosciences, and had selected some scientists to serve
on the advisory board. The email discussion on what to call the journal sparked a dialogue about
whether it should be called plant neurobiology. Of course, when animal biologists report their
ndings using similar electrophysiological measurements and techniques, they call it neurobiology,
but could the same be said for plants? The publisher wanted the name plant neurobiology
because it seemed more dangerous and therefore more likely to draw attention, publicity, and
readers. Some scientists were also in favor of the controversial name for the epistemological
obstacles it highlighted and the interesting metaphors it created between plant and animal
systems. Others were sharply opposed to the name, believing it unscientic as plants do not have
nervous systems. Thus, the name became a major sticking point of great debate and
controversy among the consulting scientists.
In 2006, following the rst conference, a group of scientists wrote a seminal paper and founded
the eld. The paper, Plant Neurobiology: An Integrated View of Plant Signaling,[13] by
Brenner et al. illuminated the history, benets, and drawbacks of opening up such a line of
research within the plant biology community. One potential drawback consciously described in
the paper was the still lingering stigma from the questionable, irreproducible, and often
considerably alternative work published in the book, The Secret Life of Plants[69]. Many scientists
studying electrical signaling and transport in plants had felt the unpleasant consequences of losing
research funding on account of its even remote relationship to some of the questionable
experiments published in The Secret Life of Plants. Consequently, many of the same scientists
reacted with alarm to see the emergence of a journal and society for plant neurobiology.
Fearing the potential for their rigorous research to be lumped along with quirky and
irreproducible experiments caused deep anxiety and resulted in a paper published in response to
the original paper by Brenner et al. by the opposing scientists against the idea of plant
neurobiology. The paper, called Plant neurobiology: no brain, no gain?,[1] by Alpi et al. was
only the beginning of a debate that continues on within the plant biology community.
From my perspective, as an artist working at the intersections of art, biology, and philosophy, this
is a perfect example of what philosopher, scientist, and poet Gaston Bachelard refers to as an
epistemological obstacle. As Bachelard states in his Psychoanalysis of Fire:
These intuitions are epistemological obstacles which are all the more difcult to overcome since
they are psychologically clearer. In perhaps a slightly roundabout way we are still dealing, then,
with a psychoanalysis which is really continuous in spite of the difference in viewpoint. Instead
of turning to the poet and the dreamer, this psychoanalysis pays particular attention to the
chemists and the biologists of past centuries. But in so doing it discovers a continuity of thought
and reverie, and observes that in this union of thought and of dreams it is always the thought
that is twisted and defeated. Thus it becomes necessary, as we proposed in a preceding work, to
psychoanalyze the scientic mind, to bind it to a discursive thought which, far from continuing the
reverie, will halt it, break it down and prohibit it. ([2] p 59)
Bachelard is pointing to a need to look at the entire cultural and metaphorical history of an
observable subject matter, to develop a line of scientic enquiry for the pursuit of discovery and
knowledge. Intuitive ideas about how systems function can become epistemological obstacles to
understanding the true and empirical nature of the way something works, however, they also can
serve as a preceding and discursive context from which to begin or orient research. Earlier in
Bachelards text, he discusses how, in many ways, metaphor precedes reality and rational thought.
It is often prior to our empirical knowledge of a phenomenon that we have a metaphorical idea of
it. Bachelard, like the scientists pioneering the Society for Plant Neurobiology, is an experimental
scientist. Experimental scientists are agents of change, they ask very root questions, act to disrupt
the established and often stagnating norm, and give way to new conversations and new ideas.
Although metaphors can be limiting, reductive, and often inaccurate, they can also incite new and
bigger picture ways of viewing systems and framing questions around those systems. This
becomes particularly useful when working in complex and dynamic elds like systems biology and
electrophysiological and biochemical communication, where so many interconnected parts need a
larger scope to be able to be understood. Once the concept is grasped, enough to be able to
generate the metaphor, it can then, with due diligence and scientic rigor, create a knowledgeable
reality and realistic, reproducible and empirical explanation. For these reasons it can be very
valuable to go in and stir-up debate, applying ideas and words in new contexts.
This is quite similar to my agenda as an artistic researcher in the eld of digital arts and
experimental media. Typically, the context for work in this eld is computationally-based and
exploring real-time data streams, signal processing, algorithmic loops, and programming or code.
In the foundational training of this discipline, one learns about feedback systems, processes,
operating systems, signal-to-noise ratios, carriers and modulators, etc. When hearing such
concepts from a fundamental perspective, it becomes clear that the terminology and metaphors
used in describing computational, algorithmic, and digital art also lend themselves to talking
about other, less articial or man-made systems. Nature and biology being the focus for my
comparison, I have been creating at the contextual edges of digital arts and experimental media
by applying the very foundational metaphors of computational or algorithmic art to living and
organic systems. Much like the Society for Plant Neurobiology, I am doing my part to broaden
discourse, in my case around what it means to be making digital, algorithmic, and experimental
media art.
A very specic context for debate that arches between both plant biology and computational,
algorithmic and experimental media art is the idea of intelligence, cognition, or memory.
Both in computer programs or electromechanical systems and in plants, terms like intelligence,
cognition, and memory are often applied. To say a plant has a behavior or that it can store
chemical information would not cause objection, but once a word like cognition is applied, values
become charged and people want to stand up against the use of this term to apply to a plant, as
stated by Dr. Van Volkenburgh in our interview on July 5th, 2011. This same debate exists in
machine learning or what is also called articial intelligence. Can a computational or mechanical
system have intelligence? In some ways, this becomes its own epistemological rupture as it seems
to level hierarchies of higher and lower organisms and between living and nonliving systems.
Humans like to place themselves at the top of that hierarchy and so it is clear why, intuitively, we
may have trouble ascribing words like memory, cognition, or intelligence to plant life or
computational algorithms. Typically, intelligence in computer programs is used to describe code
that has the ability to retain information or memory of its previously run cycles and use it to alter
its own cycles or programmatic loops in an intelligent or goal-oriented fashion, but how is that
denition much different to how living systems, especially those without nervous systems, behave
or demonstrate intelligence?
As a speculative thought experiment, what if our understanding of intelligence was purely a more
complex version of a similar series of goal-oriented survival structures found in lower organisms
like plants? To see human cognition as a highly sophisticated biochemical response to stimuli
would indeed change the way we, as humans, relate to other organisms with which we share the
universe. This type of shift in thinking is most recognized by theories developed by James
Lovelock, which supports that the planet is a living entity and all life forms on it are part of its
functioning equilibrium.[20] Biological systems are functional regulators for the planets
equilibrium. Once a biological system disrupts the balance of equilibrium that the rest of the
system cant adapt to or cope with, that biological system wont be able to continue to survive as
the larger system, the planet, will do what it needs to do to maintain its equilibrium. Which then,
of course, leads to the question, if plants have memory and cognition, do planets also? What
would an articially intelligent system for the planet look like? How could such an articial
intelligence be encoded back into the planet, rendering it no longer an articial or computational
information system, but rather an embedded self-reexive biochemical process, gaining the planet
or organism an additional degree of freedom, control, and survival?
The debate of language within the comparison of animals and plants is more than a semantic
argument; it is also a philosophical one. The debates the Society for Plant Neurobiology highlight
are important in the context of the same trajectory my arts research follows. Similar to hybrid
art-science research, the Society for Plant Neurobiology is not interested in techniques and
narrowly focused research but rather has a thirst for integrated theories, research, and outcomes.
The Society is interdisciplinary and focuses on the whole plant and its surrounding
microorganisms. There arent currently very many, if any, outlets for discussion of integrative
plant behavior. Root people go to root meetings, gene people go to gene meetings, etc. Specics
are discussed, but the metaphors and the big picture theories are lost. Then, within these targeted
areas, scientic and technological strides push scientists further into areas of specialization. It
becomes difcult for scientists to learn and integrate outside of parts and towards the whole
organisms, let alone from one biological kingdom to another. Within the plant kingdom, some
very big unanswered questions remain. Interestingly, these questions, though conceived from a
plant perspective could be generalized to include all living and nonliving systems. Those questions
1) How do plants store the information they gather from their environment
both in their genome (phenotypic plasticity/resilience/adaptation and
genetic sifting) and actively in their life (chemical storage and
epigenetic mutation)?
2) How do parts of plants communicate with each other?
3) How do plants communicate to each other and to other organisms?
4) How can a common sign processing language be developed across
different species and between living and nonliving entities?
5) How should intelligence be dened?
Many interesting points have evolved out of this type of research and were illuminated in my
interview with Dr. Van Volkenburgh on July 5th, 2011. We discussed how plant neurobiology can
be or could be taught in school. One concept that came to light was the fact that the University of
Washington at Seattle is a much heavier school for Medicine than it is for Agronomy. Most of the
students taking classes in biology about plants are studying with the goal or motivation in mind of
becoming a medical practitioner in some form. For this reason, the students are more interested in
behavior, and nd an analogy to an animal a useful one in understanding and remembering the
basic structural framework for how plants behave and function in their environments. An
observation on this topic is that students who are going to school for Agronomy are more likely to
learn about plants from the perspective of domination. They see the plant as something they will
control, for their own utilitarian purposes. They would be much less interested in understanding a
plant as being sentient or having potentially anthropomorphic behavior. Conversely, a medical
student would want to know how it functions as the desire is there to save and support the
functions of life, all life. In this example, it is clear how a mindset or approach can drastically shift
the outcomes of research. The same is true for artists that come to science from a humanitarian
perspective, as already discussed in my project The Search for Luminosity.
Interestingly, Pioneer Hi-Bred, the largest U.S. producers of hybrid seeds for agriculture,
contacted Dr. Van Volkenburghs lab and funded them to do some research into how corn plants
develop. It was precisely because her lab was functioning out of a predominantly medical school
that Pioneer Hi-Bred was able to expect that they would be less likely to have the same set of
assumptions on how plants adapt as those in the agricultural business. They were right. Dr. Van
Volkenburgh and her students took the unique perspective of looking at corn as sentient beings.
The question they were asked to tackle: How can modern corn plants grow in extremely crowded
plantations and not abort their ears? Older hybrids from the 1950s will abort their ears because of
dense plantings. What they found was a phenomenon called neighbor detection behavior and
shade avoidance. Neighbors emit far red light; detection of light followed by hormone signaling
results in ear abortion. The closer they are planted to each other, the more ears of corn are
aborted. Dr. Van Volkenburghs lab found that if the corn can be genetically modied to become
blind to their neighbor detection, they would no longer abort growth and then Pioneer Hi-Bred
would have a higher yield of corn, as they could continue to plant densely. Here we see an
excellent example of how wild plants are full of sensory mechanisms to take care of all of the
eventualities of living in the wild
. They are optimized for survival within that context. However,
once domesticated, the environment is less complex and the goal has changed. Thus, a sensitive
plant is going to produce a lower yield. This process makes clear that in domestication, unneeded
intelligences, like the presence of neighbors, when lost, actually produce better yields.
Domestication seems to imply a loss or dropping out of certain sensitivities. In observations like
these, a dialogue that connects the philosophical with the scientic -- a bridge from the scientic
to the humanities, is being established. This act is paramount to my artistic research and is a
common ground between experimental scientists, philosophers, and artists, as it involves the study
of how we perceive and value sentience in living systems.
Another way of understanding this common ground is by looking at the discipline of
biosemiotics. Biosemiotics is the study of biology from the perspective of semiotics. Semiotics is
the study of signs; understood as all of the ways in which information can be processed into a
codied format and communicated as a message. Increasingly, instruments are being developed
for collecting data or information from biological systems, resulting in new discoveries of how
biological systems function from genes to whole behaviors. The Society for Plant Neurobiology is
As quoted from conversation with Dr. Van Volkenburgh
one example of a biological society formed that has an interest in integrating knowledge arrived
at from specialized techniques. Integrative scientic research is precisely where questions about
the differences between sensing and being sentient or signaling and responding versus intelligence
come into play. If we do understand semiotics to be the study of ways in which information can
be processed and communicated, then, for example, a corn plants biochemical reaction to their
neighbor can be studied under the perspective of theoretical biology or biosemiotics. This
perspective provides an interesting outlook, as the semantic differences between a biochemical
response and an intelligent behavior become collapsed into the same rubric: an act of a biological
or computational system communicating and receiving messages that are stored and processed.
Thus, much of this section is pointing towards and relating directly back to the interconnecting
discipline of systems theory being used as a guide for contemporary artistic creation, and thereby
building and creating relationships that impact our knowledge of ourselves and our Umwelts.
Recognizing how we, as human beings, can and are manipulating the sensitivities and
intelligences of living and nonliving systems on the planet is central to the artistic frame I am
placing around the study of algorithms embedded in biological systems, and the parallel
connection between computational or articially intelligent art and biological systems art.
Umwelt was coined and dened by Jakob. V. Uexkll, a founder of biosemiotics and theoretical
biology, to be an appearance world([72] p 70) or a subjective universe[73]. Or, more
verbosely, it is dened as: biological foundations that lie at the very epicenter of the study of both
communication and signication in the human [and nonhuman] animal[22]. Biosemiotics is a
hybrid discipline, integrating both the theoretical and the empirical. The physical characteristics
of the biological organism are said to be the grounding factor in the formation and expression of
the agenda of the being. The limits or the boundary conditions of the organism compose the
initial founding rules, the internal logic, or to use a computer science and computational and
systems art analogy the software guiding the systems existence. Through this perspective, living
systems, bodies, are not only instruments, but open systems as well. Open systems can be
understood as holistic or autonomous systems that are open to change of boundary conditions
through the organisms own awareness, recording, and manipulation of its subjective universe.
Tangentially, one might imagine each being to be considered the nucleus of ones own
environment, and only when we unlock the potential of what we have inherited can we begin to
incorporate and function operationally in spaces we have in the past felt incapable of entering.
These ideas aptly suit a resonating philosophical perspective that guides my artistic process.
Additionally, such philosophies could potentially unite the scientic with the metaphorical and
break down dualistic separations between vitalism and organicism.
Encoding Information into Organisms
In his Novum organum of 1620 Bacon begins by classifying natural history: that
which deals either with the Freedom of nature or with the Errors of nature or with
the Bonds of nature; so that a good division we might make would be a history of
Births, a history of Prodigious Births, and a history of the Arts; the last of which we
have also often called the Mechanical and the Experimental Art. In other words,
natural history can be divided into the study of normal nature, aberrant nature, and
nature manipulated by man. ([45] p 10)
The rst two statements in Bacons quotation correspond well with the idea of the study of
natural history being grounded in fortuitous and unplanned or accidental creations of forms --
specically organisms, and thus only through the lengthy process of natural selection do we have
the organisms that exist in our current realities. However, the third element in Bacons hypothesis
seems the most intriguing, implying a potentially teleological approach to the creation of nature,
brought on by the organization of humans. More specically, he equates Mechanical and
Experimental Art with this particular approach.
One of the rst artists work to come to mind when imagining the manipulation and creation of
biological forms through Mechanical and Experimental Art is the Tissue Culture and Art Project
(TC&A), a group in Perth, Australia, founded by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr at SymbioticA in the
University of Western Australia. SymbioticA is the worlds rst recognized lab for artists working
with biological media like cells and tissue. TC&As rst projects deal with the foundational ethical
issues and paradigmatic shifts surrounding working with cells and tissue as a medium for artistic
A hallmark work is their Pig Wings project (2000-2001). The title comes from the hyperbolic
statement often used in jest to describe a situation that will never exist: ...When pigs y!. Seeing
their position as artists now able to be working with living cells and the techniques of biological
sciences, they recognized they were fully capable of growing wings out of pig skin tissue; and the
opportunity to play with that metaphor and cultural reference became possible for them.
Biotechnology is making our wildest imaginations of the impossible closer and closer to being
This Bacon quotation was found in Armand Marie Lerois Mutants, and part of a conversational dialogue with Shawn
quite literally possible. Out of their research, the word semi-living[67] came into the bio-art
vocabulary and canon. This phrase refers to the fact that the cells that create the work are living,
though not united with vitalism, or goal-oriented pursuits. The disembodied tissues are without
higher-level organization and depend on their synthetic and in-vitro environments to survive.
However, this work is in direct dialogue with Bacons hypothesis of a human-driven approach to
the creation of nature. TC&A studied various cultural instantiations of wing shapes and their
aesthetic and moral implications in their top-down design of the in-vitro pig wings.
Prior to SymbioticA, there were quite a few works of art dealing with biological agency altered by
the hand of the human, as well as art where biological systems are communicating with machine
and information technologies, which was already touched on in a prior chapter. The guiding
theme to draw is that the poetic metaphors found in living organisms and the expression of
biological behaviors have provided, and continues to provide, fertile ground for artistic pursuits.
A prominent artist deeply involved in the codication of biological messages in pursuit of a
creation of relationships or dialogues between technology and biology is Eduardo Kac. I often
consider his work within the realm of Conceptual Art as his art is not often about the explicit
aesthetic presentations, which we are physically experiencing, but rather the immaterial networks
and dialogues that occur when assembling his various symbols into a cohesive idea, an intellectual
puzzle at times and in part an intellectually and technologically advanced extension of Marcel
Duchamps readymades. One example of this is Move 36 (2002) in which he plots a plants DNA
sequence that can be mapped out to contain the words Cogito Ergo Sum. This plant is then
placed on the location on a chessboard where the rst computer beat a human in the strategic
game of chess. The transfer of the information I think therefore I am has no impact on the
knowledge system of the plant itself, it can never be decoded by the organism, although the
encoding of the DNA changes its physical form, rendering its leaves slightly curled [36]. The
assembling of the plant on the chessboard is another conceptual arrangement, all of these pieces
existing to prod us to think philosophically and critically about cybernetics and its implications for
Dualism, essentially making the work primarily conversational in its agenda. Similarly, works like
GFP Bunny (2000), his highly inuential transgenic bunny, embedded with glow-in-the-dark DNA,
usually used in the scientic community for gene marking, shows yet another immaterial
relationship existing to ignite conversation rather than to poetically embed human beauty
intentionally into nature. The work is most strongly engaged with an invisible social and cultural
network, as it intrigued mass media to question this action, whether we ever veriably saw the
bunny glowing or not. Kacs earlier biotechnological works deal directly with attempting
intercommunication between species, where the art lies in the relationships between entities that
otherwise would or could not exist if it were not for the mediation of technology and the artistic
intervention he created.
Minimalist artist Robert Morris has often discussed the need for a work of art that is motivated,
which he describes as the search for the motivated, and theorist Hal Foster puts forth the notion
of the arbitrary in counteraction to this term [26]. Motivation in a work of art can be
analogous to the agenda or vitalistic drive of a system. Thus the distinction between the arbitrary
and the motivated has a signicance in the artistic decision-making process. An arbitrary
expression is usually the result of a message that was not properly received. Likely in such cases, a
common language was not found, such as the arbitrary curling of the leaves in Kacs Move 36.
The plant is unable to interpret those words, and therefore could not meaningfully express such
an intensely philosophical ideology. The artists motivation was likely not to transfer usable
information to the plants genetics, however, the reality stands that he was embedding human
knowledge into a plants DNA, thus opening up a possibility for imagining what motivated
communication might make possible for our physical reality if the transfer of information did
have a common sign processing system between ourselves and the biological system which we are
Artists are certainly not the only ones engaging in creating synthetic organisms. In May of 2010,
Craig Venter announced the creation of the rst completely synthetic cell, the rst self-
replicating species on the planet whose parent is a computer.[68] He goes on to explain that this
cell has its own website written into or encoded into its DNA, which he references as a
watermark; additionally, like Kac had done decades earlier, he encoded into the living system
quotations from great philosophers. During the talk, he also describes a process of booting-up
the cell. If we analyze his usage of the phrase watermark, it is clear that he sees the cell as a
blank sheet of paper. Moreover, he sees the cell as a machine, much like a computer, which needs
to be booted-up. This act of reducing life to a blank slate that can be booted-up like a machine
is almost the antithesis to what I am calling for in understanding behavioral aesthetics and the
poetry of biological systems. It seems he is inserting watermarks for the purpose of
communicating with other life forms like himself that would have the technology to decode his
message, however, the message to that organism is completely arbitrary and placed within a
portion of its DNA that has no bearing on its life. Perhaps this sort of hidden message is valuable
in the organisms relationship to a human who utilizes it, however, to the organism it is a
supercial and domineering gesture. His technology shows no signs of revering the complexity
and resilience found inside of organisms which have been evolving for thousands of years, but
rather attempts to nd ways around that complexity. If Venter is concerned with the inherited
sign processing system of the cells he is manipulating, then he is intent to wipe them clean of their
evolutionary progress and start teleologically from scratch. Surely this is the easiest and fastest way
to control and dominate a biological system.
In my work, I call for a serious re-evaluation of many of the approaches to dealing with encoding
information into living systems that have been described in this chapter. I place strong emphasis
on the software, agency, vitalistic force, and evolutionary data that is already embedded in living
systems. The code guiding the organism is the mystery to be unravelled, the plasticity to be
explored, and the behavior to render aesthetic. Systems should be built around these functions so
as to bring human-scaled relational experience of the behaviors and processes embedded in other
living systems to our emotional and intellectual cognition. Once that link is achieved, we can
import that perspective into our own bodies and lives. We can begin to see the complexity of
ourselves not as something to be wiped clean, destroyed, or arbitrarily ignored, but something to
compose through, learn about, adapt with, and systemically extend. In my work The Search for
Luminosity, I am creating an experience whereby a biological system can begin to expect change in
its environment and also in its internal functions; expectation foreshadows desire, imagination,
and speculation. By giving the biological system an additional technological appendage and a
computational processing system to connect its gestures with its energy source, I am equipping a
living system with the ability to make discoveries about itself and its surroundings. In a subsequent
chapter, I will describe Capacity for (urban eden, human error). This project involves a computer-
controlled system guiding the formation and differentiation of a living system. Again, I am not
attempting to prescribe top-down order onto an organism, but rather to synthesize existing
intelligences from other living systems and use them to grow a community of cells or seeds. Lastly,
in the work Growth Pattern, I draw attention to the algorithms running on the cells of the tobacco
plant. Their totipotent capabilities allow a composing of chemicals to elicit differentiation in the
organism. My goal in this work is to poetically embed a cultural legacy of beauty into a living
organism. The very abstractions that human beings have been rendering aesthetic becomes
reintroduced into the very material it had been reecting on and aesthetically and elegantly
abstracting. To conclude, I am addressing Bacons prophecy by nding a common sign processing
system, or a symbiotic relationship between technology, organic life, and human cognition.
Capacity for (urban eden, human error)
As described in more detail in the rst section, the second half of the twentieth century is lled
with examples of Contemporary Art moving towards conceptual art, dematerialization, and an
emphasis on a process over a nished product. Additionally, the advent of computers generated a
shift in visual art towards simulation-based or screen-based art. Articial life emerged within this
paradigm of a simulation-based reality, programming behaviors and characteristics onto virtual
biological and physical systems.
In the twenty-rst century, artists are building on these tools while simultaneously moving towards
a re-materialization or embodiment in their arts practices. A paradigm of moving from a
simulation to an emulation[15] emerged in my thinking on contemporary art and my own arts
practice. Rather than seeing the pixel as a building block and Mac OSX as the operating system, I
began to see the building blocks of my work as systems embedded in the physical world that I
myself reside within. The operating system for my work became the universe itself and the
building blocks of the work now incorporated not only nonliving matter but also cells and
organisms. This shift in my own arts practice is mirrored in the contemporary shift in Articial
Life. AL is not only programmed computer graphics, but it is extending into living matter where
unpredictability and emergence reside.
Capacity for (urban eden, human error) is an excellent instantiation of this transition. It uses a
simulation for the surface fractal called the Eden Growth Model, it is written rst in code, and
then fed to a CNC machine that then plots the pattern out of a living material; rst
undifferentiated plant cells and, in the most recent iteration, green algae and rapid-cycling
brassica seeds.
This projects idea evolved from original biological tissue-formation technologies happening at
Clemson University in South Carolina where scientists are developing 3D printing technology
that is capable of printing an organ for medical purposes.[61] At the time that I read about this
research, I was working with and iterating on rapid prototyping technologies and also researching
and observing plant cell differentiation. I wanted to consider what it would mean to take an
undifferentiated plant cell and combine it with a 3D printer. I wanted to look at the very
Cartesian quality of looking at biological matter as exactly that, matter, undifferentiated cells that
could be used in yet another Cartesian system, an x,y plotter. I wanted to consider what it would
mean for a computer-controlled system to "differentiate" a living organism. It is my intention this
project will encourage more questioning into what it means to treat life as a building material and
to begin to nd answers on what it means to be a human observer, capable of mapping the
universe in mathematical formulations while simultaneously impacting the physical universe in the
very process of doing so.
Capacity was initially commissioned by the American Institute of Architects, New Orleans
Chapter, for the rst annual festival in New Orleans(USA) called DesCours curated by Melissa
Urcan. Capacity has since been exhibited in Seattle (USA), Linz(AUT), and Ljubljana(SLV). The
original proposal for the work involved the printing of plant cells into a 3-Dimensional form.
While investigating plant cells, I discovered the concept of totipotency. Plant cells, unlike
mammalian cells, can differentiate into any organ in a plants body. Whereas human skin tissue,
for example, can only produce more human skin tissue, plant cells taken from a leaf for example,
can differentiate into roots or leaves depending on the ratios of certain plant growth regulators. I
chose to print with undifferentiated plant cells, or cells that are given exactly equal ratios of the
hormones that guide organ formation. The initial idea was that the biological system remains
undifferentiated while the computer-controlled system is responsible for guiding the
differentiation of the form. The work was eventually altered to contain seeds and algae as these
systems are much more hardy, less open to contamination, and more immediately obvious to the
viewer that the materials the machine is depositing are living.
Capacity uses a computer-controlled four-axis positioning table to "print" intricate bio-architectural
constructions out of algae and seeds. Suspended in a clear gel growth medium, the algae
continues to grow and, after three days, the rapid-cycling seeds begin to sprout. The
algorithmically-generated patterns drawn by the system are based on the Eden growth model and
leverage mathematical representations of both urban growth and cellular growth, thereby
connecting the concept of city with the concept of the organism. This project makes concrete the
idea of dynamic and uid computer space altering the expression and formation of a living and
growing biological material, via its collaboration with an engineering mechanism.
The Eden growth model is a surface fractal that has been used to describe bacterial growth. As
stated by Philip Ball in The Self-Made Tapestry, Watching a bacterial colony grow is like watching a
city expand into urban sprawl, except that it happens in days rather than decades. The
inhabitants of the colony multiply and what drives this multiplication and growth is a supply of
food.([5] p 133) This association has also been made by applied mathematicians and urban
designers. Nikos A. Salingaros states in his essay Connecting the Fractal City: Living cities
have intrinsically fractal properties, in common with all living systems.[58] The algorithm the
machine is plotting comes directly from a logic system at play in both bacterial colonies and urban
sprawl. This particular logic system is not incorporated in plants. Typically, plants rely on other
living systems like birds or the wind to disburse their seeds. Capacity imagines a reality where
human cognition of intelligent colony formation is embedded in the growth of a colony of
plants. We imagine the plants as being connected into one singular and radially branching entity.
The position of their growth is guided by a system more controlled and intelligent than wind or
accidental inuences by intervening creatures. Again, unlike the eld of agronomy, where the goal
would be to plant for the highest yield, the value system for this work is to guide development in a
way that gives an added degree of intelligence to the organisms involved. It is not about what the
human can get out of the plant but rather what the human can do to evolve the plant. We
imagine what it would mean if the seeds are connected to each other and in a shared dialogue
with their neighbors. The goal of my research is to, by incorporating human knowledge, increase
the sentience, not remove the sensitivities, of the living systems and processes I am inuencing. In
this work, human knowledge is carried in the CNC device that is guiding and assisting in the
differentiation of an organism and the formation of a colony.
In the original thoughts surrounding this project, the idea was that the mechanical and
computational system would have some way of sensing the motivations of the organism, the plant
tissue or seeds, and plot according to that feedback. Due to practical limitations, it was decided
that the machine would instead take the emergent algorithm of the Eden Growth Model to
determine where to place the tissue and seeds. Though this instantiation is not as directly linked to
my goals of having a mechanical and computational system that is in dialogue with an organic
system, it does impart a human-ordered and mathematical intelligence onto undifferentiated
tissue and succeeds in generating a visual instrument capable of printing with living matter. The
title of the work references the very real possibility that human cognition may be capable of
shaping the world into a utopia just as easily as human cognition may make mistakes or display
characteristics of being shortsighted. This work of art is actively contributing to and reecting on
our ability to exercise this capacity for change, and the ability to shape our environments.
Time plays an important role in this hybrid bio-mechanical installation. Within the perfectly
square and glassed-off boundary where the machine draws, cycles of both organismic and
computational time are being described inside an ordered and algorithmic space. The algorithms
of the computational fractal and the algorithms of the life-cycles of the seeds are working
together to generate a time-based and living animation. The algorithm embedded in the seeds
that functions as a behavioral focus for this work is their life-cycle. These particular seeds,
trademarked Wisconsin Fast Plants, are genetically modied Brassica rapa seeds that have a very
controlled and perceivable life-cycle. These seeds were originally intended to teach school children
in a span of 40 days the entire life-cycle of a plant from sprouting to germination to death. As a
result, if given the correct conditions of 24 hours of uorescent lighting, fertilizer, and a moist
medium to grow on, like clockwork the seeds show cotyledon at three to ve days, full leaves at
seven days, and are germinating and owering at 14 days. After 40 days, the plants have
completed their life span. Capacity incorporates this operational system of growth and decay into
its design. In an ideal scenario, the work is shown over the course of 40 days. The mechanical
arm is depositing the seeds in a radially branching fractal, thus the oldest growth is always at the
center of the pattern. As depicted in the info-graphic labelled Fig. 5, the height and differentiation
of the seeds is tied to their location in space. The mechanical arms time is also programmed, but
it is mostly concerned with striking the best balance between the life-cycle of the seeds and the
attention spans of the audience, much like editing a lm. The machine is programmed to draw a
line every 10 to 15 minutes so as to achieve a temporal and spatial balance between activity and
rest. If the machine were to constantly draw, it may be exciting for the audience, but the
deliberate spacing out of life spans of the organism would not be achieved. Conversely, if the
machine was only active once an hour, it would be difcult for the audience to be able to
experience the very visceral sensation of watching the syringe squeeze out the goo of life in
ordered and computationally directed lines that generate a fractal-pattern. As with all of my
works, the processes being incorporated encourage repeat visits as the time spans happening in
the works are at simultaneous and varying scales. For example, in Capacity, the mechanical arm is
operating on a time scale of minutes, the plants on a time scale of days, and the mathematical
logic systems are taken from decades of knowledge on the computational modeling of bacterial
colonies and cities.
Capacity consists of a custom-built computer numeric control (CNC) machine that measures 54" x
54" x 48" high. It was custom-fabricated by the artist with the help of the do-it-yourself (DIY)
CNC community. The table is made of aluminum extrusion rods (T-Slots), fasteners, plastic, and
glass. The x,y,z system is enabled by a four-axis Xylotex motor driver kit that consists of the motor
driver circuits and stepper motors for driving the machine. This kit contains a parallel port
connection that communicates directly with the CPU. The linear motion of the x,y system is
enabled by racks and pinions. The z control is a threaded rod system. The syringe motor is a
linear stepper that also uses a threaded rod to drive the mechanical force of the plunger of the
syringe up and down. The software for the machine is written rst in Processing (based on Java)
and that code is then modied to output a le for the machining software, Mach3. This software
communicates with the x,y,z motors. The code it outputs is different every time it is shown. The
syringe is running its own software, on the Arduino. This Arduino is communicating with the
motor driver controller board that communicates to Mach3. This allows Mach3 to activate the
Arduino, thus enabling the syringe to dispense.
The material in the syringe is a blended agar gel that is mixed with green algae and rapid-cycling
brassica seeds. The machine draws on the same felt mat over the course of a week so that by the
end of the week, the seeds that were deposited rst are sprouting. Once it has drawn all the way
out to the edges, it draws new lines on top of existing lines, creating a third dimension. The
syringe is relled at the start of each day. The seeds are planted on a synthetic felt mat that sits in
a tray that holds water. The seeds require 24 hours of uorescent lighting a day to grow, so the
machine is illuminated with three cool white uorescent bulbs. The activity and timing of the
composition of Capacity is programmed per each exhibition, as the duration of the exhibit, the
number of hours a day it can be viewed, the attention-span of the viewer and the life-cycles of the
seeds all impact how the work manifests.
Modulation and Cell Differentiation
As discussed in prior parts of this section, the idea of computational or digital systems embedding
knowledge, inuencing and guiding the formation, morphogenesis, and differentiation of a
biological system, is of interest to the work I am carving out for my artistic practice. There are
some excellent examples of this type of work within the department of DXARTS. Juan Pampin,
Eunsu Kang, and Joel Kollin worked on a prominent project called Entanglement that dealt with the
modulation of twin sonic environments based on the interactions of the audience in two remote
but sensorially communicating and connected spaces. In this work, a linear vector of sound or
sound stream[53] is being pushed through two visually identical spaces. This unifying and
connecting sound stream can be perturbed or disrupted if the audience enters into the invisible
eld where it lies. This eld is generated by parametric array built with ultrasonic transducers
which creates a narrow sound beam (of about the size of a human torso), the system detects the
physical presence of visitors on both locations by measuring the level of the ultrasonic carrier.
Perturbations to the sound stream in one space are felt in the twin space as the modulation is
affecting the continuous stream that is running from one space to the other. The sound is creating
an invisible but binding medium of particles that joins the two remote and distinct spaces. This
sort of modulation and remote joining of two separate locations would not be possible without
digital and real-time processing technologies. In this work, the common carrier between the two
locations is the sonic stream that is moving from one location to another. The modulator for that
carrier, or sound stream, is the detection of the physical presence of human bodies inside of an
ultrasonic and technologically and computationally intelligent array. Invisible ultrasound data is
modulating the metaphorical water or sound stream which serves as the carrier for the signal
processed modulation. The modulation is experienced through the differentiating changes that
occur to the sound stream due to the presence of visitors to the space, resulting in changes to the
auditory character of the sonic environment which are heard and felt by the participants and
visitors to both locations. However, an action more complex is simultaneously occurring in
Entanglement precisely because the design of the space and the design of the parametric array was
intended to involve the bodies of the perceivers of the work. In this way, the body of the
participant becomes the carrier because in order to hear the sound of the stream one must block
it, and by doing so ones body becomes a reector which sends sound particles around the space.
Furthermore, there is no way to hear the stream without disturbing the environment and there is
no way to hear the actual sound stream particles without someone becoming the carrier. In this
way, the biological system, the audience, is the carrier for the modulation.
What if the formerly described structure of carrier, modulator to experiential differentiation was
applied to a biological organisms differentiation? In this case, the differentiation occurring might
be to the actual cells of the organism. The carrier would then be the cells or perhaps DNA of the
organism and the modulator could be encoded text affecting the DNA sequence, chemical
changes, or any other external stimuli. Two examples in the art canon come to mind that involve
this very process. One is Eduardo Kacs Genesis and the other is Natalie Jeremijenkos One Tree(s).
In the case of Genesis, Kac has translated a sentence from the biblical book of Genesis into Morse
Code and then converts that Morse Code into DNA base pairs. This DNA was then inserted into
bacteria, which was presented in the gallery. That bacteria could then be modulated further by
visitors to the artworks website who had the control of turning on and off ultraviolet light that
caused real biological changes to the bacteria itself. Consequently, the DNA in the bacteria was
modulated and sequenced back out into Morse Code and decoded back into text. The resulting
sentence was a mutated version of the original, Let man have dominion over the sh of the sea,
and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. In this case,
the carrier is actually the originating text.[37] This is a beautiful, poetic, and smart work as it
shows how through layers and layers of modulation, the capacities that humans may have
inherited, we also have the ability to change. It also is an early example of bringing human ideas,
words and thoughts physically into the expression of DNA, something as stated earlier, is now
being done as a form of watermarking by the synthetic biologist Craig Venter. Natalie
Jeremijenkos One Tree(s) starts with the carrier of a tree. It is then cloned, as she describes a
biological form of Xerox copying,([35] p 9) 1000 times. These 1000 micro-propagated clones
were then exhibited together as young potted trees before being distributed and planted in their
new public homes across the San Francisco Bay area. The once genetically identical clones are
now being modulated by external stimuli such as architecture, sunlight, elevation, soil quality,
pollution, etc. It is a very simple yet deeply poetic material visualization of how each environment
renders a once identical organism in a different and unique way. In a way similar to facets of
Genesis, it is a technologically-enabled performative study of epigenetic morphology. Additionally,
the trees are networked and communicating data about their microclimates to the Internet.
Interestingly, she also connected the trees to an Articial Life simulation where CO2 sensor data is
changing the formation of each tree on the viewers desktop. The project juxtaposes the
simulated (A-Life) trees and their biological counterparts, so doing demonstrate that simulations
don't represent as much as what they do. ([35] p 9) Both of these projects, Genesis and One Tree(s),
artistically frame ways that biological systems, genetics, and cell differentiation can be involved in
a process of modulation.
In my work I am actively exploring differentiation and the modulation of organisms and cells
through technological interventions and scientic processes. Growth Pattern unites the cultural
abstraction of a botanical system with an actual botanical system. The botanical abstraction
becomes the carrier for the actual living system it depicts, changing the pattern as the living cells
grow and sprout leaves. The living system is modulated by the botanical abstraction, its leaves cut
into a pattern and then incubated in discrete tiling dishes that contain chemicals that incite the
cells to produce new leaf tissue. In this form of modulation, where the organism is the carrier,
human imagination merges with biological differentiation to generate a living system imprinted
with the cultural legacy of humanity's cognizance of the very form that is being modulated.
Fig. 4. Allison Kudla, The Search for Luminosity, 2007. Photo Credit: Neil
Fig. 3. Allison Kudla, The Search for Luminosity, 2008. As presented for
Artbots at the Science Gallery in Dublin, Ireland.











Fig. 6. Allison Kudla, Capacity for (urban eden, human error), 2007.
Fig. 7. Allison Kudla, Capacity for (urban eden, human error), 2011. As presented at Kapelica Gallery. Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Photo Credit: Miha Fras.
Fig. 8. Allison Kudla, Capacity for (urban eden, human error), 2011. As presented at Kapelica Gallery. Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Photo Credit: Miha Fras.
Fig. 9. Allison Kudla, Capacity for (urban eden, human error), 2011. As presented at Kapelica Gallery. Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Photo Credit: Miha Fras.
Fig. 10. Allison Kudla, Capacity for (urban eden, human error), 2010. As presented at Ars Electronica. Linz, Austria.
Fig. 11. Allison Kudla, Growth Pattern, 2010. Photo Credit: Kristof Vrancken / Z33.
Fig. 12. Allison Kudla, Growth Pattern, 2010. Enlargement and condensation pattern. Photo Credit: Kristof Vrancken / Z33.
Fig. 13. Allison Kudla, Growth Pattern, 2010. Tissue that has sprouted new leaves. Photo Credit: Kristof Vrancken / Z33.
Fig. 14. Allison Kudla, Growth Pattern, 2010. Left: Leaves after being cut with bilaterally symmetrical dies. Right: Die sets.
Fig. 15. Allison Kudla, Growth Pattern, 2010. Working in the sterile hood at the NCBS in Bangalore, India.
Fig. 17. Allison Kudla, Growth Pattern, 2010. Photo Credit: Kristof Vrancken / Z33.
Fig. 16. Growth Pattern, 2010. Still from Time-lapse documentation. Beginning and End.
Fig. 19. Growth Pattern, 2010. Left: Freshly cut leaves. Right: Some symmetry in reorganized and newly sprouting leaves.
Fig. 18. Growth Pattern, 2010. Detail of symmetrical fungal growths. Photo Credit: Kristof Vrancken / Z33.




















Fig. 22. Allison Kudla, Manicured Field: Diptych, 2011. As shown at Gallery BMB, Mumbai, India.
Fig. 21. Allison Kudla. Growth Pattern, 2010. Final state of decay as presented at LABoral, Gijon, Spain.
Tending to Wild

This garden, still to tend plant, herb and ower,
Our pleasant task enjoined, but till more hands
Aid us, the work under our labour grows,
Luxurious by restraint; what we by day
Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind,
One night or two with wanton growth derides
Tending to wild.
-Lines 206-212, Paradise Lost: Book IX,
Milton [50]
The above quotation is taken from Miltons Paradise Lost. It is the voice of Eve who, in the midst of
humbly complaining about the endless task of tending to the continually growing wild, also
foreshadows a desire to bring order, free of the toils of labor, to Paradise. It is Eve's questioning of
the current nature of the garden and her place in her habitat that causes her to separate from
Adam and open herself up to an infamously deceptive serpent, and so the story goes. While
historically this particular poem, written in the seventeenth century by an English poet, is deeply
concerned with Judeo-Christian religious themes, it is ironically and metaphorically prescient
when placed in reference to the themes of climate change. If one pursues this metaphor a bit
further, one can map the garden to our planet and Eves desire to control nature for the purpose
of shortening labor periods and increasing immediate gratication as a parallel to our current
culture of mass consumption. Paradise Lost was concerned with the schism between God and
humans; however, in the analogy of this document concerned with my experimental arts practice,
it is not as much the individual that is presented with the idealist dilemma of a personal eternity
in either of these mythical realms of Paradise or Hell, but rather a contemporary existentialist
struggle owed to the planet itself. Now that the scientic evidence of global warming and our
planet's climatic changes are becoming tangible and experiential, humans, as stewards of this
planet, are no longer able to eschew responsibility for the material excess that has been created via
the pursuit of mass production and incidentally a neglect of long-term thinking. A reective
culture is needed to counterbalance the demands this new gilded age has placed on our habitat.
Furthermore, our culture may begin to question not only how we can shape nature to suit our
Fig. 23. Allison Kudla, Decorative Growth Pattern,
needs, but beyond that also to suit the best interests of the planet as a whole. This chapter seeks to
deepen the connections between these topics by introducing the rst experiment into the project,
which eventually became titled Growth Pattern and will be discussed in further detail in the
proceeding chapter.
At once appearing garish and almost profane, Decorative Growth Pattern also recalls the ornamental
opulence generally lavished upon religious or sacred structures. The material used to form these
familiar ornamental and botanical patterns primarily elicits this response. They are not carved or
painted by inanimate materials but rather laser-cut out of living tobacco leaves. Therefore, in this
project, a living natural system takes on the form of a manufactured pattern. Digital vector
images in conjunction with computer numeric control (CNC) are used to cut the leaves into these
replications that are then incubated in square tiling petri-dishes that contain the nutrients
necessary to promote new leaf growth of the in-vitro tissue, allowing the occupants to the space to
witness morphological changes in the pattern over the duration of the exhibit as new leaves sprout
from the edges of the totipotent cultured cells. This artwork is exploring a territory where human
constructions are present in the genetic formations of living systems.
The project pushes to the extreme the act of tending and pruning nature by incorporating digital
computing technology, CNC tools, and the biochemical processes of micropropagation. It also
frames in a transparent manner the concept of totipotency: meaning that any cell in the plant can
become any organ in the plant depending on the ratios of auxins and cytokinins, which are,
simply put, hormones, delivered to the tissue. In a sense, it makes the viewer aware of how stem
cells work as, over time, the leaf cuttings sprout new complete leaves. This happens because,
despite the form the plant is cut into, it is the nature of the cells due to the biological agency or
algorithms embedded within them to "tend to wild" and repeat the morphogenic leaf form
encoded in its DNA. Because the meditative process of cutting, sterilizing, and placing the leaves
is lengthy and open to many variables, especially at this scale and complexity, room for human
error occurs, causing bacteria, mold, or death in some of the in-vitro micro-environments.
Therefore, the artwork is positioned on a fulcrum which is considering whether or not the
patterns the computer brings to this natural form are adding value and exalting human
technology or doing the reverse by disturbing the form of the plant and opening it up to
vulnerability and destruction. The hope or the Paradise would be that the two could co-exist
while being mutually benecial to one another. In the process of entering into a new coupling
with each other, it becomes possible to imagine moving beyond the above mentioned polemic. It is
in this dialogue that new knowledge can be generated through challenging artistic and creative
For a variety of reasons, some barely understood, humans have the capacity to comprehend and
effectively make changes to the biological and physical universe. This use of free will, combined
with knowledge and custom-designed tools, has allowed us to alter evolution via breeding and
genetic modication, geography via terraforming, life spans via medicine, and the list goes on.
However, these smaller scale regional changes have had an inadvertent impact on the larger
physical system, our shared planet, and its health within the Universe. Consequently, this outlook
will demand new ethics for dictating how we guide our collective free will into the future.[41]
Fig. 24. Allison Kudla, Decorative Growth Pattern, 2008.
Growth Pattern
In this work of art, a living natural system takes on the form of a manufactured pattern. Tobacco
leaves are die-cut into a bilaterally symmetrical botanical abstraction and incubated in tiling
square petri dishes that contain the nutrients necessary to promote new leaf growth. The premise
for this work is the merging of a living botanical system with the cultural legacy of botanical
motifs. By attempting to structure a living organism inside an abstraction of itself, a poetic fractal
of consciousness, control, and plasticity unfolds in time. The essence or idealized structure of a
living system collides with its material existence. While the bilaterally symmetrical pattern, which
is die-cut along the mid-vein of freshly grown tobacco leaves, might be considered similar to an
Arabesque pattern, the pattern is derived as an abstraction based on the geometrical essence[43]
of a singular leaf, and its phyllotaxy is seen as an arrangement from aerial perspective.
Plant cells are totipotent. This means that, depending on the ratio of auxins to cytokinins, the
cells have the capacity to differentiate into any organ in the plant. The concept of totipotency,
or total potentiality, is precisely the kind of biological concept and extensible idea to ignite a visual
artists creative imagination. Plants are already excellent morphological carriers for epigenetic and
phenotypic modulation, and then to also discover the potential for complete organ plasticity is
astonishing. Essentially every cell in a plant has the instructions or algorithms embedded inside of
it to replicate into any organ its DNA understands how to produce. Human tissues are much more
specialized, and only stem cells contain such total potentiality, but imagining how this plasticity
could manifest in a plant through human intervention was a driving force in the creation of this
work of art. The project merges an instantiation of our cultural legacy of botanical abstractions
with the very material those abstractions modeled themselves after. Given that the material is alive
and open to biochemical inuences, the pattern morphs as the plant responds to what is
essentially a process of disorganization and reorganization for the botanical system. Tobacco was
chosen primarily because of the affordances it gave in the tissue culturing process. It has a high-
degree of sensitivity and plasticity, lending itself to tissue culture, and its leaves are broad and at,
making it easy to cut shapes from its leaves.
Since each initially nearly identical unit in the whole that composes the work of art functions as a
self-contained ecosystem or micro-environment, several precautions were taken to make sure that,
when the leaves were placed into their petri dish environments, they were thoroughly
decontaminated and sterilized. However, as with any experiment, it is possible for contamination
to occur. In some, the tissue dies; in others, parasites take over and grow faster than the new
leaves. In some micro-environments, aseptic conditions are achieved and new sprouts begin to
grow from the die-cut leaf tissues disembodied cells.
Although I considered choosing to grow roots from leaves or leaves from roots, I chose to extend
the growth of leaves from leaves. This decision was made to further pronounce the concept of
disorganization and reorganization of the biological medium and also to investigate the collision
of the abstraction of reality to reality itself. Therefore, the cultured leaves are provided with the
hormones that cause the cells of the leaf cuttings to produce new leaf tissue. The newly growing
leaves are extending and remixing the form of the botanical motif. Due to the repetition of the
pattern, the occupants to the space witness a performative experiment of morphological and
ecological changes in each micro-environment over the duration of the exhibit. Much like in
contrapuntal composition, each petri dish is created identically, yet due to the variables present in
the process and also in the leaves themselves, deviance from the initiating structure occurs in the
eventuality of the work of art over time. To continue the comparison to musical structure, the
cultural form it borrows, a singular square that generates a repeating pattern, is akin to common
time or a 4/4 structure in music. The installation begins in an incredibly harmonious fashion, yet
this 4/4 structure is modulated, and disrupted by the varying behaviors, growths, and
senescence processes occurring in each unit. The algorithms running on the cells themselves, as
they strive to reorganize themselves, can be seen alongside the algorithms of contamination as
parasites grow quickly, covering the plant tissue and taking the plants nutrients. The structure for
the work can no longer be dened with any precision. The harmony of the work of art begins to
disorganize at the very moment that the individual micro-environments are starting their own
processes of expression and reorganization. The structure of the work begins controlled by the
human and ends controlled by an almost expected biological variability and unpredictability. It is
not known, even to the artist at the time the work is instigated, which micro-environment will
successfully grow new leaf tissue and survive the human disorganization and manipulation of its
tissue so as to contribute to a harmonious macro-environment and which micro-environment will
decay, grow parasites, and contribute to a dramatic and dynamic display of entropy and ruin.
Finally, if all micro-environments were to produce new leaf tissue, the whole would still appear to
have disrupted the harmonious structure. As I will discuss in the next chapter, theoretical biology
does not know precisely why leaf tissue grows in the position it does on the leaf and ascribes the
potential for growth from a cell to a random order. Thus, even when sterilization balance achieves
perfection, the pattern of sprouting is not always ordered within that order, or hyper-ordered.
The pattern emerging within the pattern still contains an element of the unpredictable and when
it does match, then that is precisely where the work is seen to create an emergent pattern.
The life-cycle of the work goes through three macro-scale state changes: an initial state, a growth
state, and a decay state. The growth state is composed of various micro-states that can be
generalized to contain in some leaf tissue growth, and in others bacterial and fungal growth. The
decay state is always eventually arrived at by all of the units which comprise the whole, however,
in some this happens in a matter of days and in others in a matter of months. The timeline for
new leaf growth is approximately three to four weeks, whereas the timeline for bacterial and
fungal growth can range from two to three days to two to three weeks. It takes a period of two to
three months before all of the petri dishes have arrived at a state of decay. The project is highly
temporal in nature; it doesnt leave behind any material of lasting permanence beyond the frames
that hold the micro-environments. The work of art exists in time and space as a collection of ever-
changing and continuous moments which the viewer samples with each visit to the installation.
Therefore, the work is structured to stage multiple viewings over durations of days, weeks, and
months so as to witness both micro and macro, implicit and explicit expressions of patterns and
changes of state. As described prior, in the rst stage of the work, the viewer encounters 64 nearly
identical square units in an 8 x 8 array that hold leaf tissue that has been methodically cut into a
precise and bilaterally symmetrical pattern. Over a period of days, condensation develops, and,
over a period of weeks, bacteria, fungi, and new leaves may grow, and, nally, over a period of
two to three months, the tissue decays and dies as nutrient supplies deplete with each unit in the
system changing, becoming, and ending in a different way. This process of unpredictability and
differentiation is beautifully discussed by the philosopher Gilbert Simondon in his ideas of
individuation.[63] Although the piece begins as a collective whole united in form and pattern, by
the end of the exhibition, each micro-environment has stepped through its own expression of
haecceity. The nal state which identies each petri dish is unknowable and literally innite in its
explicit variability, yet its essential individuation is limited to a nite number of implicit
possibilities. The delicate process of sterilization leaves much guesswork as contamination and also
cell death are invisible processes at rst and take days and weeks to develop into our operational
Growth Pattern leverages the algorithms embedded in plant cells and their surrounding micro-
organisms to render a self-generating, time-based and physically real visual process. There is a
difference between this and previous works in the eld of Articial Life (AL): Rather than the
back-end for the botanical animation being a computer program written in a human-designed
coding language, the back-end is the biology of the organism itself; the front-end is the cultural
legacy of botanical patterns found in tiling designs. The software that generates this work, rather
than running on a computer operating system, is running on the biochemical structure of plant
cells, and I am working and composing with them. The living organism is the operating system for
the work. This particular code comes from the totipotency of all plant cells, meaning any cell in a
plant can become any organ in a plant. This thereby generates a living animation where petri
dishes, or micro-environments, act as a microcosmic universe or whole, and the algorithm and
software for the work is housed in the biochemistry and DNA of a living system, which is also
where the live-process of my artwork occurs.
The basic formula for organ generation from cultured cells involves the use of two specic
chemical growth regulators. They are called auxins and cytokinins. Plants generate these
naturally, however, scientists in the mid-twentieth century discovered how to synthesize these
chemicals in laboratories. The primary use for these synthetic hormones or plant growth
regulators is research around the mechanisms of the cell and, in a more applied way, in
micropropagation, cloning, and tissue culture. The algorithm is as follows: a greater ratio of
auxins to cytokinins = roots, a great ratio of cytokinins to auxins = leaves, and equal ratios of
auxins and cytokinins = undifferentiated tissue. I took this basic formula to generate a living
image or process-based real-time cellular animation where leaves, cut in the abstraction of
themselves, generate new leaves. Therefore, my chemical formula was cytokinins > auxins =
leaves. I added nutrients, sugar, antibiotics, and antimycotics to the growth medium. The growth
medium was made of a standard laboratory grade agar. The sterilization technique of the tissue
involved a procedure of one minute in ethanol, ve minutes in a mixture of sterile water, bleach,
Dettol and Tween (detergents), and a nal swirl in ethanol. The tissue was then rinsed in two
baths of sterile water before being cultured into the petri dishes. The placement of the tissue is
done inside of a sterile hood.
The project went through many iterations before its nal outcome, and that involved changes of
method, process, pattern, size, and shape. The rst proof of concept for this work was done at a
smaller scale of only 16 petri dishes, a 4 x 4 array, sized at 3.5 per square. The leaf tissue was
laser cut into a pattern that echoed the damask wallpaper that hung near where it was being
exhibited. The process of laser cutting the leaf tissue was rened so that the edges of the leaf
were not burned. However, the act of putting a leaf into the top corner of a rectangular CNC
table and pressing go while a laser cut through the leaf took a large degree of control out of the
process. The cutouts were ill tting to the form of the leaf and often included the middle vein of
the leaf in the shapes being cut. The middle vein of the leaf contains the most bacteria, the least
meristem tissue, and it is very difcult to sterilize. After switching to using a pattern based on
bilateral symmetry, using the middle vein of the leaf as a guide, and cutting the patterns pieces
out by hand with dies rather than with a machine, the concept and the method started to
reinforce each other to a much higher degree. I was able to compose the symmetry and use of the
tissue in a much more meaningful way for the design. I was also returning to the process of
cutting that biologists traditionally use; the die technique being much more similar to using a cork
borer. The form for the work resonated with the material and process for the work in a much
more consistent way. Furthermore, ideologically, the pattern of damask wallpaper was much less
about the geometric essence and formation of a plant than the design of the bilaterally
symmetrical pattern that was used in the nal outcome of the work. I came at this bilaterally
symmetrical pattern because I was researching examples of botanical abstractions that were more
focused on the universal essence of a plant and how it is structured than on its gurative
depiction. In the process of reading about ornamental patterns, I determined that the most
interesting way to create the pattern for Growth Pattern would be to design one bilaterally
symmetrical unit that could be rotated four times to generate a central botanical pattern. Each
unit then becomes a representation of a leaf, and the leaf then rotates about an invisible central
axis as the pattern radiates out into clusters of four. The pattern was inuenced by existing
Arabesque designs, but its nal format was a completely original pattern that was broken up into
twenty-four individual pieces or dies that are mirror images of each other, or twelve pairs of dies.
The smaller sub-shapes generated within the larger pattern reference shapes as diverse as the
human gure, a rocking horse, a Dutch shoe, and the way human skin cells look when viewed
under a microscope. As a whole, the tile appears as a botanical abstraction of a leaf and as all tiles
come together, it references a eld of plants from aerial perspective. The work is presented on the
oor rather than the wall, further emphasizing the concept of the tableau we are gazing down at
being an abstraction of an agricultural system.
The units which make up the whole were tested in two
different scales. First, in approximately 3.5 square petri
dishes and then in approximately 9 square petri dishes.
It was discovered that the tissue, when cut into pieces
small enough for the 3.5 square, too quickly curled and
morphed, losing all recognition of the originating
pattern [Fig. 25]. This is one reason for the 9 square
dishes, however, the larger scale of the work also added
to a sense of the sublime and innite when displayed
over a 2.5 meter by 2.5 meter area, consisting of 64
petri dishes in an 8 x 8 array. It required the viewers to
walk around it, the work existing at the liminal edges of
being able to be taken in as a whole from a human-scaled height and position. The large petri
dishes are also such an uncommon object, that it reinforced the forms ambiguity, which is an
essential characteristic in the process of conveying to the viewer a sense of the experiential and
surreal. It could not be minimized as another example of art in petri dishes, for the form
transcended such a reading. The trademark tools and tropes of science laboratories were
subverted enough so that the visual resonance of the aesthetics of the modern, the industrial, the
unit, and the manufactured could become just as equally pronounced. The sensitivity to the
materials and their visual presentation placed emphasis on the effects of scientic tools and
processes not being aesthetically lost but rather seamlessly blended into the aesthetics of the
industrial and technological paradigm shifts of our time. The support systems for the living
systems were intentionally square, solid, manufactured, and uniform; this visual counterbalance to
the fragile, living, and changing micro-environments is essential to the aesthetic, emotional, and
intellectual experience of the work. The brightly glowing light-box stage that holds the square
petri dishes emphasizes an analogy to a pixel-based screen and adds one more contextual
Fig. 25. Documentation of leaf tissue curling in
the smaller scaled petri dishes
reference to computational art; the generative display of screen-based AL is re-imagined in living,
growing matter. Additionally, the ventilated light-box serves to draw out all of the essential visual
characteristics of each living micro-environment while also providing the tissue with the right
temperature and light energy levels to keep the cells alive and optimized for potential growth.
I researched and developed this work at the University of Washington in the biology lab of Dr.
Liz Van Volkenburgh. Since that time, I rened my protocol by consulting and working with
scientists from the University of Salzburg, the University of Hasselt, and the University of
Oviedo. Practical work was performed at the latter two in addition to the University of
Washington, Seattle. Although proof of concept was achieved at the University of Washington, I
continued my exploration of culturing die-cut leaf tissue while at the National Center for
Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore, India. I was working there as an artist-in-residence with
an appointment at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology. Due to equipment access
limitations, the work migrated from using a laser cutter to using dies. Fittingly, the process and
design of the pattern became much more controlled and the pattern more geometrically elegant
once the use of dies was introduced into the work. The process of creating this work is described
in more detail in subsequent chapters, however, it involves custom-made dies, tobacco plants, petri
dishes, and growth medium that contains agar, sugar, nutrients, hormones, antibiotics, and
antimycotics. The production is carried out in a biology lab with a sterile hood and autoclave and
requires a greenhouse for growing the tobacco plants which supply the work of art its leaf tissue.
The tobacco plants grown for the work are an academic variety known as Xanthi. I originally
received the strain from Douglas Ewing, the director of the University of Washington's
Greenhouse, and I have been harvesting and saving these seeds since then. When the work was
presented in Hasselt, a camera with intervolumeter was mounted directly above the work and set
to record one photograph every 15 minutes over the duration of a two-month span.
Documentation of the beginning and end state of this time-lapse video can be seen in Figure 16.
Botanical Abstraction
The drawings of patients with Parkinsonism, as they are awakened by L-Dopa, form an
instructive analogy. Asked to draw a tree, the Parkinsonian tends to draw a small, meager
thing, stunted, impoverished, a bare winter-tree with no foliage at all. As he warms up,
comes to, is animated by L-Dopa, so the tree acquires vigor, life, imaginationand
foliage. If he becomes too excited, high, on L-Dopa, the tree may acquire a fantastic
ornateness and exuberance, exploding with a orescence of new branches and foliage with
little arabesques, curlicues, and what-not, until nally its original form is completely lost
beneath this enormous, this baroque, elaboration.([57] p 54-55)
-Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat
This quotation is an intriguing one in that it brings to question if the process whereby humans
abstract nature into baroque congurations, curlicues, and arabesque patterns is somehow
biologically linked somewhere in the physiology of our brains. This is particularly interesting
when considering the cultural legacy of botanical motifs. Could it be that under certain
chemically-induced somatic states plants appear to ourish in a way similar to what has been
recorded in the evolution of ornamentation and botanical abstractions? Perhaps we use depictions
and abstractions of plants in ornamental patterns precisely because they lend themselves so well
to this format due to their inherent algorithmic properties of repetition and geometric
conguration. Does the altering of certain chemicals in human physiology produce fantastical and
elaborate hallucinations of ornamental patterns when gazing upon the foliage of a lush and full
botanical form? If there is a connection in human physiology to the hallucination of plants into
baroque, arabesque, and ornamental patterns, this research has not been done, however, it is an
interesting idea to consider. If that hypothesis were true, what would happen if the plant was
carved out into the form of the very abstraction the human mind perceives? How would the plant
emerge within this human-ordered abstraction? How could the plant actively play a role in this
fantasy? This was one of the thoughts that guided the creation of the work Growth Pattern.
While the process of creating botanical abstractions is ancient, centuries old, and appearing
throughout many different cultures at many different times and in many different forms, there are
a few hallmark motifs that arise over and over again. These most recognized and conventionalized
botanical stylizations are rosettes, palmettes, calyxes, scrollwork, and fan-like owers.[43] Karl
Blossfeldt, a photographer from Germany who became most recognized in the early twentieth
century for his published work Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in
Nature, 1929),[10] stands out as having begun, in a methodical
way, the process of nding these idealized and stylized forms in
actual nature. His photographs appear otherworldly, however,
they are quite simply photographs of actual nature. He only
manipulates the nature in so far as to cut, tie, nail, paste, and
position or arrange these living artifacts in such a way as to
most accurately translate the idealized form of a botanical
abstraction. His working collages are truly amazing and relate
directly back to the idea that perhaps idealized botanical forms
were not invented by human beings but rather they were
discovered when in a subjective and operational time and
space that was unusual or somehow transcendent to the
perceiver. Essentially, botanical abstractions are a form of algorithmic perfection that do exist in
our physical reality, however, it requires our minds to be able to see and order it in a particular
way; it is only through a specic hyper-state of perception that these forms can or could be
routinely observed.
While the preceding idea is not scientically grounded, but rather guided by intuition, experience,
and assumption, work has been done on how totipotent cells arrange and reorganize themselves
into new organs. Chemical formulas are used to elicit certain responses from plant cells, but where
these new organs place themselves in a leaf cutting is a mystery. If one were to cut a circle, or leaf
disc, and place it into a micro-environment with the growth medium that contains the hormones
for new leaf growth, and all conditions of sterility were properly achieved and the cells were able
to differentiate into new shoots, what determines where those new shoots grow? Why do they
grow at 1 oclock on one leaf disc and 8 oclock on another, for example. It is observed that the
new shoots can only grow out of callus tissue. This means that rst, the cut or severed tissue
responds to the act of being vivisected by growing clumps of undifferentiated tissue at the open
and dislocated edges. Almost in a healing process, the organism sends more cells to those edges
and the cells develop a sort of scab or husk of undifferentiated callus tissue. Once the cut edge has
this buffer, the chemical messages being sent from the micro-environment are taken into the cells
and they respond by differentiating based on those hormonal signals. Out of the callus tissue, new
Fig. 26. Karl Blossfeldt, Forsythia
suspensa, 1929. Photogravure.
shoots sprout. It was hypothesized that perhaps there is more action potential for new shoot
development at the opening of a vein, however, this was not proven as it wasnt most often at the
site of a vein were new leaves sprouted; in fact, quite the reverse was true. It appears that callus
tissue forms rst where there is not a vein, as the vein does not contain the desired meristem
tissue; beyond that rule, the pattern appears to behave randomly. My understanding of the word
random in highly ordered and evolved biological systems is that it is simply unknown to us, not
that it is without meaning or function. The visually repeating and methodical system set up in
Growth Pattern makes the comparison of placement of new sprouts easier to see simply by viewing.
When I cut the forms out of the leaves, I always made pairs for each tile, the dividing line of
symmetry for the leaf guiding the dividing line of symmetry in each petri dishs pattern. For this
reason, it is very interesting to see fungal growths [Fig. 18] and even in some cases leaf sprouts
[Fig. 19] happening in a mirrored form from one side of the square dish to the next. I have
included images of some examples of this emergent pattern happening within the pattern below.
Achieving an emergent pattern within a pattern or a hyper-ordered pattern was a goal of the
work, as it further emphasizes the algorithmic and programmatic qualities embedded in living
systems while simultaneously proving exactly how complex, diverse, and dynamic these systems
can be.
Sampling Nature into Homogenous Units
Throughout the process of generating artistic research within the context of a doctoral program
for digital arts, I continually question my understanding of the word digital. It is useful to
describe these considerations for the purpose of creating an appropriate context for examining my
artistic practice. Digital is derived from the Latin word digitus which means nger. The root of
digital is digit, which is a number. It is interesting that the creation of a symbolic representation,
such as a number, is linked in etymology also to our ngers, a unique mechanical and sensory
system of the human body that was central to our rst methods for counting. The process of
counting implies the grouping of things based on likeness or identity. The identicalness of the
objects being counted allows space to collapse, as the need for specic space to represent these
objects disappears. Differences between the things being counted are dropped and a homogenous
unit is established in its place that is then associated with a symbolic character, or in the case of
counting, a digit. It seems very clear how the simple and foundational process of counting relates
directly to the denition of digital. Typically, the word digital is dened as the sampling of
analogue or continuous ows of information of any type into a symbolic, discrete, and
organizable unit.
In the book, Time and Free Will[8], Henri Bergson describes the process of the identical serving to
collapse the need for space and exist as a symbolic character in our minds. Interestingly, in the
same book, Bergson describes the process of consciousness to be similar to the point at which we
check-in with our sensorial systems and then formulate language to ascertain and describe our
Fig. 27. Left: Tobacco Field. Right: Allison Kudla, Growth Pattern, 2010. As presented at Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium.
state. By this denition, the process of becoming conscious is digital at its very core. The
individual is by denition constantly involved in analogue and continuous processes, and it is the
focusing of attention or creation of deliberate thought which samples this continuous process and
relates qualitative information to our consciousness about our analogue state. By their very
denition, words, numbers, and other symbolic characters are limited in that they are referencing
a discrete portion of what is a complex and continuous source. Language in particular is built
around dichotomies of less and more, have and have not, do and do not, etc.. These opposing
words allow us to choose a position or a point somewhere in between a spectrum to describe or
sample our continuous state. While language and communication functions as a macro-level
example of the digital, at a micro-scaled level biological systems, cells, are continually sampling,
copying, and replicating. The digital process of sampling, copying, and replicating, from
microscopic to macroscopic scales, is inherently human.
There are many examples in digital technology of how the concept of the creation of identical
units can collapse a need for space. One is the idea of a codec. A codec encodes a digital stream
of data or a signal into a compressed version of itself. In the example of digital imaging, a codec
would look at all pixels in an image, place them into an array, and compress pixels that are of a
similar hue, saturation, and value into a larger chunk. In a way, this can cause the image to lose
some of its subtlety, however, it also results in a smaller, more compressed packet of information
to represent what is otherwise the same essential data set. This concept can also be applied to
computer programs. It is said that a more elegant or graceful computer program is one that has
the fewest possible lines of code while still retaining the same degree of complexity and richness.
For example, rather than copying and pasting a loop function that performs a particular behavior
into multiple places in a body of code, it would make more sense to dene that repeating behavior
in one place and then pass multiple variables through it. The idea of grace or elegance in a digital
system is an interesting one. As Bergson describes in Time and Free Will:
Sampling, copying and replicating idea was discussed in conversation with Shawn Brixey
Let us consider the simplest of them, the feeling of grace. At rst it is only the perception of a
certain ease, a certain facility in the outward movements. And as those movements are easy which
prepare the way for others, we are led to nd a superior ease in the movements which can be
foreseen, in the present attitudes in which future attitudes are pointed out and, as it were,
pregured. If jerky movements are wanting in grace, the reason is that each of them is self-
sufcient and does not announce those which are to follow. If curves are more graceful than
broken lines, the reason is that, while a curved line changes its direction at every moment, every
new direction is indicated in the preceding one. Thus the perception of ease in motion passes over
into the pleasure of mastering the ow of time and of holding the future in the present.([8] p
By this denition, grace occurs when the discrete sampling is imperceptible, yet the simplest and
clearest expression of the behavior is portrayed. The expression is one we can predict so much so
that it seems to happen with an almost divine sense of ease. It is no doubt that to uncover this
simple and clear expression, abstraction has to be employed. The process of abstraction is not
meant here to imply the glossing over of what makes something heterogeneously different than
something else in favor of its homogenous essence. The process of abstraction widens the
granularity of a system, thing, or set of things so that what remains is the unifying and similar
essence of the thing being abstracted. Second of all, the idea of grace also alludes to a sense of
pleasure or beauty. An abstraction that is essential in its structural representation, but also elegant
and aesthetically rened.
Fig. 28. Left: Tobacco plant in aerial view. Right: Analogous abstraction composed of 4 petri dishes rotating around a
central axis.
The art of pattern-making holds both of the above described characteristics of being digital,
while also striving to embody grace. Pattern-making implies the sampling of a continuous and
complex reality into a discretely sampled section that is then made identical and therefore capable
of becoming innite while holding only the simplest of parts in its explicit description. Pattern-
making creates order out of chaos and brings homogeneity into heterogeneity. The art of pattern-
making is centuries old and its earliest historical roots are difcult to trace. It has, however, stood
the test of time, as pattern-making is still an active form of human expression and another
example of the process of sampling, copying, and replicating. My particular focus into pattern-
making is on the making of botanical patterns. Likely due to the already repetitive and
algorithmic nature of organisms from the plant kingdom, the range of botanical motifs, or
decorative abstractions of plant-life, is massive and an age-old tradition and cultural legacy. The
work, Growth Pattern, formulates its cultural entry-point around this history. Grace takes on a new
meaning once the performative experiment of Growth Pattern begins. The delicate and beautiful
leaf tissue that is sprouting in some units of the whole, defying entropy in its delicate
reorganization, nds its counterpoint in the neighboring units that contain mold or bacterial
growths. The decay has its own aesthetic richness, a poetry in its decomposition and ruin. Hence,
a third beauty forms out of the intersection of these two polarities of expected and hoped for leaf
growth and unexpected and feared parasitic growth, creating a dynamic and emotive work that
extends beyond a simple formal elegance and aesthetic pleasure. The demanding process to attain
the right amount of sterilization becomes in itself a reection on the difculties and challenges to
attaining perfection and the beauty and grace found in the variance that is more likely to occur
when dealing with the properties of the biological and physical universe which are inherently
complex and dynamic.
Lastly, on the subject of the digital, I have brought up the concept of heterogenous information
being collapsed into discrete symbols that can then become carriers for modulation, translation,
and systemically greater bodies of knowledge when integrated into a whole. It is important for
contextual comparisons to include in this dialogue the analogy to a display. In computer science
terms, a display is typically an array of discrete pixels that can express a full-range of data:
typically hue, saturation, and value. The pixels can then be manipulated individually to form a
collective image. An increased number of pixels increases the resolution of the image much in the
same way that the more points a symmetrical polygon contains the closer it becomes to being a
perfect, and graceful, circle. In my work, Capacity for (urban eden, human error), and also in the work
Growth Pattern, I am allowing the resolution of the work to be determined by seeds and cells
working together with biochemical synthetic environments and computational and also human-
constructed forms. The results of these works can be understood as a living, growing, and
generative image or display. The outcome is a time-based analogue animation extracted from a
digital narrative. Its essential character is predictable, but its haecceity or thisness is entirely
unpredictable and governed by biological and physical interactions that are beyond human-scaled
operational awareness. With each explicit instantiation of the project, the work is expressed
differently, although the code for the work remains implicitly the same. In the case of Capacity, we
can know precisely where the mechanical arm is going to draw. The rapid-cycling Brassica rapa
seeds it deposits also have a very prescribed time-based life-cycle of germination and decay.
However, when placed in a controlled and predictable computer numeric and time-based system,
the viewer, over the course of days, can begin to see the cycles of the seeds growth mapped
physically to the cycles of the mechanical arm. As it extends its circle radially, the seeds grow
taller and fuller -- eventually owering and decaying in an ordered or routine schedule or cycle.
Time and space are both composed in this work, and the open living systems expression brings
generative emergence to the pattern being displayed. In the case of Growth Pattern, leaves are die-
cut in a very deliberate way, creating bilateral symmetry of vein patterns in the 64-tiling dishes.
The chemicals that are tweaking the growth of new leaf tissue then cause the manipulated leaves
to extend their pattern by sprouting new leaf tissue. In some cases the leaf and also fungal growth
appear in the exact same location from one shape to the next, creating an additional layer of
symmetry within and across the dishes. However, entropy is the more common result, confronting
the audience with the very living nature of the work, suggesting that attempting to control a living
system in the way one can control the pixels in a computer animation is not only difcult but also
defeating the poetry embedded in living systems and the complex interactions that occur in their
co-existing micro-environments.
Generative and Processual Art in a Biological Context
The time-based and algorithmic qualities of living arts gives it a strong relationship to
performance art and conceptual art in the context of how it can be preserved, documented, and
reproduced. Composers, choreographers, and conceptual artists have created strategies for
dealing with the need for replicability in their work by generating a score or a set of instructions
for recreating the work. Living art can utilize similar methods for its preservation, and I will create
one such example by generating a set of instructions for the work Growth Pattern. In works with a
score, there is typically a start and an end with events unfolding linearly; in hybrid and living art,
time may be handled in a much more diverse manner. Time may be linear or nonlinear, scaled,
interactive, emergent, or even innite and, for these reasons, it may more easily be displayed in a
"real-time" museum or gallery context than in a performance presented at a proscenium setting in
front of an audience; nonetheless, the rules for creating the work can be contained in a script,
protocol, or written set of instructions. The time scales of living systems are often so large and
variable that their initial state can be described, but their nal outcome will differ with each
presentation. This type of work, even with a structured score, is still particularly challenging to
nd an adequate method for presentation. In some cases, one must literally live with the work for
a period of time to fully experience it in all of its states of change and cycles of life. This opens up
the possibility for the work to have a living and lasting, at times ambient and at times vital,
dialogue with the people who routinely perceive the work.
While the idea of a score rst began in music arrangement and composition, it also exists in the
form of Laban Movement Analysis for dance and even in cinematic scores generated by Sergei
Eisenstein in the early twentieth century. In visual art, specically systems art, generative art, and
conceptual art, there are quite a few examples of artists using instructions to carry-out their
works. In the early 1920s, Moholy Nagy created Telephonbilder (Telephone Pictures). In these works,
he contracted enamel manufacturers by instructing them how to size, compose, color, and
produce the varying works from this series that then created a dialogue with one another. He
didnt want the inconsistencies of the human hand to disrupt the direct comparisons he wanted to
make between changes in scale and composition from one enameled picture to the next, and for
this reason he chose to instruct a manufacturer to produce the work. As commented by his rst
wife, Lucia, Even if he did not read (Dada Almanach) it himself, he may have heard from others
of the notion that a really good painter ought to be able to order a picture by telephone and have
it carried out by a cabinet-maker. ([54] p 31)
Beginning in 1969, Sol LeWitt carries on this tradition, but in an even more distributed, recorded,
and condensed way. In his selection of works titled Wall Drawings, he proffers a set of instructions
such as for Wall Drawing 118: Fifty randomly placed points all connected by straight lines.[52]
This is then handed over to the gallery, museum, or public-at-large to recreate the works suitable
to their specic space. Sol LeWitt was not concerned with who worked on his works or where his
works were sampled, copied, and replicated, but rather only that they hold true to his initial set of
instructions. The emphasis was on the conceptual draft or code being the essence of the artists
work and the expression of that code the distributed and varied instances of the work.
Capturing information into a list or set of instructions has contemporary resonance due to the
Internet and its ease of telecommunicating written instructions accompanied by photographs,
diagrams, and other visual aids. For this reason, the entire DIY movement as seen in online sites
like Hackteria and Instructables are using similar strategies to share not necessarily scores for
performance art but techniques and processes that generate tangible experiential knowledge when
recreated. Furthermore, the idea that there is a kernel that exists as a set of instructions and then
an explicit instantiation that varies from one interpretation to the next resonates clearly with the
biological process of genetics and epigenetics. DNA contains the code or set of instructions for
differentiating and producing living organisms, yet the environment, methylation patterns,
behavioral processes, decision-making, and other factors alter how this message or code gets
expressed, resulting in phenotypic changes that are unique to not only each organisms DNA but
also that organisms particular relationship to the linearly progressing qualities of time and the
complex interactions of space and its surrounding environs throughout the course of its
individuating lifespan.
This concept is artistically framed in the work Growth Pattern. Each micro-environment begins
from the same tobacco leaves, processed in the same manner, yet due to the variables present in
the process of creation and also the cells themselves, the nal outcome for the work is unknown
and is unfolding in time in a live process and performative experiment. The instructions are
described below. [Fig. 29,30]
Fig. 29. Description of tools needed to produce Growth Pattern.
Fig. 30. Protocol used to produce Growth Pattern.
Growth Pattern was produced a total of four times as part of two exhibitions. Both exhibitions were
several months in length, and at the midway point of each exhibit, the work was reproduced. The
rst exhibit happened in Gijon, Spain, from 23 April 30 August 2010 at the LABoral Centro de
Arte y Creacin Industrial. The show was titled El Proceso Como Paradigma or When Process Becomes
Paradigm, and curated by Susanne Jaschko and Lucas Evers. The exhibition featured works from
25 international artists and artist groups. The thesis of the show centered on the idea of art being
in a continual state of development, ux, and change. Its process and eventuation continued from
artists studio or laboratory and on throughout the entire process of the exhibit. All of the works
were live processes, ranging from biological and chemical processes to computational, screen-
based and interactive works. Both the original creation and reproduction of Growth Pattern in
Spain were carried out in the biological facilities at the University of Oviedo. In Oviedo, my
biological collaborator was Norma Yague, who worked countless hours with me the week prior to
the opening of the exhibition to produce the 64 tiles that were presented at LABoral. Growth
Pattern was presented again in Hasselt, Belgium, from 21 November 2010 - 13 March 2011 at the
Z33. The show was titled
Alter Nature: We Can and
was curated by Karen
Verschooren. The
exhibition showed the
work of 20 international
artists who were
manipulating, designing,
or displacing nature and
biological systems. For my
presentation of Growth
Pattern, I worked at the
University of Hasselt, with
biologist Greet Clerx. The
process of creation or
score for the work was
demonstrated in November
of 2010 to Greet Clerx.
Fig. 31. Greet Clerx at the University of Hasselts greenhouse with the tobacco
plants, 2010.
When the work was reproduced in January of 2011, I was not present. When this very temporal
work nishes, it leaves behind no footprint other than the decayed petri dishes which are
incinerated and the light box frame which can be repurposed or recycled. Every time the work
was presented, from the rst time in Spain to the most recent instantiation in January of 2011 in
Belgium, the eventual outcomes for each petri dish were always different but the number of
micro-environments producing new leaf tissue and avoiding contamination increased with each
subsequent iteration. Slight modications were made each time the work was presented, including
the addition of a second detergent in the process of leaf sterilizing. The approximate number of
micro-environments avoiding contamination and producing new leaf tissue did not exceed 12 out
of 64, however, a collection of 12 was still a sufcient number to convey the full thesis and
concept behind the work of art.
The very rst instantiation in Spain did not produce any new leaves, and its growth and death has
become immortalized in two 33.5 square photographic prints that I created with the
encouragement of Bose Krishnamachari for exhibitions at the Gallery BMB in Mumbai, India.
The work is titled Manicured Field: Diptych. The diptych was created by repeating one photograph
of a fresh petri dish, quite literally digitally tiling it, and then the decayed half of the diptych
was created by photographing all of the decayed tiles from the rst installation made in the Spring
of 2010. These photographs were then resized and recomposed into the nal large format digital
print. These works hold a recording and recomposing of the rst experimental, temporal, and
living art installation of Growth Pattern. Growth Pattern will also be featured in a book due out in Fall
of 2012 called Bio-Design, written by William Myers with a preface by Mueseum of Modern
Art (MoMA) curator Paola Antonelli and published by Thames & Hudson. Additionally the
Growth Pattern prints and videos as well as the Capacity for (urban eden, human error) project will be part
of a touring exhibition scheduled to begin in January 2012 at Miller Gallery in Carnegie Mellon
University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This show will be titled Intimate Science.
The appropriate pairing of matter or material to content and concept is essential to the creation
of meaning in a work of art. As artists learn from the materials we are using, it logically dictates
the meaning and presence of the work. If we understand what it is we truly seek to express, the
choice for material emerges and has its own impact on the meaning of the work. This line of
inquiry has led artistic practices into experimental mediums and domains, and my work is no
exception. My artistic research trajectory emphasizes a calculated interest in understanding a
parallel track in algorithmic and computational or simulative art that focuses on the algorithmic,
behavioral, and emulative processes embedded in living and biological systems.
I have most notably explored in my biological systems art practice the behaviors and biological
poetics of circadian rhythms in The Search for Luminosity, life-cycles and communication patterns
within colonies in Capacity for (urban eden, human error), and cell differentiation and pattern
emergence in Growth Pattern. These three particular facets of biological systems point directly to
patterns in time and also in space in their compositional and artistic understanding. Living art is
inherently temporal and experiential and throughout my artistic practice I have been identifying
themes for discovering through the experience of these performative experiments.
In The Search for Luminosity, circadian rhythms are featured, and the emergent patterns of behavior
within an organism that is in dialogue with its environment generate the time-based composition
for the work of art. Additionally, visually, the plants mutate their forms as their circadian rhythms
are altered and their exposure to light and darkness changes. In placing a living system within a
system for exploring its ability for change expectation, the artwork stands at the threshold of
discovery. I am generating a work of art that can emerge its own behaviors and identities. The art
is centered on the organically algorithmic qualities of a living system, a computers interaction
with those algorithmically recurring cycles, and the audiences perception of that intersection.
Feedback loops of living and computational systems are working together to generate scenarios,
forms and futures for us that were once only existing as an artistic reverie. Through artistic and
technological intervention, the reverie and the living system are united and the audience is able to
experience this intersection in the form of a work of time-based, visual and biological systems art.
As the artist, I am opening a door to an imagined or potentially future state that has yet to occur
and creating situations or frames for us, the audience, to observe how the organic algorithms
embedding in living systems will adapt to these complex and imagined scenarios. These themes
extend into Capacity and also Growth Pattern.
In Capacity for (urban eden, human error), life-cycles and fractals in colony formation are featured. The
computer-controlled mechanical arm plots a radially branching bacterial and urban fractal from
the center outwards. Time is plotted out into space, and can be seen and understood by the stages
of life as seen by the plants growth, owering, and decay. Carrying on from the ideas initiated in
The Search for Luminosity, the original thoughts surrounding this project involved the idea that the
mechanical and computational system would have some way of sensing the motivations of the
organism, in this case the plant tissue or seeds, and plot according to that feedback. Due to
practical limitations, it was decided that the machine would instead take the emergent algorithm
of the Eden Growth Model to determine where to place the tissue, and in so doing point to the
idea that the communication between cells and seeds that lie outside of our operational awareness
could be read, stored, developed and augmented by the addition of a computer-controlled
mechanical arm guiding and assisting in the communication, development and differentiation
process of a living system.
Growth Pattern features totipotency and cell differentiation by looking directly at the plasticity and
reorganization of severed cells as they differentiate and alter their form and the pattern within
which they are placed. The ordered, processual, and algorithmic approach to dealing with living
systems allows an artistic frame to be put around predictability and entropy. Here again, the
operating system for my art is not residing on a computer, but on the universe itself. The building
blocks of the work now incorporate not only nonliving matter but also cells and organisms that
generate a living, real-time, and cellular animation. Also, the connection of our physiological
make-up to the biological systems we have embedded within our cultural legacies approaches a
new direction that closes the loop between human and botanical system. What if the very forms
and patterns we have historically imagined and recorded in nature, as found in botanical
abstractions, could be perceived as being actually present in nature? Oliver Sacks points to this
possibility when describing his research into the neurochemistry of Parkinsons patients given L-
Dopa.[57] Could there be a way of manipulating the physiology of the brain to elicit the creation
of these complex and elaborate botanical patterns in our perceptions? Would being able to see
this ordered and algorithmic beauty of nature change us and how we approach botanical systems?
The idea of seeing and amplifying the algorithmic and ordered beauty in nature further
emphasizes a theme that has been running throughout this dissertation, and that theme is central
to understanding our approach to communicating with living and nonliving entities. My artistic
trajectory incorporates knowledge from computer science and articial intelligence to imagine
ways of artistically grounding experimentation into extending biological systems and our
relationships to them. If intelligence in computer programs is described by code that has the
ability to retain information or memory of its previously run cycles and use it to alter its own
cycles or programmatic loops in an intelligent or goal-oriented fashion, how could such an
articial intelligence be encoded back into the biological systems they developed out of, rendering
it no longer an articial or computational information system, but rather an embedded, symbiotic
and self-reexive biochemical process, gaining biological systems an additional degree of freedom,
control, and survival? My artistic research practice calls for a recognition of how computer
technology has created a structural frame for understanding processes in biological systems.
However, rather than reducing the biological systems to being as mechanistic as a computer, my
artistic practice suggests seeing the computer as being capable of reaching a dialogue with the
complex embedded algorithms in living systems. This is not about a fteen year project of a
computer birthing a cell[68], but rather about a computer assisting an organism by placing value
on the centuries of embedded biological software, agency, resilience, and evolutionary data that is
already residing in every living system. The code guiding the organism is the mystery to be
unravelled, the plasticity to be explored, the structure to marvel at and imagine futures from, and
the behavior to value, emphasize and render aesthetic.
Concluding, it is my speculation that all facets of humanity will continue to work to unlock the
mysteries and nd the patterns of behavior embedded in living systems, and also embed our own
cognizance into these systems. Interestingly, because living systems are open systems, they are
going to be continually responding to and reorganizing amidst this collecting of knowledge and
manipulating of structures. However, when it comes to biology, we are the very thing we observe,
it is not separated. This very recursive process, if seen not as a process of control or domination,
but one of a delicate balancing between our imaginations potential (art), empathy (philosophy),
and scientic rigor (technology), it can offer us an opportunity to explore and expand our own
boundary conditions, generate new knowledge, connect with other living systems on a deeper
level, steward our planet into the future and, furthermore, grant us artistic experiences that bring
us closer to understanding and shaping who we are, where we come from, and where we are
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2011 PhD: Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS), University of
Washington (UW), Seattle
2002 BFA: Art and Technology Studies, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)
2012 Intimate Sciences Miller Gallery, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, USA
2011 Microsoft Art Collection: Permanent Collection of Manicured Field: Diptych
2011 Analogue is the New Digital: Siggraph 2011, Online Exhibition
2011 Solo Show: Galerija Kapelica, Ljubljana, Slovenia
2011 Nostalgia, Pride and Fear: Gallery BMB, Mumbai, India
2010 Alter Nature: We Can: Z33, Hasselt, Belgium
2010 Repair, Prixars Cyberarts Exhibition: OK Center, Linz, Austria
2010 When Process Becomes Paradigm: Laboral, Gijon, Spain
2010 Her Work Is Never Done: Gallery BMB, Mumbai, India
2009 Bumbershoot: The Seattle Center, Seattle, USA
2008 DesCours: The Pharmacy Museum, AIA New Orleans, USA
2008 Artbots: Science Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland
2008 A Matter of Meaning: McLeod Residence, Seattle, USA
2007 DesCours: AIA New Orleans, USA
09-11 Artist-in-Residence, Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore, India
08-11 Vida 13.2, 13.0, 11.0 Honorable Mention, Fundacion Telefonica
2010 Hybrid Arts Honorary Mention, Ars Electronica, Linz, Austria
2010 Selected Paper and Presentation "The Living Building" at Medialab Prado, Madrid, Spain
2009 GAP Grant Recipient in Emerging and Cross-Disciplinary Arts, Artist Trust
2007 Presentation at the Digital Arts and Culture Conference, Perth, Australia
05-07 Teaching & Research Fellowship, DXARTS, University of Washington
04-05 Research Scholarship for DXARTS, GO-MAP, University of Washington
98-02 Academic Scholarship Award, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago
2012 Bio-Design: Growth Pattern featured in a book authored by William Myers
2011 Switch Online Journal: Published a dissertation excerpt in their Nov/Dec Edition
2010 Art+Science Now: The Search for Luminosity in a book authored by Stephen Wilson
2009 Seattle Weekly: interviewed by Brian Miller about Bumbershoot
2009 Drain: Creative writer in Issue 12 Cold
2009 Leonardo Electronic Almanac: Published in a special issue on "Embodiment and Presence"
2008 Nature, September 2008: interviewed for an article on Artbots titled "Robots Rened"
2007 The Chronicle of Higher Education: interviewed for an article on DXARTS