‘Jenna Sutela: Becoming-Other, Becoming-Slime’
A feature for Feral Horses on the work of Finnish artist Jenna Sutela, paying particular attention to her ongoing series of works responding to the acellular slime mould, Physarum polycephalum.
The article focused on the intelligent properties of Physarum and its test results in laboratory experiments, the questions its poses for biological and computational science, posthuman philosophy and new materialist art practices.
“Even more bizarrely, the mould has shown signs of memory. In a controlled environment, Physarum has been proven to anticipate and react to set-interval environmental changes, and has also been shown to exhibit a rudimentary form of learning called ‘habituation’: upon encountering a bitter but harmless substance in its path to a food source, whilst originally met with hesitation, the slime mould will eventually begin to pour over the substance with increasing determination, forgetting and re-learning this information with different time-frames of exposure. More recently, it has even been used to control robot facial expressions. Learning without a brain, storing without a memory, cognition without a thought.
For the last few years, Finnish artist Jenna Setula has spent her time observing and researching this curious specimen. As for all of its primitivism, this alluring slime poses lots of interesting questions for both biological and computational science—the current development of ‘soft robotics’, robots that function through ‘genetic’ algorithms, adapting and learning through real-time feedback-loops—have been greatly inspired by these decentralised organisms (in fact, a research group based in Japan actually named one of their soft-bodied robots, ‘Slimey’). And it is generally thought that the combination of variable, morphological feedback-systems, coupled with Big Data information-technologies, will be the foreseeable future of artificial intelligence.
Her ongoing series on the life-form is centred around the working title Orgs—Organisation, Organism, Orgasm—and hosts an array of petri-dishes, yellow slime, performances and technological charts. One of its latest iterations, taking place last year at the Future Gallery in Berlin, was her work Orbs (2016). Housed in the gallery’s dark and murky basement, three transparent orbs were lit up with infrared tubes, illuminating the tenebrous maze of glass conduits that Setula’s Physarum crawled through. Each orb contained its own individual design, from a 3D model of an early 20th century Japanese charcoal drawing—a supposed map of the limits of anthropocentric knowledge, made by a royal naturalist who collected slime moulds—to an example of blockchain technology and a Holocratic organisational chart.”